Thursday, June 28, 2012

Life in a thatched-roof cottage

Home Sweet Home
When I moved to the UK five months ago, I found myself in the strange situation of living in a house older than my country of origin. As in, older than the United States itself. Probably. We're not sure exactly how old the cottage is, but a pamphlet I picked up from our town's church--itself more than 800 years old (!!)--estimates that the "old thatched cottages left in Longcot, and other houses, such as farms...are probably three hundred years old." Longcot is the quaint little village we live in, less than five hundred people in all.

Like something out of a postcard or travel magazine, the cottage has smooth white-washed stone walls, topped by a heap of thatch. The cottage's spacious green lawn and overgrown garden are enclosed by a crumbling ivy-draped stone wall, probably of a similar age to the house. The singular cottage building has been chopped into three separate units, and on our neighbor's cottage you can see what the original brickwork looked like, with red brick and sandy stone. 
Cottages divided, and our neighbor's front door.
Ivy-draped stone wall
Wisteria vine over the living room window
I was thrilled to move in. I pictured home-baked pies cooling on the windowsill, drinking tea in front of the fire, and little songbirds helping me with the chores, ala Snow White. The reality of the situation has somewhat tempered my enthusiasm. With old houses come a sacrifice of certain modern amenities. Central heating system? Hah! It stays cold all the time, even when we have the odd warm summer day. When we do light a fire, the smoke lingers for days. Cracks in the ancient baseboard (foundation? bottom part of the wall? whatever it's called?) let in little creepy crawly spiders, ants, and pillbugs. We have to wage constant war with the vacuum (or hoover, as the Brits say).

The cottage's heavy stone walls are more than a foot thick, and the deep-set windows don't let in much light. Even at the height of summer, when it stays light until 10pm, the front rooms of the cottage remain a bit dreary. This is unfortunate because in England, every ray of sunshine is precious. The cloud close in quickly!

The low doorways are a hazard to tall people. For perspective, this is my Dad from the family's visit some weeks ago; he's 6'3'. Chris and I, at 6'1 and 5'10 apiece, have cracked our skulls more times than I can count (or maybe that's a sign of memory loss? Uh-oh...).
The Spiral Staircase of Doom

To get upstairs to our bedroom, there is a narrow spiral staircase of iron. It's difficult to maneuver in the best of times, and I'm always peppered with little bruises on my knees, hips, elbows, and shins.
Pretty ironwork, though!

The bane of our existence, though, is the fact that the lone bathroom is located downstairs. If nature calls in the middle of the night, you not only have to navigate the low doorways and the Spiral Staircase of Doom, you have to do it in the dark. The electrical wiring is eccentric, and whenever the upstairs overhead lights are turned on, it trips the fuse throughout the whole house. Honestly, the whole situation is a deathtrap. It's a miracle neither of us has gotten a concussion (yet--knock on wood!)
We're moving to Portsmouth in less than two weeks, to a modern semi-detached house in a suburban housing development. It's a bittersweet move. I know that the move to modernity means a sacrifice in historical charm. But I'm really looking forward to being able to get up for the bathroom in the middle of the night without fearing for my life...

Ultimately, I'm glad to be able to say I've lived in a 300-year-old thatched roof cottage; they simply don't exist in the States, and I feel I've gotten a taste of what traditional British life must have been like for so many years (at least we have modern electrical appliances!) I can show pictures of the cottage to our future children and tell them, here's where your Dad and I lived before we got married. Here's where I got that dent in my forehead.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Literary Map of the British Isles

This literary map of the British Isles appealed to my inner bookworm. I was pleased by how many of these authors I've read, both poets and novelists, though what with being an English major and all, I probably shouldn't be surprised. What a strong literary tradition--from the raunchy poems of Chaucer in the Middle Ages, the marriage plots of the Brontës and Austen in the Victorian Era, to the modernism of Virginia Woolf.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Jubilee

Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee took place the weekend before last, which I'm sure most people are aware of (unless living under a large rock). I think a lot of Americans like myself have a fascination with royalty, though some of the system seems unfair and outdated. Even though we've been steeped in glory of the Founding Fathers, Declaration of Independence, and "liberty and justice for all," I can't help but be curious and excited about it all, and I unabashedly love Kate Middleton (or should I say, Catherine) and everything she does. As for the Brits, I think people were more excited about the four-day weekend than the Jubilee itself; a time to barbecue and relax. In the pouring rain, of course :)

Our village put on a little street fair, with free burgers and hotdogs donated from a local farm. Tables were placed under tents, and people brought beverages, sides, and desserts to share family-style. My husband and I made a pitcher of Pimms and Lemonade, and the apple crumble I made was polished off by our neighbors within an hour or so.
We don't know many people here--village life revolves around the little elementary school, and we don't have kids. Everyone made us feel welcome, but we were content to mostly people-watch! Lots of raincoats and rain boots.

Toasting the Queen!

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Windy Weekend

I shrugged off the warnings about UK weather before I moved over here, thinking people were being overly dramatic. Oh, but they weren't. Not at all.

A summer of warm and sunny days, of lounge chairs and freckles, seems unlikely. There was a glimmer of hope with an unseasonably warm March (a drought was even declared!), but I have yet to put on a pair of shorts. As if some malevolent weather-god decided we needed to be punished for March's happiness, we had the rainiest April in history (or some appalling statistic like that) followed by a rainy, gray May. June so far has been more of the same. People expect bad weather, prepare for it, dread it, talk about it endlessly. It's not just to make small talk; everyone is genuinely curious about other people's meteorological experiences. Misery loves company.

Today, for example. The sun is shining, but the husband and I are huddled inside, because there are 60mph winds rattling the windows and ominous black clouds on the horizon. The wind is making a howling sound, the kind you'd expect to hear on a barren desert plain, empty but for tumble weeds and antelope skulls. In  England there are rolling green hills and lots of rain, but the wind still howls away. The occasional gust grazes the top of the chimney at just the right angle, wafting stale smoke from a long extinguished fire through the living room.

I just want to curl up in a hammock in the sun, and read a book while sipping a glass of iced tea! Sigh.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Brit Vocab

Hob       = Stovetop
Cooker  = Oven
Grill      =  Broiler

Useful terms to know when a fuse keeps blowing every time you try to use the stove sorry, "hob," rendering it unusable for more than a month while you patiently wait for a replacement. Useful also when your husband talks about "popping something under the grill," leaving you bewildered since you don't have a grill/barbecue in the first place, and it's such a big hassle when you could just put it under the broiler, resulting in a "who's on first" situation with kitchen appliances.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Things I Miss From the U.S.: Yelp

It's downright inconsiderate of Yelp to not have expanded into overseas markets yet. I desperately need a haircut but I’m not familiar with Swindon, the big city nearest us. I’ve had too many bad haircuts to just blindly pick any salon and trust them with my fine-but-curly-and-frizzy-but-also-weirdly-straight-in-the-back-with-a-cowlick-in-the-front hair. Without Yelp, there is no quick and easy way to find a good, reliable salon.

Yes, there’s the question of the reliability of user-sourced reviews (bias, truthfulness, accuracy, what-have-you). Yes, they have reviews for ridiculous things like gas stations and pharmacies and chain restaurants (aren’t they pretty much uniform?). And even if a majority of people give it good reviews, there’s no guarantee you yourself will like it. But it’s certainly better than blind luck. It allows you to get word-of-mouth advice from locals without being a local.

Until Yelp expands or another site emerges to fill the void, the only thing that comes remotely close is Google Reviews, which seem to be random, limited, and unstructured. The only salon that has any sort of feedback, with 7 positive reviews and no negative, is–I kid you not–called “O.M.G.” Doesn't inspire much confidence.

Hike to White Horse Hill

The White Horse, on the left third of the photo
We live in a region of Oxfordshire called The Vale of the White Horse, after the Bronze Age chalk figure carved into a hill overlooking the valley. It is the oldest chalk figure in the country, some 3,000 years old. Our village of Longcot has a perfect view on a clear day. We are surrounded by all these modern conveniences–cars, electricity, plumbing–with this constant reminder of the ancient past. No one knows exactly who carved the figure, or why, but it must have been an important religious or cultural symbol. It makes me feel part of a human continuum, here in this little valley surrounded by green hills. 

I’ve now lived here for almost four months (!) and have yet to actually visit the site. It’s one of the pitfalls of being a local and not a tourist–you don’t make an effort to see the interesting things closest to you, because you assume you have all the time in the world. We finally went exploring and hiked to the base of White Horse Hill. It took us a bit longer than we expected, as the footpaths through the fields were quite muddy, and we weren’t able to make it all the way to the top. We’ll save that for another day. It took us two hours to go more than 5 miles, from our cottage to the White Horse Inn, a 16th century pub at the hill’s base, and back. Our plan next time is to start from the Inn, make the ascent, and then return to the pub where we will reward ourselves with lunch–the carrot in front of the (white) horse so to speak (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

The view from our village–the White Horse is clear and visible on a sunny day, at the very top of the hill. A 3,000-year-old white, squiggly line.


Old and new: a hang-glider soars over the White Horse

Ta-da! Next time: the top.

Tea for Two

The stereotype is true–the British love their tea. This suits me quite well, as I’ve never been able to adjust to the taste of coffee. Even the milk-and-sugar-laden confections of Starbucks strike me as bitter and unappetizing. Same for coffee ice cream. Tea has always been my preference. But when I was first dating my husband, even I was taken aback by how much tea he consumed. Morning, afternoon, night; every time there was a lull, he’d be offering to make us another round of teas. Milk, no sugar. We typically have a black caffeinated tea in the morning/afternoon, then switch to herbal (Mint for me, Ginger/Lemon for him) in the evening so we’re not bouncing off the walls at night.

We usually drink Tetleys, but for the last couple of weeks we’ve been underwhelmed, restless. In hopes of finding something more appetizing, we decided to be really dorky and do a taste test of some different types of tea. Twinings had a nice selection of five different types, which we paired against the “control” of our regular morning Tetleys.

We tried each flavor plain, then with a dollop of milk:

With some chocolate biscuits (cookies–more on this later) and pie, because why not?

We even took notes so we could keep track of which one was which.

Typically, the darker, stronger teas are drank in the morning, when people need a jump-start to get going; sometimes they will then switch to a lighter tea in the afternoon. Chris liked the stronger, dark Assam as a morning tea, and the fragrant Earl Grey for the afternoon. I preferred either the Earl Grey or Ceylon, a milder dark tea, for the morning, with the light, citrusy Lady Grey for the afternoon.  Looks like the regular Tetley’s English Breakfast will be phased out–it was definitely the most lackluster of the selection.

Do any of you drink tea? Which kind is your favorite?

The Christening in the Tower

A few weekends ago, my husband Chris and I were invited to the christening of his colleague’s daughter. Unremarkable enough but for the location--the chapel within the Tower of London! The history-geek side of me was quite excited. It’s the type of place that simply doesn’t exist in America, a nation which, in comparison to the United Kingdom, is still waiting for the paint to dry. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a private event there, and couldn’t wait to take lots of pictures. We planned to arrive an hour early to have extra time to explore.

Construction on the Tower of London was begun by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, in the 1080s, almost a thousand years ago. The existence of a church within its walls is first mentioned in Tower documents dating all the way back to the 12th century, while the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where the christening would take place, was begun in 1512 and celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. The U.S. has some old churches, but nothing on this scale or with such historical significance. It is the burial place of three Queens of England–Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Jane Grey–as well as two Saints of the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Moore and John Fisher. The names were fresh in my mind--I'd watched the entire series of The Tudors back-to-back a few months earlier, while waiting for my UK Settlement Visa to be approved.
Our trip didn't go quite as planned. The drive from our small town of Longcot to London was going so smoothly we took a nice long coffee break before approaching the outskirts of the city–where we then hit relentless traffic. A journey that should have taken an hour and a half wound up taking three, and we completely missed the christening! Not to mention it was spitting down rain; the Tower was still crowded with tourists, who now brandished pointy-spiked umbrellas. Endless lines of dripping plastic ponchos snaked through the courtyards. Hardly an ideal setting for sight-seeing or picture-snapping. The day was not a total loss, however. There was a lovely reception in the Fusilier’s Museum, and we commiserated with other guests who had also fallen victim to city traffic.
It was a reminder that, while part of living abroad is getting to experience new things, some things are just the same--like traffic, and rain. And even though I didn’t get to linger by Anne Boleyn’s graveside, I still got the experience of attending a private event in the Tower. Can't complain!