Tag Archives: England

Moving On, Again

I interrupt this series of posts about Ethiopia to say there’s been an unforeseen development which will prevent me from writing for a week or so.

There was a miscommunication about the dates for my house sitting gig in Eton.  I was looking forward to a leisurely last weekend here, but when I walked in the door on Friday at 5pm and my phone connected to the wifi there was a What’s App message from Sam, “Home tomorrow at 10am, hope you had a good time, remember to leave £40 for the cleaners.”

Aaaargh!  I What’s App’d a friend of a friend to ask if his spare room was free this weekend.

“Honey, do you mean tomorrow?” was his reply.  “I’m leaving for Paris on Monday, the flat looks like a bomb went off, and I’ve got to pull two extra shifts at YSL to make the dosh to spend in par-ee.”

I swore I would never use Expedia again, but Air B& B’s website was agonizingly slow and when it finally loaded it was trying to sell me “Experiences!”  On Expedia, I booked the last room in Eton and Windsor—a family room with three beds—and started frantically packing and cleaning.  I ran down the block and bought some flowers, candy, and a thank you note for Sam and his wife.  I’ve loved this place and will write about it once I get through my travels that preceded staying here.

Gotta go … got to scrub the toilet and tub, take out the trash and recycling, restock the fridge, vacuum, clean the kitchen, probably drink half a bottle of wine while I’m at it, then try to sleep and bug out of here early.

There’s just one other hitch.  I went to an hour and a half long yoga class yesterday. It was taught by an extremely handsome 50-something year old man with a posh accent who kept coming over and looming over me to correct my poses.  “Imagine a soft shower of shimmering light,” he suggested in a hypnotic voice.  I wanted to impress him so I may have overdone the spinal twists.  I feel like I might have some broken ribs but I couldn’t, could I?  From doing yoga?

Welcome, Now Go Away

This is a series of posts about spending the summer abroad that starts here.

Greetings from Copenhagen!  Obviously I got here, and the journey was pretty smooth.

My flight to London from Minneapolis was sold out.  There were only two open seats, in the last row.  I was in the second-to-last row with a guy who introduced himself to me as Chuck.  “Chatty Chuck,” I immediately dubbed him in my head.  I flagged down a flight attendant and asked if Chuck or I could move to the empty row but she explained they were reserved for the flight crew.  I felt rude as I donned my earplugs and sleep mask while Chuck chatted away, but within minutes I was sound asleep.  When I woke after the plane leveled off, Chuck was in the back row.  “They said they wouldn’t need these after all,” he reported excitedly. I flopped down across two seats of heavenly sleeping comfort.

Now, two seats on an airplane are still not much room.  I’m 5’ 3” and still had to assume a fetal position.  But I was horizontal.  And I had my full-sized feather pillow, which gave me something soft to rest my head on instead of the arm rest.

It was the best sleep over I’ve ever had.  I woke the next morning at 11:30 London time, a half hour before arrival, and slugged down two cups of coffee.

My vertigo was gone.  My mother, a neurobiologist in her mind, had predicted, “that thing—you know, that airplane pressure thing,” might make it go and I had snickered but maybe she was on to something.  Now doctors could just prescribe a trans-Atlantic flight for vertigo.

One of my fears was that, because my trip is so long, border control at Heathrow might think I was entering the UK to stay.  I had an envelope with financial documents to prove I had assets in the US—a property, savings, a job to return to.  But the agent asked to see proof of my onward flight to Copenhagen.  When I checked in, the SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) website had promised to send my boarding pass via text “right away,” but it never materialized.

I was explaining this to the agent.  She looked annoyed and bored.  Imagine all the lame stories they must hear.  Typical of an immigration hall, there were signs saying, “The use of Mobile Phones is Expressly Forbidden in this Area.”  I asked permission to use mine so I could show an email with the flight confirmation.  She sighed and said yes, as though that was the most obvious thing in the world and why hadn’t I done it already?  The email wouldn’t load.  She rolled her eyes and said as though speaking to a very naughty five year old, “Madam, I will make a special allowance this time.  But in future, I strongly suggest you do not rely so heavily on technology.”

“But I don’t have a printer at home….”  She stamped my passport by way of saying, “Don’t Care!  Next!” and away I went.  In my passport was stamped this friendly message, “No work or recourse to public funds.”

I wonder what we stamp in visitors’ passports when they enter the US?  If anyone knows, please share.  Since I couldn’t go on the dole in England, I would just have to move on to Copenhagen.  But first I had to get my luggage, check back in, go through security, and hang out at Heathrow for five hours.

To my dismay, there was a five-inch-long gash in my suitcase.  I had been lucky enough to find an “It” bag, the lightest bag in the world, on sale at TJ Maxx. The Delta agent was very solicitous, giving me a claim number, telling me to register it online asap, and fruitlessly trying to tape up the gash with tape that immediately fell off.  As long as the gash doesn’t lengthen, I should be okay.  I’ve got some duct tape in my bag I packed to mend mosquito netting in Ethiopia.  I am keeping my expectations for the claim—for instance if Delta even responds to it within six months—very low.


I don’t normally promote travel services, hotels, etc., but I would like to make a plug for a travel agency I used to book my flight to the UK.

You are probably thinking, “A travel agent?  Didn’t they go out with video tapes and big hair bands?”  That’s what I thought, too.  Everything is online, right?  Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak; there’s no need to pay someone to find your cheap flight.

But a coworker told me how an agent had saved him about $500 on a flight to Japan.  The agent and I went back and forth.  This was London, not Japan, so the savings were only about $50, but still—that’s $50 more I’ll have to pay for fun stuff.  If you’ve got an upcoming trip, feel free to contact Caroline at caroline.b@airconcierge.com and tell her Anne sent you.

I’m renewing my passport.  I always find it difficult to put the old one in the mail.  What if it gets lost?

I once worked in the HR department of a certain international organization, so I know how precarious it can get.  I would have to get a transit visa, for instance, for a Canadian public health nurse who was coming to the UK for orientation before traveling on to work in Kenya, via Dubai. She would mail her passport and extra photos.  I would fill out the paperwork, stuff everything in an envelope, courier it to London, and hope for the best.  If all went well, the courier would return with a transit visa and I would mail everything back to the new employee in Canada well in advance of her travels.  There were a few close calls, but the Home Office always came through.

Sometimes when we had leftover passport photos, we would talk about who we thought would make good-looking couples.  Coworkers who had been there a long time accumulated drawers full of photos, so we strung them together and used them to festoon our cubes.  This is probably not something we should have done, so shhhh….don’t tell anyone.

I went to Walmart to get new passport photos.  I hate Walmart, but you can’t beat their price of $7.50.  I was relieved when I compared my pics from 10 years ago to today; I didn’t think my face hadn’t aged more than 10 years.  I accept that I’m aging, but I don’t want to look older than I am.

I reminisced over the places I’d been in 10 years: multiple times to the UK.  Jordan, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  Kenya, Dubai.  Guatemala, Belize. France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain.

I talked to my sister and told her I was thinking of summering in the UK.

Our mother and her husband were planning a move to a senior apartment building in April.

“I feel like it’s a good time to do something like this,” I told Connie. “Mom and Jim will be safely ensconced where they’ll have transportation and help if they need it.  Vince is out of prison.  You’re in the clear.”  Connie almost died of colon cancer two years ago.  She had just had her semi-annual battery of tests and been told she was cancer free.

“Yeah,” she replied, “By the way, I was over there today and they’re now saying they’ll wait to move until June.  They want to enjoy one more spring in their house.”

“What!?” I asked, “Do they realize they’ve signed a lease and they’ll have to pay rent for an empty apartment for month?”  Yes, she said, they knew that.

“I guess I can stick around through June, to make sure they’re all settled,” I said. “My remote work request isn’t official yet.”

No,” Connie replied, “Go—you should go.  If it’s one thing I learned from thinking I was going to die within days, it’s that you have to live now.  So go.”

A friend who is an artist gave me a handmade birthday card that said Kaukokaipuu on the cover.  It’s a Finnish word which means “craving for a distant land.”

I’ve always craved distant lands, but since Connie’s illness, Angus’ death, my mother’s frailty, and my son’s stint in prison, I’m feeling Kaukokaipuu on steroids.

Windsor Bound

I’m at a writing crossroads, having written 65 posts about my trip to Italy, Spain, and Malta.  Next up, Belize and Guatemala.  But first, some exciting news. I’m going to spend the summer in the UK.  Yes, the whole of June, July, and August!

It all sprouted, as many trips do, from something completely unrelated.

I learned that the guy I dated when I lived in the UK 10 years ago had died of cancer.  I’ll call him Angus.  He was only 55.  He was a Yorkshire man, so he had a great accent, and he was a maths teacher at the Jewish Free School in London, the largest Jewish high school outside of Israel.  He and my friend Sam were friends, and Sam introduced us.  We hadn’t been in touch for years; our relationship had been fun but not serious and we knew we’d never be able to live on the same continent due to visa issues.  He was such a crusty but sweet guy, if you can imagine those two characteristics in one person.

I was exchanging emails about Angus with Sam, who is originally from Bemidji, Minnesota.  And then he mailed and asked if I would like to house sit for him while he and his family are back in Minnesota for the month of July.  Sam teaches at Eton, the posh boarding school for boys founded in 1440 by Henry VI.  Sam lives in nearby Windsor, just west of London.

Of course I had to think about it—not.

I said yes, then got to thinking … why not take Lynn up on her invitation to let me to stay with her and Richard in Scotland?  August is a good month for weather up there.  And as long as I’m over there, why not try to get permission to work remotely, cut down to 80% time, stay the whole summer, and travel around on my time off? I could get to Croatia or Munich for a long weekend on cheap Ryanair flights.

I started making lists.  I could rent out my condo. What about my plants?  Could I invite a friend to visit me in Windsor?  Ask Sam.  Where would I stay in June—could I rent a canal boat on the Thames?  How close is Windsor to Highcleer Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed?  Forward mail to Vince.  Cancel newspaper.  Would I store my car?  Put in remote work request.

Late Friday afternoon, I impulsively went on Craig’s List and contacted the first advertiser I found.  A couple from Minneapolis who retired to Florida wanted to be in the Twin Cities for the summer to visit their children and grandchildren.  I killed myself cleaning and arranging things on Saturday so I could take alluring photos of the condo.  We exchanged a lot of emails, and one of their daughters came by on Sunday to see the place.  They wanted in, and my condo association management company would manage the rental so I wouldn’t have to deal with an overflowing toilet from Scotland. With a renter I wouldn’t make a profit, but I wouldn’t lose money.  Everything was perfect!

Except, I didn’t yet have permission to work remotely.  That’s when the What Ifs set in.  We have lots of people who work remotely. But what if I was the first person my employer said no to?   Would I file a grievance?  That would be awful.  I could ask for an unpaid leave for the summer—would they grant it?  Could I afford that?  What if they said no to that?  Would I quit?  I can’t afford to quit!  I would have to tell the renters the deal was off.  And around and around my mind raced.

In the back of my mind, I think I knew all would be well.  Looking at the facts, there was no reason my employer would allow other people to work remotely—from North Carolina, South Africa, Los Angeles, Arizona, Italy, Colorado.  But the mind wants to be in charge.  My mind wanted to have answers, to have certainty, even if that meant a no.

My request was granted–no drama!–so away I go.

What We Don’t Know

One more post about prison stuff, then back to the European travelogue.

A couple organizations have been pushing legislation that would improve conditions in solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons.  We Minnesotans think we’re so progressive, and we are in many ways, but we are one of the worst abusers of seg, as testified to by the letter from a prisoner in my last post.  I read the bill and made some suggestions, like that a prisoner’s next of kin be notified when they are put in seg.  I was never notified when Vince was kept there for six days.  I’m sure the prison system would hate that, because they’d have all sorts of mad moms like me calling to demand what happened.  It’s a Republican controlled legislature now, so I’m keeping my expectations low.

If you think US prisons are bad (and they are), Lynn mailed me an article about UK prisons which shocked me—me, and I’ve written a hundred posts about prison.  The link isn’t publicly available, so I’ll recap it for you.

UK prisons are overcrowded and violent.  Assaults against guards and other prisoners are way up, there are riots and strikes, and there were 107 suicides and five homicides in 2016.

I assumed the violence was due to overcrowding, which was due to the same forces as in the US—harsh sentences, corporate interests, institutionalized racism and classism, poverty that causes people to use drugs and alcohol and to deal drugs, and an aging prison infrastructure.

Of course it’s complicated and there are underlying causes.  But the article attributes the violence directly to new “psychoactive substances” which have “dramatic and destabilizing effects.” They’re called names like “Spice” and “Black Mamba” and they can’t be detected in urine tests.

And this is where I laughed out loud: these drugs are being delivered by drones.  Yes, drones!  It’s kind of hilarious, until it’s your son, husband, or brother getting knifed in the kidney by someone who’s high out of his mind.

The US version of The Week ran an excerpt from a Bloomberg Businessweek article which profiled the founder of MyPillow.  Mike Lindell is a recovering addict and I give him lots of credit for that and for building his business.

However, all of his products are stamped with “Made in the USA.”  Lindell is a big Trump supporter and would probably cheer the cutting of government benefits to the poor, which is interesting since MyPillow has contracts for prison labor that must net them millions.

I know this because one of the facilities in which Vince was incarcerated, Moose Lake, had a MyPillow factory line.

And so MyPillow can stamp “Made in the USA” on every box, and it’s true, but that pillow may well have been made by a prisoner who netted $2.00 an hour.

I can’t find anything anywhere to substantiate that MyPillow benefits from prison labor or even that it operates in prisons.  This is the beauty of working inside prisons—it’s a secret!—literally behind locked doors.

I’m not saying MyPillow is doing anything illegal.  However it is hypocritical that Mr. Lindell, a conservative, takes government subsidies.

I wrote to the editor of The Week, Bill Falk, and he wrote right back, which impressed me.   He suggested I write to the author of the original story in Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Dean.  This should have occurred to me in the first place, but better late than never.  So I wrote to Mr. Dean and he responded right away too.  I didn’t expect BB to amend his article; I just wanted him to have the additional information.  There’s no reason a reporter would ask every businessperson he interviews, “Do you operate inside prisons?”  You might think that a “jobs for inmates” story line might be good PR for MyPillow, but Mr. Lindell didn’t bring it up.

Bill Falk also suggested I contact one of my local newspapers, which might have investigative reporting resources and an interest in pursuing the story, since MyPillow is a Minnesota company.  Mr. Dean also urged me to do this, and I did.  A local editor was interviewing Vince within an hour of me sending the email.  Stay tuned.

Just a Child

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

It was time to move on from Amalfi to Ravello.  From across the road I watched as a bus signed RAVELLO pulled away.  I walked to the schedule board.  There had been something online about the bus leaving every 10 minutes so I didn’t put a lot of effort into it but it was indecipherable anyway.

A tall pensioner dressed for a safari was also trying to make sense of the timetable.  After a few minutes we gave up and started to chat.

“I haven’t got much time left,” he sighed, “to see all the places I want to see.”  This made me uncomfortable.  Did he have cancer?  I had just met him and I didn’t want to but I felt compelled to ask, “I hope you’re not ill?”

“Oh no,” he laughed as though this were a silly question.  “My GP says I’m healthy.  I’m just old.  One of these days there will be a fall, or a burst blood vessel, and then I’ll be bundled off to a home.  Sometimes I think I should just jump off a cliff and get it over with.”  And here we were, surrounded by cliffs.  I didn’t ask if he was widowed or had children; they had probably been killed in a tragic accident.

He eyed me and said wistfully, “You’re just a child.”  This made me feel more awkward.  Was he just a nice old man, or a lecher trying to flatter me?

Based on his accent, I made the mistake of saying something about tough English people who were independent well into their centennial year.

“I’m not English,” he exclaimed.  “I’m from Jersey.  Have you heard of Jersey?”

He proceeded to inform me about the history of Jersey, the relationship between the UK and Jersey, and Jersey cows.  “You have heard of Jersey cows?”  Ye-es.  I don’t think he was patronizing me.  I think he was depressed and lonely—at home and everywhere.  He was one of those people who badly wants friendships but isn’t good at them.  He never asked me about myself, but launched into monologues about Italian history and his favorite country, Morocco.

He was one of those men who is a walking encyclopedia, with a library of books at home on history, geography, world religions, warfare, anthropology, and politics.  They have seen every war film and documentary, have visited Normandy and Pearl Harbor and spent days in the Churchill War Rooms at the Imperial War Museum.  They can name every regiment and what kind of tanks or planes were deployed and how many men died in the Battle of Nanjing and the siege of Leningrad and the Bataan Death March.  And now that these men have Google, it’s like they’re on steroids.

I sometimes worry that I have this tendency.  I am always conscious of not spewing people with verbal diarrhea, especially if I’ve been traveling solo for a while.

Of course there are men, and women, like this in every land, but the British and their cousins seem to produce more, maybe because of their national fixation on World War II.  That’s not a criticism—they had the #@$% bombed out of them and then my country forced them to pay war reparations, which prevented them from rebuilding as quickly as they could have.  We Americans would do well to emulate their habit of reflection.

Forty-five minutes passed and people were crowding onto the platform.  A young guy who turned out to be honeymooner from St. Louis asked if we thought they should go to Venice.  He was a stereotypical super friendly American.  A nice guy, to another American.

My new Jersey friend and I endorsed Venice.  “It’s dark and decaying, in a lovely way,” I offered.  “Don’t miss the cemetery island.”  Me and my cemeteries.

“Oh, I give up! I’m going back to Sorrento,” Jersey declared and walked off.

Five minutes later the bus arrived.  As we pulled away I could hear St. Louis behind me saying, “That old English guy is one of those people who knows something about everything.  Thank god he went back or he’d be talkin’ our ears off.”

Happy Christmas, 10 Years On

This is a reprise post from last year.  Merry Christmas, ya’ll!

In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.

I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.

“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.

John Smith Houseatriumlobby

I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.

Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”

Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”

At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World.  My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria.  Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats.  Everyone was very earnest.

To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.

But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.

They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.

C&CCrackers and CrownsC&C2

There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”

And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.

The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.