Wednesday, 30 September 2009

More Turns of Phrase? My Wheels Are Grinding.

Part of living in a country that developed the language you speak is discovering the origins of words you only thought you knew.  Take, for instance, windfall.  I always knew the term to mean an unexpected bout of good luck.  I happened to be watching a show on Victorian farming (yes, I was that bored) when the lads remarked that cider making that year would be productive thanks to a great windfall.  I consulted my friend Merriam-Webster, the controversial American dictionary that is not Oxford, and was surprised at what I found:


Pronunciation: \ˈwin(d)-ˌfȯl\
Function: noun
Date: 15th century
1 : something (as a tree or fruit) blown down by the wind
2 : an unexpected, unearned, or sudden gain or advantage

Just when I thought I did speak English, I am constantly stumbling upon more unknown words.  I remember having this feeling in first year Spanish when Senorita Sponsler got after a dullard who kept calling his hand (mano) his monkey (mono).  As most amateur linguists are want to do, I am on a quest for meaning.  I can occasionaly connect the dots, but I found a few terms that don't play well, despite their similarities.
Exhibit 1:

This is a scrum.  It is a formation in rugby, so Chumley tells me, although I cannot claim I have ever watched a match for more than thirty seconds intentionally.  I remember it this way: scrums display bums. 

Exhibit 2:

This is scrumpy.  It is a type of hard cider, perhaps made from a windfall, that has a particularly high alcohol content.  Scaled down versions are available in pubs, but the real thing will leave you legless (so I am told.)  If we're trying to connect the mental dots here so far, perhaps people willing to get in the scrum must have ingested a large amount of scrumpy.  So far, so good, except the following problem.

Exhibit 3:

The above cupcakes could be described as "scrummy."  Do you hear the linguistic needle scratch the record in your head?  My first guess at the meaning of "scrummy" would have been "of or like the rugby scrum; displaying a predisposition to mob action in a rugby-like manner."  But no.  Scrummy apparently is a truncated form of "scrumptious" and "yummy," and is commonly used to describe food and men.  My research for this paragraph led to a quick Google of "scrummy", which linked to a "UK's Scrummiest Torso" contest.  I swatted the pop-up windows that link provoked.  See how I suffer for my readers?
And this leads me to the end result of my mental wheels grinding:

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Palacette of Westminster

Please excuse the absence of my usual Monday through Friday posting schedule, dear readers, as Chumley and I have been experiencing considerable computer issues.  My time has been spent resolving them, airing out the study from the profanity cloud I have created overhead, and taking a good dose of yoga to zen-ify my technology rage.  As our friendly Compaq has decided to cooperate today, I rejoin my regular posting schedule.

Our stalwart tour group had tickets to tour the Houses of Parliament, alternately refered to as the Palace of Westminster.  Or Palacette, as I deemed it.  We got into the chambers of Lords and Commons, only to find them surprisingly small.  Parliament the building is quite large, but if making law is like making sausage, I expected the butcher shop to be bigger.  The shop is only open until October when the butchers come back.

Westminster was indeed a palace until it was converted to use by Parliament, partially burned, rebuilt, and finally took the form we see it in today.  Our tour guide was a Blue Badge professional guide (very chatty and informative), and warned us that straying off the path might not only result in a profound loss of direction and his dismissal, but a stint in the pokey as we were swarmed by many formerly friendly Metropolitan Police. 

Parliament offers one of the worst taunts of any tourist attraction I have encountered thus far, worse than the cold beverages for princely sums in the Sahara.  Most tourists have trekked many miles in their sensible (or in my case, somewhat unsensible) shoes, especially in large cities.  We were escorted into the House of Lords and filed into the rows of seats, but told in no uncertain terms that we were not to sit in the red leather-covered, overstuffed benches as they were strictly the domain of the Lords.  And, by the way, they were made by the same company who does the car interiors for Bentley.  They might as well have been giant chocolate brownies attached to fishooks, so overwhelming was the urge to risk arrest and permanent bolshie-branding by diving onto the buttery leather and letting them pry me out with the speaker's gilded staff.  I knew for a fact that Chumley did not carry sufficient cash to bond me out, so I grumbled to myself and convinced myself that the MPs (Members of Parliament) had probably booby trapped the place with giant tacks, one for each Lord.  The House of Commons wasn't much better - same moratorium, different colored leather.  The oldsters who carried a cane that doubled as a stool were looking pretty intelligent, after all.

So far as historical interest, the tour was very informative.  Our guide explained the system of voting, which is strangely bizzare, but presumably effective.  Instead of having a desk with a button to push, all the "nays" congregate in one hall, while the "yeas" congregate in another.  They each single-file past a person taking tally, and in the meantime, have a chance to mingle and catch up on old times or new laws.  It's the cocktail party approach, I suppose.  Besides, god knows the cost of wiring such an old building with even more electronics.  There isn't room for any desks at all.  It's so small, in fact, one might get stuck sitting next to one's arch enemy if running a bit behind for debates that day, as there are no assigned seats.  Knowing what little I do of English politics, the icy glances would set the thermostat back a few degrees. Yowzaa. 

Parliament is an excellent tour, but I could have done without the frisking as I went through security.  I suppose they're still a bit uptight about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.  Residents of Great Britain can apply to their MP for tickets to tour Big Ben, which also sounds like a hoot, although it may be a throwback to the cardio workout on my tour of the Peterborough Cathedral Tower.  My mistake this time was wearing potato shoes with limited support.  Note to self: I must acquire a purse-sized, fold-up pintglass and a weary tourist stool, preferably purse-sized as well.  Should any reader know how to procure the later, please get in touch.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Enchilada Envy

What does Mexican food have to do with our visit to London?, you may ask, and rightly so.  Were the above enchiladas just edible speed bumps on our way to the Houses of Parliament?  Exactly.  We had a very good meal at the Embassy of Texas Cantina, just off Trafalgar Square.  I mention it because once in a while, one of the questions I get from the locals is, "What do you miss about the U.S. the most?"  (Only one person has asked me if I own a gun.) That's a hard one to prioritize, but the decent Mexican food is right up there.  I'd been craving it since our departure, so until I break down and refry my own beans in desperation, a fix of Tex-Mex here will last me a right long while.  Darn tootin'.

Americans who love Mexican are in the precise category of English who love Indian.  An introduced cuisine caught on among the masses.  Just as there are some really excellent Indian restaurants in England, it's not hard to find good Mexican in America.  In fact, some of the spices are the same.  Corriander leaves that factor into a number of Indian entrees are the same as cilantro, which is a prime ingredient in any salsa worth its salt.

Chumley went through Indian cravings in the States, and often, what we found just didn't measure up.  We were at a restaurant in York that claimed to specialize in Mexican, and my dinner was loaded with "salsa" that was so spicy it was inedible, and frankly tasted like bolonese sauce.  It was just wrong.  I finally understand the complaint desk mentality our English friends assumed when criticizing Indian food in America.  Some was good, some wasn't.  We won't mention that little episode where we read in the newspaper that one particular restaurant couldn't pass repeated health inspections due to, among other alarming infractions, both dead and live cockroaches in the kitchen.  At least the bugs were fresh.

I couldn't leave without washing dinner down with a lovely margarita.  For those unfamiliar with the recipe, it's lime juice, tequila, and sometimes triple sec, which can be supplemented with further fruit flavors any number of ways.  "Make mine a peach," I told our waitress, while Chumley nodded with understanding.  He has finally come to terms with the fact that I never miss an opportunity to make a beverage even fruitier.  Chumley's house margarita wasn't bad either, based on the slurping sounds.

The restaurant's refried beans were passable, just like pond water tastes good to the deathly thirsty,  but the purist in me would have preferred them without the flavor of liquid smoke. Liquid smoke is a most vile American condiment that should only be used by the likes of Homer Simpson.  In case you're wondering, refried beans are either oil or lard (insert fear and fat loathing here), with pinto beans gradually added in and mashed while being cooked.  Add copious salt, and you have your choice of a delightful side dish or some emergency wall repair.  I have a feeling that the pictured beans were made with lard.  When I see them, I feel my vena cava tremble in fear.

Perhaps it is a good thing that my access to lard-based side dishes has been curtailed.  However, I seem to have replaced one drug with another: custard.  My new mantra: it's been three days since my last low-fat Ambrosia Devon custard...

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Buck House and Surrounds

Time was slipping away for Chumley and me to see the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace this season, as the Queen will return after it closes to visitors at the end of September.  Or, more correctly, once the rif raf can't show up on the doorstep anymore.  We ordered tickets and took the train to London for the day, which turned out to be unusually warm for September here. We had an interesting conversation while waiting to get in.  If someone visited your house, would it be tacky to charge them 16 pounds a head for the privilege?  Would your guests feel remiss that the only thing they had to offer you was their cash?  But most of all, would you miss not being the one to open the door?

The answer to all these questions is a resounding no.  We didn't even spy a corgie, but Buckingham Palace is filled with some really nice stuff, as one might imagine.  George III, of American Revolution fame, bought a much smaller version of the house in 1761, just so his family would have a comfortable place to pitch their tent's near the center of London.  Today, there are 775 rooms, 78 of which are bathrooms.  Oddly enough, there is no public toilet on the tour.  They've built a temporary one out on the back gardens for the great unwashed to use.  In fact, the gift shop and cafe are all mobile, and come down promptly at the beginning of October.

The tour came with a "free" audio component, which worked quite well to make the hordes of people relatively quiet and cooperative.  At the moment, there is a special exhibition on the Queen's 50-year reign, with many of her special occasion wear on display. She is a diminuitive sort, but in her day, was fairly stylish.  Her waist was tiny.  She clearly wasn't eating the jam scones she now peddles in the cafe, which Chumley said were delicious, incidentally.  The art wasn't bad either, nor the jewelry.  So, there's a little something for everyone.

Most amazingly, we were in the palace for at least 2 1/2 hours and only saw such a small fraction.  The swimming pool and the cinema were not on the tour, unfortunately.  For all sorts of fun facts, follow this link.

I'll continue our adventures in tomorrow's post.  Right now, it looks like I have to go break up a wood pidgeon fight at our birdbath.  Only in England...

Monday, 21 September 2009

Technical Difficulty.... Please Stand By

Although it won't scoot today's post to the top, click on "Flag Fen: They Dug It" in the listing at left for today's installment.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Case for Potato Shoes

Are English soles really tottering on the brink of destruction? The state of British women's footwear is making the news here lately:

In essence, a trade organization suggested women's high heels as part of mandated corporate uniforms be banned due to the fiascos they cause among feet. I could have predicted this sentiment would have gone over like a pair of velcro-fastened Soft Spots.

Fashionable footwear is a must among some sets in England, while "comfortable shoes" carry the day amongst older pedestrians. Lucky for me, I am firmly in the camp of potato shoes due to an old foot injury, incurred while wearing Dr. Scholl's heels, no less! A friend of mine criticized my shoe wardrobe as resembling a group of root vegetables, and still occasionally reminds me of the pitfalls of potato shoes. Her worries are in vain, though. I've gone to Clarks, Ecco, and New Balance, and I won't be turning back. My feet stick out as well as my accent, but my bunions aren't burning. And my permanently bipartite sesamoid bone thanks me daily.

Chumly, by my count, owns almost as many pairs of shoes as I do. I attribute this to his youthful vocation as a shoe shop clerk, working as a shoe dog for a man named Mr. Cheeseman. Not only has his love of cheese followed him into adulthood, but he does seem to amass footwear. He's quite handy to take shoe shopping, in fact - he's fully capable of suggesting sizing and fit, just like back in his salad days. As prior readers may have gathered, Chumly is terribly helpful, if not sarcastic. I suppose I shouldn't chuck stones in the little glass house I live in, however.

I get the impression that dealing with British women in search of fashionable footwear wasn't among his favorite passtimes. A window shop in the women't fashion section reveals many, many va-voom offerings in purple patent, and an abundance of ankle boots with spikey heels. England is a very pedestrianized country, and I've marveled at the young women out for a drink on city streets lined with cobbles, precariously teetering on 3 plus inch heels and in skirts that look more like extremely abbreviated sausage casings. In fact, we were out one evening, switching watering venues in a medieval town, when a Brit male suddenly checked that all the ladies had on footwear that would make the journey. How considerate. But, no worries. There I was in my Born mary janes. Hello, tater tots. I thought this country liked potatoes. Just not in their footwear.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Chocolate Wars: Hershey's v. Cadbury's

When it comes to chocolate, Chumley has never minced words. His years in the States were a chocolate famine, full of inferior, lecithin-laden excuses for the real thing. Not to say this would stop him from consuming the occasional Twix. But it just wasn't the same.

This cultural chocolate divide became clear when he'd get an occasional Hershey's miniature in a goodie bag from some road race. Untrue to form, he'd turn up his nose. "What's wrong with Hershey's?" I asked naively, wondering how anyone could impune the one and only chocolate I had much experience with. "It tastes like earwax," he replied matter-of-factly. "Earwax!" I was horrified. I had accidentally licked the end of a used Q-tip (cotton bud) once, and I knew first hand Hershey's and earwax did not share a common chemical structure. I chalked up his contrariness to his love of being contrary, but he didn't cave one bit in future chocolate conversations. "Earwax!" he proclaimed, shoving any pure Hershey's chocolate product toward me. I was not altogether upset by this arrangement. The only acceptable source of affordable chocolate was Cadbury. Cadbury or bust.

Bearing this in mind, I raided a sale bin at the local grocery that happened to have Cadbury on sale and proudly presented him with a Dairy Milk. He didn't gush like I expected him to. He didn't throw his arms around me and pronounce me his chocolate savior. Instead, he flipped over the Dairy Milk label and pointed to the fine print. "It's made by Hershey's, you know." Or, did he mean Satan? "It still has earwax overtones." I was crushed. I got a paltry pat on the head, but he did manage to consume half the bar himself.

Was it possible that my chocolate-tasting palate was just that remarkably unrefined?

In the days when a Costco World Market lurked near our U.S. base, Chumley would light up with excitement. They carried an array of imported Cadbury favorites. "Curly-Wurly!" he'd exclaim. "Double Decker! Mmmmm..." he'd chant softly, tossing a few into our basket.

It was a sad day when our World Market packed it in, but I thought I had an answer. A small Indian grocery had set up shop down the street. They sold Cadbury's Dairy Milk and its relatives. We were in business. I bought him a sample and yet again, presented it with pride. When I revealed where it had been purchased, his heart sunk. I got nervous. He flipped over the wrapper and tut-tutted knowingly. "What?" I asked. "This was made in New Delhi," he said as he pointed to the wrapper. "It tastes a bit like..." "Earwax?" I guessed.

Now that we live in England, happiness in the chocolate department is restored. There is a mind boggling array of chocolate bars that I've never tried or heard of before, which can be great fun getting to know. There is a difference in the amount of emulsifier in Hershey's chocolate versus British-made Cadbury's. Hershey's is the brand Americans grow up on. To turn a blind tastebud feels traitor-esque. It's why people from Scotland cling to their haggis, I suppose, but I won't be eating anything out of a sheep's stomach unless there's a handgun firmly lodged against my temple. How American.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Lifetime Learning in Cambridge

Chumley and I took a jaunt to Cambridge, not terribly far from us given that we live in Cambridgeshire. Unlike the universities I'm used to, Cambridge is an association of 31 different colleges, of which King's College is pictured at left. It took its name from a bridge over the River Cam, which existed in 875. By 1200, there was an established scholar's hangout made up of brainy sorts who found the townsfolk in Oxford to be a little too hostile for their tastes.

Some things never change. Right from the start, Cambridge had problems with young students making a ruckus and disturbing the locals. There were also landlords who extorted unfair prices for food and housing from students that were at their mercy. This seems like the medieval equivalent of pledging a fraternity mixed with some slumlord action.

Flags posted all over the city celebrate the 800th anniversary of Cambridge this year. I wonder who would come to party down with the class of 1209? I didn't see a class picture chiseled into any of the buildings' walls. Maybe they'd be lured back with the promise that the Troubadours were getting back together for a one-night-only concert with some funky circle dancing.

Cambridge is full of tourists, but not to the point of overflowing. A good number of the young people we saw were certainly students, doing some shopping in the high-end stores within the city center. One thinks that only the children of the wealthy can afford to attend, but tuition and fees appear to be around $16,000 per year if they can get in. That is a large if. Getting in appears to be a bit of a longshot, and there's always been debate about whether it's helpful to admission to come from a prosperous background.

Aside from who is populating the streets, Cambridge is full of lovely, ancient buildings. It's possible to pop into a college, most of which are built around a central courtyard. Dining and living quarters exist within, as well as each college's porter. I wish I had someone to help me with my luggage when I moved into college. The city surfaces are typically university - full of notices on plays, concerts, protests, etc.

You are much loathed in the center of Cambridge if you happen to bring your car. It's a very bicycle-y city, and with medieval, winding streets, cars are a nightmare. We were wise, I think, and ditched ours at a car park that also served the YMCA (and as an outdoor urinal for the village people, by the smell of things.) Some of the colleges have signs posted that bike parking is for fellows only. It must be one of the perks of tenure.

The way Cambridge teaches includes small sessions of three to four people studying under the supervision of their director, in addition to attending lectures. I'm finally starting to grasp the concept of having a "college tutor." This is especially helpful to me, as Sting has multiple references to college tutors in his lyrics.

I wonder if one can do postgraduate work on the lyrical interpretations of Sting? I suspect the postgraduation job prospects are somewhat subpar.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Registration Plate Cryptology

As I write this entry, the car registration plate you see is being auctioned. There are 18 hours left, and currently, the bid sits at 7,996 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly. That would be close to $13,000 U.S. Has the world spun off its axis?

When it comes to what Americans would call "vanity plates," yes. I'll share with you, dear readers, a little of the vehicular education I've gained since becoming a car owner in England. All cars are assigned plates. They belong to the car, not to the owner, so when you sell the car, you sell the plate with it. It is possible to transfer registrations between cars, and here's where a huge industry has crept in and set up shop.

There are multiple conventions for understanding the information printed on English registration plates, which are far too similar to the Enigma to explain here. Besides, I lack the codebreaking equipment (testosterone.) The government assigns a plate a car. If you are the lucky owner of a "valuable" registration, you may want to resell it in a very established auction marketplace. There are government auctions of good vanity plate combinations, and private dealers. This little gem is currently on offer for 500 pounds:

What rich nerd is interested in "logbook"? I have one thing to say - what about the starving kids in China? They are big business, despite how frivolous I find them.

I can live with all the vanity plates in the US, at least in my home state, as they cost the same no matter what they say. There's a push for more fundraising charitable plates, which don't bother me one bit.I didn't get terribly worked up over this phenomena until driving home today, when I saw this plate, blinked hard, and read it again. I have noticed that England is generally unafraid of overt sexuality, but I feel like I have the right to click together my little Puritan shoes on this one. I can't get a picture of it because some wealthy but perverse little so and so actually bought it, but it said the following:


Really. How precious. My dad used to laugh that he tried to register a hearse he owned as a teenager under the plate "STIFF", but the powers that be turned him down once they took note of what kind of car it would belong to. (I've never asked my dad why he was a teenage used-hearse driver. Perhaps I ought to.) In essence, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, might it be a good idea to check the switch here? Back home, prisoners used to make our license plates. I think making and selling this little combo is criminal, too.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Chumley in Translation

A major source of entertainment between my husband and I is English vocabulary. To be more specific, I mean British English vocabulary. As one quickly learns upon arrival, the local Brits don't think you know how to speak English. In sharp contrast, you speak American. The difference between the two can be extreme, if not extremely funny.

One of my favorites was a few years ago, when I asked Chumley how his day had gone. "It's all gone pear-shaped, Claire!" was the reply. My imagination took over as usual, and I pictured all the people at his work suddenly leaving their desks and rushing to one side of the building, so more people were in one portion compared to the other. After expressing my inability to understand with my usual "Huh??", Chumley sighed and explained that if something goes pear-shaped, that means it's gone horribly wrong. That discounted my second imagined meaning, where all his co-workers were suddenly very hippy.

Delving deeper into British vocabulary, we come to the interesting but fairly derogatory term "chav." I've met some chavs walking in the city center (saying "downtown" will get you laughed at and labeled as that charmingly stupid American). A chav is shorthand for a young, ill-regarded member of the underclass, generally wearing designer knock-offs and sporting car hood ornaments as jewelry. Add some bling and presto. I've read the term is derrived from Council House And Vauxhall, which is a reference to where they live (public housing) and the cars they're likely to drive (Vauxhall Nova, the same as the Chevy Nova).

Now that you may rest easy this evening, knowing you've expanded your vocabulary, let me add a word chavs are likely to use, "innit." Innit is a slang shortened form of "isn't it", but has grown into use far beyond its original meaning. With thanks to Urban Dictionary, here's how you would typically hear it used:

So me was out with me boys, innit, and we was going to get some beers, innit,
when this guy, yeah, like comes up to us, yeah, innit, and he was like Gimme
some change, we was like, innit.

The best backfire of innit I've read lately was of the teenage girl who used Cockney rhyming slang to order a taxi for a trip to the airport the next morning. She dialed directory assistance, but when the operator didn't understand that "Joe Baxi" meant "taxi," the girl said, "It's a cab, innit?" The operator transfered her to the number she needed, and the girl told the person who answered, "All I want is your cheapest cab, innit." She paid 180 pounds by credit card, and discovered a lovely office cabinet arrived at her South London home before 10 the next morning.

I've heard Chumley use the term only to get me to laugh. I returned the favor with this joke I read:

What do you call a chav in a coffin?

What do you call an eskimo chav in a coffin?

I've been under Chumley's British English tutelage since we've met, but being in-country brings out an entirely new level of vocabulary. Chumley announced yesterday that he expected a fair amount of "bun tossing" at an event he was due to attend. "Bun tossing?" I asked, wondering if it was related to some sort of lewd Sumo wrestling event. It's a term meaning a weenie fight, common to public (private in American) schoolboys. It's probably conducted by the same people who are prone to "toss the rattle from the pram."

Oh, my head spins. Waah!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Craving Junk Mail

I never thought I'd say this, but I would kill for a credit card application. Or a magazine offer. Perhaps even a come-on for new windows? In the last two weeks, I think we've had mail delivered twice. Why, one asks? It's a stupid postal strike in action.

Our news has reported that more than a half million pieces of undelivered mail are sitting in our town, with 20 million waiting in London, a million in Bristol, and 250,000 in Leeds. I hate to get on my high American horse, but how is this allowed to happen? They were privatized years ago, that's how. Royal Mail is apparently cutting jobs, hours, and overtime, and the Communication Workers Union isn't going to take it anymore. Or take any more deliveries, for that matter.

Meanwhile, there have been stories on the news about people whose birthdays have been absolutely ruined for lack of a single, stinking birthday card. Our neighbor has a new grandchild whose been left out in the cold with not one congratulations card received. Granted, these are lightweight worries, but imagine the number of people waiting to hear on jobs or benefits. Worse yet, people might be expecting checks and out money. I've been waiting on my Tesco Club Card for more than a month now. My patience is puny and my temporary paper card is pulverized. Oh, the humanity.

I think the sniping is ill-timed considering the number of people who've plain lost their job. A friend of ours works for Royal Mail on a wonderful scheme where she merely has to work a couple weeks a year in order to retain all her seniority and benefits while she and her husband moved to the States. Don't forget that England is the land of at least a month's paid holiday, as well. My sympathy stores are on empty, I'm afraid. Maybe the bolshie American colonials have this one right:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Nor industrial dustups, I might add.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Messages From Nun

I am constantly amazed at the speed of mobile phone texters in this country. Granted, the technology seemed to catch on much quicker here, and people were texting like mad back in 2001, the date of my last extended visit. I'm sure casualty ward visits are populated by the occasional repetitive stress injury or swollen thumb from the chatty person who hasn't said a word. I imitated the locals using two thumbs to Chumley, who quickly corrected me. "We only use one thumb. Anything more is amateur." When I go into a coffee shop or in any public area, the definitive "beep-beep" of a recently received text message is as common as hearing a sneeze. Less infectious perhaps. Or is it?

I was most surprised that my mother-in-law has a firm grip on her mobile phone, and is not afraid to use it. I contrast this to my mother, who is afraid of the spooky, glowing box called a computer that my father insisted on having. Asking her to send a text message would be like asking a pigeon to operate a telegraph. There would be some serious hunting and pecking, and more than a few feathers would get ruffled.

Text messages from my mother-in-law to her children have become almost legendary for their profound misuse of predictive text, that time-saving little system that guesses what you mean via a process of linguistic elimination. Now that I own a European phone, my Nokia asks what language I would like to predictive text in. I imagine that should I chose Finnish for variety, it will assume all my friends are named Bjorn and we're going out for elk frequently.

The example of Chumley's mum as a mobile menace that made me laugh hardest was an episode where Chumley and I were arriving in the UK from the States for a 10-day stay, complete with a stint as wedding guests. I had packed all foreseeable necessities in my luggage, and put it in the oh-so-capable hands of Air India. (This flight could be the subject of another post, just to do it justice.) As the cases wheeled by at Heathrow, and each one circulating on the claim bore no resemblance to mine, my spirits dipped lower and lower until I accepted the truth: I would have to leave Heathrow with only the underwear I had on my person. I held it together until we set off in our rental car. As the airport faded in the distance, I was unconsolable in a quiet funk. Chumley's phone beeped, and I mustered to strength to look at the screen.

"We'll be back soon. Pain arriving from the west. Love, Nun"

Too true, Nun. Chumley was used to receiving messages through the ether from someone called Nun, but it broke my melancholy for a while, at least. The good news was that I had my suitcase back the next day, and my shoes have visited Mumbai.

Flag Fen... They Dug It

My in-laws and I were in search of a "culture segment" during their recent visit, so we decided to descend upon a place called Flag Fen. The Fens are flat stretches of formerly boggy land that extend through multiple counties in the East, including Cambridgeshire. Flag refers to the flag iris, which is a wetland plant native to the area. The good news is that the fens have been drained and converted to extremely fertile farmland. Good thing, too, as I wasn't up for donning rental hip waders.

Flag Fen is an archeological site that's been dated to the Bronze Age, which makes it 3500 years old, give or take a few. Our tour guide was a pleasant older gentleman, who conveyed the underlying message that while there were Celtic people there that long ago, there are a lot of unknowns because no one was taking notes, unlike those wordy Egyptians. Flag Fen was stumbled upon after World War II, when the city began excavations for a power plant. Put simply, they literally unearthed a giant wooden platform the size of Wembley Stadium, supported by 60,000 upright timbers that had been sunk into the peaty, watery fen for thousands of years, and as a result, perfectly preserved from evil oxygen that causes rot. A part of what they found is exposed but sprinkled on the minute with water to keep it from turning to dust. At first, I thought this was Norm Abram's worst nightmare:

Not only did they find this giant promenade deck, they found all manner of crap tossed into the water surrounding it and preserved in the peat. Some, in fact, wasn't crap at all. Unlike Jorvik - readers may remember my olfactory assault - there was no picked poo. Instead, there were pieces of clothing, rare gold jewelry, pots, bones from joints of meat, dog skeletons, human skeletons, metal shears, glass beads, rare wooden handles from axes, and the oldest wheel in England. Funny, I thought I saw that already being bowled at some country skittles (see The Festival of Beer).

The best explanation they have for what went on was that the big deck was some sort of ceremonial platform that people would chuck stuff off of in sacrifice to their gods. Either that, or a giant cow causeway. As our tour guide liked to cluck, "There's no evidence!" when a member of our group came up with an alternate theory. Giant shuffleboard stadium, anyone?

Chumley happened to call me on my mobile to check parent status while they were in my sole custody. My jazzy Nokia tune disrupted the ambience of burlap clothing and hanging animal carcasses. These turfy homes would never work nowdays. All that growing on the roof leads to terrible mobile reception. And who wants to get up there and weed it?

"Where are you now?" he wanted to know.

"I've just stepped out of a model roundhouse," I said, choking from the smoke of the roasted jerky demonstration inside. "I'm staring at the turf roof."

"Good," he continued, unfazed. Perhaps many people he chatted with carried on conversations from Bronze Age roundhouses. He was on an information-seeking mission. "When's the last time they had tea?"

I checked my watch. "About three hours ago."

"Oh dear," he replied. "Best to find a tea shop straight away."
Sure enough, more tea was in order. We managed to avoid being headbutted by the rare-breed sheep on they way out. In a moment of deja vu, I realized that PG Tips tea, without milk, is just the color of the peaty water preserving the wooden spikes at Flag Fen. Spooky.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Reader Mail, Part Deux

Thank you, kind readers, for your questions. As my first round elicited a second, I shall not disappoint the gentle writer, even though we clearly cannot agree on fruit tea.

Jamie said...
If I may enter into the fruit tea conversation, I agree with Chumley. My
Southern parents would contend that "fruit tea" (said through clenched teeth) is not REAL tea. Tea should taste like tea, and not fruit or syrup or anything of the like.

Yes, so others side with Chumley. He's probably contacted you and crossed your palms with some real tea in exchange for a sound fruit tea bashing. I digress...

My questions, based on my time in Europe:

1. Do you have screens on the windows?

Alas, no. From all formal and informal research I have done (impromptu window inspections at the houses of UK friends and relatives, squinting at the local windows while whizzing past in the car), no one does. When people ask me what I miss about the States, my thoughts tend to turn to hardware. Window screens are right up there. It isn't as though England is magically bug-free, although the bug population seems fewer. Fresh air at the cost of chasing flying insects all over the house is almost not worth it to me. Chumley feels free to open all windows and doors with abandon, but if you've never lived with screens, you are used to this depraved existence. I have chased three bees out of the house in one day, not to mention the countless moths that taunt me out the bathroom window at night. I really think a magpie might decide to have an adventure and fly into the kitchen one day. Now I know why this is the country of "Little Miss Muffet" - I've never killed so many spiders. Egads. This situation really is a sleeping humanitarian crisis.

2. What is reason for the incredible European Screen Shortage? Is the E.U. helping to distribute necessary screens?

That's just it, dear reader. I don't think anyone on the island senses the necessity. Why, I have no idea. The E.U. has mandated that anyone coloring their hair go for a patch test, and that only flourescent lightbulbs may be sold from now on, but I am unaware of any Screen Directive. I will have to contact my local MEP (Member of European Parliament). I may be less than persuasive in that I can't vote. In the meantime, I could drape our bed in mosquito netting and tell Chumley I'm trying out an East India Trading Company decorating theme, but I don't think he'd get it. He might drink a gin and tonic if I offered it, though. I'm quite sure a pith helmet would be too much to ask. Lamb Rogan Josh for dinner would suit him fine.

3. What is a visit to the doctor like? I have heard that it is necessary to
bring several days' rations with you. (Although that is not much different
from here.)

I will have to save this question for the future, as I have not needed one yet. I can't say that I'm looking forward to it, but does anyone in any country?

4. Is it refreshing to live in a country that does not enjoy Nickelback?

Indeed, it is. I have yet to hear this band hit the UK airwaves, although I'm sure they're out there somewhere. I'm glad to know it wasn't just Chumley that thought some FM radio stations back home had thrown out their format and become "The Nickelback Channel." Just when you think I'm cheese free (which never occurs -- it's England), Bananarama has reunited and is making the rounds of the morning chat shows. Get out the hair gel!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Hedgerow Cuisine

We are surrounded by blackberries. They're closing in on us at this part of the season, found in nearly every hedgerow from here to Hertfordshire. As I have been driven to snacking on one to many walks, Chumley and I spent three hours or so gathering several pounds of blackberries for our freezer. Ah, nature. How many a faithful gatherer can stand to pick really depends on one's tolerance for pain. The bushes are thorny themselves, nevermind the wild roses and nettles they like to keep company with. After all our efforts, I thought an apple and blackberry crumble (crisp in American) was in order. Almost as popular as sticky toffee pudding, it could well be the national dessert of England. It was a product of rationing in World War II, when piecrusts took up too much coveted flour and sugar. Chumley made custard (like warm vanilla pudding) to finish it properly. Although I'm not a native chef, edibility did not appear to be an issue.

The hedgerows here are remarkably fruity, full of things I've only just heard of. In the first few weeks here on a walk, Chumley was intrigued by a nearby damson tree. Damsons are a type of plum, popular for making jam. I'm not much into jam making - is that where the term "jammie dodger" comes from? There's a golden version of damsons around these parts, called mirabelles.

Similar to damsons in color, but much smaller, are sloes. The hedges around our house are literally dripping with them, but after several failed taste tests, neither of us can figure out how they could turn into anything remotely edible. The best and highest use of those tarty sloes is sloe gin, where either gin and vodka and sloes infuse over the long haul. I have been known to enjoy a sloe gin fizz. Making my own sloe gin would definitely be a Martha moment. But they just taste so horribly bad! They're like trying to chew up a used tea bag! I cannot bring myself to risk good booze.

Apparently the term "sloe eyed" refers to someone with eyes as dark and deep as sloes. Amazing what hanging out in the hedgerows will teach you! I should take up a community college degree in hedgerow history and call myself, "The Hedgerow Whisperer."

Rumor had it that a particularly domesticated friend of Chumley's found what sounded like a Queen Anne cherry tree and helped himself to enough for a pie. This is an unconfirmed sighting, however. I'll continue to watch the hedges for future developments. It would be a fruity coup if it were true, but for now, I'll be happy with the six containers of Gladware full of blackberries in the freezer.

Friday, 4 September 2009

The High Holy Festival of Beer

You may have heard that the English like a drink or two. Or three or four. You've heard correctly, my friends. Since I've known Chumley, he has occasionally mentioned with nostalgia a weeklong event here in Peterborough, the infamous Peterborough Beer Festival. Most often, his voice goes quiet, and in very reverential tones, he refers to it as "The Festival of Beer." He even looks a bit misty. Some among his set have been known to book the entire week off work to fully enjoy worship of the sacred beverage.

Last week was festival time again, and for cultural edification purposes, I decided to see what the fuss was about. I expected to be a bit of a wet blanket in that I detest beer, but so-called fruit beer is a different story. Belgian lambic can be completely un-beery, and the cherry beer is immensely quaffable. I picture a horde of Belgian monks scurrying around the cherry orchard, steadfastly pitting cherries in between penance. With more than 250 beers and ciders to choose from, those in the know assured me I wouldn't have a problem finding a refreshment to my liking.

I have experience with one American beer festival, which was typical of what happens when bored people drink en masse. You were handed a beer glass roughly the size of two shot glasses, and you could sample by purchasing a mini-mug full time and again. It was a remote venue, so most people drove. As the night wore on, it got louder, more mini mugs got dropped, and more people started bumping into you. When it was chucking out time, the local police waited in line outside the front stoop to nab all the DUI drivers, like shooting fish in a barrel.

The English beer festival experience was considerably different. For starters, you bought either a full pint glass or a half pint upon arrival. After that, sample whatever you liked and pay as you go. There were thousands of people, but no real drunk and disorderly moments. I didn't see one person get into their own car and drive away afterwards -- every cab in town was booked. I saw an organized minibus pick up customers. People were jolly, but not shabby. I was impressed that such a liquid affair had good security and no real problems.

I think the difference between English and American drinking culture is that Americans tend to use the fire-hose approach to drinking, whereas the Brits have the faucet on a steady stream. Both approaches have their downsides. Drunk driving is far more taboo here, mercifully. That said, the Brits are drinking more overall, which can be an expensive and liver-destroying habit. Tolerance levels appear much higher due to the steady stream effect. In fact, Chumley hangs his head and says he can't drink at all anymore since he lived in the tea-totaling States for years. I get the occasional odd look when we're out and I order a non-alcoholic beverage. Some hear my accent and ask if I drink at all! (I've also been asked whether I own a gun!)

I also became acquainted with a pub game called "Country Skittles." The first time I heard that term, I pictured people rolling enormous Skittles candies as big as bowling balls at some unknown, pastoral target. I think my brainwaves made the connection that country equaled Texas, so that a country Skittle was like a piece of Texas toast. Wrong again. It's bowling, alright, but with tiny little wooden pins and a ball that looks like it was shot out of a cannon sometime during the Napoleonic wars. No large fruit candy involved at all. One variant of Country Skittles uses a wooden replica of a small wheel of cheese to bowl at the pins. Why? I have not cracked the code on this phenomena as yet. Now that I think about it, I wish they did make country Skittles. They would be the excellent accompaniment to a Texas-sized cherry beer.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Stinkiest Tourist Attraction of All Time

Chumley has a thing for Vikings. It took me the longest time to remember the difference between a longboat (Viking ship) and a narrowboat (houseboats that leisurely troll the English rivers and aquaducts, at a pontoon's pace.) Whenever I'd slip and say, "Look, a longboat!" he'd reply, "Really? AARRRGH!"

So, it came as no surprise that he was interested in visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. York used to be called Jorvik when the Vikings arrived, pillaged, plundered, and made themselves at home between 800 and 900. William the Conqueror finally gave the Vikings the boot when he took over in 1066.

When York was excavating the center of the city in the 70's, they started finding a treasure trove of Vikings and their stuff, so much so that it warranted a museum to display it all. Someone took a cue from Walt Disney and designed Jorvik as a ride, where you get in a car that transports you through a recreated Viking settlement with animatronic people and all the relics laid out as they would have been used. For all the pictures of Vikings with unruly hair, there were some very ornate and perfectly preserved hair combs on display.

The first thing one notices after hopping in the car is a certain funk. After Chumley and I confirmed that both of us had remembered deodorant that morning, we figured out that the manky, somewhat smokey smell was piped in for our olfactory enjoyment. It was a nice touch until the ride took a turn for the worse. The kind designers of Jorvik the museum had seen fit to show a man squatting behind a small wicker fence, as he rocked, grimaced, and grunted. It took a moment to sink in, but much to our horror, he was animatronically reinacting taking a giant poo. As our car too slowly went past, an unmistakable sewer smell wafted our way.

Two things occured to me. I have no doubt that poo is historically accurate. However, is it that enlightening to demonstrate it to the masses? Secondly, where on earth does one procure a synthetic sewer smell? At least, I hope it was synthetic.

Just when I thought Jorvik had gone way too far, we disembarked our cars and took in some of the relics displayed in glass cases. A young woman dressed in Viking regalia dared the children in our group to guess what a large, oblong stone was on display in the case next to her. Compounding our horror, it turns out to be the largest mineralized human turd ever discovered, and quite rare at that. Archaeologists everywhere rejoice! And I thought the recent news story of a drunk girl falling in and needing rescued from a porta-potty after accidentally flushing her purse was the height of weirdness. We have a new winner.

So, the giant fossilized turd continues to haunt me, much like the pack of rabid Yorkshire terriers did. Chumley does not miss an opportunity to remind me of the experience, which promptly comes wafting back.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

York Uncorked

We visited the York Castle Museum, which is really a series of buildings that include the former jail. It's among the best museums I've been in. The ticket counter guide told us to expect our trip to take 1 1/2 hours, but Chumley and I were easily there for 3 1/2. I think the lesson to be learned from this fine establishment is sometimes it pays to hang on to your crap. Are you listening, Chumley?
The current exhibits include an expansive one about the Victorian fascination with cleaning. If you've read my post on Althorp, you'll know my feelings on this topic. One of the highlights is a complete Victorian street, including cobbles, that they've recreated indoors. All the shops are fully stocked with haberdashery, pawn items, jewelry, glass -- the sheer quantity of what's on display in the shop windows is mindboggling. You can visit the sweet shop and buy a sugar mouse for 50 pence. I wonder if the Victorians ever splashed out and upgraded to sugar rats or sugar pigeons? Those would be for special occasions, of course.
One area contains time-warpy rooms depicting kitchens through the years. Chumley and I were horrified and amused at once to find that the 80's kitchen is a dead ringer for our own. If I only still owned a microwave as big as Sputnik, we'd be completely authentic. Even our linoleum isn't far off -- it's a vision in mushroom. After a bit of wincing at the stabbing familiarity, we moved on to the prison.
York is officially the most haunted city in England, but I'm not quite sure of the officials on the creep committee. Suffice it to say, there's plenty of gloomy spots and tales of woe that might have won it the prize. The prison wasn't terribly accommodating, and I'm sure no one got a fresh towel in the mornings. At one point, there were 220 separate offenses that incurred the death penalty, and York Prison certainly wasn't afraid of dishing out death on a plate. You can even check the prison's database of prisoners and their fates.I came up spotless, but Chumley has some possible rogue relatives! (We would know for sure that the executed were his relation if the crime had been chronic carriage cleanliness, but it was just highway robbery.)

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Swapping the Toffee for Yorkshire Pudding

This past weekend was Bank Holiday weekend, with Bank Holiday being a Monday roughly the equivalent of U.S. Labor Day. Presented with a long weekend, Chumley and I went into touring mode and headed north York, a city on his sightseeing wishlist. First and foremost, York (and the rest of Yorkshire for that matter) is the home of Yorkshire pudding, a bread-like pancake usually filled with meat, gravy and vegetables and polished off swiftly by carnivores like Chumley.

I happened to mention we were going to York to my father back in the U.S. "Is that where the little dogs come from?" he asked straight off the bat. "What little dogs?" I replied. "You know, Yorkies. The little yappy ones." Hm. I was stumped. "Probably," I answered, although I had seen no mention of Yorkies whatsoever in any of the York tourist board materials. No Yorkie Museums or towers of bones laid in tribute. I didn't know how subliminally the question had roosted in my brain until the next morning. I dreamt I was being chased by a dirty, nomadic, ferile pack of wild Yorkies, all snipping at me in unison as they gnashed at my ankles. I woke up in a cold sweat. I have been known to have prophetic dreams before, so I kept an eye out for little dogs as we started to walk the streets. One daschund in particular looked a bit menacing, but he was the wrong breed and on a leash. He didn't quite fit the profile.

York is home to Nestle Rowntree, a massive chocolate factory not open for public tours. Believe me, I checked. More specifically, it's home of the infamous Yorkie chocolate bar, with a slogan that has led to many testy exchanges between Chumley and me. I thought "It's not for girls!" was just another of Chumley's attempts to stop me from death by chocolate, hoping a sexist put down would at least divert my attention for a few seconds, until he pointed to a wrapper and there it was in print. I find the anti-girl sign even more injurious. I'm here to tell you it is for girls - how can a whopping, chunky chocolate bar expect to keep estrogen-mongers away? How insane. It is really delicious, despite being an affront to women. Don't sell crazy here, Chumley. And hand over that chocolate bar! I digress...

Just when I thought I knew what old was, York was established in 71 A.D. as a Roman outpost. Chumley picked up a silver Roman denarius (plural form denarii) he seemed chuffed (pleased) with. One denarius was about what a common day laborer or soldier would get paid each day. Beats a glittery "York is for Dorks" ruler that I was considering as a souvenir. The old Roman fort was built on the current site of York Minster, the city's cathedral.

York has a magnificent city wall still standing, mostly intact, which is a rarity. Some parts are Roman, some are Norman, but the newest additions are medieval. Those newfangled renovations! Boiling oil, long bows, crossbows - they all got fired off the top of the wall at the unpopular invaders below. I got nervous walking under the portcullis -- the massive, waffle-y gate with sharp, spikey ends that lowers to close various gates to the city. Think of it as a piece of sinister iron Chex mix ready to drop at any moment. It's not like they installed it last year so far as maintenance goes.

After a busy first day of sightseeing, we met some friends at a pub, by pure chance. Where did we find them, you ask? A little place called "The Yorkshire Terrier." Not a live dog to be found, but scary just the same. As they say, just call me "Claire-voyant." I found that a pint of cider took the edge off my self-inflicted heebie jeebies.

Much more on York to come...