Monday, March 30, 2009

An Almost Perfect Day

Yesterday afternoon some friends invited us to ride with them to a little village called Hungerford which is full of wonderful antique shops. Our house is not filled with antiques but we have bought some lovely things here and I know when we’re re-settled back in the states we’ll smile and think of England every time we see them. It makes me happy to think about it even now.

Hungerford is about an hour from here and we had such fun walking thru the town and browsing around the many shops. Everything seemed to be right with our little world yesterday…the weather was lovely, skies were blue and the sun was shining…the village was quaint.

We were with good friends enjoying the day and for some reason items that we’ve had on our wish list almost since the day we moved here seemed to just appear in front of us for a reasonable price. In fact, we might have bought enough that I now have to return later this week to pick up one piece that wouldn't fit in our car.

This is called a monk’s bench and the back lifts up and folds over to form a table and it has beautiful carving on the top side too. And the seat lifts up so you can store things inside. We may also have purchased a commode. This is a first for us. I mean except for the kind you get at Home Depot when you're building a house. This one is actually a Victorian era commode and may I just say for the record that I'm thankful for indoor plumbing.

It’s a pretty cabinet now and we’re considering using it as a sort of wine cart. I can imagine asking someone if they’d like a drink from my commode. It has potential y’all.

As I’ve said before it’s pretty hard to go anywhere in England without running head first into history and the little village of Hungerford is no exception. Did you know that it was in this little village out in the Oxfordshire countryside that General Eisenhower addressed the American troops on the eve of D-Day?

After we finished shopping we headed back towards home. The day was going so well and the sky was just so beautiful and we'd only set our clocks ahead this past Saturday night so it was actually still really light outside. We decided to make a small detour since our friends had been up this way before and vaguely remembered that there was a cute little pub in a cute little village not too far out of the way. So we turned off the motorway onto a smaller side road and headed into the oh so adorable village of Dorchester on Thames. Now, this is positively one of the best things about the UK. You can go just about anywhere and happen upon something totally worth seeing. We had dinner next to a cozy fire in The George Inn.

This was across the street and has to be one of the cutest Post Offices in all of England.

And, this was also across the street...

Dorchester on Thames has an absolutely stunning cathedral. It’s not a big village by any means but their cathedral...oh my goodness...Dorchester Abbey is beautiful. There have been worship services occurring on this spot for 1300 years. Kind of boggles the mind doesn’t it? And to top it off a young girl was playing a violin inside the Abbey that was so lovely it made you want to cry. We could have listened all night.

Instead we got back in our car and headed towards home. Now, if you’re still reading you may be wondering why I entitled this post 'An Almost Perfect Day' when it is sounding so perfectly perfect. Well…as we were making our way home my mobile rang. (Your phone is always called a mobile here, never a cell). I answered to the sound of my 20 year old daughter sobbing. And, honestly, my heart stopped beating for what felt like an hour but was actually only a few seconds. I must tell you though that in those few seconds I felt every single inch of the more than 4,000 miles that geographically separates me from my children. She managed to finally spit out between tears that she’d had a minor traffic accident, that nobody was hurt in any way (hopefully there won’t be a next time but if there is please give me that piece of information first!) and that both cars had very little damage and can still be driven.

Her car is now without its driver’s side mirror. Funnily enough (and by funny I mean ironically funny, not ha ha funny) I wrote about this very topic in my post on Friday. If you read my blog you will know how challenging I find the whole driving experience in the UK. Learning to drive on the left hand side of the road while sitting on the right hand side of the car has made me feel like a 17 year old kid again. When Daughter1 phoned to say she’d had an accident the first thought I had after the relief I felt at learning no one had been injured was a feeling of total empathy. I understand at the age of 48 what it is like to be a learner driver. In the UK when you’re a learner driver you have to put a big giant ‘L’ decal on your car. (By the way, the L stands for learner, not loser, although you do feel a bit like one relearning to drive at 40something). The L decal alerts everyone on the road to new drivers in their general vicinity. Now my daughter does have her US license but my kids have not been driving as long as most American kids their age mostly because they have an awesome public transport system in this country. Driving at a young age becomes somewhat of a non-issue here.

I said a little prayer of thanksgiving last night. Actually I said a great big one. There is so much to feel grateful daughter was not injured…her sister wasn’t in the car with her, nor was anyone else…the occupants of the other vehicle were unharmed and were so kind to my daughter…the accident occured just outside the university gates...the policeman on the scene was also very kind (he also kindly issued a ticket but at least he was nice about it)…my sister and brother in law are only about a half hour away and will look at the car for us so we will truly know if my daughter’s definition of ‘small dent’ and the body shop definition of ‘small dent’ are indeed the same thing….

Today 'L' stands for lucky. And, maybe the title of this post should read 'A Perfect Day' after all.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Now I Know How Richard Petty Feels

Okay, so maybe not the speed thing but let me just tell you…I think I have the reflexes of a race car driver after 6 years of UK driving. Do you remember the Pac Man video game? Well, let’s just say that quite often when I’m out driving here I feel a little bit like the character in that game. You can’t get anywhere in my little village without going around something, usually a randomly parked vehicle that leaves precisely enough space between it and the next vehicle so you can whip your car in between the two vehicles while someone coming the other way attempts to go around you without taking off your mirror. Make sense? Welcome to my world.

The women’s club I’m a member of holds newcomer’s coffees about four times a year where we cover a wide range of topics including why you need salt in your dishwasher and limescale tablets in your washing machine, where to find Skippy peanut butter, how to register with the NHS, how to manage your 237th set of houseguests and why you shouldn’t feel too badly when you yank the side mirror off the left hand side of your car. And, oh yeah, btw, you’ll probably also shred a tire or two initially because you’re sitting on the right hand side of your vehicle and driving on the left hand side of the road. For a second I had to think about what side of the road we drive on. Don’t ask my kids about our first trip back to the states after we’d been here a few months. I might possibly have been driving on the left hand side of the road when I pulled out of their pediatrician’s office in Maryland and it took my non-driving 13 year old daughter to remind me that the truck I was shouting at was actually in the correct lane and I was really really scaring them. I’m much better now. I hardly ever do that.

Today I was on what is actually one of my favourite roads in our little area. I tried my best to take a photo since I seemed to have the road to myself. Doesn’t really capture it like real life though. Basically you start off on a road with two lanes, traffic going into the village and traffic coming out of the village. So far, so good. Suddenly the road narrows to one lane. Still…traffic coming into the village and traffic going out of the village. Except now we are sharing one lane. If you’re having trouble visualizing this, what I’m saying is we are coming STRAIGHT AT EACH OTHER. Did I mention that the road has high hedges on either side? Well, it does. I told you…just like Richard Petty.

Anyway, along the road in a couple of places there will be a mound of dirt pushed at an angle up one side of the hedge and depending which side of the road this ‘cutout’ is on dictates which driver ‘pulls over’. I made the trek down this road every Tuesday for 5 years to take Daughter2 to her piano lesson. When you come out of the hedges you feel like you’ve stepped back in time because the most darling little village known as Hedgerley sits right in front of you. The flower pots and baskets outside their pub are always so beautiful. Again I tried to snap a picture but the pub was busy and there were a lot of cars parked out front.

One of the things we do love about the roads here are the signs. This one is seen often….

How about this one....
I could probably write a small book on this topic...I mean I haven't even mentioned speed cameras, zebra crossings, toucans and no humping and yes, they all pertain to driving. Did I tell you I can walk to my village High Street from my house. That means I can walk to the shops, the bank, the library, the church and the post office for which I am truly thankful. I'm pretty sure drivers around Great Britain are equally thankful.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Benjamin Disraeli Slept Here

If you’re not up on your British history like I wasn’t up on my British history you might very well be asking yourself who in the world is Benjamin Disraeli? Living in the UK has been enormously educational for me and while I couldn’t have answered that question a few years ago I can now. Disraeli was twice the Prime Minister of England serving during the reign of Queen Victoria. She is Britain’s longest reigning Monarch and during her 63 year reign several men held the title of Prime Minister, but Disraeli is said to have been her favourite.

Now, what does all this history have to do with today’s post? Well, in spite of some iffy looking skies this morning we braved it for a hike around Hughenden Manor in the nearby town of High Wycombe.

Hughenden Manor was at one time (1848-1881) the home of former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Much of his furniture, pictures, and books remain here in what was his private retreat away from London and Parliament. He lived at Hughenden until he died and the manor is now in the hands of The National Trust.

The property around the manor is lovely. There is a church, St. Michael’s and All Angels, at the bottom of the road leading up to the house.

All around it are fields dotted with the sweetest little lambs and mama sheep you’ve ever seen.

We especially like to hike here in the springtime because the daffodils around the grounds are absolutely spectacular. I’ve noticed I use the word spectacular a lot when I’m talking about the English countryside but y’all…the English’s spectacular!

We started our hike at the church and went uphill (why do these hikes always begin with a hill climb?) towards the house and then into the woods. The hike ended with a walk thru the daffodils, across a stone bridge and a run to the car as the skies decided to let loose at that moment.

There is one other part of the hiking I love and that's the talking. I can do both at the same time although sometimes not very well. It's rarely the exact same combination of ladies each time we walk and I think I meet someone new on every single hike. And these hikers are troopers. I think we saw a little bit of every form of weather today except snow (thank goodness!) But we would never let a little rain-wind-sun-wind-clouds-wind-rain keep us from enjoying the spectacular English countryside.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Happy Place

I mentioned in a post recently that one day soon I wanted to write about my love affair with Italy. Today’s the day. Actually it might take me more than one post but I'll spread them out so I don't sound like a travel brochure. I’ve made five trips to Italy in the past six years, different cities, each one molto bella. And I'm pretty sure I could write a whole post on the two or three or twenty pieces of Italian pottery I might now own.

In my house Italy is affectionately referred to as ‘my happy place’. I love everything about it… the scenery, the food, the wine, the history, the art and the people…especially the people. They love their visitors, they want you to love their country, and while I speak only about 20 words of Italian, communication is rarely a problem. There might be a whole lot of pantomime happening at times but it’s lighthearted and friendly. Life moves at a different pace there and as one Italian friend said to us, ' Why would I feel stress..look at where I live.’ Oh, and did I mention the food?

One of the biggest benefits to living overseas for a period of time has been the opportunity for travel. We have taken full advantage of that opportunity and have been to many cities in many countries. But honestly, I think there is something in the Italian air that makes me want to go back again and again.

I've decided to make this first 'trip' post about Venice because on this date, one year ago today, my husband and I were in that most amazing city. Venezia. It was a wonderful 5 days and we did a lot of the typical touristy things. Venice draws a huge tourist crowd so I’m not sure if I’d like it as much in the hot, crowded summer months (lots of Europe is without air conditioning), but this was March and it was lovely and not overly crowded. We stayed in a hotel right on St. Mark’s Square which was convenient for lots of the most popular sites and for hopping on and off the water taxis we used to explore other areas. It doesn’t take long to get used to the idea of ‘no roads’. Everything happens by boat and the water taxis run like buses would in any other city.

We spent a lot of time in St. Mark’s Square, visiting the magnificent church, feeding the pigeons, and sipping Prossecco on the piazza.

We crossed a lot of bridges.

We rode in a lot of boats that meandered thru countless narrow canals (streets). And as we floated along we wondered about that very first person who said, ‘Hey let’s drop a piling down a few hundred feet and build magnificent buildings where there isn’t any dry land.’

We saw art and architecture and a little bit of everyday life in a city with water for roads

We brought home a beautiful souvenir from our day trip to the island of Murano where hand blown glass is made.

We saw some spectacular views.

We dined waterside

We hated for the week to end.

Like I happy place.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Walking in Sunshine

Sunday afternoon my husband and I (and our dog, Dixie) decided to get outside and enjoy the unusually spectacular weather we’ve been having for the past week. My daughter and her boyfriend had taken a pretty walk when they were home a couple of weeks ago and we decided to take the same route. The walk begins with a stroll down a neighborhood street where one of my favourite houses sits.

I love the thatched roof cottages in this country. I think if you looked up the word 'charming' in the dictionary this is what you’d see. This cottage is one of the few in our little town with a thatched roof but some English villages are filled with them.

Once you get to the end of the street you cross a horse pasture.

We often say that our dog is part horse. When she runs you think a whole team is passing you by so we thought she’d be kind of curious about the horses in the field today. She was oblivious. I think I’ve mentioned before she’s more like a super model. She was much more interested in chasing a bumble bee she’d spotted than in making friends with a horse.

After crossing the field we arrived at the house now belonging to WEC. They have such beautiful gardens and property and we love to stroll thru here at different times of the year to see what’s blooming.

They have the biggest rhododendrons and azaleas I’ve ever seen. Most haven’t bloomed yet but this ginormous one was almost finished and was dropping the most fantastic sea of hot pink petals.

March is a month that teases here with occasional sunny skies and warmer temps. The weatherman says it’s going to turn cold again over the next few days but it was wonderful to have a solid week of springtime… to see daffodils exploding, primrose popping open and most especially all that glorious sunshine. You know what they say about April showers though so better get your brolly ready. That's umbrella in American speak : )

Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's A Small World After All

Saturday Night we attended a fundraiser for our area Young Life which included dinner along with a live and silent auction. The fundraiser was held at nearby Pinewood Film Studios which has played a part in the production of thousands of films, television programs and commercials including several of the Harry Potter movies, Slumdog Millionaire and all the James Bond pics. The sets were pretty quiet Saturday evening but it’s still kind of exciting driving onto the lot.

We attended the fundraiser with our good friends, B and L, and they are a perfect illustration of something we've discovered while living overseas and that is IS a small world after all.

B and L have a daughter who is the same age as our daughter2 and the girls are great friends. We live within minutes of each other here in England and we both arrived as the girls were entering grade 8. They graduated together from the International Highschool here 5 years later in June of last year. Funny thing though…when our daughters were born in the fall of 1990 we lived within minutes of each other and they were great friends then too. In New Jersey.

My husband and B work for the same company and when we moved to New Jersey in 1989 we became not only neighbors of B and L, but close friends too. In 1993 B and L moved to Asia and then a few years later back to NJ before moving to England. We had moved too, from NJ to Maryland, before coming to England. We stayed in touch in the intervening years with Christmas cards and two or three in person visits but it was certainly a wonderful ‘coincidence’ that we both ended up in the summer of 2003 on this side of the pond, together again.

Everything is better when shared with a friend...especially life in a foreign country.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What was George Washington thinking?

Why would anyone chop down a cherry tree?
I am in love with this one that is in front of my house.

When I open my front door this is what I see.

It makes my heart happy.

A. E. Housman, a well known British scholar and poet wrote-

The Lovliest of Trees

Lovliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow

Welcome Spring!