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 and Windsor

Sam and his wife greeting me warmly. I had wanted to see them and their toddler before they left for the US.  I also knew that preparing for a month-long trip would be stressful and I didn’t want to get in the way.

The kitchen and living room had damp bedding draped everywhere to dry, suitcases yawning open, piles of papers for sorting, and were strewn with toys.  The baby was running around, jumping on the furniture, and crying disconsolately and without much enthusiasm, as young children do when they sense change in the works that they don’t understand.

In other words, a normal pre-trip domestic scene.

Sam had gone in to work, where an exam cheating scandal was unfolding among the Eton faculty.  “Just when there are a hundred errands to run,” Gwen said, waving her To Do list.  She is very organized, a high achiever, and methodical like me; I like her a lot.

“Did Sam tell you I’ll be teaching at Eton this fall too?  So I’ve got to prepare for that while we’re away.”

She’s had been a high school assistant principal, and it showed.

“Water the flower boxes every day,” she instructed me.  “I mean it, Anne!  Every day!”

I vowed I would. Sam appeared and said to me, “Let’s get you oriented to the town.”

“Sam, I need you to post these letters,” Gwen said.  “And then I have three more things for you to do when you get back.”

“Sure,” Sam said as we left the kitchen, then on the street, “Boy, she gets so stressed out when we travel.”

Windsor and Eton are two towns separated by the River Thames and connected by a pedestrian bridge.

This map shows Eton north of Windsor, while the tourist centre map shows it east of Windsor.  Who knows?

Sam led me down Eton High Street and pointed out the oldest pub in town, The Henry VI.  “It’s not a very nice pub,” he said, “They’ve got Sky Sports on all the time.”

“But there are plenty of other good places,” and he pointed out burger joints, Italian restaurants, and curry houses as we walked.

We passed this passageway flanked by gargoyles.

Whoever thought this was a good place to install a security box ought to be fired.

“There’s the George, that’s probably the best pub.  They have their own local ales.”

We stopped on the bridge for a moment to enjoy the views. There was an abundance of swans.

We passed through security barriers which could be employed on a moments’ notice to block off the streets in case of a threat.  This is a photo from the local paper which makes it look as though there are no people in Windsor, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

We walked up the street that winds up hill around Windsor Castle through hordes of tourists into Windsor proper.  “This is actually nothing,” Sam said.  “It’s not high season yet.  Just wait a few days, once we’re gone, it’ll be almost impossible to get through the mobs.”

“The Castle was built after the Norman Conquest,” Sam said.  He’s a walking encyclopedia.  It was kind of eerie, walking past trinket shops shilling Queen Elizabeth bobble head dolls and all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets, while on the other side of the street was a massive fortress built in the 11th Century by William the Conqueror.

Sam brought us to Windsor High Street.  “High streets” are synonymous with “downtowns” or shopping malls in the US.  They’re where all the action is and where you will find department stores and big groceries and banks, etc.

We stopped to have a couple pints.  When I remarked that all the tables around us were occupied by well-dressed women with babies or toddlers in expensive-looking prams, Sam said,  “Yeah, Windsor is a rich city and you’ll see lots of yummy mummies.  They don’t work; they spend all day getting massages, shopping, and lunching.”

Sam’s phone pinged as he took his first sip.  “Did you post the letters?” he read.  “I gotta go,” he said, and shot out the door.  I stayed behind to enjoy my beer, and his.

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.

Fallen Leaves

Another report from real time.  I apologize in advance that this post is longer than most.

A friend invited me to an five-hour writing and meditation retreat.  My first reaction was, Who’s got time for that!?  My second reaction was, If that was my first reaction, it must mean I need it.  So I signed up.

On Sunday I got up early and schlepped over to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, which is slightly smaller than New York’s Central Park.  I didn’t get lost because last winter I got “pre-lost” on a walk there.  I had to call this same friend to come and rescue me in the dark snowy woods.

The retreat was in the pavilion, which I would guess was built in the 20s based on its deco-era light fixtures.  It has a high vaulted ceiling, screen porches that run the length of it on both sides, and a gigantic hearth. The pavilion is set on a hill with oaks whose leaves were in their autumn finest colors of russet, pumpkin, and gold.

The retreat was led by a woman named Jeannine who runs something called Elephant Rock.  Their retreats “harness the transformative power of writing in breathtaking natural settings.” The first thing I noticed was the vocal fry.  I was going to be here for five hours, so I “set an intention,” as they say, to not let this get on my nerves.

Jeannine was paired with a guy named Tyler who is a Buddhist monk and the director of a temple in Chicago.  There were a dozen or so participants, all women.  White women with scarves, we call them where I work.  Upper middle class, white, professional women.  Oh well.  That was me, too, so for the second time that day I pledged not to be distracted by my observations.

The pattern of the day was that Tyler led a short meditation, then Jeannine gave us a writing prompt to inspire us in 10 minutes of scribbling, followed by a brief discussion.  The first prompt was an excerpt from The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

I wrote:

In my new backyard, I sit on the bench we threw out here because we didn’t know where else to put it and the U-Haul had to be returned by 7:00.

I smoke a Swisher Sweet and drink a Blue Moon and look up at the leaves of an enormous oak tree.  It’s the end of September and the leaves are just turning.

Once a week or so I repeat this ritual and if I’m able to actually notice the leaves—if I don’t pass the entire time in my head—I notice they are now gold, now brown, now gone, fallen in heaps in the driveway, now slimy after a rain.

I moved, my mother had a stroke, then we moved her, all in a month.  My minimalist pride was blown because I had taken home piles of her shit that I just couldn’t throw away, like the giant, heavy-duty cookie sheet she used to bake chocolate chip cookies for the four of us.

My mother is recovering in her new $6,000-a-month “continuum of care” digs.  The same apartment can be independent living, assisted living, or memory care (they put a lock on the outside of your door when you get to that stage).  There’s a cemetery next door.

Just kidding.

But no one moves out of there alive unless they’ve run out of money.

We’re all moving along a conveyor belt.  My mom will never spend the winter in Phoenix again.  Never ride a bike again.  Now she’ll never drive a car again.  No more baths now.  She’ll never go for a walk in the woods alone again.  Now, no more showers without an aide nearby.  Her daily glass of wine is forbidden.

My mother is blessed with a mind that never worries, never obsesses, never ruminates.  Yesterday I found her in the party room at a Bloody Mary party.  When she saw me she put down her plastic cup and said with a foxy grin, “I forgot I’m not supposed to drink!”

I do worry, obsess, and ruminate, which is why I need to write and meditate and sometimes, have a beer and a cigar out in the backyard.  But not now, not until spring, because it’s too cold and dark outside.

Tech Troubles

Before resuming my story about house sitting and working from the UK, I want to acknowledge that while my posts are always tagged “Budget Travel,” I wouldn’t be able to call half of it that if it weren’t for Lynn.  She paid for the cottage in Cornwall, the rental car, the hotel with the crunchy gravel in Shaftsbury.  I do my best to pay for things when we travel together.  I snuck down to the front desk and paid for our stay at the Fern Hill Hotel in Lyme Regis, and I would try to snatch and pay the bill for meals as often as I could, but Lynn is pretty good at snatching the bill herself.

We’ve discussed it and we’ll probably discuss it in the future.  If you’re going to travel with a friend you’ve got to be able to talk about money or it could be kaput for the friendship.

But living in Eton for the month of July really was almost free of costs.  I had sold my condo back home so I had no mortgage payment, association dues, or utility bills.  Of course I had no home to return to, but I would figure that out later.

Second, housesitting for Sam meant a free place to stay just outside of London for a month.   Sam asked me to pay the bills, which amounted to £100, or about $130.  Of course I bought groceries and of course I wanted to eat in the pubs and restaurants and go into London which cost about $13.00 each way.  I used the local Leisure Centre to lift weights a couple times a week and that was $13.00 per time.  After a couple weeks I asked for and got a “prospective members pass,” which probably saved me a hundred bucks.  I was honest.  I said I would never be a member because I would be gone in a month.  I think they felt sorry for me that I was paying $13.00 for just an hour of access to the gym.

I haven’t added up how much the month in Eton cost and I won’t bother because whatever it was, it was worth it.

Before I turn to describing the house and Eton and beyond, I just came across a list of annoying, mostly tech problems I dealt with while I was there.

The Internet in Eton was very, very, slow.  This surprised me—I assumed a town with a world-famous school would have super-fast Internet and I’m not sure what the deal was.  One theory I’ve heard is that Britain was one of the earliest countries to get Internet access to its population.  Now that’s out of date and an infrastructure upgrade is called for, but no one wants to pay for it.

I was still after Expedia about screwing up one of my June flights and eventually they refunded my money and gave me a $50 voucher, but it took patience and persistence.  I’m sure they count on most people just giving up.

When I booked a flight to Scotland on Flybe, they charged me seven times.

Delta came through with a $250 voucher for ripping my suitcase.  They were the most responsive and least hassle-y of all the companies I dealt with.

My mouse died.  Yes, I am mouse dependent.  A new one was only 10 quid but finding one was inconvenient.

The closing on my condo went smoothly, but it was another story trying to cut the cord with my Internet provider back home.  I am still battling them three months later.

A&T made me run a gauntlet to unlock my new phone.

My bank blocked my account access even though I had told them I was traveling.

Sam’s printer only worked about every fifth print job.

I couldn’t copy and paste anything from my remote work desktop.

A Skype “upgrade” left colleagues unable to hear me.

So if you have a fantasy about running away to live the simple life in another country, forget it.  In fact first-world problems can be more of a hassle because you may not be able to make phone calls and you may not know where to go for help.

Sleeping Giants

What did I conclude about the meaning of life and the possible existence of an afterlife from my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian?  Only that there’s a reason so many people are drawn to Native spirituality, and that’s its focus on the natural world and that we are interdependent with it and with one another.  Some tribes believe that everything is connected—seen and unseen, natural and manmade.  So the next time you swear at your computer, stop and try to have a little compassion for it!

Coincidentally, while I was in DC I started to read a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro called The Sleeping Giant which provided me with a comforting metaphor about death.  I started reading Ishiguro in August when I was in Scotland, and I kept reading.  When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature this month, I kind of felt like a genius because I could drop the names of four of his books and discuss the plot lines in detail in the lunchroom at work and at happy hours with friends.

Anyway, The Sleeping Giant uses the metaphor of a boatman ferrying people to an island from which there is no return.  It’s very peaceful except that they have to go alone—they have to leave their spouse or children or whoever they love most on the shore.  There’s no telling what’s on the island, but the novel is set in ancient Britain so it’s heavily wooded.  There we are, back to nature again. I found this illustration online that is kind of cool except it leaves out the woods.  My takeaway is that this worldview of death is that it’s a journey to an unknown but pleasant-enough-looking land.

I still think it could just be Lights Out.  But there could also be some new adventure on the other side.  As a traveler, the idea of taking a boat ride into the unknown is intriguing.

My flight home didn’t leave until 7pm, so I took in another exhibit at the AI museum about the Inca highway, which extended from what is now Chile to Colombia, or almost 25,000 miles (about 40,000 kilometers).  It was another extensive exhibit and I decided to just look at the artifacts and not read all the plaques about its construction or about the blood baths carried out during the Spanish conquest.  There were some beautiful and whimsical artifacts representing the many cultures and eras that had lain along the route.

I liked that the signage was in English and Spanish.  I would read the Spanish titles, then check to see if I’d got it right.  I mostly had, and I also learned a few new words.

This is a scale used by the Inca.  Keep in mind this was pre-Columbian (made, roughly, prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492).  Amazing that it survived.

I at first took the item below for an intricate neck piece but it is an example of a quipu, a counting and communications system which employed different colored strings with knots whose positions indicated values.

I had my doubts about eating a late lunch in the cafeteria.  Indian food in Minnesota means fry bread, which is basically deep-fried dough.  Not my idea of a healthy or delicious meal. But the cafeteria was organized by regions of American Indians, so there was everything from ceviche to salmon and yes—fry bread.

I filled my plate with salmon, a wild rice salad with water cress, and mashed sweet potatoes.

Good thing that admission to the museum was free, because after about five hours in the exhibits I dropped a wad of money in the cafeteria and gift shop.

I wandered around DC a bit more.  The International Monetary Fund and World Bank were having their annual meeting and banners with the theme END POVERTY were on prominent display.

Directly across the street from this building was a park full of homeless people.

And this is my view as I descended the escalators into the Metro.

Scary.  Our domestic infrastructure is being held together with rusty bolts, but we’re going to spend billions to build a wall to keep Mexicans out.

A Worldview from The Hill

A free day in Washington, DC.  There’s so much to see there.  It was a tossup between the two new museums, one dedicated to African Americans and one to Native Americans.  I chose the latter, since I had been to a Native wedding the previous weekend and had been thinking about cultures and spiritual traditions and my lack thereof.  Maybe I could learn something here.

And I hit the food-for-thought jackpot.  There was an entire exhibit about Native American cosmologies—worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe.  It would take an encyclopedia to do justice to Native American cosmologies, so I apologize in advance for what I am about to get wrong or leave out.

I watched a 15-minute introductory video which made the point that the term “American Indian” encompasses hundreds of tribes from Bolivia to Alaska and from Seattle to Florida and that they all have their own traditions and customs.  The video showed a guy doing something most people would associate with Native Americans—drumming in a pow wow or carving a totem or some such (I can’t remember) and he said, “This isn’t something we do for fun—this is the way it is.”

I’ve been to pow wows so I think I know what he meant.  A non-Native could come away from a pow wow thinking, “Well that seemed like a nice excuse to dance and socialize and I’m glad they let me observe but it seemed kind of cheesy and repetitive and I don’t need to go again.”  Whereas for Natives who take it seriously, the regalia and music and dancing have significance way beyond their outward appearance.

The cosmology exhibit featured eight tribes.  An impression I’ve always had about Indian spirituality is that it’s nature based.  Having been raised in a Catholic milieu, I can’t think of anything related to the natural world in Catholicism.

Judaism, the world religion with which I’ve always identified, has a few nature-focused holidays.  Sukkot requires us to build a temporary dwelling outdoors and eat in it every day for 10 days to remind ourselves of the 40 years we spent wandering in the desert.  Tu B’Shvat is the New Year of Trees and we … plant trees.  We throw bread on the water (a river or lake) during the High Holidays to symbolize casting away our sins.  But these are once-a-year holidays.  We used to sacrifice bulls under the full moon but thankfully discarded that tradition.

The natural world was the starting point all of the tribal cosmologies.  Basically, each worldview started with some kind of geographic division: the four compass directions or, in the case of the Mapuche, six dimensions including the water below and Father God above.  Each natural sphere is associated with values or animals or human traits.

The values overlapped but weren’t exactly the same from tribe to tribe.  The Lakota Souix and Anishinabe are tribes that inhabit Minnesota and vast areas beyond.  Lakota values corresponding to the four compass points are generosity, wisdom, respect, and fortitude.  Anishinabe values also include wisdom, respect, and fortitude—plus love, courage, honesty, humility, and truth—but not generosity.  The Maya value wisdom, honesty, integrity, faithfulness, authority, and spiritual leadership.  The Yu’pik value respect, loyalty, and authority.

These are Yu’pik elders consulted on the exhibit.

In Judaism, I would say justice is the primary value.  I thought maybe the Lakota value of truth was close to this but for them “truth” is about things that are eternal, like the sun and the moon—things that never change.  Courage was the closest to justice; in the case of Natives it means moral strength to do the right thing.

I won’t get into the forms of worship—if that’s the correct word—but it does seem true that Native practices—at least the eight tribes represented here—really did spring from and revolve around nature.

Some tribes had worldviews that included an afterlife; some didn’t even have a future tense.  One of the afterlives was described as “a place where you go when you die to dance forever.”  I’m sure that sounds great to some people but not to me.  I’m a horrible dancer.