Category Archives: Joie de vivre

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.

Dunrovin

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.

Last Hurrahs

It had cooled down, with highs in the low 70s (low 20s Celsius). I checked the weather in Scotland daily and that gave me impetus to get outside as much as possible.

This was late July, for the town in Scotland I was destined for shortly.  Fifty-five Fahrenheit is 12 Celsius.

There were signs advertising something called a Brocas Fun Fair all over Eton. One afternoon after editing a proposal which described torture and the use of mass rape as a weapon of war, I thought, “Now is the time to visit a Fun Fair.”

I was still experiencing vertigo and my Restless Legs Syndrome was getting worse.  Poor sleep combined with vertigo added up to a continuous feeling of physical disorientation, which may have enhanced my Fun Fair experience.

It was a Thursday afternoon, so the place wasn’t doing much business and many of the stalls were closed.  A couple of 10 year olds who were probably skipping school climbed onto a ride and a carnie yelled at them to bugger off, instead of directing them to the ticket booth and inviting them to come back.

In case you thought Americans were the only ones obsessed with guns, there were three booths with shooting themes.

Another depicted what someone must have imagined was a “real American road scene,” complete with truckers and maybe a Harley rider, with skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty thrown in for good measure.  Then there’s the toy-like boat in the foreground … I’m sure this would all feel magical to a five year old.

I was surprised the political-correctness police hadn’t demanded that this be redesigned—whatever it was.

Wandering back slowly through Eton—the college—I got a laugh from more finger-wagging signs.

I could just hear the Pink Floyd song The Wall playing in my head.

Wrong, Do it again!
If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding.
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?
You! Yes, you behind the bikesheds, stand still laddy!

I read this one three times, then gave up understanding it and walked on.

I spent a day shopping with Julie in Windsor.  She especially enjoyed the grocery stores.  We went to an upscale one, Waitrose, and a tiny local one called Budgeons.  At first glance, a grocery store in the UK looks the same as one in the US.  But if you look closely; if you pay attention to every item individually as though it is a meditative exercise, you will see many things that make you go hmm ….

Or in my case, shudder at the words, “With Jelly.”

For all I know, my local grocery may sell tubs of pork drippings with jelly.  However when I shop at home it is like a military strike—hurry in, grab the same items I buy every time, get out as fast as possible.

We had lunch at the Waterman’s Arms.  Fish and chips for Julie, lamb and mash and a half pint of cloudy local cider for me.

We visited a card shop near the flat.

Part of my new-employee orientation at Oxfam had been to read the communications style manual, which included a directive to “avoid creeping Americanisms.”  By contrast, we have many, many “creeping Britishisms” in America and we love and embrace them.  I could write a whole post about this.

There was a series of cards that mimic illustrations from beloved children’s books combined with adult themes:

Other cards in the series include “The Acid Trip,” “The 12 Step Programme,” “The Halfway House,” and “Bouncing Back.”

I took Julie to Daniel, the department store.  Here she is in the toy section.

I went in to London one last time, dropping in to the Victoria and Albert Museum only long enough to buy my son a tote bag and other Pink Floyd-branded items.  The line for the exhibit itself was a mile long.

I searched Hamley’s, the gigantic toy store on  Oxford Street, for Sylvanian families badger figures for my nephews.  I was distressed that, like Daniel, they were out of badgers so I had to settle for a pizza-delivering hedgehog and a mouse dentist.

 

 

Flights and Boats and Ships

As my month in Eton and Windsor drew to a close I stepped up my sightseeing.  If you’re a traveler, you know that tension between, “I want to see it all; I may never be here again!” and “I want to savor and enjoy my moments here; I may never be here again.”  This was a time for the former.

My friend Julie had never been to England, hadn’t traveled internationally in years, and that had mostly been on tours.  I figured she’d be nervous arriving at Heathrow—jet lagged, disoriented, tired, and excited—I always am.

So I met her there, in the “Love Actually” arrivals hall.

Ingrid had met me at Schiphol in May.  Maki had met me in Addis Ababa in June.  Lynn was there when I arrived at Heathrow from Ethiopia. It’s nice to see a familiar face at the airport.  I don’t mind traveling alone, for the most part, but it feels a little sad to arrive and have no one waving to greet me.

Julie’s flight was delayed so I watched people arriving—scanning the waiting crowd for a familiar face, then lighting up with a smile when they spotted their spouse or friend or business associate—waving, then shaking hands or kissing and hugging.  It was an endorphin boost, just watching.

Julie’s arrival gave me a push to re-see some old favorites.  We spent a day at the Tower of London.  I hadn’t been there for 30 years.  Based on binge watching The Tudors and reading Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, I knew just enough to probably misinform Julie so she would possibly be laughed at if she quoted me.

Afterwards, we did one of my favorite London activities, the boat ride to Greenwich.  It’s a cheap way to see the city from the river; we left from Tower Hill but you can start at Westminster or even further beyond for all I know.  It had been raining all day so the thought of sitting inside under a clear Plexiglas canopy appealed.  It only costs £10 for the round trip, and there are so many boats plying the Thames that it’s not necessary to book in advance for a specific time.

We waited in line with a couple Tajikistan who were honeymooning.  They had flown in via Moscow that day.  They were spending two days in London, taking a day trip to Oxford, then flying to Edinburgh for two days, from whence they would work their way back home via Paris and Prague.  Good thing they were young and had lots of stamina.

It takes less than an hour to get to Greenwich.  We passed under bridge after bridge and stopped at multiple piers on either side to let people board or disembark.  I always look forward to gliding under Tower Bridge, splendid even in the rain.

There’s a lot to see in Greenwich, but I always tack my visit onto the end of a day so everything is closed when I arrive.

There is the Cutty Sark, which is not just a brand of whisky.  The original 147-year-old ship can be toured but I’ve never done so.  It’s the last surviving clipper ship in the world.

Greenwich is home to the Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT, still used as the standard time zone reference.  If you have ever planned a trip somewhere outside of your own time zone, you have likely seen “GMT + 4” or whatever to indicate the local time.

There is also the Royal Naval Museum which I’m sure is fascinating but which I’ve never seen, and a wonderful covered market which is always just closing down when I arrive.

Note to self: Plan a day in Greenwich next time.

On the return boat ride we got distracted by a drunk guy who wanted us to guess his nationality, which turned out to be Polish.  This may have triggered a few stereotypes in me.

We missed our stop and got off at the next one.  The Pole got off and followed us. It was deserted and dark.  I was debating whether to scream when he came abreast of us, gave us directions to the nearest tube station, and stumbled away.

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.