I'm grabbing a few moments to post an update here--my parents have been visiting for the last week and we have spent nearly every moment of the last 8 days sightseeing and traveling, and it's not over yet. After an initial evening in London, then a day out in Nottingham followed by a day in Leicester, to a day seeing my friends and finally a four-day trip to Scotland, we have been busy! We got back from Scotland at 6:30 p.m. last night, just in time to get back in the car and drive to a friend's house for another big dinner in Mom and Dad's honor. This morning we are off to Wales for a few days--I figured after all of those castles and sheep we would go to southern Wales for scenery and sheep. Then we're back here on Monday for another special dinner and then it's off to London again the next morning for a few days. After that I'll be hugging my family goodbye as they get back on a plane to Phoenix and I board to train back to Nottingham.
Their visit and our adventures have already produced enough stories to fill a book, not to mention a whole heck of a lot of photos, many of which will soon be on these pages. One thing that I've really noticed since they've arrived, though, is how much England has become home. I see my Mom and Dad trying to navigate the grocery store, understand terms of speech (like "homely" for "homey" and "wind me up" for "annoy me") and I suddenly realize how far I've come. I'm trying to help them out by sharing my hard-won knowledge about English culture, but sometimes I forget. My dad, for example, only likes his eggs cooked over hard, and it wasn't until his soft-centered egg arrived at our Edinburgh B&B that I remembered they always come here with runny yolks.
I've also been struck by the sheer number of good friends who've wanted to meet my parents and have us round for a meal. All of these experiences have really helped me realize that, in almost every way, England has become home. For now.
And now I must pack my little suitcase once again because we are off to Cardiff and Swansea!
On Saturday, Feb. 21, I traveled down to London with a group of artistically minded friends for a day of sightseeing at the Tate Modern art gallery and at St. Paul's Cathedral. We climbed the steps of St. Paul's as high as we could, enjoyed the exhibitions at the Tate, and finished up with a pub dinner and drinks. It was a gorgeous sunny, warm day and we soaked in the beauty of the capital.
Winter sunshine on the Thames, from the Millennium Bridge
When we were preparing to go out for a meal, my friend Ronnie said, "There's a pub just down the road from St. Paul's that looks all right."
"Really, what's it called?" I asked.
"Ah, it's probably Ye Olde London Pub or something like that," Ronnie said, and we all snickered at those tourists who would want to find a place named that. We set off in a large laughing, chattering group towards this pub, but I stopped short when Ronnie shouted, "Steph, you're not going to believe this! It really is called "Ye Olde London Pub!"'
"OK, so you knew it was here," I told him. "Nice one."
Ronnie was laughing so hard he could barely speak.
"No, I didn't," he said. "I just tried to come up with a cheesy name that would appeal to tourists, and here we are."
We trooped into Ye Olde London Pub and had a blast.
Ronnie, his wife Sam and our friend Kristen point gleefully at the sign reading "Ye Olde London Pub" (which sadly is not in my snapshot)
View of London from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral
This sculpture look familiar? It's an oversized styrofoam (polystyrene) version of Alexander Calder's "Flamingo," the red steel sculpture that stands in Chicago's Federal Plaza. It's part of the fascinating multimedia exhibition TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, now on exhibit at the Tate Modern.
2009 could be the worst economic year in Britain since 1931, according to this report in the Independent.
In my old life as a full-time journalist, this news would have affected me cerebrally, although my emotions would certainly have gotten involved if I'd been assigned a story on the crisis and worked to faithfully tell the stories of those I'd interviewed.
Now, however, working as a part-time journalist but also serving full-time at a church, I am confronted nearly every day with the reality of these difficult times. One of my jobs is working as a support worker for Christians Against Poverty, a national charity that offers free money management courses and comprehensive debt counselling programs, and I'm constantly speaking with clients who are desperate to get back on their feet but can't because they simply can't get enough work. Even if they have jobs, their hours are falling as the ripple effects of the recession spread through the economy.
The financial woes were brought home to me last Saturday, as well, when I joined a regular team of church folks who offer prayer on the streets of Nottingham's city centre. It sounds crazy, I know, but we offer to pray for anyone's physical or emotional needs, and I was pretty surprised the first time I tried it by the number of people who sat down--Christian or not--and asked us to pray for them. We usually do pray for people with physical needs, but last Saturday I was approached by a man who said, "I'm jobless. I need to find one. Can your team pray for me?"
I recently saw a 2007 episode of Dr. Who where the Doctor and his lady Martha traveled back in time to 1930s Manhattan to discover that the evil Dalek race had infiltrated the city's infrastructure. I think I need to watch it again, because at least in that show the good guys win.
Speaking of driving, today I had a fascinating conversation with a friendly taxi cab driver.
I was on my way to a presentation for work and, as yesterday's post made abundantly clear, I am not yet able to drive myself there (and I freely admit this is a good thing, too!). I was laden with expensive video equipment, so I enjoyed the luxury of a cab ride instead of a string of buses or my bicycle. En route to my destination, the chatty cab driver asked what part of America I was from. When I told him I'd lived most recently in Chicago, we got into the usual conversation about the weather.
"You get lots of snow there from the lake effect, don't you?" he said knowledgeably.
I was amazed.
"How did you know about lake effect?" I asked. The usual reaction to Chicago is generally along the lines of, "Isn't that somewhere in the middle?" or "Yes, I've seen it on ER."
"I actually spent six months in America a few years back," said the driver.
"Really?" I asked. "Where did you go?"
"Everywhere," he said modestly. "I drove to each state."
"That's really cool," I said. "No wonder you took six months."
"I also drove to each state in alphabetical order, even Alaska. I had to do some flying for Hawaii, though. " he continued. I think at this point my jaw literally dropped.
"Alphabetically?" I asked. "That's absolutely incredible. Are you serious?"
The driver, whose name, by the way, is Harry Keeling, was serious. The year he turned 55 he decided to make his year, doing exactly what he wanted, and the goal he set for himself was driving to the state capital of all 50 states--in alphabetical order, of course. That meant going from Alabama to Alaska, from Nevada to New Hampshire.
I've begun the frustratingly bureaucratic, somewhat terrifying and ultimately humbling experience of trying to get a British driving licence.
I passed my American driving test 14 years ago, and the whole experience--while the obvious epoch in a 16-year-old's life--now seems like a lovely walk in the park compared to doing it in Britain. At the time making two trips to the Arizona DMV to get my permit (I'd forgotten my birth certificate the first time) and waiting in line a few hours seemed like a big deal. But I passed the permit test easily and, after my parents spent several patient months teaching me to drive on our old Chevy Cavalier station wagon, I passed my driving test one very hot Arizona summer's day with only one small infraction (forgetting to signal when beginning to parallel park). In fact, I did everything so carefully and expertly that my pudgy, red-faced instructor, uncomfortable in the car on a 115-degree day despite the blowing air conditioning, told me I was a fine driver and to hurry up so he could get back inside. I walked out an hour later with my new driver's license in hand.
There is no doubt about it...getting one's driver's licence (yes, that's how they spell it here) in Great Britain is much, much harder.
While Americans are allowed to drive in the UK on their U.S. licenses (yes, that's how we spell it there) for one year, after that they need a British driving licence. I've decided that it's time for me to conquer this next hurdle of living abroad, especially since I'm being given a car in a month's time. At first I figured it wouldn't be hard to get a new licence...surely they allow some sort of transfer and an easier test if you have an American license, right? Nope. I have to start at the bottom again, just like any 17-year-old English teenager learning to drive for the first time.
That meant filling in a provisional licence form and sending it off, along with passport, photos, and, of course, a hefty check. It came back two weeks later, along with a host of instructions. I can only drive with a fully licensed, experienced British driver supervising me. That's fine, I understand that. I have to affix special "L" stickers to the front and back of my car so everyone knows I'm a newbie. Slightly embarrassing, but OK. I need to take a tricky theory test, booked at least a month in advance, costing another hefty fee, and apparently equal in scale to the SATs. All right, it's booked and I found someone to borrow study materials from. Only after passing my theory test will I be able to book my practical test, and it could take up to three months to get an available slot, I've been warned--and I don't even know yet what hefty fee this test requires. Only 42 percent of applicants pass the practical test the first time around, so hiring a private instructor who'll teach you what the examiners look for is highly recommended. It was at this point that I finally cracked.
"Do you realize that in Arizona you take both tests the same day, that you walk out of the DMV in an afternoon holding a driver's license?" I sputtered. "Do you realize that I have been driving for 14 years with experience in all kinds of weather in all parts of the country, including one of the nation's largest cities? I know I need to learn the rules of the road here, but why do they make it so hard?"
"Because," said one of the colleagues listening to me rant and rave, "they don't want everybody to drive."
And there you have it, one of the fundamental differences between Great Britain and the United States. America is a land of roads and distances, cars and drivers. Getting your license when you turn 16 is as much a part of life as ordering a drink when you turn 21. But England is a land of trains, buses, cycle paths and pedestrian streets and, while it's succumbing more and more to the unfortunate commuter and homogenous retail-park culture so prevalent back home, it's a still a place where one can get along without a car.
In fact, I've often loved not having to worry about driving in the 18 months since I've moved, and I do plan to continue cycling to and from work each day (petrol costs alone are a big deterrent to stay on the bicycle). But it only makes sense as I consider the future that I get my British licence, especially so I can make use of the marvelous gift of a car, especially when I want to get out of Nottingham. Many of my friends have their driving licences, but many do not, and they don't really care if they never do get one.
This is why yesterday afternoon I could be found gripping the steering wheel tensely as rain poured outside and a wonderfully patient and kind Brit re-taught me how to drive a car with a manual transmission, as unlike many Americans I can drive a stick, or at least I could last time I tried, eight years ago. Yet he also had to show me how to drive a manual on the other side of the road with different signs, symbols and rules, all the while warning me what the driving examiner will look for.
"Don't cross your hands over when you turn the wheel," he said. "Pass it through, keeping your hands at 10 and 2 all the time. That's right, ease off on the clutch, find the biting point and -- [insert shudder and jerk as the car stalls] -- OK, maybe you should just try that again. Right, now try accelerating down this empty road, getting it up into third gear... hands, hands, hands! Did you check your mirror when you indicated? Look the other way when you reverse, Steph, and stop crossing those hands. And--arrrgghh! Curb, curb, curb! Don't drive into the curb! Remember you're about two feet to the right of where you used to sit, you need to make a mental adjustment as to where the car should be."
I was tense, scared, trying desperately to remember everything and adjust long-held habits, and suddenly feeling like I was 16 all over again, yelping in apology whenever I stalled the engine. By the end of our little session, though, I was beginning to feel more confident and remember that I am an experienced driver. Still, as I handed the keys back and took a deep, shaky breath, I suddenly found myself very relieved that it is several months until my practical driving test. God bless the British bureaucracy.