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Monday, December 5, 2016

Buckingham Palace: Changing of the Guard Part I

One of London’s great experiences is seeing the Changing of the Guard.  The splendid array of uniforms, prancing horses, gold-tinged carriages, and stirring martial music brings the full force of ceremony and tradition to life.  It is history. It is monarchy. It is splendor.  If you only see this one part of what London has to offer, you’ll carry away a kernel of what it means to be British.

But, if you don’t know what you’re seeing, it’s like walking into a library and saying to yourself:  “Can’t read none, but the covers look reeeeel purdy!”

Attention, friends, loved ones, along with select family members, I’m here not only to enlighten, but to turn all of you into paragons of knowledge, able to casually toss out facts to companions sharing your visit to the greatest city in the world.  Stand by for your esteem to soar.  Companions will hover close, and all will pat your back and stand for a pint at the nearest pub.

Although the ceremony actually takes place at three locations, Buckingham Palace, St James Palace, and Wellington Barracks, let’s stick to the most well known, the changing at Buckingham Palace.

First off, you need to know the ceremony begins at 1130, but to really see what’s going on, get there an hour early, otherwise there will be jostling and unkind words as you carelessly force your way close enough to see more than a mouse standing next to a dinner table.

Another good spot to observe is from the raised steps of the Victoria Monument, directly in front of the palace.  This allows a better view of the entry of the guards, bands, and horse guards.

Dates:  April to July, the Changing takes place daily.
August to March, it’s on alternate days.  Here’s the schedule for the first months of 2017:

January – even dates
February- odd dates
March – odd dates
April – July – daily

“Ok, ok,” I hear the impatient rascals in the crowd crying, “But what the hell am I seeing???”

I don’t mind your semi-belligerent attitude because in your intemperate impetuosity, you have cut to the heart of the matter.  Unfortunately, I can’t just blurt it all out.  Patience lads and lassies!  Let’s take this in manageable mouthfuls.

The Guards, also known as the Household Troops, consisting of The Queen’s Guards (infantry) and Queen’s Cavalry are trained British Army soldiers, from five infantry regiments:

The Grenadiers, Coldstream, Scots, Irish, and Welsh Guards, plus two regiments of Household Cavalry, the Life Guards, and The Blues and Royals.

The Household Guards date back to 1660.  You may remember from your intensive study of English history, the English also had a civil war (some say three wars) and King Charles I lost his head over it.  With the reestablishment of the monarchy under Charles I’s son, Charles II, the Household Guards were formed.  Today the guards are known as The Foot Guards and The Household Cavalry and the changing of the guards is known as Guard Mounting.

In England, tradition is stacked upon tradition.  Here’s a quick way to identify the different foot guard regiments by cap plume, buttons, and collar insignia:

The Grenadiers:  Most senior of the Guards. Began guarding King Charles II while he was still in exile – recognized by a white plume on the side of the bearskin cap and single button spacing. On the collar is the symbol of a grenade.

Coldstream Guards, the oldest continually active regiment in the regular army, formed in 1650 and guarding the queen since 1660 – red plume, two button arrangement. Collar badge is a garter star.

Scots Guards, no plume, three button arrangement.  Collar badge is a thistle.

Irish Guards, St Patrick’s Blue plume, four button arrangement, shamrock on the collar

Welsh Guards, tricolor white, green, white plume, five button arrangement, leek on the collar.

What about the Household Cavalry?

The Life Guards, red tunic, black collar, and a white plume on their hat.

The Blues and Royals, blue tunic, red collar, red plume.

Interestingly, not only the five permanent regiments, but from time to time other British and Commonwealth units provide guard service, including Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, and Gurkhas (British Regiment made up of soldiers from Nepal).  On at least one occasion (2008), soldiers from 1st Battalion, Royal Malay Regiment, from Malaysia, a non-Commonwealth country provided guards.

Now, on the guards’ duties.  There are three places in London guarded by the Queen’s Guard:  Buckingham Palace, St. James Palace, and The Tower of London.

While the Queen is in residence at Buckingham Palace, there are four, Foot Guards in place.  In her absence, there are two.  Each tour of duty is two hours, with four hours off.  During the two-hour watch, the guardsman (no females as yet in the British infantry) stand still no longer than ten minutes at a time.

British Flag

Royal Standard

Another way to tell if the Queen is in residence:  If the British Flag flies over Buckingham Palace, the Queen is NOT there.  If the Royal Standard flies, she is there.

Tomorrow:  Part II, filled with more curiosities.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Pot Luck, Hot Luck: This Thai Style Chicken Salad is Special!

Thai Style Chicken Salad

My significant other often asks me to prepare something on the spur of the moment, such as:  “I forgot to tell you I’ve got a pot luck tomorrow.  Think of something.”  With that she is out the door and the car pulls out of the driveway.  Questions hang in the air like dark puffs of exhaust.

How many people?  Breakfast, lunch, or dinner?  What are you supposed to bring?  Salad?  Main course?  Dessert?

“Ok, honey,” I say to the closed door.

You with me?  Had it happen to you?  In this case, I did you, me, and the unknown pot luckers a big favor.  Thai Style Chicken Salad.  Citrusy.  Redolent with fresh herbs.  Fresh chicken breasts sautéed in chicken broth and sherry.  Oh yeah!

Aside from dicing and slicing and poaching, there’s little to do.  Best part, on my first try an international crowd devoured it.

Ok, on with it…

Thai Style Chicken Salad

2 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sliced crosswise into two filets
1 Cup chicken broth
¼ Cup Sherry
2 pats butter
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
Juice from 1 large lime
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon powdered corriander
Big handful of fresh mint:  Strip off the leaves and chop them finely.  Pitch the stems.
Big handful of  fresh basil:  Same prep as the mint
½ teaspoon sugar
1 shallot, thin sliced and chopped  (If you use an onion, make it a small red one and only use half an onion)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
¼ to 1/3 Cup Mayo to taste

In a large bowl, whisk together the lime juice, salt, chili powder, coriander, mint, basil and sugar.

Set aside.

Heat a large frying pan on medium.  Add the oil, melt the butter, add the chicken fillets and cook until just beginning to brown.  Quickly add the chicken broth and sherry.  Cover and allow to sauté until the chicken is very tender.

Remove from the pan and put the fillets on a cutting board.  Chop or shred the meat.  I did a little of both.  Add the chicken to the bowl of herb mixture.  Stir and allow the chicken mixture to cool completely.  NOTE: Adding the mayo to a hot dish will make the oil
separate. You don’t want that!

Prior to adding the mayo

When the chicken mixture is well cooled, stir in the mayo a spoonful at a time.  Have a delicate touch. The mayo is only a thin binder and you don’t want it to overpower the dish.  Too little is better than too much.

Taste the dish and add more herbs, spices and lime juice as necessary.  It should taste citrusy, with the fresh herbs leading the charge.

Yes, you can serve this the day of, but far better to prepare it the day before, cover with plastic wrap and allow the flavors to meld overnight.

The finished product

Now let me prepare you for the reaction of your guests.  Deadly silence at first, shortly followed by smiles and several bursting into song.

The only bad part is, your significant other is going to insist you make it again for the next party.  Oh, the trials of a cook!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Roaming Rome

Trevi Fountain

One of the pleasures of living in Europe is travel.  I’m not talking about saving for years, planning for years, and finally throwing down a roll of green for a little bit of travel time.

Nope.  Take last weekend’s holidays, for example.  Rome popped into my mind. Grabbed some cheap airline tickets and reservations at a nice hotel.  Cheap tickets?  Sure. Only a two-hour flight.  They could have packed me in a suitcase and I would have been ok for two hours.  Total cost for my Thanksgiving Weekend, including airfare and three nights in a great hotel was about $400.

Fortunately, they did not pack me in a suitcase.  Instead, a kind flight attendant  offered me champagne, with a smile.  I almost mistakenly wrote Stewardess, which would have pissed off every woman who has ever had the slightest grudge against any man, dating back to kindergarten. 

Properly refreshed, I settled back to read the complimentary newspaper.

FCO (Leonardo de Vinci) International Airport is well organized.  Zip zip and you’ve got your bags. Then it’s a short walk to the train station or Metro Line.  Metro is dead simple to use and the cost for a one-way ticket is about $1.65.  But, if you’re going to be in Rome a few days, you can also buy an extended use ticket.

Another European invention is the Hop-On Hop-Off bus, available in most major European cities.  H-O-H-O takes you on a tour of the city and lets you jump off wherever you yearn to see the highlights up close, then jump back on.  With buses running every ten to fifteen minutes, you never have to wait long.  Cost is about $20 for a 24 hour ticket.

Part of Palatine Hill

Rome, you will quickly realize, is a city built on the ruins of a city that was also built on ruins, which was built on….ok, you get it.  From those rare lucid moments in European History Class, you may vaguely remember the ancient Roman civilization lasted for twelve centuries. It's broken down into three periods: Kingdom (753 BC – 509 BC), Republic (509 BC – 27 BC) and the one we know best, Empire (27 BC – 476 AD).  The Empire, of course, is best remembered for all the conquering and all the famous Caesars. (Julius, Augustus, Nero, Caligula, etc).

But, first things first.  Who established Rome?  One answer is the well established myth of Romulus and Remus.  Half god, half human, the brothers were raised by a she-wolf, but later argued on which part of Rome should actually be Rome and Romulus killed Remus, which set the stage for future bloody episodes in Roman history.

Please keep in mind, that what I’m offering here is a glimpse and ONLY a glimpse of Rome.  Hey, I was only there a weekend and according to this guide and that, a particular edifice could have had three or four different ‘famous’ architects over the centuries.  When the names I’ve never heard of spewed like water from the Trevi Fountain (yes, I recognized that one!) I became bewildered and sought quantities of wine.

So, many of the photos are just ‘life in the city’ photos, a peek into what the streets are like.  But, I do have a bit more to offer.

Had Gelato?  Not until you've had it here!!!

Cool sidewalk cafés abound

Parking Roman Style

Many orange trees in the heart of the city

Yes, it's a city of scooters!

Let’s chat about Fontana di Trevi for a sec.  Trevi is at the juncture of three roads (tre vie) and marks the end of one of the major aqueducts that supplied water to the city of Rome.  Legend has it a virgin helped the engineers find pure water about 13 miles from the city. They then built the aqueduct. No history about what happened to the virgin, but I’m guessing she made a good living as a pure water gal, but often lacked for male companionship.  It’s a give and take world.

How about the Colosseum or Coliseum?  Completed in 80 AD, it held 50-80,000 people and was used for entertainment on a grand scale, including reenactments of battles, both land and sea, plus lots of killing sports.  Unlike the Circus Maximus (150,000 people watched chariot racing), the Coliseum didn’t see much killing of Christians, or so I’ve heard.

The Coliseum

Then there’s the Palatine Hill (photos below), the centermost hill of Rome (remember, there are seven), which overlooks the Circus Maximus on one side and the Forum on the other.  This is supposedly the hill where Romulus and Remus founded the city.  Now it’s a vast collection of rubble, the ruins of multitudinous temples to every god imaginable.  I roamed this place for two hours and didn’t see it all.  Finding your way out is part of the frustrating game of “Let’s see the rest of Rome.”

The Arch of Titus commemorating the siege of Jerusalem, 81 AD

Gotta be careful when you drive your chariots on those Roman roads.  One small slip and you could bust your axle.

So much I didn’t see.  I don’t know how many lifetimes it would take to learn about Rome, street to street.  There’s the Vatican, just to name one.  Did you know Vatican City State is it’s own country?  Just 110 acres and with 842 inhabitants, it’s the smallest sovereign state in the world.

Ok. Ok.  Enough.  Time for more wine.  Just a quick question:  If a virgin helped the Romans find pure water, who helped them stomp the first grapes?  I know what you’re thinking, “Who gives a damn, just shut up and pour!”  Salute!