Thursday, November 19, 2015

Life in England: From my Phone

November has not been particularly sunny in Bath

After breaking the silence of four months the ages, MsCaroline has had a second wind in the blogging department and is absolutely determined that four more months will not pass before she posts again. 

To that end (and because she is, essentially, slothful), MsC has decided to just post some photos that she's taken in the last week or so (with a little commentary, of course, because MsC is nothing if not chatty) and call it a post.  She'll do this once a week (unless she's got something better to post) because, after all, most of her readers know her from some other life and are at least mildly interested in the day-to-day that comprises her life in England now.  

Maybe, at some point, she'll return to the whining witty and cynical observations for which she is known, but at this point, she's going with photos.  

The photo above sums up (more or less) what November has been like here in the South West:  grey.  Although I should point out that the weather in that particular photo is actually fairly nice, all things considered.  (I should also point out that, after living for almost a year in the UK, I now consider any weather that does not include a downpour to be 'fairly nice.'  This means that a drizzle, or mist, or intermittent showers do not count as Actual Rain.)  I will say that we were fairly warned about this, so I'm not complaining, just observing.  And, as I've stated many times in the past - thank God for waterproof clothing.

A few days after the initial injury, with sling to support non-working rear legs.

Quite a bit of my time has been taken up with our wee dog, Merlot, (a Boston Terrier/French bulldog mix known as a 'Frenchton' or 'Frenchbo') who managed to hurt her back with an ill-fated leap onto a bed that was Too High For Her.  She had hurt herself back in May (more leaping: we do our best to prevent it) and had struggled with hindleg weakness, but recovered quite well under a strict rest regime lasting a few long months which was very trying for all involved (try keeping an active 2-year-old dog on Strict Rest and see how well you do.  I dare you.)  This time, she hurt herself enough that her hindlegs were nearly paralyzed (we had to use a sling to hold up her rear legs, during which time MrL callously referred to her as our 'dog marionette') and this involved a week of hospitalization and specialist referrals which were sad and annoying and bloody expensive.  Ultimately, an MRI revealed that she had spinal bruising from a 'low-velocity ruptured disc' and that surgery was not needed (need I say how relieved we were?) She came home on 'Strict Rest' again and has been sequestered in her basket except for potty breaks for weeks, but is now able to take short 15-minute walks around the neighborhood.  She's still a bit wobbly in the caboose, and hunches like Quasimodo, but the main thing is that she's not in pain and can get about under her own steam.

Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day in the USA) was observed on 11th November with a parade (including several WWII veterans!), wreath-laying, many, many poppies, and a church service.  I caught a few shots of the city's dignitaries as they left the Guildhall after the parade on their way to the church service, including the Mayor (he's the one in red):

US Mayors never wear anything interesting at all
and one of his legal counsel, who probably has a glorious title to accompany his wig and excellent robe.

Pretty sure this was a barrister or the Mayor's Counsel, or something legal
What all of this tells me is that the US needs to up their ceremonial robe game significantly. 

In other news, Christmas is coming, which it has been doing for quite some time now in the UK, but since there's no Thanksgiving to squabble about, no one is making statements about how terrible it is that people are decorating before Thanksgiving.  The first sign I noticed was the Invasion of the Mince Pies and Christmas Cakes and Puddings in my local Tesco Express:

 Christmas Cakes (and their near relative, the Christmas Pudding) are baked about 2 months in advance of Christmas (the cakes are 'fed' weekly with liquor whilst they're maturing) contain lots of dried things, and are tightly wrapped, there's no worries about spoiling, even if they're out on the shelves months in advance.  The mince pies seem to be disappearing at a high rate of speed as part of the season.  Note:  mince pies should not be confused in any way with 'mince' which is what the British call 'ground beef'.  They are basically tiny pies full of preserve-y fruity deliciousness, best eaten warm and topped with cream. Once you understand this, everything falls into place.  In other places, decorations are going up:

Christmas tree outside the train station.
Old-world market booths are appearing in the City Centre in advance of the actual Christmas Market

Lights and decorations have been up for weeks
 although we have a week or two to go before the Christmas Market in our own City Centre opens (most of them open the last week in November) so this is all just a warm-up from what I understand.

In the same vein, we went to the mall at Cribb's Causeway in Bristol last week, and I was gobsmacked to see that they'd had snow!

Not real snow

On closer examination, though, I discovered that it was all fake, part of the set of the temporary man-made outdoor skating rink (largest in the South West!) complete with Fairy Tale Ice Castle - conveniently located right outside of John Lewis!

Also included:  a seating area for viewers, and a number of charming little kiosks selling hot drinks, chestnuts, and the like:

Roasted chestnuts and mulled wine 
German-style wurst stand
It's definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tomayto, Tomahto

(Note:  MsCaroline is well aware that it's been four months a while since she posted anything on her blog, and maybe someday when she's old and retired eventually she'll get around to catching up, but for now, she's just jumping in where she is. Suffice it to say that the 1-year anniversary of the move to England is fast approaching, a certain amount of acclimatization has been accomplished, and time is storming by at its usual breakneck pace.)

Even before MsCaroline moved to the UK, she was a fan of a number of British blogs, including a couple written by British and American expats, so she was well aware that a certain amount of linguistic confusion awaited her on the Other Side of The Pond.  As a moderate Anglophile who had had more than a few dealings with speakers of BE (British English) during the course of her lifetime, she really did feel (wrongly, as it turns out) that she was as well-prepared (as well as anyone could be) for her move to the UK - at least with regard to the language. And, she reasoned, she was still farther along than she'd been in Korea, where her conversation was limited to a stockpile of approximately 25 words and phrases.

MsCaroline already knew about spelling differences and things like cash register being called a till and shopping carts being called trolleys.  She knew about car things:  bonnet and boot instead of hood and trunk;  and she knew that underwear was knickers but that underwear was also pants and that it would result in an embarrassing faux pas if she referred to her pants when she really meant to discuss her trousers (although she did not know until her arrival that pants could also be a British English term of derision as in The film was pants. But she digresses.)

So it was, in this state of blissful ignorance optimism that she moved to the UK not anticipating too many communication issues whatsoever.  And, naturally (as always seems to be the case) she was soon to learn just how wrong she was.

Knowing that at least some of her readers would be keen to enjoy a laugh at her expense learn something new, she decided that an occasional post highlighting a few differences between AE (American English) and BE (British English) might be worthwhile.

Let MsC emphasize that what she is sharing with you is only the merest tip of the linguistic iceberg, but one must start somewhere, mustn't one?

Let's start with a few phrases:

Poor little sausage/dumpling = poor little thing.  Example, "Well, she really is a poor little sausage, isn't she?"  Used by our vet to refer to our dog, miserable due to a back injury.  Highly accurate. Also adorable.

Fit as the butcher's dog = in extremely good shape or physically very attractive, not necessarily to do with actual fitness.  ('Fit' on its own is often used in the same context where an American would say 'hot' or 'good-looking' or even the old-fashioned 'fine' as in, "Oh, wow, (S)He's fit!") A direct quote from a Cornish bartender in regard to a tour group of Russians staying in the hotel shortly before we arrived:  "Every one of 'em had a wife that was as fit as the butcher's dog."  Hmmm.  Right then.

Touch wood:  =  knock on wood.  Close enough.

Other words:

fancy= to like, as in, 'Do you fancy kebabs for dinner?' or 'Do you think he fancies her?' This is surprisingly insidious, is used all the time by everyone, and when it pops out of one's American mouth for the first time, it sounds ridiculous. The feeling quickly passes, though.  In the same vein, we have the word

keen= a) to enjoy or like, or b) to be interested in or passionate about, as in, "We were really keen to see the new James Bond film."  Or, "My husband is a keen cyclist."  This is, if anything, even more insidious than 'fancy' and worms its way into one's vocabulary very quickly as well, and one suddenly finds oneself saying it without meaning to. 

Surname=  family name, last name, as opposed to first name.  Most N.Americans are aware of this word, but rarely (if ever) use it, in contrast to England, where it is used regularly.  Being asked, 'What's your surname?' often takes people like me who aren't expecting itAmericans by surprise and results in a slight processing delay.  Since this inquiry is accompanied by an unfamiliar pronunciation, the puzzled listener may have no idea what is being asked.  The fact that, as an expat, you are constantly signing up for things (utilities, clubs, dentists, warranties) means that you run across the question 'What's your surname?' all the time, and it take some getting used to.
Moral of story:  'Surname'= 'last name';  'Christian name' = first name.  (UK readers:  Most N.Americans would use 'Last name' and 'First name' in those situations)

Stone=  a unit of measurement equalling 14lbs and how people often refer to their weight.  "I weigh 10 stone" = "I weigh 140lbs."  "I weigh 10st 2"= "I weigh 142 lbs."  MsCaroline has nothing against measuring weight in stones vs pounds, especially since stones are smaller numbers.  However, any reasonable person will realize that most stone weights require the non-British listener to do at least
some calculating, which is not always MsCaroline's strong point. Naturally, if you have grown up in the UK and someone tells you they weigh '9 stone,' you have an immediate innate general understanding of what that looks like (126 pounds) but if you are MsCaroline, you have to do the math(s). Fortunately, this is not an issue that crops up too frequently, since the British women I've met seem no less eager to share their weight than women from anywhere else.  

Greengages and damsons and blackcurrants, oh my:  As in so many aspects of daily life, England is full of words that are vaguely - but not actually - familiar, and nowhere does one notice this as much as in the supermarket.  The produce section is full of beetroot (not beets), peppers (not bell peppers), rocket (not arugula), courgettes (not zucchini), chillies (not habanero or serrano peppers),  satsumas (not clementines) and swedes (turnips or rutabagas.) Flour is not just flour, but strong flour or plain flour (and yes, they are different!) Jelly is jam or marmalade, and and jello is jelly.  And there is no grape jam or marmalade. At least, not anywhere I've seen.  But you will find ginger rhubarb conserve, lemon curd, and chutneys in spades.  Also, the best preserves you will ever taste  

During the summer when I mostly stopped blogging due to busyness and sloth but we won't mention that now and spoil this nice time, shall we? when I was walking the dog several miles each day through fields and meadows, I noticed huge swaths of what looked like blackberry bushes and which turned out to be what my English friends all assured me were 'brambles.'  (I would have to see a 'bramble' and a 'blackberry' side-by-side in order to convince myself they were, in fact, different things, but I'm not one to quibble. Tomayto, tomahto.)  The bramble, of course, must not be confused with the blackcurrant, which is something different -but not that different- from the redcurrant, which is pretty much the only kind of currant that Americans recognize and rarely use anyway.   Blackcurrants are used to make slightly tangy jams, preserves, and marmalades as well as a popular juice drink called 'Ribena' which seems to be a favorite with children.  MsC is not a fan, but that probably has to do with not growing up drinking it.  

All this confusion extends to the garden as well:

Actual exchange between myself and neighbor man last spring when the trees were in bloom:
Neighbor Man= That tree is covered with blossoms.  You'll get quite a bit of fruit in October.
Me= Oh, I hope so.  Do you happen to know what sort of a tree it is? We thought it might be a crabapple, but it's a little different from what we have in the USA.  Any ideas?
NM (inspecting a branch closely) No question, they're damsons or greengages, of course.

Me= (racking brain frantically for vocabulary list) Oh. yes.  of course.  I should have realized.  Thank you so much! (note:  damsons and greengages are types of plums.  I learned this from Googling, which I did immediately after this conversation. You're welcome.)

And the list just goes on and on.  Looking for toilet paper or paper towels? You'll be looking for toilet roll and kitchen roll.  Ladies, you'll be looking for sanitary towels, not napkins - although if you're looking for diapers for your baby, you will, in fact, want napkins, or nappies.  Crisps are chips (and chips, of course, are french fries) and biscuits are cookies, except when they're crackers; then, they get to be called savoury biscuits.  

So, yes, it's been a bit of an eye-opener or, as we say in the US, a learning curve.

The best one, though, has been the sign we ran across at the beach a couple of months ago.

We'd gone to a beach which didn't allow dogs off-lead (off-leash), but another dog-walker had told us that, if we walked away from the car park towards the end of the beach that was very sparsely populated, we could let her run with impunity.  Accordingly, we set off for the end of the beach.  As we left the crowds behind us, we passed a sign which stated that 'beyond this point, Naturists may be seen.'  Hmmm, I thought to myself, why are they telling us that? Envisioning a phalanx of safari-hat-wearing birdwatchers in practical shoes tiptoeing through the dunes looking for the nest of the rare green-throated Nuthatch, I mused that it was possible that a really serious naturist might be annoyed or interrupted by loud beachgoers or barking dogs and resolved to keep my voice low and my movements smooth and nonthreatening.

 My, I thought, they really take the whole nature-watching thing seriously here in England.  MrL and I trudged on down the beach, and the crowd continued to thin until the only other person we could see was just a spot in the distance.  Unleashing the dog, we let her frolic in the surf and continued on our way down the beach toward the spot, who, as he came closer, we were able to recognize as a man wearing a sun hat and - based on the amount of bared skin we could see from a distance - a very small, light-colored bathing suit.  Of course, I thought to myself, European men and their little bikini bathing suits.  It's only the Americans who insist on wearing those big swimming trunks all the time.

As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, by the time we approached each other, it became abundantly clear that what we had perceived to be a small, flesh-colored bathing suit was, in fact, no suit at all.  As we learned via awkward experience, the British word naturist is the equivalent of the American English nudist.  

Tomayto, tomahto.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Life in The UK: Jettisoning the Loveseat: A Case of Too Much Furniture

#2, reading on the loveseat in our apartment in Korea, where it fit.

When we learned we would be moving overseas in 2011, we were living in a typical suburban single-family home in a large-ish city in Texas.  For those of you who have never been to Texas, things really are larger there, owing to the fact that there is a lot of space and probably also owing to the 'everything's bigger in Texas' mentality.  The point is, the house we lived in was fairly typical of all the other homes in our neighborhood, but was remarkably spacious compared to similarly-priced homes in many other parts of the US.  By Asian and European standards, it was probably ridiculously oversized, especially when you consider that we were only a family of 4. We had (to put it mildly) a Lot of Stuff.

In any case, we were at least smart enough to realize that our Texas-sized furnishings would be unlikely to fit in our high-rise apartment in Seoul, and, accordingly, put most of our belongings into storage, with the exception of some beds, desks, and living room furniture.

Since MrL and I had grown up with furniture that had been gouged, dented, and dropped throughout Asia and Europe around the world a few times, we knew that even the most painstaking international moves usually result in a casualty or two. And this does not even take into consideration every expat's worst-case scenario (note:   MsC always considers the WCS,) where the moving truck bursts into flame en route, or the shipping container holding all the family's worldly goods tumbles overboard and sinks to the bottom of the sea whilst rounding Cape Horn in a fierce gale.  For that reason, we stored the good china, the family heirlooms, and our better furniture, and packed only what I thought of as 'disposable' things.

This brings us to the living room furniture, which consisted of  2 small armchairs, a sofa, and a matching loveseat.  It was upholstered in fairly resilient, dog-proof, kid-proof leather, and  had managed to withstand the childhood and adolescence of our boys, their friends, and several labrador retrievers.  No longer particularly new, it was, in fact, beginning to look distinctly worn in places.  We were fairly sure it would fit in our Korean apartment, but we also reasoned that, if it did not fit, we wouldn't feel bad about passing it on to another expat family and/or leaving it behind completely. It had served its purpose, and if it happened to make it back to the US, it would most likely be consigned to the game room to live out the rest of its natural life anyway.

Fortunately for us, it turned out that both of our apartments in Korea accommodated all of our furniture, and, as our 4th year approached, it looked like the sofa and its companions would, indeed, be making the journey back to the Lone Star State (or wherever else the company indicated) with us.

Then, in one of those shocking delightful twists of fate, we found ourselves moving to England, to a 115-year-old terraced house with a sitting room designed for Victorian-sized people and their Victorian-sized things: delicate chintz sofas and soft brocade armchairs, petite side tables and needlepoint footstools.  It quickly became apparent that the sofa and armchairs would fit - but the loveseat would not.  (Note:  finding a house to rent that would permit us to have a dog severely limited our options, which meant that we didn't dare hold out for a bigger place - since one might not ever appear. In the end, we preferred having the dog to having the loveseat, so all's well that ends well.) accordance with our original plan, we decided to sell the loveseat, which had been around nearly as long as the children and - as MrL so eloquently put it, "didn't owe us anything." If we listed it for a few weeks and didn't find a buyer, we would get rid of it some other way - but the point was, it was going to be going, and soon.

Now, in the US, it is fairly easy to get rid of furniture, even if no one wants to actually buy it from you. Most of the time, all you have to do is drag it out to the curb/kerb and within a few hours, someone with a pickup truck and a few burly helpers will show up to spirit it away. In Korea, it wasn't much different:  if you didn't have a vehicle that would hold a sofa, you could always find some enterprising ajossi (middle-aged man) with a Bongo II (small truck) who would be thrilled to collect the items and transport them across Seoul for a very reasonable fee.  So we were completely unprepared for just how difficult jettisoning our loveseat would prove to be in the UK.

 In the first place, very few people in our part of the UK seem to own a vehicle big enough to carry a loveseat - and why would you, when you're paying $8/gallon for petrol and parking space is always at a premium?  Our plans for selling the loveseat for a few pounds to a young couple or some strapped Uni students evaporated quickly as we discovered that the UK is brimming with sofa-albatrosses that are free to a good home if someone (anyone) will just come and take the damned thing.   Realizing that hell would freeze over before it was unlikely that anyone would ever pay us for the loveseat, and quickly realizing that dragging the thing to the curb was not an option, I called the British Heart Fund (who sell furniture in some of their charity shops and -this is more to the point - also have a large van) and made arrangements for someone to come and collect it.

By now, we'd been living in the kitchen and our bedrooms for weeks, unable to access the living or dining rooms except on narrow trails, like hamsters, so you can imagine with what enthusiasm we were looking forward to the arrival of the Heart Fund Guys.  When the van arrived (3 weeks later, since their docket was -apparently - full of other people who also had extraneous furniture), the men examined my loveseat and then kindly explained to me that, while they would love to take it,  no upholstered furniture could be resold in their charity shops without a special fire safety tag (which is mandatory on all furniture sold in the UK) and, since our US-made loveseat didn't have one, they couldn't take it (England is the Land Of Safety, which is another entire blog post in itself, and something I was not aware of - more on this another time.)


The loveseat - which, at this point, we now loathed the sight of - stayed, and we were back to square one.

We decided, then, to take the sofa to the dump (i.e., the Council Recycling Centre) but obviously, the sofa wasn't going to fit in the back of the Mini, so we had to look into renting a van to drive it there, which, naturally, wasn't going to be cheap.  And, of course, we needed a special form to prove that we were council taxpayers before we could access the Recycling Centre, so processing that would take a bit longer. Through it all, the loveseat sat there, leering at us (or so it seemed) and preventing anyone from using the living room except the dog, who liked to walk across the backs of the tightly-crammed sofas and chairs to look out the window.

For a while, it looked like we were stuck with the loveseat forever, but eventually, after a certain amount of tooth-gnashing (on MrL's part) and research (on mine),we learned that there was a solution - but (naturally) it would cost us.  We could call the Council and pay them to come and take our (perfectly good) loveseat to the recycling centre for us- not for 3 or 4 weeks, mind you, but still, the point was, they would do it - which they eventually did.  Of course, it was 3 months and £55 after we'd moved in, but they did it.  In the meantime, we worked on our assimilation into British culture by maintaining Stiff Upper Lips and Working Around the Situation To the Best of Our Ability Without Whinging very much. 

There is no moral to this story, except that we now can use our living room and, if you find yourself moving to England, you might wish to consider leaving all your furniture in storage.  Either that, or don't bring the dog.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Grasping the Nettle

My arch-nemesis, the Nettle.
grasp the nettle
phrase of grasp
1.  BRITISH:  tackle a difficulty boldly.

It should come as no surprise to most of my readers that I read a lot as a child.  The fact that I moved to Asia at the age of 3 meant that I had minimal access to the typical media absorbed by most of my American peers in the 70s and 80s.  I did see the occasional American film, listened to some English and American records, and did watch TV on Sunday evenings - a sacrosanct hour devoted to 'The Wonderful World of Disney,'  aired on the Armed Forces Television Network, which was the highlight of my week.  Disney, in fact, was the major contributor to my generally vague concept of the geography of the continent of North America, which was heavily influenced by the landscape of California, where the majority of Disney's filming was done.   The majority of my information about Life in America, however, was based on what I read, and by the time I headed back to the US shortly before my 10th birthday, I had composed a mental picture of the USA that was heavily influenced by Yosemite National Park, Louisa May Alcott's Massachusetts of the 1870s, Archie comic books, and Nancy Drew.

It wasn't always immediately obvious whether the things I was reading about were products of another time or simply products of another culture. While it was clear that no one in the USA was still using kerosene lamps or chamber pots, I was not always quite so sure about the rest of it, and was somewhat disappointed to discover that suburban Northern Virginia (where we moved for a few years before heading back overseas) was distinctly lacking in snowy winter landscapes, pesky but well-meaning bears that broke into your kitchen, blue roadsters, soda fountains, and train travel involving dining cars.

The point is, having grown up reading books set in other places and other times, it was not uncommon for me to run across references to things I knew nothing about, make a contextual guess as to their probable meaning, and move forward in the narrative.  This brings me to today's blog topic:  the nettle.

I had run across the nettle in a number of the English children's books I had read, as well as in Alcott's work (although I should point out that I never once encountered a nettle while living in Alcott's own home state of Massachusetts.)  I remember being highly impressed by a scene in Little Men where tomboy Nan is proving herself to her new friends in a classic 1870s 'double dog dare you' scenario:

".. I never cry, no matter how I'm hurt; it's babyish," said Nan, loftily.

"Pooh! I could make you cry in two minutes," returned Stuffy, rousing up.
"See if you can."
"Go and pick that bunch of nettles, then," and Stuffy pointed to a sturdy specimen of that prickly plant growing by the wall.
Nan instantly "grasped the nettle," pulled it up, and held it with a defiant gesture, in spite of the almost unbearable sting.
"Good for you," cried the boys, quick to acknowledge courage even in one of the weaker sex.

Living in Thailand (or maybe Taipei) at the time I first read this, I was unfamiliar with nettles, but having spent my formative years in countries where venomous snakes, limbless beggars, and insects the size of puppies were part of the daily landscape, the fact that a stinging, burning plant was growing in the family's garden within easy reach of young children did not seem unreasonable to me and I moved on with the tale.

In the following years, when I eventually moved back to live on the East Coast, I never ran across nettles:  thistles, yes, poison oak, yes, poison ivy, yes.  Thorns and brambles, yes, yes.  But never anything called a 'nettle.' I had a vague image of a nettle as something like a thistle:  round, prickly, sharp, and obviously unfriendly. Maybe something like a cactus.  In subsequent years, MrL and I would end up moving Out West, raising our children in an environment that included scorpions, rattlesnakes, the occasional wild javelina, and every other possible sort of prickly and aggressive plant one could imagine.  The nettle floated down into the sediment at the bottom of my consciousness and remained there.

Then, I moved to England.  

I knew, of course, that there were nettles in England, and vaguely assumed that I might run across one, say, if we happened to be hiking across a desolate moor somewhere in Yorkshire or maybe on a remote Scottish hillside.

The nettle, I imagined, would be large - maybe like a burr or a pinecone - and would, like most prickly plants I had come to know, look sinister and foreboding. It would live out on a windy mountaintop or in a dense forest.

This, of course, was entirely wrong. My first introduction to the nettle was in my local park, just around the corner from my house.

Learning About The Nettle was a result of every dog owner's least favorite experience:  cleaning up after one's dog, only to find that there is a Hole In The Bag and that one has been left with a handful of body-temperature dog feces.  With nothing to wipe my hand on, what I needed was something with broad, soft leaves - nature's handkerchief, so to speak.  My eye scanned the hedgerows along the park path, and fell on a medium-sized plant sporting greyish-green, fuzzy-looking leaves about the size of a large post-it note. From my perspective, it appeared perfect:  large, absorbent, and not too stiff, and with a soft-looking texture like lamb's ears. 

As soon as I grasped it, I realized that something was wrong.  At first, I thought I'd accidentally caught hold of a stinging insect, but turning the leaves over and examining my burning fingers (while still stupidly holding the leaf, I should point out), I could see nothing - no insect, no stingers, nothing.  But my fingers continued to burn and sting.  At that point, I realized that the leaf itself was to blame, but by then, it was too late. For the rest of the walk home, my fingers stung, burned, and itched, no matter what I did to them.  By the time I  was able to wash them off and examine them, they were sporting tiny red dots, some of which later turned into blisters. A quick perusal of Google informed me that, yes, I had indeed, grabbed a handful of nettle leaves like an idiot, and should not have been surprised to find that it did, in fact, hurt.

Always willing to learn from experience, I resolved then and there never again to grasp a handful of nettle leaves, and considered that to be the end of the story.  

Unfortunately, as MrL and I discovered a few weeks later while hiking the Bath Skyline Walk, one doesn't have to actually grasp a nettle to experience its unpleasant effects.  All you have to do is brush up against it ever so slightly with any uncovered skin - in our cases, especially arms and hands, which tend to brush against them as we're hiking along the overgrown trails - and the nettle's nasty little trichomes (hollow hairs) take the opportunity to inject their venomous payloads into your epidermis, leaving you burning and itching and cursing. Since they're so unpleasant, it should come as no surprise that they tend to flourish near human habitation and love places like empty fields, hiking trails, parkland, bike paths  - pretty much everywhere that I walk my dog. Every day.  And yes, they are, in fact, everywhere.

According to Google, nettles can also be found in the US and should therefore should not be a surprise to me, but (obviously) I missed something (note:  any of my N.American readers run across them?)  At any rate, they don't seem to bother our fellow hikers here in Britain, who stride around in tank tops and shorts with impunity, never seeming to worry about them.  Or maybe they're just immune after a lifetime of nettle exposure.

In any case, having familiarized myself with their fuzzy and deceptively benign appearance, I am on my guard. Granted, I probably look a little silly walking through the overgrown field trails of late summer with my hands held up over my head, but no one can say I haven't learned my lesson.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Life in the UK: Walking the Dog

Long-time readers will know that the Asia Vus are a very doggy family.  (MrL and I, in fact, co-owned a dog before we got married - true story.)  Over the years, we've always had at least one dog, and often had two.  It stands to reason, then, that we have spent countless hours on that quintessential pastime familiar to dog lovers the world over:  walking the dog.  Here in England, it's no different, except for one thing:  you can go almost anywhere.  

No more boring walks around the block or a loop around the park before heading home.  Here, we walk through woods and fields, across meadows, through blackberry brambles, and past the occasional grazing horse.  We stroll through playing fields, down ancient lanes and up slippery stone steps built into the hillside hundreds of years before we were born.

The brutally steep set of stairs known locally as 'Jacob's Ladder' which leads up from the City Centre to our neighborhood.  Fortunately, there are other - less extreme - alternatives for getting home.
One of the things I like best about living in England is the idea of public access to the countryside.  Coming from a country which is is rife with signs that say things like, 'Private Property' ' No Trespassing!' and "This Property Protected by Smith and Wesson,"  you can understand that, upon moving here, I stuck to sidewalks and parks as a rule of thumb - not a problem, since there seem to be parks everywhere around here.  I saw fields all around me, but it never occurred to me to try to walk through them.

After a few weeks, though, I kept noticing these signs:

They are everywhere, and designate public footpaths - that is, paths or sidewalks that are open to the public.  And I also started noticing these gates, which seemed to show up quite frequently near woods and fields:

This is either a 'slip gate' or a 'kissing gate' depending on who's speaking.

Of course, not knowing where they led - and not knowing whose property they led to - I never entered them, no matter how gorgeous the landscape on the other side might look.

It wasn't until I was chatting with some other dog owners one day when one of them invited me to join a group of them who met in the afternoons in a field which, she explained, was accessible through 'yon slip gate' (that's 'the slip gate over there' for us North Americans) at the rear of some school playing fields ("We have right-of-way through them, you know" Actually, I didn't.  ) 

Well, as they say, that changed everything.

Once I started looking for them, I noticed them everywhere, often in combination with the 'public footpath' signs as shown above.  Often, there is a sign asking you to keep your dogs on a lead and to clean up after them.  Occasionally, there will be a notice warning you that livestock may be present, and once, I saw a reminder not to 'come between a mother and her offspring.' (Duh)

Most of the time, though, it's just you, the dog, and nature, and, since I know I won't be living here forever, I try to really be mindful about how fortunate I am to be able to do this.  It's always a little amazing to me the way people here seem to be able to go about their business so calmly.  I feel like I spend about 50% of my time (or more) either taking pictures, and the other 50% thinking, "I can't believe I'm just walking around in all of this.  It's like a movie." How my neighbors every accomplish anything is sort of a mystery to me, although I suppose if I'd lived here my whole life, I might be equally sanguine about all this gorgeousness, too.

Anyway, for those of you who might have been wondering what things look like in this neck of the woods, I thought I'd share a few photos of one of our favorite walks, which starts with a stroll through the park before you enter a brambly sort of field via the slip gate above:

Following the path, you come out into a little open area, overlooking  southeast Bath and its surroundings:

Past the blackberry brambles:

Into another little patch of woods:

And out on the other side into a surprising little meadow overlooking more houses and more fields.

Apple tree in full blossom

Follow the path uphill through the meadow:

And come to another slip gate:

These gates still freak me out, but I am slowly getting used to them and no longer bark at them.

Which leads into another field at the bottom of the school cricket grounds:

Before we know it, we're leaving the field at the next gate:

Notice that it's a private field with public access.  Love it!
And walking down the street toward home:

MrL joins in on all of our evening walks

One of the houses on the way home

I love houses with names

This stairway leads down to another footpath.  We haven't been here yet, but it looks promising

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Life in the UK: English Lessons

Language:  it can be tricky

I don't think that there are many people left in the world who aren't aware that American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) have some significant differences.  (If you are one of them, just go to Urban Dictionary and type the following words into the search bar:  fanny, rubber, knickers, pants, bonnet.)  

There are plenty of expat blogs written by Americans in the UK who have had to adopt a completely new vocabulary (and vice versa.)  I regularly read this one written by an American linguist who teaches at a British University who specializes in the differences between our two versions of the language (oddly, I started reading it long before we ever moved to England...hmmmmm.)  In fact, before we left Seoul, my sister-in-law even sent me a US/UK dictionary, so, clearly, the information is out there.

In fact, in one of my very first posts written in the UK, I mentioned the word 'lurgy,' which I learned shortly after arriving.  My point is:  the fact that our languages are different should come as a surprise to no one - especially me.

And yet, it continues to surprise me, almost daily, the new words and phrases and uses I run across. Most of those that capture my interest - like, 'lurgy' are not the typical 'you use this word, we use that one' foreign exchange that we think of when we think of the two Englishes. Those are the easy ones:  boot=trunk, courgette=zucchini, post=mail.  But some of them are baffling.  Some are funny. Sometimes, they carry different connotations in each language.  It's these subtle differences that I like to mull over in my free time (let's not get into what that says about how boring my life is at the moment, shall we?)

So...I've decided to blog (occasionally) about the new words and usages I've been running across. Keep in mind, I'm living in Somerset, so I'm sure there's some regional usage involved.  I'll look forward to hearing your impressions, and, without further ado, here are the newest additions to my lexicon:

"Can I stroke your doggie?"  I hear this several times a week from children while I'm out walking Merlot.  An American child would, undoubtedly, ask me if she could 'pet' my doggie.  Mulling this over (we walk at least 3 miles a day - I have ample mulling time, trust me) I've decided that Americans really don't use the word 'stroke' much as a verb - especially not with animals - and, if we do, it would most likely be used with a cat, not a dog.  Why, I do not know.  Or maybe that's just me.

"I'll meet you at half ten."  In AmE, we'd probably just say, "I'll meet you at ten-thirty" or, possibly, "half-past ten."  For me, the waters have been significantly muddied by the fact that, in German, 'half ten' (halb zehn) means 'nine-thirty,' or 'halfway to ten.'  I'd never heard it used in English before, and initially had to ask for clarification.  On the other hand, I have an excuse if I show up places at the wrong time.

"It's so warm, you really don't even need a jumper."  In this context, a jumper (as far as I have been able to deduce) is a garment with long sleeves that you wear on top of another garment (a shirt or blouse or vest ( a vest, fyi, is a tank top or undershirt.)  Where I would probably use the terms sweater, sweatshirt, fleece, pullover (or whatever else came to mind) 'jumper' seems to cover anything with long sleeves - but isn't a jacket (this is still a bit vague, so I'm not sure if jacket is in that category or not. Input much appreciated from BrE readers.)   Whenever we take Merlot out wearing this little hoodie (or is it a jacket? or a fleece?) in England, we always get compliments on her 'smart jumper (aka 'attractive or nice-looking outer garment.)

Merlot in her smart jumper.

"Can I help?"  This is what shop assistants say to you in England when it is your turn for service, for example, if you are waiting in line (in a queue) and it's your turn to approach the register (till) or if you are wandering around the cosmetic section in confusion, looking for a cream that will make you look 10 years younger with a single application (I'm here to tell you, it doesn't exist,) or any other instance in which an American worker would say, "Can I help you?"  It's obvious that they are offering to help you (even if they don't say so) but I find it interesting that, in American English, the phrase, "Can I help?" is something I'd use, for, say, asking permission (I see you're baking cookies.  Can I help?) or offering to assist someone who is clearly in a bit over their heads (I see you're trying to lift that refrigerator alone.  Can I help?) Whereas, in American shops or restaurants, the phrase one usually hears is, "Can I help you?" Why? I don't know.

Note:  It's been a few years since I've spent much time in the US, so maybe these things are not as unusual as I think they are.  Comments, clarifications, questions, or corrections are always welcome! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Exploring in the UK: A Day Trip to Wells and Glastonbury Tor

In front of the Wells Cathedral

One of the things I've been observing about the UK is that it is absolutely, chock full of historic stuff.  Duh, MsCaroline, you are saying to yourself,  everyone knows that the UK and Europe are full of historic stuff.  What other glaringly self-evident observations do you have to share with us? Well, let me tell you what.  It may sound pretty self-evident when you are living somewhere else, but when you are surrounded by it every day, constantly finding yourself passing signs telling you that This building was modernised  in 1740  by the 7th Earl of Chesterwickshireham, it puts a new spin on things.

In the UK, everything is just oozing with history, which means that (to use one of my favorite new expressions) a visitor is 'spoilt for choice.'  Will it be the castle, or the Roman ruins? Druid stone circle? Historic mansion? Ship? Cathedral? Village? How to choose?

And that's the problem.  There is so much to see, you almost become paralyzed by all the options.  And I'm just talking about things that are within an hour's drive of home.  We haven't even started to explore the rest of the country yet, except for Cornwall, which is remarkable and which I will blog about eventually soon.

So you can imagine my relief when, shortly after our arrival in January, I got an email from one of my long-time favorite bloggers, Potty Mummy, kindly offering some suggestions for a few day trips around our area.  I was pathetically grateful.  At last! Guidance! Focus! Help!

I picked the first thing on her list, and this is how it came to pass that we headed out the very next Saturday to Wells and Glastonbury Tor.

Weekend market in the city centre in Wells.

Wells is a charming little medieval city in the Somerset district of England.  It is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells (the Bishop's Palace can also be toured) and the location of the Wells Cathedral, built between the 12th and 14th centuries.

The city itself is incredibly picturesque, complete with cobblestone streets and historic buildings, including a fountain in the town square, medieval stone walls, and a Tudor-style historic pub, which is probably why it was chosen as the location for the Simon Pegg film, Hot Fuzz, which concerns a London police officer who is transferred to a (seemingly) idyllic village in Gloucestershire.  It's easy to see why Wells was chosen, since 'idyllic' should be part of its official name:

Kids playing by the fountain in the village courtyard (fountain featured pretty prominently in Hot Fuzz as well!)

National Trust gift shop and archway leading to the Bishop's Palace.

Lots of adorable shops, restaurants, tearooms, and pubs.  Ooooooozing charm!

Since we are huge Hot Fuzz fans, we were probably a little more excited than normal people would have been about visiting Wells, especially when we spotted buildings that had featured prominently in the film, such as 'The Swan' Hotel, and  'The Crown' pub:

This is actually the back of 'The Crown,' which I did not realize when I took this photo.

It goes without saying that we had to stop in for a pint. And a bite to eat.  It was an interesting mix of fancy tourists and down-to-earth locals.  We spent most of our time conversing with a man whose Staffordshire terrier was wearing a very unusual garment which piqued our interest.  The jacket was different from your typical dog outerwear in that it looked like it had been removed directly from the sheep upon its demise and placed immediately on the dog's back with no concern about silly things like fit and size. (In fact, I initially thought it was a sheepdog lying there on the floor until I noticed that the dog's head didn't match its coat.) Imagine, if you will, a dog with a Flokati rug tied on its back and you will understand why we were intrigued.  As you can imagine, the owner was the most interesting person we talked to all day.

After our refreshment, we decided to tour the Cathedral, which, as the historic seat of the Bishops of Bath and Wells, was truly gorgeous.  Since MrL took all the interior photos, you will have to take my word for it, or google 'Wells Cathedral.'

But here are a few shots of the exterior:

We also took a stroll around the grounds of the Bishop's Palace (you can take a tour of the palace itself, but we were heading for Glastonbury at that point,) which featured a moat (our boys would have appreciated this when they were younger) complete with swans:

After a stroll around the moat, we set our sights (and the GPS/SatNav) on the next spot on our itinerary:

Glastonbury Tor.

For those of you aren't interested in don't have time to read up on it, 'Tor' just means 'hill or rocky peak.'  It is also described in other places as a 'prominent hill.'  It is supposed to be a significantly spiritual location, a former place of pilgrimage for Christians as well as a meaningful site for Pagans. Legend also links the Holy Grail of King Arthur to this site.  At its peak today sits nothing but a lone tower, which may have been part of a church that was planned (or built) here in the the 15th century.

Approaching the Tor.

Even if it were not historically and spiritually significant, the Glastonbury Tor would be worth hiking for the views alone.  The view of the countryside is sweeping, and on a clear day (which we, sadly, did not have) you can supposedly see all the way to Bath (miles away.)

Setting our GPS/SatNav, we drove into the countryside and soon found ourselves approaching the Tor.  It turns out that most people enter from the direction of a town called 'Burrow Mump' (I will never get over that name, by the way) which is where you pick up the concrete footpath leading to the top.  However, due to a really annoyingwacky and laughable SatNav glitch, we found ourselves on the other side of the Tor, on a lane backing up to some fields. After seeing a knowledgable-looking party wearing waterproofs and wellingtons striding purposefully in what we thought looked like the right direction, we ended up parking on a side road, following a  public footpath through someone's sheep pasture (I love how you can do that in England) eventually joining the concrete footpath about halfway up with a crowd of other breathless hill-climbers.

We were sure that the Tor was just over this hill (it was)

Almost at the top

Nearly there.


As promised, the views at the top were spectacular, - sort of difficult to tell in this very odd panoramic shot.
Despite a bit of drizzle, there were plenty of people out, and, as with so many outdoor venues in England, there were more than a few dogs along for the adventure, which, in their case, involved chasing rabbits.  The grassy hill area around the Tor is absolutely crawling with wild rabbits - you saw them, their holes, and their poo, everywhere.  (Another good reason to stick to the footpath - both of us came close to breaking an ankle- and wellingtons are a good idea, too.) MrL even suggested that this might have been the inspiration for the cover of Watership Down, and I'd be inclined to agree.

If you go:  Wells is a charming medieval city ('the smallest city in England') about an hour's drive from Bristol or Bath.  Glastonbury Tor is about a 15-20 minute drive from Wells.  There is no National Trust car park, but there are public (fee-paying) car parks at Burrow Mump, Glastonbury Tor, and Collard Hill (if you don't fancy parking on the roadside like we did and hiking cross-country.)  You don't need to be an athlete (trust me, I'm not one), but you need to be fit enough to walk up the steep uphill path.  There are benches halfway up if you need a break.