Category Archives: daily life

Little Dramas, Big Traumas

After my action-packed day at the farmers market, Huntly Castle, and Bogairdy, there were days of routine, which was fine with me.

I needed to start looking for a place to live when I returned to the states in a month.  I had closed on the sale of my condo while I was in Eton, with my realtor standing in for me to sign all the papers.  I started to surf rentals on Craig’s List, and the perfect one popped up right away.  This never happens—I have always had to look at 25 places before I find the right one; I have always had to apply for 50 jobs in order to land a decent one; I won’t even mention dating here—the point is, I’ve always had to really hustle to get what I wanted. When I sent the owner of the perfect duplex an email she responded to say she had 10 people coming to look at it the next day so I should probably keep looking.  Darn.

It was weird to not have a mortgage or rent payment for a couple months.  I tried to give Lynn some cash for my keep but she fended me off, so I found other ways to contribute.

I was working on proposals to the British Department for International Development, or DfID, and another donor with an acronym everyone stumbled over—ELHRA.  During these intense proposal development times, the emails fly fast and furious.  I can easily receive 200 emails a day unless I hop on Skype (either chat or video/phone) to just talk through an issue.

I often had Skype calls in the late afternoon, and that was when the Internet slowed down.  Lynn and Richard’s theory was that, in the Aberdeenshire countryside, Internet was like an old-fashioned telephone party line. The kids came home from school and started streaking on Snapchat, the adults came home from work and logged on to Facebook, and everyone grumbled about how slow the connection was.

More than once, my Skype call would droop and I would walk through the house with my laptop yelling, “Can you hear me?” until I reached the library, where the router was.  Why being close to the router should help, I don’t know.  Richard would look up, startled, and abandon his desk to me, bless him.

“I was just shopping for flasks anyway.”  Richard collects antique flasks—pewter, leather, copper—they’re beautiful.

“You don’t need any more flasks!” Lynn would ring in.

It was around this time that I did problem solved with a donor, and this has possibly come back to my benefit.  It was someone at the US State Department; we had already been approved for a grant but she was having trouble opening one of our documents.  It’s a boring story but we went back and forth for an hour or so; I tried sending it via my Gmail account, I tried converting it to a different format, etc. until she discovered it was a glitch on their end.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I submitted a proposal to this same donor in the US Government online system, which is the most stressful part of the whole process.  That may sound silly, but if you do the slightest thing wrong they can disqualify you.  There can be technical problems with the online portal so we always allow two days before the actual deadline to upload everything.

I hit “Submit,” did a victory lap to the kitchen for some Girl Scout cookies, then logged off and left to take a much-anticipated day off.

I woke at 3am.  “Did I upload a pdf?!  Is that allowed?!”

This morning I checked and indeed, they require a word document, not a pdf.  I had pdf’d it out of habit.  My contact at State said it would be okay since I was letting her know ahead of the deadline.  I don’t think it was a quid pro quo; she’s just a reasonable, nice person.

This is my glamorous life in international development.  I have to keep in mind that, if we are funded, a thousand torture survivors will get help healing from their trauma.

This Little Piggy went to Market

I settled into a routine as I had in the south.  Get up early, blog and work, join Lynn and Richard for breakfast, then work some more.   I lay on my bed under the covers to keep warm, at first wondering, “How will I ever work without a desk?” but quickly getting used to tapping away on my keyboard in a reclining state.

Whenever I glanced out the window, Dottie the cat would be in position, staring at me like she was trying to communicate some vitally important matter of possibly national interest.  I tried to get into the habit of  rousing myself once an hour and take a lap around the property.  Dottie would accompany me down the drive, but at a distance of about 10 feet, as if to say, “I’m not with you, I just happen to be walking down the drive at the same time as you.”  Lord Parker would wait for me at the gate, then tail me as I walked the circular path around the garden.  When I got to the gate on the other side that led to the river, he would watch me beseechingly with his tawny, human-like eyes, maybe thinking, “maybe this time, maybe she’ll let me come too.”

There, I did it, I anthropomorphized.  I really don’t believe that animals have thoughts, but since we humans have more thoughts than we know what to do with, I guess it’s tempting to lay some of ours on other beings.

It was better than nothing that I walked around Dunrovin half a dozen times a day.  I would like to report that I also took long, vigorous walks every afternoon as I had in Eton and Windsor.  That was my goal.  But just the opposite took place, and I may well have to check into a fat farm to work off the pounds I gained in Scotland.

I blame it on the doubles.  Lynn has two small fridges in the kitchen and two freezers full of venison and other meats Richard has harvested, plus a pantry and a wine cellar. Then there was the double cream.  I continued my personal single, double, and clotted cream festival throughout the month, pouring it over or globbing it onto pastry shells, croissants, ice cream, strawberries, muesli, and anything else that didn’t move.

The three of us ate lunch and dinner together most days.  Lynn loves to cook, is a great cook, and doesn’t stint on rich ingredients or portions.  I feel so lazy saying this, but I only prepared about six meals the whole month.  When I offered, Lynn would usually say she already had the meal planned.  When I offered to make it, she would wave me off, saying it was no trouble.  We often had a salad and veggies, but they were in addition to a leg of lamb or shepherd’s pie.  I made lasagna and moussaka, then felt it was my duty to eat all the leftovers so they wouldn’t go to waste.

My first outing was to the Huntly Farmers’ Market, held once a month in the town square.

Bread, pastries, chutneys and jams and jellies, and beautiful berries.  All good vehicles for double cream.

Have you ever been to a farmer’s market where they sell fresh fish?  I bought some langoustines for our supper.

Surprise!  There was wild game.

Then there was the paella man, a Spanish guy named Marco.  I bought a bowl then walked around while Lynn sold raffle tickets and promoted an upcoming Harry Potter children’s party.

I talked to a retired physician who, with his wife and daughter, runs a small charity which benefits local initiatives in Nepal; they invited me to a fundraiser that would involve ceili dancing.

I sat on a bench to finish my paella and the granite was so cold I let out a yelp.  A woman standing nearby immediately offered me her portable seat cushion, then we began to chat and—too late—I noticed her kiosk full of Jehovah’s Witness literature.  But she and her fellow adherents were very nice and didn’t push it.

I decided to have a wander to work off the paella and wound up at Huntly Castle.

Just another day in Scotland.


Lynn and Richard’s home is remote.  You fly into Aberdeen, population 212,000.  From there you head into the highlands and know you are getting close when you pass the town of Huntly, with around 4,500 people.  The closest town to the house is Gartly, a “hamlet” of 144 people.  A bend in the road.

Lynn and Richard’s house has a name, as do many houses in the UK.  I will call it Dunrovin because this is where Richard wanted to move when he retired and was done with big city life and international travels.

Actually, he wanted to move to a “wee bothy” (a hut).  I’m not sure which of these variations he had in mind but Lynn put the kibosh on the idea of a bothy.

Dunrovin had been owned by generations of the Gordon family until all the sons were killed or disbursed in the wars and there were no men of their class for the sisters to marry, so the family died out.

The idea of a stately home was difficult for me to comprehend, as an American.  It’s one of those things I think British people grow up knowing about, so it’s obvious to them.  There is a wealthy family—not royalty or aristocrats but landed gentry—living in the main house which has a name.  Everything surrounding it is referred to with that name and would have been part of the estate.  In the case of Dunrovin, there is the gamekeeper’s cottage up the hill, the laundry cottages over the road, and the farm house.  All were sold off, along with the silver, as the Gordon family contracted financially.

I will share some photos of the house and land, starting with the great outdoors.  My photos have been taken at various times of year over 12 years, so if some look like they’re set in winter, they are.

As you come up the drive, there are fields on either side with grazing sheep.

This is the back garden and beyond from inside Dunrovin.  In the middle distance is one of the satellite cottages that used to be part of the estate.

This is a view in the opposite direction, from the back of the garden near the gate that leads down to the river. Meet Parker.  He’s a very aloof dog; people call him Lord Parker.  But he always appeared and hovered near me whenever I left my room.  Parker is not much for people and I am tone deaf to dogs, so we got along great.

This is a similar view, only taken in summer this year so you can see that the sun really does come out in Scotland.  When there’s the slightest bit of sun and warmth, people like Lynn and me go out and sit on benches and turn our faces up to the sun and go “Mmmmmm,” while Richard complains that it’s too hot.

This is the back garden from the attic, where I spent a lot of time.  No, they didn’t put me up there, although that wouldn’t have been so bad because it’s a nice space with skylight views of the 15 chimneys.  No, it was because I requested to be given a project, and Richard assigned me to clear out and paint the attic.

Here is Parker again, your tour guide, showing you the net house full of lettuce and broad beans and peas.  The netting keeps the birds (and dogs) away.  Across from it is the glass house, where Richard grows hothouse veggies like tomatoes and peppers.

In addition to growing his own produce, Richard shoots deer and other game so in theory they could be almost self-sufficient if they wanted or needed to be.

Exiting out the back gate and leaving behind a disappointed Parker, I would often walk down to the river, passing these trees with old graffiti from soldiers billeted nearby after the war (I think).

Richard had moved a café table down to the river, where I enjoyed a cuppa.

I have asked and been told several times the name of the river, but I can’t remember.  I prefer to think of it as just The River.  This was where I would spend a month.

Signs and Wonders

Before I leave England for Scotland, I want to share a few favorite signs and sights that made me wonder.

Like this one, on the back of the toilet stall door at the Waterman’s Arms.  The Clansman function room?  I know it’s clansman with a “c” and I realize it’s probably something to do with a Scottish clan, but still.  In the US there would be protests over this sign.  I guess the word clan just doesn’t have the same association with the KKK as it would in the states.

Speaking of bathroom signs, I always got a kick out of this one at the leisure centre.  Probably some fool had ignored the first sign, which just had words, and they needed to literally paint a picture.

Walking home from the leisure centre, I would pass this sign.  It was tempting to hang a right to find out if there would be liquor barrels bigger than a man.  But the path led to a deserted-looking industrial area and I was always in a hurry, so I will never know.

At home, I kept glancing at the cover of the teacher’s union magazine that arrived in the mail.  The cover story was an important one.  Teachers need to be aware of the effects on children of being involved or even just hearing about traumatic events like the inferno at Grenfell Tower or the mass shooting in Manchester at the Ariana Grande concert.

But I also smirked at the acronym for the organization, and its placement, with rendered the title “The Teacher NUT.”  It seems a bit inappropriate, but it is memorable.  In the US, we have several bland acronyms: NEA—National Education Association and AFT, American Federal of Teachers.  I think I would prefer to be a member of the NUT.

Out on my walks, I would often pass this van.

It could be worse.  It could be Farter & Son.

At the playground in Windsor.  What an optimistic sign.

In the Eton Museum of Natural History.

Do a lot of contractors wander in off the street to use the toilet at the Natural History Museum?  Are contractors considered an inferior type of person, not worthy to piss in the same toilet as others?  Did some contractor create a situation in here, and no one is brave enough to confront him in person so they put up this sign?  I was careful not to make a mess in case there might be a sign “This Toilet is NOT to be Used by Americans” upon my return.

I passed this ominous poster in Windsor, stood a while taking photos of it, then realized I was right outside a military installation and moved along.  I’m sure it doesn’t appear ominous to the target audience—young men with lots of testosterone.

It’s a recruiting poster for the Coldstream Guards, the oldest regiment in the British army.  There is probably a recruiting office here because these are the “guards” as in “the changing of the guards” at Windsor Castle, which is just a few blocks away.  In this role, they wear what’s in your mind right now—the tall black furry helmets and red uniforms with brass buttons.

And this, in London, didn’t make me wonder. It made me feel admiration for a country which had only decriminalized “homosexual acts” in 1967.  Fifty years.  That’s not so long.  Maybe in 50 years’ time we in the US will have decriminalized immigrants.

Julie and I treated ourselves to a couple nights in a room above The George. The only room left was the top floor suite. Julie chose the master bedroom with a spectacular view of the Thames bridge and Windsor Castle.

Unfortunately this room turned out to be the one beneath which smokers congregated and drunks hung out at closing time.  I was in a nook off to the side and with ear plugs I didn’t hear a thing.  I slept fine in my narrow bed except that the floor in the 270-year-old pub was so slanted that every time I rolled over I kept rolling, into the wall.

This was our last supper, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the back garden.

A Fish Tale

I joined Lynn and Possum and their friend Andrew for a long dinner at the Italian restaurant.  Andrew was a former Oxfamer, now a finance consultant.  He was preparing to walk along the south coast of England to raise money for Oxfam, and we ribbed him about the impending stormy weather.

He laughed back at us, Ha, ha, I’m going to Italy for a week after the walk.”

When you work for an international organization, you meet such interesting people.  People who love to travel, people with good hearts, people with good stories.

The organization I work for supports survivors of torture and war trauma to rebuild their lives through counseling, physical therapy, and social work services.

You might think torture is a rare occurrence, but it’s not.  Governments all over the world employ it to scare their populations into submission.  My own government has tortured people it suspects of being terrorists.  My organization estimates that about 1.3 million of the refugees in the US were tortured in their home country.  And there are likely tens of millions more in other countries.

One way for us to reach more people is to work with other organizations, and that’s why I had come to Oxford—to meet with some people about possibly partnering with Oxfam.  Oxfam is an international organization that started in Oxford, and the largest branch, Oxford Great Britain, is there.  OGB dwarfs my organization.  It had income of $565 million last year, compared our income of about $15 million.  Was there some way we could go in with OGB on funding applications, doing a small part of a big project?  It could make their proposals more competitive to add our specialized services, and we could reach more survivors.

That’s the theory, anyway.  It takes a long time to bring these partnerships to fruition, if they ever do.

I had meetings the next day in three different locations.  When I asked the driver of the #8 bus to Headington where I should get off, he gave me a rude and incorrect answer.  I ended up walking about eight blocks in the warm rain.

I still arrived early, so I did reconnaissance for how I would catch my next bus, and then looked at ads in an estate agent’s window.

This one is pure Oxford:

Yes, the house comes with a giant fish sculpture.  What’s so excellent and British is that there is no reference to it in the ad.   Entrance hall?  Check.  Three bedrooms, check.  Living room, yes.  Garden?  Yes.  Giant fish? Huh, what fish? Pay no attention to that fish plunging through the roof.

I found the coffee shop and had a lovely talk with a woman who worked for OGB for 17 years and is now a fundraising consultant.  Her two young children played quietly while we talked NGO-speak.

“Which sector are you under?” she asked. “Health, GBV, protection?”

“Usually health but with PRM we’ve been protection and also with this DFiD NOFO we’re responding to, and we’re thinking GBV for Iraq with OFDA.”

“That makes perfect sense,” she nodded.

It was nice to talk to someone who spoke the same code as I do.

I next boarded the #10 bus, which wound along Windmill Road, which turned into The Slade, then Holloway Road, then Between Towns Road.  I alighted at The Original Swan pub, from where I would walk to OGB.  I had walked this route every day when I lived here, but today—when I was running a little late—I got lost.

OGB is in a business park where all the buildings look alike and are arranged in a circle so you can go around and not realize you’ve gone around.

It’s a nice office park, as such places go.  There are fountains and trees.  But there are no signs or directories, or I missed them.  I was so sure I would remember the route, but I didn’t.  After my disastrous meeting in London I had invested in some big-girl professional work clothes and now they were damp with sweat as I huffed along.  I tried to ask directions from three passersby and they looked at me like I was insane and scurried off.

Sight Seeing, Blind

I love how quiet most pubs are, in contrast to American bars, where you can’t sit anywhere and not face a bank of TVs showing nonstop sports, in addition to blaring, manic music.

Not that pubs can’t be noisy, especially toward the end of the night in a university town like Oxford.  But it was a Wednesday afternoon and I had a quiet nook to myself.  I pulled out a notebook and started making lists—things to buy, places to go, writing ideas.  I listed all the writers associated with Oxford and who might have sat on this very bench before me: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Phillip Pullman, Thomas Hardy, William Golding, Aldous Huxley, TS Elliot, William Boyd, VS Naipaul, Dorothy Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, Lewis Carroll, and even Dr. Suess!

Maybe some of their collective genius juju would rub off on me.

My reverie was interrupted by a woman braying loudly in an American southern accent, “I’m afraid of the beef!”  I glanced over and saw a woman of generous proportions and her husband, both wearing sweat pants and sweat shirts with sports logos.  He was quite beefy but I assumed she wasn’t referring to him.  He was peppering the bar maid with questions about the menu.

“Now, is that bawled, or frahhed?  What kind of awwl is it frahhed in?  Does it come with French fraaahs or puh-tay-ta chips?”

He was clueless about the growing irritation of the bar maid and the line of people queuing up behind them.

“I’m afraid of the beef!” his wife announced again, as if we hadn’t been able to hear her the first time.

What did she even mean?  Naturally she supplied an explanation.  “The beef hee-ah is so coarsely gray-ound! It’s very tough in England.  Aahhm afraid I’ll break a tooth!”

Please, please, please, I said to myself, don’t make a comment about British teeth.  Fortunately she didn’t, or I might have had to out myself as an American by intervening loudly and pushily.

They finally placed their orders and shambled away in their Nikes or whatever they were wearing.  Have you ever noticed that a lot of people who wear “athletic shoes” are not athletic?

When I related this story at dinner, I was informed me that, to Brits, American ground beef has the texture of baby food.

Still at the Turf, watching the tide of people come and go at the bar.

Next up was a young Chinese woman.  “I’rrll have a pint of Ord Rozzy Schrumpy,” she said.  How brave she was to formulate that sentence, when you think about it.  I know nothing about Chinese, but if it’s anything like Spanish, it has different sentence structures and verb tenses from English.  And “Old Rosy Scrumpy” must sound even funnier to Chinese ears than it does to me, a native English speaker.

I finished my pint, then wove my way slowly through Oxford.  There wasn’t enough time to visit any of the fabulous museums, like the Ashmolean or the Pitt Rivers, which is basically a collection of collections from dead people’s attics—people who had traveled the world and brought back plunder like shrunken heads, taxidermy dodo birds, and totem poles.

I hadn’t planned anything.  I’d already taken hundreds of photos of the city so I walked for a block, sat on a bench and watched people, and repeated this for an hour.

Mainly what I observed is that people are oblivious.  I have been in this state myself, so I know it when I see it.  People are rushing around, trying to see everything on their tourist guide check list.  They find something, snap photos, then consult a map for the next thing.   They don’t get lost anymore thanks to GPS, so they never see anything by accident.

They don’t see—really see—the other human beings around them.  Many people looked straight at me but didn’t really see me, seeing them, as they frantically pinged from one site to another.

It made me think of a line from a Hebrew prayer: “We walk sightless among miracles.”

At one point as I sat in front of the magnificent Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library—one of the oldest and largest libraries on earth—a van screeched to a halt at the curb. A dozen Spanish tourists jumped out, took photos, then jumped back in and the van tore off to the next photo opp.

Oxford: Good, Bad, and Ugly

My sappy, sentimental life review of my idealized time in Oxford was wiped away once we got into town.  The road was torn up for construction and blocked off with blaze orange barriers.  The bus would take a very long detour, so I jumped off early.

I walked across east Oxford, noticing for the first time how shabby it is compared to Eton and Windsor—with derelict buildings, front gardens full of weeds and rubble, smeared dirty windows, and gum and spit and trash on the sidewalk.  They call cigarette butts fag ends, and there were loads of them.  It had all seemed exotic when I’d first arrived.  Now it just looked ugly.

East Oxford, as you may have guessed, is the sort-of east side of Oxford.  It has a distinct personality.  East Oxford is where people can still afford to live.  It’s home to immigrants and students and transient people like me who come to work for Oxfam or the Mini factory in Cowley, beyond East Oxford.

Cowley Street, which runs through East Oxford, bustles with small shops selling everything from books to buckets.  There are Bengali groceries and halal fried chicken fast food restaurants.

And at least one porno store, called “Private Shop.”

Lynn was in town too and had booked a room at a guest house on the Iffley Road.  My plan was to swing by there, drop my bag, then spend the afternoon having a wander until meeting her and Possum and a guy named Andrew for dinner at an Italian restaurant in St. Clement’s Street.

Lynn was at the guest house when I arrived and we chatted a bit, then she went off to Oxfam.  The guest house was serviceable and dirt cheap, for Oxford.  It had what is so hard to find in the US—a room with three beds—two singles and a double.  If Possum didn’t have her own flat, there would have been plenty of room for us all.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know I don’t write restaurant or hotel reviews.  There are plenty of people willing to do that, and I just like to tell stories.  I do remember thinking at the time that the bath in this place was pretty grody, that the bare walls could use a coat of fresh paint, and that the coffee at breakfast was barely drinkable.

Looking back six months later, I had to work to recall those details.  What came to mind right away was how good it was to see Lynn again, how fun the dinner was, and the sense of mastery I felt navigating my way around Oxford on the bus and meeting people in three locations in one morning.

I also have to work to remember how hot it was.  Our room was on the third floor and as is common in the UK, there was no AC.  Opening the window resulted in a flood of traffic noise from the busy road below.  But again, I have to work to remember these things that bugged me at the time.  I guess that’s a sign that I don’t hang on to these passing irritants.

I walked over to the Cowley Road and caught a bus into the medieval city center.

Sitting in a top front seat on the double decker bus, I found myself getting sentimental again as we passed Magdalene College (pronounced “maudlin”), then Brasenose College, and on into the High Street, which ends at Carfax Tower. There’s a reason so many TV series and films are set here.

Oxford University is made up of 38 colleges.  Some are open to tour often, some never, some only on Tuesdays during a full moon. If there is any “system,” it is a mystery to me.  I feel lucky to have seen half a dozen of them.

Ten seconds after alighting from my aerie on the air conditioned bus, it all came back to me—the heat, the smells, the sidewalks packed with oblivious tourists taking selfies.

I slipped down a narrow passage to the Turf Tavern, got a pint of Old Rosie Scrumpy, a cider beer, and slid into a booth by a window.