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.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

On Life with Disability in England

I love my adopted country, so much so that I wish it would adopt me. There are things which I find completely confusing about England and the English. Often they're things that I can just just brush off--the eggs being shelved with the baking goods at the grocery store for instance. But I still can't get past the very different views of those with disabilities (both seen and unseen). It's something that I'm sure I'll write more about as time goes on, but a friend's question about induction loop systems for hearing aids made me go out and take some pictures.

The English are far and away better about making sure the hard of hearing are included in society than the Americans, but there are some other problems of accessibility. Below are some pictures of Bath and it's accessibility standards.

This sign appears in a major  bookstore's window. From the top left, they are able to help people with mobility difficulties, there is wheelchair and pushchair (stroller) access. They have an induction loop system to make hearing and paying easier for people with hearing difficulties. This particular store has access via a ramp but no access to several floors of books, so browsing the science and autobiography sections would be rather difficult.

This is a major department store retailer with stores throughout the country. They have a loop system and wheelchair access. Pet dogs are not allowed. I used to work for one of the concessions (meaning a brand that rented space within the department store) here, so I know that there are many short flights of stairs throughout the store. One need only ask and a portable ramp will be deployed. But one does have to ask which means finding a sales assistant who can be bothered to find a manager.

Sales assistants are also expected to help those with mobility problems though the training for this is completely lacking. The visually impaired are also offered help; though, the sign doesn't indicate this. Not that indicating it would help the visually impaired as the sign itself is too small.

The one section of the store that is not accessible for chair users is ladies underwear because it was determined that using the portable ramp in that area was too dangerous. The ladies will bring down every pair they've got to a dressing room and then bring what someone likes in their size.

A Bank which isn't open 24 hours a day except online: No smoking, No pet dogs, No face coverings, Big Brother is watching you, help for the visually impaired. Help for wheelchair users, and a loop system is in place.

This is a small boutique style shop: Loop system, help for those with mobility issues, and a disabled fitting room are available.

This is typical of English signage. The chair access isn't the door to which this sign points (even I don't fit through that door) but is up the street.

You've probably noticed that that is not a ramp but stairs. The sign indicates that a portable ramp is available. You'll have to find someone to go in and ask for it to be deployed though. You see the problem? In England protected building status trumps accessibility rules where the opposite is true in the States. I'm much more comfortable with the US system as it assumes that the living should get the opportunity to participate in life to fullest and that should be able to do that without a carer wherever possible.

This business seems to have twigged (caught on) that people need a way of asking for the help on offer. However, the bell isn't reachable from a chair, so you'd still need to ask for help.

I wonder if things are just as bad in the Northeastern US where people are also dealing with old buildings?
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