Friday, 24 May 2013

Souvenir de la Dentist's Maison

(My apologies to my mother for fracturing the name of one of her favorite old garden roses, Souvenir de la Malmaison, but she would understand the sacrifices one must make for a snappy headline.)

Today's story begins when I knew my stay on the Island would be drawing to an end.  I did what any red-blooded lover of gorgeous antique furniture would do: I managed to convince Chumley that now was the time to pillage the spoils of Stamford society and buy their castoffs for cheap from Bateman's Auctions.  As I gingerly learned to bid on pre-approved merchandise we viewed and decided would be useful in a bigger American home, I spied the most wonderful satinwood artcase grand piano.  I bit my lower lip bloody until the urge to bid passed.  A grand piano had been on my wish list since I'd been gifted my grand piano pencil sharpener as a child, complete with lid rest.  Perhaps as many wood shavings were falling out of this 1870's model, but it was a becoming, blonde looker.  Worse yet, it sold for only £150.  I wanted to cry, but a beautiful flame mahogany dining table cushioned the blow.

We were in the States when a whim forced me to look at an email auction newsletter, made ever-so-handy with a search feature that could scour auction houses for elderly grand pianos in need of good homes.  I found one, naively bid live online at 4:30 a.m. CST, and became the proud owner of an 1844 Collard & Collard parlour grand, a slight size up from a baby grand intended for home enjoyment.  It sat in the front parlour of a dentist in Grantham.  Hammer price: £65 plus VAT.  All in, about $120.

I pinched myself, not feeling this kind of joy since I discovered peaches would grow in our English back garden.  All was hunky dory for about a week, until I discovered a little something called CITES... the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species.

Episode two of the grand saga to come...

Thursday, 18 April 2013

I'm back in Illinois, but I can't seem to escape the Brits!

(Well, marrying one doesn't help.) So, let me catch my gentle readers up in thirty seconds: Chumley and I moved back to Illinois, he now craves proper bacon, still taunts me with Marmite, and still tends a mean garden, albeit in a slightly sunnier climate.  We have some beautiful antique furniture, courtesy of the Island, and things are still mad as a box of frogs.  Case in point: I wrote a book for fun years ago, and stashed it in a drawer until this January until I hit "send" on a whim.  As of last Tuesday, my fun, little chicklit book, "Under Your Charms" has advanced to the last five romance novels standing in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition.  It's all a bit overwhelming.  For half a day after I learned my name was on the short list, I forgot how to work the phone.  So if you're into rompy rom-coms with Wonderbras and some Brits thrown in for good measure, here's the gist:  

Eleanor Weltman, a romantically gormless but gutsy reporter for the D.C. Current, hasn't had a date in the last decade. That's also the last time she added to her potato shoe collection. Her penchant for storing well-gnawed writing utensils in her hair certainly isn't adding to her allure, either. It's not like she lets it get to her - she's been far too busy writing her way up the newsroom ladder after paying her dues at Plumber's Monthly. Any thoughts of romance have been expertly edited out of her consciousness. But now her laser-beam focus on a professional life is heating up her after-hours. Her crotchety editor has issued Eleanor a non-negotiable writing assignment: cruise around D.C., spot handsome but unsuspecting men, and get paid to send catchy anonymous love notes to the objects of her affection (and 100,000 of their closest friends) in a new dating column, Under Your Charms. Getting the story and a life in the process, she and her best friend/dating coach Celia transform Eleanor from Saturday Night Frozen Yogurt Binger into Shameless Flirter, Tango Temptress and Brazen Beach Blonde out of professional necessity. Of course, a few speedbumps are to be expected, but newfound confidence opens her eyes to a plethora of eligible men. Her famous mother, new age self-help writer Jessica Weltman, would be ecstatic if she only knew. Personal information fed to famous meddling mothers is best kept to a minimum. One particular gentleman strikes her fancy in the form of a charming British diplomat who knows his florist and Jane Austen references well. A whirlwind of romance and royal treatment has Eleanor ready to trade in her undercover minimart exposes for giving orders to the underbutler. Will his charms prove beguiling or make Eleanor wish she'd never drunk the Earl Grey?

Disclaimer in gigawatts of blinking lights: the only thing my charming British diplomat character and charming British husband have in common is hair colour and pronunciation of the word "mobile."  That's it.  No marriages were harmed in the writing of this novel.

If you want to download an excerpt for free and send your good karma and reviews my way, here's the link:

If I make it to the next stage on May 21, the public votes on who wins all the marbles.  I'll be sure to keep you posted.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Fahrenheit of Stupidity

Do you find English weather reports demoralizing?  I used to think that the weather was the great cultural Rosetta stone: every country has it, and most people feel the need to discuss it.  That goes twice for the British, of course.  Even in an English-speaking country, there are days that confirm you just aren't getting it.  Those days have highs and lows predicted in Celsius.

I remember spending a particularly confusing hour in John Lewis, trying to make myself understood while returning a faulty kettle,  It was early days, and I was still pronouncing the darned thing "keddle."  Granted, I was aided by the humanity of the situation in my newfound environs: a faulty kettle means a halt to all tea production, which certainly constitutes an emergency in the UK.  Later that evening, I needed affirmation that I could indeed function in the greater English society when a bird-like presenter in a sleeveless shift dress had the nerve to warn me of short, sharp showers with a high of 18.  I began to think my high was indeed at 18, with a decline ever since.  Speaking only Fahrenheit was making me miserable on my own sofa, not to mention chronically inappropriately dressed.  I needed to take control of my happiness and learn to convert to Celsius in my head.  Britons of an older generation speak both C and F, but the country moved on with the rest of the world to Celsius in the middle of the last century.  The US, along with the Cayman Islands and Belize, still clings to the German method of being hotsy-totsy.  (Ironically, there's not much call for British Thermal Units in Britain anymore, either.)

Knowing there is limited room left on the hard drive, I decided to learn the most pertinent temperatures for my new climate.  While not scientific, the following helped me avoid becoming schizophrenic:

10 C = 50 F
15 C = 59 F
20 C = 68 F
and so on, with ever rise of 5 C = a rise of 9 F
28 C = 82 F
37 C = 98.6 F

Take the ten minutes to commit these to memory.  No one wants you to be extra tweedy on a warm day, especially if you have to take the Underground.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Pining for Pumpkin

I am here to unmask the unsavory American ex-pat practice of pumpkin hoarding.  Why pumpkins as opposed to, say, Talking Elmo, or the next generation Nintendo Wii, you ask?  As a girl who used to live in Morton, Illinois, Pumpkin Capital of the World, I too used to be baffled as to why anyone would stockpile it.  Here's the local lowdown on the lowly squash.

First of all, it's common knowledge that British people don't know what the heck to do with pumpkin.  It's starting to weasel its way into British cuisine among other commonly roasted winter vegetables like butternut squash and sweet potatoes, but the mere thought of putting pumpkin in anything resembling a dessert makes them want to pull their knitted tea cozies over their heads.  It's yet another American import best left to go the way of Pepsi Clear and New Kids on the Block.  Granted, I did lay my hands on a small pumpkin meant only for decor purposes.

It's simply not enough, I say.  I need hardcore canned pumpkin.  I don't want to spend my weekend splitting, scooping and roasting a paltry, petite pumpkin for the whopping cup of pulp I'd get after four hours.  Yes, I am just that lazy.  Things got tricky when I found out too late that the UK grocery store Waitrose carries canned pumpkin as a novelty item.  I arrived much too late.  Word had long gotten out on the ex-pat email chain about the latest canned pumpkin sighting, and my fellow pumpkin pie eaters had stripped the joint bare.  There wasn't a gourd within a twenty-mile radius.  The empty shell of my spiced pumpkin daydreams had been smashed by loud, ice-seeking hoodlums.  No pie, cake, bars, or even pumpkin chili like I used to dish out at the Morton Pumpkin Festival.  I despaired in aisle five.

At home, I get no sympathy.  Pumpkin pie is repulsive to the British.  When I would get my hands on a piece in the U.S., I could use it like Deepwoods Off on poor Chumley.  An American friend was bold enough to make a pie with the canned gold for her English relatives, but it was clear none of them enjoyed her handiwork.  When she gave a blanket dispensation for not finishing their respective slices, half a dozen forks chinked on dessert plates with puffs of relief.  Tea was served to aid in recovery.

Think of those in pumpkin poverty this holiday and raise a piece for me.  Don't forget the Cool-Whip.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Quorn! What's it good for?

If you ask Chumley to answer this question, his reply would be a resounding, "Absolutely nothing!"  It seems we have had a bit of a barney over meat replacement.  Here's my side of the story.

I accidentally ordered Quorn Chili in a restaurant, thinking it would contain little bits of corn.  It sounded interesting. It was officially good, despite the lack of niblets.  As I learned later, Quorn is a meat replacement, or mycoprotien, as it's more properly known.  It's a fungus among us: originally discovered growing in a field in Buckinghamshire in the 1960's and developed into a very successful meat replacement in Europe.  According to its website, it's grown industrially in large vats and bound together with egg white to make it the texture of ground beef.  It's also formed into countless other meatless items: fish-free fingers, chickenless tidbits, and nowhere near the deli slices. 

When I looked up the nutritional information, it was almost unbelievable.  It has no cholesterol, half the calories, and only 3% fat.  Half a million Quorn entrees are eaten in the UK every day.  It blends flavors into whatever it's cooked with, so I decided to put Quorn mince into our next spaghetti bolognese.  Needing to create blind testing conditions, I didn't inform Chumley.  He happily ate it, commented it was good, and was none the wiser.  Just to recreate my study, I did it again with the same result.  The third time, I got the guilts.  After dinner, I confessed.

Chumley looked like he had been poisoned by some rabid eco-terrorist.  It was far worse than when he's been exposed to toxic rhubarb.  (I didn't even mention it being grown in vats - that wouldn't have been therapeutic.)  The fact he had failed to identify it as not meaty on three occasions apparently pulled no weight.  He promptly demanded that I buy more bacon the next time I went shopping.  To get the fungus out of his system, he ate bacon sandwiches for two straight days with a militant determination.  I was sure he would turn to solids.  The pernicious grease was starting to form a permanent slick on all my good skillets.

I've been threatening to make a State Fair blue ribbon recipe out of apples and a can of Spam we were gifted, but I just don't think he can handle that kind of trauma after I damaged his meaty ego.  I just know he would love the chance to regale me with Spam jokes, but it's just too much of a risk.

If you're brave enough to try Quorn and live in the US, look for it at Super Wal-Marts everywhere, or peek in your nearest industrial vat for what I hope is a nice surprise.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Secrets to Living in England

Here are a few quick and simple rules that would make any American's visit to England just that bit more enjoyable, regardless of its duration.

1.  Never turn down a cup of tea.  I know there are times when tea seems like so much bog water and one could really do with a nicely cold can of A&W Diet Root Beer instead, but tea denied is a social opportunity deferred.  English friends won't know what to do with you, or in fact, how to continue any conversation you might have been having up until that point.  Your teeth will lose that unmistakeable brown cast only six cups a day can bring on.  Worse yet, no one will offer you any biscuits or scones to go with your bolshie soda.  So, suck it up literally and pony up for the PG Tips.

2.  Avoid using the term "spastic" at all costs.  Saying that one of your particularly nerdy friends is "such a spaz" in any U.K. company will swiftly get you labeled as a monster who might as well start hurling anti-gay and racial slurs while you are at it.  Calling someone spastic means they have cerebral palsy, and that adjective doesn't carry any of the lighthearted undertones as it does in American English.

3.  You're not in Kansas anymore, so get over it.  It's badly embarrasing to see unenlightened Americans running around, demanding glasses brimming with ice and jars of marshmallow Fluff.  Have some respect for the foreign country you are in, and realize how much American culture has already been stuffed down the rest of the world's throats.  Avoid cramming it full of Twinkies to boot.  Maybe you might get around to appreciating some of their culture if you stopped whining about the unavailability of your own.  (But whatever you do, don't get conned into trying Marmite.  It's not worth it, unless you'd be into licking the bottom of a brewery vat.)

4.  Learn to queue the right way.  Whatever you do, don't start jumping into short lines at the supermarket simply because they've opened a new till lane and you happened to get there first.  Look to see who's been waiting the longest, and make sure they can avail themselves of the opportunity to be served before you.  Being cavalier with queues is a recipe for disaster in the form of sour looks, sharp comments, and possibly being flagged as a problem shopper by staff.  Queue jumping is a fundemental violation of English social order, and you will be treated like the pariah that you are for engaging in it.

5.  For the love of Pete, just give up on callling your mobile your 'cell phone,' and stop feeling mortally wounded when Microsoft Word says you've spelled 'humor' wrong.  Sure you know deep down you're right, just like it's 5 o'clock somewhere.  But that somewhere isn't the UK.  And issuing militantly misspelled notes to the locals will get you branded as dangerously straight off the boat, most likely packing heat.  Console yourself with the fact that you win the language war every time you send an 'email,' as opposed to an 'epost.'  You shouldn't ever start imitating the accent unless you are particularly fond of Dick Van Dyke's performance in "Mary Poppins," which is known to English ears as the all-time worst attempt by an American at putting on a British accent in cinematic history.  Going to this extreme to blend will get you all the respect of a sideshow monkey, without the tips.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Lady

My father-in-law got me a very curious Christmas present. It was a subscription to a weekly magazine called “The Lady.” I had never heard of it before, and before the first issue arrived, I received a letter notifying me of my gift. “It's a funny old magazine,” he explained. “Very English. I hope you'll like it.”

The first issue arrived. The cover model was Dame Maggie Smith. I thumbed through and took in some of the advertising. This particular issue was heavy into chair lifts, retirement properties, baths with accessible marine doors for easy access, and a full-page ad for matronly cotton nightwear featured on the glossy back cover. My heart went out to the target demographic of advertisements by benevolent societies for “gentlepeople” fallen on hard times.

“It's a funny old magazine,” said a co-worker by sheer coincidence, who reminisced about finding an au pair placement while at university by consulting its advertising section. Sure enough, many pages of ads were devoted to most likely obscenely wealthy families looking for cooks, nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, house minders, and a nebulous term called “mother's help.” I imagine this last one is a particularly thankless job when I reflect on all the gross things my mother got stuck doing in my own childhood. Would the job description include extracting small pairs of soiled underwear from the washing machine after they had somehow become stuck in and completely disabled the agitator? The pay didn't seem particularly good, with sometimes the only remuneration being use of a “cozy” cottage on the estate. Some of the ads were very specific about the type of hooligan they were specifically trying to exclude from the applicant pool. “No one under age 45 need apply,” read one, the drafter apparently painfully unaware of a concept called reverse age discrimination.

Despite its fussiness and my urge to place it on a piece of furniture covered with a doily, next to our Queen's silver jubilee Wedgewood plate, I continued to enjoy reading it, if not for the entertainment value. I became rather well-versed in the various forms of stair lift and mobility scooters available. I enjoyed sidebars devoted on where to source the patterns for knitting one's own Royal Wedding action figures, complete with a small fleet of woolen corgis to surround the Queen. The article on England's Best Marmalade contest was light and breezy, as was the fashion feature on what outfits were sleek and stylish to wear to one's second wedding. I was knee-deep into an article on Colin Firth while on the train to Cambridge, with a lady of The Lady's target demographic age sitting directly across from me.

“I have that nightdress!” she said exuberantly, as a flipped the back cover to spy the usual raft of cotton nighties The Lady peddled on a monthly basis. “So comfortable, and great value for money.” I smiled and nodded in agreement to pacify her, while noting the asking price was £79 for something with a pattern I saw on a tea towel, and her certain clinical insanity for thinking that way. The matching robe would only set her back £139. Only people who took their loungewear very seriously would consider paying this king's ransom for what amounted to a wearable tea cozy. I continued to thumb through my copy, all the while catching her occasional pained glances and what looked like a trickle of saliva forming at the outer edge of her mouth. She was either in the throes of jealousy, or passing a gall stone. As the train pulled into Cambridge and I gathered my things, I was compelled to do my Christian duty.

“Would you like my copy?” I offered. Her eyes lit up with megawatt brilliance. “Oh, I couldn't,” she feigned in protest, as if she were asking me to drive her to her next crochet conference in Belgium. Her hand started to twitch in anticipation. “Really, my new issue arrives tomorrow,” I parried, “and the article on Colin Firth is well worth reading.” That comment sealed the deal, and I left a very happy pension-aged English woman in Coach A amused all the way to Stansted Airport.