Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wymondham and Wymondham Abbey

The University of East Anglia is famous for its Creative Writing program (no Non-Fiction, alas), and for the writers it has graduated, including Ian McEwan, one of my favorite fiction writers, as well as Kazuo Ishiguro, Tracey Chavalier, and a host of others too long to list. In Autumn and Spring they hold their Literary Festivals, a weekly series of evening talks given by authors. A week ago, before T.C. Boyle took the stage, I was talking to the woman seated next to me about the things Graham and I have done and seen since we've been in Norfolk. "Have you been to Wymondham yet?" No, we haven't. "You must go."

So last Saturday we got out as early as we could, and drove the nine miles south to the town of Wymondham (pronounced Wind-em). We drove into the town center, parked the car across from the market cross, and stepped out into Brigadoon.

The Market Cross at Wymondham

Everywhere we looked was a feast of medieval buildings, Tudor chimneys, half-timbering, and decorative brickwork. At one point in its history, the world began to pass Norfolk by, and the gift of this is in the period buildings and details that remained unchanged. Wymondham has a lively, active town center with people walking up and down the streets, pushing strollers, popping in and out of the shops, sitting on the benches under the market cross, and chatting in groups with their dogs (English dogs are the happiest creatures on earth). The original market cross, built in 1286, was burnt down by Gypsies in 1615, and rebuilt the following year. The building is stilted to protect documents from damp and vermin, and as a deterrent the townspeople followed the tradition of nailing live rats to the market cross by their tails. They stopped this nailing of rats in 1902, when a child was bitten and died of blood-poisoning. There is still a market held here in the square on alternate Saturdays. We are told they do a Dickensian Christmas parade.

Wymondham town center, just to the right of the market cross

Graham and I spent a while walking through the streets radiating from the town center, down to the candy store with its jars of every variety of things I've never seen before, like barley sugar and mint humbugs, pear drops, jelly babies, and Pontrefract cakes. We window shopped, and peeked in the window of one business for sale. We fantasized what a great yarn shop it would make, until we decided we couldn't put shelves up against the half-timbered walls in the main room because the yarn would hide the timbers. We took pictures of Tudor chimneys for Susan, who wanted to see them (more to come, Susan).

We passed the most wonderful pub with timbered walls...

This is the view from lower Market Street, between the needlework shop and the bead shop...

These two photos were taken yesterday in our travels, because even though we didn't set out that way, somehow we ended up in Wymondham again. I love the green tinge to the roof tiles, from mold.

Here you can see the town sign. British towns and villages seem to all have these wonderful town signs that tell you something about the history and industries of the town.

This one celebrates Kett's Rebellion of the summer of 1549. You can see Robert Kett and his pitchfork-toting followers under Kett's Oak (which still stands). Unfortunately things didn't turn out well for Kett, who was hanged from and adorned the walls of Norwich Castle for some time after. At the very top of the sign you see the other thing Wymondham is known for, the Abbey.

What still stands is just a fraction of the original abbey buildings, established in 1107 as a cell of St. Alban's Abbey by William d'Aubigny, Henry I's Chief Butler. The church is open to tourists during the week, staffed by a contingent of retired men and women who enjoy talking about the abbey, and love to point out their "American connection" if they hear a hint of your accent. Reverend Richard Bucke from the abbey traveled to the Colonies, where in 1614 he married Pocahontas to John Rolfe. I got to add to my tea towel collection in the abbey shop. I'm a fool for gift shops.

I've mentioned before that I'm also a fool for Gothic in the original, and this abbey--although it lost most of its outbuildings for reuse of the stone after the dissolution of the monasteries--has retained enough of the Gothic details to make it very interesting.

I am a fool for cemeteries, as well, the older the better, so be prepared for photos of some wonderful old marker stones. I also love the trees of Norfolk, which always seem to be covered with one form of ivy or another. This one looks garlanded.

Here is a video of what is left of one of the old towers...

The inside of the abbey, now used as an Anglican church, is no less wonderful. I was fascinated by the carved angels at the ceilings, the needlepointed hassocks for kneeling--each one different--and the details such as this chandelier:

Think The Arnolfini Marriage

and this incredible altar screen:

We did more exploring that day, but I will leave that for another time. In the meantime, come take a look at my photos from Wymondham and Wymondham Abbey. Graham forgot to bring his camera, so after we exited the church I lent him mine as we wandered around the back and far side of the church. But then I became fascinated with grave markers again, and then the green trunks of the trees, and then...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Morning Walks on the Broad

The Norfolk Broads are a series of rivers and lakes--some more easily navigable than others--that interlace the county of Norfolk. In some areas they are popular boating venues: little villages have marinas with boats for hire, for day tours and weekend rentals. At the docks swans aggressively pan for bread handouts, pushing away the ducks.

Here at the University of East Anglia we are fortunate to be located on the River Yare, with a Broad (lake) in our back yard. Literally. The water brings gulls and ducks to us, and we can sometimes see the white forms of the swans gliding past the openings in the trees that surround the lake. My favorite view is to watch in the afternoon as the sun sets down the length of the east-west Broad, and the gold highlights the white of the gulls as they fly back and forth above the water, flashing among the trees. 

It has been more than thirty years since I've lived near woods and wetlands, and for me they are old friends dearly missed. I can't get enough of them. Here the woods are heavier than I've seen even in the Hudson Valley, and the trees are allowed to grow over city streets, country roads and paths, forming deeply tangled tunnels that we pass under. Overgrown hedges fifteen feet high are trimmed solid, even with the street, dense green walls. Graham has learned to drive slowly through the tree-tunnels when we come upon them, because I sit in the passenger seat and just breathe, "This is so beautiful!" I feel as though we're in an illustration from a fairy tale. Suddenly, the descriptions from all the literature I've read over the last fifty years makes sense. They weren't making that scenery up, it really exists, here, still. The shapes of the trees are convoluted, fantastical.

Our favorite morning walk is to set off across the lawn to the Broad, which has a dirt path surrounding most of it, with a wooden boardwalk where the wetlands are too dampish for a path. It is a favorite spot for walkers, joggers, people with their dogs, and families on weekends.

I am enjoying the progress of autumn, seeing the grasses go to seed, the leaves begin to turn. I love the color of berries against the leaves, the way that ivies completely envelop the trees, the leaves against the chocolate brown dirt, the forms floating on the pond among the duckweed.

I enjoy looking for leaves to bring home, and acorns. I stop to listen to birds, watch butterflies, to look with fascination at a spider-web city built in some tall grasses at the edge of the lake, silvered by dew. Graham has gotten used to me bringing my camera on a walk, that I stop every few feet to take more photographs. While he looks for herons by the nest at the far end of the wetland, I'm caught in the detail of a fungus, or the patterns in wood grain of a fallen tree, the way moss grows on the tree trunks. I'm a detail person. The shapes, the colors, the light and shadow. It's as if I am seeing these things for the first time, and I'm so afraid that when we leave this place that I've come to love so deeply, I will forget some wonderful tiny detail.

Come take a look at my pictures from our walks around the Broad.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Plantation Garden

You'll remember that when we first arrived in Norwich we stayed at the Party Central Hotel from Hell. Aside from the fact that we both wanted from the first to see as much of everything as we possibly could, we also did as much as we were able to get out of the hotel for most of each day. Although the hotel was quiet during the daytime, knowledge of the long night ahead made it important to get away and fill our days with interesting, distracting, pleasurable experiences.

Right next to our hotel was a hidden gem called Plantation Garden. These three acres of gardens were begun in 1856, in a former chalk quarry and industrial site. Henry Trevor, the mastermind behind the gardens, was an industrialist, and he spent the next forty years constructing a garden that he felt was fit for a successful Victorian gentleman.

Many of the construction elements came from a nearby decorative brickworks, and Trevor incorporated many broken brick remnants into the walls of his gardens. The bricks were cast in both a traditional red clay, and a more unusual grey that has weathered in the garden to look like stone. These brick pieces, mixed with the flint that is so endemic to Norfolk, forms all of the hardscape of the garden.

Henry built hothouses and a Gothic fountain, medieval walls and a summerhouse and a rustic bridge. He laid out carpet beds, a rockery, parterres, serpentine paths, and woodlands. One of my favorite elements, however, is the stunning Italianate terrace that dominates the far end of the garden. It makes a nice contrast to the more intimate peace of the basin of the Gothic fountain near the entrance, and both are wonderful places to sit and contemplate the gardens.

After we explored the terrace and the paths at the top, we returned to the fountain, where we enjoyed a light rain and the patterns made by rain drops and water splashes in the water of the basin. The basin is planted with water lilies, which you may know hold a special place in my heart, and there where bright flashes of tiny goldfish darting through the water. It is a wonderfully peaceful place to sit and just be.

The British take gardening seriously. Everywhere you go there are garden centers, which Graham tells me are the place to be on the weekends. There isn't a house that doesn't have some sort of garden attached, even if it only consists of planters filled with colorful flowers, or sometimes a tiny orchard of a dozen fruit trees. In towns and villages there are multiple decorative plantings on the streets, often with hanging baskets filled with pansies, petunias and various forms of ivy making a huge ball dripping with flowers.

We visited the Hellesdon Barns garden center this week, on a coolish, windy afternoon, and found an old brick and flint barn converted to retail and workshop spaces with everything from antiques, to a silversmith, to a fiber artist, and a maker of custom drapes. There was also a small area selling plants which, for what the garden center lacked in space, made up with variety of some of the most wonderful ornamental plants I've ever seen: dwarf conifers and red banana plants, red grasses and a small area of the requisite flower plantings. It is probably a very good thing that we have no garden space in this flat.

In the meantime, take a look at my album of photos from Plantation Garden, and enjoy ">Graham's video of the fountain area.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Great Yarmouth and the Norfolk Broads

You know, if we weren't so busy traveling around and seeing everything we can see, I'd have more time to blog about our adventures. But I am so focused on sucking each juicy bit of experience from the shell of this study abroad thing that it keeps me pretty occupied. As well as overwhelmed, awed, and slack-jawed with amazement. My study abroad experience is that it isn't simply about being in other classrooms at another university, thousands of miles away from home, but also about the day-to-day of living in another country, in a culture that is foreign to me.

I know I've already written about not expecting to undergo culture shock when I came here. And I've told you how the differences in the grocery stores continue to blow my mind. I think few things are so indicative of the contrasts between peoples as the experience of shopping for food-stuffs. In the grocery stores of Wales, I have learned, the signs are in Welsh first, English second. Try finding gluten-free foods in a store like that. They have lots of them, but finding them is like being in a weird dream where you understand nothing of your environment. The other odd thing is that none of the products I'm looking for is where I expect it to be. I've been searching out fragrance-free dryer sheets for a month now, and still can't find them. And to grow up in as commercial a culture as America, and be transported to another country means that I don't know who makes the toughest, most absorbent paper towels, the softest toilet paper, or the dish-washing liquid that is best on grease. I'm a person from another planet.

Also, it is the law in Wales--and the policy in all the grocery stores we've shopped in in England--to charge the customer for each grocery bag they use. Usually this is 5p per flimsy, biodegradeable, plastic bag. But in Tesco, one of the major grocery chains in the UK, as with most other grocery chains here, you can lash out and spend 10p on something they call a "bag for life." This lends either a  sinister, Idi Amin flavor to the common grocery bag, or one that smacks of unbreakable promises. The first time a checker at Tesco asked me did I want a "bag for life," I wondered to myself, "Am I ready to make that kind of commitment? Do I plan to shop here the rest of my life? Can I have time to consider your proposal?" But these are bags guaranteed against rips and snags. If something happens to your bag, Tesco will replace it for free.

The wonderful aspect of the grocery bag charge is that not only does it cut down on the number of bags going out into the world--you tend to be less careless when you have to pay for each one--but also, the stores donate to charity the proceeds of their sales of grocery bags. Some stores will even hand you a plastic token at the check-out, which you then place in the appropriate bin as you leave, to give the funds to the charity of your choice. Let's face it, Americans, that is freaking brilliant. We've been able to donate to the maintenance of a public garden here in Norwich, as well as a children's charity in Wales.

Yet the ultimate in culture shock, to my mind, is illustrated in the mundane, the quotidian breakfast egg. We arrived in the UK on August 15th, but didn't move into our own flat until the 7th of September, our 11th wedding anniversary. This three-week time span added up to a heck of a lot of restaurant meals. Now, in America, when one orders an egg there is a choice in how it is prepared: scrambled, over-easy, sunny-side-up, poached. Here in the UK eggs are either scrambled or fried--a weird version of sunny-side-up that is slightly less cooked. It comes to the table with a gelatinous wiggle to the raw-looking yolk that is certain to set my stomach shimmying in sympathy. I try to eat it as quickly as possible without looking too closely at what drips from my fork, but there is a development of flavor that comes with cooking an egg "properly" that is missing in the British breakfast. For someone who once wrote a paean to the perfectly-cooked egg, this is almost an insult too great to bear. Couple this with bacon that more closely resembles thinly sliced ham which is then fried, and the most important meal of the day starts out badly.

It had been my contention, and my intention, that when in Rome one must eat as the Romans--or, in this case, the British--do. After all, why travel just so that you can experience the same foods that you ate at home? I find that it isn't so simple as that, however. We are creatures of habit, and the comfort of breakfast, is, after all, the comfort of starting out your day with the foods you have loved all your life. There is emotional security in food. I have gained a new sympathy for what my husband experienced 11 years ago when he moved to the States to be with me.

Graham, therefor, is delighted to no longer be eating "streaky bacon," to have Heinz's beans served with nearly every meal, to have fried mushrooms and tomatoes and a bap (a floury roll) with breakfast. He is a big fan of that uniquely British phenomenon, the roach coach. Nonsense, you protest, we Americans have roach coaches, too! Au contraire, say I. Not like the Brits. Nothing like the Brits. These are food trucks parked by every roadside throughout the UK. Their chrome flaps are propped open like a sugar Easter egg diorama, showing a cheery woman inside, wrapped in her white apron, cooking up a proper British breakfast on a grill for everyone from truckers (lorry drivers) to British businessmen in their suits. Fried eggs, sausage (flavorless to the American palate), fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, slices of black pudding (don't ask, you don't really want to know), ladles of beans. All served in generous portions with a bap, and slathered with HP sauce,"the Sauce of Manlines," according to their adverts. Anytime we pass one of these trucks, Graham is sure to veer the car into the layby and screech to a halt.

Just before we moved into our flat on campus, we spent three nights at a motorway hotel with all the charm and spacious comfort of a jail cell in Mississippi. I counted the minutes until we could be gone from that place. I can only conclude that I am crap at picking hotels. One day we drove the five miles into Windsor to see Windsor Castle. (I've been there before, but this was Graham's first time.) Just before Windsor we stopped in the town of Slough at the Three Tuns Cafe (a tun being a large cask for wine or beer) for our breakfast. I ordered two eggs and hash browns, and what should arrive at our table but two eggs cooked over-easy (praise God!) and those solid fried hash browns that you might expect at McDonalds. This is heaven to an American. Even so, two hours later as we toured the State Apartments in Windsor, I felt so nauseous that I feared I might add to the decorations in a not-so-welcome way.

So when we went on our first new-apartment grocery shopping trip, we made sure to buy eggs, and not just British bacon for Graham, but also "streaky" bacon for me. I longed for an over-easy egg cooked by my own hands in bacon fat. No such luck, I'm afraid, as the bacon yielded no grease as it cooked, and looked like a naked, shamed version of what we know of that breakfast staple, curled in on itself in embarrassment. Never fear. I shall search on for the perfect streaky bacon in which to cook my egg.


On a "hot" summer day at the end of August, Graham and I took off for the city of  Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk Coast, some 25 miles east of Norwich. We returned through the Broads, a inland wetlands area of lakes and rivers with small villages, marinas and houseboats, and fields and fields of newly harvested hay sitting out in the sun to dry . As you will see from the pictures at the end of the Great Yarmouth folder, I am fascinated by the beauty of the fields of Norfolk. On the way to Yarmouth we drove past windmills and more fields, these with cows and horses. I feel as though I'm in a Dutch painting, and with the systems of canals and dikes and the occasional windmill, the scenery is not far off from how I picture the Dutch countryside. Which I am certain is far different in reality than any of my imaginings. Nonetheless, take a look at Yarmouth and the beautiful Norfolk broads.

Graham tells me Yarmouth is the quintessential British seaside town. To me, it looks like a cross between Vegas and a beach, with some carnival thrown in. Maybe New Jersey looks something like this, I don't know. But it was on this day in Great Yarmouth that I was introduced to that delightful British treat, the Flake. This is a soft vanilla ice-cream cone with a Cadbury's Flake inserted into the ice cream. What a concept. This was my first flake, but it certainly won't be my last. I have already made certain of that.

If you'd been following the British weather all spring and summer the way I was, you'll know the UK experienced its wettest summer in 100 years. This is in a place where "wettest" is a relative term. So when temps rose into the high 80s at the end of August, not only was everyone delighted by the change of weather, but there were more naked, pale white bodies floating around than in an electrocuted fish tank. There was this sense of languid ennui, that it was simply "too hot" for anyone to function. To a Tucsonan coming from temperatures thirty degrees warmer, the very idea seemed silly, but we let them enjoy their brief flash of summer while it lasted. 

What it meant, however, was that everyone in Norfolk who could get to the seaside, did. Cars lined all the streets in Yarmouth within walking distance of the beach, and there were people as far as the eye could see of every age and size, enjoying the day to varying degrees. We drove as far along the beach as we could, to get away from the crowded public area and find a place to park. Then we sat on a wooden bench overlooking the sea and ate our Flakes, enjoying the sea and the breeze and the dunes, and the fascinating wind farm off-shore, like a scattering of giant pinwheels lazily turning.

For these two desert people, it was wonderful to be able to be outside on a warm sunny August day, and not fear death. After we finished our ice-cream, Graham and I hiked over the dunes to the shore, and stood to watch the waves come in and people flying kites down the beach. We finished the excursion with a drive along the sea front so that I could gawk and take photos like a tourist, and then took a leisurely drive home through the broads.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist

If you know me, you know I'm a fool for Gothic architecture. In our current social and political climate, fears about the future inspire hatred, ignorance, and bigotry. A thousand years ago, while these negative emotions were not absent, fear that the end of the first millennium would bring the end of the world inspired jaw-dropping architecture. The intention behind all those Gothic pointed arch windows and fan vaulting was to reach toward heaven and to God and the divine. What can be bad about that?

The Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist was donated by the 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1894, and is a wonderful demonstration of 19th Century Gothic. This cathedral is the second largest Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United Kingdom. St John the Baptist Cathedral Church, along with the Anglican Norwich Cathedral, makes Norwich one of the few cities in the UK to have two cathedrals. And I'm telling you, this city is lousy with amazing churches, too. Prepare yourself to see a lot of them in the coming months.

A populated place in the UK earned the designation of "city" by one of two means: either it was granted city status by royal charter, or it had a cathedral. This tradition of tying the idea of a "city" with a cathedral originated, ironically enough, with Henry VIII in the early 1540s, when he founded six diocese and granted them city status at the same time.

When Graham and I arrived in Norwich last week, we found our hotel by following the signs to the "RC Cathedral." Our hotel, The Beeches, was just two doors away, and we enjoyed looking for the cathedral each time we returned to the hotel from a day of exploring. Seeing that large square tower looming over the city let us know we were headed toward Earlham Road, and kept us from getting too lost too often.

Our hotel, on the other hand, offered anything but sanctuary and peace. We gained access to the hotel and to our room by means of a keypad at each door. This meant there is no staff on hand. Which means that every teenager in Norwich knows if they want to party with all the comforts of home and none of those pesky parents, then the thing to do is to rent a room for the night from the MJB Group, who will put them up at one of their several hotels--The Beeches among them. What follows is a nightly parade of drunken teenagers, young girls dressed like hookers, and screaming, shouting, loud music and obscenity. I'm sure it's fun for the teenagers. It is absolutely no fun at all for any adults staying in the hotel. Complaints to the management didn't seem to have any effect other than to annoy the teenagers, and make us feel as if we were under siege. We deliberately chose a cheap hotel, not expecting luxury. But we really hadn't expected to be living over the slamming front door of Party Central, either.

So to keep our sanity, we made a point of taking day trips or walks as often as possible. Our first walk was next door, to the cathedral. And this is what we found.

It is amazing, and I took more pictures than you really want to know about. You'll be pleased that I weeded through my millions of photos and got the number down to ninety-eight, which you can view here. If you decide to open a account of your own (which you really should have, anyway, it is incredibly handy and roomy storage for files and photos, in case your computer ever dies, as mine recently did), could you mention me? I get more storage space, which I'm going to need at the rate I'm throwing photos in here.

We spent about an hour wandering around the cathedral itself, and then the cathedral gift store--I love a good gift store--and the cafe, and the back garden. What awed me especially were the fan vaulting, the stained glass and leaded glass windows, and the detailed stone work. When I first came to the UK about fifteen years ago and saw the wood and stone carving in the various cathedrals and palaces I visited, it seemed impossible to me that any human could carve those materials to look like leaves and flowers and birds, and make them so life-like. I will always remember a garland of oak leaves and acorns at Hampton Court Palace, carved by Grinling Gibbons, that was exquisite. This particular cathedral appeared to have a theme of lilies and doves, the former forming the capitals of the columns--which are made of dark, fossilized marble--and the latter ornamenting the bases of the columns.

So grab a cup of tea, sit down, and take a tour through the Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist, in Norwich. I hope it thrills you as much as it did Graham and me.

Monday, August 20, 2012

You Say Chips, I Say Fries

A Typical Non-Existant Shoulder on a 50 mph A Road

 "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language." 
George Bernard Shaw  (and my husband, Graham)

"We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language."
Oscar Wilde

I told you yesterday how the shoulders of roads are non-existant, and people park their cars in the streets. I told you about those marvels of patience and engineering and sheer British courage called "roundabouts."  I thought you might be interested in some other differences I've noted so far. It should be said that I am not making judgements of one way being better than the other, it is just a chance to puzzle over how such simple things can be so different from the US to the UK. Which is why I'm here.

Shopping carts: You wouldn't think there was much room to play with the shopping cart, it is such a simple and efficient bit of engineering, yet it turns out to be so. Unlike America, in Britain the shopping trolleys are not large enough to transport a full-sized spitted pig, but are probably half the depth, and not quite as wide or long, as their American counterparts. Trolleys have wheels that actually turn in a coordinated manner, in a weird way that makes the carts seem to glide through the aisles. And they have these funny handles that stick up from either side of the conventional American bar handles, which allow the shopper to steer more precisely. Now, I've been shopping since infancy, and can steer an American grocery cart well enough to win any slalom, but these things are pretty amazing.

Sliced and fried potatoes: My husband has spent the last 11 years bemoaning that he couldn't find a decent chip in America. I couldn't figure what the heck he was whining about. Turns out chips and fries are different in more than name. Chips are generally cut thicker, and just cooked. Where fries are cooked to a nice golden tan, chips are pallid, pasty. Like British legs on a summer day. Graham is so delighted with chips he's almost giddy. I am ready to whine. What the Americas call chips are here called crisps, and come in weird flavors like prawn (shrimp), and barbecued steak.

Fried eggs: Two semesters ago I wrote a paean to the perfect fried egg, and described the precise method for achieving same. I'm thinking of printing it out and distributing it to every Brit I meet. What these people have missed. Fried eggs here, in my experience so far (aside from Angie's Roach Coach this morning, on the A47 between Norwich and Dereham), are pale, floppy things, like poached eggs given a chance to spread out. None of that crispy goodness that comes with a decent egg fried in butter or bacon fat. Eggs in grocery stores are not refrigerated.

Lemonade: When an American orders a lemonade, they expect a beverage that has more than a passing acquaintance with the fruit for which it is named. Here, ordering a lemonade gets you a fizzy drink poured from a 7-Up can at best, or seltzer water flavored with a little dish soap (fairy liquid) at worst. Ask for lemon squash.

Car rentals are car hires. Renting an apartment means calling a lettings agent to arrange to view a flat. A parking lot is a car park, the front hood of a car is the bonnet, the trunk is the boot. The crossing guard is the lollipop man. 

Sausages. I'm a person who cannot get near chorizo, but appreciates breakfast sausages and Italian sausages with a deep and abiding love for their herby, spicey, savory goodness that hits at the back sides of one's tongue. Here, when ordering a sausage at breakfast, be prepared for something the size of an Italian sausage, but with a very bland taste. They call them bangers. I'm not certain why. They aren't as exciting as the name implies.

Bacon: The Brits call American bacon "streaky bacon," and not in a way that makes you believe they think this a good thing. British bacon is what Americans would call thinly sliced ham. Not bad. 

Beans. Every meal is served with beans. I'm pretty sure it's a right guaranteed in the Magna Carta. The brand is Heinz (Americans, think Campbell's beans), and they are ubiquitous.

Baby carrots sold in a British grocery store are actual baby carrots. Not adult carrots that have been whittled down to size in a giant pencil sharpener.

A semester is a term. Otherwise, when you tell people you are here for a semester at the university this fall, they won't know what you mean unless you tell then you are here for the autumn term at uni. Sneakers are trainers. Pillows are sometimes sold in grocery stores, as are iPads and cell-phones. Yarn is wool, regardless of fiber content. Cookies are biscuits. Pepperoni, when you can find it, is made either in Denmark or in Germany. It tastes very little like pepperoni.

Lastly, if you want to make millions, introduce the Brits to American toilet paper.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Record Straw Harvest in East Anglia

If I were to do the logical thing and begin to tell you about our travels since we left Tucson in chronological order, I would be far, far behind, and never able to catch up to the present. Instead I will update you on events since we arrived in Norfolk, and throw in bits of the Hudson Valley as we go along.

The short version of the beginning of the story is to tell you that the day after my last posting, we found out there is no need for a student visa if one is going to be in the UK for less than six months. All those weeks of emailing back and forth and investigating the UK Border Agency website were spent merely spinning our wheels, living in frustration, and wasting time and tears.  In fact, when we got to London I went through Border Control in about two minutes. The agent didn't even ask to see any of the huge pile of paperwork I had spent weeks collecting. He asked why I was there, what I will be studying, and when I'm going back. Stamp. Stamp. And I was through.

When we found out about the student-visa-at-the-border thingy, Graham and I booked our tickets to New York for ten days later--giving ourselves two weeks there so I could do research for my Honors Thesis--and went on a mad spree of sorting, yard sales, and moving things into storage. Our friends Joe Wingate and Jason Hall helped Graham on moving day, and everything went past so quickly (perhaps moreso for me, because I wasn't moving furniture in Tucson at the end of July). We spent our last night with Joe and his wife Becky, and then jetted out of Tucson, not sad to see the back end of it, all hot and brown and hellish, but regretful to be leaving such good friends, even if only for a few months.

I'll tell you about the Hudson Valley portion of our trip later, but let me tell you about Norfolk and Norwich.

Today is Sunday, and we arrived early on Wednesday morning. Everything travel-related went very smoothly, both to New York and to London. We rented a car at the airport, and launched ourselves on what we have referred to over the last few months as "Our Adventure."

Poor Graham. He is our native Brit and designated driver. We are in a car with the largest dashboard in history, like a bulbous encephalitic forehead, so that one cannot see the front (bonnet) of the car. Or the road, really. So although he is getting used to the car and the roads, he can't see where the car is in relation to the street. And the streets here are very narrow. I'm surprised to find there are no shoulders to any of the roads. From the painted line at the side of the lane there is perhaps six inches of pavement, and then a short curb, maybe four inches high. Just enough to cause serious problems if you should run into it at forty miles an hour. The other side of the curb, with no room to spare, is either an eight foot tall untrimmed hedge; or trees that are shorn at the sides facing the road to form a green wall, so that they don't grow into the roadway; or tall, springy, dense grasses. There's no room for error here.

The motorways such as M roads and A roads are slightly wider, but any interchange is handled by a roundabout. This is the British solution to traffic control that sends cars--which enter the roundabout from all directions--around in circles until something spins out the sides onto another route.

I'll admit, the combination of going from the dry air of the plane to air so thick with humidity that we could quite literally see it, sent me into the worst asthma attack I've ever had. So the first hour of our car trip from London to Norwich was spent convincing myself I wasn't having a heart attack (no pain) or another embolism (no panting or racing heart). So I figured I must have been having a panic attack, because admittedly, to find yourself hurtling along at 80 mph at the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road is a little disconcerting at first. It isn't the ideal introduction to driving or being driven in Britain. After a while I got the brilliant idea of using my inhaler, and within 15 minutes had great relief. Not having had an asthma attack like that in the past, I didn't recognize it when it happened. Now I know.

Along the way we drove through Surrey, Berskshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire (including the city of Cambridge, where we were briefly but happily lost), Suffolk, and Norfolk.

In the city of Norwich itself, with its twisting narrow streets, people park their cars right in the road. Note I didn't say on the street, but in it. Where there are cars are parked in your lane, you must to swerve into the oncoming lane in order to get by. The oncoming traffic, meanwhile, is forced to do the same thing. This gets to be quite thrilling in places. Every car should come with big rubber bumpers on all sides.

This morning, as we drove down single narrow lanes of cobblestone in the city center, barely wide enough for our sub-compact car, Graham and I talked about how I hadn't expected streets this narrow and this old. They look like something out of a movie, or from four-hundred years ago (which they are--the latter). I've been to London twice before and never saw anything like these streets. Then I realized, between the Great Fire of 1666 and the rebuilding that took place after, as well as the destruction of the Blitz, a large part of London has been rebuilt since Medieval times. Not so much in Norwich. This makes the architecture and the streets interesting and quaint, while being a PITA for the driver.

On that first morning we by-passed Norwich to go to Brundall to look at a houseboat on the River Yare, which we were considering as a place to live. We found it easily enough in spite of the directions we were given, but were disappointed in the boat itself. It was somewhat shabbier than the photos showed. The carpets were in need of cleaning, there were spider webs here and there, the bathroom and kitchen weren't clean, the chairs in the living area were stained. And there were a suspicious number of space heaters stowed in every room, as well as two lovely large square foil contraptions. Our hostess demonstrated how she props the foil squares in the windows of the living room at night to "keep out the damp." The boatyard itself was old and dirty and stank of fiberglass, and in between the buildings were piles of boards and junk, and one could picture how this would be a great setting for a murder story about a student returning home on a dark evening after classes at the university (my nubile coed days are long since gone).

The boat lady poos in the public bathrooms of the boatyard, and didn't seem remotely open to the idea of us using the toilet on the houseboat for all bodily waste functions, and hiring someone to pump it out for us regularly. I'm sorry, I can get used to a lot of things, and as a kid I spent whole summers camping in the back of beyond, using an outhouse in woods inhabited by bears. But having to poo in a boatyard bathroom, and putting my used toilet paper in the wastepaper basket in the boat's bathroom when I pee is more than I can face. I had to draw the line. Besides, there was no internet connectivity. We got out as soon as we could politely excuse ourselves, and drove back to Norwich.

Check-in for our hotel, The Beeches, wasn't until 4, and it was only just after 11. We drove around in a confused and tired daze for several hours. We tried in vain to find a quiet place to park and take a nap in the car, just to refresh and get a second or third wind. Finally we ended up in Castle Mall,  at the Phones 4 U shop (I call them "Phones R Us") trying to get cell phones that will work in the UK. The short part of the story is that there is no accessible SIM card in our old phones, so we couldn't switch them to UK SIM cards.

This brings up what I refer to as the Bermuda Triangle of Newcomers to Britain: You cannot get a month-to-month cell phone plan unless you have a UK bank account and a UK place of address. You cannot get a UK bank account unless you have a UK address and a UK phone. You cannot get a UK address until you have a UK phone and a UK bank account to move your damned money into.

We finally gave up for the day and drove to our hotel. I'll stop here for today, because that is a whole story in itself, and I don't want to lose you before we get to the good parts.

I am planning to open some sort of photo sharing file, because I am taking millions of photos, too many to post them all here each day. Check back, and I will tell you all about The Beeches, about the Roman Catholic Cathedral that was near our hotel (still is, it just isn't our hotel any longer, that's part of the story), and the incredible private garden next to it called Plantation Gardens, as well as our trip yesterday to Great Yarmouth, our amazing pub meal in Costessy, and our trip to the Hudson Valley so that I could do research for my Honors Thesis. It has been an amazing experience so far.