Friday, 30 October 2009

The Quest for Coziness



People here are burying their nuts for winter, though it hasn't come close to freezing yet.  I'm not really seeing the source of their anxiety, given that it's almost November and today's high will be 61F.  But rest assured, they think doom looms from under the drafty door.  How can I tell?  I was walking though a shopping center yesterday and happened upon the most impressive display of decorative and functional hot water bottles I've ever seen.  By my recollection, I last saw a hot water bottle sometime in the early '80s.  There must have been at least 40 different varieties for the chronically chilly to choose from.  My favorite are the faux fur sorts.
 
In case you think the Paris Hilton range is a bit too woofty (translated candy ass) and you need a manlier model, consider this edgy specimen, just in time for Halloween:

I'm not quite sure how most people use these.  Do they snuggle up to their skull and crossbones at night?  Are they especially handy to take the edge off that chilly car ride?  Or are they just an excuse to carry a personal hot water supply for tea at all times?  I've been assured that the level of complaints about the cold will steadily rise as the temperature drops. 

Come on now, people.  What ever happened to stiff upper lip and an extra jumper (sweater)?  Or how about a nice lap cat?  To give an example of how comparatively lovely the climate is, Chumley has just purchased a peach tree for my birthday, and the lady at the garden center assured me it would be absolutely fine in a clay pot over the winter.  Seriously!  It's practically Italy!  Back in the American midwest, the only thing we could grow over winter in pots was an icicle.


I don't think I'll be able to convince the English of how good they have it.  Even their hot water bottles get a bit chilly sometimes.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Pump it Up, But Don't Drink the Water

This past weekend, Chumley and I were fortunate enough to be invited to a splendid wedding and reception in the town Cheltenham, which is a few hours east of us in the Cotswolds.  It's a spa town with the last and best pump room of the Regency era.  Think Jane Austen.  But before I selected my empire gown, the first order of business was for me to learn how to pronounce our destination in a way that did not resemble an order at the butcher's counter.  Chumley deftly filled the role of my elocution coach.
 
"CHHHHHHHHHHelt - num!" I would spout after several seconds of deep thought.

"No, no, you're attacking it," he would reply, trying to stifle the giggles inevitably elicited when those folksy Americans try pronouncing localities with no less than five silent letters.  I just laugh at Welsh, by the way.  "Try again."

Soon, I began saying CHELT-num as an impromptu curse word around the house.  I couldn't seem to edit out the rage.  After months of random CHELT-nums in the car, during dinner, and whispered at the movies, I got a "very good!" from Chumley and the feeling that I just might have it down.

I have now been to five English weddings, including my own.  By no means am I expert, but I would consider myself a well-practiced observer.  I associate English weddings with hats.  I myself avoid hats as I just know they make my head look fat.  On others, however, they can be quite slimming - especially when the size of the hat virtually dwarfs its wearer.  I also enjoy donning a clean suit and going on fascinator watch.  A fascinator is basically a small spaceship that has run into a bird of some sort on its way to earth, eventually touching down on a woman's head.  They are appropriate for weddings and horse races.  They do serve their intended purpose - I do find them fascinating, especially when several women are wearing them in close orbit.  I would not be surprised to find crop circles at the salad bar. To be honest, as with a close alien encounter, they freak me out. 

The reception was held at the Pittville Pump Rooms, a depressing sounding but truly magnificent venue built in 1825.  For your reference, Jane Austen died in 1817, so the style of the architecture would have been similar to where they've filmed movie versions of many of her novels.  Cheltenham was a spa town that grew fashionable after the locals noticed a flock of pidgeons that hung out at a particular spring-fed puddle seemed to live long and prosper.  This was in the eighteenth century, so it couldn't have been the stray chip that sustains them today.  People began to "take the waters," and ultimately, Mr. Pitt of Pittville fame built his Pump Room after George III visited in 1888 and really got the place hopping.  Thanks to the building code equivalent of Botox, the Pump Room and the entire town are in a remarkable state of preservation.

Despite the opportunity to be authentic, I eschewed the empire waist gown concept but still remained on Mr. Darcy-watch.  No lambchop sideburns, but a lovely roast beef dinner instead.  English wedding cake is traditionally a fruit cake surrounded by a layer of marzipan and fondant icing, and I managed to breathe deeply and wedge a piece down.  I was not so keen, however, to partake of the spa water, the Pump Room's raison d'etre, but a hideous surprise for those in the know.

Back in the days I was young and enthusiastic, I visited the Pump Room at Bath.  I was bowled over by the Roman Spa, and my joy continued into the Pump Room dining area, where a dandy dressed in Regency garb taunted me with a glass of water drawn from the hot springs, full of "43 vitamins and minerals."  At the bargain tourist rate of two pounds per glass (insert sardonic wit here) I was swept up by the fancy fish fountain dispenser and sudden thirst.  I coughed up the money, but then choked on the water that tasted like a warm, rotten egg.  I avoided a public spit take and, in fact, drained my glass out of spite.  It was probably a good thing that I sat alone on the bus ride home.  The fury and fumes would have been overwhelming.

The Pittville Pump Room still has its operational and recently refurbished pump house, or more simply hot water tap in an ornate marble closet.  I was much too occupied with the delicious mulled wine being served instead, which was clearly kept well away from the spa water. 

My lessons learned are that some wedding truths are universal.  A drunk person will attempt to engage you in conversation.  You may be trapped by a close talker.  In fact, these people may be one in the same.  Bad kids may run amuck, albeit breifly. Most importantly, there will be cake, Darcy or no Darcy.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Chew on This



I was reading a local interest magazine when I learned that our city has been chosen as one of 15 local areas to take part in the Keep Britain Tidy Chewing Gum Action campaign.  (For my non-UK readers, the word "tidy" gets used a lot in England.  It is certainly a very desirable state of being, especially for Chumley.)  To be clear, no one like sitting or stepping in gum.  But one man's defacement is another man's art - the picture at right is considered a piece of "folk art" in Charleston, South Carolina.  Yes, I can see a lot of tenderness and TMJ went into this work.  The value of the Dubble Bubble used alone has to be $10 or so.

Someone must have alerted the local authorities I have arrived.  It is not a rumor - I am indeed the 1981 Illinois State Fair Bubble Yum Bubble Gum bubble blowing champion.  I was not yet six years of age at the time -- use the term "prodigy" if you must.  I later expanded my oeuvre/carnie skills to blowing a bubble within a bubble within a bubble.  Like the Olympics, once that feat was achieved, where else was there to go?

Thanks to training by my tidy mother, I have always thrown my gum away in bins (the trash), or swallowed it if desperate. I only once used it to deface property.  I'm specifically recalling the ordeal around age 6 where I fell asleep with gum in my mouth.  My mother woke me in the morning and discovered, much to her horror, a massive gob firmly embedded in my long, flowing hair that had also won the 1981 Illinois State Fair prize for longest ponytail in age group.  Let my readers glean that gum chewing and hair growing are not necessarily good hobbies to pursue in tandem.  After what I recall as a major flap involving moaning, hand-wringing, and the desperate but ineffectual use of peanut butter and ice cubes, she schlepped me over to my grandma's to see if the kid oracle might have the solution.  Nope.  I had a major hunk of hair missing for a few months, but I don't seem to recall minding.  It didn't interfere with my gum chewing schedule.

Our local city is concerned with a number of "gum hot spots."  The amount of gum in these areas will be measured and cleaned over the next three months.  I pity the poor soul who gets that job assignment.  Is his official title "Council Gobstopper?" Do they measure by ruler, or merely by volume of waddage?  Lest you think I am joking, the official website is http://www.chewinggumactiongroup.org.uk/.

I believe I have a solution.  My mother combined her love of cute arts and crafts and tidiness by buying me what is known as a gum parker.  My first one had a little baseball mitt in glazed ceramic, dutifully displayed on my dresser.  When full, the gob of gum saved looked like a colorful baseball in the mitt, or in my case a basketball.  I tended to chew as much as my mouth could hold.  I upgraded years later to the model below, which our moving man recently unearthed in our kitchenware.  Isn't that where you would keep your gum parker?  The man seemed stumped, but that could have been his expression for grossed out.


In sum, I think personal gum parkers are the answer.  It would save quite a few man hours currently devoted to all this unauthorized parking.

To be fair, Chumley abhors my gum parker and everything it stands for.  Nevermind him.  And I thought he was all for recycling?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Instant Korma's Going to Get You


Hello again, fair readers.  After a regretable week's absence from the blog, I join you once more with a shiny, new Packard Bell and a renewed sense of computing reliability.  Our new PC is black, which is appropriate considering we mourn our old Compaq.  We have held the funeral, but have yet to dispose of the body.  This whole situation has the trappings of Jacko's demise.  We're not sure when the results of the post-mortem will be released.  We remember the Compaq with both nostalgia for its brilliant moments (creating UK-sized passport photos out of our own flattering pictures) and bewilderment with its strange behavior in its last days.  All it wanted to do was sleep.  I don't believe any charges will be pressed against its incompetent medical staff, however.

As promised, I thought I would give my impressions of recently joined English Weight Watchers.  I have no experience with American Weight Watchers, but of another "fat club" instead, so perhaps there are culturally significant differences to discuss.

My meeting is held in an old stately manor house converted to a Best Western Hotel.  I had to mind my head on an original stone, gothic arch as I trekked to the meeting room.  They had less to eat in those days, so perhaps the atmosphere is supportive from a historical point of view.  I doubt there was a concept such as "low-fat" in the 17th century.  Maybe they got activity points from lively games of croquet on the grounds, which are a sprawling 20 acres.


My entire reason for joining is to pound the brakes on steady weight gain accelleration (as aggravated by the foods discussed in prior postings).  I haven't mentioned my unsettling hobby of finding very tasty ready meals (mostly Indian) in the marked-down bins at Tesco and hording them in the freezer for future Chumley-friendly dinners.  Indeed, instant korma has gotten me up a few pounds.  Enter gothic dieting.

My first meeting was a good experience, especially after I pinpointed the source a soft but steady crunching noise.  I had heard the place had a ghost or two, but the meeting was not advertised as "scare your way thin."  Everyone in the meeting was crunching bags of crisps and chips after they had weighed in.  Our astute leader was selling them at a little kiosk in the back of the room, which could be viewed both as entrapment for the perennially hungry and a brilliant stroke of business acumen.  I did wonder if this activity was a bit counterproductive.  They were eating with gusto.

I am happy to report success so far, despite snarfing an entire box of diet chocolate covered toffee bars procured from the "crack shack" at last week's meeting.  The entire box was 7 1/2 points, and I was trying to blend with the natives by partaking of their weight loss rituals.  I have valid sociological reasons for such snarfing.

Post script confidential to J and ST:  I lost 5 pounds despite eating the entire bag of Cheetos you sent.  They were my lunch one day, and I have never been so happy to be covered in fake neon cheese powder.  Wotsits here just aren't the same.  I am forever in your debt.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

I've Got a Nut on a String



I should have known something was brewing.  The usually mild Chumley had made a habit out of scouring the grounds under horse chestnut trees lately, looking for conkers (buckeyes in American.)  Like a large child, he would silently sidle up to me and hand me a conker, smile wryly, and then carry on his business.  "But we have nuts at home," I protested.  "No, you're here with me at the moment," he would reply.  I was thoroughly confused.  Did he want me to put it in my purse?  Was it mine, or was I merely the custodian?  Were we to keep these as offerings to the mystical killer squirrels that might cross our path later?

All was made clear when we attended the World Conker Championships in a miniscule village called Ashton last weekend.  It was held in a large field, and the first thing we saw upon arrival was a massive conker on a string, suspended from a crane.  Conkers is actually a game, where the participants select nuts that have been drilled and strung through out of a nutbag.  The object of the game is to take turns wailing on your opponent's stationary nut on a string.  The first person to crack the other person's nut wins.

Conkers fans are not a subdued bunch, by any means.  It's common to coalesce conker talent into teams, and to dress your team members in the most unusual costumes possible.  One team came as the many looks of Michael Jackson.  I watched Michael from the "Bad" album go to town on some poor kid in neon yellow leggings.  Despite the chilly autumn weather, I spied one team of men in thin capes and stripey Speedo underwear.  As the competition wore on, their nuts were devastated.

In this safety-first country, I am sometimes surprised at what passes for a good idea.  They had a miniature mechanical bull meant for children to be flung from.  A succession of children lined up for the privilege, only to be tossed off and reduced to tears afterwards.  Had they not just seen the precedent set by their fellow youth?  Luckily, they were located very nearby the hot chocolate booth.  One sugary drink and a trip to the bouncy castle later, they were back in the saddle.

We have a small collection of conkers on our dining room table, thanks to Chumley's trolling efforts.  We might have enough to launch our own miniature tournament.  If you ask Chumley, there's no need to adjudicate who is the nuttiest. 

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

English Culinary Haiku


Just to ensure my fair readers don't tire of nonstop narrative, I've decided to branch out with a few little creative works I can use during the performance art segment of my first Weight Watcher's meeting on Thursday. (Don't they have a performance art segment?  I can see the downsides: most artists in this school would pick baking as their chosen medium.) I digress.



Diet shot to hell
Granary bread is toasting
Toffee's just like crack


or


Custard on the hob
Feeling like a giant blob
Gym clothes way too tight


That's it.  I'm afraid the gravy train of good living has crashed, and I've got to climb back on the first wagon I find, to mix transportation metaphors.  I've been to a weight loss group (I called it "Fat Club") back in the States, so I'm interested to see how the vibe is different.  My last experience was high in entertainment value: stories of slip-ups on sliders at Burger King, confessions of emotional baking, and laments about how lardy one felt after consuming an entire pound of grapes.  (OK, that last one was me, and grapes were on the program.) 

I'll keep you posted.  Until then, I'm looking for a word that rhymes with "shortcrust pastry."


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

When One Door Closes, a Flesh Wound Opens


It was late at night and all I wanted was to go to sleep as quickly as possible.  I didn't bother to turn on another set of lights after flicking the kitchen light off.  After a sufficient amount of time, I knew how to navigate in the dark down a hallway to get to the bedroom.  Or so I thought.  The sound my lethargic body made colliding with an unexpected closed door was a cringe-inducing thud, followed by some expletive I couldn't catch on its way out. 

Chumley was at it again.

For those of you who might ever live in an English house, let me substitute my pain for yours by filling you in on a quirky yet important factoid.  English houses have many doors, and their inhabitants aren't afraid to use them.

I'll explain.  This little domestic issue between us started back in the States, when we got married and I moved to his 1920's era house, complete with a few more doors than most American homes had.  There, the doors were nice and hollow, so they made a cheery ball-cracking-a-baseball-bat sound when my forehead hit them in the middle of the night.  He explained that English homes have radiators, and it's helpful to close doors to keep the heat in.  I reminded him that his American house had a furnace and forced-air heat, so no door closures were necessary.  I inspected the toes on my right foot for broken bones and forgot the matter...

Until last night. English homes have doors that separate every major room, as well as hallways.  Yes, I think closing them makes a difference when the radiators are on, but not enough to risk being body-checked at 1:30 am when I get up and forget Chumley has been on rounds.  I'm sure he would appreciate an advent calendar with all the doors permanently closed.  I reported my injuries to his complaint desk, but it was closed, too. 

Monday, 5 October 2009

Tatoo, Too Much


There I was, fiddling with my floatie belt in a somewhat geriatric-populated water aerobics class when I spied a large, dark pink splotch on the shoulder blade of a woman who had acquired a certain patina, shall we say.  She looked 70 if she was a day, so I pitied the poor soul, who had probably undergone an unpleasant laser treatment or skin biopsy for an affliction ending in "oma."   The instructor called out to paddle into a circle formation during the last minute of "Disco Inferno," and I found myself bobbing behind the "oma."  Imagine my surprise to find that upon closer scrutiny, her affliction was a recently inked pink elephant that took up far too much real estate on her left shoulder blade.  I looked away, but not in time.  She sloshed on and splashed me in the face with her floaty water dumbell.  At least I was blinded and spared from further visual assault.

I cannot help but notice the prevalence and social acceptance of tatoos in the UK.  They don't carry nearly the stigma of the docks as they do in the U.S.  My gentle readers by now can figure out by now that of the two schools of thought on tatoos, I am firmly enrolled in Anti Tramp Stamp U.  Not only are they permanent signs of a temporary fancy, but what sounds like a fine idea in youth after a few drinks in time turns into a shapeless blob.  I mean the tatoo, not its wearer.  I met a gentleman just yesterday who looked perilously close to retirement, but the tatoos all up and down his forearms should have retired years ago.  One blob looked like a ladies handbag.  Could he have foreseen or wanted that effect?  There is probably a course in psychological training where one can interpret deep issues by staring into amoebic tatoos on pensioners.

I knew a girl in college who was particularly proud of a small Kermit the Frog she had gotten tatooed just above her hip bone.  Aside from the subject matter, it was at least in a place not visible, and small.  Women with tatoos that I've personally observed seem obsessed with showing the world their poor judgement.  A girl pouring drinks at a pub turned to get a bottle as I noticed she had prominently displayed bat wings tatooed on her back.  Aren't there easier and cheaper ways to look like Satan's minions?

In sum, down with tramp stamps, regardless of your nationality.  If this is the land of the tea cozy, why can't some gran knit a tatoo cozy?  I know it won't be the lady sporting the pink elephant.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Lizzie, Get Your Gun

As the days turn a bit colder, or "fresher" as the BBC weatherpeople like to say, so begins my first experience with radiators and Cox's Orange Pippin.  I'm afraid the former came with our house, but we purchased a small Mercedes full of these fine apples at Sandringham, the royal family's Christmas hangout and modest hunting lodge. 

Perhaps I should just come clean with all of my dear readers right away: I am a fruit fiend with no desire to seek therapy. While others may have ventured to Sandringham for the lovely gardens or opportunity to tour yet another royal residence, my main purpose in making the trek was to load my vehicle with as many pippins from the Royal Orchards as it could hold.  If my aunt once filled a Buick with shoes when moving house, surely a few hundred apples through the back hatch would be a Victoria sponge cakewalk.   It would not do to confess this mission to Chumley right away, as he would have perceived it as a terrorist plot and labeled me as crazier than I already am, if that's even possible.

Under the guise of me as a mild-mannered foreign tourist, we embarked.  First things first, though.  I was at the wheel when I saw the signs for royal pick your own.  (Do the royals pick their own?) After leaving a small dust cloud as I aggressively turned off the main road, I ambled down the sandy lane surrounded by woods, following the "PYO" signs like a fox, and feeling the adrenaline rush at the prospect of so much fruit in one place.  To my utter devastation, the orchards were closed until 1 p.m., and it was only 11:30.  I felt like Clark W. Griswald marooned at Wallyworld.  After throttling the steering wheel in disappointed rage, I suppose we had to take the house tour until the loading dock opened.  Based on his alarmed reaction, I think Chumley was starting to catch on.

Sandringham the house is not an overly large royal home -- a mere drop in the fountain compared to Buckingham Palace.  A large array of Asian armor and various pointy metal objects were artfully splayed across many walls, and Chumley noticed that he did not find the deadly objects to be particularly well secured.  Motivated once more by our fear of Interpol, we decided this theory was best left untested. 

We arrived in a room devoted to the display of many guns under glass, as well as artistic renderings of the Queen holding up a pheasant she'd recently shot.  Her expression was particularly happy, much happier than the group shots of her and the house's staff from 1979.  Granted, if I were wearing that much polyester, I'd find it hard to smile, too.

The culumnation of the house's sporty theme was in a separate museum, which devoted a wing to the exotic game trophies of kings past.  I couldn't help but look into the glass eyes of various mounted stuffed heads and wonder if they were on remote controls for use around Haloween.  Some of the lions were stuffed in particularly rageful poses, which I recognized from my experience earlier that day at the empty orchard car park.

We found an obliging garden shop with pre-bagged orchard apples, and I whimpered enough to get Chumley to buy me the economy bag plus one for good measure.  Of course, I was expected to keep up my end of the bargain, and in thanksgiving, promptly baked a blackberry and apple crumble, with a smattering of custard.  As I've decided to be truthful, I might as well confess that I'm not making crumble at all, but the more American apple crisp topping with oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs.  An American friend commented to me, and rightly so, that all the pub crumbles she's tried have been rather dry. I can't help but agree, as I got the urge to dig through one memorable specimen with a garden spade instead of my dessert spoon.  When concealed with the magical condiment of Ambrosia low-fat Devon custard, my ruse is complete.

So far, this conspiracy has remained undetected.