It’s crazy how fast time flies and how things progress.

Honestly, I pay for this domain name. I need to stop abandoning it for long stretches. Also, if I keep it alive this year it’ll be a 5 year old blog. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a plant alive that long.

So. Anyway.

When last we spoke, it was the beginning of a long, dry, hot summer in the UK. We didn’t see rain here in Essex for over 50 days. It normally rains here at least once a week if that gives you an idea of how crazy it was. Ah, but ignoring the parched earth it was glorious. We roamed the local country park a few times both with and without picnics. We went to Mersea Island and played on the beach. We even accidentally came at high tide and had to drive through the sea a little bit. Don’t worry, the Mini did fabulously.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this summer was the need to leave the windows open as much as possible, especially at night to try and drop the temperature in our bedroom from 29º down to 25º (if we were lucky). During the daytime we mostly had to chase flies and the occasional rogue wasp out of the living room because of this, but then the Flying Ant Day Accident occurred.

Flying Ant Day is a strange British phenomena. Normally, these pavement ants do not have wings and are happy to live their lives underground. However, there is a point in the summer that they reach breeding season and all seem to grow wings and fly en masse. (Apparently it’s not just a single day and happens across the UK all summer long, but it’s still an impressive swarm when it happens near you.) This type of swarm is like midges or gnats, but much larger. They don’t really do anything to you other than get in your face, but in a swarm it’s awful.

HOWEVER, they do seem to like the light, very much like moths. And we have a streetlight outside of our bedroom window. “Well that’s a bit creepy to watch, but surely no harm right?” you say to me. Oh but wait. One of us accidentally left the bedroom light on when we’d gone up to open the windows and then shut the bedroom door so the cat couldn’t get out of the house.

Perfect. Storm.

M was still having a glass of water and otherwise getting ready for bed downstairs whilst I came upstairs to sort out my clothing for work the next morning, only to be confronted with something that looked like a scene out of a horror film. HUNDREDS OF FLYING ANTS ALL OVER THE ROOM. They were in the windowsill, the curtains, the lampshade, the bedding, the laundry, and all over the floor. They were crawling the walls and ceiling. Honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the horror of it.

My initial reaction was just to stare at them and then scream for M to bring up the fly spray. (Why I thought a can of fly spray would fix this I don’t know.) I stood, riveted in the doorway, somehow thinking that if I took my eyes off of the swarm that they’d all come down the stairs and into the rest of the house. Thankfully, M came up and had more common sense in how to deal with the scene.

Long story short, M emptied an entire can of Raid in our room and half filled a Dyson vacuum with flying ants before we went to bed two hours later, sleeping in the guest bedroom. Everything in the room that could be washed was washed, including the bedding that I had just changed that afternoon. 😥

IMG_1020

Plagues of ants and drought aside, nature decided to just get a bit rude in general. The heat spiked to new and exciting levels, and the train network is not currently equipped to deal with weather so extreme. This had happened last year and there was about a week that it was nigh on impossible to get on a train into or from London.

This year they did try to do some things to help with the heat. A lot of the rails in the stations had their sides painted white in an effort to drop the heat whilst the trains were at the platforms and prevent the tracks from buckling and warping. However, when the weather stations starting predicting a heat spike so intense that it could make new records, the train companies just decided “sod it” and preemptively cancelled trains at about 9:30 the night before. Awesome, right? At one point they could only run a train an hour from Colchester to London, and I’m amazed those trains didn’t get stopped more from overcrowding and overheating inside of them. It was insanity.

Supposedly, Greater Anglia is getting new trains out in 2020 and they’ll all come equipped with blessed air conditioning. Why do I feel like the seats are going to be even smaller though?

IMG_1310

When I was able to get into work, I was able to work on my last project as staff at the NHM. We’ve already processed all the Toxodon fossils that Darwin sent back from South America on his Beagle journey and posted them online, but the chance came to reunite two portions of a Giant Ground Sloth skull that haven’t been together since Darwin cut them into two pieces. Not only did I get to witness the event, but I got to scan said pieces! It was all very cool, and a fitting way to end my work.

You see, I had applied and been accepted to do a PhD at UCL whilst working alongside the NHM. But we’ll get back to that later!

IMG_1332

FINALLY, we got rain in Essex again. It took weeks for the grass to go back to green and the cracks in the earth to heal, but it was amazing to have it back. We joked that my mother in law is apparently a water spirit, as every time she comes to Essex it rains. If we’d have known, we’d have had them over much sooner!

Towards the end of the summer it was finally beginning to cool down, and the Heritage Open Days EU project kicked off, opening access to historical places that are either usually closed to the public or paid entry only. Most everyone went to the castle, but I had a list of some of the more obscure and usually closed buildings that I desperately wanted to see, and a husband with an infinite sense of patience for my love of all things old.

We were only able to do one of the open days, but in that day we went up and down Colchester and managed to see the inside of the Anglo-Saxon church (the oldest in town), the facade that houses the archaeological discovery of a Roman theatre (you can easily walk by it), the interior and the view from the upper floor of the old abbey gate (the only thing still standing of the abbey), and most of the structure of Tymperleys, home to William Gilberd, scientist and physician to Elizabeth I (and now a place with most excellent scones).

Autumn began to creep in with cooler weather, and with it came the time to go back to school again. I could have sworn I was never going to do a PhD, but here I am. In fairness, my future predictions have been pretty wildly off the mark so far, so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before the official start of term, all of us in the SEAHA program (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology) convened in a village outside of Brighton for an induction into the way of things, and a chance to get to know and bond with our fellow students. I am so, so glad they did this for us, and not just because the hotel was amazing. Getting to know everyone in advance really helped make the first few weeks much easier.

One can’t stay in opulent hotels forever, and after the weekend retreat we were ready to begin lectures. Of course, this is SEAHA and we are anything but standard, so they included a trip to Stonehenge halfway through the first module, so we could write up a presentation in the second half about what we would do to modify the current A303 Stonehenge tunnel plans to make them better, using our mixture of experiences. It was more of a challenge than expected, but we ended up with new friends out of the experience and I can now tell you far more about the proposed tunnel project than I ever thought I could.

With autumn also came the harvest season, and this year I was feeling crafty. There are shedloads of sloe berries and growing on the side of a quiet road near the fields I jog past, and eventually I got up the idea to go harvest them and attempt a batch of sloe gin. You aren’t supposed to pick them until after the first frost, but the hot summer had rather killed a fair few of them, so I just picked them and froze them in the freezer at home to make up for it.

They were then added into a jar with obscene amounts of sugar, and of course, some gin. We left them to infuse until just before Christmas, then strained and decanted them out. Some have been given as little Christmas trinkets, with the firm advice that they’ll be better if they’re left until about mid-January to drink. I for one am excited to try ours out, perhaps mixed in with some prosecco, or even by making a proper sloe gin fizz!

As it does every year, my birthday snuck up on me. This year is the last year of my twenties. M thought it amusing to get a tiny cake and put 29 candles on it, so I brought out the fire extinguisher just in case. (Did you know you can buy fire extinguishers and fire blankets on Amazon Prime? Best late night purchase M’s made in some time!)

I didn’t really have any grand goals to achieve by the end of this year, and I’m still not sure what I want to do for my 30th birthday party. On one end, I could have a bunch of people around and make a big do of it, or it could just be the two of us on an adventure somewhere. I should probably sort it out before springtime.

Regardless, this birthday was a fabulous birthday, with cake, a new coat I’d been lusting after, and an evening out in the lovely medieval section of Colchester. 🙂

IMG_1723

Classes back in swing, birthday survived, and coats brought out of storage, we trundled into the cool autumn air. Except this time, I had friends from the US coming around with me! As is the Great American Tradition when coming to the UK, we managed to traverse across a wide swathe of the country in a little over a week. The two of them even carried on into Wales, but alas, I had to get some work done for the module. We did try to give them a weird and wonderful ride through bits of the country that not everyone goes to see on a typical tourist tour, but some things you’ve just got to see – like Stonehenge!

It’s always so exciting when people come to the UK, whether or not they’re coming to say hello. Being on an hour’s ride into London means it’s usually easy to catch up with people, schedules permitting. It was hard to part ways, but back to the States they eventually had to go, and the cat finally decided to come out of hiding and take up her roost in the living room again.

Module one was completed with much grumbling and typing, but completed successfully. I’m now at the tail end of module two, which had a bit of a twist to it this time. We had the option to do a basic laboratory procedure in the lecture hall, or we could liaise with our supervisors and do one elsewhere that might further relate towards the PhD. Needing to learn how to run an SEM and process photogrammetric data anyway, I opted to go back to the NHM. Over the course of two weeks I have learned how to dehydrate a specimen, coat it for SEM, run the basics of an SEM, and process photogrammetric images! It all sounds rather fancy for staring at a fly face for two weeks. I’m currently tweaking the write up of my experiment, and it goes in for submission next Monday. Looking forward to what the next module will hold!

In between modules, M and I left the country again. My parents were going to see one of our exchange students and her family, and they were kind enough to invite us to stay at their house as well. We took them up on their generous offer and ended up with an absolutely unique experience of the Netherlands that one could only get from a local, and got to see my parents! I would definitely like to go back to the Netherlands, but perhaps when it’s a bit warmer. Those winds coming off of the ocean have nowhere to go but straight into your bones.

Whilst there, we took a train over for a day trip into Germany as my mom had never been. It’s fascinating to see the sharp difference between the Netherlands and Germany, seemingly just across the border. We’d hoped to see the Christmas market in Dusseldorf, but arrived a little too early. It wasn’t a lost trip though, as we got to see the famous Rhine River and a painstakingly redone Altstadt, built back up after the war.

Christmas showed up soon afterwards in a big way. When not covering our house in tinsel and Christmas cards, we were out and about and enjoying the festive spirit of it all. Got the chance to pop into Paycocke’s House and the Grange Barn out in Coggeshall for their special Christmas hours. It really did feel like going back into Tudor Christmastime, and I only wish I hadn’t gone by myself as it seemed like it’s really meant for company to come along.

Getting closer to Christmas, we managed a long weekend journey up to York to catch up with our Northern friends. I probably should have known better than to go into the Christmas Markets in York, but we braved the crowds and found some fabulous little trinkets and all kinds of snacks! Even managed to score a table with seats in The Three Tuns at peak pub hour in the rain, of which I was far too proud. Finally, late into the evening, we saw the Shambles quiet and then took ourselves back to the AirBNB for the night.

And then before we knew it, the last few weeks had passed and it was Christmas! We went up to Manchester to celebrate at M’s big sister’s new home. It’s a gorgeous new build with a massive back garden. Their days of househunting really paid off. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of it, as I appear to have caught food poisoning off something just before we arrived. Thankfully the sickbed was comfortable and M made sure to keep a steady supply of Sprite, so it could have been far worse. Other than that hiccup, it was really good to see everyone, especially our ever growing nephew of whom nobody can rival in Marvel knowledge. Honestly, I’d call that kid first on any game show.

We got back home for New Year’s, had a quiet night of it, and then slowly dragged ourselves back into the real world.

So here we are, a lightning trip into the present. Now that I’m not on the trains for 4 hours every day, I should hopefully be a bit better about popping in every now and then. Until we see each other next, hope you’re having a good one. 🙂

 

— Kate

Revenge of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

So I cannot tell you how many people felt the need to mention to me before I left the US, “Oh Kate, I bet you’re really gonna miss having pumpkin spice lattes in the UK. They don’t have those there.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 10.46.51 pm

For the record everybody, they do. About it in terms of pumpkin flavored anything though, so don’t start packing your bags too quickly. Oh, while we’re griping, let us discuss the grocery delivery fiasco. In the UK, it’s geographically small enough to feasibly manage grocery delivery orders. Yes folks, you can order all the groceries and household goods you’d buy on a regular trip to the store online and have them bring it to you. Depending on the time of day, this service runs you £1-£5 and an hour slot that you will definitely be in the house for. You can even look online at places like Tesco, Asda, or Sainsbury’s for an idea of how it all works. Super spiffy stuff honestly.

The fiasco began when my things were due up to be delivered. The delivery truck was about 5 minutes over the hour time frame, which I was fine ignoring, but then it just went downhill. The Tesco delivery guy finally calls my phone to say he’s here. Little odd he’s not using the intercom, but I buzzed the door open. Wait 10 minutes. Call the number back, it says the phone is off. Wait another 10 minutes. March downstairs to see if the van is here. It’s not, and the ever-patient security guard tells me there hasn’t been one. Call Tesco customer service line and explain this. They call the driver and then tell me that his phone is off. Of course it is. They tell me deliveries only run until 11 and that he may still show up (it should have been here from 9-10 that evening in the first place), but they can rebook the delivery for tomorrow just in case. Then rebooked “just in case” for 9-10 the next morning.

It did finally show the next morning at about 9:45. The delivery driver that morning let me know he was a few minutes away and so rather than wait around more than 5 minutes, I just marched downstairs. (Well, took the elevator. Nine flights of stairs is a bit melodramatic to march.) The delivery driver was just waiting in his truck for me to come down, though no one had told me this was the deal. He said he couldn’t leave his truck alone with where he was parked, so he then gave me my baskets and a moving dolly to take them upstairs myself. The maintenance guys were checking smoke alarms on my floor and were as confused as I was about why I was taking my stuff up myself. They said I should have kept the dolly. I briefly considered it. However, it wasn’t that particular driver’s fault, so I brought it down nicely and then grumbled back upstairs to put away the spoils.

Otherwise, it’s been another fantastic week here in Leicester, with a lot more hands-on experience than previously. On Tuesday we had an object handling session with bits of the Wellcome Collection that have ended up in the department here to get a feel for objects outside of their information. Using touch, smell, sight (and perhaps a little Googling), we had to try to pull together some information on objects and what made them so fascinating. It was difficult for some things, but others like this sawtooth nose were pretty easy to do.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 10.46.59 pm
The crumbly bits at the bottom of the photo were actually news articles pasted on to the artifact when it was collected in around 1906.

There was rain on and off throughout the day with some impressive 40-50 mile per hour winds coming in from the leftovers of Hurricane Gonzalo. This didn’t seem to deter any students though. I personally witnessed a few sitting at the tables outside of the library, hunched over their plates and mugs, determined to have their lunch regardless of whether or not it tried to blow away. It also didn’t deter any of my fellow students from showing up to our first Museum Society meeting to vote on what all we’d like to do as a club for the year. There were some fun ideas like the upcoming trip to Liverpool or an ugly Christmas sweater party, as well as more practical ones like an essay-swap read-over day or a motion to get a microwave for the students to use in the building. (We’re far enough away from the Student Union to make it difficult at lunchtime if you need to heat a meal.)

Wednesday was a study day in the flat for the most part, but by mid-afternoon I had to wander up to the building for a Think Tank session about cabinets of curiosity through time and how they’ve influenced modern museums today. Did you know the word ‘cabinet’ used to just refer to a place (usually a room) that held objects in it, and not just what we consider cabinets today?  These privately owned cabinets, or kunstschränke, were the precursors to museums today, and some big name places like the Ashmolean and British Museum started as donated kunstschränke for the public to finally have easy access to visit. Also (and surprisingly), most collectors were actually from the professional class – apothecaries and merchants and such, not kings and princes like many people would think. Towards the end of the lecture we were put into groups and set loose to create very quick mock-ups of exhibits that behaved like cabinets of the past using objects we’d brought into the room and some provided to us. The group I worked with were all so creative and clever, and I think we were all pretty pleased with how it turned out with only 10 minutes and a dead wasp. (It’s nigh on impossible to see in the photo sadly, but the narwhal tusk is pretty obvious.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 10.49.09 pm

Thursday evening was a really cool experience in which quite a few of us from the department went to the Diwali celebration on the north side of the city. What is Diwali you ask? To quote Wiki, “Diwali or Divali also known as Deepavali and the ‘festival of lights’, is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn every year. The festival spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. The festival preparations and rituals typically extend over a five day period, but the main festival night of Diwali coincides with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika.” It just so happens that Leicester has the largest Diwali celebration in the world outside of India, so of course it was a must-see!

Friday was another evening of celebration. Four people in the department all had birthdays in close succession with one another and decided to just have an event of it. This ended up being the perfect conclusion to the week with dinner at the Marquis and hopping over to The Pub afterwards. (Let us not discuss how confusing this pub’s name is. It’s like an Abbott and Costello scene all over again, but worse because the English are unfamiliar with Abbott and Costello and trying to explain this just gets you looks of deeper confusion.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 10.49.50 pm

Otherwise, this has been a quiet weekend in with lots more reading and outline sketching for the impending essay due up in a few weeks. It’s getting nippy outside and the sun is setting much earlier, but all is still fine and dandy over here! Hope all is well wherever you’re reading this from. 🙂

— Kate