Tag Archives: Windsor

Knock Offs and Knick Knacks

I went shopping the day after my meeting debacle.  The UK is not a cheap place to live.  The Sales were on for the summer holidays, but things were still “very dear”, as they say.  For instance, a pair of black leather ballet flats cost £80—on sale.  When I worked for Oxfam years ago I was paid in pounds, which helped.  But now I had an American job that paid in dollars, so those shoes would have cost me $105.

My usual shopping strategy is: Go to every store in town, look at every item in every store, buy nothing, go home. Sometimes I buy things but then for one reason or another most of them have to be returned.  It was going to be extra hard to make decisions here.

Also, it seemed like English women must have smaller feet than me, because my size shoes were in the section that, in America, very large tall transvestites would have shopped.  Bras were the opposite problem.  The bra cups on offer were big enough to fit over my head.  Not that I did that.  At least not when anyone was looking.

I looked in Cath Kidston, almost as a joke.  I love her stuff but a little goes a long way and as I already knew, country flowers weren’t a good work look.

I bought a phone case and some pajama bottoms patterned with guinea pigs having birthday parties.  I resisted the flouncy guinea pig skirt.

Next I went to TK Maxx, which is called TJ Maxx in the US.  Still expensive and hard to find anything that worked.  Then I hit rock bottom and bravely walked into Primark, which is dirt cheap with quality to match.  Because it was the sales, the store was packed with teenagers and their mothers and clothes were strewn all over.  The clothing was adorable but if I even had to ask myself, “Would this lacy, skin-tight, fuchsia, sequined, leopard patterned hoodie be appropriate for my next work meeting?” I had my answer.  I bought a pair of pink satin ballet flats for £6.  Not exactly work attire but I couldn’t resist.

The queue was 25 people deep and Justin Bieber was bleating at an ear-shattering volume on the overhead speakers.  I ran out of Primark like I was being chased by a velociraptor and started to hit the thrift stores, which they call charity shops because well, they are all run by and for charities.

Oxfam has 650 shops in the UK. They stock second hand clothes but also new stuff from around the world like beaded bracelets made by Kenyan orphans, organic Palestinian olive oil, and cards designed by blind tribal elders in Nepal.  It’s all beautiful stuff, and I bought some cards and a pair of socks knit in Bolivia that were guaranteed not to fall down.

I hit Age Concern, British Heart, Save the Children, and Mind, which is a mental health charity.  Second hand clothes in the UK are really rubbish. I don’t know if someone skims off the cream and sells it on EBay before it reaches the charity shops, but they are full of sweaters with stretched out sleeves and 1980s jungle print dresses.

The Thames Hospice shop specializes in vintage. I spent an hour in there and left with a pair of vintage shoes that were too small, a pair of shoe stretchers, and horse brass, which is useless but I like how it looks on my wall.

I bought the ship, which has a useful hook, in Amalfi, Italy.

None of this was going to impress in my next work meeting except maybe the shoes, if I could stretch them out a couple sizes.  Once I inspected closely, however, I discovered they were not vintage at all but in fact made of plastic.  They would have to go back to the shop, along with the shoe stretchers.

Eventually I discovered Daniel, a department store with only beautiful, high-quality things.

I went in several times to fondle the cashmere sweaters, drool over the shoes, and try on hats.  Eventually I bought some things, using the time-tested rationale, “I deserve it.” And ya know, maybe I did.

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.