Saturday, 11 September 2010

Fabulous Things About England #23: Checking Your Hotel Room Before Checking In

It is perfectly acceptable in England, and throughout the UK and Europe, to ask to see your room before you agree to stay in it. There are several things that you want to check out before actually paying. The difficulty for me is finding a way to remember to do that in advance. The second difficulty is that I am very good a booking the icky cheap hotel right next to the nice cheap hotel. So from my last experience with such silliness on my part a photo essay.
This is a pretty typical Basic Single hotel room. It was generally clean except the curtain holder, goodness only knows what was on that. Tea making facilities were to the right on the dresses. Electric Kettle had been recently descaled, and the non-dairy creamer was in date. So, pretty all right.
Unfortunately, I looked down. These are locally known as frightening electrics. The white cord is going directly up to a kettle full of water. I just unplugged the whole bit. Never mind the bare wires even further out.
Excellent news! The mattress shows no sign of bed bugs dead or alive. Even better it appears to be brand new. This is the second most comfortable bed I've slept in, in five years in England.

That would be no chain and no bolt lock. Or rather no bolt lock to which I was given the key. I should know better.

This is a sign of just how long it has been since this place had been updated. Typically breakfast goes to at least 9 am weekdays and through checkout on weekends. And no peep hole.
A sign from the shared bathroom down the hall. Two things to know in life: You're not in the best of hotels when condoms are mentioned amongst the things you shouldn't flush. This sign started out without directions as to where to put said condoms.
No you can't read the notice. It does say WARNING: Shower must be sufficiently primed before use to prevent flooding. I've stayed in some pretty dodgy places, and I've never been asked to prime a shower. The electric shower installed here is the same one I had four years ago, and we never had to prime our shower. There were not additional directions given. As there was one bath towel for the whole floor, I skipped the shower.

The hotel was fine. The place next door was nicer and cheaper. Booking hotels is clearly not my forte.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Monday, 30 August 2010

Fabulous Things About England #21: Jalapenos

I love jalapenos. I love them with spread cheese (cream cheese). I love them with beans and rice. I love them in Hoppin' John. I love them in salsa. I only like them in vinegar. I've spent five years trying to source fresh jalapenos. The local veg guy will get them in if I can buy a whole bushel. I can't. The local grocery can get them in if I can buy a kilo. I can't. So I am left to make due with the sliced jalapenos in the International Foods section of the grocery store--the ones which are pickled.

A few years ago, my housemate saved my Jalapeno plants. We had a huge crop. For a few months, I was in lovely heaven. I haven't succeeded since. For now, I'm grateful for jars even if they are pickled.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Tagged in Cyberspace

I spend a lot of time untagging myself from photos on Facebook. I'm relatively unpopular for pointing out that I have a professional life, a family, and some sense of privacy, and I do get to decide whether or not someone gets to leave a picture of me up. I'm not amused by Facebook's encouragement of tagging on the fly, but I am amused by their ability to identify a stick figure as a person rather than a symbol.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Fabulous Things About England #20: Charity Bags

In England, many charities have charity shops on the high streets. They are what you might expect of a Salvation Army or Deseret Industries thrift store. Common ones in Bath include Oxfam, Dorothy House Hospice, and Julian House. Dot House and Julian House are both local charities.

Many of the charities will pick up large (both in quantity and size) donations by request, but they also put these bags through people's doors. They're large bin (trash) bags, usually with the charity's name on. You then leave the full bags outside your house on the designated day ready to pick up. It's a system that works really well. You do have to be careful to check that you're giving to a charity as there are a few questionable companies around who give the impression of being charities, take you donations, and then sell your clothing at a premium rate abroad.

Monday, 23 August 2010

I'll Be Home Soon

In the old days, we used to play a game. Every time one of us was off to see Gram, we’d take bets on which part of our appearance she’d take objection to. Our eyebrows were uneven. We needed to get our hair cut. Why didn’t we wear contact lenses? Why had we bought such ugly shoes? 

Gram and my sister C1975
Whenever we would turn up to visit, she’d insist that we borrow her clothes. In my childhood, it was a coat or a sweater here and there. And then it was her shoes. A few years ago, Gram was hospitalized after a particularly nasty attack of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. I hopped the first flight I could find out of Bristol, England to look after her while she recovered. She was feeble. She couldn’t walk the fifty feet from her bedroom to her kitchen. I spent a lot of time telling home health aids that she was using five liters of oxygen. They’d correct me and tell me that it was point five liters of oxygen. And I’d reiterate that I knew the difference between one half and five whole. Five liters of oxygen is a shedload. 

Still Gram went rummaging in her closet and handed me her shorts—four sizes too big for me—and couldn’t understand why I insisted on sticking to my skirts and dresses. Still she sent me into her closet to pull out her leopard print slippers to prove that they wouldn’t fit me. She wore a seven, I wear a ten. She insisted my feet were supposed to hang out the back.

In those first few days, I had to wash bras as, in my hurry, I had had to pack dirty laundry. As I placed them the washing machine, she insisted that I could borrow hers. There was a period in my life, twenty-years ago, when Gram and I had matching bras right down to measurement and cup size. I had to reach into the washing machine and pull out a bra to prove to her that I wore a different size. She didn’t believe me, so I stripped off and slung hers over my shoulders and stuffed myself in. “God, you have big tits,” she said. We had to revisit that scene every evening, as she tried to fathom out how I had ended up with comparatively giant tits. 

At least of my sisters was offered Grams underwear. Gram insisted on referring to the panties; I think she did it to watch me shudder at the word. Every time I visited, she’d check to make sure I was wearing my good panties because I might meet someone. Like all good Floridian Grandmothers, she tried to hook me up with every man she saw. In that last visit home, she wanted to get new dentures made not because hers were a problem, but because she thought I’d make a good match for her dentist. He might not like his wife, she told me.

Last weekend, Dad asked me to proofread her obituary. He sent me exactly a paragraph. I spent most of Thursday night thinking about how short that paragraph was. I wanted it to be longer. I wanted it to include all of the things in her life that she was proud of. I wanted it to say how thoroughly inappropriate she was. How she’d been willing to give the shirt off her back to someone who needed it more than she did. How after the love of her life died, she’d carried around a photo of John Wayne to show people who dared to ask if she was dating anyone. I wanted to say that she once walked out on a job to touch John Wayne. I wanted to say that just once she’d loved so fiercely that that love carried her through the rest of her life. I wanted to say that she’d sold condom trees in her beauty salon one Christmas. 

She Wanted All of Us to Love as Fiercely as They Did
Here’s the thing. Gram didn’t want a big deal obituary. She told me that on the way to rewrite her will. I asked if we could talk about this when I wasn’t driving. She told me I drove too slowly anyway. She didn't want me telling people any of the things I was proud of. Those were things for the family, she said. She said that she didn’t want a bunch of wailing and weeping. She wanted a mass said. She threatened to haunt me, if I wore all black. I pointed out that my suit was black. She told me that I dressed like a schoolmarm. I could buy a pair of colored shoes. She had a list for me: No weeping and wailing. No house full of whispers. No wake. What? We don’t get to get drunk and tell stories? I wondered. That we could do. I am not to pace myself. I am to drink and laugh with abandon. 

When I was very young, Gram and  Grandpa Joe lived on ten acres on the Great Plains of Colorado. When the prong-horned antelope would make and appearance, she'd wake us up and let us press our noses to the window. She'd feed us up with bacon and waffles. She filled each square with syrup and let us eat away. When Grandpa Joe died in the early nineties, I started sleeping in her room with her. I'd fall asleep to Mash re-runs and stretch my body across his side of the bed. She missed him terribly, but she still kept us in breakfast food.

Gram and Grandpa Joe on their wedding day 197?. She hated these pictures.
When I left that summer, I knew that it would be the last time I saw her. She could no longer travel, and I knew that it would be difficult for me to leave England again. I knew that she faced a terrible death. There is nothing peaceful in a COPD death. I rang home on June 23rd to say that I needed four months to get the final bits and pieces taken care of, to obtain a new visa, to find work, and then I’d be home. Dad called early Thursday morning. Gram had died peacefully in the night. She was 78.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fabulous Things About England # 19: Meat off the Back of a Lorry

Butcher Lorry, Chippenham Town Center
Generally if you say you bought or were given something off the back of a lorry (truck), the item has unknown origins. Though people generally use the term to mean that they bought the item from a car-boot sale (flea market) or from an ad in the paper, the saying itself implies that the item is (or may well be) stolen.

Just to confuse the matter, you can buy fruit, veg, and meat off the back of a lorry and actually mean that you bought it from the farmer literally off the back of his lorry. This is what's happening in the photo above. This is a refrigerated lorry which visits Chippenham town centre once a week. The prices are low because you're buying directly from the farmer. The farmer sees a higher profit because he's selling directly to the public. And by all accounts the meat is excellent.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Fabulous Things About England # 18: Drying, Drying, Drying

This is my dryer.

This is my full dryer.

I live in a masonette. By definition it's part of a larger building. There are two bedrooms upstairs, and a kitchen and lounge (den, family room, living room) downstairs. We have no garden (back or front yard)  access, so hanging clothes to dry outside isn't an option. In high summer when the humidity is low, clothes generally take 18 hours to dry. If they were hung outside, they'd take a third of that time. If there were a breeze, they'd take an hour.

In the winter, clothes take a bit less time to dry inside because the humidity is usually down. Clothes left on radiators dry in an hour or so for light t-shirts. The English generally only keep their heating on when they are at home. So, radiator drying has to take place when we're at home. If we've both put off laundry for too long, the house becomes one giant drying rack. Sheets get hung on doors. Jeans get hung on kitchen chairs, towels are hung across radiators and so on. It's not a good plan since it raises the humidity in the house; therefore, it slows the drying process.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Fabulous Things About England #17: Washing Machines and How to get the Mold Out

This is my washing machine.

Like most English washing machines it lives in my kitchen.

I hear that many Americans are moving toward front loading machines. As usual the newfangled in America has long been the old school in Europe. If it's space saving, you can practically guarantee it has been used for eons on this side of the pond. See also dorm fridges, drawer freezers, and most of your flat-pack furniture. Ditto for energy saving. But that is tomorrow's post on dryers.

Back in my days at Indiana University, the powers of the universe replaced all of the top loading machines with front loaders. We were annoyed. At first, this was because the machines also came with higher prices. And with much grumbling and insisting the things were energy saving (really should have been more on board with that but this was before the tech crash of 2000), the powers that be agreed that once the new machines were paid for the extra money would go to some student service or another. I wonder if that actually happened.

My later complaint was that I couldn't open the machines and pull out garments I didn't want to go through the spin cycle or garments that I hadn't meant to put in on a hot wash. When I made those very frequent mistakes, I also couldn't change the temperature of the water by flipping a switch. I shrunk almost all of my jumpers (sweaters) that year. I still think the trustees owe me several woolens.I'm fairly certain the one I suggested that to would be gleeful to know that I now have one of those front loaders in my kitchen.

The problem with front loaders is of course mold. And the problem with front loaders in the land of hard water is limescale. And the problem with front loaders in the land of limescale and mold is the movement toward highly concentrated liquid soap use on thirty degree cycles (86 F, a cool wash). Add an American without a clue to that, and you get some pretty nasty stuff.

How to Avoid Giant Mold Growing Appliance (Or I am not an expert. Call your machine's maker for advice)

  • If you wash your clothing using a liquid detergent at any temperature, you really need to use a water softening tablet as well. And you guessed it, that just ups the miles your detergent travels and the weight of that detergent. Powder and powder tablets already have the the water softener added. Lack of softener in most of England will lead to limescale buildup which will eventually lead to your machine dying. It is more ecologically sound to use an old energy guzzling machine than to buy a new one. And like all machines, machines without buildup are much more energy efficient.
  • Detergents build up. If you don't believe me, run your machine on empty  without adding detergent (on a hot wash because that's the solution to the problem anyway) and watch all of those soap suds in your handy window. See the above problems with limescale, and add to that new detergent not getting through to your clothes and old detergent molding. The solution is to do at least one hot wash a week. Sheets, pants (underwear) and towels should be done on a hot wash anyway. So you don't have to add an extra load every week. And pour a kettle of hot water down the drain pipe now and then. This last isn't a bad idea for all of your drain pipes.
  • Your detergent drawer is made to come out of the machine and be thoroughly scrubbed on a regular basis. I do ours once a month, and it's not enough. It's a good idea to place your detergent directly into the tub rather than into your drawer as this avoids the problem all together. Read your washing detergent instructions and your machine instructions as all of these things are variable. I know you'll do this anyway because as I mentioned at the top, I'm not an expert.
  • When you open the door to your machine, you'll note the rubber seal has many puckers. After each wash, dry the entirety of that seal with a towel. You'll be amazed at how much water gets trapped in there. It will grow mold, impossible to remove mold, if left to its own devices.
  • Leave the door open whenever you're not using the machine. It'll dry it out and keep down the mold and damp (mildew) in the machine. If you have a tendency to close things without noticing, you'll want to place a tea towel (kitchen towel) in between the door and the seal. It'll stop the door from actually shutting.
  • Your machine also has a filter. Clean it once a week. Make sure you have a towel handy when you pull it out of the machine. It's meant to keep your drains from blocking, but it has to be cleaned for that to work. If it hasn't been cleaned you will end up with a bunch of mold inside it.
Once the mold is in, it is a complete nightmare to get out. Because of how the machines are made and the amount of plastic and rubber in them, straight bleach is NOT an option. Read your machine instructions for helpful hints. I'm not going to tell you how to handle the situation because most of the solutions on offer can also lead to the death of your machine. I will tell you that I spent two days one sunny day in May with a tooth brush and two litters of vinegar. My housemate being English knew none of this. So, it falls to me to make these things happen because she doesn't really believe me. Next week is going to involve another toothbrush a ton of elbow grease. It's tempting to start doing the whole household's laundry.

Tomorrow, I'll introduce you to my dryer. Right now I have an appointment with my kettle.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Brolly Damp: The Secret Life of Mold Revisited

This is my brolly.
You'll notice it is open in the house. I'm trying to dry it properly.


Failure to dry one's brolly properly leads to small white deposits known in England as damp. Damp is mildew. Damp stinks. Damp sets off my asthma. Damp, if left to its own devices, will disintegrate brolly fabric. And a tattered brolly does very little good. I know this because I am very good at forgetting the wet brollies I've left in my handbag. A toothbrush, a bit of vinegar, and good drying out will fix this one. I hope. 

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Pickled What? Part II

The grocery store aisles are too narrow for me to get the whole shelf. But that's two rows of beetroot and three rows of onions, all pickled. The yellow jars to the left are Piccalilli. It's apparently widely consumed in the states as well, but I had never seen it before moving to England. Just below that is Pickle. That's relish in American. To the right are bottles of malted vinegar which is proof that the universe loves me. There is nothing better to put on chips (fries), as a flavoring for crisps (chips), or as a replacement for ranch dressing. Ranch dressing is very hard to come by in England.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Fabulous Things about England # 16: Cylinder Hoovers

This is Henry

He's known here affectionately as Henry Hoover; though, he has never been a product of the Hoover vacuum company. The English don't vacuum they hoover. I was raised to love upright vacuums. My mother had a Hoover upright from the time she married my father until we moved to Indiana. That twenty-year-old machine still worked fine. It just wouldn't fit in the truck. When Mom went to buy a new machine she insisted that she wouldn't have a canister vacuum. I don't know why not. Canisters are much more common than uprights in England. I suspect this is to do with tight corners, tiny rooms, ceiling cornicing, and narrow staircases. People here invest in Henry vacuums because they go on and on and on. I've had to settle for my desktop version; he lives next to the penguin on the bookshelf.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Fabulous Things about England # 15: Electrical Socket Switches

Electrical sockets which can be individually turned on and off please me no end. I don't have to go digging under the shade to turn off a lamp. I can glance at the wall to make sure the kettle and toaster are off. And I don't have to unplug the television after every use. I can just flip a switch.

The left hand side is on.

Stoves (hobs) and ovens (cookers) tend to not only have on/off switches on the sockets they're plugged into, but they are also individually fused. This is also the case for refrigerators, freezers, washing machines and dryers. The large red switch here is the fuse to the mircorwave. The smaller red switch is the on/off switch for the outlet. And the microwave can (and should) be turned on and off on its own.
If you've known me for any length of time, you're aware that I am a magnet for unintentional fires. I'm a bit obsessive now about making sure appliances are turned off before I leave the flat. I say this is because I don't want to waste energy, but it's really about not coming home to a burned out flat. I really like being able to tell at a glance that everything is safely off. I did once flip the switch for the fridge by mistake. Oops! But no fire.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Fabulous Things about England # 14

Occasionally, I come across a sign that isn't necessarily there for my safety. The sinks in this seaside public toilet were far too small for my hands never mind my feet.
Since the sign was put up by the local council, it is safe to assume it was placed because people were washing their children in and breaking the sinks.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore

It's difficult for me to explain why I dislike spending the day on Florida's Gulf Coast, the only seashore I've spent any time on in the States. I love playing in the water, but the sun and the heat get to me. I enjoy playing in the sand, but I am completely disgusted by the trash that washes up on the beaches. I haven't seen the gulf coast in at least seven years despite a three month stay a few years ago. It wasn't that I was opposed to walking the beach. I just knew that I'd get bored. I find sitting on a beach alone mind-numbing. I have the same problem in airport lounges.

A dear friend's youngest turned one this past week. We went to the seaside to celebrate. I love the English seaside. The difference has everything to do with boredom. I suppose towns in the North East of the US probably would equally keep me entertained. In addition to the steam fair, crazy golf (miniature golf), arcades, and a view of Wales, a visit to the English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare includes:

Donkey Rides for Children

The donkeys walk down the beach and trot back.

A family game of cricket. Boy could she throw.

Weston-s-Mare is notoriously stingy with its water. We were lucky to see the actual sea at all.

The sea rolled out within an hour of our arrival. 

That's all right though. These concrete paddling pools hold some of the water on the beach. It's tempting to try to walk out towards the disappearing sea. Of course, that's exactly what the quicksand wants you to think.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Pickled What?

The English like their pickled food. A selection from today's shop: Pickled onion, pickled beetroot, pickled gherkins (pickles), pickled red cabbage, pickled walnut, pickled onions, pickled trotters, pickled chicken eggs, picked hot peppers, pickled quail eggs, pickled shallots, pickled baby corn.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Unexpected Rules # 1

It is considered bad luck and rude for women to wear black to a wedding. This completely ruins my ability to keep one dress for all occasions.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

An Old Woman's Task

When I was thirteen, my folks moved me and my sixteen-year-old sister from Lakewood, Colorado to a tiny little town in Indiana. We left behind my grandmother and my two eldest sisters--daughters of my father's first marriage they were well on their own. That was it for family on my father's side, or that was it for family on my father's side as near as I knew then. My mother left behind her brother, her sister's grave, and any real chance of contact with her extended family. It was almost a decade later, some four years after Mom died, that Gram upped sticks and moved in with Dad his then wife and her three children. Mom's relationship with her brother completely broke down in the year after we settled uncomfortably into life in a small town.

I recall amongst my long list of complaints was the lack of a decent comics page. Back in Colorado the weekday newspaper had pages of comics. In the tiny town, my folks subscribed to the local paper which was delivered on Wednesdays and had just the one political cartoon, and to the daily evening paper from the nearest city of any mentionable size. The daily paper had comics, the entirety of one side of one page. The other side of the page carried a local crossword, a word search, and Dear Abby. Despite my objection, I made easy use of those comics. For three and a half years, I read them slowly even the one's I hated--Annie, Prince Valiant--before flipping over to read Dear Abby and discarding the thing in a jumbled mess next to my father's end of the sofa. I don't know when I first saw someone read a paper cover-to-cover. I certainly didn't pick up the habit until I was well into my twenties.

It wasn't until after Mom died that I started reading the obituaries. I had a system, an excellent system. I'd come home from school and pick the newspaper up off the driveway. It was a good day if Dad had managed to get out and to it first. I'd wander into the house to find Dad watching another cycle of news programs or what was at the time the trial of the century. I'd wait the five minutes I knew it would take him to tell me that he was off for a nap, and when I heard the lock to his door click, I would slide the paper out of its plastic wrapper, or if it were sunny, I'd roll the rubber band up its neck . I'd retrieve the comics page and put it next to me just in case Dad decided to return to the living  room before I was through. Then I spread the obituaries out across my knee. I scanned the pages by age, reading those of people in their 30s and 40s first before moving up in age until I'd read the oldest. Then I read down in age through people in their mid-twenties.

I don't know what I thought would happen if I didn't read the obituaries each day. I remember worrying that there were people whose obituaries wouldn't be read at all if I didn't read them. I remember getting it into my protestant mind that the Catholics might be right about that Purgatory thing. I wasn't sure of the ins and outs, but I thought everyone waiting to enter heaven must deserve one prayer from a complete stranger.

I was certain of the power of prayer in those late days of my junior year. I thought that maybe when Mom had died complete strangers had read her obituary and prayed for me (still at home) Dad (husband) my sister (of Lexington) and my other sisters (of Colorado). I thought that maybe if I prayed for all those young families who'd lost a parent, perhaps there would be enough prayer for me as well. Maybe if I prayed hard enough for all those people Dad wouldn't drop dead of a massive heart attack in middle of the living room, maybe I wouldn't be so afraid all the time anymore, maybe my tiny family in that tiny town would manage to find a way to get on with life. Sometimes I thought that if I prayed hard enough for those strangers, God would take me too and then I wouldn't have to keep feeling the air pass through my chest.

Dad still hasn't had a massive heart attack. He and I have made an uncertain peace. I'm no longer constantly afraid. And I'm still here; though, I'm no longer in that tiny town. I no longer believe in heaven or the God of my childhood. I tend to think if there were a god and a purgatory, we're all pretty much living in it. I don't think that my fervent prayers over the obituaries saved anyone any more than any other unspoken thought of mine might have.

It wasn't until I left high school that I realized just how common it is for a minors to lose parents to death. By the time I was 20, one in seven of my peers had also lost a parent. I knew many of them in high school, but as is often true, I was never made aware that a step-parent had stepped in or stepped up. There were three of us who had lost our mothers on my dormitory floor my freshman year in college. There were less than twenty of us total. Despite this, I still kept my reading of the daily papers a secret. I thought that if anyone caught me, they'd think I was morbid. I was and am pretty morbid.

I eventually gave up saying prayers while I read, but I still read the obituaries. These days I keep it a bit closer to home. I only read the obituaries from towns I've lived in for any length of time. Most of those publish weekly papers, so I trundle through them just like I do wedding and birth announcements. Now, I only read the obituaries of people I have known.

Two weeks ago, I sat down to write an e-mail to a family friend in Denver to tell him I'd finally finished the PhD. The e-mail bounced back. I rang Dad and asked if he had a more recent one e-mail address. He didn't and said they hadn't talked for a few years. Nor did he have a phone number. Google told me the news. He'd passed away in March. His obituary was two lines with a small mention of internment. I'm flabbergasted. How in all that time reading obituaries had I managed to miss those few lines? What had happened that his two children didn't even write him a proper obituary? In the three years we'd been out of contact, how was it that he had ended up alone? Why hadn't he called or e-mailed and asked for help? What was his real story? If I think about it, all I ever knew was that he had two kids, he was divorced, he was Jewish, he'd known my folks for eons, and that until we moved to the tiny town, he'd spent Thanksgiving with us. Maybe there were very good answers, answers that I will never know to all of my questions.

These days I frequently find people I knew years ago in the obituaries. More and more frequently they're people I kept meaning to get in touch with, to say thank you mostly. And, as is to be expected, I am finding my own contemporaries disappearing one by one.

I was in Florida looking after my grandmother a few years ago when I discovered that reading the Obituaries is an old woman's task. I'd been roped into driving three women two of who were in their 70s to see a play. On the way home, one of them commented that she had to read the paper to find out who died. I tend to like people who are blasé about death. A third woman, 98, said, "I don't do that anymore." I asked her why not. She said, "I'm the only one left."  Apparently, for her, it was a relief to stop reading death. Now she reads the the comics and does the crossword and waits her turn for a mention in the local paper.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Fabulous Things About England #13

Book Tokens. A National Book Token is an uber gift card. They can be bought in most any bookstore and then used in most any bookstore. They're my very favorite gift to receive.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Fabulous Things About England #12

P.D. James. She's been writing for well over 30 years. I'm seriously addicted to her mysteries largely because I never know who did it until the end. It does always make perfect sense. As a reader, I pick up a lot mysteries and other junk-food books. I read them because they're quick and fun. James's work is that very fine thing--popular literature. I worry very much about reading all the way through her work. Then where will I be when I have a voucher for my local bookshop? I'll have to stand there completely overwhelmed by all the choices I have. It could take days to pick just one.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Fabulous Things About England #11

Nutella, the makers of the chocolate sandwich. I know that you can get it in the States, but it isn't a way of life there. It's a perfectly acceptable lunch here. And nutritionally, it gives peanut butter a run for its money.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Black Ink or Number Two Pencil: Alaska Style

I can still make out the chisel marks around our mail slot. An earlier incarnation must have been widened. Perhaps, this was done to make it easier to slip A4 envelopes through without folding and bending their contents. Not that that has kept Royal Mail from bending incoming envelopes.  No matter the dimensions of our mail slot, the postie still has to carry a couple of postcodes worth of mail in a bag the size of my backpack.

The guy downstairs runs a successful business, so our mail slot does more than its fair share of opening and closing. Particularly since the English will drive across town to slip a payment through someone's door, rather than pay the price of a second class stamp.

A second class stamp here guarantees delivery within three days for a mere 32 pence. That is 48 cents US. For another 9 pence, you can have your letter or check or postcard delivered the next day. That's a mere 61 cents for next day delivery. Yet people insist on using at least that much petrol to avoid paying out for a stamp. I find it a wonder that Royal Mail manages this. After all, it used to take three days for me to get a letter across town when I lived in Indiana, and it took three days for a letter to leave the state when I lived in Alaska. I never thought either of those was poor service.

International mail is a bit trickier. Not, as it might seem reasonable to assume, because of either postal system, but because of customs. It can take days, moments, or months for an envelope to clear customs. I always find it a relief when my absentee voter ballots manage to make it onto the mat just inside the front door. They've never failed to arrive within a week of being mailed. Perhaps, absentee ballots get a special dispensation from HM Revenue and Customs. Maybe there is a treaty of some sort. I like to think that neither of these things is true. I like to think the folks who spend their days protecting the country from insidious plants, counterfeit drugs, and laundered cash, see the Alaska Elections emblem on my ballot and rush it towards me. I want to believe that they see democracy in action and want to make sure I get my chance to mark my ballot in time to return it to Alaska.

This year's primary ballot arrived a week and a half ago--a full two months before the primary in question and a month before the last day to register to vote for that election. You can file for an absentee ballot up to ten days before the election. The ballot as usual was mostly empty. It came with a list, on cheap blue copy paper, of the folks who were running for their parties' nominations in a variety of public offices. This is the election in which Sarah Palin would have been expected to defend her governorship had she not stepped down to become a millionaire. Instead, Sean Parnell is hoping to be elected to the office he already holds as governor.

I've filled in my ballot. I've had it signed and dated by a friend who vouches for who I am. The post office employee who I purchased the stamp from told me not to bother taking the envelope outside to put it into the post box. Instead, he slipped it in with the packages and signed-for post. He was looking out for my ballot. I'm grateful because he doesn't know who or what I made my mark next to.

Certainly, he seemed to understand democracy a bit better than the makers of the latest absentee ballot,  who instructed me to fill in my ballot with either a black pen or a number two pencil. Never mind that the early ballots require a write-in vote. So, you write in the name of your candidate and then fill in the circle to its side. They can't be counted by the scanning machines. They must be hand counted if they are to be counted at all. So why would voting in pencil make any sense at all. It seems to me to be tantamount to not voting at all given the ease with which said vote could be changed. If I've voted using bright pink marker, my vote should still be counted. Of course, my vote won't be counted until well after the election. This despite the fact that I've voted two full months in advance.

If you're a US citizen living abroad you can find out how to obtain your ballot here:
If you're a US citizen who won't be in your precinct but will be in the country on election day, you can find out how to obtain your own absentee ballot here:

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The House Mate Has Taken Pity on Me

And made space for the tea in the fridge. Hopefully, they won't take her Englishness badge away from her.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Whinging Next to the Tourists

It has been a rough week on the international front. Today, I went to drop off an application for summer work at Starbucks. Yes, I know I'm way over qualified. I need something right now that doesn't break any of the rules of my current visa. I need work that is guaranteed from week to week, and I need to be able to keep that work from interfering with the latest batch of revisions on the book. But I have to wonder whether or not I can really keep my mouth shut during the height of tourist season.

Today, I listened to an American woman telling her teenage son that he couldn't have 'whatever that @#%* is that they pass off as yogurt.' I found myself turning to the woman next to me and saying, 'We're not all like that.' My housemate reports that she watched an American man tell a waitress that he tipped in reverse. When the waitress asked if he'd like to order, he told her she was down to 10%. He'd tell her when he wanted to order. Never mind that tipping isn't compulsory in this country. And another friend reports that she was present when an American man turned to an entire bus queue and demanded to know why everyone was standing around doing nothing. He was further angered by the fact that those people were standing near the cash-point. Welcome to Europe where space is at a premium. Learn to cover your pin with you hand Buck-O. We all get to witness such events throughout the coming months. And the Americans who have come to interact with a different culture, the ones who please and thank you their ways through Bath, will go largely unnoticed.

I have the added disadvantage of sounding like a tourist. I find myself clarifying that I live here. No, really, I don't want a cheap airmail stamp. No, really, I want an all-day bus pass. No, really, I want chips not crisps. And as frustrating as I find it, I'm grateful that people are trying to keep me from being disappointed or discovering that I've paid too much.

The English (and I do mean the English not the Scots, the Welsh, or the Irish) are known as the great rude people throughout Europe. Often they're disappointed that no other country speaks English. They're frustrated when they've managed to book into a hotel that doesn't serve chips. They yell their words as though this alone will provide a translation for the locals. They complain of summer heat in Egypt, beggars in India, and stringent rules in the United Arab Emirates. And then there are those who don't, but theirs aren't the voices that I hear. There are days when I think I've not changed countries. Rather I hear the same things in a new accent.

And then I'm reminded of the things for which I am grateful. The health service, public transport, a working social security system (for which I do not qualify but which has supported for short periods many of my friends here), freely available custard, a slower pace of life, a willingness to make do and mend, recycling, maternity leave, and a sense of gratefulness. And I think that I am whinging a step to far.

Things I Miss From Home: Sun Tea

When I was small, my mother had a glass jar with a red plastic lid. Every year when the sun began to get hot, I'd pull up one of the bright yellow kitchen chairs to the sink and help her fill the jar with water. My mother let me unwrap the Lipton tea bags, ten in all, and dip them into the water. My little hands were careful not to let the strings loose as I pulled them over the lip of the jar. My mother would screw on the jar's lid. I loved the feel of the strings pulling through my fingers as the lid went round and round. I always wanted to carry the jar out the back door. I wanted to place it on the concrete stoop where it would warm in the sun. This was Mom's bit. She always got to move the jar from sink to steps. I think she liked that jar, painted in sunflowers as it was, and she was certain I would turn it into a million little pieces. A gallon of water weighs just about eight pounds. My mother was wiser than I gave her credit for.

It's reasonably rare, four and a half years into my life in England, that I really miss something from home. But this summer, I have craved sun tea. We have no garden access (yard in American). And our front door gets little day light, so I've had to make some changes to the process.

Black tea here is essentially the same thing as black tea in the States. It brews a lot quicker, and it has a stronger taste. I've found that Rooibos (red bush) tastes much more like I remember sun tea tasting. It's a 20 year-old memory, so I'm likely wrong.

I'm using three tea bags to a liter of water, but I like the taste of strong, cold tea.

I add a quarter of a liter of boiling water, and I leave it to steep for thirty minutes, until I happen to remember it, or until I go to make a cup of coffee and notice it.

And then I add cold water. I always drink the stuff out of my Wonder Woman mug, because I've generally hoarded all of the water glasses next to my bed.

The housemate has taken pity on me, and she's made space in the fridge to allow for ice cold drinking.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Fabulous Things About England # 10

One of the reasons my housemate can stand to live with me is that she's never home. She's a chef at a local cafe which means she's rarely home except to sleep. I've spent the last four years completing a PhD, so I am always home. The advantage for her is that I am home to greet packages. The advantage for me is that I can work in the quiet without feeling guilty for monopolizing communal space.

The glaring disadvantage for her is that I also never go on holiday (vacation). So, anytime friends ask me to watch their cats while they go on holiday, I agree. For the last four summers this has meant that I have been the one to harvest most of my friends' berry plants. I've eaten most of what I've picked before making it inside. This year my friends are all taking their holidays in September.

I'm guessing that I'm not going to be eating nearly as many strawberries as I usually do. Very annoying.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Poetry and Harliquin

Mills and Boon is the British arm of Harlequin Romance who are a Canadian company.

At this particular branch of a nationwide newsagent you can pick up a little John Keats along with a copy of this month's read, Lucy King's Propositioned by the Billionaire. When I was keeping Harlequin Romances under my pillow, no one was ever propositioned by anything more than a millionaire. Clearly, I've been keeping my standards too low. 

These folks have recently tried to nudge their way into part of the Harlequin market share with books which are a bit more highbrow and a bit racier. But they haven't yet earned themselves their own section, so they continue to be shelved with the rest of the fiction section. There's been a lot of discussion amongst my writer friends about whether or not it's possible to earn more writing these than it is to work as an hourly paid (adjunct) lecturer. Neither career approach carries benefits, but one of them does include time to work on our snootier writing.

Before you jump to any conclusions, remember that these books sell. They get read. And then they disappear again. And given the lack of realistic sex education in the States, they're probably convincing a whole new generation of girls that orgasms are possible, and they shouldn't settle for faking it. 

Sunday, 13 June 2010

When You Can't Fly Home

I always expect this kind of grief to come in a midnight phone call. It's the only reason why my mobile must always make the long trudge past the turn in the old Victorian stairs with me. And if I've left my mobile next to the blue sofa in the living room, I cannot sleep until I have gone down and fetched it. I like to think that this is really a habit of insurance, that I might believe that keeping the phone close to me will keep it from ringing with the news that a loved one is gone.

That story seems preferable to the truth. I know that the midnight phone calls will come. To miss them would for me mean an added day in travel time back to the States, back home where home is defined by the presence of my loved ones. When that phone call comes that Daddy or Gram or one of my three beloved sisters has slipped from between my fingers and out of this world, I expect that it will come in the evening their time and the dead of night mine. A two a.m. phone call is enough time to pack a bag and book a ticket on the 10 a.m. flight out of Bristol to New York and  points beyond. It's enough time to catch an early afternoon flight direct from London to Florida or Colorado or Virginia. It's enough time for a friend to call in to work and rush me to the airport. It's enough time to maybe get home in time to say goodbye.

I cannot imagine my own heart break if I miss that call. Twenty-four extra hours to get home could mean not saying goodbye, not getting the opportunity to make my peace with people I love. I fear more than that phone call, having missed it. Perhaps it is a new neurosis. I didn't keep the phone with me when I lived in Alaska--a place it would have taken significantly longer to get home from. I feared the losses then, but now I am certain they are coming. My grandmother is frail and becoming frailer. My father suffered a stroke in January--the first of many I'm sure. And while I see so clearly that I am now at an age where losing parents is normal I fear losing my sisters--all of whom are within 7 years of being the age my mother was when she died. I supposed that it is that earlier loss that increases my fear of compounding the ones which are coming--the ones which no matter the visa situation or the cost, I'll get on plane and try to be home in time for.

For all of that preparation, I was taken by surprise yesterday afternoon when I made an unplanned stop at home between taking a friend's sons swimming in Malmesbury and having dinner with my friend Annie in Bristol. I'd thought that the bus company that typically stops outside my house also made the connection from Chippenham to Bristol. I was wrong and so stopped to drop off my swimming suit and towel at home and check my email on my way to Annie's house.

I knew something was wrong when I noticed a message from the woman who was my mother's only close friend. Messages from her aren't out of the ordinary. They come regardless of the ebbs and flows on my own communication. It's an easy relationship we have, one which is made up of reaching out without a requirement of actual news; though, when there is news, we share that too.   We always begin with the weather a topic which is as predictable in the Indiana farming community in which I grew up as it is here in England. While rain and droughts bring bring her fear for crops and the guarantee or loss of a kitchen garden bounty, a day's sunlight is often the measure of my mood and my triumphs over it. I suppose there's a lot of information in our exchanges of temperatures and forecasts.

Like any other message, yesterday's started out with news that the rain has been avoiding her part of Posey County. Despite this they've had a crop of radishes, green beans, and blueberries. But this time there were also the e-mail addresses of my father and sister in the header--it was an easy way from that to understanding that something had gone terribly wrong. And I knew that news would come in the last paragraph of the message, but I wouldn't let my eyes scan down the page. Instead, I read her words deliberately respelling them into British English as I went. I knew I had to know what she had to tell me, but I wanted to live a little longer without that weight on my heart.

You see this particular friend of my mother held me up when my mother died suddenly but not unexpectedly fifteen years ago. When my father couldn't cope, she offered me a place to live even though I did not know how to accept it. She turned up on my birthday each year with a blood red plum cake that I have loved since we first arrived in Posey County and she landed one on my mother's kitchen counter. It was her I turned to when my father remarried and made the importance of his new family clear. She sent me letters when I went away to college, knowing full well that it was a battle for me to get more than a few words out of my father. When a lump turned up in my breast, it was her I went to and took with me for the ultrasound which revealed that I was in no immediate danger. And she provided me with a place to spend the Christmas after my father had married yet again, even though she knew that I should have been making my own peace with his new life, she let me stay and guided me toward a forgiveness that has been long in the making. But if not for her, it's a forgiveness that never would have happened. So you must understand my fear that this particular e-mail carried worrying news of her.

But this news was of the passing of another stalwart of my youth, Sister Leta Zeller, OSB. And like so many others, I'd lost touch with Sr. Leta; though, I know that she kept tabs on me and my life and I on hers. It's one of the advantages of being from a small town. It's easy enough to get in touch again, to hear about the triumphs and griefs of those you left behind, to find out what everyone has been up to. It's easy to fail to write the letter or make the phone call before someone dear to your heart is gone.

Sister Leta and my friendship started on the third day between the time of my mother's stroke and her death ten days later. I was called to the ICU phone to pick up a call for my father (I still don't know where my father was that night. It was well after midnight, and my sister and I slept fitfully in the ICU waiting room). I knew Sr. Leta was a friend of my preacher father. I recall begging her to take care of him, telling her that my comatose mother couldn't. I recall her soft calm voice down the telephone line assuring me that his care would not fall to me. I wish that I'd kept that clarity that he wasn't my responsibility with me through the following years, that I'd let her voice come through even after we lost touch. I know because Leta told me so later that she came to the hospital that night. That it was her and not the mother I dreamed who covered my sleeping body with the hospital provided blankets. She returned the following morning with bears for my sister and I, so that we would never again have to sleep alone even when we could not find a way to be anything but separated from each other.

It was Sr. Leta who held me when those excruciatingly long ten days were over and my mother finally passed. And it was Sr. Leta who stood in the face of my father's anger in attempts to comfort him. She did her best too for my faith though there is some distance from the evangelical protestantism in which I was raised and the Roman Catholicism in which she lived her life. She made sure that I hung on to God during the worst of the years that followed--years which I am certain would have killed me had it not been for that faith she was so insistent on. It's a faith I have long since lost and a god I have long since turned my back on. But I will always be grateful for what Sr. Leta did to try to save me from the grief with which one loses their religion.

Sr. Leta will be buried on Monday having led a life of service which she chose with love and deeply held faith. I've lost a lot of friends, some I'd kept touch with better than others, in the nine years since I left the continental United States first for Alaska and then England. This is not the first time that I could not attend the funeral of a friend I've held in my heart. This is the first time that I have wished for circumstances that would allow me to attend the funeral, that I have been certain the right place for me to be on Monday would be in a chapel in Indiana. Sr. Leta would tell me that my prayers are more than enough. But I lost my ability to pray long ago. I know that she'll understand that all I know how to give her is the space in my heart that she has occupied these last fifteen years and that she is truly deeply missed.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Things I Miss from Home

I love making cornbread from scratch, but cornmeal is hard to come by here. I've not managed to make polenta do the same thing, so a friend's husband very kindly brought me some mix from the States. I am ever so grateful for such good friends.

Now I just have to manage not to eat them before the BBQ tomorrow.

Tee Hee

I just don't have words for this. I had to double check that I was in England when I saw it.

Sunday, 6 June 2010


I grew up in Colorado where we had long dry hot days and cool evenings, and in Indiana where we had long hot humid days and evenings. Here in England we're supposed to be due a long hot summer where hot is in the upper twenties and lower thirties. That would be the high seventies and low eighties in Fahrenheit. We've been promised such a summer for the last four years running, so I'm not keeping my fingers crossed.

Clearly, I've adjusted to the temperatures in England because today it was almost 21 (70 Fahrenheit) with 65% humidity, and I'm sweating up a storm wearing a skirt and a vest (tank top). I'm thrilled to be complaining about the heat, but I suspect that I've just become a giant wimp.

Here's Bath in Summer. The light wasn't brilliant, but Bath never photographs poorly.

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