Tag Archives: England

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.

The Hours

The days roll by.  How can time go so fast when I don’t feel like I’m doing anything very exciting?

There is a phenomenon of time moving faster as you get older.  I turned 60 last week.  It doesn’t get much older than that!  Well, let’s hope it does.

A friend and I had dinner at the Randolph Hotel, a posh place that was reasonably priced.  I had gnocchi and it was okay.  But the room was splendid and the company was good, and they brought us complementary prosecco and birthday cake festooned with red currants, so it was very nice.

After dinner we walked next door to the Oxford Playhouse and saw the play Educating Rita. It’s also an old movie with Michael Caine and Julie Walters.  This version starred Stepehn Thompkinson, who starred in Ballykissangel and lots of other TV shows.

Educating Rita is about a young woman from a working class background who is thirsty to learn.  Tompkinson plays her crusty alcoholic tutor.  It was an appropriate theme for Oxford, I think, since the vast majority of the students here are from upper class families and everyone else is literally and figuratively shut out of the 38 colleges.  By that I mean that the campuses are all surrounded by high walls and the gates are guarded by porters who won’t let you in unless you’ve got some official connection.  Some colleges do promote tours of their campuses.

Then there are the free concerts, which I attend about twice a week.  I can walk up to the porter’s lodge, say “I’m here for the concert,” and they wave me through.  I enjoy walking past the hordes of proles craning their necks to get a look inside.

I’ve attended concerts at Christchurch Cathedral most often.  In one of the naves (I think that’s what it’s called, is the Lady Chapel.  It’s named for the patron saint of Oxford, Frideswide.  She was a nun born around the year 650 somewhere along the banks of the  Thames.  Her miracle—every saint needs to perform miracles—was restoring sight to the blind.

Poor Frideswide caught the eye of a king who wouldn’t take no for an answer.  You know, the age-old “Me Too” story.  There are multiple versions, but he abducted here, she got away, she hid in a forest, he ended up going blind and falling off his horse and breaking his neck. That may not have been the exact order of things, but you get the picture.

I thought this stained glass window in her chapel was particularly colorful.  A volunteer guide cornered me—not for the first time, and not that I minded—and gave me a mini Master’s Degree in the fine art of stained glass window design and production.

Another day I attended an organ concert there and we sat in the pews, which are richly decorated with carved “grotesques,” like griffins.

I’m not sure what this scrawny fellow is but he makes a nice contrast to the enormous organ in the background.

It must be an organist’s dream to play here.  The program said, “The organist has permission to play loudly” and he did.  Sadly there were only six people in attendance.

As I wrote last week, in contrast to the city centre my walk to the gym is through the low-rent district.  But I manage to find beautiful and interesting things along the way, and it’s not like I’m in any danger.

What a charming street name.

And what a cost-effective way to make more room for parking—instead of spending billions to widen the streets, just repaint the parking lines up onto the sidewalk!

More and more trees and shrubs are blooming.

Back at the house, I do my laundry, hanging it to dry in the spare room.  I have stayed in a dozen British homes and even the few people who own tumble dryers, as they call them, have an aversion to using them.

There are non-working fireplaces in the living room and dining room; originally there were probably fireplaces in every room, including the kitchen and bath.

The three cats do … cat things.  This day they were having a stare down.

Settled In

I am now fully settled into my house-cat-chicken sitting and remote-work gig.  I guess I’m what is now called a digital nomad.

I have crossed some hurdles that I dreaded.

How would I ever figure out the trash and recycling system?  Just look at the “helpful” aids!

I did it, but the hardest part was getting it through my head that the green bin is for trash, not recycling.  All my life, green has equaled recycling.

I like how the A to Zed wheel suggests composting tissues.  I use a lot of tissues.  My nose starts running as soon as winter comes and drips continuously through May.  But I will not be composting my tissues.

Laundry.  I made the mistake of putting in a load of sheets and choosing the Cotton setting.  Four and a half hours later, they were done.  From now on I’ll use the Super Speed setting for every load, which on this Samsung machine still takes an hour.

I am a good foot shorter than the home owners, so I have had to stand on a footstool to hang laundry in the spare room that’s set up for that.  I couldn’t find the light switch for the cocktail lounge, and finally messaged one of the owners about it.  It’s located just above my head so I couldn’t see it.

Small challenges overcome, small mysteries solved.

A bigger psychological and financial hurdle was joining a gym.  I finally settled on FeelFit, which seemed to be the cheapest and closest.  It still cost $80 for one month. On the website it claimed to have state of the art equipment. Yep, state of the art for 1987.  The treadmills have dot matrix displays!  The weight machines take me back—I feel like I’m in a museum of weight lifting equipment.

The gym is in a mall in a very chav (low rent) district.  Lots of teen mothers hanging around smoking.  Lots of young men with tattoos on their necks and faces and wearing all black.  Many very obese people buying packets of crisps (potato chips) and biscuits (cookies) and giant bottles of Coke.  If I walk home, the neighborhood is also run down and it’s depressing.

I figured out how to take the bus so I can bypass the run-down people and houses and get in and out quickly.  The bus is expensive, about $5 for a one-mile round trip.  So on top of $80 I’ll spend $40 to get to and from the place twice a week.

I’m just going there to lift weights, and I’m thinking of it as a trip down nostalgia lane.  I’m actually enjoying it because it’s hilarious and hey, the old machines do the trick.  Weight is weight.

I have committed to two yoga classes per week.  One is a new format called Tara Yoga that is new to me and quite a workout.  It’s taught by different soft-talking people each week.  On Fridays I do Iyenegar, my favored type of yoga, with a guy named Toby.  He kind of yells at us, “No, Penelope, no, no, no!  Pull your bum back and tuck in your tum!”  I would pay just to watch him yell at people.  I brought Toby a half carton of eggs last week and that seemed to mellow him out a bit, at least towards me.

I’ve run into a few finance snags.  Toby wants to be paid by standing order, which means an auto deducted payment on the first of each month from a current (checking) account.  This would require me to have a British checking account, which ain’t gonna happen.  I tried to hand him cash and he recoiled, “I certainly don’t take cash!” Not sure what that was about.  We compromised with PayPal.

I’ve been unable to deposit a check using the fabulous Zelle mobile app because it doesn’t work outside the US.  Foiled!  I had to mail it to my US bank, hoping it doesn’t get lost between Royal Mail and the USPS.

And now, some food photos.

The obligatory fish and chips.

It’s easy to be vegan in Oxford.

You could eat cock instead of chicken

But burgers with onion rings and chips (fries) are better.

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.

Good-Bye, Minnesota

Has it really been a month since I’ve written a post?  Writing about Japan took a ton of time and energy.  I needed a break.

I returned determined to cook and eat Japanese-ish.  I bought tiny dishes at the Salvation Army to add to the Siroton dishes I bought at the airport, then tried my hand at making pickled vegetables, tofu, and eggplant with dengaku, the super oishi (delicious) sauce.  I arranged everything beautifully on a bamboo tray and ate with chopsticks.

It was okay.  I did this for a few weeks, then reverted to my usual habit of making crock pot and hot-dish-type meals.

I will turn 60 in a few weeks.  I’ll be in the UK, so I threw an early party for myself.  I made big pans of vegetarian lasagna and moussaka.  My cousin Molly made two cakes—chocolate torte and cardamom lingonberry.

Vince brought a charcuterie board with so much cheese I sent friends home with baggies full.

It was a fun night.  I requested no presents, and most everyone took me at my word.

In a few hours I’ll board a plane to London.  My subletter will roll in this evening.  I’ve been cleaning and packing and doing laundry and taking care of business at a nice steady pace for a couple weeks.  I didn’t need any more stuff to make decisions on, thus the “no gifts” request.

I don’t need anything except warm clothes and books, and I have plenty of both.

I was super happy to see, when I checked in, rows of empty seats.  If it’s really true, I may actually be able to lie down across four seats and sleep a couple hours.  Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but a certain family member is slipping me a couple Restless Legs prescription pills for the flight.

I’ll arrive in London at 7:30am, catch the bus to Oxford, and stay in a guest house for a couple nights before I move in to the house where I’ll be a cat and chicken carer for three months.

I’ll also be very busy working on proposals for my former employer, the torture rehabilitation NGO.

Believe it or not, I will miss working at the YMCA.  Child care is on the opposite end of the spectrum from my proposal work as far as pay, benefits, and prestige.  But I love little kids, it got me out of the house, and I took full advantage of the free Y membership that was the one perc of the job.

I will have to work to find things to do to pry myself away from the house in Oxford.  One thing that will help is that it’s already spring there—daffodils are blooming!  I will not miss the snow and cold of Minnesota.  I’ve shoveled the walks nine times thus far this year, and it’s now snowing again.  Blech.

I’ve gone through my usual phases of preparing myself emotionally and mentally for this sojourn.  The initial excitement.  The panic of organizing it all.  The last-minute thoughts of, “I don’t want to go!” and finally the readiness.

I feel guilty about leaving my mother.  She and her husband have so many health problems and she has depended on me to take her shopping, etc.  But it’s my youngest brother’s turn to play this role.  And my mother and her hubby have both told me, “Go!  Go while you can still do it.”

I will miss my friends and Vince and his wife and (I admit) most of all my new granddaughters.  I spent New Year’s Eve babysitting them, and it was a blast.  We went to a confetti drop at the zoo, gazed awe struck at manta rays and baby giraffes, waked through the St. Paul Cathedral and looked up at the stained glass windows, did art projects, went to the library, and (they) played with blue slime, a product that produces farting noises and is impossible to remove from sheets, pillows, hair, and clothes.

Please, try not to be jealous of my whoop-dee-doo NYE.

I didn’t want to write a post, but I did, and I’ll keep doing so once I’m on the other side.

Happy New Year!

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.