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 Dropbox.com 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.