Thursday, 15 December 2011

Badly Followed Patterns

The making for Christmas is well underway; though, I'd intended to be finished before 1st December. With nine days or so before the big event, I am finding myself running out of time quickly. I've completely missed the send by date to the States, so the nieces and nephews won't be getting their gifts until at least January. Believe it or not it isn't the insanity that surrounds gift-giving that I hate about Christmas. I love giving gifts. I like that we're all reminded to give during, at least, this season of the year. Of course I'm avoiding Bath proper like the plague this year. You could call that painting the lenses of my glasses rose.

This year I've found myself in the strange situation of having to insist to people that I really do have plans for Christmas. It wouldn't be beyond me to assure people that I had plans for the day in order to spend the day on my couch watching films. So I can see how friends are reasonably convinced that that is my intention for this year too. As for boxing day, I may well spend that checking to see how my knee feels about going up hills.

Now back to the crocheting. Does anyone know what I did with the button? or the 3.75 hook?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Winter, Again, Apparently

Bath is never ugly. Even on days when it is tipping with rain and the temperature has dropped well below freezing, Bath remains the second most beautiful place I have ever lived.

A few of you asked what I meant by the alternate version of "We Three Kings." I so wanted to provide you with a video, but it seems that few people have been inclined toward recording it. And as much as I like you all, I'm not singing to you.

We three kings of Orient are trying to smoke a rubber cigar
It was loaded, it exploded
We two kings of Orient are Trying to smoke a rubber cigar. 
It was loaded, it exploded/I one king of Orient am Tring to smoke a rubber cigar
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, All is bright.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Bah Humbug, Again?

Right, so folks who are better at this Christmas gig than I am are:

Zosia from Polonica: Home Again made an Advent Calendar that would make me dance more than teeny tiny candy canes.

And  Belle from A Belle Abroad has some seriously exciting news to go along with her Christmas preparations in her new country.

The Christmas tree has arrived in Auvergne, France.

Robynne from Robynne's Nest has been wandering around under London's lights. Oooh and Giant Red Barn!

And Annie at Sew Graceful has been making mittens.

And there are still a few days left to see The Nutcracker in Fairbanks, with Cindy.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Smoking on a Rubber Cigar: Teeny Tiny Candy Canes!

That is A1 steak sauce, in England!

Maybe one of the reasons I'm feel less bah-humbug about the holidays this year is that I spend some time near this display every week. It doesn't really seem like enough reason to be singing the version of "We Three Kings" that involves a rubber cigar, but it is certainly helping. They also do Sweet Potato Fries with maple syrup. So, you know, a place with a full English and the best bits of America all at once. And yes, those are Bread and Butter Pickles. Yum, Bread and Butter Pickles. So, you know, go eat Here*. And pick up some Jolly Ranchers for your in-laws.

A friend swears this is the best ever sandwich

*As it turns out, this is not a sponsored post. The owners of the cafe have been extraordinarily good to me this year. But even they think my can't concentrate on anything else, look teeny tiny candy canes, excitement may be a bit over the top.** Of course if any of you want to sponsor my incredible spiced gumdrop habit or my Twizzlers habit or my Fritos habit or my Ez Cheese habit, I'll joyfully share with you. Unless it's Ez Cheese. Then I won't share at all.

**Should I talk about my general frustration with blind requests for sponsored links? Or should I just hurry up and finish talking about religion?***

***Did you see the teeny tiny candy canes?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Naturally forty-eight degrees Fahrenheit

14.5 tog duvet over fleece blanket.

It was 9 degrees C yesterday. That would be almost 50 degrees F. The heat did not get turned on. I went to bed with my hot-water bottle on Wednesday night and found it thrown across the room on Thursday morning. This is a good thing, really. Afterall my duvet over my fleece blanket over me is far better than watching the gas meter tick by. And I am so glad we are not having the cold winter than was predicted. At this time last year, we had the heat on five hours a day (with both of us working 30-50 hours) and were still sitting on the couches trying to remain warm under several layers of blankets and clothing. 

And so it is true--I had wondered in my heavy heart as I left Alaska six years ago--it is true that there comes a time, when as much as the far North draws me toward it, that I realize that I could not live through another arctic winter. The trappings of that life are now largely gone. I no longer have a heavy parka. My winter shoes met with the recycling bin a year or two ago. My gloves are still in nearly new condition. It's simply too warm here to wear them for more than a few minutes. The knit in my fleece hat is coming apart now, and I simply can't imagine a place so cold that an afternoon walk alone will not warm my feet. 

I'll whinge at the cold at work this afternoon as I pile the wood high into the fireplace. This despite my total gratitude for the warmth of my current sanctuary in England.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

And on Came the Gas

Among the few girlie items I own.

Every year the housemate and I compete to see who can wait the longest before turning the heat on. The heat comes on December first, provided we have both lasted that long. Last year it was cold enough in mid-November that we couldn't really justify leaving the heat off in our rental. There is being thrifty, and there is being irresponsible.

For the last few years, downstairs guy has heated with wood, and I've spent those winters mentally begging him to turn on his heat for the sake of our frigid flooring. This year he's returned to the land of radiators, and maybe that's why the housemate and I will be calling this year's competition a tie. The heat comes on tomorrow, provided, of course, that we don't see another wave of mild weather.

This doesn't mean we've been freezing. It's been heavy blankets and hot-water bottles most days. The key to hot-water bottles is to avoid using boiling water. Melting rubber reeks rather a lot, and it's a smell that you don't really want to sleep with.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Tradition of Felt Elves and Penguins

One of those Fairbanks' Thanksgivings, I had the biggest house. I had, by graduate student standards, a huge house. I didn't want to attend Thanksgiving, much less host it. Steph agreed to sleepover and make the turkey. And when she heard that I was going to serve canned cranberry, Marie asked me to make it by hand. By 6:30 in the morning Steph, Joe, and I were drinking champagne and making felt elves and penguins. Steph followed the directions perfectly; I free-handed mine. You must see why it was so important that I not be in charge of the turkey; I'd have free-handed that too.

By the time the sun rose that morning at ten. By the time it had set at three, folks had begun to pile coats and hats and boots in the cold room, and we'd settled into the holiday, as it should be, shared by friends and a handful of strangers. All that I remember of that year, though, is the early morning hours and the solace of a gathering of friends on the backdrop of an arctic winter.

I hope that you are all well gathered, American or not, with those who love you in the coming weeks. That you'll open your doors to strangers, and that you'll offer comfort where it is needed.  I will do my best to do the same.

And more pumpkin and more pumpkin

I have no idea what the pies taste like. The puree was a bit chunky, so they could resemble stringy sweet-potato pie. I hope not. And I braved a handmade crust for the first time. The slivers came out tasting awfully salty. Hopefully, that won't be too much of a problem. And I accidentally bought whole cloves, so ummm glad I knew where the hammer was.

If I lived in the States, the pie would have come from the frozen aisle. Can someone remind me to look at this post next year?

 I cannot think which of my English friends likes pumpkin pie. It won't hurt my feelings if it all comes home from dinner with me tomorrow. I've even picked up some double cream for just that eventuality.

I had half a pumpkin leftover,so pumpkin bread and muffins have also been made to avoid unnecessary wastage.

A few weeks ago, I made a fabulous lasagne. This one is for this week's dinner. A few weeks ago, I made a perfect white sauce, my first white sauce ever. This week's dinner is pretty lumpy.  I'm trying not to spend hours on the internet to figure out why.

I miss the Thanksgivings after university, when it was no longer even possible to contemplate returning home for a four-day weekend. Those years when we'd gather as friends at the person who had the largest home's house. I do not miss those days enough to return, but I am grateful for the happy memories.

We're twenty-eight days from winter solstice. It is, for me, the most joyful of the sun's phases. We are on the verge of hope; that must be hope in itself. And for that I am thankful.

To Clarify, and Pie!

The thing is that I'm content.  And that's not despite a hard year, nor because of it. It just is. I am certain that that is what we mean when we talk about a state of grace--that state of contentment despite what the future is likely to hold. I recall this feeling, six years old now, during my last autumn in Fairbanks. Maybe it is really the feeling of living a last season in a place. Maybe last seasons are, by definition, a state of grace.

One of the things you learn to do in a new country is to cook from scratch the foods of the country you've left. Mostly the English do not eat pumpkin pie; though, slowly the idea does seem to be catching on. And so there isn't really a quick option down the freezer aisle for Thanksgiving puddding. So I learned to make pie from a pumpkin. Last year, Waitrose carried tinned pumpkin. This year, those tins are 100% pumpkin. Still, I've started again with the whole gourd.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Preachin' to the Choir

This year the gifts will be handmade out of necessity rather than by choice. That is to say, the gifts from me are often hand made. This year though they must be. There will be no hurried last minute Christmas shopping or splurges for the little ones. Six-year-old girls want knitted muffs for Christmas, right? Right? And little boys are desperate for dinosaur hats in acrylic? And who doesn't want a pumpkin pie rather than some nice hand cream? Clearly that last one doesn't include the English.

And I am blessed, and I am grateful, and I am certain that I am enjoying more than my share of grace in this lifetime.

At this time last year, I was working for a large company. My schedule frequently changed three or four times in a week. I was told to work later than the last bus home, and the company wouldn't pay for the two-mile taxi ride--the one that cost more than an hour's wages. I was asked to slide the company's advertising through my neighbors' doors during one of the coldest Decembers on record. All because the company in question was 'struggling.' Never mind the numerous new stores they were opening or the shareholder payouts or upper management that was making more than 20 times that of underlings like me. And I kept the job because I wasn't making enough as an hourly-paid  lecturer to make ends meet.  And then I felt lucky, because the company didn't hire full-time. I was working with folks who were subsisisiting on beans on toast. I told a friend at the time that I had no idea how I could possibly live any closer to the edge.

I didn't leave the job until I had another lined up. The new company went into administration two days before I was supposed to start. Two months later I lost my teaching position in a mass layoff with two weeks notice.

It turns out that it is really easy to live closer to that edge. It wouldn't be if I had children or dependent parents. It wouldn't be, if I weren't so close to so many people who are using boots and nectar points to feed their families and themselves. It wouldn't be, if I didn't love my job, exactly the job I got a PhD to avoid. I am blessed. I am grateful. And I am experiencing more grace than I should. And by accident of life, I am learning to be a short-order cook.

It's lovely to be surrounded by wool again, to be digging in boxes for forgotten notions, to be searching patterns for just the right sort of muff, and to be fantasizing about the wool I'll buy in end of season sale. And wondering if the children will remember their dinosaur hats. There is a miracle in yarn unfolding around me.

I hate the holidays, and I'm not looking forward to them. This year I'm willing to give them a try even though I know my Christmas wishes are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Maybe you'll join me in wishing that all the children around the world will find their forever homes (and the courts get through a backlog of confirmations of such homes) this Christmas. It's a selfish request. A little boy who is dear to me is among them.

And you should totally go read this: a PK mate of mine  in Spain. This Christmas, in all of the wealthiest countries in the world, there are still street children.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Cider, Cider, and Cloudy Apple Juice. Also Eww!

I still think cider should be spelled 'cidar.' I can't find any explanation for it, except that I also pronounce 'bag' with a long 'a,' resulting in a word, I'm told, that is better spelled 'beg.' A friend here tells the story of attending a hayride somewhere in the US Bible Belt. She was horrified, and more than a little confused, to learn that there were plans to give the children cider. Certainly, more than a few young Americans have woken to an unexpected hangover, thanks to too many glasses of cider in Europe, or I'm told reliably, most any place outside the United States.

Cider's fine as far as it goes. I'm partial to local scrumpies. Still the best I've ever had was in St. Ives at New Year. Where local scrumpy isn't available, and it rarely is, I'd far prefer dark beer. I'm not a connoisseur of  American cider any more than I am of the British versions. But when the leaves have truly fallen from the trees, I find myself thinking a lot about, what is ultimately, mulled apple juice. And like most sanguine moments of homesickness, this one propelled me into making a rather embarrassing purchase.

It turns out that the Apple and Cinnamon tea, new to the UK, tastes exactly like I remember it tasting.  I had forgotten that the stuff is rank. And so I will be avoiding the satchets of powder that look suspiciously like what we used to beg for at the end of hayrides. *

*I've never actually been on a hayride.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

So Too Comes the Winter.

I have no idea what happened to September. I know what happened in it. I learned to make cooked breakfasts or full Englishes or all day breakfasts depending on your localisms. I stopped being terrified of the fryer. I crossed the one year mark before my visa lapses. I watched season five of As Time Goes By. I realized that I am that waitress in Mad about You. Mad about You didn't translate to this side of the pond. Sweet potato fries have begun to make an appearance here--If you want some, I can totally hook you up.

Knee surgery happened to October. It was long awaited knee surgery. I'd been completely ready to get caught up--on the blogging, on the blanket making, on the book revisions, on cooking, on the mildew, on the reading, on letter writing and emailing, the postcard sending, the wedding gifting. I'd forgotten that two-weeks off work generally implies that one won't be doing much catching up. Still I don't hurt every time I put my foot down. And oh the gratitude. And now, I am so glad that I've been allowed back to work.

And with the evenings drawing in well before five o'clock, I am relearning the art of Christmas gift making. I rather loathe the holidays, but I really really like the present giving. Thank goodness for Aunty Mo for making sure I learned to wield a hook last year. I don't have enough weeks left before Christmas to be fooling with knits and purls.

As for me and my house, tonight it's hot toddies and pjs well before nine. I hope you are well.

Monday, 29 August 2011

August is the Rainiest Month

They sky over Bath: 25 August 2011
The rain came in the hour-long deluges that are infrequent visitors to this part of England. I'm inclined to tell you that the rain and cool weather are all part of a typical English August. But those who chart these things remind me that August isn't much more inclined to rain than any other summer month. And though the pace of the rain strikes me as untypical, I am glad for the occasional washout of a day. 
The week has been too eventful on the other side of the ocean. I've written before about the difficulty of not being able to snap my fingers and return to support my family and friends. For most of my adult life, I've lived too far away to turn up --it is not simply a function of choosing life here. I could not have changed or even mitigated this week's events for my sister and her family any more than I could have changed or mitigated the events of past Augusts for any of my sisters. There are times when it seems that it would be easier, if only I were there. 

My east-coast sister and her family are safe and warm in their own home tonight. They have electricity and have returned to work. As the photos begin to come in from Vermont, from the Outer Banks, I am saddened for all of the people who were not so lucky.

I am reminded that I could live in the same block as all of my sisters, and I still could not wrap them in enough cotton wool to keep them out of harm's way. I am not ready for this early autumn, followed as it will be by winter, but I am done with August.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Happy Anniversary, 2001

Some Highway in Alaska
The sun is fully set by 9pm here. That's 21:00 for those of you functioning on a twenty-four hour clock. I'm told that it's dark by 11pm in Alaska. There's part of me that is desperate for the nights to stop drawing in. It inevitably leads to a time change. I don't cope well with the time change and think the one in the fall is particularly viscous, stealing, as it does, an hour of evening daylight.

The new neighbors had a party this weekend. Mostly, I'm grateful that this didn't involve burning the treated wood from the kitchen they've just pulled out. Mostly, I'm grateful that they're using a recycling skip rather than giving the local asthmatics a vision of what it must be like to run a marathon without an inhaler. Mostly, the smell of wood burning reminded me that autumn is well and truly on its way.

It made me want to reach for an ax and build a wood pile. Our house is heated with gas. There is no need for a wood pile. Though one of our neighbors heats with wood, and I'm fairly certain isn't terribly good with wielding an ax. I'm inclined toward pulling out my thermals and washing the winter coat. But I no longer live in a place where any of this is necessary before the end of September. I wonder, when I leave this place, what olfactory memories will drive sudden and senseless behavior.

As for the bread, I swear it came out of the oven smelling like acetone. The housemate insists otherwise.The starter smelled of beer, like it should. I suspect that I am now imagining odors that do not exist. Perhaps tomorrow it will be nasturtiums and golden honey. Either way, I'll be eating rye bread and butter for breakfast in the morning.

Here the job search continues. And the work I do have remains strangely fulfilling. Mostly, I look forward to kneading bread dough and the day when a day off doesn't mean the work of finding a job. I wonder what that will feel like. Will I, when the sun is set at five pm, find it easy to settle into the making of baby blankets and watching films on tv? Will I think of planning a holiday to Budapest--the holiday I've been promising to spend with a friend for three years now? Will I begin to drink tea again?

I remember a nearly perfect day in an Alaskan spring when we drove two hundred miles out of our way and walked a bit further. I know I was looking for a job then too, and we knew that our days in the far north were numbered by the the inevitability of one coming winter or another. I know that we had no idea that ten years on from the day we first met one of us would be beginning a job in Hawaii and the other would be mopping floors near a completely different ocean. Many of us have started families and seen the end of years long marriages. We are all lost in a world we didn't expect to find. Mostly we had no idea that it is possible for a decade to pass; though it has. Another decade seems near impossible.

Happy Anniversary. The view from here is not better, but it will do.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Yellow Leaves and Summer

23 August 2011
I was cleaning a coffee machine today. Naturally that was my first mistake. I cleaned the same machine a few days ago, but I had the spray bottle that makes things shiny out. How could I possibly resist? My second mistake was in leaning over to pick a spoon up off the floor. And finally, I had my eyes open as I stood up-open wide enough to look out the window. Tomorrow we are scheduled for summer weather. But the trees are indicating a early autumn. Autumn is my favorite season, but today it seems a little soon.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Those Ain't No Texas Longhorns

Not to be outdone by my fellow Americans, I finally made it up to The American Museum in Britain. It was a lovely day out with my dear friends Josh and Sarah. We ate oatmeal cookies, snickerdoodles, and some ginger cookies that were decidedly unamerican. And we sat on the grounds of Claverton Manor and talked about babies, bulk-buying flour, and life.

It's taken me five years to make it up the hill to the museum, in large part, because touring a museum of my own country's history felt a bit squidgy, or rather, felt a bit too much like being a tourist to me. One of the many things I am guilty of is being too much of a snob to embrace the city I live in. Oh and I'm really bad at museums. I don't see what's in front of me. I see the words but only skim them, and I almost always forget to look at the objects they refer to. I'm supposed to be learning patience along with gratitude. I am not patient, even with myself.

I'm told by my fellow Americans that the museum doesn't quite tell the story of American history. I'm inclined to think that we all learned our history from the same text, and I know that we all saw it through the same filter of American childhoods. Given all this, I was surprised to find myself rereading-twice, three times, four times-a small blurb about the early years of the American revolution. It took a fifth read before I finally got it. The Boston tea party is referred to as infamous. Five tries to catch the phrasing that put me off. Of course the Boston Tea Party is infamous. The museum makes little of America's split from Britain and even less of the War of 1812. And really, if a group of Americans or Britons went to their local ports and destroyed the cargo on ships what would we call that? Infamous is a perfect descriptor, even if it makes my eighth-grade spine twinge.

The museum was meant to help in "fostering historic ties between the United States and the United Kingdom." And I assumed that the decoration of the house must have had that same goal in mind. So when Sarah kindly pointed out the cornice in the entrance. I assumed that it was meant to represent Texas Long Horns. Admittedly this seemed a bit of an odd choice given the other possibilities of eagles, turkeys, or even moose.

The lovely staff, and they really are lovely, were kind enough to set me to rights. They are laureled ox skulls and are original to the house.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Banana is Not the Only Cake

Oven Spring

I've spoken here about American tourists and even their likenesses to English tourists. Looking back through the archives, I haven't spent nearly as much time complaining about Americans on the blog as I do to friends here in the city. Perhaps there is a reason why some folks think I'm awfully hard on the locals.

Last year at about this time, I sat in front of my computer at my local-international-chain-coffee shop trying to get a few words down on the page before I went to my terrible country-wide-chain job. I like to sit with my back to walls and within easy view of both the doors and the tills. There is only one plug in the coffee shop that caters to this particular predilection of mine. It sits me within whispering distance of the punters. Nice British word there--punters.

Three things happen rather predicatably in the queue for coffee. There is always someone who is horrified by the price of a brownie. They're cheaper at the grocery store just up the street, and yet said person will complain to the barista about the prices before buying said brownie. Someone will complain that the location of the queue is not obvious. The location of the queue is completely obvious even to Americans who do not queue. And someone will complain that their cappuccino is mostly foam, or as those of us who make coffee like to call it--a cappuccino.

Unfortunately, sitting with my back to the cityscape that is exactly like the cityscape in your local-international-chain coffee shop makes it nearly impossible for me not to stare in disbelief. Honestly, I get the the cappuccino thing. There a plenty of places that only serve espresso, and if you don't know the lingo you may well think that cappuccino is the easiest way to obtain something white coffee like (ask for an americano with warm milk or cold). And really the prices are higher than the grocery store, but you're rather getting a different product and you're paying over the odds because you choose to. And really, I've yet to identify someone who was actually confused by the queue location rather than being unwilling to admit that they were trying to jump the queue altogether.

Tourist season is particularly interesting as every American desperate for a taste of home will drop in for the coffee that tastes the same around the world. Did I mention to anyone that my trip back to the states proved this wrong? It did.  More wrong though, was hearing the following exchange:

American Tourist A: Banana Muffins? What do those taste like?
American Tourist B: It's a local cake. You can only get it in this part of England.

They taste just like your grandmother's banana bread, ladies. Just like your grandmother's banana bread in a muffin casing.

On the bread front, I've solved the oven-spring problem. I don't know why I was kneading the dough a third time before placing it in the oven. I'm learning.

Friday, 12 August 2011

About the Bread

I had the day off today so I made my way to a neighboring town to see my friend and her boys. We went to egg and spoon races (hard boiled) and to a sing song. Then we read stories and played a couple of homemade games. Someone's father really likes making 'go back to start' squares. And did you know that knights will save you from dinosaurs? I got kicked by a triceratops twice. Don't fear though, it pushed me closer to the treasure.

The bread is going well. Though I have got to start remembering to cook some veg and beans. Either that or I need to invest in a giant bag of nuts and certainly look into buying flour in bulk. I still can't seem to make a perfect crust. It's a small thing, but it keeps me focused away from the news cycle.

There are several organizations collecting donations (including toothbrushes, tampons, and underwear) and organizing cleanups throughout England including Haringey council.  The predictions of the demise of Britishness were clearly wrong and I am reminded again as to why I choose here.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Thank You, Again

Thank you all for your concern, your thoughts, and your prayers. I am fine and safe. More importantly, I am not in long-term poverty. I have not been dispossessed. And I am not losing services while others show off their wealth all around me. Please direct your thoughts, concern, and prayers to those young men and women whose needs have been ignored through good times and who are condemned as useless in these bad times. And pray for the police who must deal with a reality that the popular narrative doesn't acknowledge. The world could use some peace.

It's not been an easy week here in the UK. If I were a rhetorician living in the US, I'd be having a field day. I'm not, and I'm also an immigrant in a time where anything I say may be misinterpreted. So instead, I want to say two things. Right, I want to say one thing, and I want to repeat another.

I have great faith in the ability of Britons to clean up their neighborhoods, to put out the fires of anger, and to allow the country to grow as a whole rather than as parts. I hope that the leadership to do so will begin to show itself in the next few days.

I've noticed several bloggers asking why those of us in the UK have not begun to speak about this week's events. I would suggest that things are very real for many of us here, especially those in the cities which have been torn by poverty and now by violence. I would suggest that there is no middle ground in the national rhetoric, though there is quite a lot of middle ground on the buses, in cafes, and on the walking paths. 

"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community." MLK Jr.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Some Cleaning and Gratitude

The big writing project is finished, knock wood. I can't wait to see what our words look like up against Beth's film. I'm also pretty excited about a future in writing outside of the blog and the rewrite of the book. I will, rather joyfully, let you all know when it goes on sale.

Do you see me swooning? I am, and it's nothing to do with the heat. Redilocks over at Swoon Worthy rather kindly passed on the Liebster award to me. She says that, ". . . the Leibster Blog award is for smaller blogs (less than 300 followers) that deserve some additional attention." And like Redilocks, I have well under 100 followers. So do many of the bloggers that I read. Sooo, I want to share a few of them with you.

  • Redlissa has been cracking me for eons now, but she just started blogging this year. You should check out this post if you're ever tempted to click on those google weight loss ads or if you wonder who does.  
  • A Belle Abroad did this expat thing long before I got around to it. Her family is still on the move, and you should read here, if you liked studying vikings.
The last batch of sourdough started rancified and grew black mold. So starter #3 managed to make good bread today. It wasn't sour at all. My sister has assured me that it is perfectly safe to eat whole loaves of bread and butter as long as I have no other calorific intake. Have I told you how much I love real butter?

Friday, 5 August 2011

About the Cats

The housemate and I have both reached an age where we're inheriting inanimate objects. It started as furniture from her family as they down sized to bungalows (think ranch style houses). There is a lovely chair in my living room that I am terrified of sitting on, but also a fantastic table that tends to hold the mail. Then it was the entirety of someone's cat collection. Not the live ones. Not the dead ones either. These are statuettes and pillows and coffee mugs, a pie bird,  and salt and pepper shakers. The housemate thinned out the collection. And from the experience, I learned to never ever buy anyone something that they are perceived as collecting. Unless its wool (yarn). I can always use more of that.

Last summer I finally managed to follow a crochet book--ok it was two crochet books with the help of the internet--and one of my nephews became the first recipient of a baby blanket that wasn't knitted. Midway through buying the wool for a blanket for my grandmother, she up and died. She lived in Florida and really didn't need a blanket so that's all right. When she was downsizing, she wanted me to take the plastic mushrooms that had adorned her wall during my childhood and dump them in her condo's shared skip. I stuffed them into my suitcase and carried them first to Baltimore, then to Alaska, and finally to the UK. I have other more important of my grandmother's things. I still can't figure out how to give up the mushrooms.

I'm a week behind on a writing project for a friend. It's an important project for her and for me. I'm not just embarrassed but  rather annoyed at myself about the whole thing. But I find it impossible to turn away two-year-old kisses even when they carry with plague. There will be a post, sometime in the future, about something of import to the larger world. In the mean time, please don't leave me.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Fabulous Things About England #35: Midges

The last time I had a mosquito bite was in May. Before that I hadn't been bitten by the loathsome creatures since July of 2007. On neither occasion was I in England. I should be overjoyed about this. In fact, my friends who still live in Alaska will now refer to me as a big whingy pants. I am a big whingy pants. England does produce mosquitoes but not on the scale of any state that I've ever stupidly bared skin in.

The other thing that English doesn't produce and seems to actively eschew--window screens. Soo late night writing combined with open windows (it's  too warm to close the windows) results in ceilings full of midges. Or if you're really smart and have closed the bathroom door on an open window and bare bulb, a floor full of midges.

These don't bite; some do. Probably someone is going to come across and tell me that these are mayflies or some rather better defined grouping of insect. I do rather prefer noseeums for their better name. Still these are pretty, green bodies on white wings.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

No, I Do Not Want the 98p Stamp

Not Built in the 19th Century
So I owe you one more post on religion in England. This is not that post. While Bath Abbey is a fantastic building, and on most days, has actual services that people, many of them Christains, attend, it is also one of the major tourist attractions here in Bath. There is also, The Jane Austin Museum, The Roman Baths, The Museum of Costume, Victoria Park, the Post Office Museum, and a half-ton truck of other bits and pieces to see in Bath. (If anyone wants to go to the American Museum or the Museum of Bath at Work with me, I'm totally up for it).

It's tourist season. This means several things for me. First, I should know better than moving to places that are tourist attractions. Second, no matter how much I may now look Englishy, my accent gives me away as someone who must be looking for my tour bus. Third, I am reminded that I know bus routes and times in BANES and the surrounding area off by heart. Fourth, that locals will lie to tourists for the fun of it. And most importantly that I cannot possibly want anything other than a 98p stamp.

Throughout most of the year, I can order cider without being told it isn't apple juice, ask for the very last bus stop in the outermost zone without being told that surely I mean to go on to the next town, and purchase signed-for postage (registered mail) at the post office. But between May and the middle of August, I become by accent alone, incapable of navigating my life in Bath. And while I am grateful to the English and longstayers among Bathonians for their kindnesses to my countrymen, there are days when I need a pint of cider (hard cider) to overcome my frustration at having to repeat those fine words. No really, I live here. I need to know that those documents reached there.

If by some chance, you were in the tour group above, I feel I must tell you that your tour guide was misinformed. The Abbey wasn't built in the 19th century and Lucifer is on the left, not the right.

And as it is Sunday and the End of the Month, you should trot on over to visit Laura and link up to the Post of the Month Club. Go on, click the link.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Sometimes I Remember to Stop and Look

Sometimes I remember to stop and look

The housemate will probably kill me if I manage to get, and leave, bread dough on another surface in the house. It is rather following me. How  did it get on the shower head, the light switch, the window key? I know precisely how I managed to get it on the keyboard, the refrigerator door, and the aloe plant. I mentioned that I accidentally threw the first (and successful) batch of sourdough starter into the washing-up bowl. The second batch went rancid or was rancid or got rancified. I switched to rye flour and managed a perfect loaf of sourdough rye. I ate the whole loaf in a day. Today I managed to make my third rye brick. 

I have very little short term memory. I can't remember where I went right with those two good loaves. Tomorrow morning I will try rye starter with white flour. I'll try to manage to pick up milk and maybe some actual food at the store. It seems likely that I'll forget to top up. Mostly, it is time to go to sleep. I remember the sweet exhaustion after a day of chopping wood. Can kneading bread emulate that, I wonder.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Purple Clouds, Grey Sky

In this part of England, as the earth turns further from the sun and toward autumn, the sunsets take on a purple hue. I have never been terribly good at summer. Even in those halcyon days when summer meant no school and plenty of time to get in forty hours of work a week, I always found the loose ends of my life fraying. It may well be the reason why, for so long, I have chosen academia as the backdrop of my existence--that need for a narrative--beginning, rising action, crisis, falling action, denouement--a lack of knowlege, gain of knowledge, proof of knowledge, rest. It's the resting that I'm no good at, the moments of taking stalk and planning a new year leave me wondering how to continue, what path to take, where to go next. I find my life without students rather exhausting. August is closing in. Next august will mark the end of my current visa. I do not know what else it will mark the close of. I am uncomfortable living a life without a formal narrative arch.

Like so many of the people around me, I am trying to learn gratitude--not joy, or optimism, or certainty, but gratitude. It's easy enough to count my blessings. It's easy enough to count my grief. Gratefulness is harder to come by.

On Saturday, a year after I completed my PhD, I walked across the stage in that final symbol of a hard earned achievement. I'm sure that I was not the only graduate to find that walk tinted by grief. My mother wasn't there to see me any more than she had been there when I finished high school, or college, or my master's degree. This is no blessing. It is also an odd sort of grief that pops its head into the life I've grown used to over the sixteen years since her death.

It is a tradition in my family that at moments of great achievement we wear my mother's pearls. Early on Saturday morning, I toyed with the idea of leaving them in the jewelry box. I don't miss my mother anymore. It's difficult to miss someone who has been gone so long. I never knew her as an adult. And this fall, I will have lived more of my life without her than I lived with her. There was part of me that thought that  I don't want to spend the rest of my life knowing she is missing. I don't want every achievement to be overlaid with her absence. I put her pearls on anyway and wrapped my grandmother's bracelet around my wrist, even though I credit neither of them with my survival of the PhD--and it was a question of survival. I miss them. I loved them, but I did this thing on my own. Part of me deeply resents the fact that the only choice I had was to do this thing on my own.

And this is what I mean about gratefulness. Friends joined me for graduation. They took seats in the front row despite being made uncomfortable by the focus that put on them. They smiled for and clapped the entirety of a graduating class in anticipation of the final two of us to cross the stage. Though they knew that that walk would be a lonely one for me, they chose to be present so that I wouldn't feel so far from the life I imagined rather than the one I have now. And when I left the tent, before I could find my friends, it was another friend who gathered me in her arms and let me cry that sixteen-year-old unchangeable loss. And this is what I mean about gratitude. Nothing can change my mother's death and nothing, most certainly not me, can change my father's absence from the handful of joyous days in my life. I am trying to learn gratitude for the multitude who have attempted to mitigate that grief and who have reminded me, even at its hardest, that I am allowed my joy.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Nearly Perfect Cafe Days


The humidity yesterday weighed just heavily enough to slow the clocks.To stop what the papers say from mattering and the evening news from its stilted importance. It slowed pace of joy and grief. Folks hovered over their lunches without much thought towards the hour's passing and the brief respite of a single ray of sunshine.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Religion in England and America Part 3: Like Folks Were Up There Dying

Manver's Street Baptist Church

I promised Gram that I'd say a prayer for her at St. Patrick's. Steph and I had caught a New Year's Day flight to Dublin. Her pristine sense of direction failed on account of the curving streets and my organizational skills had flown out of me during the terrible year. Two things: Never use churches as landmarks in Dublin and always travel with someone who will think walking in circles for hours is hilarious. We stayed up and out well into the night because I had managed to book us into the world's worst hostel and got up early because there is only so much time you can spend on top of blankets worrying about previous tenants. Steph tried to get me to talk, something I had forgotten how to do. I tried to make sure her hands didn't freeze, something they do easily. And between us, we made a nearly perfect weekend.

And when we made the necessary trip to St. Patrick's, we separated and made our necessary pilgrimages alone. I pulled my lighter from my pocket and lit a candle before sinking to my knees in front of the Virgin Mary. I hadn't prayed in years, tried to take up a conversation with God in such a way that I might expect to be heard. I envy the high churches their saints, their priests, their numerous beings who might intervene. I grew up in low church protestantism, my conversations were, by necessity of doctrine, with God.

My path out of first organized religion, then Christianity, and finally into Agnosticism was so typical that it hardly bears the telling. First there was the great event that made me cling to the Church and its teaching. Second I began to question the church's reaction to that crisis. And then I wondered at the Church's teachings. I stopped participating in the parts of services I didn't believe in.I remember too well the moment I realized that I could sit through an entire service without standing or speaking or sitting.  I kept God and rejected the church before asking the question: What kind of God...?Certainly not the one I was raised to believe in. God and I talked a lot in the intervening years, until I found I was simply talking to myself.

When I was young and still believed, I did not so much converse with God as write long letters to him in my head. So began on that kneeler in Dublin. Dear God and excuse me entity for talking to you when I don't believe in you, but I made this promise to my grandmother. Her soul, it could use a little help. You know just in case I'm wrong and she's right. I wonder if perhaps you'd bring her some comfort even if the request came from a giant hypocrite who thinks this is a pretty amazing piece of art standing in front of me. Um, the end.

I didn't leave my religion is a giant kerfuffle. And your faith, your belief, your ability to comfort with the promise of a prayer, I envy.  As I hold hymns and the psalms as sacred, so too I hold hard physical work and grief. So too I hold I love yous and goodbyes and echoing silences. As for the profane, I believe that is sacred too. But there are two things that I still cannot endure: the belief that one cannot have faith and spirituality without God or religion, and the certainty that one's own beliefs entitle them to mock the other.

And so you would think that I should be entirely comfortable living in a country where most folks hold their religion or lack of religion close to their chests. I'm not, and I'll tell you why just as soon as I get through the week.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Religion in England and America Part 2: At the Calling of Your Hearts

Among my dinner party tricks here in England is the ability to produce dry humor with an American accent. If I'm having a particularly good night, I follow it up with a bit of irony.  My world is getting awfully small, feel free to invite me along as your spare female.

For lunch gatherings, I produce shocking information about the States and its Americans. Much like London isn't England, New York isn't America. American's do not, on the whole, sing the National Anthem at the beginning of the school day. (They do say the Pledge of Allegiance unless their families object on religious or other grounds).  There are Pro-Choice Christians in America. Most American's don't really care whether or not their brethren are practicing the right kind of Christianity or any Christianity at all. And many many many Americans don't practice and do not know much about Christianity.

The thing about New York and London is just obnoxious no matter where you come from. The rest are things that many of the English find rather perplexing.

It's hard to imagine preforming the same party trick in the States. Maybe I've just kept the wrong the company in the States. More probably, I don't know the English as well as I know the Americans. Much like it is impossible to identify the characteristics of your own culture, it is very difficult to even intrinsically know the characteristics of another culture. As frustrated as I am by the assumptions the English bring to the cultural dinner table, I bring cultural assumptions of my own. Maybe you're an Australian reading this in Beijing. Maybe you're an Indian reading this in Georgia. Maybe you're an American reading this in England. Probably you'll disagree with my evaluation.

Right now I'm eating couscous with sultanas. And I, if you were an Englishwoman sitting next to me, can tell for certain that you'd have trouble wrapping your head around how it is that I react so strongly to the British Government's financial support of religious schools. Why it is that I am taken aback by the portrayal of Rector's wives on television and in the media. That I cannot fathom how it is that anyone in England could claim that it is not a Christian country.  And mostly my sheer disbelief that when faced with the question of someone else's choices of spirituality and belief being office gossip--except of course when my own prejudices rise to the top. 

It all sounds rather negative doesn't it? It isn't really. Here's the thing, there are many meanings of the question, 'are you a Christain.' I'll keep it to the English and the Americans. It becomes too difficult if I also include the rest of Britain or Canada.
  1. Are you the same kind of Christian as I am?(Can I make certain assumptions about you). Asked in the UK and States.
  2. Are you a cultural Christain or one who practice the traditions of rather than believes in the teachings of the church? (No one has ever asked me this question. I wish they had).
  3. Are you one of those Christians? (Either the anything goes kind or the other kind depending on who is asking).
  4. Are you a Christian? (Meaning can I judge you in both the US and the UK).
  5. Are you a Christain? (Can I make basic assumptions about who you are and what you believe based on your practice of a religion?)
  6. Oh are you trying to get your children into the school? (Because why else would a seemingly normal Britain attend church?)
I wonder if we can say we understand each other now? Can we safely say that every experience of organized religion and opinions of it that I have had in England have been heavily influenced by my experiences of the same in the US. Can we agree that, on Monday, I'll be talking about me and my experience of religion in the UK and not about all Americans? Can we agree that neither of these cultures have either practiced or exported the beliefs they hold dear particularly well? Oh good, phew.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Religion in England and America Part 1: Ma'am, I am tonight.


Here is a secret: Very occasionally you can find me sat in the back of Bath Abbey, hymns marked with bits of paper, prayer book in hand. Very occasionally is probably an exaggeration. It has happened once in the last two years. Though four times in the past few years, I have bypassed the queues of tourists, sat down, and slipped slowly off the pew onto the dull green kneelers. It is one way to survive the funerals that are too far away to attend. The last time I sat in the Abbey it was to ask my grandmother if she understood, now that she was gone, why it is that I don't go to church. I assume omniscience of the dead. Gram knows now whether or not she needed to worry for all those years about the state of my soul. I do not believe in God. I do not believe in heaven  or hell. I do not believe in an afterlife, except for when it keeps grief at bay.

Shortly before I agreed to take my first flat here in Bath, I met with my soon to be housemate to try to figure out if we were a good match. She smiled. I smiled. We determined that we had nothing in common and would rarely be in the flat at the same time.  She needed a flatmate. I needed a flat, and we were both rather desperate. As I stood up to leave, she turned to me and mentioned that all of her friends had suggested she ask me if I was that kind of American. These days I'd likely turn around and ask what kind of American exactly was that kind of American. I knew exactly what she meant, and I wasn't yet wise enough to mind. No, I'm not that kind of American. I'm not that kind immigrant. I'm not that kind of Christian.

It's the difficulty of defining terms in the middle of a conversation. Or rather, it is the difficulty of defining terms while taking into account the underlying cultural assumptions about those terms. I am undoubtedly a US citizen, an American by cultural upbringing and by birth. I have friends whose children who undoubtedly US citizens, but they are English by cultural upbringing, and many of them are undoubtedly British citizens as well. I'll leave the immigrant question for another day.

I'd like to tell you that it was in the early part of this decade that, in America, the term Christianity became synonymous with a specific type of Christianity--one that is full of condemnation, vilification of the other, and a propensity for being a single issue and single party voter. The future flatmate was asking me if I was that kind of American. A question I never hear here, perhaps because I move in the wrong circles, is "What kind of Christian are you?" We don't ask that question in America either. Instead we ask, "Are you looking for a church?" or "Would you like to come to Church?" or "Are you a Christian?"

It was a relief to me, on moving to England, not to be asked any of those questions. It was a relief not to be approached by street preachers or to find comic books about revelation pushed into my hands by people I passed on the street. It was a relief not to be constantly reminded, as was the case in 2005, that references to my upbringing would cause people to assume a lot of inaccurate things about me.

This Easter three things happened in quick succession that made me awfully squidgy. A fellow blogger mentioned, somewhat uncomfortably, that her love of Easter was based in her Christian faith. I was accosted by a local missionary who was having a decidedly bad day. And, when asked what my father did for a living, I answered on the condition that I not be judged.

But to unravel those things, I think we all have to be on the same footing. I'll try to get us there in the next post.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Photos, Churchs, and Other Things

It would seem that blogger is having some difficulty. Not for today then a discussion of religion in England. Instead a photo for you. Before I remain remiss, I do want to thank Lizzie's Steve for agreeing that roughage and a better exit strategy keep English toilets from clogging. I do like it when people agree with me. You can see Lizzie's full explanation in the comments on this post.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Fabulous Things About England #34: Electric Kettles

When I was just about to become a teenager, my mother complained rather endlessly about the lip imprints on the full length mirrors in the living room. They clearly belonged to my sister as I mostly remembered to wipe mine off with my sleeve. Mom never would have been able to tell that the smudges had been lip marks, right?

I kiss shiny objects much less frequently than I once did. I do have the occasional run in with the rings of royalty.  Otherwise the kettle is the only inanimate object of my desire, and the housemate suggests that kissing it is insanitary.

Most every home in the UK has an electric kettle. They often turn up along side the washing machine, refrigerator and oven in unfurnished rentals.  You can get them in the States, but given that American's drink far fewer hot drinks, mostly wouldn't consider drinking powdered coffee, and haven't learned tea as part of first responder (first aid) courses, electric kettles are rarely seen in the US. They are different than the hotpots that you young things (ahem) might remember from your first dorm room. They boil water in at most a couple of minutes. And I do now drink a lot of freeze-dried coffee.

Hard water is rather a problem in and around Bath. The easiest way to avoid needing to descale your kettle is to only fill it with filtered water (insert discussion of water filtration jugs, bottled water, etc). It also helps if you only ever fill the kettle with as much water as you need. The more times you reboil water, the more limescale that is going to be left behind (and it is a waste of energy as well). Failure to descale your kettle can result in the early demise of your kettle (they're not cheap), hard chewy bits in your tea (they're not bad for you), and your kettle having to use more energy to boil water (have you read your electrics bill lately). We tend to boil water for cooking in the kettle as well, since boiling the kettle is cheaper than heating it on the stove.

I am head (and only) descaler at my house. This means that my housemate religiously uses the filter jug to fill the kettle and I do not. You can use the heavey duty descalers we talked about earlier this week, but honestly, I always worry about having gotten it all out. Now I descale the kettle with vinegar. Here's how it goes.

Not nearly as gross as it looks. It is really hard to photograph lime scale.

1. Empty Kettle, pop out filter.
2. Fill Kettle half full and boil.
3. Put Kettle into sink. Add vinegar to full line on kettle.
4. Go to bed.
5. Wake up. Rinse out kettle. Use toothbrush (not an old one that's been in your mouth, please) to brush away any remaining scale.
6. Fill kettle to full with water. Boil.
7. Rinse out your kettle.
8. Make a cup of tea.

Most manufacturers encourage descaling at least once a month. A kettle, they say, should last for five years when treated kindly. Ours is on year 8. It is a good thing I like it so much. If you're off to buy a kettle, go for the kind you do not have to unplug before you pour. It makes life so much easier when they simply lift off the base.

I'm hoping there is a run on electric kettles in America after this.

See you Monday.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

I'm on the List. Are You?

When my mother was 17 she became one of the early kidney transplants in the US. At 19, she lost her mother and received her mother's kidney on the same day. She lived well past doctors' expectations of six months and into her early forties. She had two babies. Those babies now both have terminal degrees. One of those babies has a son.

Today, in the UK, 88% of renal transplants are functioning. There are many more people still on organ waiting lists. Some of them are 17. I'm on the organ donor register here and in the US. It is transplant week here in the UK. I wonder if you might click over and consider becoming a donor in the UK , in the US,. or in your country.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Bathrooms, Showers, Toilets and Ewww Part 4: The Mixer Tap

The above is a mixer tap.

The above is NOT a mixer tap.

I bet you didn't know that a lack of mixer taps are proof of everything from how backwards the English are to the idiocy of the UK's failure to join the Euro to the lack of technologial savey of the countries young people, to what huge (insert series of expletives here) the English are. It's not true. I'll explain at the bottom, with citations. 

Behold: a mixer tap combines hot and cold water, shoots it out one tap, and creates warm water. Can't you just feel the controversy brewing? Aren't you just dying to know why it matters? I thought not.

Any gathering of immigrants to the UK usually results in discussions of things we don't understand about the UK. While having a moan is typically English, the purpose of these discussions is rarely just moaning. It does happen that one person will ask a question, in the form of a complaint, and another person will say, "I just found out why that is." Here is an example:

Me: I still can't get past the lack of mixer taps. Why, if you're fitting a new bathroom at the department store, would you then fail to install mixer taps.
My Friend: Mixer taps have an interesting history here. They're hard to fit into old style plumbing systems. Department Store was refitting not replumbing. There was also a period after they were introduced when there were concerns about hygiene given the way mixer taps in the UK originally worked. {Note: Hygiene is often cited for skipping over new bathroom introductions. Remember the idea of bathing was once horrifying}.

See, perfectly reasonable. Replumbing a building is much more difficult and expensive than simply putting in new taps and new basins. And honestly, I was glad to see that they had fitted watersaving toilets. If you're desperate, you can see the current in-pipes in the picture above.

Me to my friend: I hate scalding my hands while trying to wash them.
Woman next to us: Fill the sink with hot and cold water. Use that.

So actually not really a problem. It feels like a waste of water, but I've experimented and discovered that I use more water when I wash my hands under running water. {She washed her hands with scalding water}.

Do not, I mean it, fail to recognize the signs around sinks that warn of very hot water. They're not kidding. You will, trolling through comments on such stories, see that folks claim a lack of mixer taps are the reason for so many scaldings in the UK. It's important to remember that hot water can be turned on without cold water thus resulting in hot water, even in a mixer tap.

The issue of mixer taps, which are largely used throughout the continent, comes up now and again in the news. It is rare, even from UK sources, to see any sort of in-depth research into the topic. And usually the reason given is that non-mixer taps are traditional. It's lazy journalism. It's hard to see indoor plumbing as traditional. Most certainly the reasons are tied to money, old plumbing rules, habit, and ancient plumbing. Remember that my kitchen drain was attached to a Victorian down pipe.  

Sine those news stories are inevitably fluff, they tend to carry with them pages and pages of comments. Go on and read them. You'll discover as I did that mixer taps are proof of the alleged failings of the mostly the English but sometimes the UK as well. A few points of view are linked below.

Other Places Mentioning Mixer Taps
BBC All 2gether Now Project
The Guardian's Nicolas Blincoe 
The Offensive to Everyone, WSJ via Warwick University Blogs
And for good measure a message board with some useful if not entirely correct information

Other Parts of the Bathrooms, Showers, Toilets and Ewww series
Why English Toilets Don't Clog
How to Descale Your Shower Head
Electric Showers and Yet No Electricity.
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