Tag Archives: Road Trips

Road Trips, Fireworks, and Kittens

I’ve written about snorkeling in Belize, hiking in Petra, learning Spanish in Mexico, working in Istanbul and Ramallah, and the biggest adventure of all, visiting my son in prison.

But I’m also a proponent of finding adventure closer to home.  After all, you can’t travel internationally 365 days a year, although I’d like to test that assumption.

So on Tuesday I drove 260 miles (418 kilometers) to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin.  The speed limit for most of the route is 70MPH (113KPH).  On the plus side, the road is smooth, the scenery is pretty, and I just found out I have cruise control—after owning my car for over a year.  I set it to 76 in honor of the Independence Day holiday.

I90 was congested with semi trucks.  There are a lot of disturbing billboards for truck stop porno shops along the way.  Is that all truckers do when they don’t have their hands on a steering wheel?  Ugh.

This was the route Lynn and I took two years ago on our way to New Orleans.  This post describes some of the exciting places we visited, like the Cranberry Discovery Center and Jellystone Park.

I stopped at a wayside rest and learned about sphagnum moss, including how to spell it.

I somehow tore myself away from this fascinating info-plaque and drove on.

Madison is half the size of St. Paul-Minneapolis.  It has a Top 10 public university where I met one of my nieces for happy hour.  She’s always been a great person and she’s even better now because she’s doing what young adults are supposed to do in college.  I don’t mean studying.  I mean figuring out how to be an adult.  How to manage friendships, romantic relationships, inner turmoil, outer turmoil, etc.

A few hours later, my cousin and I went to Hyvee for dinner because his wife, who was exhausted from her work as a physical therapist, wanted to rest and asked him to bring her a to-go Cobb salad.

When Hyvee opened in St. Paul, people acted as if it was the second coming of Christ.  I don’t get it.  It’s just another grocery store with all the same processed food but presented beautifully. We had the all-you-can-eat “Chinese” buffet and I can tell you, they should have paid me $8.99 to eat the execrable crap they passed off as Chicken Stir Fry.  The chicken was rubbery and looked suspiciously as if it had been extruded from a machine.  But I wolfed it down because I hadn’t eaten since happy hour, where I had ordered a large basket of deep-friend cauliflower. It was terrible.  I ate every crumb.

Back at his house, my cousin and I sat on the porch in the dark, slapping mosquitoes and talking about politics and our childhoods—we grew up three houses apart so we feel more like siblings than cousins. He’s a radio journalist and just about ready to hang it up in this political climate.  “Working at Hyvee looked really appealing,” he remarked.

The next day we drove through the arboretum, had breakfast at a place called Barriques and a few hours later lunch at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. Then we spent an hour at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.  How had I never been there?  I’ve been to many botanical gardens around the world, and this was one of the best.

Then it was back on the road, just in time to arrive home for 4th of July fireworks.  You may have read that people who have lived through war can be re-traumatized by the sounds of fireworks. Well I live in a neighborhood of many Southeast Asian immigrants and last night it was like trying to sleep through the Vietnam war.  I could hear my neighbors yelling and shouting in Hmong in between what sounded like cannon blasts until 1:30 am.

I finally gave up on sleep and got up, only to find an animal adventure under my dining room table, where my latest foster cat was in the process of giving birth.  I sat with her, stroking her head.  It was a rough night, but here they are this morning, six in a pile.  Worth it.

In Eton, In DC

From Shaftsbury, Lynn and I drove to Eton where I would house sit for a month.  But first we had to find it.  It looked so easy on the map but as usual we got terribly lost and since Sam was expecting me at 12:30 I got panicky and may have been a bit short with Lynn.  Well, I know I was, but as a Minnesotan this took the form of hinting about what I thought she should do.

The map wasn’t detailed enough. We didn’t have a GPS.  I couldn’t call Sam with my phone because I didn’t have international service and I couldn’t message him because I had let my data plan lapse because I “never needed it.”

“Use my phone,” Lynn offered.  I managed to switch it to airplane mode and it took me 20 minutes to figure that out, with Lynn trying to assist while driving 80MPH.  I got Sam’s voice mail.  We drove in circles around Windsor, the town across the Thames from Eton.  Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t try to find it using Google maps on Lynn’s phone, but we didn’t.

Finally I glimpsed a cathedral-like building in the distance. “That must have something to do with Eton College,” I said.  “It looks like one of the colleges at Oxford.”

“Well spotted!” Lynn cried with relief.  “Now what’s the address?”

“123 High Street,” I said confidently from memory.  We paced the high street, and Lynn declared, “There is no 123!”  She burst out laughing when I checked and said weakly, ‘Oops, it’s 321.”

Five minutes later Sam was greeting us at the door.  Greeting me, I should say.  He gave Lynn directions to Heathrow, waved her off, and ushered me in.  Poor Lynn, I later learned, had had hopes of using the bathroom but she kept a stiff upper lip until she got to the airport.

In real time, I just returned from Washington, DC and I’ll write a few posts about that before returning to my summer in the UK.

I went for a workshop for grantees of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, or DRL.  Don’t ask me why it’s not BDHRL, but I’m okay with that.

I won’t go into the content of the workshop because then I’d have to kill you.  Just kidding, you would die of boredom before I could kill you.

The building in which the workshop was held does not have an address and is not on Google maps.  Really.  I don’t know if this is intentional—for security purposes?—or just part and parcel of the crazy patchwork of streets that is DC.

The cheapest hotel our travel agent could find was $585 a night.  That wasn’t some 5 star place, just a Marriott.  I found a studio apartment on Air B&B for $182 within walking distance of the venue. My expectations of it were low but when I arrived I had to lower then further.  The studio was in a 40s-era building that had been badly renovated.  It was on the George Washington University campus and in keeping with that was reminiscent of a dorm room.  Not that I’ve ever been in a dorm room, but think: cheap Walmart navy blue bedspreads with pilly grey sheets on twin beds, bare walls, a giant-screen TV, and a window with a view of a brick wall.  Here is a picture of the bathroom “door” from inside the bathroom.

Good thing I wasn’t sharing the room with a coworker.  I was motivated not spend any time here.

I did a recon to ensure I could find the workshop in the morning.  I copied the map from the agenda onto my palm.  There was no signage, but I was pretty sure I’d located the building, so I wandered on and accidentally found the area with the Washington Monument, White House, and other iconic places. There were the usual protesters in front of the White House, but far fewer than I remembered from past visits.

Darkness forced me to return to the room.  I crawled into bed fully dressed so I wouldn’t catch cooties. Thank god I was only here one night.

Getting the Shaft in Shaftsbury

Shaftsbury, England.  I awoke before dawn to the sound of a car driving slowly into the gravel parking lot.  The driver got out and walked to the entrance, crunch, crunch, crunch.  I was just falling back to sleep when he or she must have gone back out to get luggage.  More crunch, crunch, crunch on top of rolling crunchiness.  Another car pulled in, more heavy rolling crunchiness.

Lynn exclaimed from the darkness on her side of the room, “Whoever thought it was a good idea to have a gravel driveway in a hotel?!”

“I know!  Well at least no invading armies are going to sneak up on us.”

“Right.” she replied drily.

There was no going back to sleep now so we went down to breakfast. I ordered kippers, which I’d had never had, and Lynn had a Full English minus the blood sausage.

Blood sausage is just what it sounds like, sausage made of blood.  I think it’s a food that’s traditional and no one really likes it but they keep it on the menu for tradition’s sake.  Most Brits I’ve mentioned it to made a horrid face.  Is it like lutefisk or gefilte fish?  No one likes either one, but people put it out once a year because it’s “tradition.”  Blood sausage is on the menu everywhere, so I don’t know, maybe lots of people love it.  What do you think?

Me, I love fish, so I was happy with the kippers.

The Daily Mail had this cover in regard to the Grenfell Tower fire:

I think the Queen learned some lessons in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, when she was accused of being cold.  Maybe she can give Theresa May some pointers about getting down with the people.

We walked into town to Shaftsbury Abbey, or what was left of it.

The abbey had been a regional center of power until Henry VIII had it destroyed along with all the other monasteries in the 16th Century. The piles of stones on either side are where the pillars of the nave were.

A small display inside the visitors’ centre featured a few shattered carvings, remnants of painted sculptures, and a diorama of what the abbey had looked like.  It must have been enormous and fantastically beautiful.  Henry VIII was known to appreciate beautiful things, so why destroy the abbey, down to the ground?  Why not just seize the gold candlesticks and leave the building with its gilded arches and ornate carvings?  It was a display of power, of course.  He had half a dozen of his own palaces, so a couple hundred monasteries out in the sticks were no loss.  He was a red-headed megalomaniac who loved his palaces and couldn’t stand for anyone else to … wait, why does that sound familiar?

Here are the names of some of the abbesses.

It was lunchtime  and we picked our way carefully down Gold Hill to find a pub someone had recommended.

I had one of the most memorable meals of the summer at this pub, a fish pie with turmeric.

I tried to replicate it once since I’ve been home but didn’t get it right.

Of course what goes down must come up—no, I didn’t vomit up the fish pie—we had to walk back up the hill.

We walked a few paces, stopped to take photos, then walked some more.

It’s not that we couldn’t have hiked straight up the hill without a break—really.  But it is true that a summer of fish pies and pints means I really need to get back to the gym.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe next week.

Next we visited the historical museum.  Shaftsbury was once a center for cottage industries, which just means people sat in their cottages and made things, like buttons. These are the forms and the finished buttons.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries thousands of women and children were employed making “Dorset Buttons.” The button-making machine caused these cottage industries to collapse after 1750, and the gentry “helped the unemployed workers to emigrate to Canada and Australia.” That’s one way to solve your unemployment problem.

FYI, I’m going to DC for work and won’t be blogging for a week or so.

Losing Our Traditions

In a recent post I wrote about character differences between Americans and Brits.  Such subjects are always fraught with peril.  Reflecting on it, I may have made it sound like all Englishmen are passively sitting around doing nothing about the problems of daily life, while all Americans are tackling their daily problems head on.  That’s not the case, of course.  I have a very deep respect for the British people which stems, in part, from how they defended the rest of humanity from the Nazis for two years while being bombed.  I admire that they (in general) place a greater emphasis on the common good rather than on individual rights, as we Americans do.  That’s why they have the NHS and sensible gun laws and public footpaths.

Culture is so complicated.  I attended a wedding this weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the bride and groom were both Native American.  Everyone in my family was excited to attend an Indian wedding.  But the bride, my niece, is Ojibway, while the groom is a member of a Pacific Northwest tribe.  She is also half Mexican-American, and he is half Scottish-American.  So what kind of Indian wedding would it be, and how would the other strains of ancestry be acknowledged?

They did a beautiful job of covering all the bases.  The music featured native drumming, a bagpiper, a Mexican-American singer and string orchestra, and a Motown trio.  The bride wore a white dress and stilettos and the groom wore a tux—with moccasins and a leather headband with eagle feathers.

At the end of the 10-minute ceremony performed by my cousin under the authority granted him free online as a Universal Life Church Minister, the couple were draped with an Indian blanket.  The meal included salmon and huckleberry jam flown in from Portland, Oregon.  A scholar read a wedding blessing in Ojibway.  An elder from the Pacific Northwest spoke about the sacredness of water, land, and animals.  The bride read a list of all the ethnic identities in attendance, including a dozen Native tribes and a dozen European ancestries.

The bar was open for one hour, maybe in recognition of all the alcoholics and recovering alcoholics in attendance—of all ethnicities.

The venue was the fantastic Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by a Spanish architect.

This made me wonder, what culture would my son or my nieces or nephews focus on, if at all, at their weddings?  I raised my son in the Jewish faith and community but he has no longer has any belief or affiliation.  None of us have any direct connections to our European ancestors.  What are we?  Americans, of course.  But what kind?  Who is our tribe?  What are our values and traditions?  We read the New York Times, listen to National Public Radio, and don’t feel unpatriotic driving Japanese or German cars.  I don’t see how any of that would play out at a wedding, but I’m sure my creative younger relatives will think of something.

Lynn and I arrived in Shaftsbury after circling the wrong roundabout three times, then circling the right one another three times.

“It looks like there’s a wedding here,” I observed as we pulled into the hotel parking lot.  There were a lot of dressed-up people milling about.  Then I saw the hearse.

“What a strange place to hold a funeral,” Lynn commented.

The Royal Chase Hotel was billed as a historic 18th Century monastery but it had been stripped of all character and was now just another Best Western hotel.  It was basic; it was fine; we wouldn’t be spending much time in it anyway.  That’s what you tell yourself when you arrive at a hotel that’s seen better days, right?

But it was true.  We loved Shaftsbury and spent most of our two days out and about.  It is home to Gold Hill, site of a Hovis Bread commercial every English person of a certain age remembers.

We walked to the hill, and it was really scenic.  Pictures don’t do it justice.  It was Sunday evening and all the attractions were closed, so sat in silence on a bench at the top of the hill for 20 minutes, enjoying the view.

Big and Bigger

On to our final stop, Shaftsbury, via Sherborne.  I love its Wiki description:

Sherborne is a market town and civil parish in north west Dorset, in South West England. It is sited on the River Yeo, on the edge of the Blackmore Vale, 6 miles east of Yeovil. The A30 road, which connects London to Penzance, runs through the town.

Sherborne has a famous Abbey, the exterior too big to capture in a photo, but here is the interior.

A man was singing snippets of songs to test out the acoustics, which were great.  In fact, the elderley woman giving him and his wife a tour declared,  “Aren’t they orgasmic!” and this word rippled throughout the church.

This gate is carved out of wood.

There was the usual tomb of a dead 16th Century couple who may have founded or rebuilt or otherwise bankrolled the abbey; I don’t recall their names and sadly few other visitors will, even though the final resting place they splashed out on is so magnificent.

There was this more modest tomb containing six people, including children who died at 50 weeks and three years and someone’s 16-year-old wife.  You wonder if anyone in town lived to a ripe old age, which back then would have been about 40.

There was this splendid fellow on a monument out front, and a beautiful wrought-iron gate which was marred by a modern sign posted next to it which said, “No Dogs, No Cycling, No Ball Games.”  This was according to the Ecclesiastical Court Jurisdiction Act of 1860 and meant to protect “this consecrated ground.”

There are thousands of churches and abbeys and minsters and cathedrals in the UK.  Fewer than five percent of English people attend church.  The figure is almost nine percent in Scotland, but still much lower than the 38% of Americans who attend church on a weekly basis.

I’m an atheist Jew who loves old churches.  You don’t need to be a fervent believer in Jesus to feel uplifted—if not orgasmic—by soaring vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and all the history embodied—literally—in tombs.  I always drop some coins in the donation box.

Sherborne itself was a pretty town, with some well-preserved half-timber buildings.

And a gorgeous building that I believe was formerly some kind of monks’ residence, now converted into luxury flats, complete with signs that warned, “Private Property, No Entrance.”

And adjacent to the parking lot, this classic scene:

There are two Sherborne castles—“old” and “new.”  We stopped in the National Trust office to ask directions and walked off clutching maps.  We were soon leaving town on a narrow road with no sidewalk.  One sign early on pointed to the castle, then there were no more. We walked and walked.  A high wall on one side of the road prevented us from seeing what might be on the other side and the road had curve after curve which prevented us from seeing what was ahead.  It was high noon on a hot day.  We stopped in a shady spot for a rest.

“Do we keep walking?” I asked.

“It could be just around the next bend,” Lynn replied.  “Or we could be completely lost, as usual.”

“Yep.  I’m hungry.  Let’s give up and go to that historic pub the National Trust lady told us about.”

“Okay … but if we can’t find a castle don’t get your hopes up about finding a pub.”

We managed to follow the directions and find two other pubs.  No one had ever heard “Sherborne’s Oldest Pub” promoted in the tourist office and on the map.  Every English town has a pub called The George; we had lunch there.  I had a steak and kidney pie with a pint and Lynn had a fish pie with a ginger ale.

Next stop: the Cerne Giant.  Trigger warning: If you are offended by penises, stop reading now.  Although, if you are offended by penises you are probably already offended just by me writing the word penis.

Here he is, cut into the turf and filled with chalk.  Saxon god?  Political satire?  Teen prank?  The story is unknown but most agree he dates to the 17th Century.

Hanging On

Thank god this week is over.  I am moved into my new place.  My mom and her husband are moved into their new place, although we had to ask the movers to return furniture to their old house because it wouldn’t fit into the apartment.  I spent yesterday unpacking and arranging so my mom will feel at home when she is discharged from the hospital on Tuesday.  It was a lot of work, but the six of us pitched in and nothing broke and no one cried or said anything they’ll have to apologize for.

Today I will drive to Milwaukee.  By the time I get there I expect my back will be in a rigor mortis-like state from all the lifting, bending, and reaching I did yesterday.  But I’m going for a wedding, and I love weddings.  My niece is getting married.  She and her betrothed are Native American.  When I RSVP’d I joked, “I’ve always wanted to go to an Indian wedding!” but I think she is so stressed that she didn’t get it.  The venue is the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the family is staying at an Irish-style hotel.  My cousin got his Universal Life Minister license in order to officiate.  I’m going to wear the fascinator I bought in Eton this summer.  This is not my fascinator, but I wish it was.

Back to the south of England.

Lynn and I, emboldened by our successful use of public transport to Abbottsbury, decided to hop a bus into Lyme Regis.

No one I have ever met in the UK drinks and drives.  Not even one drink.  The blood-alcohol limit is the same as in the US (.08%) but lower in Scotland (.05%).  Of course some people drink and drive, but in general I think people in the UK take “drink driving,” as they call it, more seriously.  You see more drunk people on buses and trains as a result, but at least they’re not driving. We didn’t want to get drunk, but it would be nice for Lynn to be able to have one drink.

We checked out a charming mill area with shops, art museums, and a brewery.  Most were closed for the season.  None of the open ones accepted cards, and there were no working ATMs.  Lynn wanted to buy several pieces pottery but between the two of us we could only scrape up enough for one.

“There is an ATM up the hill,” said a cashier, “but it’s been broken for months.”

I bought two pints with the cash I had left and we sat in the sun and had a great conversation about the differences between the British and American characters.  “Do you think it’s true,” I asked, “the Pink Floyd lyrics: ‘hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way?’  Stiff upper lip … keep calm and carry on and all that?”

In this cash machine situation, it seemed that—with tourist season around the corner—no one had done anything to get it fixed.

“Americans would be storming the bank to demand action—now!”

“We would see that as pointless,” said Lynn.  “You know how British banks are.”

She didn’t say it, but many Brits would also find the American approach undignified.

Another example, below.  Maybe they tried really hard to find another chef to fill in, and couldn’t.  Sadly they will not see us again because we were tourists.

Another cultural difference of note, in light of the Las Vegas shooting: the attitude toward guns.  Lynn’s husband has a gun room.  He’s got hunting guns galore, but no hand guns.  They are all registered, and the police can show up at any time to make sure they’re locked up and that Lynn doesn’t have the key.  If a friend or neighbor notices him acting irrationally, he can be reported to the police, who can revoke his license.  This is fine with him because Brits have the attitude, “We’re all in this together.”  This would never be tolerated in the US, where we care more about our own rights than the rights of society as a whole. So I have little hope that our gun laws or culture will change.

Travelers and Travellers

Lynn proposed taking a break from driving for a day, so we took a bus to Abbottsbury, home to the world’s largest colony of mute swans. Yes!  I know you’ve been wondering where the world’s largest colony of mute swans is, and now you know.

We Americans are so car dependent.  Thing is, on many routes you can see so much more from trains and buses.  This was the case on the route from Charmouth to Abbottsbury, which wound through gentle rolling hills overlooking the sea.  It was a double-decker bus and in addition to the views, we had the double-decker bonus of an entertaining and slightly menacing fellow passenger.

This guy was sitting in the front left bench on the top of the bus with his dog.  A young boy was slumped in the bench on the other side.

“I’m a Traveller,” he turned to announce to us in a phlegmy smoker’s voice.

I capitalize Traveller and use two “ls” because Travellers are what we in the States might call Gypsies, which some consider a pejorative term for the Roma people.  Irish Travellers are an ethnic group, while the British term Traveller seems to be a catch-all for nomadic people who might be Irish Travellers, Roma, new age drifters, or others of indeterminate origins.  Some of them travel in family groups in old-style wagons or caravans.  They take over farm fields or urban vacant lots and are reputed to steal anything local that isn’t nailed down.  They don’t send their kids to school or use the NHS or work except for odd jobs. After a few days or weeks they skedaddle, leaving behind mountains of trash for the land owner to pay to remove.

Our Traveller was clearly agitated—on drugs?  He turned and yelled at Lynn to ask where she was from—it was like I was invisible, which was fine with me—and when she said north London that was all he needed to go off on a rant.

“I’m a Traveller,” he repeated, as he stood up and began removing his shirt.  “I got my best friend here,” he gestured at the dog.  “And my kid over there,” he waved his hand dismissively at the boy.  “My partner’s had a baby, so I thought it’d be a good idea for us to go off and leave ‘er alone for a while.”

Yes, every woman’s dream—to have a baby and be left alone, probably in a filthy squat, with no medical care or support of any kind.  Maybe I had it all wrong.   Maybe she was in good hands.  I hope so.

He peeled of his shirt and rubbed his hands all over his torso.  Yes, he was high.  He had an almost-gone splif he kept putting in his mouth, holding his lighter to it, then remembering he was on a bus and putting it away.

He went on about London—how it had changed, how everything is different now, how expensive it is.  He talked about his dog and what a good friend he was.  The boy sat silent in the corner of his seat.

We passed through Chideock and Eype, then stopped in Bridwell, where the driver announced we would wait for 10 minutes.  The Traveller jumped up and ran down the steps to smoke his splif, leaving behind the dog and his kid.  The dog started wandering down the aisle.  The Traveller reappeared, yelling and cursing at the dog to “get yer feckin arse” back on the bench.  He put his shirt back on, then took it off half way, then sat down and was quiet.

Lynn and I and the two other passengers, an elderly stone-faced couple, proceeded to enjoy the tranquil scenery.  These photos are from some small town; it could have been Litten Cheney, Littlebredy, or Puncknowle.

I love how the hat shop is proud to be “known in both hemispheres.”

The Traveller and his entourage disembarked somewhere before Abbotsbury, which was a relief.  There isn’t a lot to say about the swannery, except that it was peaceful and good to learn there is a job called “Swanherd” that probably doesn’t involve sitting at a computer or in meetings all day.