September 29, 2008

Gradually emerging from my jet-lagged fog

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:48 pm

The weather forecast for the UK was great: sunshine Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

I got into Heathrow around noon on Friday and my ex husband was there to meet me (he didn’t do that when we were married, but now he is very nice. I don’t understand this, but I like it).

I’m a dual national, though it took me more than two decades to take that step: I was pretty stubborn about becoming a “subject” (must have been all those grade school years of American history including chanting Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny); but I actually broke down and curtseyed to the queen. I mean in person, really, while I took her gloved hand and said, How do you do Ma’am — which, just so you know, is exactly what you are meant to say when you are introduced to Her Majesty, before you move smartly on, because she does not care, even a tiny a bit, how you do). After that I figured (Brits would say reckoned) I had already compromised any republican (with a small r) principles so I might as well go ahead and get the piece of paper – my process through citizenship is another story.

Nevertheless, it surprised me, once I had done it, how different I felt, even after 25 years. I used to come home and resent the interrogation of the immigration officials. Sometimes I wanted to say, I’ve lived here longer than you have. Now I only say good morning and hand over the passport.

I’m thinking, you might be stupid enough to mess with Her Majesty (though I don’t advise it). But Her Britannic Majesty? I thought not.

This time, getting home after five months, was a little traumatic. I am having some cognitive dissonance with my housesitter, as in he says he washed the sheets and made the beds and I found crumpled, clearly slept in beds in two of the four bedrooms. Sorry, I didn’t think of taking a picture before I ripped the sheets off and took them to the laundry room only to find that no detergent was left. That was either before or after I sat down to pee and found (too late) that there was no toilet paper either.

However, I did take a picture of my back rock garden before I left in mid April.

And I took a picture on Friday when I returned.

When my housesitter called (I didn’t call him; I thought it would be good to cool off first and get over some of my jet lag, but, unwisely, he poked tired-damp-from-no-toilet-paper me).

I said (among other things) what is that enormous pile of sticks in my garden? (Actually I could see what that enormous pile of sticks was – it was the chopped down remains of a more than 100 year old rose bush.) The pile was several feet high and took up most of the garden.

He said he hadn’t noticed any sticks and knew nothing about it. Like I said, cognitive dissonance. I didn’t ask whether he’d noticed the substantial mole activity either, or that the local cats had moved in and there were hundreds of faeces under the pine tree. Anyway, gardening wasn’t his job, just looking after things.

(If you are a potential buyer reading this blog, Hedges is a charming, part 18th century, village property, once a Draper’s Shop, with many original features, sensitively modernised, and a well appointed rock garden to the rear. Without moles, cat shit or thorny sticks, no siree.)

I crawled exhausted into bed Friday night and woke up Saturday morning to a thick fog, in my head and in the air outside. From about September to May when there is no cloud, which it isn’t all that often, you are especially unlikely to see any sun. (That particular irony ought to have its own name, but if it does I don’t know it.) The weather forecaster patiently explains that all that “sunshine” — it’s in inverted commas (quotes), because hey, as far as I am concerned, it’s a rumour — means a discrepancy between the temperature of the ground and the air, and, well, that brings fog. Fundamentally it’s sunny (so comforting to know), but the fog might or might not “burn off”. Implicit shrugs to indicate unpredictability, and to suggest the weather forecaster doesn’t care. She doesn’t get paid more if the sun shines. Finally the weather forecaster adds that in the fog it will “feel chilly” but in the sunshine would probably “feel pleasantly warm”.

It was a bit like the first time I supported the UK in the Davis or Ryder Cups and realised I was at least as much Brit as Yank. A long time ago I got really angry about weather forecasts like this (not the weather, the forecast). I used to think, Goddamnit I’m in charge of how I feel. Just tell me what the temperature is, willya?

This weekend, that BBC radio voice seemed simply reassuring. I looked out the window at the fog, snuggled back down into the (washed in water only, but hey, if it’s enough to take away sins I’m sure it takes away cooties) sheets, and thought, Right it’s going to feel chilly until that fog burns off and then everything’s going to feel just fine and warm.

After that, there’s a big pile of thorny sticks to get rid of.

September 21, 2008

We were very tired, we were very merry

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 10:26 pm

It’s Dry Dock, as I might have mentioned.  That means no cars cross the water for three weeks while the ferry is off for annual service.  Any coming or going from the island is on a walk-on temporary commuter boat. 

Dry Dock has an odd effect, though Brits of a certain age would recognize some of it.  We aren’t exactly under siege, but we are suddenly left to fend for ourselves, to haul whatever we need, and to talk to our neighbours, because there is no one else around.  Today we didn’t even have electricity.  That was because of some bother on the res when a telephone pole got knocked over.  It had nothing to do with the ferry being out of service, but what with the day’s constant rain, it added to the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world.

Before the rain and the no electricity, my friend G declared we had to have a booze cruise on the ferry, because in a few days I am going to be flying back to England and I need to have every possible small island experience first.  G swore the Dry Dock Booze Cruise was a tradition, though no one else had ever heard of it.  Clouds were gathering and the sun deserted and G wavered, but though the locals have done nothing but complain, this is the sunniest summer I have had in 30 years and I really wanted to celebrate it.  Never mind that our cruise would be on the island hopper commuter ferry.

Besides, I specially like picnics, because they make me feel European, as in lunch at 125 miles per hour on the Eurostar from London to Paris.  When I went after 9/11 I wanted to be sure that the Swiss Army knife I’ve carried for 35 years to open wine, cut saucissons, and smear cheese on crusty bread wasn’t going to be confiscated, so I came prepared in case I had to post (mail) the knife back home.  With some difficulty I requested pre security screening so they could examine my potential threat. Anyone who has witnessed a Gallic shrug will probably agree that you can’t hijack a 25 voitures train with a three inch blade and a corkscrew, and why would you bother if you could have camembert and claret instead.  If you go, the gendarmes will be just fine with your weapons of mass cheese destruction.

Our local ferry is not quite so liberal.  Even though neither G nor I would be driving on or off the island the open container law means no legal alcohol on public transport.  G put her cocktail in a travel coffee mug.  Mine was in a sports water bottle. 

In the US refrigerators and larders are usually bigger and more amply stocked than their UK counterparts, but in both countries I pride myself on being able to produce a meal or a party whatever’s on hand.  This time I had tinned olives in the cupboard which I stuffed with feta cheese from the fridge.  I toasted thinly sliced bread and topped it with smoked salmon, onions and capers (I did mention that the Survivalists had left me with a lifetime supply of capers), and just for good measure I melted parmesan cheese onto some Wheat Thins (can’t think of a Britsh equivalent – it’s just a really square cracker) and topped them with dried chillis .  G was not impressed with my bicycle basket where I arranged my hors d’oeuvres covered with a tea towel, but I thought it did very nicely for a picnic. 

We boarded with our disguised drinks and my bike basket of hors d’oeuvres.  We told the captain that we couldn’t afford the whale watching boat so were cruising on his ship instead and he took our picture.  The ferry is seven minutes each way, but we got a bit extra because there was a minor breakdown on the mainland side and no one was allowed on.  We sat on deck, eating and drinking, the only passengers on board, and toasted the bored commuters waiting on the dock below.

Here’s the picture of our no-whale, booze-camouflaged-cruise, the Duchess’s farewell ferry journey with G, native Alaskan, judge’s daughter and firefighter’s wife.  This summer, for the first time, the Duchess has affected a pink baseball cap.  She feels her British friends might not approve, although she thinks it is very fetching.
We were very tired, we were very merry

Pardon my appearance

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 10:41 am

I did an upgrade without reading the instructions.  Bad plan and I lost my design and pictures.  A redesign will be coming soon but in the meanwhile this will have to do.  I have invited 10 people for farewell homemade pizza this afternoon and am getting on a transatlantic flight in a couple days…

September 14, 2008

Update on dry dock

Filed under: A long way from home,family,misc — Duchess @ 9:42 pm

The ferry’s been out of service for just over a week.  People who live here (like my mother and her partner) are settling into the routine of staying mainly on island, walking or biking everywhere, chatting to their neighbours.  These three weeks of purdah, when the island is cut off from all vehicle access, is the annual divide that separates the busy, touristy summer from the long, rainy winter.  The sun is still shining, but we know its days are numbered.  The nights are drawing in.

I’ll have returned to England before the car ferry’s back in service, but meanwhile, like a good islander, I’m enjoying the forced privation that keeps me mostly off the mainland.  I’ve baked bread (twice) and (twice) walked – that’s hiked to Yanks, who take these things seriously and have poles to prove it – up the island’s mountain, all of 1000 feet high.

Today, the second time on the mountainside, I met a girl I went to school with 35 years ago and 3000 miles away.  There were 85 kids in my high school class; the population of this island is about 900.  Both of us come from east coast families, and when we were in class together neither of us had ever been west. 

It’s a little weird that we should both turn up here, but not quite as weird as a discovery my mother made when she was first living on the island and introduced to another recent arrival.  As they talked it gradually emerged that they have the same great grandparents, making them second cousins.  Neither my mother nor her long lost cousin have any roots in this part of the world – I think the shared great grandparents were from New York – yet both my mother and her cousin retired to the same tiny, relatively unknown, island in Puget Sound (population then about 800).

If there are any mathematicians out there I would be interested in what the odds against such coincidences might be.

September 11, 2008

Every year a hard anniversary

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 12:15 am

Late in 2001 my school asked me to write an article for the alumni magazine as part of a collection of essays on the terrorist attacks in September that year.  They asked me because I live a long way away, and I guess they thought I might have a different perspective.  I understood that what happened that day would probably prove to be the most significant event of the early twenty first century, but, nevertheless, I wrote personally about how it felt to me.  I’m pasting it in here and hope my readers will forgive the every day tone.  In hindsight I don’t think I would write it very differently, except to say that it is pretty obvious now that our response was wrong (though I should make it clear that the country my daughter said we were about to bomb was Afganistan, not Iraq).

Reflections on 9/11: A view from afar

I watched the events of Sept. 11 from a distance of thousands of miles. I was working at home in my little English village and exchanging occasional e-mails with an American friend.

“Is your radio on?” he wrote. “Two planes have just flown into the World Trade Center.” I switched on BBC radio and listened for a few minutes.

“They are talking about the problems of nappies in landfill sites,” I wrote back. “The planes flew into the WTC?” I thought my friend must be having trouble with his prepositions.

His response made me turn on the tele. That medium, which seems to me less natural to the British character than radio, was showing live pictures, and I watched as the second tower collapsed.

The British know a lot about living with the random violence of terrorism, and, when I thought about it, the orderly airing of an environmental program in the midst of attacks—even while planes bound for unknown destinations were still being reported missing—was just as I would have expected. It is not so much that in Britain terrorism is a daily fear, but it is a part of daily life, and life carries on. I accidentally leave a bag in the library and I return only minutes later to find the bag sequestered and to receive a cold rebuke for raising unnecessary alarms; someone is careless with a suitcase at Heathrow Airport and we all file out into the car park. Luggage lockers are gone from train stations. Litter bins are scarce.

The precautions reflect real threats. Seventeen years ago we woke up to the news that the hotel in which the prime minister and all her government had gathered for a conference had been blown to pieces. Nearly all the ministers survived, but, with dust still rising from the ruins, the IRA issued a chilling statement: “You have to be lucky all the time; we only have to be lucky once.”

So it was now for America, and Britain wept for the loss of innocence as much as for the loss of life. There was not a hint of exultation—now you see what we have suffered—though there might have been; there is widespread belief here that Americans funded the terrorism of the IRA. There was, instead, simply a recognition of the sense of anger and outrage, a sharing of the grief.

The queen ordered that “The Star Spangled Banner” be played at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and at a special service at St. Paul’s in London she stood and joined in the singing of it herself. The media were amazed. Her Majesty, they said, had never before been seen to sing the national anthem of another country.

In my little village I walked my dogs, and neighbors approached me as they would someone bereaved. A newcomer down the road who had for months merely glowered at me (not a dog lover, I guess) stopped his car and got out. “You are an American, right?” he asked. I said I was. “I just want to say how sorry I am.”

The following day my next door neighbor of nearly two decades also wanted to make a formal declaration.

“I would just like to say to you, as an American, and to the American people, on behalf of, well, on behalf of myself, how sorry I am.”

I accepted his and others’ sympathy gratefully. I have never felt less foreign than I did that week, nor more longed to be home.

I was at the school in the dark, angry days of the Vietnam War, when I would have as soon burned the flag as flown it, and even now I wear my patriotism uneasily. I do not know if what we are doing is right, and I suspect that only the outcome will make it clearer. But what happened on Sept.11 was the talk of playgrounds as well as of cabinet offices, and that is as true here as in the United States.

One morning in mid-September when I coaxed my 9-year-old awake, and she resisted as usual, I spoke, unthinkingly, with mock sternness.

“Catherine,” I said, “little girls have to go to school!”

“Not everywhere, Mummy,” she answered. “In that country America’s going to bomb they’re not even allowed to go.” And she snuggled back under the covers, confident in a point well scored.

So I focus on that and hope for an outcome where all little girls must trundle off to school, where bombs do not lurk in suitcases, nor under bus seats, nor in litter bins, and neither do they fall from the sky.

September 8, 2008

Hunkering down for Dry Dock

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 9:57 pm

On Saturday at midnight the car ferry made its last journey from the island and headed off for its annual refit.  For the next three weeks there is a walk on, passenger ferry only. 

The Island has one general store, a restaurant and a diner. The mainland is a seven minute ferry ride away; from the mainland there’s a twenty minute drive through the reservation and into town.  All through last week the queues getting off the island were three times usual.  The summer people were packing up and getting out just in time and the year rounders were heading to town to stock up.

The Survivalists came home from Alaska and like everyone else began to shop. Because I have taken on local habits there was already a mountain of food and drink here.  Now, every time I open the refrigerator something falls out.  In three weeks I suppose it will be very bare – rather alarming to think what we will consume.

On the last Friday and Saturday most of the Islanders drove a car onto the ferry, parked it on the other side and took the return journey in the passenger cabin where they rediscovered their neighbours.

Now there is little traffic on the roads – there’s no petrol on the Island so drivers must eek out the supplies for any cars still here.  Suddenly everyone is walking and bicycling.  It feels a little like living in a major infrastructure failure, only everyone knew it was going to happen and everyone knows how long it will last (give or take a few days, depending on ferry repairs). 

Since I got here everyone has spoken of this time to come.  In a way, the whole summer has been leading to this point, the climax that only real islanders get to share: Dry Dock.  Not a single person complains about the inconvenience. 

I’ve got plenty of red wine and I am good at hunkering, so I’m not complaining either. 

Alas, two days before Dry Dock ends I’ll be hauling my suitcase onto the passenger ferry and heading back to England.  Oxford is going to feel like real culture shock.

September 3, 2008

Summer’s not over til the fair is packed away

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 10:52 pm

Oxford gets an extra week of summer this year.

Brits start shaking their heads and saying sadly, “The nights are drawing in,” as soon as it’s August, and to most people the Bank Holiday on the last Monday in the month brings the summer to an end.  (The holiday isn’t “for” anything, as I explain to Yanks who seemed a bit puzzled by the concept of a Bank Holiday, except to get a day off work – there isn’t another holiday until Christmas.)

But in Oxford summer isn’t really over until the St Giles Fair has been and gone.  It isn’t clear when fair people, travelling the surrounding counties through the season, first began to come together in Oxford for an end of summer celebration but there are references to the Fair, which celebrates St Giles Day, as early as the 17th century.  Year after year the fair people return, with each ride or stall occupying the same spot it has for decades or more.  The carousel of horses, built in 1895, is always the first ride.

St Giles is a wide section of street in central Oxford, lined with plane trees, with the Martyrs’ Memorial at one end and St Giles Church at the other.  On the two days of the Fair traffic is diverted from all approaching streets and the area is taken over by dodgems, waltzers, ghost trains, flying elephants, galloping horses, swing boats, fun houses, baby roundabouts and a tall wooden helter skelter.  There are rows of trailers selling hotdogs, chips, toffee apples and candy floss (cotton candy).  The sound of the parents shouting to children over the noise of kerosene engines is almost deafening and the air is choked with the engines’ smoke.  Metallic balloons bob above the heads of teenagers carrying giant stuffed animals.  By 9 pm it is almost impossible to move except with the flow of the crowd.

The Oxford historian Jan Morris described it thus in 1965 and it is not very different today:

The annual junket called St Giles’ Fair… is an inexorable sort of festivity — in September 1914 they tried to cancel it, but the Home Secretary himself admitted that he was powerless to do so. The whole wide street of St Giles is closed for it. For these two days of the year the University Parks and Christ Church meadows, the two main open spaces of the city, are closed to the public. Traffic is diverted, business is disrupted, the night is gaudy with neon, and all among the plane trees there proliferate the side shows, caravans and pulsing generators of the showmen.

It is the most boisterous of Oxford traditions, the profits of which go partly to the city and partly to the college of St John’s, the local landowner; and it brings together in an atmosphere of unnatural intensity every type and kind of Oxford citizen. The academics go with their burbling children, eating iced lollipops and arguing the toss with indulgent showmen in piping cultured accents. The factory families go, trailing balloons and sweet papers, and hugging flowery vases they have won at shooting galleries. The farmers go, stumping stoically through the hubbub with kind wives in blue hats…The parish clergy go, from a sense of boyish duty, and the weedy louts go, to stand around in bow-legged moronic cliques, licking candy floss, and the shop-girls go, to let their skirts fly on the Big Dipper. Every degree is represented there, from the exquisite patrician to the grubbiest slut in carpet slippers: and flushed from their normal habitats like this, thrown together between the Bingo stalls and the Man-Eating Rat, they always seem to me larger, finer or more awful than life… St Giles’s Fair is like a city with its masks torn off, seen with a flushed clarity, and it makes you wonder how such contrasts can ever be reconciled. It is sure to end, you feel, like all the worst dreams, in a scream, a cold sweat or a blackout.

Oxford, however, is old, and experienced at the game. By Wednesday morning all those stalls and roundabouts have miraculously disappeared, and the scholars, the charge-hands, the oafs and the parsons are restored to their blurred and unalarming selves.

It is certainly true that I always meet someone I know at the Fair.

The St Giles Fair is held the first Monday and Tuesday after the first Sunday in September, so it’s late this year, and summer gets to linger a little longer in Oxford.

Edited to add:  I attempted to simplify the rules for when the St Giles Fair is held and a reader has reminded me that in Oxford nothing is simple.  So I should state that my rule doesn’t quite work.  By statute the Fair cannot be held on the following Monday and Tuesday if St Giles Day (the 1st of September) is on a Sunday.  In that case it is held the second Monday and Tuesday.

Got that?

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