If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may get the impression that I’m living a free and easy expat life, traveling at the drop of a hat around Europe and spending every evening at the pub.
That’s true in some ways. I have been able to travel, but my travels are very dependent on my limited income (and where my friends have relatives). Yes, it’s been lovely to escape the freedom of a 9-to-5 job this year, but that also means I struggle sometimes with a sense of purpose and validation when my housemate comes in exhausted from her teaching job and I’ve just been sitting around the house all day working on articles and tidying the kitchen. It also means that I don’t have regular income or health insurance!
And yes, I do often end up at the pub with my friends of an evening, but that’s only after I’ve finished stacking chairs, emptying the bathroom trash cans and vacuuming up after a church service; or helping to lead a small group for young adults; or running a Sunday morning program for 45 hyper pre-teens.
For the real truth is that I’m doing real work here in England, and I thought it might be time for me to start sharing some of the emotional and physical struggles that have accompanied this experience. I made a major life change to spend a year in England, and the transition hasn’t been without its difficulties.
Today is St. George's Day, the day when England celebrates its patron St. George (he of the Dragon).
Only, it doesn't. Not really.
"I know more about the flippin' Irish St. Patrick's Day than I do about St. George," said my housemate Dave in exasperation today. "I mean, I drink a pint of Guinness on 17th March but I don't do anything for St. George's Day."
He then proceeded to head out to the pub for a pint of real ale.
"Today is St. George's Day," I told my mom by telephone this afternoon.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I assume it's to do with St. George and the Dragon."
Luckily, the trusty Daily Telegraph that arrives each day to adorn our kitchen table (thanks to English Mum) included a special souvenir section all about St. George's and his Day, England and a growing sense of English nationalism. It's a good thing, I think, for the English to be proud of their heritage and cultural individuality, just as the Scots, Welsh and Irish--especially in this era of encroaching chain stores and the village pub and post office closures.
I probably know more about the English medieval legends of St. George (a 4th century martyr to whom medieval storytellers attached fantastic tales) than do most English, mostly because my favorite picture book growing up was the simply beautiful St. George and the Dragon, by Margaret Hodges and illustrated with lavish paintings by Trina Schart Hyman. I can't recommend the book highly enough--it won the 1985 Caldecott medal for illustrations and also introduced this 7-year-old to Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" at a most precocious age, since Hodgson retells that version of the Georgian legend. Every child on both sides of the pond should read and admire this lovely book! I still treasure my copy and am sad it's in a friend's basement in Waukegan right now, unavailable for reading on the 23rd of April.
I'm in London for a few days, visiting one of my best friends, who's just married an Englishman (after 10 years on the North Side and on the North Shore). We were strolling about a gallery space at the National Theatre this afternoon, enjoying "Beauty and Difference: Worlds Apart," an exhibition of children's artwork from around the world, when we came to the U.S. section.
There were only three entries by American art students among the 100 or so artworks, so we were surprised to see a video screen showing footage of the Bean and downtown Chicago. Suddenly, high school students were on the screen, giving messages to Chinese students. My friend and I both leaned in to read the plaque explaining the video presentation, and exclaimed at once, "New Trier!" The work was a series of video diaries created by students at New Trier high school in Winnetka. We stood for awhile watching the high school students passing on messages to their contemporaries in China, both more than a bit pleased to stumble across such a tangible link here in England to our lives back home.
It's been a sullen, grey day and the many seeds I planted on Monday are still hiding away in the earth. The mint plant that I potted and set out in the greenhouse is flourishing, though.
I quickly learned one quick difference between English and American gardening--the wearing of Wellies. Wellington boots are tall and rubbery, in order to keep out the mud, I presume. It's so much easier to slip into my Wellies (well, OK, into my housemate Julia's Wellies) at the garden door than it is putting on tennis shoes (trainers, they call them here) that are bound to get filthy and that need to be scraped before re-entering the house.
As I've posted here before, many in Britain are dismayed by how the native red squirrel has been forced out of its habitats by the North American grey squirrel.
Yesterday the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) condemned various government-funded efforts to cull grey squirrels as pointless and "ethically dubious."
I have to admit, the large-scale poisoning of grey squirrels does seem like an extreme measure. Perhaps it would be justified if it truly did bring the red squirrels back, but even then I have my doubts about mass killings of these animals. A source interviewed in the article linked to above, that up until the 1970s anyone could get a permit to kill the red squirrels, and that it's just become fashionable now to hate the greys and love the reds.
I really don't know what to think about this. I don't like killing any animals but I do understand the value of preserving native species. Any opinions out there?
You can't go far in Britain without seeing author Bill Bryson's name on the bestseller bookshelves, or hearing someone enthusiastically quote "Notes from a Small Island," or seeing him in the newspaper.
That suits me just fine, as I've been a Bryson fan for a decade. We pass audio versions of his books around my family, as they make great listening on driving trips, and I've read all of his early books, too. I greatly enjoyed seeing him speak at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. back in spring 2003, and am impressed by how he's made such a successful career for himself by writing about travel, words and science while calling two nations home. I have to admit it's a little strange to find him so celebrated over here, seeing as how he's American, but I guess he's lived in England for more than 20 years and it's actually heartwarming to see how eagerly he's been adopted by the reticent Brits.
Today's article in the Daily Telegraph makes me admire Bryson even more, because he's putting his time and energy where his mouth is. Even a casual reading of his travel books reveals Bryson's dismay at the homogenization of first America and now Britain. Small towns in America have been swallowed up and the same is happening in England, as globalization and convenience (usually in the form of souless chain stores and subdivisions) reach into rural villages.
The wonderful thing about this new public awareness campaign of Bryson's, though, is that he's starting small by encouraging Brits to stop littering. I think he's onto something here--if the new generation of Englishmen and Englishwomen learn to be respectful of the land that's seen so much history for millennia, then that may translate into a more holistic care for Great Britain.
I hope this is a lesson we can learn on both sides of the pond.
Yesterday I posted about my new garden. Today the story continues...
As I stepped into the greenhouse, feet crunching on piles of brown leaves that had fallen through the holes over the last decade, I imagined myself back on the North Shore, where I did home and garden writing as a Pioneer Press reporter between 2003-2007.
"It's like discovering a Jens Jensen garden," I thought dramatically, scooping up leaves (and more than a few snails--the bane of English gardeners--who had taken refuge in them). "I can almost see myself on one of those palatial yet neglected Lake Forest estates, finding a little garden shed filled with rusting but still usable supplies."
Or, of course, I could pretend to be Mary Lennox, the child from "The Secret Garden" who finds a once-loved garden that's been long abandoned to the ravages of time.
I knew such romantic fantasies were frivolous, indeed, but that's what a lifetime of reading about dreamy, spirited heroines like Anne of Green Gables and Jo March will do to a girl! Soon I was very busy clearing out the leaves, picking bits of broken glass out of dirt and emptying pots of dank water, but a delightful sense of mystery and discovery remained.
Troy and Timmy, the Pasture House cats, were very happy that someone was in this quiet corner of the garden at last, and came purring into the greenhouse to visit and "help" me. Timmy even curled up on the shelf to keep a close eye on all events (and just in case I spontaneously decided to serve them their tea out in the garden, no doubt).
Like many women, I grew up loving the children's novel "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett (and the 1993 Broadway musical version) but it wasn't until I became an adult that I really began to resonate with the themes of renewal and new life that spring into the hitherto wintry life of young Mary.
I was pleased to find "The Secret Garden" on the shelves of the 200-year-old house I am currently sharing with the English family that has invited me into their home for this year. (This family consists of husband and wife and three young adult children, two of whom still live at home and are about my age). As I read the story once again, I wondered at the huge amount of work that Mary and her friends Dickon and Colin put into reviving the walled garden high on the moors. Is English garden so different from American gardening?
I am delighted to report that I am about to find out.
Troy the cat suns himself before the side door of my English home, as daffodils brighten the foot of a cherry tree about to spring into blossom.
The other day I struggled to understand a little newspaper article that was all about quangos. Yes, quangos. I read the item carefully, looking for a definition but never found one. Was this some strange sort of fruit, perhaps a cross between a kumquat and a mango? But if so, then why would the British government be promising the end to so many fruit hybrids? There was nobody around to ask, but then I remembered my copy of "Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang," given me by a kind English expat back in Chicago who foresaw this kind of confusion.
I quickly discovered that a quango (or QUANGO) is a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization. Kinda like our NGOs, I guess. According to Jonathan Bernstein, author of "Knickers in a Twist," quangos, "generally have titles that suggest they have something to do with housing or transport or health but, in fact, their main function is to perpetuate bureaucracy. The cynical may suggest that these committees and agencies exist solely to reward close but otherwise unemployable associates of the political party in power."
It looks as if this whole bizarre inquest into Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed is coming to a close at last, with the official verdict putting conspiracy theories to rest and blaming the paparazzi and drunk chauffuer Henri Paul for killing Diana in a Paris car crash in August 1997.
Last night my housemates and I were exchanging our "where were you when Princess Diana died?" memories. I recall quite clearly that I was running around the quadrangle at my brand-new university, the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, playing get-to-know-you games with the other first-year students during our college orientation. It was a hot and muggy day made warmer by the games we were playing, and as we stopped to take a breather someone came out of a building and whispered something to our leader. Soon we were all buzzing with the news that Princess Diana was dead.
I didn't think I cared that much about Princess Diana, and yet that moment is emblazoned in my mind as clearly as when I learned about 9-11, so her death obviously impacted me as much as it did the rest of the world. What I haven't really understood, though, during my time in England, is why the details of Diana's love life have been splashed across the front of every newspaper as an inquest costing taxpayers 10 million pounds has proceeded.
I almost sent my winter coat back to Chicago when a couple of American friends visited last week, but a Brit urged me to keep it here "at least through May." Now I know why.
Yesterday I had the fun of visiting Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire with several English friends. When I woke up that morning, I was delighted by the warm sunshine and balmy spring weather, and even opened the kitchen door wide so the gorgeous air could blow in as I sat in my pajamas eating cornflakes.
By the time I hopped on my bike to head to our meeting place one hour later, it had begun to rain, hard, and the temperature was dropping significantly. By the time we got to the zoo, the intermittent rain showers had turned into intermittent hail storms. The hail battered the tulips and daffodils as the giraffes and elephants headed inside. The penguins seemed happy outdoors, though!
This morning I woke up to snow on the ground, and as I pedaled my bike the familiar 2.5 miles to church, I passed lots of cars with snow on the windshields. Then snow began to blow around, but I soon realized the snow was mixing with delicate white petals flying from the blooming cherry trees. As I cycled back from church, snow was falling again and the cherry blossom petals were still swirling about.