Saturday, March 31, 2018

My Days in France

As we round the corner to three months in France, you might be wondering what my days look like.
In some ways, they aren't that different from when I lived in Ohio, but the biggest difference has to be the amount I'm working (or not working). Perhaps my days would look the same if I was only teaching one online class at home, but my life obviously revolves around food much more here than it did in Ohio.
If it's just me and Earl, no visitors, then I go for a run in the morning. I'm still finding my way. This morning, I tried to run toward the small roads that lead to Mont Sainte Victoire, but I turned around when the sidewalks stopped. I've also discovered a park with running paths, but I barely get two miles when I cover all the trails, so then I have to repeat them, which is fine.
No dogs on the grass!
The park has a beautiful creek running through it and some sweeping weeping willow trees just changing from their winter blonde to a springtime green.
The landscape is beautiful and I don't have to dodge cars or cross streets. 
But my favorite way to run is to run out two or three miles then run back two or three miles. That way I can't wimp out halfway through. I have no option but to take the route back.
When I return to the apartment, I make my coffee. I'm currently drinking caffeinated, which is something I didn't do at home, but usually only one cup, unless we have espresso after lunch, or dinner.

This morning, baguette, butter, jam and a cappuccino. 
Most mornings, we spring for croissants or pain chocolates or pain au raisins, some sort of vienosseries from the bakery, but this morning, I knew I was going to the market, so I made do with bread and jam. And sometimes, I'll eat oatmeal and Earl will eat cereal. We don't want to be too addicted to delicious baked goods. As a matter of fact, I'm a little jaded already, eschewing one bakery in favor of another because of the quality of their breakfast breads.
Today, the Saturday before Easter, I knew we had to visit the market and stock up. Easter Sunday should see most things closed, including restaurants, and then Monday is a "bank" holiday known as Easter Monday, so most things will be closed again.
Who cares about the street full of market stalls, look at that sky!
I wanted to plan meals but only got some vague ideas, picking out asparagus, a melon, some premade paella and rotisserie chicken a la moutarde.

The huge pan of paella. We added some St. Jacques (scallops) to the mix too. 
We stopped in the Monoprix grocery in the basement of a department store for some necessities, like lunch meat, some noodles and sauce as a back-up meal.
But we couldn't walk home yet; we needed to stop at the bakery, purchasing two loaves to get us through until Monday, or possible Tuesday, depending on which bakeries were open on Monday.
These loaves from Lavarenne are not quite baguettes. They're shorter and wider with
 some leavening so they don't get hard as quickly as baguettes do.

Once we got back to the apartment, we unloaded all our goodies and prepared lunch so we could eat the market food while it was still warm. And, of course, we included a glass of wine, even though it's lunch time.
Eating outdoors. I put the melon on the plate with the paella, but the French
would definitely have served it as a starter or as a dessert on a separate plate. 
We have to do some cleaning. Dishes, laundry, sweeping the floor, changing the beds. And there's always some sort of crisis to handle. Today we saw a huge credit card charge from a medical device at home, so that eats into our day, calling and messaging the bank, the company, trying to sort things out.
Many times we're still dealing with kid things, like Tucker applying for jobs and needing an insurance card to prove he’s insured, or Spencer texting because his car won't start and the red key light is blinking.
Sometimes we can solve things; sometimes we just have extra things to worry about. Would we be better able to handle it if we were home, I wonder? Or, are the kids learning to take care of things better since we are not around? Hopefully.

In the afternoons, if we aren't out sightseeing or going to appointments, we might read or take a nap.
Reading on the terrace
Somewhere in the day, I have to find time to work. Many days, that might be half an hour responding to students online, but other days it might be hours of grading essays.
I haven't been doing very much writing, but I know I have to work that into my schedule. I've signed up for Camp Nanowrimo (by the same sponsors who do National Novel Writing Month in November). This is more free form for people who write other things, but my plan is to try to finish my current novel which is already 36,000 words. My goal is 80,000 words by the end of April, but there will be much editing to do after that.
Some time in the afternoon, we might walk back downtown and pick out a pastry for dessert to take home, or we might settle at a table and order a drink -- a pastis, a kir au vin blanc, a porto.

We'll sip the drinks and watch the people walking past.
Our evenings are not very active. They might simply consist of dinner, starting around 7:30 or 8 p.m. If we're eating out, we definitely won't have time for anything else.
At home, after dinner, we may watch some television on Hulu. Now that it is getting warmer and lighter, I hope that we'll have more outings, maybe some concerts or just walking along the Cours Mirabeau listening to all the street musicians and an occasional trip to the cinema.
So, that's an average day for me now that I live in France.
But if visitors come, all bets are off. Who knows where we might end up.

Friday, March 30, 2018

An Inadvertent Train Ride

Our friend Najah had to fly back to Ohio on Wednesday. Her flight left Paris at noon, so we decided that at 6:30 a.m. train that reached the airport at 10:02 was the best option, rather than her taking the train to Paris the night before her flight left.
We had planned to leave the apartment at 5:30 a.m. to get there by 6 and get loaded onto the train with her luggage.
My alarm went off at 5:05. I skipped putting in my contacts and opted for glasses since I planned to return to bed when we got home at 6:30. I even contemplated leaving my pajama shirt on and just putting a sweater over it, but at the last minute I decided to get fully dressed and brushed my teeth. My hair was still braided on the side from the day before when the wind along the Mediterranean started whipping it.

Of course, the braid was looser and a little sloppy, but I would be home in bed again soon.
We waited in the enclosed room, and checked the train numbers in time to know that the train on the quai was not the right one for Najah. The next one arrived 10 minutes later. The doors slid open.
"I'll say goodbye here," I said hugging Naj.
"No come with me," she said, so I went aboard to help her find her seat while Earl carried her suitcase up the steps and placed it on the luggage rack.
Hugs goodbye and we turned to leave as an announcement was being made. I didn't focus on the announcement, but the man in front of me was moving to the opposite side of the aisle and his bag got caught on the armrest of the chair and blocked the aisle.
I smiled, one of those tight-lipped smiles that says I'm impatient, as he unhooked the bag and we continued on. We descended the interior stairs and I saw that the door to the platform was closed.
I didn't panic, merely pushed the black button to open the door, but it didn't open and at that moment the train began to move. That's when my heart started to beat frantically. 
"The train's moving!" I said to Earl, in the most obvious statement ever that didn't need to be said.
We glanced at the little red hammer at the top of the door. It wasn't an emergency though. We were stuck on the train.
I took a minute to calm myself, to talk myself down from the panic rising in my chest.
We didn't have a job that we'd be late for. We hadn't left the doors unlocked or the tea kettle boiling. We had no children at home alone and had let the cat outside before we left.
We might be taking the train to Paris and back, but the only thing to worry about was the time and the money.
We walked back up the stairs to the top floor of the train and Naj looked up.
"What happened?"
"We couldn't get off," I said.
"We thought you could use some company," Earl said.

And so we sat down with Naj and felt the sway of the train. I made Najah rebraid my hair so it wasn't quite so messy. Earl fell promptly to sleep. We looked at Najah's ticket trying to figure out if the train would stop anywhere before Paris.
It's a high-speed train, a TGV. It would normally take about 8 hours to drive from Aix en Provence to Paris, but the train covers it in 3 and a half hours. Wherever we were going, we were headed there fast.
I checked out the train app trying to see if we could buy tickets while on the train or at least find a return trip, but the WiFi wasn't working.
I walked down to the dining car to ask who we could talk to, but they weren't open yet. I had no idea where a conductor was but knew that eventually they would be coming along to check out tickets and we wouldn't have them
As Earl slept, I analyzed my continuing anxiety. The truth was, I hated anticipating that moment when the conductor would arrive and I would have to explain that we were accidentally on the train and we had no tickets. And I'd need to do it in a foreign language.
My friend Delana had advised before to just speak in English and pretend like I didn't understand what the train conductor said. I know that my daughter once fell asleep on a French train and her tears ended up with a hand-written note to let her get the next train back. I didn't think I could fake not understanding the problem, and I'm not one for crying on cue.
After nearly an hour, a familiar tone sounded and the announcer said we were arriving at Valence.
Map from Google Maps
We'd never heard of Valence, but we were grateful to hop off the train at any place farther south than Paris. We gave Najah more hugs and waited anxiously by the door.
At the ticket machine, we bought return tickets for 68 Euros total. We could have tracked down a train official and told him/her our story of woe, but I feared that we would have to pay for the trip to Valence and back, plus a fine, so we opted to simply buy a return ticket.
With an hour train ride back, and only one stop in Avignon, now I could worry about what might have happened to the car. We pulled into the parking lot and parked in the very front spot for what should have been 45 minutes of free parking. I hoped I hadn't missed a sign about cars being towed after a certain amount of time.
When we exited the train at 9:30, after our three-hour unplanned trip, we found the car there and had to pay 14 Euros to exit the lot. So for 82 Euros, about $100, we had an unintentional train ride to nowhere and back.
We didn't go back to bed when we got home at 10 a.m., but we spent a bit of time decompressing from the stress, and we learned a good lesson about staying on the platform to wave goodbye to friends when they leave. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Adventures and Bubbles

There's always so much to write about, but I find myself zoning out once I finally sit down in the evenings, rather than writing a blog.
My friend Najah came to visit a week ago. We met her in Paris and took the train down to Aix en Provence where we're staying until May although she leaves this week. We've had lots of adventures.

A trip to Marseille on Friday almost ended in a few international incidents as I stood up for us as women being ignored in a Tunisian shop and then again as I demanded why a waiter had asked Najah if she was eating at the restaurant when she went in to look for the bathroom and he hadn't asked me, a white woman.
The result was the waiter grabbing me, his fingers closing around my wrist like a handcuff, and pulling me into the restaurant to meet one of the black chefs. "This is my brother!" he proclaimed before making a gesture I had never seen before as he used his fingers to slash across his chest where his heart would be and said I had broken his heart.
I felt bad if I had falsely reproached him, but when I went to sit down, Earl and Najah asked me what he had said when I accused him of being racist. "He introduced me to his black friend," I said. And then it hit me. That's what people always do when you accuse them of being racist, tell you they have black friends.
We spent the rest of the day without fighting with any French people. The sun shone on the sparkling Mediterranean. Najah and I walked arm in arm while Earl traipsed ahead. At one point as Najah and I laughed, heads together, a young man called out to us.
"Mesdames," he said, "vous êtes belles."
And it's true, our joy made us beautiful.
We laughed as we turned back toward the ancient buildings and the sea.
On Saturday, we spent the morning at the market in Aix, returned home to make lunch and then headed to the March For Our Lives. We were surprised and overjoyed to know there would be a local march.
"I just hope there are more than 10 people or so," I muttered as Earl, Najah and I walked to the meeting point. I hated to be the center of attention, yet that is exactly where Najah and I ended up.

Somehow, when we posed with the 100 or so people for a group photo, we were at the far right side, until the organizer said everyone should turn to the right for the picture and, voila, we were at the front.

When the march started, we tried to hang back, but somehow ended up leading the chants. I remembered a few from previous marches, like the Women's March, and the protests when the state government tried to take away the rights of unions, but I had not prepared enough for this.
"Tell me what democracy looks like?" I'd call and the group would respond, "This is what democracy looks like."
Of course, a French woman who had lived in the U.S. for 20 years explained that a legal march should have two police officers at the front and one at the back. We had none. Was it a wise idea to march past the Hotel de Ville? Earl still didn't have his next visa.
But we continued and even led the chants as we marched back toward the plaza, before deciding we'd peel off from the group and go for a glass of wine.

As we sat in the square, I took this artsy photo of Najah's glasses reflecting the buildings along Cours Mirabeau.

Earl went in search of a baguette and wine for our dinner, but Najah and I stayed at the table long enough to see a young woman set up her bubble stand, using long sticks to create magical circles that captured rainbows and floated down the old street amongst the peeling bark of the plane trees. Just another day in Aix en Provence.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Visa Adventures

It happened today -- an official, shiny seal of blue, white and red in my passport showing that I am approved to stay in France through 2019.
2019! That seems so far away.
I was notified by mail that I needed to report to the Marseille Immigration office for my official medical exam.
I also needed to bring a passport-sized photo, a certificate to show I had a place to live, and 250 tax stamps. (That sounds like something from the Colonial times, doesn't it?)
Curiously, although Earl entered the country at the exact same time as me, he did not have an appointment. He came along, mapping the route the day before, in case they meant both of us but only named me.
The appointment had me spooked. I'd read enough books about Americans visiting French doctors and being asked to wait completely naked in the exam room, or, God forbid, the David Sedaris story, In the Waiting Room, about going to the doctor and being sent to wait in his underwear.
I knew that the medical exam included a chest xray to check for tuberculosis, so I anticipated that clothes would be removed.

The man at the tourism office convinced us we needed to catch the 5:45 train from Aix en Provence to Marseille. So we walked out the door of the apartment at 5 a.m., which means I was in the shower at 4:15 a.m. It makes my eyes droop just thinking of it. I had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. the previous morning to drive my friend Delana to the Marseille Airport.
So, at 5 a.m., with the city still dark, we walked one of the spiral streets that leads to the Cours Mirabeau, the famous tourist street in downtown Aix. We passed the tourism office and continued to the bus station.
The dark and empty bus station in Aix en Provence
The man at the tourism office warned that later buses get quite crowded, still, at 5:25 a.m. with the temperature right at freezing (O in Celsius, 32 in Fahrenheit) I thought a gaggle of warm bodies might have been better.
As we stood waiting, a Japanese man approached us carrying two bags. He sat them down and began to talk to us in superfast English, telling us of his travel adventures. It helped pass the time, and he bowed as we boarded the bus.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at St. Charles train station in Marseille. Yes, 6:15 a.m. for an 8:30 appointment. We were prepared, carrying our folder full of official papers.
I insisted we stop for coffee and pain au chocolate at the train station, after using the pay toilets.
The trains were striking today, so workers gathered in the station, preparing for their demonstration.
Strikers gathered at St. Charles station in Marseille
Luckily, the buses and the metro were not affected. We descended to the Metro and bought a roundtrip ticket on the subway. A few stops later, we climbed into the city to see daybreak in a clear sky.
Finally the sun rose on our morning
We walked to the office to make sure we knew the location then we searched out a boulangerie, some place warm to wait, sipping a coffee to make it last, and last, and last.
We'd seen a sign for a "McDrive" a McDonalds with a drive through, so we walked in search of it because after all that coffee, we needed a bathroom, but we couldn't find it so returned to the immigration office. A few people had already gathered outside the door.
Once the workers opened the door, precisely at 8:30, everyone pressed in, no matter what time they had arrived. There was no sense of first come, first serve. I was escorted past the reception desk to the medical waiting room. By 8:35 I sat in a wooden chair, alone, separated from Earl. The woman said something in French I didn't understand but then explained I would be first.
After she left, I saw the sign that explained the medical staff didn't begin until 9. So I was first, once they arrived.
The radiologist came in carrying a motorcycle helmet under his arm. A tall thin woman nodded bonjour to me. She was the "infirmier," the nurse who would later weigh me, after covering the standing part of the scale with a piece of paper to protect me and the rest of the patients from foot germs.
The radiologist called me in first. "You are perhaps wearing a little tshirt?" he asked hopefully.
No, my instructions had not included wearing a little tshirt. But I had a tshirt dress on. Wasn't that close enough?
No. I needed to get undressed and put on a see-through green smock. I didn't know which way it tied, in the front or the back.
I opened the door a crack and called out, "Monsier, ..." I asked in my halting French whether it should open in the front or derriere. He didn't care and led me to the board where I pressed my chest against the plastic and held my breathe. Then I could get dressed and prepare to see the nurse and the doctor.
The nurse asked questions about my immunizations, my eye prescription, the number of pregnancies. She weighed me and measured my height then did some calculations. The weighing part didn't bother me at all, even though I had eaten breakfast and had two coffees. At home, if I'd been going to the doctor I would definitely have fasted for a day or at least the morning before being weighed, but since I didn't know what was light or heavy in kilograms, it didn't faze me. (Don't tell me. I don't want to know.)
Next, she pricked my finger with a needle to check my blood sugar -- very good.

I was sent to the waiting room to look longingly at the doctor's door. Frequently, the doctor, nurse, radiologists, or receptionists would pause in what they were doing to exchange cheek kisses with co-workers who arrived to start their days. I couldn't imagine such a ritual in the U.S.
The doctor called me in. My chest xray was good. My weight and blood pressure a bit high (for French or Americans, I wondered). He listened to my heart and my lungs, looked in my mouth. Felt the glands in my neck and sent me on my way.
No. I moved to the reception area where I got to sit by Earl. He urged me to ask about his appointment, but I put him off. "Let me get my visa complete than I'll ask."
The clock ticked toward 11 and I was getting worried. The office closed from 11:30 to 2:30 for lunch. Would we have to return?
But as the reception area thinned out, a woman called my name, or part of my name. I proudly handed her each document she requested. When we got to the stamp tax, I gave her a piece of paper printed with squiggly lines that could be read by a phone or computer. Electronic stamps worth $250.
My friend Delana had explained that we pay for the stamps in a tabac -- a corner store that sells cigarettes, post cards, newspapers, and apparently tax stamps.
The woman behind the counter, who had been quickly moving through all the steps shook her head. "We need the actual physical stamps, not electronic," she said.
"But I showed them the letter," I protested.
She just shook her head again.
The woman spoke in French the whole time, so I'm sure I missed some of the points, but she kept saying she was waiting for my vignette. The vignette is that sticker with the shiny French flag stamp, but I had no idea. I thought a vignette was a story that someone might tell.
She printed out a paper explaining how to redeem the 250 Euro electronic tax stamps we'd paid for and I sent Earl down to the nearest tabac for 250 Euros in actual, physical stamps. He returned quickly and I handed them over.
Once she used her glue stick to adhere the "vignette" into my U.S. passport, I asked her about an appointment for Earl.
I knew that our original visas were good for travel in and out of the country for three months, and that deadline was fast approaching. As of April 4, we would have passed three months since arriving in France.
He plans to visit Italy, I explained, to see his sister.
The radiologist had stepped out to reception at that point. Was he still picturing 50 year old breasts as he commented about the joys of visiting Italy and asked what part?
"Pisa," I explained.
"Ah, yes, Americans love Pisa."
But, getting back to the subject, could Earl travel to Pisa and return on April 5th, one day after the three-month mark?
Better not, the woman advised with a look that said he could be banned from France, stranding me alone in Aix en Provence.
He doesn't have an appointment (rendez-vous) yet, I pointed out.
She looked him up and told us his appointment was scheduled for April 3. He just hadn't been notified yet. Should we try to reschedule the appointment so he could go to Italy?
Well, there were no earlier appointments, and he might not get back into the country.
Probably best to keep the appointment and change the trip, we agreed quickly, afraid of losing our spot in the immigration line
What a relief to be finished with the hoops, for now.
Before I left, the woman pointed out the date on the visa. "If you want to stay in France," she explained, "you must apply to renew the visa two months before it expires."
Okay, eight months before I have to start the paperwork again, and two months before we take the early morning trip to Marseille for Earl's visa journey.
Don't worry though, we made the best of it, walking down to the old port and enjoying a lunch along the harbor
The waiter took our photo during lunch. We should have leaned forward to get the shade off our faces. 

The view from our lunch table, over the harbor and the beautiful Notre Dame de la Garde high above
before we returned to Aix en Provence and my friend Najah who is visiting from Ohio.
We may take her back to Marseille tomorrow, and maybe I'll share some of our adventures with you. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Back to France and Old Friends

Our next step from England was to return to France and stay at a friend's apartment on the ocean. I mean, who doesn't jump at a chance to stay with a view like this.
The apartment looks over the Atlantic Ocean
We knew our housesit ended on the 15th of March, so we planned to arrive in France on the 15th. This apartment near La Rochelle is so close to England, we figured it would be no trouble to get there in a day. What we didn't count on was that train travel would require us to go from London to Paris before returning to the coast, or to Lille, up near Belgium, before taking a train to the coast. All train possibilities looked to take 10 hours or so.
Our friends, Linda and Maurice, (originally blogging friends, now real-life friends) were waiting for us at their apartment and we needed to be there by 5 so they could catch a train home.
Finally, we landed on flying from London to Nantes, visiting French friends there and renting a car to drive to La Rochelle.
We have been friends with Michel and Danuta for more than 30 years. I met them when I came to France as an au pair and they had two little girls with a third child on the way. We try to see them whenever we visit France and they have hosted us and all of our children a number of times.
We talked about meeting for lunch and Danuta suggested a restaurant with a panoramic view of the chateau and the cathedral of Nantes. I knew immediately that she meant her beautiful apartment.

Our flight was at 7:20 a.m., but the taxi got lost on his way to pick us up. When we hurried through customs and to the gate, the flight was already boarding. No problem, though. We made it -- just no time for coffee or breakfast beforehand.
We picked up our rental car at the airport, without a GPS, making wrong turns into the city and ending up on a road where average people are not allowed to drive. Oops! We kept aiming for the cathedral because we know it's near their apartment. Finally, we arrived at the blocked road and Michel came out to push the magic buttons to let us in.
After parking the car, we agreed to walk around Nantes, since there was time before lunch. And a walk with Michel is serious business.
Earl and Michel on the ramparts at Chateau des duc de Bretagne in Nantes
We started with the ramparts around the castle then moved toward the botanical gardens, Les Jardins des Plantes, 
This plant was shaped into a bear or a dog; we weren't sure

The camellias were blooming beautifully. 
before pacing along the stretch that houses a fair twice a year, and perusing the river that ends abruptly in the city because it was filled in, but with a peek at the tunnel built under the road that allows boats access. After nearly an hour and a half, we headed to the apartment where Danuta was busy preparing lunch.
We met new friends, Hugo and Marie-Claire and they indulged us by speaking English and talking about books and blogs and retirement.
We had a glass of muscato in the salon along with olives, tomatoes, and bruschetta before moving to the table for a salad that included seafood, mushrooms and avocados. The main course was a dorade royale, which is a kind of bream. Danuta pointed out the line along the fish's head like a crown, which was why it is called royal. She first served him whole on the plate then retrieved it to the kitchen for filleting. All I could see was his tiny baby teeth, but I still ate some of the flaky white meat with butter and lemon sauce. As Midwesterners, we are bad at adapting to seafood. Michel explained that the knife beside our plate, which resembled a butter knife, was used for gliding across the fillet to help remove bones. The regular knife at the top of the plate, was saved for the cheese course. Plus, Hugo and Marie-Claire explained, using a regular knife to cut into fish would cause it to turn dark and oxidize, but maybe that was only with real silver. Along with the fish, was spinach fresh from the market, roast potatoes, and fennel (which we'd never eaten but sliced and cooked so it looked like onions). I had only a small glass of wine, knowing we were driving two hours afterward, but Earl had no qualms about refilling his glass many times over. We had cheese then cheese cake before moving back to the salon for coffee (for me) and plum wine digestif for Earl, two or three thimbles full, I didn't keep track.
All too soon, we had to leave to get to the beach by the appointed time and Earl promptly fell asleep. I turned on a podcast of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me to keep me company as I made my way out of Nantes and onto the highway headed south toward Bordeaux before veering toward La Rochelle and then south of there to Chatelaillon-Plage. It is gorgeous here, even as the clouds skitter past and drop rain on us before being replaced by sunshine.
A sailboat school on the beach near the apartment

Sitting in the sunshine for a coffee after shopping in the market Friday morning.
Linda and Maurice were waiting and they showed us all the secrets to staying at their beautiful beach house. We'll meet them in Paris for a drink and to return the keys.
And we'll see Danuta and Michel again in Paris too where we'll create another dinner at their daughter's apartment in Paris. It's nice to be close enough to see friends repeatedly without worrying that it might be years before we get together again.
Friends is one of the things I have missed most while we've traveled for two and a half months now. I can't replace my friends at home with ones here, just like when I was home, I couldn't replace these French friends, but it's nice to have so many in my life.
That includes my friend Najah who flies to Paris, for the first time this weekend, arriving Monday. We'll be there to greet her at the airport and show her a bit of Paris before retreating to Aix en Provence for five weeks.
Friends and France -- that makes me very happy. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Some Things British (or Maybe English)

Walking in the park on Saturday, Earl and I couldn't help noticing the plethora of children dressed in striped shirts with knee-high socks -- soccer tournament.
 Parents stand on the sidelines for a soccer game. No snacks at the end of games, we noticed. 
We discussed whether we missed the time when our Saturday mornings were filled with soccer games, finding the shin pads, the cleats, the right soccer shirt before sitting in a foldable chair in the rain, snow and wind (rarely the sun).
Because of the crowds, people had parked wherever they could find a few feet of space.
As we walked around the lake, a family of four cut across the field and joined the path. The father carried a cup of "takeaway" coffee as he walked with his wife and two daughters. They chatted as they walked and finally, the father stopped and said, "We need to move more quickly."
Immediately, the eldest daughter, maybe 11 or 12, crossed her arms across her chest and addressed her father.
"You did not need to raise your voice at us," she began as they walked ahead and the conversation drifted off.
I wanted to laugh. That must be the British version of raising your voice because, in my house, it would not have even been heard. I hoped that Earl (who came from an Italian family) had witnessed this conversation because we had often had a similar discussion in our house, but the voices were much louder and he was accused of yelling.

Some curious things about England, the plugs have switches on them.
The first night, we plugged in Earl's phone and the next morning, it hadn't charged at all. I tried turning on light switches at the door to see if the outlet was connected to the overhead light, but it made no difference. That's when we discovered that each plug had it's own on and off switch.

"Does the electricity leak out if you leave it turned on?" I asked, but couldn't get a satisfactory answer.
Earl did a bit of sleuthing and discovered that England does have a stronger electrical current so it could be quite dangerous. Still, annoying and I can't tell you how many times we've waited for something electrical only to discover that the plug is not turned on.

For a similar reason, the light switch for the bathroom is outside the door. If you walk into the bathroom, you will not find a light switch. You'll need to turn around, walk outside the door and switch on the light. Then walk into the bathroom and close the door.
"Did these people not grow up with siblings?" I ask over and over.
I'm sure my siblings would have been thrilled to turn off the light while I was in the bathroom over and over again. This is a sibling joke that would never have grown old. I can almost hear the "Mom" that would have followed every time.
There are also no outlets in the bathroom. From outside the door, I plug in the hair dryer and stand near the doorway blowing my hair dry. Same thing for the hair straightener.

The British/English thing is something that I'm still struggling with. People born in England, obviously. English people are British, but not all British people are English. Some are from Northern Ireland or Wales, or other places that I'm not sure enough to include here.
A guy walking his dogs once stopped and asked Earl if he was Canadian. After talking for a few minutes, Earl asked him if he was British, and the guy replied, "No, I'm English." He later conceded they were all the same, but there's no way to know if a person is English or British, unless they have a very obvious Welsh accent or something.
My friend Anne met us in London. I know that she lives in Oxford, so I said something about her being English. 
Me and Anne -- she's British. 
She immediately let me know that she was born in Northern Ireland, so she was not English, but she was British.
It just makes my head spin to try to figure it out, but maybe it isn't important after all.
For instance, we've always called ourselves American, but I've heard that can be offensive to other people who come from the continent of North or South America. The website Go Abroad lists it as number 2 on the 7 terms not to use. So I've been trying to say that we're from the States or the United States. Mostly, people know where we come from if we say American. So I'll hope that British or English people won't be offended if I call them by the wrong name.

As we walked through St. James Park on Sunday, we saw all kinds of birds in the park. Many of them were presents from various countries around the world, like pelicans from Saudi Arabia. Herons stood patiently while people took pictures of them, 
A handsome heron and some daffodils
but the real star of the park were the few gray squirrels. People were fascinated by the squirrels. And they were cute, with little patches of white on their chest and their cheeks full of peanuts, but I can't imagine being that entranced by squirrels. At our house in Ohio, hundreds of squirrels scampered up and across branches, chasing each other, stealing chunks of pumpkin from our jack o'lanterns, digging up bulbs that would have brought forth spring flowers.
It's a squirrel, people. Move along. The squirrel isn't in the picture. He's on a tree. 
But crowds lined a fence watching a single squirrel eat. The people stretched farther. I couldn't get them all in one photo.

The sun came out as we crossed the Thames before finding our train at Victoria Station. 

Friday, March 09, 2018

The Case for Walking

We had planned to rent a car while staying in England.
A 30-minute train ride from London, on the edge of National Trust land, we didn't want to be stranded in the country.
The view from a hill. 
But, as I explained in an earlier post, the $323 cost to rent the car for 18 days more than doubled to 500 pounds when we arrived, which equals nearly $750. I couldn't justify it.
"We'll walk," I declared. And 500 pounds would pay for 50 taxi rides that cost 10 pounds. I bet we wouldn't have that many.
I had no idea how close their house was to town, so the morning before the homeowners left, we went to the grocery store and threw in a number of things to tide us over -- pasta and sauce and lunch meat and bread, apples and bananas and yogurt and cookies. I knew they had eggs and potatoes so I could make due with omelets or roasted potatoes if we needed to.
The next morning on an exploratory run, I discovered that downtown was only a mile away. Since then, we've been making trips every few days so we can carry home what we need.
We've only taken one taxi ride, coming home from the train station at 11:30 at night in the snow. Other than that, we have walked.
And I might be a convert to the idea of walking on vacation rather than renting a car. In addition to saving money on the cost of the car, we haven't need to fill it up, argue about parking or who will drive or getting lost (although we have gotten lost while walking). We haven't need to worry about dings from cars parked next to us. No car has equaled extra peace of mind.
It may be true that we haven't done some things we might have with a car. Apparently Box Hill, located in the hills to our west, was the picnic scene in Jane Austen's Emma where Emma criticized Miss Bates. Perhaps we would have taken the dogs to walk on the heath, wherever the heath is. We probably would have driven to town and spatted about parking spaces.
But walking has let us explore parts of town we might never have seen.
Like this building from 1626
Can you see the numbers on the center peak of the house? 
Or this one with the interestingly shaped windows.
Mind you, I wouldn't want to pay for new windows. They'd definitely be special order.
We have walked the dogs to town twice (keeping them on a leash) and meandered around the lake at Priory Park. Who knows, we might have been rushing to a tourist destination rather than taking the time to explore the city.
Swans and ducks abound in this lake in Priory Park

Which is why Minnow dived into the lake to try to catch a bird
We've window shopped (noticing that pink is the color this spring) and we've tested coffee in most every non-Starbucks in town.
We've learned about local customs, like when to say Good Morning or Cheers or nothing.
Exercise is another benefit to not renting a car. Some days, like today, my Fitbit reads 24,000 steps or more.
And we've taken interesting photos, like this one. 
The berry clumps are gorgeous. 
And if we hadn't been walking, would we have noticed this sign? Perhaps not just a sign, but "a sign."

I have to agree
Maybe renting a car won't be such a priority in the future. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Nearly an American Statistic in Britain

I nearly died on a run this morning -- not because my heart rate gets up to 175 during my exercise or not because I looked the wrong way when crossing the street. It's because I didn't understand one little thing about traffic rules in the UK.
Since we arrived here a week ago, I've only gone on a couple of runs. One reason my runs have been curtailed is because of a giant hug by my husband. Picture me singing with my arms stretched wide above my head. My husband decided that was a perfect time to wrap his arms around me and pick me up. I yelped from the tight grip on my ribs, but didn't think about it again until later in the day when I started to feel pain. I thought it was my muscles and racked my brain for some exercise that might have stretched the muscles around my ribs. It took a few hours and an increasing pain before I remember that bear hug that made me yelp.
Cracked ribs or bruised ribs just need time to heal, I read online, so I curtailed my runs and tried not to breathe so much -- or cough or sneeze or sleep on my side.
Maud the dog has no problem sleeping -- see her butt sticking out from under the blanket. 
My ribs have healed enough that I was able to put on a running bra this morning and, after some discomfort breathing the first few minutes, I was able to run about four miles.
I've been warned about Americans who look the wrong way at intersections and get hit by cars as they step off the curb.  In London, at major intersections, words are printed on the road "Look right" or "Look left" reminding foreigners which way to look for traffic before they cross.
I kept that in mind as I ran, rarely crossing streets and sticking to the sidewalks, which are asphalt so not as hard on the knees as our concrete sidewalks at home.
As I loped down the main street in Reigate, I came to an intersection. I was running straight and assumed that I had the right of way when crossing the street, as pedestrians do in the U.S. and in France.
I stepped into the road and a car turning left squealed to a stop.
This isn't the intersection where I nearly died. Just an example that even
 if you're going straight as a pedestrian, the cars turning have the right of way. 
I veered back to the sidewalk and ran a few steps along the side street. A high school-aged boy on his way to school answered my questions.
The cars have the right of way unless it's a zebra-stripe crosswalk -- you know the ones with white stripes across the road.
"Ok," I thanked the boy. "I'll try to stay alive this morning," I called as I continued my run, heading to a nearby park where I wouldn't have to worry so much about cars and which side of the road they're driving and who has right of way at intersections.
A church with a cemetery, where I won't be buried since I didn't die on my run. 

Monday, March 05, 2018

Dogs and Badger Holes

Every dog we walk from now on will be on a leash.
I can't take the pressure of watching the wagging tail disappear and imagining losing a dog, a beloved pet, a family member.
When we walked with the homeowners on the day they left, they identified the badger holes in the ground. The working spaniel always stuck her nose in them, as if pointing them out to her siblings, a 13-year-old short-haired dachshund and a six-month old wire-haired dachshund. The older dachshund showed much interest, while the younger preferred running after his sister and pulling on her leash.
This morning, as Maud the older dog, stuck her head in the hole, I blew on the whistle, which calls the dogs to come to me for a treat. Maud backed out of the hole and stood for a treat. As soon as she gobbled it up, she headed back to the hole.
"Maud," I called as her head and long torso started to disappear.
"Grab her tail," Earl yelled.
I didn't really think she would keep going and I didn't want to hurt her.
"I can't grab her tail; you do it." I reached for the leash of the spaniel that Earl held but by the time he got to the hole, Maud and her tail had vanished.

A badger hole along the walking path -
note there is no dog tail wagging from the end.
I frantically blew on the whistle. Spud stood hopefully beneath me, ready for his treat since he responded to the whistle, but Maud did not emerge from the hole.
"Maud," I called. "Treats, Maud. Biscuits, Maud." I wasn't sure what the British call dog treats, but I hoped food would cause her to come back. I returned to the whistle, blowing over and over.
The homeowners had warned us that they had lost one of their dogs down a badger hole for a few hours on a walk along the hills. I couldn't imagine anxiously standing outside this hole, wondering where or when Maud might come out. She could follow the underground tunnels and end up anywhere.
I put Spud on the leash. We had been keeping the other dog, Minnow, on a leash because she is deaf and the owners worried she might not recognize us and come to us. The dachshunds had been allowed off leash once we walked past the horse fields because they responded to the whistle. Well, no more.
After a few anxious moments for us as we debated our next step, Maud resurfaced, blinking her one eye in the sunlight, he face dotted with chalky mud. 
Maud spotted with chalky mud after coming out of the badger hole. 
We clipped the leash on her right away. As I leaned over to take a picture of the hole in the ground, she attempted to stick her head in again.

Oh, no, Maud. We're wise to you now. 
So we continued our walk with all three dogs on their leashes. It's a much more tedious walk, constantly unwinding them from trees they've run around on the wrong side, or freeing the leash from prickly thorns and branches.
The dogs, especially Maud, walk much more slowly when on the leash.
We persevered and were rewarded with this view from the top of the hill. 
We always manage to take a wrong turn. When it doesn't look familiar, we figure that we're committed and we should push through to wherever the path comes out. Today we carried on before deciding to turn around and retrace our steps.
Poor Maud was paying for that badger adventure by walking extra.
Finally we made it back to familiar land.
Earl extra happy that all three dogs made it home with us. 
But we've learned our lesson about allowing the dogs off leash. Sorry if it ruins all of your training techniques; we just can't take that chance any more. I'm sure most pet owners would prefer to come home to all of their pets intact and retrain them than to return to missing pets lost down badger holes. 

Book Review The Vanished Collection

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