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Last Hoorah in England 2012

9 Jul
The Worcester Valley

Overlooking the English countryside on a summer day

Tomorrow is it. In 24 hours, I will be queueing up at Heathrow for my flight home. I have a one way ticket back to the heat and humidity of North Carolina, the mad pace of work, friends, family, children and business as usual. My Dodge caravan will replace my bicycle and my clothes will be dried with electricity allowing me to put ironing back where it belongs – out of my mind. Culture shock, here I come – again!

Of course, I have very mixed emotions about this decision to return to the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I have missed my people terribly, especially all those who could not visit. I have pined for my sons, worried over my mother, and ached over not seeing all those nieces and nephews who have been born and those who are growing up so fast. But most of all, I have been lost without my work.  Who knew how important it is to have a purpose and a meaning to your daily life?   I am an educator.  I belong in a school, and ultimately that is what is calling me home.  Whew, I feel like I am in confession!

What made the decision quite difficult is what I am leaving behind – besides Steve, duh! As predicted, I have made some wonderful and important local friends: upstairs neighbors, Delia and Luca; Steve’s cyber-buddy  incarnate, Jenny Edwards; the infamous Micca Paterson, introduced to me by Dani Black; and of course, the Infields, our Battersea neighbors and British counterparts who are luckily American-phyles.  Invaluable as my network the past six months, I am so grateful for the advice, travel tips, outings and times these dear people have shared with me. It is these connections that make living in a foreign country worthwhile in the end.

Home of the Mappa Mundi, Magna Carta, and a chained library

So, on my final weekend Catharine and Paul Infield arranged a tour of “our favourite (here’s to “u,” Paul) part of Britain and some places American tourist don’t often know to go.”  Who could say no to that? As always, we had a fantastic time with our dear friends.

First stop, the Cotswalds.  The Costwalds are a region of rural England where the stone is a buttery color and so all the buildings look bathed in sunlight, even through the fine drizzle.  We stopped in a beautiful little village called Burford in Oxfordshire and nipped in and out of a couple of shops. Then it was off to Hereford.  The cathedral in Hereford houses the Mappa Mundi (a medieval depiction of the intersection of the physical and spiritual world), one of four original Magna Carta presented to King John in 1217, and the largest and one of the only chained libraries in England.  I couldn’t help but think of several friends who are media specialists – forget checking out books, they are all chained to the shelves. I adore this kind of museum at Hereford.  There are three things to see, each one magnificent and awesome, then there is a cafe right by the door where you can have a cup of tea and a slice of cake afterwards. Perfect!

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Catharine’s childhood home where we added her mother to our group. She is 84 years-old and just booked her winter holiday – a cruise down the coast of West Africa. (British folks of advanced age taking holiday – to get your head around it, I recommend this movie).

Catharine’s childhood home near Bromyard

Now with five people smushed into a VW Golf, we dashed along single lane roads, some unpaved, to our Bed and Breakfast.  We ditched our bags, jumped back in the car, and went to Ludlow Castle  for an outdoor performance of Much Ado About Nothing.  We arrived early along with most of the others, to enjoy a picnic along the castle wall before the start of the show.  A British picnic includes sandwiches, various bits of fruit and veg with dips, and of course, wine with real glasses.  As we enjoyed our nibbles, the rain commenced.  Let me just interject here, that when I read a forecast, I interpret a 50% chance of rain to mean that it is likely to rain at some point during the day and then stop.  In Britain, 50% denotes that it will rain half the day.  Most likely, at 15 to 30 minute intervals. The Brits are nonplussed by precipitation.  The rain begins to fall, they put up their hoods.  It falls heavier, faster or for more than five minutes, they put up their umbrellas (affectionately called brollies). So the play started in the open arena of the castle ruins with a slow drizzle falling, and the audience sat, closed their umbrellas (because blocking the view would be rude and unheard of) quietly watching as the cast got on with the performance.  After about 20 minutes, the water began streaming off hats and jackets and the ground turned to mud.  Rows and rows of people of all ages, sat patiently and enjoyed the performance as the rain continued to fall through the interval and pool in the chairs they had vacated to go buy beer, wine and hot chocolate.  After thirty more minutes, the dedicated fans returned to their seats, pulled out towels and napkins, dried the seats and settled in for the second half which promised to be chilly as the sun was now setting.  As the cast streamed back on stage tromping through the muddy middle aisle, I realized how absolutely delighted I was to be there.  I felt like a pig in the mud, maybe a reference too close to the truth, as I soaked up the Shakespeare in the drizzle against the backdrop of the castle.

Our day on Sunday was equally delightful. After chasing a hare around Catharine’s mother’s garden, we drove to Malvern to enjoy breath-taking views of the Worcester valley. Then, we visited a black and white pub called The Fleece in Evesham.  (Steve wants to write about the pub experience in his blog. Now that I am leaving, he will have his evenings to hopefully get back to some writing.  I know I have droned on long enough so I will leave the pub depiction to him).  In the afternoon, we skirted around the grounds of Blenheim Palace before driving back into London as if following the rainbow.  Yep, I almost burst into tears looking at a double rainbow which looked as if it ended at Clapham Common. I am definitely having a love affair with England so if I still seem far away after I wake up where the clouds are far behind me, please be patient.  I am truly torn between two countries.

Here are some other photos from the weekend showing the beauty of the English countryside in Summer.

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Storming Provence

7 Jun

A couple of months ago, I went to Paris for the first time since 1989.  While I was there, I kept thinking about the fact that Paris was spared during the Blitzkrieg and is thus physically unmarred by battle scars.  I am no history buff, so mostly my imagination wandered in and out of bits of movies I had seen about the deals made to save Paris, the Resistance, the Germans, the ugliness of WWII. Somehow, I projected a sense of defeat onto Paris of today – as her looks fade, the ghosts of her occupation haunt.

Dad was not quite a teen-ager when D-Day happened.  He was a history buff and so his affection for France, I believe in part, came from his indelible memories of triumphant American and Allied forces. His early impressions were shaped by listening to broadcasts on the radio, and it was these memories of WWII and the pressing urgency of the Korean War that sent him to join up as soon as he legally able.  His deep sense of patriotism and his commitment to never let a tyrant dictator rule his country or any other, fueled his passion to serve.  After 23 years in the Navy he retired and enjoyed a second career, still in government service. This second career afforded him the opportunity to travel for pleasure.  So in the spring of 1989, he  and my mother (along with my youngest brother who was 16 and my oldest sister who was 33) flew to Paris and boarded a train south.  I met them at the station in Montpellier where Steve and I were spending a year abroad. Mom and half their luggage rode with me in my Renault 4. Dad rented a Citroen sedan and followed me back to Domain de Lussac, an 18th century chateau on the outskirts of Montpellier in Languedoc Roussilon, just adjacent to Provence in Southern France. We had rented the one bedroom apartment in the North Tower.

So when I recently was able to return to Montpellier for the first time since I left 23 years ago, I was flooded with memories of my family’s visit, and especially Dad.  My favorite is of the afternoon we heard some kids playing in the courtyard inside this gate.  The kids had a bat and were arranging themselves in a game of cricket, I think.  I was busy preparing dinner for six and not paying much attention.  The next thing I knew, Dad was in the courtyard using hand gestures and broken French and English to organize the kids in a game of baseball.  I looked out just in time to see him get a hit and run the bases.  We hung out the window and cheered loudly.

On our recent trip, we nearly replicated my family’s tour  from 1989. We explored central Montpellier: La Place de la Comedie, Le Perou, a cafe or two.  We walked around with baguettes under our arms, and ate olives at every chance.  We toured the region: St. Gilheim le Desert, and Pont Diablo.  We did not make it to Avignon, and Nimes; nor did we attempt to drive to Spain.  Yes, on one of the days my dad was in Montpellier, he talked me into riding with him to Spain.  He said he wanted to drive really fast.  Who can say no to that?  We got on the tollway early, and I learned Dad was not kidding.  In no time, we were going 110 mph.  At first I was terrified, then I remember feeling really Zen about it.  How poetically tragic it would be to die on a highway in a foreign country while my own father was driving.  I leaned back into the seat and thought how lucky I would be to die so happy.

And that is exactly how I felt during this trip. I could not stop smiling, just like my dad smiled while he was there. Being in Southern France brings me a kind of inexplicable happiness and peaceful feeling.  I love the abundance of sun, the bounty of fresh food, the natural beauty everywhere, the slow pace.  And I love that the place holds such happy memories of my dad.  I am one of the truly lucky ones to have these memories of my dad happily vacationing in France, and not dying there as part of an invasion. For that, I am thankful.