Today I had the fun of appearing on Radio Nottingham, the local BBC station. Morning Show presenter Frances Finn asked me on to her show so I could "hold up a mirror" to those in Nottinghamshire by sharing some of my experiences here in England.
I was definitely nervous when we first started speaking (it was my first time on the radio) but soon forgot that people were listening to the live broadcast all over Nottinghamshire as I chatted away with Fran. We had about an hour-long discourse (with a few breaks for news and music) about everything from American politics to British politeness to Nottingham pronunciations. I had a blast.
You can listen here, although the link will start at the beginning of Fran's three-hour show. I came on at 11 a.m., two hours into it.
We awoke once more to rain and wind lashing the windows, and although I was sad that our planned trip to the Devon seaside was out of the question, we did take a fun little jaunt to Bristol. Emily and I explored once more while Hannah met up with an old school friend, and we were very happy to take shelter from the winter-ish weather in Bristol Cathedral.
We were, of course, also eager to explore the cathedral, as well as warming up. Although much of the main building is 19th-century, there is a beautifully preserved room that was once the 11th-century chapter house for the Augustinian monks who resided there. Emily is a musician, and she sang a pretty fair imitation of an ancient chant that echoed within the delicately carved stone room and made shivers run up and down my spine. Although the church is Norman, an ancient Anglo-Saxon stone depicting Jesus pulling a woman out of hell was discovered on the site in the 1800s.
The good eating continues. After a very filling, tasty meal of jacket potatoes (baked potatoes) served with butter, cheese, baked beans and cole slaw, we enjoyed trifle and walnut-chocolate tart. I told Hannah's parents that their daughter neglected to warn me about gaining half a stone (about 7 pounds) on this weekend! It's time now for a final cup of tea before we get back on the road and head north to Nottingham.
It's a bank holiday weekend here in England, which back home we'd call a three-day weekend. The only difference is that we get three-day weekends in the U.S. because of a national holiday (Americans, obviously, are off tomorrow for Memorial Day), while in the UK the bank holidays come arbitrarily. I was explaining this to my mom and she kept saying, "But what's the holiday that makes all of the banks close?" and I had to tell her that there is no special Holiday, just the bank holiday, though according to one slightly dubious source, the bank holidays were carefully chosen by a 19th-century British noble who wanted to make sure the masses could get off work to enjoy cricket matches.
At any rate, I took advantage of the long weekend to travel with my friend Hannah to her family home in the county of Somerset, in England's southwest. In fact, Hannah's hometown of Cheddar is where the famous cheese was first concocted, although it's equally famous for being the town built along the stunning Cheddar Gorge. After sitting in very non-pastoral bank holiday traffic for several hours, fellow visitor Emily and I were keen to explore the area when we first arrived Friday evening, so after enjoying a delicious meal of creamy coronation chicken with Hannah's hospitable parents and sisters, we set out walking.
It was a truly perfect evening. As night slowly fell, Emily and I strolled down the hill to Cheddar Village's high street, then along the windy road carved through the gorge. We gazed up at the mighty cliffs, growing slightly dim in the twilight, and laughed at the furry brown sheep dotting its green ridges. I didn't feel as if I were in England at all, but as if I were back in Austria wandering through the Alps as I did one wet summer's day in 1999. After climbing a sizeable hill and sitting on the bluff chatting, Emily and I walked back through the town, getting only mildly lost in its hills and curving streets before finding our way back to Hannah's house. This is a place of absolute beauty and peace.
I'm in the kids' office at church right now, and I've asked my fellow children's workers what they want Americans to know.
"Americans are always saying that we're quaint," Andy said. "It drives me insane because we're not. We're not as quaint as they think."
"Quaint is an inaccurate description. I'd say we're more metropolitan," agreed Ruth 1. "They have a picture of us still in the 1930s, drinking tea and saying stuff like 'Tallyho!'"
"Also, every film always shows London raining. It doesn't always rain," Andy said. "In fact, I was reading about how in New England when the sun comes out, they make the most of it. That's the same here, as well."
"That's when everyone goes outside in strappy tops and shorts and they act crazy," Ruth 1 said.
"Out come the flip flops," Andy said, "the barbecue grill is cleaned--"
"Or bought," added Ruth 2.
"And everyone heads for the parks," Andy finished. What Brits want us to know, he says, is that they do have sun and they do know how to enjoy themselves, as in this Bulmer's cider advert.
"Another favorite misconception of mine is that we all live in a suburb of London. I suppose America is ridiculously large compared to England and it does take about seven years to get from one city to another there. But it still takes about two hours to get to London from here in Nottingham," Andy said.
When I pointed out that it could take two hours to get from Chicago's south suburbs to the northwestern suburbs, Andy just blinked.
"There are countries that are smaller than that," he said.
Those countries, I suppose, could fairly be considered quaint.
Thanks very much to the helpful bloggers who explained exactly what "midges" are! As I posted earlier, the lack of window screens here in England means the bugs come in. I really don't mind, although more than a few wasps entered during the peak of the "heat wave" last week. The only time I was really bothered was when one would find its way in through the open transom at 5:30 a.m., right as the sun rose, and buzz angrily against the curtains until I blearily got up and opened the large windows so it could find its way out.
Today I hung out with a Chicago friend who moved to Nottingham just 10 days ago. Leanna married a Brit at my Nottingham church, but we were friends back at our Evanston church before making our individual journeys across the pond. As I showed Leanna around Market Square and introduced her to the joys of the 5-story Waterstone's (a book shop strongly reminiscent of downtown Chicago's giant Borders), we compared notes about life in Great Britain. Leanna's wide-eyed astonishment reminded me of my own just nine months ago.
Together we compiled a spontaneous list of what's different here in England. I share it with you now:
1. An unfurnished, rented flat does not provide a stove (called a cooker here), refrigerator, freezer and certainly not a washing machine. The tenants must provide their own. Leanna is very grateful that her new mother-in-law has given her a washing machine.
As a practiced apartment renter, I was at first shocked by this difference. In my work at The Arches, our church's center that helps furnish flats for the poor, we do our best to help families fit out their new properties, but we get very few refrigerators and washing machines, and--for liability reasons--we can't provide cookers. That makes it really hard on a single mum who's just getting back on her feet after being homeless, or on the refugee family who left everything behind in their home country.
2. Many, many bathrooms (or loos or toilets, as they're called here) have separate spigots (taps) for hot and cold water. The idea is that you mix the water in the sink basin, using the available plug. I used to have this set-up in my 100-year-old dorm room at college, and I thought it was charming.
I find it much less charming in a public bathroom that's completely new but where the basin is filthy. Washing my hands in water mixed within a dirty sink seems counter-productive, so I am reduced to quickly dashing my hand through either a boiling-hot or freezing-cold stream of water. Sometimes I try to splash them together with one hand so the two streams meet in the center, but the taps are always placed far enough apart (about six inches) so that this is impossible. I don't understand why more new bathrooms in both houses and public spaces have the infinitely more convenient single tap. Apparently this is due to the British reluctance to Progress for Progress' Sake, but, in my humble American opinion, one tap just makes more sense, not to mention happier and cleaner hands!
3. Most Brits make up the bed with a bottom sheet and quilt only. They don't use a top sheet. When I first arrived in London last September, I thought it was just a quirk of the friend whom I spent a few days with. I was so jet-lagged, though, that I happily stretched out on her very comfortable guest bed and soon got used to the strange sensation of being right under the quilt, with no top sheet. But I've since learned that this is the norm here. I should mention that almost all of the English "quilts" are actually down or cotton duvets, with duvet covers that can be easily taken off and washed. It certainly does make it easier to make the bed!
I've gotten so used to this system that, when American friends visited a few months ago, I was actually puzzled when Tom asked for a top sheet. I'd made up his bed just fine, I thought. When he gently reminded me I'd forgotten the top sheet, I laughed and gave him a spare. "They don't actually use them here," I said, and considered making him do without for a true cultural experience. However, our shower has been out of commission for awhile and since Tom already had to get used to settling for a bath only (still common among the older generation) I figured I should humor him.
Since I still use my American bank, I seldom interact with the British banking system. Today, however, I needed cash so I visited a Barclay’s bank “cashpoint. (Note to British readers: In America this is known as an ATM for Automatic Tiller Machine, or, as my uncle calls it a Magic Money Machine). Apparently I haven’t used a Barclay’s cashpoint before, because after choosing to withdraw cash, the machine asked if I wanted an advice slip. This was a new phrase for me.
An advice slip? It had to be the same as a receipt, I figured, about to push the button, since I always collect receipts for automatic transactions. But then I hesitated. What if “advice slip” was really some sort of clever marketing ploy. By pressing “advice slip,” was I inadvertently signing myself up for some kind of personal banking scheme?
What if the machine had retrieved full access to my accounts once I slipped in my card, and, using some sort of cruel algorithm blind to the plight of an overseas volunteer living with a not-very-friendly-exchange rate, had determined that my outgoings far exceeded my incomings and I was in desperate need of financial advice? Perhaps the slip would read, “You are an economic fool. We are putting a temporary freeze on your bank card until you sign up for one of our excellent savings plans. A bank manager will ring you shortly.”
Last fall my parents were vacationing in Laughlin, Nevada when they heard a couple in the hotel dining room speaking with British accents. Being the hospitable folks that they are, they invited the couple to join them for breakfast and told them their daughter had just moved to Nottingham. The Brits, it turned out, lived practically just down the road in Leicester, and the two couples spent hours chatting. Their friendship now continues via email exchanges and occasional Taste of America and Taste of Britain care packages that wend their way back and forth across the Atlantic. It wasn't long, of course, before I was drawn into this email exchange. I am looking forward to a visit with David and Pauline in Leicester in two weeks time, and I thought American readers might enjoy this email David sent to my parents and me concerning the current "summer" weather here in England--we've had a spate of eight sunny, warm days. I've also included my reply.
On Tue, May 13, 2008 at 7:48 AM, David F. wrote:
Well I never! According to the paper this morning, the 'hot' period that we are having at the moment is the hottest May since 1772! Just think that the last time that Brits were going around in inappropriate clothing, getting burnt to a cinder and looking like tomatoes, America was still under British rule, Mozart was a mere 16 years old and Beethoven was toddling around on tottery legs! I hope the pleasant weather continues if only to encourage all the gardeners to get bedding plants in their gardens. However, the old English saying of "Cast ne'er a clout* 'til May be out" is often true and many gardeners and those who have espoused their winter clothes should be warned! Hope all is well, With all good wishes, David.
Stephanie Fosnight to David F. on Tue, May 13, 2008 at 12:25 PM
Haha, I love your email! It certainly has been a gardener's paradise. And woe betide the slugs who come across my path! I've heard the "ne'er cast a clout" thing a few times before, but I've cast away with abandon the last week.
Be well and ENJOY THE "HEAT." (Every time someone asks me how I've managed to cycle about in all this "heat" I have to work hard not to snicker, Arizona girl that I am).
P.S. Mom and Dad, this insane heat everyone keeps talking about is actually very pleasant weather in the mid- to high- 70s. :) It's rough, but someone has to endure it.
My tomato plants are thriving! It's been less than a week since I transplanted them to their pots and placed them in the greenhouse and, despite the fact that the greenhouse is missing several key panes of glass, the plants have been so very happy. They've quadrupled in size in the past 5 days, and today I proudly gave the four strongest and tallest to my friend Emma so she might put them in her garden. My potted mint plant is very happy, as well, and I've been loving the chance to dart out to the greenhouse for a handful of mint leaves when I've made lemonade or iced tea.
Both of those iconic American drinks, however, take a little bit of work on this English isle, for neither is common at all. That is to say, there is a common drink called lemonade that is available at every bar, but it's actually what we'd call 7-Up or Sprite or, to use the generic term, a lemon-lime soda pop. The church I'm volunteering at has a fully licensed bar that we open after the evening service, and I work behind the bar once a month. The first time I was there, the team leader asked me to check the lemonade and see if it was OK, so I pressed the little button marked "L" on the soft drink dispenser (or, as they'd say, fizzy drink dispenser) and poured myself a glass, thinking it was strange that the lemonade was carbonated. I tasted it and announced, "Something's wrong with the lemonade. It tastes like Sprite." I was soon set straight--that is lemonade in England. I also quickly learned that a popular bar drink is a shandy, a mixture of "lemonade" and lager from the tap (our lager on tap at the Trent Vineyard bar is Carlsberg Export, and I've grown to quite enjoy an occasional cheeky half of this pleasing little brew). I've since learned that what we Americans call lemonade is most often referred to here as "cloudy lemonade" and is served as a specialty bottled drink in the better pubs. However, my English brother Dave brought home a bottle of lemon squash (concentrated fruit drink that is diluted with water before serving) that's actually made with real lemons and sugar, and it's delicious. When I mix in cold water, ice cubes and mint leaves, it's like I'm sitting on my Great Uncle Roger's Colorado farm, enjoying his signature summer beverage.
Today I spent a few hours in the greenhouse, baking in the 75 degree sun (it's warmer than you think!) and painstakingly transplanting my 35 tomato plant seedlings into pots. In a few weeks they'll be ready to put into the ground, I hope. Of course I don't have nearly enough space (nor even eaters) for 35 plants, so I've been spreading the word to friends that I'll have free plants to give away, assuming all goes well.
The ideal spring weather in these photos is a major contrast from the photos taken just two weeks ago that I posted yesterday. It's the third day of sunshine here in Nottingham, and I just can't get enough of the outdoors. Luckily, being in my peaceful, second-story bedroom (here in England they'd call it first-story) is almost like being outdoors, for I've got two large banks of windows facing east and south over the garden. One of the peculiarities of England is that nobody has window screens. That's right--no window screens. Instead, almost all windows swing straight out into the air. That's a boon for me, since the apple tree outside my south-facing window is currently laden with blooms, and the pear tree next to it and cherry tree next to that are just finishing up their flowering.
Although the occasional wasp, bee and the fly find its way into the room, apparently mosquitoes, gnats and the other pests we know in Chicago aren't much of an issue here. The bugs to watch out for, I'm told, are midges. Just what midges are, however, I've yet to discover.
Keep reading to see more photos of an English spring.
About two weeks ago I went home with my friend Ruth to spend a few days around Kettering, Northamptonshire. It's hard now to remember today just how cold and wet it was, as these photos attest, especially since the last few days have sparkled with dazzling warm sunshine and the once barren winter landscape has exploded in a glory of green leaves and bright flowers (I got quite sunburned today walking alongside the River Trent).
Although we shivered in winter weather two weeks ago, though, the gloom only served to heighten the atmosphere at Kirby Hall, a once stately Elizabethan manor house now fallen into ruins. However English Heritage has done a great job restoring parts of the hall and gardens to their original splendor. The small entry fee includes an audio tour that's extremely informative, explaining not only the history of the building and its owners but also about Elizabethan culture. I found it especially intriguing as I serendipitiously happened to be reading Bill Bryson's latest book, "Shakespeare" (I know I've posted about Bill Bryon several times on this site, but I swear I do read plenty of other authors!) Exploring Kirby Hall, or what's left of it, anyway, really brought Shakespeare's world to life for me, and the part when Ruth and I crouched in the ruins of a stairwell so we could eat our sack lunches out of the wind made the whole excursion even more adventurous.
While much of the main house is still standing, the less well-constructed servant's wing has fallen into ruins. This house was notable for being one of the first to incorporate curved windows.