Category Archives: Joie de vivre

Doing the Next Indicated Thing

In 24 hours I will be on a bus headed from Oxford to Heathrow.  I hope.  Of all the legs of the trip home, this is the part I’ve been most anxious about.

What if … the bus zooms past me at the bus stop?  What if it doesn’t stop at my stop anymore?  What if the bus stops but the driver cuts off boarding at me, because they are only allowing 10 people on the bus v. the usual 50?  What if the service is cancelled completely?  They did that with the route to Gatwick airport.  I have a return ticket from my last flight—but should I buy a new one online so I can reserve a seat?  Service is down from every 20 minutes to every two hours.  If I miss the bus, the next one wouldn’t get me to Heathrow until 20 minutes before my flight takes off.  A taxi would cost about $100.

I suffered heart-thumping anxiety for years, now have been anxiety free for a decade except for the occasional work deadline.  Now it’s  back, in a milder form.  It’s a bit annoying, but given the state of global affairs, it would be kind of weird if I wasn’t anxious.

I have learned to Just Deal With Things that induce anxiety.  So I called the bus company.  The customer service guy, Josh, answered after two rings and assured me that ridership was so low I would have no problem getting a seat on the bus, at my stop, and I could use the ticket I already had.

He sounded bored.  I think he would have been happy to chat for a while.

I felt reassured for about an hour, then the What Ifs started up again.  What if he didn’t like my American accent so he purposely gave me the wrong information? What if he was new and didn’t really know the right answers? What if they changed everything right after I called?

I waited a few days, feeling dumb for continuing to worry, then emailed the bus company with the same questions.  Josh replied almost immediately with the same answers. Oh no, how embarrassing! Did he know it was me?  Did he wonder why I was asking the same questions again?  I usually thank customer service people, but I didn’t this time because I would have felt compelled to explain why I didn’t trust his answers the first time.

This second set of answers—maybe because they were in writing—erased the anxiety.

I may sound loopy but there it is.

My last day in Oxford.  I am doing laundry, cleaning the house and the chicken run, and fiddling around with packing.  I will go for a long walk later. Where should I go?  Into the city to gaze at the medieval colleges?  Along the Thames Path to see the waterfowl and other ramblers and the canal boats?  Up to Iffley lock and the church where I have watched the seasons change and enjoyed so many quiet moments?

This was my last view of Scotland last week.  Friend and driver Bob stopped the vehicle so I could hop out and take a snap.

I visited Iffley Church the next day.  The churchyard was strewn with wildflowers and an English robin perched on a headstone.

The next day I walked for hours through town, taking photos or just appreciating things I’d never noticed because I was trying not to bump into the 5,000 other people on the sidewalk.

Will I ever return?  The longing to live here forever see-saws with the excitement of the return journey and arriving home after four and a half months in the UK.

I gave the garden a good pruning, then sat and read the Sunday Times Rich List.  I should have gone into online gambling or started a hedge fund.  But then, I probably wouldn’t spend much time relaxing in a garden.

Here is a good question from HSBC.

I was born in New York, grew up in Minnesota, and feel at home in England—and most everywhere else I’ve sojourned.

Once I am on the bus, I will exhale and feel at home.

Returning

So much for this being a travel blog!

After house sitting in Oxford for three months, the plan was to travel all over Europe, with a finale of meeting friends in Crete.  I would try to get around without flying, since flying leaves such a huge carbon footprint.  I spent days mapping out train and bus routes, checking fares and timetables, poring over maps and guidebooks, and making lists of sites to see in each location.

It was all I thought about for a couple weeks.  I felt tension as time passed—I needed to book things now or prices might go up!

I tried to pay for a tour of Bulgaria but the website wouldn’t cooperate.  When I contacted the company they asked me to call their US office the next day.  I don’t recall what exactly was announced that evening on the news, but something clicked in my head and I realized the tour would never take place.

But I could still travel around the UK, right?  Wrong.  Inexorably, the plan closed in until I deleted my itineraries, crumpled up my paper lists and burned them in the fireplace, and shelved the guidebooks.

Well boo hoo, I’m still better off than 99% of the people on earth.

After a month in Scotland with Lynn and Richard and four dogs and two cats and what sounds like dozens of mice having a fiesta in the walls of my bedroom every night, tomorrow I will return to Oxford.

Yesterday I went for a last walk across the fields near the house.

In a span of 45 minutes, the sun was so hot I had to strip off my hat and scarf and gloves, then dark clouds raced across the fields, the temperature plummeted, and it rained.

I will miss the wide-open spaces, the pure air and water, the quiet.  And of course, the company.

I’ve lost track of how many times I have been to Scotland.  Each time I leave, I wonder if I will ever return.  I try to really focus on the here and now so I can dial up memories of the land and people if I never come back.  So far, I always have.

I haven’t worn makeup for a month.

Well okay, maybe a little pressed powder and eyebrow filler.  But that’s nothing to what I used to plaster onto my face.  I think I look okay.  Is this a case of finding my natural beauty, or of lowering my standards?

I booked a flight to return to the US on May 25.  My first two flights were cancelled and I am trying to mentally prepare myself for this one to disappear too.

I try to think through all the “what ifs” that could go wrong and what I can do to prevent them.  I’ll need to get from Oxford to Heathrow airport.  In normal times there was a bus that ran every 20 minutes, all day, every day, to Heathrow.  Now it’s down to once an hour.  The 25th is a bank holiday.  What if the buses stop running? What if a bus pulls up and it’s already full, since they are only allowing one quarter of the usual number of passengers?  What if I have to hire a taxi to take me to Heathrow?  Will there be one available?  How much would it cost?  Maybe I should try to get to Heathrow the day before, just to be on the safe side.  Are any of the airport hotels still operating?

And on and on.  I’ve got a week to figure it all out, but even so, much of it is just unknowable.

I feel like I have already written all of the above, and maybe I have.  It feels like I’ve devolved from telling interesting travel stories to essentially writing diary entries.

“Dear Diary: Today I combed my hair.  I feel so proud of myself!”

I hope you are well and keeping up your spirits.  I hope we are all traveling again and telling stories soon.

Slogging Along

I have begun to long for home.  By “home” I don’t mean my family or friends—who I wouldn’t be able to visit anyway—but my bed.  For some reason, it symbolizes all that is familiar and safe and comfortable.

Not that I’m not safe and comfortable.  In Scotland, at Lynn’s, I am more safe and comfortable than 95% of the world’s population. I have a spacious room with my own bathroom.  There’s a library full of books.   There is even a sauna!  There is plenty of space for us to do our own thing.  We come together at mealtimes or for a G&T on the patio or to watch a movie at night.

I have projects, like scraping and repainting a wrought-iron patio set.  The more I scrape and paint, the more flakes of paint I discover.  It’s a great way to kill the hours and medicate my obsessive compulsive tendencies.

I clear dead stuff out of the garden.  This involves sitting on a foam mat, reaching in to grab a handful of dry twigs or grass, and yanking them out.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Then I gather it all up—being careful not to snag myself on any rose thorns—cram them into a bucket and haul them to the brush pile for burning.  It’s very satisfying.  One morning this classic Led Zeppelin album cover popped into my mind:

Why not do what all those cleaver people on social media are doing, and recreate this with found materials?  So here I am, looking just like the album cover except I have a wheelbarrow, and I’m wearing a lime-green jumper and pink sunglasses, and I do not have a beard.

It was good for a laugh for a few minutes.

I go for long walks.  This is the Clashindarroch Forest, where I hiked for two hours the other day.  Even though it hadn’t rained for an unseasonable 10 days, the mossy path was still so springy it was like walking on a memory foam mattress.

So physically and socially I couldn’t be in a better place.  But I think the pandemic and lockdown are taking a low-grade toll on my psyche.  It’s subtle, but it’s probably cumulative.  If I am feeling it, how much worse must it be for people living in precarious situations with no financial means, no internet, or no access to nature?

There are nagging worries, as there always are in life. I haven’t received my stimulus payment from Donald Trump yet due to an Internal Revenue Service foul up.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

It’s been a month since I tried to get cash from two cash machines in Oxford and was given the message, “We’re sorry but we cannot process your request at this time.”  But they had processed  it on their end, so I am out $260 until it gets resolved.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

This quote from the New York Times sums up my situation:

“Those who had assumed they could stay overseas, and wait for the pandemic to ebb, now face an unnerving choice: Either stick it out, and prepare for the possibility they will be infected with the virus and treated in foreign hospitals, or chance catching it on the way back home.”

I thought I had secured a small victory when I got through to Delta and re-booked my return flight from one stopover to as direct.  One less airport, one less plane—this could reduce my risk.  Then I got an email from the US State Department informing me that only three airlines are still flying from the UK to the US, and Delta is not one of them.  So another call to an 800 number is in my future.

In the before times, I worked two part-time gigs and had a to-do list with 17 items on it every day.  Now I feel like I am wading through thigh-deep pudding.  I feel victorious if I manage to remember why I came into a room.  This must be what dementia is like. Or maybe I am getting dementia, coincidentally at the same time as a global pandemic.

I hope you are well!

Pandemic Reading List

We are finishing up week three of our lockdown in the UK.  When it was announced, the Prime Minister said it would be reviewed after three weeks.  Signs are, restrictions will not ease up anytime soon.

I limit myself to scanning the headlines of the New York Times, BBC News, and Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune every morning.  I can literally feel my heart start pounding faster and my palms sweating, so after reading one or two articles, I force myself to move on to something else.

Later, I can’t resist tuning in to the Downing Street Daily Coronavirus Briefing.  You may have heard that the PM, Boris Johnson, was hospitalized for coronavirus.  He was just the best-known figure outside of Britain.  Every day there’s a different line up of authorities.  One day the chief medical officer for England is on tap, the next day he’s gone because he’s got the virus.  Ten days later he re-appears, but in the meanwhile he is replaced by the health minister, who disappears and is replaced by the secretary of state for health and social care, who disappears next, and so on.  It’s a bit disconcerting but also gripping television drama.

Every evening they show a series of graphs. I don’t know if this is being done in the US.  I can’t bring myself to watch he-who-shall-not-be-named.  Reading about his gaffs and lies the next day is bad enough.

When I look at the trajectory for US deaths, it looks bad, right? This is one of the things that compels me to watch the briefing—I want to see if any of the lines have changed course.

It could be worse.  In the past year I happened to read two books and a short story about post-apocalyptic worlds.  I made a list of all such books I have read, and here it is, in case you are looking to scare the b’Jesus out of yourself—or make yourself feel better about the current pandemic.

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. This is the book that most closely resembles the current situation, except that the virus has a 95% fatality rate.  Lots of food for thought about how we would survive, physically and socially, once the grocery stores were looted and empty.  One of those books I was still thinking about months later.

Blindness, by Jose Saramago.  As the title implies, this is about a plague that causes 99% of the population to go blind.  Similar to Station Eleven, themes are about how we would survive physically and socially if we could not see.

Memories of the Space Age, by J.G. Ballard. The title of a short story and collection of similarly-themed short stories.  Lately, I find I only have enough concentration to read short stories.  This one is about how man’s intrusion into space causes a plague-like time-slowing effect that starts at NASA and advancing through Florida until the entire state has to be shut down and emptied of people to stop the spread.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. LeGuin.  Humans have depleted every natural resource on Earth and are now plundering other worlds.  On Forest, they meet their match in the natives, who eventually drive them off but not before their innocence is defiled. Not a plague, but post-apocalyptic and not so unbelievable considering our rampant destruction of our planet.

The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick.  This novel has been made into a TV show starring one of my favorite actors, Rufus Sewell.  In this scenario, the plague is fascism.  Again, not that farfetched, I’m afraid.  The plot: Germany and Japan won WWII.  The Germans are exterminating every person in Africa and chasing down the few Jews who slipped through the cracks.

On the Beach, by Nevile Shute.  A nuclear holocaust has exterminated the human race except  in Australia.  They know it is just a matter of time before the radioactive clouds reach them and cause them to die in agony.  By far the scariest scenario because they know their plague is coming.  I couldn’t finish it.

And now, a beautiful view of Oxford’s spires from a hilltop on a spring day.

Boat as Bolthole

As I was cleaning up my work area because, well, now I have all the time in the world to do that, I came across a program from a piano recital I attended at St. Hilda’s College about six weeks ago.  I had written a few notes to myself because the visiting performer, a professor from some university in the US, said things like, “the piece I am about to perform place exemplifies the dystopian and utopian poles of Beethoven’s variations on Sonata No. 32 in C Minor.”  As I sniggered at this rarefied language, people around me where murmuring, “Ah, yes, so interesting.”  I’m glad someone knew what the hell he was talking about.

My life—and probably yours—has suddenly become dystopian.

In my last post I laid out the reasons that the UK had not closed schools.  Last night Boris Johnson announced schools would close indefinitely starting at the end of the day on Friday.

I attended my usual free lunchtime concert at the old church in town on Monday.  The program, two Beethoven sonatas, was performed by a visiting Japanese pianist.  There were about half the usual people in attendance, and we were all seated as far as possible from one another, until at the last minute an old man shuffled into the pew behind me and proceeded to cough and sneeze.  Maybe I should have moved, but I kind of wish I would just get the damn virus so I could get it over with.

At the end of the performance the vicar announced the series would be suspended indefinitely.  I felt sad.  How will I know what day it is now?  No more Monday concert, no Wednesday Pilates at the gym, no Friday yoga class at the community centre.

Am I the proverbial frog in the pan, the one that’s oblivious to the rising temperature until it’s too late?

While I get urges to just go home, my rational mind says I am safer staying put than getting on a bus to Heathrow, hanging out in an airport full of tourists from all over the world, then spending eight hours packed into a plane—potentially surrounded by people who have the virus.

I keep imagining myself with the virus, slumped against the plane window coughing and sweating while my fellow passengers glare at me and contemplate throwing me out the emergency hatch.

I haven’t been able to get through to Expedia for three days, and my duplex is sublet until the end of May, so leaving is sort of a moot point anyway.

I walked for three hours in the rain on Sunday.  In Oxfordshire, the Thames is unfortunately called the Isis.

I thought this graffiti under the train bridge beautiful.

Also this boat, one of many narrow boats moored along the Isis.

I had lunch at a pub near the lock where I crossed to the other side of the river.

Every time the server came to my table I thought, “I could be giving her the virus right now, or vice versa.”  In the UK, we hadn’t yet been encouraged to avoid pubs, but now that’s changed.

On another walk, I was thrilled to stumble upon this outdoor gym, since I will not be going to my real gym any time soon.

There will be no grand UK tour as described in my last post.  I searched Air BnB for boats and there was one—one I had passed many times—for rent.  I booked it for a week when my house sitting ends.

I may have to cancel it, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

After that?  Anyone’s guess.

At night I watch the news, transfixed.  Bertie, the affectionate cat of the trio for whom I am responsible, creeps up onto me seeking love.

“I can see you, you know,” I tell her.

She kneads me with her paws, then sinks her claws in, at which point I shove her away and we start the cycle again.

I watched University Challenge one night.

The pianist who specializes in Beethoven’s dystopian and utopian themes would have done well.  I didn’t get a single answer right.

Torture and Gremlins

Despite the title of this post, it’s been a really good week.  I put in many hours of editing on proposals that will yield a couple million dollars for my former employer to carry out torture rehabilitation.  It’s that time of year where I get to read things like this:

(Skip this if you think it will upset you.)

Clients reported beatings with heavy or heated metal rods and guns, and beating while hands and legs are tied to a pole of while hung upside down. Other abuses included threats, humiliation, or other psychological torture; deprivation of food, water, or other necessities; being forced to watch someone else being tortured; forced labor; forced postures, stretching, or hanging; rape or sexual abuse; wounding or maiming, including being shot; sensory stress, such as exposure to extreme temperatures; asphyxiation; burns ; and electrical shock.

I share this because it’s reality all over the world today.  America did lots of these things to suspects in secret detention facilities overseas and at Guantanamo Bay.  It’s sobering.  It makes me feel even more grateful for my cushy life and more determined to continue “being political,” despite my urge to stick my head in the sand.

Then there were the gremlins.  It is weird how things happen all at once.  In the space of five days, the shower in my house stopped working—abruptly, while I was standing in it.  It’s proving difficult to find an electrician to replace the pump.  For decades now, young people have aspired to master’s degrees in International Studies, not apprenticeships in the trades.

I put a new filter in the water purifier and it worked for one day then quit.  I can buy a new apparatus.  But the water is really hard here, so I’ve got to do it soon.

I couldn’t get the printer to work. My laptop is on the ground floor and the printer is two stories up.  I would hit “Print,” then stick my head out the door to the hall to listen if I could hear any action upstairs—being careful not to allow cats to slip past.  I heard nothing, so I ran up the two steep flights of stairs to check.  No joy.  I repeated this five times, shutting down and rebooting, blah, blah, blah.  Now today it worked.

I was suddenly unable to access my work email on my phone, after years of no problems.  I fiddled with it until I was ready to throw it across the room, then left it for a couple days, and now it’s working again.

I had a really great yoga class on Friday.  As I was walking home—in front of the Black Swan pub—my right calf suddenly seized up.  I had to hobble home, about 10 blocks, like a wounded bird.  Was it the yoga?  All the stair climbing?  Who knows.  I spent the next 24 hours wondering how I would get by if I couldn’t walk for the next two months.  Oxford is not a city for sissies. But the next day it was better, and now I keep forgetting it even happened.

So many things do work, so it’s hard to get upset about the gremlins.

Brits keep telling me “It’s not spring!” But to this Minnesotan, it sure feels that way.  There are more and more 50F + days (10C).  There are blooming things everywhere.

And it’s green, green, green.

I try to enjoy the moments, like this cat v. chicken stare down in the back garden.  The cat lost, distracted by me.

At the store, I chuckled over this product name that sound like a villainous Star Trek race.

In the US, this box of Ritz crackers would be a single serving.

I must find one of these for my car.

If I am in the locker room, am I a tart?

I made wild mushroom soup.

And had dinner with an Aussie friend at a Palestinian restaurant.

The highlight of the week was when “my” Polish house cleaner gave me an Avon-like beauty catalog.  It’s her side hustle.

The world-famous couturier Valentin Yudashkin has provided me with so much entertainment I feel compelled to buy something, anything.

Back in the Shire

Oxfordshire, that is.

I’ve put off writing because I didn’t know which angle to take.  Should I document all the things I’ve seen and done in the last 10 days?  Should I write about odd happenings, like me falling on an escalator and attracting the attention of dozens of shoppers and shop keepers, all asking solicitously, “are you all right?”  (I was embarrassed and bruised, but otherwise all right.).  I could contract American and British things. I could write about the history of Oxford and its famous university, or chronicle my inner journey of relocating to another country.

All this was a good excuse to procrastinate, but to be fair to myself, I’ve been putting in a lot of work hours and keeping busy gadding about town.

I’ll start with my base, the house where I am house sitting, which affords me a sanctuary from which I emerge and explore.  I will share some photos eventually, but I want to be careful about not creeping out the homeowners.

It’s a terraced house, a typical type of housing in the UK.  Probably dates to the Edwardian era, named for King Edward VII who reigned from 1901-1910.  There are windows and doors front and back and neighbors on either side.

I haven’t heard much of or even seen the neighbors.  I heard water whooshing on the other side of a wall one day, a door slamming once.  Last night around 3am I smelled toast.

On the ground floor, which in America we call the first floor, there’s a living room, which they call the lounge.  There’s a dining room, kitchen, and sunroom, which my homeowner calls The Cocktail Lounge. Up a steep set of narrow stairs is what they call the first floor and Americans call the second floor.  Here there are two bedrooms and a bathroom.  In this house, the owners have very cleverly opened up the rafters to build a loft office.  Getting up there involves climbing an even steeper set of stairs.

There’s a back garden, which in America we call the back yard.  With terraced housing back gardens are very long, narrow spaces.  In my case, the back garden has been bisected by a fence.  The front half is for people and the back half is for chickens.

Yes, I am tending four hens who my homeowners rescued from a laying factory.  They make adorable noises like “bwaaaaaaa, buh buh buh” and the usual clucking.  Every morning I go out to collect one to three eggs.  I let the hens out to free range and top up their food and water.  Once a week I clean out their little house and hose down the sidewalk that has become mucky with chicken poo (Americans say poop—why?).

One of the hens is hen pecked by the others.  She has hardly any feathers except on her head, which makes her look like a little pot-bellied naked person wearing a chicken-head costume.

There are also three cats, one of whom rarely makes an appearance.  They poo outside so I don’t have to deal with a litter box.  They have a smart cat door which reads their microchips and won’t open to neighborhood cats.

My seven housemates are low maintenance.  Caring for them gives me a little routine to ground myself each day.

I live in Cowley, the vibrant, diverse neighborhood east of Oxford city center where real people live.

I live a half hour walk from Oxford city center.  Since my arrival I’ve walked at least an hour a day just to get around.  I could take a bus, but why, if I am able to walk?

There is so much going on here, and it’s cheap or free if you look.  The highlight so far was a free concert at Christchurch Cathedral.

The program was Chopin, and the pianist played the funeral march from Sonata Number 2.

This piece has become almost a joke, but if you listen to the whole thing you will hear it is not only a beautiful piece of music but a celebration of life with all its ups and downs and frustrations and joys.

Which pretty much sums up my life so far.