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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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Pickles and Onions on Herring – Oh my!

27 Jun

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Amsterdam for the first time.  My son, who is 19 talked me into making the trek from London to Holland so he could visit a friend.  His friend was a girl who had come to live in Mebane, NC (our hometown) as an exchange student.  Initially, the thought of being in Amsterdam with my teen-aged son and other young folks made me apprehensive to say the least.  When I was last in Europe in 1989, Amsterdam was known only for the hash and the red light district.  I’m writing this post to document the error of my prejudices about the city.  From now on, when I think of Amsterdam, I will think of water and houseboats and pickled herring, and bicycles.

The red light district is still there, don’t get me wrong.  And of course, we took a stroll through it just to say we had.  It was dirty and weird and not all like the part of the city we spent the majority of our time in.  But to have the impression that Amsterdam is the red light district is like thinking that South Carolina is Myrtle Beach. As a native of the Carolinas, I can tell you, there are vast and beautiful places that bear no resemblance to the touristy craziness of Myrtle, and so is the case in Amsterdam. We toured all around the city on rented bicycles and enjoyed gorgeous views of renovated buildings, quaint sidewalk cafes, flower markets, and of course, canals lined with houseboats.

My new, informed take on the Venice of the Netherlands is that it is the most quiet and polite city I have traveled in.  I did not hear a single car horn in the whole four days – only the ping of bicycle bells.  My biggest and favorite surprise was the amazing cycling culture.  Women in heels, men in suits, fathers toting up to three kids on a single bike, people with their pets in baskets, all chugging along the cobble stone streets and extensive network of bike lanes.  There were bikes in all shapes with a number of ingenious ways to carry things from here to there.  My favorite was the one with the integrated box on the front.  I saw this style of bike used to shuttle dogs, school aged children, lumber, furniture, and groceries.  It is the minivan of the Netherlands.

My second favorite surprise was how much I enjoyed the food.  I’m guessing fresh produce is good just about everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere in late June, but I had forgotten about Dutch apple pie.  Other staples like bread, cheese and beer were also delicious. Finally, the pickled herring.  Topped with chopped onions and pickles, it is a flavor explosion of a very pleasing combination.

Finally, while Holland is famous for tulips, in June it’s the Hollyhocks that steal the show.  They pushed up between the cracks of the sidewalk next to buildings where they were not purposefully planted.  Hydrangeas and trailing roses were also featured foliage providing a soft and delicate edge to the sharpness of all the brick and pavement.  All in all, I have to say, Amsterdam will be high on the list of places to re-visit.

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.

These Colors Don’t Run

14 May

20120514-145456.jpgIf traveling abroad causes one to reflect on one’s nationality and it’s influence on personal identity, then living abroad calls for a full psycho-analysis of the effect. At least if you are me, it does. My analytical nature will not allow anything to just be. I pick it apart and examine all the pieces until I can thoroughly make sense of them within a context that is familiar and logical.

So, what does it feel like to be American and live in Britain? Watching the portrayal of America and Americans on television in Britain and the locals’ reactions, comments, and questions to me, I have a pretty good sense of the image Americans and America portray. Sometimes I am sickened by the accuracy of the impression of our Great Nation. We are selfish and self-indulged, over-confident and all too comfortable with the super-power role and status, even though that appears to be dissipating. We don’t know nearly as much about others as they know about us. When I share stories about people I know who are struggling to pay for or don’t even have health insurance, there is disbelief that our country could allow such things to happen. The basic services in Britain that provide for healthcare, education, affordable housing, public works, and many other government programs are not dragging down the society in taxes, but rather lifting them up in a communal shared concerned for their fellowman. I know I am over-simplifying the issue, but this society does, to me, seem more evolved and farther along in the realization that everyone benefits if everyone is taken care of at the most basic level.

Then there is gun-control. I am a staunch supporter of gun-control. Statistics show that arming yourself for defense leads to more crime and violence in our society. The police here in Britain are armed with clubs and pepper spray. At home, the officers patrolling elementary schools carry high powered hand guns, because of the fact that children can and do bring guns into schools. It’s outrageous. I will never own a gun and hope one day Americans see the light about gun ownership and what accessibility does to the American psyche. Gun control in Britain has allowed a relatively low incidence of violent crime. Yes, knife violence is a problem, but killing multiple innocent people in an instant with a knife is just not possible.

A few weeks ago, however, I had an experience that reminded me that I am American through and through. My socialization and upbringing in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave came out like an animal instinct. I was walking along a busy street talking with a friend while my husband walked several paces ahead of us talking with the wife of our friend. I saw coming towards us, a woman who appeared to be a bit disheveled and watched her bump into the woman my husband was walking with. She regained her composure and looked ahead at me. She came straight for me. Without a moment of thought, I planted my feet as she barreled into my shoulder, obviously drunk and looking for trouble. She seemed surprised by her solid hit, and my commanding voice, “What are you doing?” I think she expected me to move out of the way and apologize, which I did not. In fact, I turned around and watched to see if she carried on walking or was daring enough to come back. In my mind, I was ready for a physical confrontation if necessary to stand my ground. And there it is. Don’t mess with me. I am polite and courteous and considerate with everyone I meet on the street and in life generally. I am affable. But don’t mess with me. I will fight you. How stupid!

My reaction surprised my friend — he kept asking, “Are you alright?” Yes, at the moment, I was alright, riding a bit of an adrenaline induced high. Then of course, I was not alright. What made me react so differently from my British friends? I felt brutish in my over-reaction. History has shown over and again the fortitude, strength and bravery of the British people. World War II happened on their soil; they endured the German air raids and rallied against their invasion. We Americans have enjoyed generations of peace on our soil — yes, I know about Pearl Harbor, but that was not on our mainland, and did not include bombing our civilian population. Yet, Americans cling to our “right to bear arms” when really the only enemies we fight with handguns are our own family members, ex-lovers, innocent boys on the street and others we perceive as threats. Couple this absurd bravery with a semi-automatic and there you have it — American cowboys on urban streets.

Lots to think about in terms of what will it take for our society to become more safe, more cultured, more concerned for each other. For this American, I will again start with “the man in the mirror.”

Two Fashion Designers, One Serial-killer

17 Apr

ImageThis piece is hanging at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  I find it captivating – it reminds me of people I am friends with.  People who I find incredibly artistic and fun and who I don’t get to spend near enough time with.  I guess it makes sense that my reactions to art have to do with relationships.

Art history and fashion design – these are not things I know about.  My expertise lies in pedagogy, human experience, relationships, and children.  I know a lot about children.

Art history and such things have never interested me and I have never been required to study them – so it is somewhat ironic that this amazing opportunity to frequent some of the best museums in Europe has been laid in my lap.  I have seen Monet, Manet, Rodin, and Cezanne. I recently saw a special exhibit of Degas’ Nudes at the Musée d’Orsay.  I have learned about the Pre-Raphaelites and awed over the work of those who idealized subjects and those who were dedicated to realism.  I was struck by Ophelia and the Lady of Shallot, and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose moved me to the extent that I have been back to see them multiple times.  Photos and reprints of these magnificent works do not do them justice. But this image of Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, I couldn’t resist snapping it during my third viewing last week.

Just to the left of the picture is the most gripping and disturbing piece of artwork I have seen yet. The silhouette is of Isabella Blow, head thrown back laughing, crazy trademark hat.  But what is that casting the shading?  Yes, taxidermy.  Crows, rats, lipstick all wrapped in a revolting tangle.  It is fascinating.   I had to take these pictures so I could share them. My iPhone shots are weak.  When I got home, I did a quick web search about Blow.  Her story is tragic. She took her life in 2007 after battling depression.  McQueen followed suit in 2010.

Oddly enough, in addition to admiring and ruminating over this metaphoric sculpture about the image cast vs. the monstrosity within, I have been watching Dexter.  If you don’t know about the ShowTime series, it is about a sociopath serial-killer.  He leads a double life.  The image he casts is of a forensic detective, a loving boyfriend, dedicated brother.  His monster within, a monster born of childhood trauma, forces him to kill.  If you have not seen it, it is worth the time.  Smartly written and brimming with ethical dilemmas about good vs. evil.

What has gripped me so about Dexter and about Isabella Blow is the idea of intervention.  Does intervention work?  Are some things just too powerful to fight against?  Can the effects of childhood trauma be diminished with enough therapy?  Can medication take away the damaging urges without also quelling the artists’ drive?   Are any of our institutions equipped to deal with these problems?

Lots of questions, but I don’t have any answers.  I just know that in the last two years of my work in education, I encountered way too many children that I feared could not be helped.  Is it too much to hope that art might some way provide an answer?  Perhaps we are failing our children because we are failing to focus on art.  Just a thought.

It’s the people not the things…

31 Jan

This is my husband, Steve, standing in front of the Tower Bridge in East London . . .

Living in London is amazing.   Having moved from a small rural town in North Carolina, I have to admit that city life is all I had hoped and not much of what I had feared.  The restaurants, museums, monuments, ethnic markets, public transport and all the all other accoutrements of modern urban planning, design, and development layers over centuries of rich history are amazing.  In addition, I feel safe and relatively healthier and happier than spending hours every day in my car trying to get work or wherever I needed to go – leaving a huge fossil footprint and traveling the same roads, over and over again.  But there is a down-side.

I came here to accompany him: the guy in the picture.  I love him and after all things considered, living apart was not really worth the toll, especially on him.  Plus, an opportunity to live in this amazing city with all its history and art and architecture, not to mention proximity to other amazing places, just could not be passed up.  But I came without a plan, without a mission and without an anchor except him.  Weeks into it, I have not made much progress with finding a “raison d’etre.”  Everyone keeps telling me I will.  I am keeping an open-mind.

A close friend recently sent me a note and asked if there was anything from home I missed that she could send in a care package. Such a sweet offer, but the answer is simple: I miss my friends and family terribly.  I don’t really miss any of the stuff or even the places of home.  It’s the people not the things, I miss.  What fun is all this if I can’t share it?  Being the super-extravert I am, I find little joy in doing things alone.  I thought Facebook would be a great venue to quip back and forth with people about the experience, but its not really turning out that way.  A picture does not allow for that moment of pushing your elbow into someone’s ribs and saying “Did you see that?”  Many of things I want to share — like the way people dress (women who wear leggings, boots, coats and not much more, men who have obviously attended scarf-tying school, and these beautiful children all dressed up in school uniforms riding scooters everywhere) well, it would be strange and inappropriate to be snapping pictures of them.

The guys who hang out on the Common and drink beer all day did ask me to take their picture.  These two posed and even invited me to join them.  I am not at that point, yet — though they do seem to be having a lot of fun.

So much of my day really is a “you had to be there” kind of thing.  Facebook especially can’t convey the absurdity and hilarity of the moment when I realize someone is speaking English but I can’t understand a word of it.  I guess I am too old and self-conscious to just burst out laughing alone. So, I am saving it all up, hoping lots of you get your passports and make a plan.  I am right here waiting to share it all.

Christmas Eve in London

25 Dec

We dashed across Trafalgar Square at 5:40 on Christmas Eve and found the line heading into St. Martin in the Fields wrapped around the corner. Cheerful ladies waited at the door handing out 16 page programs with all the hymns, readings and poems printed out. They had printed exactly 870 programs, the maximum number allowed inside the church by the fire marshall. We were close to the last ones admitted and almost had to split into pairs to find a seat before another couple vacated an aisle bench that held all four of us. We sat down and immediately were startled that the bench might give way before we realized it was permanently leaning forward from years of wear. We had to plant our feet squarely on the floor in front of us to keep from slipping out.

The church was filled to capacity. The balcony surrounding the perimeter was teeming. The service was not scheduled to start until 6:30, but at 6, a woman I could not see began to address the crowd. In a thick British accent she said, “Well, the service is not scheduled to begin until 6:30, but since you all have come so early, and there so very many of you here who seem to want to stay, we thought we would conduct a rehearsal. And since this is a carol service, we will see if you are good singers. Those of you who are not will be asked to leave and we will bring in the others who are waiting outside to see if they can sing better.” The crowd erupted into laughter. Ah, Christmas cheer. She wasn’t kidding, though. She turned the service over to the choir director who had us practice “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” He abruptly stopped us halfway into the first verse and threatened to have us removed if we did not pipe up and really sing. He then led us through several verses of other carols, intermittently praising and scolding us into better singing.

The service did finally start at 6:30 and became a bit more serious, though there were moments of humor. We prayed for the members of the church who were ill and for Queen Elizabeth and all of Europe for teetering on the brink of financial disaster. I wondered if any church services at home were praying for our leaders, who I hear treated themselves to a vacation instead completing the work at hand.

The sermon was about giving gifts and getting it right when it comes to giving from the heart. It struck me because Christmas shopping this year flummoxed me. I usually take great joy and care in searching out and finding just the right thing for people I love. This year, each time I tried, my head would spin and I would literally have to leave the store and go cry in my car. I was overwhelmed with the thought of missing my family, missing my friends, missing my life as I know it and knew that any gift exchange would simply amplify these feelings. I bumbled through my good-byes in the days just before Christmas and got lost in a fog of jet lag after I arrived.

When I finally awoke on Christmas Eve, I was in St. Martin in the Fields surrounded by 866 strangers, my husband and sons, all singing Christmas carols. The choir was indescribably beautiful as their voices rose and fell in the beautiful vaulted and domed ceilings around the church.

My favorite new carol is called “Little Donkey.” It is a hymn of encouragement for the donkey who carried Mary to the stable. I had never heard of it before, but listening to my 18 year-old son belt it out on Christmas Eve in London is sure to become a lasting favorite Christmas memory for me.

Little Donkey, little donkey on the dusty road.
Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load.
Been a long time, little donkey through the winter’s night
Don’t give up now, little donkey, Bethlehem’s in sight.