Tag Archives: travel

One with the Swans

I waved Sam and Gwen and the baby off as they headed to Heathrow in a black cab with their luggage and all the extra paraphernalia you need to travel with a kid.

I was really happy for them; they are a great couple and now with an adorable toddler I hoped they would all—especially Gwen—get some R&R in the beautiful lakes and woods of northern Minnesota.

I had wondered how working remotely would go. It went really well!  I thought I would be distracted by all there was to do in England, but because I had gone down to 80% time and stockpiled my vacation days, it worked out that I only worked about 24 hours per week.  There was no reason to do this in 8-hour days.  If I worked six days a week, for instance, that was only four hours a day.

In the office, there are phones ringing, the front door buzzer going off, and people stopping by my cube to chat but at Sam and Gwen’s there was none of this, so I could actually concentrate better and draw a line between work and fun time.

I would make eggs with mushrooms and tomatoes for breakfast while listening to Radio 4, then settle down to work.

When I logged on, my email was full of messages from the afternoon and evening of the previous day.  I would get a few messages from my colleagues in Ethiopia or Jordan in the first part of the day, but nothing from the USA until 2pm. This also helped me to focus.  It was easy to knock out four hours before anyone could send me more work.

I clocked off mid-afternoon and went for a walk or to the Leisure Centre to lift weights or take a yoga class.  It was unBritishly hot, with temperatures over 90F (32C) the first week I was there.  It was cooler by the river, which was just steps from the house.  I love how everything in these old towns in jumbled on top of everything else—ancient buildings, more ancient buildings, gates, lanes, walls, towers.

I crossed a meadow to a back water of the Thames with views of Eton Chapel.

Growing up in St. Paul, we were warned to NEVER swim in the river.  The Mississippi River, that is.  If I turned around from these views, I face a swimming hole.  An old guy was swimming, so I returned the next day with my suit.  It was icy cold and took me 15 minutes to wade in; I’m pretty sure those shrieks I heard were mine.

Some families arrived upstream and the kids jumped in and splashed about.  If parents thought this was safe enough for their kids, surely it was safe enough for me.  I stood in the water up to my neck, cooling off and enjoying the scenery—the chapel to one side and woods and swans floating by on the other, their whiteness reflected on the black water.

This was my daily routine for a week, until it cooled off.  I would return home to join Skype calls or polish off more emails before clocking off again, making dinner, and watching EastEnders or some other crap TV while eating and having a glass of wine.

Or, I would try a new place to eat, usually a pub.  I ate at the Waterman’s Arms the first Sunday.

Fish and chips, cider, the Times … the Thames, swans, summer.  It was bliss. This was living.

Except for my Restless Legs. You would think I would sleep deeply with all the fresh air and exercise and heavy food, but I tossed and kicked and moaned and swore up and down and ran up and down the steps all night, every night, trying to get some relief, some sleep.  RLS sounds like a silly condition but it is torment.  Other than that, life was grand.

People have asked if I got lonely.  I did wish for company sometimes, but my friends Heidi and Julie happened to be around.  On weekends and days off I would go to Stonehenge or The Tower or Wimbledon.  How lucky am I to write that sentence?

Eton and Windsor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We passed this passageway flanked by gargoyles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech Troubles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Worldview from The Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are Yu’pik elders consulted on the exhibit.

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

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

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

A Little Lunch

The workshop continued with a series of speakers, the younger ones speaking in vocal fry.  I’m not the first one to notice this trend, and I haven’t heard an explanation for it.  My theory is that it’s a class marker—a way for young, mostly white women to signal to each other that they are highly educated members of the professional class.  I find it irritating but no one under 30 seems to even notice it.

They also used a lot of modifiers like “sort of” and “kind of.”  I’ve written about this before but here I noticed the younger men as well as women doing it.  I realize it’s an unconscious habit, but did it originate from a need to ingratiate one’s self?  Is it something you would hear in a corporate setting, or is it only used in the nonprofit and government world, where everyone is concerned with not appearing too overbearing?

The third feature of the younger speakers was fast mumbling.  They would let fly a lightning bolt of words that dropped to an indecipherable end.

These people were clearly smart and earnest and good speakers in general.  I thought back to when I was 30.  Did I talk in some way that grated on my elders’ ears?  I don’t think so.  Back then, valley speak was the speech trend derided by all, and that wasn’t anything you would have adopted at work to get ahead.

Wait, that’s a lie.  I know I say “like” way too much.  That comes from working at a university for 10 years, where I was surrounded by students who did it.  Because yes, speech styles are contagious.

 

Lunch time.  I know USG agencies try to use taxpayer dollars responsibly, but really, the box lunch was a huge disappointment.  Mine contained rendered “turkey breast” on white bread with a limp piece of iceberg lettuce.  There was a four-ounce bottle of water and a small bag of potato chips but no potato salad or cole slaw, no cookie, not even a pickle.

But I was one of the lucky ones.  As I watched others open their boxes, some of them looked like this otter who thought he was getting a chocolate chip cookie but it was oatmeal raisin.

Their boxes contained Fritos, not potato chips.  The woman across from me said, “I haven’t had Fritos since I was 12.”

“Right?” the guy next to her said (“right?” is another new filler), “and there’s a reason for that.  They suck.”  They looked around hopefully, as though maybe one of us lucky ones who got potato chips might want to trade.  Each table had a pile of Fritos bags at the end of lunch.

The networking was good though.  It was so nice to be around people who do similar work on similar issues. I exchanged a lot of business cards and will be following up to try to establish partnerships with other organizations.

For the afternoon sessions I moved to be away from the paper rustling sigher and wound up sitting right behind a head bobber.  This guy nodded enthusiastically at everything every speaker said.  As usual I seemed to be the only one who noticed.  Why am I so bothered by the way people talk or sigh or crinkle their gum wrappers or nod?  Sometimes I think I must be farther along the spectrum than most people.

After the workshop I walked up to Dupont Circle.  I had stayed there years ago and remembered it as a lively shopping area.  But there were no shops except CVS and a comic book store.  It was lively with restaurants but I didn’t feel like fine dining alone.

I walked back toward the flat and went into the Marriott across the street from it.  There was a beautiful, quiet outdoor area with comfy seating.  The rest of the customers were inside watching a football game.  “You get $2 off your beer because of the game!” exclaimed my server.  “Wow, that’s awesome!” I replied, as I sat with my back to windows and read my book for hours before going back for my second night in the grotty flat.

No Spies just Blue Skies

I lay in bed composing a scathing review of the Air B&B in my head.  The one photo of the place hadn’t done it injustice enough.  When I did fall asleep I slept straight through the night for eight hours, which never happens.

I quickly dressed and gathered my few belongings.  I just had to check in for my flight before I left for the workshop, since the agenda said there would be “no internet” in the venue and I would leave for the airport straight from there.  Hmm … I wondered why I hadn’t received an email from Delta yet?

A cold wave of panic flushed through me when I saw that my flight was … tomorrow, not tonight.  Noooo!!  I had briefly discussed staying two nights with our travel agent but distinctly remembered sending him an email saying I’d settled on just one night.  It was my bad, I know.  It’s my responsibility to check the details before accepting an itinerary.  The agent had been careless, and so had I.  This was what moving, my mom’s stroke, and moving my mom had done to my brain, I guess.

Thank goodness I had only written the scathing review in my head, because now I had to ask if I could stay here one more night.  The manager said yes, and even said she wouldn’t charge me because the cleaners hadn’t shown up before my arrival.  That explained a few things.

I felt virtuous, saving my organization hundreds of dollars, even though I was sure my coworkers wouldn’t be lining up to do the same.  I didn’t have my laptop so I wouldn’t be able to get much work done.  I would take a day off in DC, which was something to look forward to.  But first, the USG workshop.

No internet in the venue—I wondered if that was some kind of cool spy vs. spy thing where they blocked satellite transmissions? No, it turned out they had just meant there was no wireless.  Correction: one person did.

Since the election, federal employees have left Washington in droves. The new administration put a hiring freeze in place, so every bureau is woefully understaffed.  The poor DRL people are no exception.  Three of them were trying to work out how to make coffee for 150 people.  This was bureaucracy in action, and it failed miserably.  They blew a fuse and had to start over.  Finally, we all lined up to get a lukewarm cup, only to be greeted by a sign, “No Food or Drink in Auditorium.”  The coffee servers literally winked and nodded at us as we filed in with our cups in hand.

I found a seat and introduced myself to the guy on my right.  He had a heavy accent and I thought he said he was from Grecian Aid but based in the Dominican Republic.  “That must be interesting,” I said, “working for a Greek organization from Latin America.”  He looked at me a long time, then smiled.  “Eet ees Chreeeshchun Aid,” he said slowly, handing me his card that said Christian Aid.

“Ahh,” I smiled, “that makes more sense.”  We talked shop; we were both what’s called “new business” people and we had a lot in common.

The first speaker opened by admonishing us not to have any food or drink in the auditorium, as she winked toward her cup of coffee balanced on the lectern.

A paper-shuffling sigher had sat behind me.  On my left was a woman wearing a flower-festooned headband.  Was she from Ukraine?

I looked around to see about half the audience paying attention while the rest were staring at their mobiles while the speakers were trying to hold their attention.

The content was helpful, and chock full of insider lingo like, “Decisions were made on 7th Floor,”  “Folks at post want this,” and “’F’ Indictors.”

One speaker mentioned “blue sky options.”  I had no idea what this meant but I always come back from workshops with jargon to spring on my coworkers to make them think I’m up to date.  Once I Googled it and knew what it meant I would try to drop it at least once in every meeting.

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.