Category Archives: daily life

Floating Dreams

I looked forward to my walk to the Leisure Centre every couple of days.  Once I was able to fight my way through the tourists snapping photos of swans (I, of course, was not a tourist when I did the same thing), and maneuver around the tourists who stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk to consult a map, and make a wide berth around the tour groups queuing at the boat landing waiting for their tour, I dropped down to the level of the river and was home free.  No tourist was interested in going to the Leisure Centre, but the route was one of the prettiest in Windsor.

Over the period of my month there I rambled all over. I’ve never been one to take the same walk over and over, and this part of the world offered a different path every day—across meadows, along each bank of the river and its tributaries, and through quiet parts of Eton and Windsor—yes, they do exist.  These are views from the south bank of the Thames.  You can see Eton College buildings in the background.

I passed three narrow boats (or canal boats as they are also called) on my way to the Leisure Centre: Theresa Jones, Liberty Bell, and Ratty’s Retreat. Also a gratuitous swan photo.

I went on a very long walk one day and caught all kinds of narrow boats.

There was a boat yard with a bulletin board full of boats for sale.

Naturally I started daydreaming about buying and living on a boat.  “Edwardian Launch,” “Swedish Weekender,” “Gentleman’s Launch.”  The types of boats sounded so romantic.

The biggest one was 35 feet long.  But how wide was it?  Did 6’ 9” beam mean how high the ceilings were?  What was a Kubota Nanni diesel, 4cyl 36 hp—ah, presumably a motor.  Was that big, fast, and good brand?  “Pump out WC”—that didn’t sound like much fun, although my sister has described the process of sewage sucking from her camper and it’s not as bad as it sounds.

I looked at houseboats in St. Paul once.  I was enamored of one that was quite spacious, with a deck and a hot tub. For only about $25,000, I could have had her.  Then I would have had to install a new engine ($10,000) and replace the composting toilet with a suckable one ($2,000).

I wouldn’t have to pay property taxes!  My view of the city would have been fantastic.

However, my neighbors’ views of me would have also been spectacular, since the boats were berthed with only about 10 feet apart.  When winter came, I would have to place bubbler$ around the boat to prevent this from happening:

And in spring when the ice melted, there was the risk of this, and having to have your boat towed back to the marina ($$).  Or maybe just sold for scrap.

I barely know how to check the oil in my car, and in the end I decided I wasn’t a great candidate to live on a boat.  There’s a saying among boat owners, “The happiest day of your life is the day you buy your boat.  The second happiest is the day you sell it.”

There’s an outdoors club called The Minnesota Rovers. A member is organizing a boat and hiking trip in England next spring.  If you’re interested, I can send his contact info.

Leave Wootten Wawen, Warwickshire and cruise the Avon Ring for the first two weeks of May 2018 on a boat like this.

Video about canal boating: Boater’s Handbook

TV show “Great Canal Journeys”: Stratford-on-Avon canal

“No one is obligated to keep to the same schedule as me, although I would enjoy the company for any or all of it!  For the hiking part of the extended trip, I’m planning to take the English “Gentleman Hillwalker” approach, where we set up a base in some central location, like Stow on the Wold, and walk circular day trips along the high ridges and through picturesque villages, using trains and buses to reach trailheads when needed.  This would be immediately after the boat trip, in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’

Knock Offs and Knick Knacks

I went shopping the day after my meeting debacle.  The UK is not a cheap place to live.  The Sales were on for the summer holidays, but things were still “very dear”, as they say.  For instance, a pair of black leather ballet flats cost £80—on sale.  When I worked for Oxfam years ago I was paid in pounds, which helped.  But now I had an American job that paid in dollars, so those shoes would have cost me $105.

My usual shopping strategy is: Go to every store in town, look at every item in every store, buy nothing, go home. Sometimes I buy things but then for one reason or another most of them have to be returned.  It was going to be extra hard to make decisions here.

Also, it seemed like English women must have smaller feet than me, because my size shoes were in the section that, in America, very large tall transvestites would have shopped.  Bras were the opposite problem.  The bra cups on offer were big enough to fit over my head.  Not that I did that.  At least not when anyone was looking.

I looked in Cath Kidston, almost as a joke.  I love her stuff but a little goes a long way and as I already knew, country flowers weren’t a good work look.

I bought a phone case and some pajama bottoms patterned with guinea pigs having birthday parties.  I resisted the flouncy guinea pig skirt.

Next I went to TK Maxx, which is called TJ Maxx in the US.  Still expensive and hard to find anything that worked.  Then I hit rock bottom and bravely walked into Primark, which is dirt cheap with quality to match.  Because it was the sales, the store was packed with teenagers and their mothers and clothes were strewn all over.  The clothing was adorable but if I even had to ask myself, “Would this lacy, skin-tight, fuchsia, sequined, leopard patterned hoodie be appropriate for my next work meeting?” I had my answer.  I bought a pair of pink satin ballet flats for £6.  Not exactly work attire but I couldn’t resist.

The queue was 25 people deep and Justin Bieber was bleating at an ear-shattering volume on the overhead speakers.  I ran out of Primark like I was being chased by a velociraptor and started to hit the thrift stores, which they call charity shops because well, they are all run by and for charities.

Oxfam has 650 shops in the UK. They stock second hand clothes but also new stuff from around the world like beaded bracelets made by Kenyan orphans, organic Palestinian olive oil, and cards designed by blind tribal elders in Nepal.  It’s all beautiful stuff, and I bought some cards and a pair of socks knit in Bolivia that were guaranteed not to fall down.

I hit Age Concern, British Heart, Save the Children, and Mind, which is a mental health charity.  Second hand clothes in the UK are really rubbish. I don’t know if someone skims off the cream and sells it on EBay before it reaches the charity shops, but they are full of sweaters with stretched out sleeves and 1980s jungle print dresses.

The Thames Hospice shop specializes in vintage. I spent an hour in there and left with a pair of vintage shoes that were too small, a pair of shoe stretchers, and horse brass, which is useless but I like how it looks on my wall.

I bought the ship, which has a useful hook, in Amalfi, Italy.

None of this was going to impress in my next work meeting except maybe the shoes, if I could stretch them out a couple sizes.  Once I inspected closely, however, I discovered they were not vintage at all but in fact made of plastic.  They would have to go back to the shop, along with the shoe stretchers.

Eventually I discovered Daniel, a department store with only beautiful, high-quality things.

I went in several times to fondle the cashmere sweaters, drool over the shoes, and try on hats.  Eventually I bought some things, using the time-tested rationale, “I deserve it.” And ya know, maybe I did.

One with the Swans

I waved Sam and Gwen and the baby off as they headed to Heathrow in a black cab with their luggage and all the extra paraphernalia you need to travel with a kid.

I was really happy for them; they are a great couple and now with an adorable toddler I hoped they would all—especially Gwen—get some R&R in the beautiful lakes and woods of northern Minnesota.

I had wondered how working remotely would go. It went really well!  I thought I would be distracted by all there was to do in England, but because I had gone down to 80% time and stockpiled my vacation days, it worked out that I only worked about 24 hours per week.  There was no reason to do this in 8-hour days.  If I worked six days a week, for instance, that was only four hours a day.

In the office, there are phones ringing, the front door buzzer going off, and people stopping by my cube to chat but at Sam and Gwen’s there was none of this, so I could actually concentrate better and draw a line between work and fun time.

I would make eggs with mushrooms and tomatoes for breakfast while listening to Radio 4, then settle down to work.

When I logged on, my email was full of messages from the afternoon and evening of the previous day.  I would get a few messages from my colleagues in Ethiopia or Jordan in the first part of the day, but nothing from the USA until 2pm. This also helped me to focus.  It was easy to knock out four hours before anyone could send me more work.

I clocked off mid-afternoon and went for a walk or to the Leisure Centre to lift weights or take a yoga class.  It was unBritishly hot, with temperatures over 90F (32C) the first week I was there.  It was cooler by the river, which was just steps from the house.  I love how everything in these old towns in jumbled on top of everything else—ancient buildings, more ancient buildings, gates, lanes, walls, towers.

I crossed a meadow to a back water of the Thames with views of Eton Chapel.

Growing up in St. Paul, we were warned to NEVER swim in the river.  The Mississippi River, that is.  If I turned around from these views, I face a swimming hole.  An old guy was swimming, so I returned the next day with my suit.  It was icy cold and took me 15 minutes to wade in; I’m pretty sure those shrieks I heard were mine.

Some families arrived upstream and the kids jumped in and splashed about.  If parents thought this was safe enough for their kids, surely it was safe enough for me.  I stood in the water up to my neck, cooling off and enjoying the scenery—the chapel to one side and woods and swans floating by on the other, their whiteness reflected on the black water.

This was my daily routine for a week, until it cooled off.  I would return home to join Skype calls or polish off more emails before clocking off again, making dinner, and watching EastEnders or some other crap TV while eating and having a glass of wine.

Or, I would try a new place to eat, usually a pub.  I ate at the Waterman’s Arms the first Sunday.

Fish and chips, cider, the Times … the Thames, swans, summer.  It was bliss. This was living.

Except for my Restless Legs. You would think I would sleep deeply with all the fresh air and exercise and heavy food, but I tossed and kicked and moaned and swore up and down and ran up and down the steps all night, every night, trying to get some relief, some sleep.  RLS sounds like a silly condition but it is torment.  Other than that, life was grand.

People have asked if I got lonely.  I did wish for company sometimes, but my friends Heidi and Julie happened to be around.  On weekends and days off I would go to Stonehenge or The Tower or Wimbledon.  How lucky am I to write that sentence?

Eton, Finally

Eton, England is a small city of about 4,700 inhabitants in the county of Berkshire, England. Or as they call it, “Berks.”  As I’ve said, it’s home to Eton College, which adds another 1,200 boys to the population.

Eton is confusing to Americans.  It’s called a college but it’s what we would call a high school.  It’s an all-boys boarding school, which is an alien concept to 99% of us just as it probably is to the 99% of English people who can’t or won’t send their 13-year-old away.  It’s a public school, which we would call a private school.  It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, yet it is only the 18th oldest school in Britain.  The oldest seems to be Warwick, founded in 914.

I want to paint a picture of Eton for you without being creepy and violating Sam’s privacy.  These are some views of the High Street from my bedroom:

Sam’s place is like the three-story building on the left.  It’s above a tailor’s shop.  Lest you think I just gave away the location of the house because there is only one tailor shop in your city of half a million people, there are seven tailor shops in Eton and neighboring Windsor to care for the uniforms the students and masters (teachers) must wear:

It would have been nice to see more of these formally-dressed men and boys flocking through the streets, but the reason Sam was going to the States for the month was the summer holidays.  A few days after I arrived, they all disappeared and were replaced by Spanish and Chinese tour groups.

The house was three stories.  Entering from the street, you came into a hallway that led to the back garden and stairs to the first and second floors (or second and third, if you’re American). There wasn’t really a back garden, just a passageway, but Sam’s wife had installed planters with geraniums to echo the window boxes which I watered every day.

There were 15 winding steps to the first storey.  Or story, as we would write it in the US.  Here there were two bedrooms, one of which was mine.  Mine!  A beautiful, spacious guest room in Eton for a month!

Fifteen more steps led to the top floor, with the master bedroom, bathroom, livingroom, and kitchen.  This was my favorite space.

I worked at the big farm table which looked out over the ball fields and the Eton science building, and I had easy access to keeping myself stoked with coffee and tea.  I felt like I was on the Great British Baking Show, except I had to write grant proposals instead of make French macaroons.

Rob’s wife has lovely taste.  She had rightly insisted on moving their refrigerator from London.  There was also a DeLonghi toaster.

I love the name SMEG.  In fact I couldn’t stop saying it in my head, so I would turn on the John Lewis radio to Radio 4, which is like NPR in the US only with more very long stories involving people whispering in meadows as they crept up on bees and recorded their buzzing.

The bathroom had several common British features that Americans find puzzling.  One: separate taps.

To wash your hands with warm water—not scalding hot or freezing cold—you have to put in the plug, mix water in the basin, then drain the sink and repeat this to rinse.

I would guess the house was Edwardian (1901-1910).  All the period features such as the fireplaces had been stripped out long ago.

Some of the windows were crooked—intentionally?

Nearby was the ubiquitous toilet brush which had to be employed on a regular basis because most British toilets … just don’t do the job the first time.

I’d encountered this shower set up before so I was prepared for it. A very high tub paired with a sheet of glass or Plexiglas that must weigh 100 pounds.  You instinctively want to grab it, but woe unto you if you do, because it swings back and forth.  Why?  I don’t know.  Then there is the shower plumbing, also a mystery.

To be fair, there are American things that make Brits wonder, such as cutting our food with the fork in our left hand, then switching to our right to actually eat.

Getting the Shaft in Shaftsbury

Shaftsbury, England.  I awoke before dawn to the sound of a car driving slowly into the gravel parking lot.  The driver got out and walked to the entrance, crunch, crunch, crunch.  I was just falling back to sleep when he or she must have gone back out to get luggage.  More crunch, crunch, crunch on top of rolling crunchiness.  Another car pulled in, more heavy rolling crunchiness.

Lynn exclaimed from the darkness on her side of the room, “Whoever thought it was a good idea to have a gravel driveway in a hotel?!”

“I know!  Well at least no invading armies are going to sneak up on us.”

“Right.” she replied drily.

There was no going back to sleep now so we went down to breakfast. I ordered kippers, which I’d had never had, and Lynn had a Full English minus the blood sausage.

Blood sausage is just what it sounds like, sausage made of blood.  I think it’s a food that’s traditional and no one really likes it but they keep it on the menu for tradition’s sake.  Most Brits I’ve mentioned it to made a horrid face.  Is it like lutefisk or gefilte fish?  No one likes either one, but people put it out once a year because it’s “tradition.”  Blood sausage is on the menu everywhere, so I don’t know, maybe lots of people love it.  What do you think?

Me, I love fish, so I was happy with the kippers.

The Daily Mail had this cover in regard to the Grenfell Tower fire:

I think the Queen learned some lessons in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, when she was accused of being cold.  Maybe she can give Theresa May some pointers about getting down with the people.

We walked into town to Shaftsbury Abbey, or what was left of it.

The abbey had been a regional center of power until Henry VIII had it destroyed along with all the other monasteries in the 16th Century. The piles of stones on either side are where the pillars of the nave were.

A small display inside the visitors’ centre featured a few shattered carvings, remnants of painted sculptures, and a diorama of what the abbey had looked like.  It must have been enormous and fantastically beautiful.  Henry VIII was known to appreciate beautiful things, so why destroy the abbey, down to the ground?  Why not just seize the gold candlesticks and leave the building with its gilded arches and ornate carvings?  It was a display of power, of course.  He had half a dozen of his own palaces, so a couple hundred monasteries out in the sticks were no loss.  He was a red-headed megalomaniac who loved his palaces and couldn’t stand for anyone else to … wait, why does that sound familiar?

Here are the names of some of the abbesses.

It was lunchtime  and we picked our way carefully down Gold Hill to find a pub someone had recommended.

I had one of the most memorable meals of the summer at this pub, a fish pie with turmeric.

I tried to replicate it once since I’ve been home but didn’t get it right.

Of course what goes down must come up—no, I didn’t vomit up the fish pie—we had to walk back up the hill.

We walked a few paces, stopped to take photos, then walked some more.

It’s not that we couldn’t have hiked straight up the hill without a break—really.  But it is true that a summer of fish pies and pints means I really need to get back to the gym.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe next week.

Next we visited the historical museum.  Shaftsbury was once a center for cottage industries, which just means people sat in their cottages and made things, like buttons. These are the forms and the finished buttons.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries thousands of women and children were employed making “Dorset Buttons.” The button-making machine caused these cottage industries to collapse after 1750, and the gentry “helped the unemployed workers to emigrate to Canada and Australia.” That’s one way to solve your unemployment problem.

FYI, I’m going to DC for work and won’t be blogging for a week or so.

Rolling Along

The days rolled along.  Lynn and I visited scenic places in the morning, worked in the afternoon, and watched movies or TV at night.  We went to Padstow, which has become a tourist draw due to the presence of celebrity chef Rick Stein.  He’s got at least three restaurants in this small town, ranging from a fish and chips shop to a white linen place.  Lynn and I had the fish and chips and agreed it wasn’t any better or different from fish and chips anywhere else.  But Padstein, as it has been nicknamed, was a lovely town.

We visited The Eden Project, an educational and scientific environmental enterprise.  The exhibits are housed in enormous geodesic domes.  Each dome features a different region of the world, from South American rain forest to Australian outback.  They had a great gift shop where, believe it or not, I bought some environmentally-friendly underwear so I would have at least one pair that wasn’t blue.

Once I was past the shock of having to shout over disco karaoke to make myself heard in a work Skype meeting, the remote work wasn’t so bad.  I would do things that required concentration, like editing, at the cottage.  With no internet, I was not tempted to check my email or distracted by pop ups.  Then I would walk over to the lodge and send emails or have Skype calls.

We ate breakfast and dinner at the lodge and became friendly with the cook and waitress.  We learned the resort had been struggling financially and had been sold to a new owner.  All the employees were holding their breath to find out if they would have jobs in a month, or scrambling to find new jobs.  The waitress told us that her passion was theater; she had just handed in her notice and would be gone soon to run her own theater nearby.

The cook reminded me of Vince, my son.  He had creative cooking aspirations in a place where people only wanted fish and chips.  Every morning he would offer us something new—the crayfish omelets were memorable.  We would enthusiastically accept and show appreciation for whatever he made, which seemed to make him happy.  He told us he was waiting to see which way the wind blew with the new owner.  He had a new menu up his sleeve with imaginative dishes and he was prepared to roll it out here or take it somewhere else.  Both he and the waitress had other jobs on the side.  It was a typical rural employment situation, where people were hustling to cobble together a living and also striving to do creative things to stave off boredom and keep from going crazy.

At the end of a week, we pulled out of the killer driveway for the last time and headed to Charmouth, which is near Lyme Regis, another town you’ve probably never heard of.  Both are in Dorset, the next county east of Cornwall.  Specifically, they are in west Dorset.  This became apparent when we moved on to Devon a few days later, because the local maps we’d acquired only included the western half of the county.  So we drove to the edge of the map and then had to switch to our atlas.

Anyway, we stayed at the Fern Hill Hotel for a few nights and this was our favorite place.  It was smallish (think Fawlty Towers) and family-run.  There was a sign on the desk stating that Robert Plant, front man for Led Zeppelin and rock god, had stayed there.  If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.   I couldn’t resist sending Vince a message that I might be sleeping in the same bed as Robert Plant.  I know, inappropriate, but he liked it.

The lovely woman at the front desk gave us minutely detailed instructions and maps for walking into town.  As per our usual routine, we found ourselves on a golf course and then a muddy cow pasture before winding up in Charmouth.  After we had a wander, Lynn figured out how to take a bus back to the hotel.  We celebrated this navigation victory with drinks on the patio.

Beaches and Beers, Pancakes and Paying

The day after our biking and museum-going expedition, Ingrid took me to the beach.  The beach, you ask?  I know, it’s something I associate with Florida, not Holland.  Still, I had read in a guide book that the beach is a thing in the Netherlands in the summer, so off we went.  We walked a couple blocks to the bus stop, took a bus into central Utrecht, then took a train to the seaside town of Zandvoort (“zand” meaning “sand”, a Dutch word even I can memorize).  If I were in Minnesota, I would have driven the distance – about 45 minutes – to Zandvoort, but I don’t think it ever occurred to Ingrid not to take public transport.

It was a cloudy, blustery day.  We sat on a restaurant patio that had clear plexiglas walls to break the wind.  We ordered some food; in Minnesota such a restaurant would hardly be worthy of the name restaurant, you would only be able to get a frozen burger and fries and ice cream.  But here, we had smoked salmon and pate and incredibly lightly fried battered cod and good bread, plus my favorite mid-day traveling beverage, cappuccino.

We went down to the beach and strolled.  Like kids everywhere, the Dutch kids were having fun in the waves and sand while their parents watched, bundled up in sweaters and wincing at the wind.  Ingrid and I were deep into some profound subject so we didn’t notice the cold.

There were cabins aligned along the beach—for rent?  I suppose it would be fun for kids and dads and dogs to have the family vacation at the seaside, but it would be miserable for moms.  The tent-like things in the background are pop-up wind breaks.

We moseyed back up from the beach and sat at a table on another patio.  I had a beer that was really, really good.  I wonder if I’ll be able to find it again.  I wonder if it just tasted so good because of the atmosphere.

Ingrid went to the toilet and the sun came out for the first time that day.  I leaned my head back against the cushions and half fell asleep.  It was one of those rare moments when I was completely content and at ease and I could have stayed there for hours.

When we got back, we rode our bikes by Ingrid’s son’s baseball game.  Baseball, you ask?  Yes, I was surprised too.  Baseball is catching on in the Netherlands, and Ingrid’s son Simon is an ace pitcher.

That night we went out for pancakes. Pancakes for dinner, you ask?  Yes.  But not just any pancakes, and not just at any old pancake house.  This place, Theehuis Rhijnauwen, was in the countryside with tables on the lawn leading down to a stream.  We had to move inside because it was chilly, but then the pancakes came.  As you can see, they’re the size of pizzas.  Mine was savory, with red peppers, onions, and cheese.  Here is the menu in English.

Now I faced a dilemma.  Chris and Ingrid had sprung for Indonesian take out the night I arrived.  We had gone to a nice restaurant the second night, and Chris had insisted on paying.  Tonight he did the same.  I didn’t know how hard I should push to pay—at least for my own.  The Dutch have a reputation for being very frugal, and of course there is the phrase “Dutch treat” which means splitting the bill.  I was also drinking their coffee and eating their cheese, their most valuable possession, in the mornings.

I never know if this is all about my insecurities growing up in a hard scrabble household, or if everyone else is thinking, “Wow, what a leech Anne is, not paying for anything.”

The next day Ingrid and I were leaving for Salzburg, so being a little anxious, I awoke even earlier than usual.  The house was silent.  Needing coffee, I crept down to the kitchen and turned on the fancy machine that makes coffee, tea, cappuccino, and espresso.  It went “BRRRRRRRRRR!!!” like an alarm clock and woke up the whole household.  And that was the start of our day.