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.

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