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.)

So...in 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.