When I made a business call to Chicago a few hours ago, I was told that the man I was trying to reach wasn't in the office.
"He couldn't get in because of the snow," the receptionist explained.
"Oh, I know, it's awful, isn't it?" I replied sympthatetically. My sympathy wasn't for the Chicagoans, but for my fellow residents in Britain. Yet it was real all the same.
Yes, Chicago, we in Nottingham are experiencing your fate. We've had less snow than you, perhaps (well, OK, much less, at least up here in the East Midlands), but as you've lived through your own travel and school closure nightmare, so have we.
Great Britain is in the grip of one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent history. Check out this photo and article here.
School holidays ostensibly ended a few days ago but most children (and lucky teachers, such as my new British fiance) are getting an extended vacation. Even in Nottinghamshire where we've only had a few inches, head teachers are calling snow day after snow day because the English roads just aren't fit for driving. This is a land without round-the-clock streets and sanitation workers, without many snowplows, and with rapidly dwindling supplies of grit (the English equivalent of salt for gritting down roads and paths).
Simply put, England just isn't used to handling real winter. And, to make matters worse, most Brits have little experience driving in snow. It's not their fault but, as one exasperated American friend living in London put it, "Snow in England seems to be the cue to drive stupid." I do feel the need to point out that many Americans drive stupidly in snow, as well, but they certainly get very little practice here at stopping on ice and driving cautiously down a snowy highway.
I'm not blaming the British government for the way the transportation system has ground to a halt, thereby affecting schools and businesses. It doesn't make sense to invest in heavy winter infrastructure for the occasional tough winter. But it does make winter seem like much more of an imposition, rather than just another season to live through. It's still another reminder that, as much as we humans like to be in control, sometimes we simply aren't.
At the end of October I crossed one of the items off my bucket list by finally visiting England's Lake District.
We come across this stunning autumnal tree while taking an afternoon hike across hills, pastures and woods between the towns of Windermere and Ambleside.
The county of Cumbria, nestled in the very northwestern tip of England, is famed for its lakes, mountains and countryside. If you've seen the sweet 2006 Beatrix Potter biopic Miss Potter, then you've seen the Lake District. If you've read Wordsworth, then you've seen the Lake District, at least in word pictures. If you've read "Pride and Prejudice," then you know Elizabeth Bennett's pain at being denied her visit to the Lakes and you know it must be something good (although, let's be honest, Elizabeth gets to go to the equally stunning Derbyshire--the neighboring county to my Nottinghamshire home--and she makes out pretty well there in the end).
At long last, after two years in England, I made it to the Lake District with a friend, and we spent three glorious autumn days exploring the villages and countryside along both sides of the 10-mile Lake Windermere.
The village of Ambleside stretches out along Lake Windermere in Cumbria, the Lake District in England's northwest.
Although the day we wandered around the countryside was grey and misty--in true British holiday form--this view from the top of Orrest Head hill was still arrestingly dramatic.
After two days exploring the sizeable towns of Bowness, Windermere, Ambleisde and Keswick on the eastern side of the lake (although Keswick is actually about a 20-mile drive north of the lake and through some small mountains) we spent our third day by crossing Lake Windermere on the car ferry to visit Hawkshead Village, which was charming not only for its Beatrix Potter gallery displaying her original illustrations, but also had many intriguing shops. We then took a leisurely drive back up along the lake's western side, admiring the gorgeous fall plumage as much as we could on the tiny, twisty, hillside country lanes, before coming back around to Ambleside.
All Chicago architecture fans who visit the Lakes should make a trip to Blackwell Arts & Crafts house, which is a simply breathtaking example of a holiday house built at the height of the movement's popularity during the earliest days of the 20th century. Situated on a hill high above the lake, the house is a jewel box filled with one stunning feature after another, from the simple aesthetic placement of wooden planks on the landing to delicate carving in the corridors. After years of writing about Chicago architecture and design, I was delighted to see an Arts & Crafts house in the place where it all began.
This Cumbrian countryside farm yard is brightened by glorious leaves.
What is E-Day? E-Day is Exam Day, as in the day I take the UK Driving Exam. Mine is on Saturday, 25th July at 8.10 am and my instructor is picking me up at 7 am for the obligatory hour-long practice beforehand.
Thank you to all of you who've posted your own transatlantic driving experiences on my previous entry. I feel your pain! And, yes, the driving lessons are very expensive, as are all of the parts of the licence process. I've spent literally hundreds of pounds when including exam fees, and that's with only about 8 lessons total (not bad, really, as my instructor assures me I'm now capable of passing the test). I don't know how British parents who pay for their children to learn every aspect of driving from an instructor ever afford it!
I should note, however, that my competitively priced instructor Tim Elmer has been fantastic and that I am definitely a better driver now than I was before (but come on, I drove for 14 years in the States with no problems, so I wasn't that bad). In order to pass the UK test, drivers here do need to reach a high standard, which is only a good thing.
We'll see if I manage to pass the first time ... I do hope so as my pocketbook can't afford another booking for awhile! I also hope that my slightly dody little secondhand car (a gift from a wonderful friend) actually survives long enough for me to take it out solo on the roads. What a day that will be!
After six weeks of summer adventures in mostly warm weather (80-degree heat that's been joyfully hailed by the Brits), I've collected several snapshots of life in the UK.
Punting down the River Cam in Cambridge with my work colleagues on a very fun Team Day Out (it's pretty cool to live in a country where you can day trip it to Cambridge).
An ivy-covered college along the River Cam.
I attend a very English wedding, held at Thrumpton Hall in Nottinghamshire. While the bridal party poses for photographs, guests are free to explore the first floor of the house, wander about the extensive gardens and play cricket--all with glasses of Pimms in hand, of course.
The beautiful bride Jen defends the wicket (bats) in cricket as her groom Tim looks on.
My friend Ruth and I drive to the Sherwood Forest visitor's centre near Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire--let me mention with great pride that I am actually the one who did the driving (my UK driving exam is in two weeks)--to see parts of the old forest. It's filled with beautiful 900-year-old trees and their fallen friends, like these stumps here.
The Major Oak which, legend has it, was the tree that sheltered Robin Hood and his Merry Men when they retreated into the forest to escape the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Although the tree is propped up with sticks, it is beautifully alive and is reckoned to be around 900 years old.
The 11th-century keep inside Cardiff Castle's Victorian walls, a fascinating old motte and bailey castle.
And finally, this made me giggle, especially as it followed a special sandwich called "The Chicago Experience" or something along those lines (I grew up on the outskirts of Phoenix).
I haven't posted on this blog in two weeks, and when I realized this fact the other day I groaned aloud. Posting, you see, is work, especially when one is usually posting about one's own life.
Pausing on my way across a railroad bridge in Edinburgh
It'd be easy enough for me to post a few comments and links about the fascinating political revolution that's going on here as newspapers publish quite shocking details about expense claim abuse by elected members of parliament (the Speaker of the House was forced to step down for the first time in 300 years...longer than our Constitution has been in existence).
Or I could post solely about the amusing cultural differences between America and Britain, some of which still have the power to shock me and others. A recent example is when a male American visitor found a piece of litter on the floor and offered to "toss it," thereby sending all listeners into gales of laughter--except for me, who was thoroughly confused until a friend explained under her breath that, over here, that statement does not necessarily mean throwing the litter in the trash can. (Sorry, can't write the slang translation here, so look it up).
However, the last two weeks have been especially intense for me because of a few frightening family illnesses back home in Arizona (which I can only follow from afar and with anxious phone calls and prayers) and also because I've had to make difficult decisions about the future.
I'm happy to announce that both family health situations seem to be resolving in a hopeful manner for both my grandmother and my as-yet-unborn baby niece. I can also now announce that I've made a major decision for my future--I intend to settle in England for the next several years. I actually made this decision quite awhile ago, but have been waiting for several matters to resolve so that I am able to do this in a way that fits my visa and economic needs. I'll post more about that decision in the future (trust me, it wasn't easy....leaving one's home is never easy, no matter how much one feels called to a new home), but I hope it explains why posting light, frothy comments on this blog that was supposed to follow my one year abroad in England has become increasingly tricky.
Yes, life has been an adventure since I came here in September 2007, but adventures always come at a price, as I'm sure most people who've had them will admit. However, I can solidly testify that, despite all of the pain, frustration and homesickness, this adventure has been absolutely worth it.
My parents visited me the last two weeks of March and we filled the time well with many trips around England, Scotland and Wales. Today I begin sharing some of the stories and photos from their visit.
After we spent a few days here with friends in Nottingham, we hired a car (and put 1,300 miles on it in one week!) and drove north towards Edinburgh, probably about a 5-hour drive from Nottingham. But we took our time on the way up, stopping first in the historic city of Durham (It's England. It's all historic). Durham's city centre is a charming little warren of twisty, narrow streets winding up a hill and past intriguing shops. Park in the city centre car park for a few quid (pounds) and wander up the hill. Within 10 minutes you'll arrive at the park bordered by the castle and cathedral.
My dad and friend Ruth in front of the Norman-era Durham castle, now part of the local university.
I didn't take any good photos of the cathedral, first built in the 11th and 12 centuries, so go here to learn more about it and see photos. I was very impressed not only by the building, known as "the greatest Norman building in England, possibly in Europe" but also by the wonderful sense of local community and history housed within. Although it is a grand building it is also a parish church, and memorials to local boys killed in the 20th century wars and also lovely modern artworks only enhance the experience. I highly recommend this tourist stop.
For those who are able, I also strongly recommend paying a few pounds more to climb the very long, very steep, very winding staircase up to the roof of the cathedral dome. Climbing hundreds of old steps is an experience itself, but the view from the top is incredible.
I think these are buildings of the adjacent Durham University, as seen from the roof of Durham Cathedral.
We climbed back in the car and an hour later passed the turn for the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which is reached by driving on a causeway at low tide. We checked and were there just about at low tide, so we drove across and spent another hour exploring the island.
This friendly horse came up for a pat as we walked through its paddock on the public footpath leading through the the 11th-century priory ruins, past a local parish church and then down to the beach.
We didn't have time, sadly, to visit Lindisfarne Castle, a stunning 16th-century property maintained by England's National Trust.
We were blessed with sunny, warmish weather almost the entire two weeks that my parents visited. They--used to the Arizona desert sun--wrapped up on the gusty island, but my English friend and I were delighted to shed our coats and enjoy the spring warmth as we set off on our adventure.
We've had dozens of lovely spring days by now, so I'd cherished hopes today of hanging my laundry out to dry on the line, where it would merrily bob next to the blossom-laden cherry tree, above the bright stands of daffodils and tulips, and near the pear and apple trees that are just about to explode into flower themselves.
But, alas, it was raining all day. And so I hung my clean, wet washing on various radiators around the home, making the usual mental calculation to figure who'd be entering by the front door and if it was safe to hang underwear there. Yet a shift has occurred within me...I no longer mind this task! This is definitely a change, as previous entries here, here and here all attest.
I didn't realize how English I'd become in this regard--proud to save energy by hanging up laundry instead of using a dryer--until I read this excellent feature in National Geographic's March issue about saving energy at home. It's long but full of great advice. If you don't have time to read it, just look at this photo. I will note, however, that one of the families who undertakes the energy-saving challenge in the article decides to go back to using their dryer after all, because they have 3-year-old twins and do 15 loads of laundry a week! Sounds like a good plan to me.