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.

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