Yesterday's conversations, as you can imagine, were all about the earthquake. "Did you feel it? Were you scared? What did you think it was, at first? Did anything fall off the shelf in your house?" and etc.
The most surreal part of the day for me, though, (excepting those very terrifying few moments at 1 a.m.) was when I was sharing with a group of friends that I was convinced it was a tornado. I received a few nods but nobody said anything and, as I continued with my story, Jennie interrupted me with a question.
"What is a tornado, exactly? Is it like a hurricane? What's the difference?"
The train station is near my house, so every once in awhile I wake up and hear an especially noisy or fast train passing. Once in awhile, the house will even shake a tad, and since my bedroom has three exposed walls and is at the top of the house, I'll notice it.
That's what I thought it was when I woke up just before 1 a.m. to the sound of a very deep rumbling so loud it filled the room. But I quickly realized the train would have to be in the garden to make that much noise, and even so it could never make the room vibrate back and forth like it was doing. It was so noisy and the house was shaking so much that I wondered if it was some sort of wind storm. If so, it had to be a tornado. I'll admit that I was frankly terrified, because it felt like the entire, 200-year-old, brick house was about to come down. After a few moments the shaking and rumbling subsided and I ran to the window to see the storm. Yet all was still. Finally, the penny dropped. Was it an earthquake?
Yes, I found out this morning, it was a 5.3 magnitude quake with an epicenter in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, only 50 miles from Nottingham. Britain had just experienced its strongest earthquake since 1984, and plenty others were terrified, too. As this BBC story reports, there was slight damage to hundreds of homes and people nearest the epicenter actually got of bed and streamed onto the street in their dressing gowns (bathrobes).
Friends, I'd like to take just a moment of your valuable time to discuss a subject that affects us all--squirrels.
That's right, squirrels. You may be a gardener (no doubt itching to get into the far-off springtime soil) who is now whiling away the tail end of winter by hatching creative ways to keep the pests from stealing your produce spoils. Or you may be a nature lover who just enjoys watching the squirrel families scamper about the trees, marveling over their curiosity, resourcefulness and dexterity.
I, myself, have a love-hate relationship with the squirrels. I've been in both the gardening and the nature-loving camps. I enjoy watching them, but there was one summer spent shaking my fist at the varmints as they took every single green tomato off the vine and brazenly ate them on the branch outside my second-story window, adding insult to injury by spitting choice bits down onto my car roof below.
But consider now the British red squirrel, a vibrant, cheeky little creature whose scarlet coat simply glows. The sad truth of the matter is that the big, pushy American grey squirrel is taking over the plucky red squirrel's habitat and causing marked species decline.
I'm back in Nottingham now and back to real life, but real life is still pretty good.
I generally have Sunday dinner (or lunch, a hallowed British tradition) with the wonderful family I am living with, but this week everyone was away so I joined two of my friends for a leisurely lunch at the Victoria Hotel, affectionately known as "The Vic." The Vic is one of the very best locals around (a local is, appropriately enough, what the locals call the local public house). I've been before for drinks, but never for a meal. The food was stunning and the afternoon ideal.
The joys of a holiday in Scotland continue. I'm really enjoying staying in a big, luxurious lodge. Don't get me wrong--I love camping. But in this big house we all take turns making delicious meals for one another and get good nights of sleep and hot water, and the steam room, sauna and spa are just down the path at the hotel.
But I also love that there's a veritable playground for outdoorsy types like me just outside the door, from mountains and rivers to villages and even a big city.
Hooray! I've finally figured out the photo upload tool. And now that our international group has dined on delicious gnocchi concocted by the Dane and one of the Brits, it's time to share a few pix from yesterday's mountaineering adventure.
The fact that I am even posting right now means I am dedicated to this blog and dedicated to this job. My fellow sojourners on this Scotland adventure have all gone to bed, despite the fact that it's just 10:30...Tom & Linea, Kristen, Neil & Kathryn, Dave (unless he's been mauled by an otter) are all happily sleeping by now.
I am knackered, as they say here, or absolutely exhausted, after a 14 kilometer (8.7 mile) tramp over rough terrain up to the top of snowy, ice-capped glacial mountains down to shimmering, barely-thawed Loch Muir, followed by a massive plate of spaghetti bolognese, a glass of red wine and a slice of walnut cake. It was a very good day, but one that's left us absolutely shattered.
Sorry for yesterday's silence. I was en route to the Scottish Highlands. At the moment I'm perched next to a giant wall of windows in the second floor of the lodge I'm renting with six others. I'm gazing out the window at a stunning vista of pine-covered hills, with higher mountains rising beyond. The highest peaks of the Cairngorm mountains are capped with snow! It's a lovely, sunny day and we're all about to go exploring.
I'm staying at Craigendarroch on the Royal Deeside, near the Queen's Balmoral Castle and outside the village of Ballater. We're about an hour southwest of Aberdeen, the "Granite City" on northern Scotland's eastern coast, from which about 70 oil rigs drill into the North Sea. It took us about 8 hours yesterday to drive from Nottingham to Aberdeen, where we picked up one girl who'd flown in from Denmark, then we headed back to this resort. It was a gorgeous drive on a sun-filled day. I exclaimed many times over the beauty of the countryside as we drove from the Midlands up through the Lake District, finally crossing into the Scottish Lowlands and passing through the city of Glasgow before turning towards Aberdeen.
At Christmastime my English friends liberally sprinkled me with Christmas cards, so I rather expected the same on Valentine's Day. After all, at home I usually exchange cards with some close friends and we share around the chocolate and conversation hearts while admiring the roses from those with significant others who are smart enough to realize that yes, Valentine's Day is a commercial holiday, but we still want flowers.
However, I discovered last week that Valentine's Day, while a big deal in Britain and just as over-hyped and commercialized in the U.S., is just about romantic love on this side of the pond. It's a good thing I learned this before heading to the grocery store in search of fold-and-stick Thomas the Tank Engine children's cards to give out to my friends for a laugh. In England, though, I've been told that the only folks who exchange cards are couples. And, in fact, most cards are delivered anonymously.
Tonight I was listening in as a husband and wife scheduled dates in their diaries (calendars) and when an event was proposed on March 2, the wife said, "That's Mothering Sunday. I never schedule anything then."
"What," I inquired, "is Mothering Sunday?"
"It's like our version of Mother's Day," I was told.
In fact, that's not quite true. According to the BBC, Mothering Sunday originally marked the day in Lent when Christians returned to their home or "mother" church for a special service. However, it then became associated with family reunions and today, Brits use it as occasion to celebrate their mums, just as Americans do.
I am accustomed to suffering winter for long periods of time. Or accustomed to not even having winter at all. That's because I lived in the Minneapolis suburbs until I was 9, and then our family moved to lovely Mesa, Arizona. When I was 18, I journeyed back to Minnesota for college and spent the next four years living a truly upside-down existence with my winters in frigid St. Paul (not recommended) and my summers in the boiling Arizona desert (also not recommended). Shortly after that, I moved to Chicago, where you poor folks are once again in the grip of subzero temperatures after a winter that has been, I hear, one of the worst in recent memory.
I also spent short stints in Spain and Washington, D.C., both of which places unrolled particularly nasty weather for me. Perhaps because of these experiences, I love talking about the weather. It's not a cliche to me, but a fascinating subject, and I think most native Minnesotans and Chicagoans would agree with me.
But now I am in England and I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that spring is getting close! Yes, it's true. While it had been raining for days when I wrote my Nottingham travel story, I am currently sitting in a patch of warm sunlight pouring in through the window at the top of the stairs. It's the third day of lovely warm, sunny pleasantness with still more to come.
Many Brits exhibit a well-practiced disdain for America, as in, "America is just filled with places like Wal-Mart and McDonalds" or, "It's so big!" or, on occasion, "Do you know anyone who actually voted for Bush? Did you vote for Bush?"
But the truth is that the British culture, as a whole, loves America. At the moment House is playing on the telly (at least star Hugh Laurie is a Brit, though he does a darn-good American accent). Just before that was Friends and Scrubs. At a Shrove Tuesday pancake party, a friend asked me if I was following the American presidential campaign. "Of course," I told him, and he then unleashed a surprising knowledge of the American political process. When I told Joel I was impressed, he got a sheepish grin on his face.
"I wouldn't know anything, except I'm really into The West Wing," he said. "I just finished watching all of the seasons on DVD."
I can barely believe it's been five months since that sunny Thursday of August 30, 2007. That's the day my great adventure began, and it couldn’t have been more auspicious.
I walked along the sturdy streets of downtown Chicago, gazing fondly at the city I’d learned to call home over the last five years. I paused a moment to drink in my fill of this place, greedily taking in the glittering Chicago River before me. A mighty steel bridge crossed the bright waters and, beyond, historic skyscrapers rose in proud tiers, reminding me of the assorted architecture tours I’d taken since arriving in Chicago as a grad student five years earlier.
“It’s amazing being here, instead of at work!” I thought.
Then came my great epiphany—I didn’t ever have to go to work again, not to that same job, anyway. I’d greatly enjoyed the job where I’d spent the last four years, and I’d made the decision to leave with eyes wide open and the spirit of adventurer, but on this day, two days before I departed, I finally understood that all that was normal was gone. This trip to downtown Chicago to tie up some loose ends was the last I’d make for a long time. For in just a few days I’d be boarding a plane and moving across the Atlantic to spend a year doing volunteer work for a church deep in the heart of Nottinghamshire County, England.