Category Archives: daily life

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.

Church Goin’

It was a hot Sunday night in Amesbury, and I mean hot only in the sense of the temperature.  If this was 1986 I would have gone into The Bell, drank way too many pints of cider (“It was on sale—£2.20 a pint!”), picked up a guy, danced until closing, woken up in a strange place, slept with my contacts in, missed my bus, and had to hitch hike back to Eton.

But this was 2017, so I’m afraid this won’t be such a titillating tale.

My interests these days run more to quiet places. That included all of Amesbury on a Sunday night, since almost everything was closed.  I passed the euphemistically-named Camelot Nursing & Retirement Centre.  Camelot?—Not.

I found the parish church and spent a quiet hour there.

Singing drifted from inside, so I snuck into the musty-smelling interior.  I’m always afraid the minister is going to wave me over, “Come, join us, sister!  Come sing praise to the Lord with us!”  So I tip toed and hid behind one pillar after another until I could get a look at them. There were half a dozen women, all over the age of 40, being led by a man I assumed was the minister.  He kept stopping them and instructing them to do something different, better … I couldn’t make out what he was saying but the tone of his voice was stern.

I spied a table with stuff for sale on it.  Oh joy!  This is always the best.  I darted from behind my pillar to the one in front of the table.  Postcards, tea towels, greeting cards, aprons.  Aprons!  Aprons went out with the Betty Crocker Cook Book and Tater Tot Hotdish, but they were only £2 so I grabbed two, and five tea towels, and a pack of greeting cards, all with the image of Amesbury Parish Church on them. I was set for hostess and housewarming presents for the next six months, and all for only £8.

In my excitement I nudged the table and it made a scraping sound.  “Who’s there!” the minister called out.  I waved and smiled as I quickly exited.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, my favorite subjects are death and travel.  So I enjoyed some time in the churchyard. Poor Leonard Frank George Williams had a long name but a short life.

There were lovely mossy tombstones.

And these above-ground crypts.

There was this monument to the Great War.  Note that there are three deceased named Ford, two Lawrences, and two Southeys.  This was before the geniuses in command figured out that you shouldn’t assign all the men from one town to the same unit.  Because when the unit was annihilated in a battle, every son in every family in town was killed.  So incredibly sad.

Here is the plaque for the Word War.  Hmmm…I thought they had learned a lesson by then, but there are repeat names on here, too, including a woman who appears to have died along with her brother.  I guess it was literally all hands on deck during these wars.

The Great War.  The World War.  What will we call the next one?

I saw this and thought I was in for some comic relief.  A pet cemetery!

But no.  It was more dead people, just a section for the new tradition of cremation.

I was feeling “peckish” as they say (meaning hungry) so I wandered along, looking for food.  The bakery was closed but the pennants in the window provided a lovely photo opp.

I ended up back at the Econolodge, which had a Burger King and something called a Little Chef next to it. I waited in line at the Burger King for 45 minutes.  Everyone in town must have been there, since all the other restaurants were closed.  I gave up and went to the Little Chef, which I highly doubt employed any chef—little or otherwise.  It was supposed to look like a 1950s American-style diner.  If such diners were filthy and served horrible, dry, bland food back in the day, then it was completely authentic.

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.