Friday, 28 August 2009

They call it Althorp House, but you decide

Yesterday, a friend and I paid a visit to Althorp House, a 14,000-acre estate about seven miles from a town called Northampton. Perhaps it's just the modesty of the aristocracy, calling it a house. My house doesn't have 15 bedrooms. If it rings a bell, it's the ancestral home of the Spencer family, as in Lady Diana Spencer, later Princess Diana. She's buried behind the home, on an island in a small lake called "The Round Oval."

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, as she was such a public figure with an almost cult-like following. My worst fear would be that there would be bags of Princess Diana fudge in the gift shop, or something of equally less tact. Not to say that I am a stranger to fudge procured from stately home gift shops, but there's a line to be drawn.

No worries about decorum, as it turned out. The gift shop was remarkably restrained, with very few items featuring Diana. I don't recall seeing her depicted on any merchandise, in fact. The most touristy item on offer was an Althorp tea towel, which I resisted adding to my collection.

The stables have been converted to a small museum about Diana's life and times. There's a lovely drawing on display by John Singer Sargent of Diana's grandmother, and the striking resemblance is chilling. There's lots of family snapshots, personal letters, and most interestingly, Charles Spencer's draft of the speech he delivered at Diana's funeral. The line where he thanks Dodi Fayed for making the last weeks of Diana's life happy is noticeably struck out with black pen. Interesting...

The house itself is a marvel, even more so now that I know it rents out for private parties, events, and weddings. I pity the staff who have to dust their entire collection, and vacuuming must be an unmitigated nightmare. That could be my eternal punishment, in fact: being handed a mop and a bucket and being locked in a stately home for all eternity. Sarte got hell all wrong -- hell is other people's housework. Or my own, for that matter.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

It's mizzle, that's for-shizzle

My English father-in-law calls today's weather "mizzle" - a hybrid of mist and drizzle. We're apparently receiving the last of Hurricane Bill. It's very true that the English do love to discuss the weather. In them, it produces joy, loathing, regret... the whole range of human emotion.

I haven't been too depressed by rain here, yet. I've only had my wellie boots on twice, and been to a washout outdoor concert once. We went to hear the New England Orchestra play during what began as overcast skies, evolving to mizzle, sprinkles, drops, and finally downpour. Amazingly, all the stalwart Brit picnickers around us formed umbrella tents and carried on drinking their Pimms and champagne in what any American would consider a monsoon. One particular reveler, who we spied eat an entire cake during the mizzle segment, got up in the rain and danced the Blue Danube waltz solo while on his sugar high. Even Chumley started to crack up at the craziness of his fellow countrymen. By the time we gave up and scooted to the car, careful not to wipe out on wet grass or goose turds along the way, we were completely soaked through. Strange, but fun. As Chumley says, "If the English planned their lives around the weather, they'd never leave the house." Too right, Chumley. I attribute this damp-tolerance to soggy DNA. When Chumley runs his occasional road races, he doesn't mind the rain, and even hopes for it, as it speeds him up among the competitors who prefer to remain dry. I married a mudder.

The climate produces some other interesting outdoor phenomena. For instance, I'd never seen a real-life snail until I'd lived here. At first I thought the shiny paths on the concrete were unexplainable, much like crop circles, until Chumley enlightened me that they were really snail squeezin's. Eew.

When we moved into our house, the magpies insisted on leaving round balls of moss they had plucked from our tile roof right in front of our door every morning. Once I figured out what these furry, dark, spongey things were, I wished they would keep their moss to themselves. My only explanation is that they were housewarming gifts. If I were a magpie, I think I'd like a nice wad of moss for my new nest, too. Eureka! I finally get that line of Your Song: "Sat on the roof... kicked off the moss." No wonder Bernie Taupin's verses were getting him quite cross - how could he concentrate with all that damp crud all over? (If you ask me, I'm turning into a savant at this whole "cultural translation" business. )

Monday, 24 August 2009

Greetings from Sunny Hunny

On Saturday, after requesting an outing to the coast, Chumley suggested a day trip to Hunstanton, or "Sunny Hunny," as it's called. It was an hour's drive on a lovely day, but Chumley listened to cricket on longwave radio the entire cartrip there. I managed to avoid the temptation of a hearty nap by playing, "Name That Vegetable" with the passing fields. So, as we arrived, the call of seagulls was like music to my ears.

Hunstanton is the only west-facing sea resort in its county of Norfolk. It's a bit faded from its heydey in Victorian times, when it was apparently therapeutic for those with anemia and rheumatism. We arrived at low tide, which meant the sea had recessed more than a mile out, leaving almost a desert of damp sand lined with channels where the water had gone back to sea, or tiny dunes. The shore is just that flat. There were a good number of tide pools left, occasionally full of little fish, among other organic deposits. Chumley and I had a healthy round of "Is it Dead Yet" as we meandered through the rusty or sea-grass covered rocks to get to flat sand. The stripey cliffs were red and white chalk on top of what looked like sandstone, and were very popular with the local pigeons.

Of course, lunch during a day at the beach should be a healthy dose of fresh fish and chips. I have yet to have bad fish and chips in the UK. In fact, I saw an employee throw a 10-gallon bucket of cut chips into the cooker as we waited, so I know lunch was not loitering under heat lamps. I am an aficionado of mushy peas, so Chumley obliged and bought me a vegetable to stave off some my deep-fried dietetic guilt.

The weather was breezy and warm, which led us to a park bench with the Saturday Times. A young man asked me the time. I told him, and he replied, "Nice one! Cheers!" I haven't been told "nice one" since the days where my kid brother was paying me a sarcastic comment after I had deftly fallen down on no apparent hazard or some other mystical pratfall. If my deed was extra dopey, he might upgrade his commentary to, "Nice one, shortstop." Based on my prior life's experience, I had no choice but to interpret this young man's comment as sarcastic congratulations for being able to read my watch. Perhaps he was especially impressed because it's analog. "Cheers" I knew as the all-purpose form of "thanks," but I cracked myself up just after he left.

Chumley looked at me as if I had sprouted another head, but came to the rescue as usual as my cultural guide. "It's as if he's saying, 'Thanks for taking the time to help me,'" Chumley helpfully explained. "You got all that out of, 'Nice one?'" I wondered. "Maybe I looked lobotomized." Maybe I sported the same look that prompted a random jogger my dad stopped for driving directions years ago to peer into our car and assume out loud that we needed to know how to get to the Special Olympics. But, lobotomized people don't read the Times, do they?

Friday, 21 August 2009

On the agenda: got more milk, bought stamps, saw Catherine of Aragon

Despite my freindly criticism, I can't say enough about what it's like to live somewhere with such a long and interesting history. I thought our Revolutionary War era was positively ancient, but living in the UK redefines old. Here, one of the pivotal timestamps is pre-Norman conquest. That's 1066, for those who napped through high school history, like me. I was sitting on the sofa, eating my Cheerios this morning, wondering if some Stone-Age shaman might have sharpened his flints in the place where our family room now stands. Deep thoughts over whole wheat.

I recently went on a tour of the tower of Peterborough Cathedral. What a hoot! The guides issue thoughtful warnings about no fears of heights or problems with small spaces. They didn't advertise, however, that the tour also goes by the title, "Cathedral Cardio." No problems feeling the burn on the mini-monk-sized stone spiral stairwells that have been worn smooth by the hoofprints of the last millenia. Not that I got the jitters or anything because my size 9 US feet didn't quite fit a middle-aged monk print:

Peterborough Cathedral, a treasure trove for all you goth fans out there, was only completed 800 years ago. Bennedictine monks ran the joint, but their only remnant nowdays are the little teddy bears dressed in monk's outfits in the giftshop. Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife and one of the lucky ones who kept her head, is buried here. For you history buffs who must remember which of Henry's better halves lost their heads, the rhyme is, "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived." Another local celebrity, Mary, Queen of Scots, was here for a bit after she lost her head in a town about 15 minutes away called Fotheringhay, but she was upgraded to a better plot in Westminster Abbey in 1611. Catherine would be on the lower left below:
After our cross-training segment, we arrived at the top, which will forever be the highest point in Peterborough due to that snazzy real estate concept of zoning. I managed to forget my miniature flag to stake my arrival at the top, but the sherpa-docent ladies are sure to remember me by the various, "Oh, nooo..." comments I spontaneously errupted with the news we needed to wedge ourselves through yet another 3' x 2' door. It reminded me of the cheese maze I crawled through in my youth at Chuck E. Cheese, without the skee-ball.

All in all, an excellent day out. I reluctantly paid the "camera license" of two pounds to have snaps of the occasion. There's just still something offputting about being taxed by the British. Perhaps I'll throw some of our PG Tips teabags into the bathtub for when Chuttles comes home from work, and we can call it a tea party. (Something tells me he would not be amused. Wasting proper tea could cost me my head around here.)

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Look kids, Big Ben...

Is it just me, or does this picture have the trappings of the occult? Clearly, whoever conceived roundabouts was a practitioner of the dark arts.

It was my biggest worry upon moving to the UK - how the heck to figure out driving in the "bizzaro" universe. My US license is good for a year, but I'll have to buck up and pass the full UK test before the clock runs out. I've resisted driving school so far, but maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea.

Let's discuss the thorny topic of navigation. It's a shock to the system, this small island with mini-cars, all driving at once. The US was the land of wide open spaces, which gave birth to my father's favorite motoring exclamations, such as, "Could have backed up and done it again," and "Could have fit a Mack truck through there." I could navigate by gas station, restaurant, or heaven forbid, street name.

The days of drivin' easy are over, my friends. All the square pegs have been replaced with round holes. Intersections approach quickly with a myriad of driving options. Chumley's "helpful" suggestion to "turn right at the next roundabout" resulted in a bit of a fuse ignition. I replied, "But how can I? It's all a series of lefts!" Right. Or, should I say, correct.

Lane use is its own dark art. Car parks (parking lots) are the lawless Wild West. And, of course, all this is happening on the left. The Ministry of Transport has also seen fit to write helpful little messages on the pavement, usually about which lane to use for which of the four roads convene on a single point. Unlucky if you aren't reading the road, or are too busy trying to remember at which mulberry bush to turn left.

I have prior experiences with these messages from the traffic gods. While travelling a country road, I accidentally didn't let the mind/mouth filter catch the question, "What does mois mean? And why are the words in French?" All in the car were stumped. After all, here's what the road said...

After some follow-up questioning about where exactly I had read this French note, the car burst out in laughter. I was hit by the comedy grenade about five seconds later, when I realized that any messages the Ministry of Transport had for us would be printed on the left, and they certainly wouldn't ever be in French.

Hey, I'll have you know I've recovered from the early days of driving dunce-o-rama. Chumley no longer looks like he needs a carsick bag if I'm in charge of transportation, and I've only caught myself drifting right once. And that was at church, so God wouldn't have allowed any sort of incident on His property. No harm, no foul.

If God is watching, I suppose I ought to fess up that I had a little incident in my early days involving a massive Volvo and a farm outbuiding. Yes, dear readers, apparently I can hit the broad side of a barn with a large Swedish car that could hold its own smorgasboard. No one in this country drives a car that big, so I maintain I was framed. What's life without a little paint transfer?

Monday, 17 August 2009

Reader Mail!!

Without further delay, the responses to questions one fair reader has been burning to ask. My thanks for your submissions, dear groupie. She is of a particularly inquisitive sort, as am I, and I appreciate the insightfulness of this line of questioning. Right, then:

Q: I know the Brits aren’t known for their food, but I think you could do worse there.

Indeed, I could do worse, as I found out at our subpar hotel breakfast buffet in Italy recently. We had to eat out daily in the first six weeks of being here, as we were living in a hotel. Thus, I became intimately familiar with "pub grub." It's a very meaty culture. Bacon is supremely important, and not the "streaky bacon" we Americans are used to, but "proper rashers" -- like canadian bacon in consistency. Perhaps I can chalk this heightened carion emphasis up to Chumley's meat obsession, but I find it endemic. Also, fish is big.

Ahoy! Life saving safety tip: avoid the "Stargazer Pie" at all costs.

There are lots of vegetarians in the UK, so it's easier to find less meaty options anywhere you eat out. Portion sizes are normal... what is normal? No such thing as the "free refill" on drinks. I find the beverage selection enchanting. Yes, enchanting. All my long-time followers will recall my beverage obsession, and I can't seem to get enough of the various fruity cordials that one dilutes with water. They really aren't terribly calorific, either. Chumley showed up with some elderflower cordial the other evening, and despite its herbaceous origins, I found it refreshing.

Ice exists in small quantities. Larger quantities are available on demand. But be too demanding and you stick out as an American. I try to limit my requests for ice to once a week. Now that I can practice the art of home ice-making, I'm much happier.

Vegetables are in ready supply. In fact, Chumley gets bummed if dinner doesn't include the "three veg" part of "meat and three veg." We live in "the Fens" - a term for a swath of formerly swampy, perfectly flat farmland that grows a good deal of the produce for the country. In fact, when on a country road in the Fens, close your eyes, reopen them, ignore you're hopefully driving on the left, and you might as well be in Illinois. I get a kick out of "name that vegetable" - figuring out what's growing in the fields. So far, I've spotted lots and lots of potatoes, leeks, barley, wheat, puny corn, and vast quantities of rapeseed. They use rapeseed to make vegetable oil, and it glows a lovely flourescent yellow en masse. Ah, day-glo agriculture.

The desserts are so much better than America. Really. There is little regard for silly things like calorie counts and fat grams, and you can taste it. Tarts, cakes, ice creams, most likely doused stiffly with cream. In fact, you can use some of the excess cream for your coffee, which leads us to...

Q: And, I know you can get a great cup of tea, but can you say the same for a great cup of coffee?

Coffee is a rarer bird, not nearly as available as the revered "cuppa." I've had it readily offered with dessert (see above, and "ass as big as the Lake District" comment of previous post), and it isn't half bad. They've got the dark empire of Starbucks on the occasional street corner, so all is not lost if you simply must have a frappucino or face imminent system shutdown. I saw french press coffee being served at a tea room, which I find to be a bit earthy.

And for the record, contrary to Chumley's violently held opinion, fruit tea abounds and appears completely legitimate as a form of tea. Chumley is so convinced that fruit tea is tea blasphemy, in fact, that he refers to it as "so-called fruit tea." This is the only country one could have this conversation in, by they way.

Q: I know there are McDonald’s in London … is there a Krispy Kreme?

A Krispy Kreme? By my count, there are 40+. A large store chain called Tesco (think Costo, Meijer, SuperWalMart) carries them at selected pastry counters. I have not done further research (see "Lake District" concerns, ante.)

Q: Do people now ask you to say things just to hear an American accent or is that truly just a British thing?

To a lesser extent, I'm afraid it works in reverse. A little clerk at Boots (a big pharmacy chain) asked me to say "awesome." Apprently, Chumley says that's a word they'd just never use, especially not with the lovely, drawn-out American "AaaaHH" at the beginning. They seem as bemused as we are to hear the little twists of phrase for the same meaning, like "trolley" for "cart", "pot" for "container" (as in yogurt pots), and the U.S. phrase that seems to produce comedy, "stick shift." Shift means move, as in "We've just shifted house, and now we've got to get everything sorted (figured out.)"

Coincidentally, the word "orton" has entered my recent vocabulary. It's a place name. People rarely understand me say it on the first try. In fact, Chumley thinks I ought to audition for cartoon sound effects by saying it over and over: "Orton, orton, orton, orton." In an American accent, it sounds like a blob on the move.

Q: ...about the weather. I know it does lend to beautiful gardens and moist complexions, but do you get tired of the dreariness?

The first thing that struck me from this perspective isn't the rain, it's the coolness. In the middle of July and August, I had formerly been prepared to be baked in a brick over within a few steps of leaving air conditioning. For my own mental stability, I've had to learn how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in my mind. (Is that a James Taylor hit, "Gone to Fahrenheit-a in My Mind?") It probably reaches 72F on any given summer afternoon here. They had a "heat wave" reaching the mid and high eighties upon our arrival, which was downright comical. Ladies passing out at the Royal Orchid Society exhibitions... disaster!

Q: Have you seen the Queen or any of the Royal Family?

Only on television. Or when Chumley puts on his best falsetto, twists a jam jar, and declares, "I declare this jar.... open." I may have seen some very backwater royal, like the Seventeenth Earl of Cheddar, but not known enough to kiss the ring. My brother and sister-in-law were invited to dinner with the Queen, however. Hat selection for the occasion was a pivotal issue. We're thinking of getting tickets for Buckingham Palace this season, but I doubt very much we'll have a sighting. Maybe we'll see a corgie or two. I hear they are foul little dogs...

Q: Do you get a fair amount of US news?

Some, especially with the demise of Jacko and the big national healthcare debate. But not much, so I resort to reading my formerly local papers online. I read People online also, but don't admit to that. I don't read TMZ either. Nope.

Q: And TV? Is it all British stuff or can you watch “American Idol” and “Saturday Night Live”?

I really do enjoy BBC TV, despite how irked I was that we had to initially buy a TV license. That's the cost of no commercials, I'm afraid. They have some wonderful shows on current events, comedians, not terribly old movies, and as I was such a BBC America fan, I get all those series first run. There is rarely crap on TV. We can get by with just aerial - five or six channels? Channel 4 is a bit weird, but how can we fault them. They created "Father Ted." Genius.

I don't know that I've seen "American Idol" or "Saturday Night Live" broadcast here at all. This would explain the completely blank looks Chumley shoots me when I suggest something "needs more cowbell," or wondered aloud whether John Lewis (department store) carried the "Bass-O-Matic." The American show they do carry in the daytime, everyday, is "Murder, She Wrote." I've seen some quality frosty lipgloss on some of those episodes, let me tell you.

Q: What about the radio stations … do you hear what tunes you know and love?

Unlike the BBC, I find BBC radio full of American music. It's divided into Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4, descending from most hip to hip replacement. Some of the rarely played American songs hit farther up the charts here, back in their day, so I'm learning some new old songs also.

The younger stations can be a bit techo-heavy. It was getting me down one day, until I walked into a British Red Cross charity shop and found Madonna's Immaculate Collection used for two pounds. I popped it in my car CD player and serenity was restored.

Thanks again to our gentle interviewer, and please submit your burning cultural questions for future editions of Reader Mail!

Welcome to the Toffee Pudding!

After a fair amount of internal musing, a sluggish UK job market, and the behest of an old friend, I finally have the motivation in critical mass to start... a blog! (Insert screams of dread here.)

Should any among my fair readers not know the full story, I supply a pithy synopsis: my husband (who I shall henceforth refer to as Chumley in a veiled attempt to conceal any remaining shred of his privacy) is a Brit, and I am American. This could be the subject of an entirely separate blog, such as "Chumley in Translation" or "Not Another Blinking Cup of Tea! Aren't You Seriously Overcaffienated by Now?" He took a job transfer to the U.S. in 2004, met me in 2005, and after years spent in my patented, "Where Did My Good Mood Go? Relocating Your Personal Cheeriness" course, we got married in August 2008. In May 2008, we moved from the US to the UK as an adventure, and I now find myself in the land of the ubiquitous sticky toffee pudding. (I should clarify that I adore sticky toffee pudding, especially when they don't skimp on the toffee sauce. I proceed with caution - overindulgence can easily result in an ass the size of the Lake District.)

I enrolled in Facebook, but it's just not quite cutting it. For starters, I can't seem to figure out how to post more than 80 words at a time, so it's certainly sub-optimal for those F. Scott Fitzgerald moments we all have now and then. And while I am an avid practitioner of the stream of conciousness school of conversation, and living, for that matter, I just can't seem to get jazzed about confessions on fleeting gastrointestinal issues and declaring one's self a fan of a particular goth-ska band passing for meaningful communication.

Thus, for your amusement, I shall get on with it and segue to my reader mail segment.