Thanks to Mom back in Arizona, who gave me a tip for today's post. She steered me to this amusing clip of British actor Hugh Laurie appearing on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show earlier this year. In the first half Ellen and Hugh chat about his part-time life in America and in the second they quiz each other on British and American slang terms. I find it surprising that I knew all of the British slang terms but, of the American terms, I knew only the second!
Hugh Laurie is now, of course, famous in America for his portrayal of Greg House on the FOX medical drama "House," but he's had a long career in film and television, including starring in the Blackadder TV series and a scene-stealing part in 1995's "Sense and Sensibility." I'm sure someone is bound to disagree with me on this, but when I was watching the Ellen clip I thought, "Hugh doesn't sound very British anymore." That is, he sounds like a Brit who's spent a lot of time in America, not to mention perfecting his American accent. I'd say that Hugh Laurie has one of the best American accents I've ever heard a British actor do.
In the interview, Hugh points out that the rest of the world knows far more about Americans than they do about the rest of the world, thanks to the American film and TV industry, and he's absolutely right!
This does remind me of when I used to go for daily walks around a park near my former Glenview newsroom. I always loved passing by the tall grass area in summer and watching all of the red-winged blackbirds swooping about.
These days I need to watch out for the magpies and wood pigeons that like to sit in the middle of the cycle path next to the canal.
I admit I didn't know much about Zimbabwe and its recent political history until a few summers ago when I read the memoir "Love in the Driest Season" by Neely Tucker. I was most angered to read this reputable foreign affairs journalist's account of how, in the 1990s, President Robert Mugabe covered up the swelling of the country's AIDS crisis as the disease sprang out of control and devastated the population.
Since arriving in Britain last September I've been able to follow the affairs of this former British colony more closely, since the newspaper we get at my house, The Daily Telegraph, includes lots of Zimbabwe coverage, especially today. This article discusses the world community's anger at Mugabe. I know that news organizations throughout America (and indeed the world) have spilled major ink on Zimbabwe in recent weeks, as Mugabe has tightened his iron grip on the country after losing an election to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai withdrew from the presidential run-off vote scheduled for Friday after his followers, determined to get Mugabe out of office, endured beatings, rapes and even murders.
I read the newspaper this evening with a growing sense of sadness and anger, so appalled at the injustices taking place in Zimbabwe. Nobody says Tsvangirai was a perfect leader, certainly not this Telegraph commentator, but he was the face of a movement crying for change.
Here's an article about how the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe has left even ordinary, middle-class people struggling to eat.
Finally, all of this reminds me about the worldwide reaction of disgust and anger when I read a few weeks ago that Mugabe had attended a global summit on world hunger. Kudos to Douglas Alexander, head of the British delegation to the UN conference, who refused to acknowledge Mugabe. Alexander said Mugabe's "profound misrule" was responsible for transforming Zimbabwe from a major food-producing country to one where millions of its people now must depend on food aid for survival.
What can we do? Express our anger, call for change and get the word out. And so I use this little blog to do so. Oh, and I'm also attending a special meeting my church is holding tomorrow night so that Christians in Nottingham can pray for Zimbabwe. In this age of unbelievable communication transmission and information technology, it seems I must do something. The only other thing to do is to refuse to read the paper or listen to the news and simply stick my head in the sand.
It's a dreary Saturday. The rain is "really chucking it down" (or "pissing it down," to use an even less elegant English phrase) and it's cold, wet and grey. As my housemate Jules put it when she ran out to the corner shop this morning for bacon, fruit and crumpets:
"What an absolutely grotty day!"
Is this an English summer? We've had a few warm days in the last few weeks. When I saw warm, I mean it's been warm enough to wear shorts for a few hours in the afternoon, if one is fortunate enough to be in full sun. The rest of the time it's generally not too bad, just rather nondescript. "Pleasantish" is how I would describe the mix of clouds and sun and not-too-hot, not-too-cold weather.
Yet although the weather isn't brilliant today, I am enjoying the delights of an English summer. Not only do I spend every minute possible working out in the lovely garden (yard) of the house where I'm staying, I've also been bombarded by barbecues.
Everyone is having a barbecue. Whenever someone plans a party--any party, whatsoever, it's a barbecue! So far this month I've been to three barbecues, with plans to attend three more (and I'm hosting two of them). I'm not quite sure why they're always called barbecues. Why not just parties? But I think the idea is that summer is so fleeting here in Nottingham, and truly ideal barbecue weather is so rare, that if everyone hosts barbecues pretty much nonstop throughout the summer, a few of them might actually land on gorgeous days. So far I've attended one barbecue in the pouring rain and two in so-so cloudy weather. I'm invited to one tomorrow afternoon after church, so hopefully the sun will be back out by then!
I must admit, however, that I'm still having a blast in England, despite the weather (and the rather sorry progress of my tomato plants, which I planted in the ground a few weeks ago but probably would've been better off staying in the greenhouse). Last night I had loads of fun chatting and dancing at a cocktail party hosted by the young adult ministry here at the church. I was particularly amused by the non-alcoholic drink "side hug on the beach," (although there were plenty of alcohol-laden drinks available, as well). Tonight a few friends have invited me out clubbing. "Clubbing" is another word I'm not very familiar with, at least not since I studied in Spain during fall 1999. However, I do adore dancing, and these friends have assured me we're going to a club that's hosting a special funk and soul night.
In 1955 Grandma started college in northern Minnesota as a newly divorced 23-year-old farmer's daughter with no marketable skills. What Grandma also did, however, was simultaneously and single-handedly raise three children who, when she began her studies, were ages 2, 3 and 4. Her elderly parents helped her buy a small house near the campus in Bemidji, and somehow Grandma found enough babysitters and burned enough midnight oil to complete her studies and keep the tiny house in order.
Grandma went on to complete her doctorate at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and eventually moved to Lexington, Kentucky when she joined the English faculty of the University of Kentucky. She's retired now, and a few years ago wrote an essay about those years. Reading it I felt a profound debt of gratitude to my grandmother, who worked so hard in order to give her children a better start in life, and also to my great-grandparents, who sacrificed greatly to send their daughter to college with three toddlers in tow. They knew that an education was the only way out of poverty and social stigma for their daughter and their grandchildren, one of whom was my father.
For some reason I brought my copy of that essay, "Freeing Mother," with me to England, and I recently read it again. Grandma vividly describes that little house near campus, with one upstairs bedroom where all four residents slept, and tiny ground floor rooms kept warm by the stove and an oil-burning space heater. I read how Grandma lost everything in the divorce (though she said she gained everything by keeping custody of the children) and so scraped together a couch, a couple of little tables and a few beds and cribs. She built a bookcase out of boards and bricks and set her faithful old typewriter in the living room. But there was one thing Grandma did have--a wringer washer and an electric dryer, which even now she calls her one luxury.
"It seemed to heat itself up enough so it could work even in the cold. It was a great help to have these appliances. I know, because in earlier years I had done without them. Lots and lots of clothes had to be washed for those little ones--quite a lot of work even with the machines. The washing machine was white with red trim, and was filled and emptied with a pail. I would roll it over the threshold from the lean-to, a step up, to the kitchen sink. With a wringer washer, you filled once and washed the clothes in separate loads, working through whites to lights to dark colors. Anything extremely soiled, such as diapers, I had already prewashed by hand, and then washed in the machine. After being threaded through the wringer, one item at a time, clothes went into two galvanized washtubs set on chairs for two rinses, being wrung out again between the two. Then they were ready for the dryer, or, in some cases, the clothesline. If it was too cold to hang things outside, I hung them on lines in the back porch. Once the clothes were dry, they had to be sprinkled for ironing anywhere from a few hours to a day or two later. That, too, was a long and tedious job, requiring many hours, and, like washing, another of those household jobs which had to be done over again ever few days."
Yesterday I enjoyed a reunion with two friends from my church in Evanston. Both Susanna and Leanna recently moved to England with their British husbands, and we three gathered as the Evanston expat girls for the first time. After meeting at the train station, we meandered to Nottingham's Market Square, where we basked in the hot sun eating McDonalds McFlurries and watching Susanna's toddler bound joyfully through the fountain.
"This is how summer is supposed to be," Susanna announced, gazing up at the hot, blue sky.
"Yeah, it's the first time since moving here in April that I haven't been cold," said Leanna.
"If you close your eyes," I said, listening to the happy shrieks of children and the splashing of the fountain, "it's almost like being in Millennium Park on a summer's day."
The others closed their eyes for a moment and nodded. Then Leanna brought us back to reality with the ever-present discussion about learning to live without a tumble dryer, which are rare in British households.
"Oh rats!" she exclaimed. "If I'd realized it was going to be sunny today, I would've washed the bedding and hung it outside to dry."
I always thought all of the jokes about spiders in the Harry Potter books were an exaggeration--for example, that Harry shared his cupboard under the stairs with spiders, that when he got dragged into a closet by Rita Skeeter he was showered spiders, each time he moved, etc.
Yet I've discovered in the last few days that spiders really are exceedingly common, at least in my house, which is very clean but quite old. Now that the weather has warmed up, I constantly see them rushing up and down the walls or hanging from the ceiling. Last night I was reading late in bed and caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked up and saw two little spiders scurrying over my bed. I shuddered--I don't mind them (after all, I grew up in the Arizona desert and barely flinch at killing a scorpion), but I don't want to share the covers with them. I quickly squashed one and the other got away for a few minutes, until I caught him creeping across my stomach. I guess it'd would've been humane to dump them out the open window, but one doesn't think about that when one is reading a suspense story late at night and is getting jumpy anyway. I killed another this morning when I found him exploring my feet.
I also seem to spend a lot of time clearing away cobwebs from surfaces in my room, either across the windows or from my guitar to the wall, even hanging down from the ceiling. It's not like my room is swathed in spiderwebs or anything, it's just that I catch the glint of fresh little webs strung about every day or so. I clear them away with nary a thought and little remorse. Is this normal? Is England really a very spidery place? Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in the garden with my friends when I saw a spider run up Julia's arm. When I mentioned it to her, she didn't seem to care.
All of this reminds me of a moment last summer, when I joined my extended family at an aunt's cabin in the Minnesota Northwoods. I inadvertently stuck my hand into a massive spiderweb on the dock, and my dad laughed at my exclamation of disgust.
"You know, I cleared that exact web away yesterday," he said. "These spiders are very quick."
You've got to admire their persistence. But despite the fact that I once played Charlotte in a production of "Charlotte's Web," and have since harbored a friendly affinity to the arachnids, they are NOT welcome to sleep in my bed.
I am traveling this year, and I am volunteering hours upon hours at the church, and I'm working as a long-distance reporter. But I'm also spending tons of time just getting to know people, building relationships and hanging out with my new friends, who now feel like old friends after 10 months of serving alongside one another.
One night a few weeks ago a group of us met up at the local. "The local" refers to the local pub, but the truth is there are several locals around my neighborhood. The most local and authentic of them all, however, is the Victoria Hotel, which serves a fine selection of real ales, as well as quality wines and fantastic food. On this night, we decided to forgo the pint of bitter and instead enjoy wine and cheese. It came like this.
The cheese platter included homemade bread, "biscuits" (crackers), some sort of chutney and English cheddar, Somerset brie, Nottinghamshire Stilton, and English goat cheese. For some odd reason, it also included butter, which I thought was strange. Was someone going to make a butter-chutney-cheese sandwich? I must admit that butter is a very popular condiment here, though.
Another fun surprise is that the pub was filled with Morris Dancers. These English country dancers were all on the ... er ... mature side, but they could kick their heels up with the best of them. They also brought their own costumed band. I have to say that these Morris Dancers were much pleasanter than the crowd who used to come in every Thursday night to the Bakers Square restaurant I worked at while going to college in St. Paul, Minnesota. That group was headed by a very cranky gentleman who wore a purple vest (over here it'd be called a waistcoat) and was impossible to please. I'm glad the real Morris Dancers were able to change my perception of the sport.
My friends were so excited that we had accidentally happened upon genuine Morris Dancers that they insisted on taking photos for me to put up on the blog.
My nephew Isaiah may be far away in Tucson, Arizona, but my sister-in-law sends me regular photos, including this one where Isaiah models one of the gifts his cool auntie sent him from the North Side. Allow me a brief moment of indulgence...all of you White Sox fans will just have to live with it!
This photo is rather distressing to my brother's best friend, who gave Isaiah an Arizona Diamondbacks uniform. The kid is going to have identity problems someday.
The last week has been busy with traveling--to and from Somerset, a day spent in Leicester, and two evenings in Birmingham. That plus my usual volunteering at the church and a very fun night out to see the new Indiana Jones has kept me away from this blog, so I feel the need to apologize for my silence. I also feel the need to spell apologize like "apologise." Something even more frightening is that when my "English sis" Julia and I were watching an American sitcom the other day, I watched the star get into the left-hand side driver's seat. "That looks weird now," I commented, then gasped. Julia merely smiled ominously. "You're becoming one of us," she said.
Here are photos from the bank holiday travels to Somerset, a southwestern county about three hours' drive from Nottingham. As mentioned below, I stayed in Cheddar with my friend Hannah's family, with views of the lovely Cheddar gorge from nearly every window in the house. We also took side trips to Bath and Bristol.
I climbed up the gorge one misty morning, which was an exhilirating, if slippery, experience.
We visited a friend's grandmother's home, which was once a manor house and is still a beautiful example of country living.