Tag Archives: England

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.

 

 

A Long Day

I had six days left in Eton before I flew to Aberdeen to join Lynn’s household.  The weather continued hot and sunny.  I resumed my routine of work and walks.  A friend from Minnesota was coming to England for the first time so we made plans to go sightseeing in London.

I had spent a lot of time sitting on the bus and in meetings during my two-day trip to Oxford, so it was time for a long walk. Or should I say, The Long Walk.

There is a path leading away from Windsor Castle called The Long Walk.  I could Google it to find out exactly how long it was, or I could walk it.

The Long Walk is part of Windsor Great Park, the Queen’s 5,000-acre backyard.  There were no amenities. No signs, picnic tables, food vendors, or even toilets. I kept walking because there was something at the end of it.

As I later learned, The Walk was 2.65 miles (4.26 kilometers), one way.

There was no signage identifying the statue, but Lynn’s husband Richard informed me later that it was “George II, the second Hanoverian King, the last British monarch to lead his army in battle.  Luckily he kept his horse, unlike another monarch who ended up under a car park in Leicester.”

He is referring to Richard III.  I have a hard time keeping the kings and queens straight, but I remember Richard III because he had scoliosis, as I do, and there was a PBS documentary about him where they made this poor guy named Dominic—who has scoliosis—stand in for Richard III to see how much suffering and abuse he could withstand.  It really makes me cringe, watching the teaser for this show.

Back to The Long Walk.  The statue was graceful, as statues of monarchs go.

I heard Polish, Spanish, and Japanese around me; only we foreigners were suckers enough to walk all the way to the end.  There was nothing else to do then, but turn around and walk back.

Undoubtedly the place will be throbbing with revellers for Prince Harry’s wedding in May.

Eton College has three museums: Antiquities, Eton Life, and Natural History.  It was Sunday, and though I was weary from my walk, the Natural History Museum was only open Sundays from 2:30-5:00.

It took me a while to find it, but I enjoyed some more sign-seeing along the way.

I’m not sure what bollards are, but there are a lot of signs about them.

I found the museum before I got swept up in any bollard-related escapades.  The museum was founded in 1875 and was just as I had hoped—small and jam-packed with 15,000 displays of dead things.

Someone had meticulously collected, sorted, categorized, and labeled everything from shells to moths. Someone who needed OCD medication.

There were lots of birds.

And dioramas of dead birds doing life-like things, like eating escargot.

This was a nice little scene of a ship chasing a giant puffer fish.

A glassed-off room contained a horse skeleton and dozens of skulls.  Were they human?  Apes?  There was no explanation.  But I did learn that horses’ front legs aren’t attached to the rest of their skeleton.

This poor owl, named Ollie, was sucked through an airplane’s somethingorother duct. He seems to be in awfully good shape for having met such a tragic end.

Who doesn’t love a hedgehog, especially with a hawk on its back?  Really, my photos should win a “World’s Worst Photos” contest.

A badger, fuzzier than normal due to my poor focus.

There were students there, on field trips. This young lady was learning about the journey of the Beagle and Darwin’s discoveries in the Galapagos, which led him to formulate the Theory of Evolution.  If you believe in that kind of thing.

This painting depicted a 14-year-old boy, Horatio Nelson.  While on a journey to the North Pole, he fought off a polar bear with his musket because it wouldn’t fire.

Like natural history museums everywhere, there were freak animals.

It was a tiny place, which was fine with me because I can only take so many long walks and four-legged ducklings in one day.

Peddling and Paddling

At last, by luck, I spotted the Oxfam building through a gap in a hedge.  I scrambled through using a dirt path worn by thousands of feet before me whose owners were seeking a short cut, in the process adding dust to sweat and possibly arriving with a twig in my hair.

I was late—only by five minutes or so, but I hate arriving late.  Lynn had arranged the meeting, and she was there ready to usher me through the security gates.  There was no time to take a look at myself in the bathroom.  I did what one does when one arrives late, flustered, and not sure if there is a swipe of dust across one’s face—I pulled myself up straight, smiled, and walked confidently through the gates.

Mark (not his real name) was kind of a big kahuna at Oxfam GB.  When I had mentioned his title to a coworker, she had asked slyly, “So is this a partnering meeting or a job interview?”

Without leave to remain in the UK, working for OGB is out of the question, and that’s kind of a relief because I could focus on why I was really there—to “pitch” my organization.  That sounds crass but it’s what it is.

The meeting was to last a half hour.  That sent me a signal that I wasn’t to waste Mark’s time.  We settled onto a settee in the staff lounge and I launched into my spiel.  I could tell he was really listening, which I appreciated and which helped me to slow down and be real.  After I finished, he talked about how he had recently returned to Britain after many years working in disaster zones.  He totally “got” the need for rehabilitation—I didn’t need to explain psychological trauma to him.  He talked about Oxfam’s priorities and thought out loud about how we might find ways to work together.  He was very kind, considering that my organization is so small.  Our meeting went a bit longer than planned.  If I did have a smudge of sweaty dust on my face or a twig in my hair, he pretended not to notice and didn’t hold it against me.

Afterwards, I checked in with Lynn and thanked her for making the connection, then walked back to the bus stop to take the #3 along the Iffley Road for a late lunch with a former coworker.

I hadn’t seen Jane in 10 years, and it was great to catch up.  She had been a new graduate—21 years old—when I’d first met her and she still had a beautiful English rose complexion.  She had left Oxfam to become a primary school teacher, and she and her man were going to do a charity bike ride the next weekend. She hadn’t been on a bike in years and was a bit concerned about the borrowed set of wheels she would ride.

“That reminds me of the time I did a charity kayak trip,” I said as I munched on my cruelty-free vegan sandwich grilled with organic olive oil hand pressed by refugees. This was east Oxford, after all.

“I had never kayaked before.  I borrowed a friend of a friend’s kayak, which turned out to be heavy as a bathtub.  We were supposed to paddle 44 miles along the Mississippi, through the locks in downtown Minneapolis, camping overnight at an old fort—Fort Snelling—and finishing in St. Paul.  We were kayaking on the river with barges and paddleboats and houseboats!  How hard could it be?”

Jane’s face fell as I spoke.

“Maybe I should go on a test ride before the big one,” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, probably.  I made it to the half-way point and dropped out.  The only kayaks behind me were the emergency medical technicians.  I finished 427th out of 427 and I could barely pick up a pencil for days because my shoulders were so sore.”

We reminisced for a couple hours, then Jane hopped on her borrowed bike—which appeared to be approximately one hundred years old—and peddled away.  I walked back to the guest house to put in some work hours, and left early the next morning.

A Fish Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one is pure Oxford:

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

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

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

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

“That makes perfect sense,” she nodded.

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

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

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

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

Oxford, Again

On the coach to Oxford.  The longest part of the journey, as in most places, is getting out of the city.  There’s no way to magically part the traffic, so you may as well sit back and enjoy the scenery.

The seats on UK coaches are raised up to make space for luggage compartments.  So you can see a lot from a coach that you won’t see at the pavement level. I hadn’t been on this particular route for a few years.  We passed a row of luxury car show rooms … McLaren, Ferrari … the type of gaudy wheels Donald Trump would love.

We passed my favorite hideous but marvelous building, Trellick Tower (not my photos).

I turned my head and there it was … the ill-fated Grenfell Tower.

Grenfell had gone up in flames in June, when I was in Ethiopia. I recalled being in the canteen at work and how everyone stopped eating and stared at the TV, in disbelief that this was London, not Addis Ababa. Seventy-one people died in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

We passed the Hoover Building, as in hoovers, which Americans call vacuum cleaners (not my photos).

This art-deco bonbon is being converted into luxury flats.  I’m sure they’ll be fab, but they’ll still overlook a motorway clogged with traffic that produces plenty of noise and exhaust fumes.

In England, there are Green Belt policies aimed at preventing urban sprawl.  And they really do look like belts. (image by Hellerick).  The big one is London.

While my fellow nature lovers and I love green belts, they have been criticized for pushing up house prices, since 70% of the cost of building new houses is the purchase of the land (up from 25% in the late 1950s).

There are no signs stating, “You are now entering a green belt,” but I have been on a coach many times where I was surrounded by relentless concrete high rises and industrial areas and suddenly it’s like we’ve been transported into a Nature Valley Granola Bars commercial.

We entered the Chiltern Hills.  I have friends who have hiked these, camping along the way; I prefer to enjoy them from a coach for now.

In under an hour we were entering Oxford from the east, along the Headington Road.  It felt so familiar and I felt nostalgia well up.

I have never been so in love with a place.  I think it was because of what it represented in my life at the time.  From the teenage welfare mom living in subsidized housing, when I arrived in Oxford I had a master’s degree, I had traveled all over central America and Israel and some of Europe, and my son was stable—for the time being.  Moving to Oxford was my triumphal escape from St. Small, and I was never going back.

Of course I did come back, because my work visa couldn’t be renewed.  And I have come to appreciate many things about St. Paul, like how affordable it is.  It’s clean.  We’re a hub for theater and other culture.  I can drive five minutes and be at the Mississippi River or two hours and stand on the shores of Lake Superior. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are one of the most progressive metropolitan areas in the US, which I appreciate a lot right now.

But Oxford is a medieval city that is home to the most storied university on the planet.  It’s called the City of Dreaming Spires, and I won’t gush on about it but here are a few photos from some sight-seeing days I spend with my niece when she came to visit me.

I believe we’re atop Carfax tower here.

This is a tourist and TV detective-series directors’ favorite.

There are the Harry Potter-esque colleges.

Everywhere you look there are gargoyles and grotesques.

 

Oxford is also surrounded by woods and rivers and meadows.

Moving to Oxford is how I met Lynn, and Sam, and Possum, and Heidi.  It got me started in the international development biz.

How lucky am I to have lived there and returned again and again?  Most people never get to visit once.

Power and The Pig

I was on my way to Oxford.  This involved taking the train into London, then boomeranging out to Oxford by coach.  I had taken both routes many times so I felt no anxiety about getting there.  From the train I could see Battersea Power Station.

When I first spotted it, I thought I recognized it from somewhere.  After a couple more trips it came to me—this was the scary structure featured on Pink Floyd’s album Animals, which I had listened to over and over in my youth.

Animals is loosely based on George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm.  It’s the debut of the pig that Roger Waters, the band’s former bassist and lead song writer, still features in his concerts.  The album critiques the socioeconomic conditions in late 70s in Britain, with the pig symbolizing despotic, ruthless capitalism.

This is one of those moments where I feel overwhelmed and amazed by coincidences and connections, but I’ll write on.

Battersea Power Station was decommissioned in the late 70s and early 80s.  It looks ominous and cool from a distance.  It took me back because my first day at Oxfam involved a group “field trip” to another coal-fired power plant in Didcot, a half hour south of Oxford.

Yes, my first day happened to be an “away day,” which we in the US would call a staff retreat.  It was disorienting, to say the least.  Here I was, ready to start researching issues like small scale agriculture and industrial mining, and instead my new boss picked me up in front of the liquor store near my hostel and whisked me away to a coal-fired power plant.

This is what it looked like as we approached.

All I could think was, “What the fuck?!  Maybe we’re really on an undercover mission to sabotage it.  I could be deported on my first day!”

But no, we were really going on a tour.  The Didcot plant has also since been decommissioned and transitioned to natural gas. Sadly in the process, part of it collapsed and four workers were killed.

But back in 2006, the management was in full marketing buzz-speak mode.  We got to don jump suits and hats and masks; we must have looked like the Oxfam version of Devo.

We were lead around by a perky young woman who made coal power sound so cool! and really—just super for the environment! We received cardboard model coal plants to assemble at home with our children.  These actually were really cool.  I wonder whatever happened to mine.

I never received a clear explanation of why we went.  Maybe to try to understand “the opposition?”

Back on the train to London, seeing Battersea reminded me that there was a Pink Floyd exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Strangely, my son is a bigger Floyd fan than I ever was, and I made a mental note to go check out the exhibit in order to obtain Cool Mom Points.

Now, sitting in my living room in January in Minnesota, I am reading Donald Trump’s tweet about Nine Elms, the area where Battersea is located.

“Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”

An off location?  I read several articles about the redevelopment of Nine Elms and specifically Battersea Power Station when I was in the UK.  The plan is to invest £8 billion ($11 billion) into Battersea to create luxury penthouses.  $11 billion!  Yes, billion!  There are all sorts of other fantastical buildings springing up around Battersea, including the new American Embassy.  This is an artist’s rendering; the real thing was more impressive, although I didn’t know what it was when I saw it in the distance from the train.

This kind of phantasmagorical development project should be right up Donald Trump’s alley—affordable only to the one percent.  I’m surprised he doesn’t recognize a great real estate investment deal when he sees it.  I’d invest in it if I had his money.