Saturday, June 30, 2007

'OMG cointreau . . .'

. . . comes from here!' exclaimed Fiona upon being told that it does in fact come from St. Barthélémy d'Anjou. (That is essentially right next door to where we are in France right now BTW.) How happy is she? Let's just say very. If we manage a distillery tour she might just expire from joy.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Countryside: 1 Cities: 0

As far as I'm concerned, cities can bite me. Fiona certainly may not agree, but neither London nor Paris made a great first impression. The french countryside, however, and the town of Angers have been great so far. Our friend Brian and his wife Dominique have a great old house with exposed beams. Too cute. It is also filled with the happy sounds of their three delightful girls.

So while the travel through the cities was no disneyland
(slow bar that, BTW) the destination is worth the trip.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Oxford to London

Getting the bus from Oxford to London was easy. There was a bus about to pull away just as we approached the stop, but the driver was good enough to stop for us and patiently guide me through chucking my bag underneath the bus and using the ticket reader to pay our fares.

The bus itself was your standard coach. We had a few stops to make on the way out from Oxford and then quick as traffic could allow to London.

Once into the London area traffic was very congested. It took an extra 40 minutes to get to our stop. We then nearly missed our stop because we were not clear as to which Victoria stop was correct. Once again, the driver went out of his way to grab my bag for me and send us the correct direction to reach Waterloo train station.

The half-hour walk from Victoria to Waterloo was easy. Well, easy except for the hoardes of tourists, crazy drivers and the utter disregard pedestrians and drivers show for one another.

Our path took us along past Scotland Yard, Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, the London Eye, parliament and Big Ben.

Despite these purported world famous sites to see, the most impressive site was the 8 foot tall transsexual woman (to be clear - once a man, now a woman) dressed in a woman's business suit, blazing a trail down the sidewalk, apparently oblivious to the sub-machine gun toting guards patrolling the perimeter of Scotland Yard.

Despite the hazards, we made our way to Waterloo without incident about two hours before our scheduled departure for Paris. (For those keeping track, travel time included a 10 minute walk to catch the bus, 2 hours 40 minutes on the bus, and 25 minits walk from bus drop to Waterloo.) You'l have to tune in later for details about our adventures there.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007


First, three more things that caught my attention:
1. The curbside garbage bins are labeled "litter." Now, call me crazy, but as far as I know, it's only litter when you don't put it in the can. When you toss something in the can, it's not litter anymore.
2. The tea bags here are much stronger than in the US. So the good news is that you only need one bag to get Really F***ing Strong Tea (which is how I like it). The bad news is that when Charles makes tea he sort of waves the teabag near the cup and then runs away with it.
3. British strawberries are ridiculously good. And here's the fun part: they aren't exactly the belle of the ball. Truth? They're ugly. Sort of small, sort of greenish, sort of hard-ish. But...they're sweet and not at all astringent, and they taste cold and refreshing even when they're not actually cold. Bart says they're famous, and I think with good reason. Don't get me started on the yoghurt. It is to American yoghurt what my Crazy Aunt Georgiana's pound cake is to a Little Debbie Cake.

Second, observed this afternoon in a window, while walking. A computer, and next to it, right where you'd need it when things weren't going so hot: a bottle of Jim Beam. Sweet!

Another observation: Oxford can be kind of...mysterious. There were many things we didn't understand in advance. But once here, despite the tendency to reticence so common among the residents, we've learned a lot.

So when a funny thing happened, it took me a while to understand it, but I think I've finally got it. I was walking through town to fetch a birthday present for Charles. At the crossing of Parks Road, an elderly woman stopped me to ask where the Pitt Rivers Museum was. It's about a half-block up the street, so I pointed in the direction, told her she was nearly there, and continued on my way. On the other side of the street, just before I turned into the little alley that connects Parks Road to St. Giles, I stopped to make sure she got to the museum.

What I saw was this: she had stopped a man to ask him directions. She didn't think I knew what I was talking about. Or she got confused in the 30 feet from asking me and asking him. Either way, I was like, "Hmph." He pointed, she peered up from under her rain jacket (did I mention it was, in the local parlance, "pissing rain"?), and on she toddled.

But I think I get it. Nothing we could learn about Oxford before we came was really helpful. Figuring out certain basic facts, even once here, proved a challenge. So is it any wonder she doubted? By the time she met me, she had probably wandered across most of Oxfordshire, looking for a scrambled egg and some decent bagels.

I think she proves that we aren't freaks; getting the lay of the land is hard work. So I am feeling rather accomplished. I can give simple directions. I know where the major landmarks are. I look left first when crossing the street (from that side, I mean. From the other side, I look right. Whatever, you know what I mean).

Tomorrow, we go to France. On the chunnel train, called the Eurostar (I keep thinking, "EuroSTAR! I'm a Euro---STAR!!" imagine Mary Katherine Gallagher with jazz hands), we will depart Waterloo. Paris comes three hours later, then after we dash across the city to the south station, another TGV takes us to Angers. There, not only will our friend Brian welcome us, but also his lovely wife Dominique and his three little girls. My priorities, in no particular order, are: bread, cheese, chocolate.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

E-mail Posting

In theory, blogger allows posting via e-mail, so I thought I’d test it before setting out for France later this week.


Informational tidbit of the day:  the mean temperature on Ben Nevis is just below freezing and 9 days out of 10 it is in the clouds.


Thought of the day:  Barometric pressure can bite me.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Empress Matilda wuz here

The tower Charles writes about below turns out to be the site of one of the most famous escapes in English history.

When we first visited Tony and Bart, they took us to a little village near Milton Keynes. We were walking down the main street, and there was a sign that said something like "Here in [year a really, really, really long time ago] agents of Richard III captured the young king as he tried to escape" So remember the princes who died in the Tower? Richard III's nephews? Who he probably murdered? Yeah, them. Right there, the elder met his doom. Captured, taken back to London, dead before he reached puberty.

So I guess I knew that history just jumps up here and smacks you. But...

We toured the castle here in Oxford, walking round the existing structure and the streets where the walls used to rise. The first stop on the walk was down by the river, and the tour guide pointed up to a small window in the Saxon/Norman tower.

[The tower was first built by the Saxons in about 1055. The Normans showed up a few years later, and they took it and built it higher in 1071. It survived the turbulent 17th century, only to become a prison in the 18th. Many people died in its central square, hanged or beheaded or burned. Oxford University had the legal right to use the bodies of felons for medical experiments. After they were dead, obvy]

Why was this window significant? Because it was from this window, during the chaotic period when King Stephen and Empress Matilda battled for the throne, that Matilda escaped a seige. It was January, and she had herself lowered from that window, wearing a white cloak, and crept across the frozen river to freedom. Freaky.

So all I have to say about touring England is this: beware. You'll be walking along, thinking about the Krispy Kreme donut you're going to eat in an hour, and Boom! There will be one of the most famous episodes in English history, lounging on the street as if it's just no biggie.

You have been warned.

I Married McGyver

In our continuing series of posts detailing last weekend, here's one about Saturday night. But first, let me pay tribute to the wonders of duct tape. Even in a foreign country, with limited tools, on a rainy day, Charles fixed his umbrella (so necessary here that I'd leave the apartment without undergarments before I left behind my umbrella) with duct tape. Impressive.

So, Saturday night we finally experienced the phenomenon of the gastro-pub for real. Bart and Tony took us to the Black Swan. Or perhaps it was the Black Horse. It might have been the Black Dragon. In any event, it was black. As you can see, below, it is also really pretty:

When Tony was a boy, his parents came here to drink (no food, then), and the kids played on a bunch of tree houses built out in the yard. They also enjoyed playing in the canal. They climbed the railroad trestles and jumped in, pushed each other in, and otherwise amused themselves. Tony learned various skills at the re-purposed abbey, as well:

They probably shouldn't have gone in the water, since it's not what you'd call clear. In fact, we found a drowned rat floating in it:

So after our dinner (proscuitto-wrapped chicken breast in mushroom cream sauce on mash - nice choice Tony, and thanks for sharing!), we all ambled off down the canal for a look. The path meanders along the canal for a long way:

It was, as they say, lovely. We took a number of silly pictures of ourselves, ignoring the bad light and my slight inebriation. It was peer pressure, really, from the group of pirates we met along the way. No joke, missing teeth and an eye patch. No, really. They were having a great time, and naturally we had to keep up.

All along the canal there are small barges. You can rent one, and holiday up and down England using canals. Or you can live on one. Like ships, they have names. "Sure & Steadfast," for example, or "Safety First." Of course, some people are more creative with their barge:

All in all, it was a very nice evening. Good food, an enormous bottle of cider from a family cider business that's been making the tasty stuff since 1728, scintillating conversation, and a little stroll afterward. Rats and pirates were merely the icing on the cake.

The real pleasure of a weekend in Milton Keynes, though, is canine. Not that Bart and Tony aren't wonderful. They are. But they don't let me do this:

And even if they did, it wouldn't be quite the same. Of course, neither Cooper nor Kira make breakfast or provide saucy chat. But...I'm still hooked. I realize that we've posted pictures of Tony but not Bart. So here's the two of us, 16 years after we graduated high school together. Don't we look smart and interesting?

Umbrella repair

I've never been able to keep an umbrella in good shape for long. True to form, my umbrella failed this morning. The pin connecting the handle to the canopy fell out enough to allow them to separate. Luckily, the pin stuck in just enough that I did not lose it.

Thanks a pair of scissors drafted into service as a pair of pliers, the back end of a spoon, and a bit of duct tape, I was able to insert the pin through one side of the handle post and secure the half-baked repair in place.

I haven't tested the repair yet and am interested to see if it will survive even a light breeze.

Weekend fun

Friday night started well with snowboarding inside in Milton Keynes. Tony's brother Mick and friend Rob set us up with everything needed for an evening of fun on the slopes. My overpacking habits paid off again as I had waterproof hiking pants, longjohns, a warm hat, down vest, windstopper jacket, and even gloves. In short, I was well equipped with everything but boots and board which the hill provided.

The hill is a very short run with "button" lifts. These lifts amount to a tiny little circular button on the end of an extension pole down from the lift cable. Simply put, you grab the pole and stick it between your legs. The "button" provides a bit of a seat and you are pulled up the slope. I was apprehensive, but it was rather easier than a t-bar type lift found at many U.S. resorts. I managed to negotiate the lift without falling on my face or busting a nut - always a bonus.

Looking down the hill, there is one side with a bit of a park - jumps, rails, etc. all set up for performing tricks. The other side is mostly just a moderate slope down. However, towards the bottom, at the center, there was a large jump.

Riding down takes no more than a minute, but the snow was of good quality and there was very little ice. The riders there were, for the most part, quite skilled. Very few people fell at all and lots were jumping and making use of the board park. The lines were non-existent, and the ride up took less than 5 minutes.

Mick joined us for a few runs, but then he busted a binding and bowed out for the evening. Tony and I stuck around for another couple of hours, including a brief break for beer. At the top of our last run down I realized that I had also broken a binding and had to very slowly ride down with just a toe strap on my back foot. Luckily, there was no ice and I stayed off of my backside.

Given the constraints, I think the indoor snowboarding hill was very well done. (A few people were on skis, but the majority of folks were riding snowboards.) A few more visits and I think I would have been tempted to try the jumps myself.

Sunday, after yet another excellent breakfast cooked up by Bart, we set off for Oxford. This weekend there were a variety of free guided walking tours around town. They all started from the local castle. Walking there, we realized that we had not even walked by before and we were very impressed by the outside. We found room in the tour walking around the outside of the castle and found out it was quite extensive in its day. We took few photos as it was
actively raining, but here is one just for flavor.
The tower is a very old tower. The building in the foreground is not as old as the tower (a few hundred years instead of about 1000), but it was part of a prison until just recently. We plan to go back to take the inside tour to find out about the prison and have a chance to climb the tower.

Who knew such good stuff was within a half-hour walk from out apartment? It seems we find cool stuff every day.

In other news, we continue to battle against the public transport system here, with a predictable mix of success and frustration. The train people continue to frustrate, but after hours (seriously, hours, I'm not even exaggerating) of research, I think I've figured how to get two of us from Liverpool to London after completing the three peak challenge next month and the other two of us from Liverpool to Oxford. Given a few more hours, I might even be able to convince the train company to sell me the last of tickets. The bus people continue to be easier to deal with. We now have a 12 trip ticket for the Oxford-London bus. Between the two of us, we expect to use the 12 rides getting to Angers later this week and then visiting London while our friends Dan and Natalia are in London. While later this week will be our first attempt to actually use public transportation here (rather than just book it), so far the bus people get props for providing good information on their website and friendly service at the station. Stay tuned for a review of public transport after our trip to Angers.

Finally, in weather news, today was 60 degrees and raining. Loving the temps, hating the rain, but what can you do. It is England.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Friday, redux

We spent the weekend in Milton Keynes with the ever-charming Bart and Tony. So much went on that one blog entry simply won't do. So, we'll fill you in bit by bit, with photos to come.

First, two observations.

1. A grown man, wearing slightly scruffy hiking gear, boasting a full beard and listening intently to a walking tour devoted to the ancient walls of a Saxon tower ought not, I think, to have painted his big toenails iridescent purple.

2. In Milton Keynes, the mall contains a lovely bookstore, replete with books I wanted to buy (though not at 8 million dollars, or whatever they cost), but marred by a single flaw: a section next to Biography entitled "Painful Lives." Not very appealing.

In other news, Fantastic Four Rise of the Silver Surfer fails to impress. On Friday night, Tony and Charles joined Tony's brother Mick for some snowboarding. In Milton Keynes, this can be achieved indoors. The mall area in Milton Keynes includes a huge dome which holds a man-made snowy mountain. And, this being England, not only can you ski indoors, you can buy a beer!!

Meanwhile, Bart and I went upstairs to the movie theatre. Bart bought "deluxe" tickets, which offer the exciting option of...buying a beer for your movie!! Beer!! Unfortunately, the movie in question was FFROTSS. Or whatever they call it. So while we enjoyed the basic story and continue to like the idea, the beer wasn't enough to fill in the gaps. Also, I'd like to know who spit in the Cheerios of the makeup and hair people. Jessica Alba is a beautiful woman, and Ioan Gruffud is hot. In this movie, though, they wear makeup thick enough for a victim of the smallpox, and Alba's hair looks like astroturf. Poor Gruffud has to endure a flattop that would make Vanilla Ice cringe.

So. How can I enjoy a movie where the hotties aren't hot, and the effects are sometimes silly? Shame on them. The Silver Surfer was cool, I'll give them that.

Afterwards, we all returned to Casa Gamber-Kelly to get some doggie love and watch TV. This weekend was the Glastonbury Festival, so I got to watch a whole bunch of bands I've never heard of. One was great, two sucked, and Bjork was weird. The usual, in other words.

More tomorrow, with photos. I have to go paint my big toes now.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mock Not...

I shouldn't have made fun of the "how to eat this dessert" question.

Last night, I dreamed that I was eating dinner with a distinguished asian gentleman. We were eating noodles from a pasta bowl. Every time I took a bite, I looked over to find him using a different utensil from me. First, he used a big spoon, like the Italians do. Then he had a contraption that was like the bowl of a spoon, without the handle. Then he had something else, etc.

Each time, I could tell he was amused by my gaucherie. And I would look down and find that I, too, had that utensil. I'd missed it and used the wrong spoon. The horror.

I don't think I can attend another luncheon like the one yesterday. It messed with my head.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Just Roll Me Back to the USA

Today the Rothermere welcomed Jimmy Carter, to whom Christ Church College presented an award. It was both a lovely day and a curiously foreign one, like so many things about this summer.

First, the foreign. President Carter arrived at the library and first the staff presented him with his award. Then they showed him a few of the library's holdings relating to his work on peace between Israel and Egypt. He commented on each thing, and told a really lovely story about the negotiations.

[Ok, fine. Here's the story. Carter told another story, then Mrs. Carter tugged on his jacket. Literally. He said, "I'm being directed." and you could hear her whisper "tell them about..." Here's the story she liked: He was negotiating and each side was really difficult to deal with. Finally, the Israeli prime minister decided that the process wasn't working. He began to pack to go home. Before he went, though, he asked President Carter for signed photographs for his grandchildren. The President's assistant called Israel to find out the names of each of the (8!) grandchildren, and Mr. Carter wrote each one personally. When he came to ask Menacham Begin to stay, he handed the photographs over. Begin looked at the photographs, inscribed with the names of his grandchildren, and stood silent for a moment. Then he said, "we'll try one more time." Carter had tears in his eyes, and so did I, when the story ended.]

Anyway, the staff had a treat to show the president. It was a 16th century Bible, beautifully illuminated, brought to England in the early 18th century. The archivist from Christ Church college made a huge deal about how the Bible had never been allowed out of the college (except one brief bit for the Bodleian library which "didn't work out.") and no one got to see its illuminations. He must have mentioned it five times. So, very slowly, the gentleman turned the pages for President and Mrs. Carter, showing them the images.

And what were they? Oh, nothing worrisome. Only:

1. Cain "bludgeoning" Abel while Eve ate the apple
2. The slaughter of the children while Moses was placed in the rushes
3. The death of Jacob
4. The battle of Gideon.

So, you know, a nice precursor to lunch. Here's the thing: there were about 90 people standing there, watching. The archivist made a point, over and over, of saying to Mr. Carter that no one else would get to see the illuminations (except the frontispiece, which was gorgeous). No one. And almost no one ever had, outside the college. So part of the honor he did Mr. Carter was about dissing everyone else. It seemed slightly out of sync with Carter's pesonal philosophy. On the other hand, showing him a Bible was a very sensitive and sweet thing to do, and Mr. and Mrs. Carter clearly loved it.

Lunch was amazing, though. First course: a salad plate. I say plate, because it wasn't really a salad. Spears of white and green asparagus crossed, a tiny mound of guacamole with peppery field greens, a tiny zucchini with flower attached, flower stuffed with mushroom pate, all of it dressed with a lemon vinaigrette.

Next, they brought out new plates. Hot plates, but empty. This was because they served the main course from communal silver dishes, with white-gloved men to serve it to you specifically. We had quenelles of sole with a cream sauce that had flakes of haddock in it (so fish with fish sauce?). Potato and parsnip puree (ie, mashed potatoes), and a mixed green stuff pile (flat beans, haricot verts, peas, and mint minced up). The veg was only ok, but let me tell you about quenelles. They look like potatoes, but they have the consistency of a really stiff pudding, and they tasted like essence of lobster. Seriously. I eyed the other plates, but everyone seemed able to defend themselves. Bummer.

Dessert had four parts. Really. There was the little cordial glass full of elderflower jelly with apple and raspberries suspended in it. Then there was the glass of tuile and puff-pastry cookie sticks. Then there was the little pitcher of raspberry sauce. Then there were the balls of vanilla ice cream and the scoop of berries (red/white/blue, anyone?). Each of these for each person at the table.

[And here's one of those moments when one becomes aware of being in a foreign country. The entire table engaged in a serious conversation about how to eat dessert. As in, big spoon or small spoon? Fork? Should I put the jelly on the plate, or eat it out of the glass? It wasn't a joke. I asked my neighbor, "what will happen if someone disapproves of the way you eat your dessert?"]

Oh, and coffee and petits fours. Because we needed more food. And, and, and: the centerpiece was a bowl of strawberries, limes and cherries, which people ate up. One of the fellows, a very nice man from China, almost bit into a lime. The man sitting between us saved him at the last moment. Apparently, limes were new for him.

Somehow, the pork chop and salad for dinner didn't quite measure up.

Before you ask, yes I shook Jimmy Carter's hand. In fact, I've never seen a VIP behave as he did. He must have eaten almost nothing, because he spent the entire lunch walking around shaking the hand of absolutely everyone at the lunch (81 people). So he walked right up to me and shook my hand, then proceeded to have a little chat with each and every person at our table.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

There's a protest in my park

Walking back from the library this morning I ran into a protest at Radcliffe Camera. Apparently, they torture animals at Oxford. Shocking. The police were on the scene, keeping peace with their cameras. In addition to the protesters constituting a public annoyance, they were also blocking one of my usual routes back to the apartment. How rude.

Not much other excitement today. The BBC has picked up the second season of Rome, the first episode of which is airing now. Seems to have all the violence and language, but I'm not sure it has all the nudity. Given our exposure to the BBC so far, I'm guessing it actually does. Suck it FCC.

Going to Load My Cart, Get Wamble Crop'd

So for a while now I've been giggling my way through a lecture segment about early American drinking habits. At one point, I tell the students that there are more than 220 names for being drunk from early America. Naturally, they want to know some of these slang terms. But I must say: "Sorry! I don't know them."


Today, I stumbled across a reference to a list by Benjamin Franklin. Turns out that Franklin catalogued 228 names for drunkeness, including Loading the Cart. Others?

Cherry Merry
Wamble Crop'd
Half Way to Concord
Has taken a Chirriping-Glass
Got Corns in his Head
A Cup too much
He's heat his Copper
He's Crocus
He cuts his Capers,
He's been in the Cellar
Non Compos
He's been too free with the Creature

Gotta love Ben. How many Founding Fathers spent their time detailing A) names for drunkeness (and the above is merely a portion of the 'C' category!) and B) Why older women make better mistresses?

None, that's how many. Oh, and meanwhile he's discovering the Gulf Stream and convincing the French to help us win the Revolution. You know, no biggie.

We, on the other hand, spend our time watching British Big Brother. Because when Charley's extensions turned into "one big dred" after she went in the pool? Crisis mode, darling.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Bath and Avebury, part 2

Sunday, we visited Avebury and Bath in the company of Bart and Tony. It was Megan who recommended Avebury, when I emailed to ask her for advice about what to see and do in Bath. So kudos to Megan for her excellent tourism skills. For two tourism-challenged couples like us and the Gamber-Kellys, a little advice helps a lot. As you can see at left, Avebury is U-G-L-Y.

However, I made the best of things and smiled for the camera. The stones in Avebury sit in the middle of a sheep pasture, so the experience is much more personal. Little, polite British signs ask that you respect the "antiquity" of the stones, but otherwise there's no supervision at all. So, in theory, you can picnic on an ancient religious site and no one will tell you to stop.

(note the momentary emergence of the sun)

So we're walking along, and I'm all, 'OMG, this place is so cute' and 'Oooh! Look at that cottage.' And Tony's all 'Hey, that place is for sale!' because he and Bart are a tiny bit real-estate obsessed. And we come along this pretty wall and I'm all, 'That building is sooo cute!' And the wall ends and the sign says...PUBLIC TOILETS

Awesome. In England, the public toilets are pretty. Inside, my personal stall said, 'These toilets are more prehistoric than the stones' to which a wit replied 'I dunno...Mick Jagger's getting on a bit.'

Then we rolled onward, to the Roman baths at Bath, where you can toss coins into the cold pool where people have been asking favors of the goddess Sulis Minerva for more than 2000 years. Some genius threw a paper dollar into the pond. I'm so proud to be...never mind. I gave the goddess a fivepence piece and asked for a favor. I'm cheap.

At the baths, they informed us that Romans spent a great deal of time cleaning their bodies. They arrived with servants, stripped, then had the servants rub oil into their skin. You wouldn't think this was exactly the same as washing, but then the servants used razor-sharp scrapers to scrape off oil, hair, and dirt. Tony tells me that if one were a famous Roman, the scraped off bits would be saved, decanted into jars, sold, and used as face-cream by ladies. Imagine the possibilities.

If you look at Charles' photographs, you'll see that the baths themselves are the original Roman stones. Built up from about 5 feet are later buildings, mostly 18th and 19th century. But the floors, walls, the baths themselves, etc., are all Roman. So when you stand there, and watch tourists sitting on the edge of the bath and thinking deep thoughts ("I could really use a toilet..."), they're sitting where generations of Romans, Britons, and other people sat.

We tried the water, too. Nast-ee. And warm. Because when water tastes like something marinated in rusty pipe, you really want it to be warm.

Tony was telling me a joke that involved fudge. Tony is
quite naughty.

Proof of previous assertion? Here's Tony climbing out from under my hoop skirt at the Museum of Costume. I also wear a fetching gore-tex corset that Charles had way too much fun lacing up.

The Museum of Costume is a little disappointing, to be frank. You get in for about 1.50 if you buy the tickets at the same time you buy entry to the Roman Baths. With the tickets, they give you cards good for a free coffee/tea or juice for each person. I think this is a consolation prize, because the best thing about the Museum of Costume (other than the gift shop full of books about bondage!) is the tea shop. We had coffee, tea, and carrot cake in real china cups with proper spoons and milk and the whole shebang at iron tables outside on an 18th century terrace. Oooo...lovely.

But the Museum essentially fails to exist. They received a collection of historical costume from a benefactor who insisted that they use the Assembly Rooms for the museum. But the city obviously has better uses for the beautiful 18th century rooms, with their 25-foot ceilings and musicians' balconies. They are empty, lined with chairs. Apparently, one can be married there, and have large parties under the portrait of George III.

The costume bit has been crammed into the basement, where you toddle along a few glass cases with examples of this and that (historical knickers!). The best things about the exhibit are two interactive portions. First, they've dressed a manequin in see-through clothing so that you can see where her pockets hung (underneath her dress, accessible through slits). You can stick your hands into her dress, lift up her petticoats, etc. to see the details. Second, they've devoted a small room to corsets and hoop skirts, and you are supposed to try them on. I did, as you can see.

And then we had pizza.

The End.

Avebury and Bath

First view of the standing stones.

Remnants of the ring, interspersed with modern markers.

Guardian of the stones - watch out for landmines.

Perfect for bouldering, but such fun is now prohibited.

A view from the hill.

Living history amidst the history.

Evil stone creature looks like it is trying to fly with tiny nubbins.

Our intrepid guide on home turf.

Entrance detail.
Slightly more modern temple to superstition adjacent to the ancient temple to yet another superstition.

Looking down on history.

Looking down on us.

This is where the magic purportedly happened.

Don't drift too far or you'll boil.

Crack in the foundation.

She dropped her tip.

Modern Bath.

34 Reasons to Celebrate Charles on his Birthday

1. He makes a superior cup of coffee
2. He has really good hair.
3. He's flying back from Europe for his brother's wedding.
4. He can explain why Tums work.
5. [deleted for inappropriate content]
6. [Also deleted]
7. [Get a grip!]
8. When he means no, he just says 'no.'
9. He believes any bread product can be improved by the addition of butter.
10. He cares for his books like some people care for their children.
11. He has no dignity when it comes to dogs.
12. Even with blisters, bugs, and buckets of heat/rain/snow/wind he can hike 10 miles no problem.
13. He recognizes pretense.
14. He's frugal, but not cheap.
15. He can rarely breathe, but he rarely complains about it.
16. He has simple tastes.
17. He respects intelligence, expertise, and seniority.
18. He doesn't suck up.
19. He doesn't say the things he's really thinking, when those things are really bad.
20. He considers his opinions and sometimes changes his mind.
21. He likes zombie movies.
22. He shares, even though he says sharing is for 'weenies.'
23. He is always willing to drive.
24. He can taste the differences among varieties of whiskey.
25. He takes making a mistake very seriously.
26. He never throws anything away. Ever.
27. He has interests, but not obsessions.
28. He can understand the basics of practically everything, from cake baking to astrophysics.
29. He's quick to compliment things he likes.
30. He rarely forgets anything.
31. He is a very selective, but faithful friend.
32. He can't navigate his way out of a paper bag when with other people, but manages just fine when alone. See #12.
33. He takes beautiful landscape photographs.
34. He holds the kidney pan.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

It is a sad day when I prefer a French restaraunt to a diner

My idea of good French food boils down to croissant and fries. And, technically, fries are Belgian. Today, however, the French came to the rescue after a local diner proved unsatisfactory.

Our first weekend here I passed by a little cafe called the St Giles' Cafe. Very simple: one aisle with booths (suitable to seat four) along each side. A counter at the back. Maybe 8 or 10 booths total - possibly as few as 6. A small place. The menu, however, was appealing, as the breakfast plates were all devoid of beans, my breakfast nemesis. The biggest problem identified in advance is that the place closes at 3 pm most days, making it unavailable for dinner. It is also on the other side of town for us. A 30 minute walk at a very brisk pace, 40 minutes at normal quick walk.

This morning, breakfast on the mind, we decided to trek out there. I was fixed on a breakfast comprising eggs, sausage, bacon, and chips. Sounds pretty basic. So, Fiona and I brave a rainy day and make the trek. Wet from the rain and from sweating, we sat down. No menus, but a board over the counter lists the options.
I looked to see if there was a better choice than that I originally identified. I found there wasn't. Fiona braved the counter to place our order.

Fiona starts with her order. She went with the full english breakfast. That went well. Then, she placed my order, only to be told that they don't prepare chips until lunch. WTF? They can't fry up some potatoes? OK, so be it. I'll dial it back to the sausage, bacon and egg breakfast. The order seemingly complete at this point, I piped up from 10 feet away, "Can I have the eggs scrambled?" At first, Fiona didn't hear me. After I repeated myself, before Fiona could even turn around to relay my seemingly simple request, the proprietor stated, "We only do fried eggs."

When Fiona asked what I wanted, given this absolute refusal to prepare my eggs in one of the most common ways available, I simply said, "Well, nothing then, I guess," and we left.

After leaving, we walked up towards what we call Jericho (whether it is or not, that's what we call it) as we had previously seen some good looking restaurants up that way. We ended up in a French cafe that was perfectly happy to serve me filter coffee, and scrambled eggs with toast. Fiona enjoyed eggs benedict (on brioche, not english muffins).

So, for the rest of the day we've been wondering what the heck is so freaking difficult about scrambling an egg? And why are some proprietors so reluctant to do really simple things to keep their customers happy, or in our case, keep them at all?

On our walk, I did snap some photos of baby birds. Here's the detail from one of them, with tiny little nubbins of wings, trying to fly:

Here's a broader view:

A final few views from the park:

Rain, Walking, status quo preserved.

Today, we rambled about in Oxford and the University Park. The Park is about 70 acres, plus 4 acres that comprise Mesopotamia, the walk we take most afternoons now. It turns out, as well, that the area by the boat ramp (see picture in previous post) is right next to the famous Parson's Pleasure. If you don't know what naughty things go on there... look it up, slacker.

I've been hoping to get a picture of some of the interesting flowers in the park for a while, and today we finally took some photos there.

It's real purty. The little orange flowers at left are tiny and grow very close to the ground. But they look like little birds-of-paradise, or little read beaks. The red ones on the right are velvety purses of flower-stuff. I don't think the purple flowers in the upper right are at all unusual, but they are beautifully colored. The other purple flower is a poppy. For reasons we don't really understand, poppies are very popular (!) here. They're everywhere, including growing wild in cow pastures.

In other news, we noticed two new things about Oxford today:

1. Bill Bryson pointed out, in his book Notes from a Big Country, that Americans aren't so much stupid as out of the habit of thinking. He says this is because we don't have to think; everyone does it for us. I was thinking about this today, when I noticed a small difference between here and there. In the US, if something says 2 for a dollar, that means one item will cost .50. Not in Britain. If it says 2 for a pound, then one will cost you more. Like 75 pence. Because, genius, they want you to buy more than one. That's why it's a special offer. Interesting.

2. For reasons which escape us, there were approximately a bazillion people here today. No idea why. And by people, I mean to include adolescents in hordes, pensioners in tottering groups, wild-eyed undergraduates wearing exam tuxedos and covered in mustard and ketchup (not kidding, don't know why), and families pushing enormous, ten-foot wide strollers with napping children. Why they brought such a contraption to a city so small that the cars have to park on the sidewalk, and how their children sleep through a maelstrom of human activity that would wake the dead (doubtless the denizens of the graveyards here, even those 1000 years old, have taken off for the beach for some solitude), I don't know. But I do wish they would go home. I don't own Oxford, but I can see how much nicer it would be with about 750,000,000,000 fewer people.

Just in case you were worried, by the way, it rained today. And yesterday. And Monday it will rain again. Cheerio!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sorry that I haven't written, by a moose I should be bitten. Whip me, beat me, make me pay... For ignoring you this way.

Urghhh. No posts yesterday for one reason and one reason only. Yesterday I had what MFK Fischer would call a "bilious attack."

It was a perfectly normal day (complete with a very interesting American history colloquium at the Rothermere on "Explaining the Civil War"), and not even raining. We had a nice walk in to the RAI (thought it was one of those English days which seem nice enough at first but then turn out to be 100% humidity. So a half hour walk in 65 degree weather has you sweating like a chicken in a KFC). Then I had a relatively productive day (could have been more productive, but for the Medievalist Meeting, who can make more noise drinking coffee and eating cookies than any other 40 people I know).

Then we walked back, through the park and up to our favorite little cluster of restaurants. After four days (perhaps 5, I can't count) of eating at home, it seemed like a good night for a meal out. (and while we're on the subject of eating in, how's this for economy: two steak pies from Marks & Spencer, sauteed bell peppers, and lovely pralines and cream ice cream for dessert. Price: 5 pounds 85 pence!!)

So we stopped at the pub on the corner of Iffley and Cowley roads. It's called something like Cape of Good Hope. Since it's on the corner, we can't read the entire name at one time, so we don't actually know what it's called. We call it "Penguin," because there are penguins inside. We think it's run by South Africans.

We like Penguins because it's a pub but it's actually friendly. And nice inside, and not smoky, and the food is good. Not only do you want to order it, you're happy when it comes. We had Sunday dinner there a couple of weeks ago, and my roast lamb with mint sauce, parsnips and potatoes, and yorkshire pudding was yummy. Charles had a pork chop with chips, and it looked excellent.

So this time we sat in back (note: in a friendly pub, you can walk to the back to find a seat without feeling as if you'll be knocked in the head with a bat at any moment).

Charles had fish-n-chips, and they happily substituted a salad for mushy peas (substitution is not common here). I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with salad. I was hungry, ok?

My burger was huge. Huge. And the bacon was yummy. The cheese? Well, I didn't know what kind it was, because it had a little artisanal name. But it turned out to be a blue cheese. Which I Hate. So I had to pick it off.

Otherwise, totally yummy. But Huge. Did I say that already?

Anyway, I think it was too huge, because by the time we got home I was not feeling 100% awesome. Within an hour, I was feeling really, really bad. MFK would say that my liver was in revolt, and I can tell you for sure that something was revolting.

So I spent the evening showing Charles how pathetic I can be, and eventually fell into a Dramamine-induced sleep.

Today? Right as rain.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fanny Pack

Just to explain the pictures a bit, here's the story.

Charles likes to explore a bit when he walks home from the RAI in the morning. A few days ago he found the walk through the Park, which included that bit called Mesopotamia (apparently, this is the name you give to a short stretch between two creeks when you are obsessed with colonialism). It was nice, so we walked it Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

What has become clear on these walks is that you can commute from other parts of town using a network of rural-looking paths through parkland, instead of walking on actual streets. There are dedicated areas for walkers and bikers, and good signs.

It's a nice alternative, since if I had to sprint past one more group of cranky, loud, complaining tourists I was going to have to pop somebody. The shorts! The sandals with socks! The gum! The fanny packs!!!!

Now, instead, we amble happily through the trees, swatting at midges and talking about this and that (which, with Charles and I usually ends up in this exchange: 'X' 'OMG, I totally agree!'). Sometimes we see something pretty, or funny, or weird.

Take yesterday, for example. I heard this sound. Like water running. And there, as I walked by, on the left, was a nice young man peeing in the bushes!

You can't see that on the High Street. At least, not on a Tuesday.

Mostly Just Pictures

Spooky Oxford trail.

Clever portage.

A wider view.


Gate across bridge.

A nice cottage . . .

. . . with bridge and a gate . . .

. . . and a beautiful sunny front.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Things are Just Different Here

Like, the doors on shops open inward, even though they have handles that suggest they will open out.

Like, the sugar crystals are bigger. More like raw sugar, but still pure white.

Like, things that ought to be sweet aren't: honey mustard dressing, rice pudding, the whipped cream in a beautiful blueberry thingy.

I'm just saying.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Family Home, same owner, 400 yrs., updated plumbing, many amenities. Pond, deer, staff of 700+

On Saturday, Tony called his aunt Cassandra, who works for the Duchess of Bedford. Despite the short notice, Aunt Sandra graciously welcomed us to her apartment at Woburn Abbey (check it out: and obtained entrance passes with audio tours for us.

Aunt Sandra pointed out the beautiful, but very normal-looking, lawn that leads to the entrance. It's sacred space, because when Henry VIII destroyed the religious houses of England after his divorce from Catharine of Aragon, Woburn Abbey was among the targets of Henry's greed. The Abbot resisted the dissolution of his house, and as a punishment the King's men hung him from a nearby tree. His monks buried him under that tree, hence the nature of the lawn, even today.

That was spooky. The house, though, is really spectacular.

Example? Even a person who doesn't know a thing about British history might notice, wandering in the long gallery toward the end of the tour, a portrait hanging on the left. It shows a redheaded woman wearing an elaborately embroidered and pearl-encrusted dress, a huge white ruff, with a fleet of ships visible through the window on her right. Who is this? Only Queen Elizabeth I. It's the Armada portrait, probably the most famous painting of this most famous queen.

But the house isn't intimidating, despite a portrait of 'Bloody' Mary staring down at you with that nasty, pinched expression. For one thing, it is both gorgeous and very human. Woburn Abbey feels like a home. The pink plastic toddler truck on the lawn helps with that (there's a John Deere one, too), as do the two dogs laying around in the sun. But the real reason is because the house is a sweet mixture of historical/elegant/priceless and family.

So here you'll find a hallway lined with portraits, including a very sad family painting. In 1683, Lord William Russell supported the Rye House plot against James II. For this crime, he was beheaded. His father, the Earl of Bedford, supported William and Mary, so when they replaced James II on the throne they rewarded the father with a dukedom. But the Russells preserved the memory of Lord John Russell with a beautiful portrait of his wife and four children. The saddest part is that the oldest son, shown as a toddler in the portrait, would go on to gamble away almost all of the Bedford fortune, when he became the 2nd Duke. He died young ('fortunately' the narrator says), and his brother, the 3rd Duke, had to try to re-build the family.

In the same hallway, a long case exemplifies the balance between family and history. Alongside tiny dolls (and their even tinier tortoiseshell combs) played with by Russell daughters sits Queen Victoria's riding crop, tipped in gold with inlaid rubies.

Likewise, the other rooms are filled with lovely antiques, such as hand-painted 17th century Chinese wallpaper. But here and there are photographs of the last Duke (who died unexpectedly of a stroke) and the current Duke and his wife. A full-length portrait shows 'Naughty Georgie', the daughter of the 4th Duke of Gordon and second wife of the 6th Duke. She was a bad, bad girl, apparently. There's an entire room dedicated to the 'Flying Duchess' (Mary, the 11th Duchess) who took up airplanes as a hobby (at age 61, after nursing wounded men during World War I) and enjoyed them very much. She disappeared in her Gipsy Moth in 1937.

In some ways, the house is like anyone's home. The family has an interest in horse racing. Any house might contain memorabilia, pictures, or mementos from a hobby. In this house, those mementos are oil paintings of their champions, crystal and silver trophies from the Derby. In the video that begins the tour, the present Duchess wheels her baby daughter down a magnificent hallway in...a regular old stroller. And on the stairs going down to the Vaults, there's some not-very-interesting pottery and whatnot jammed into a glass cabinet. It's nice to know that even the Duke of Bedford has trouble letting go.

So on the one hand, the house is stunning. The ceilings drip with elaborate plasterwork, the rooms nearly burst with portraits of beautiful, eccentric, and important Britons, and the views onto the park and lake cannot be beaten. On the other hand, you can easily imagine people walking through the halls, sleeping in the beds, and eating in the dining room(s). Do I have a stone vault filled with silver (and a separate one for gold) (and yet another one for porcelain, which supposedly has a ghost)? Well, no. Do I have an entire semi-basement room built entirely of seashells, ca. 1660?

Maybe in our next house.

Oxford paths

Today I decided to walk through the University Parks. I thought that it would just be a circular walk in the park. Instead, it resulted in my finding a very different way to get from the Rothermere back to the neighborhood with our apartment.

Initially, the walk was just a walk in the park. I took the southeasterly path and found myself walking nearby one of the many canals. One little gate and bridge after another led me outside of the University Parks proper. I eventually found myself near what I think must be the mosque. Judge for yourselves:

Note the barbed wire atop the fence.

Across the road from the mosque, I found a sketchy little park. The major bonus is that there was an ever so slight uphill grade for about 100 meters. I believe what I stumbled upon is part of the Headington Hill parks. I found this modest little cottage fenced off from the rabble like myself:

Once I returned to the apartment and consulted a map, I discovered that I probably took the path called "Mesopotamia." The little flyer about the University Parks states:
Mesopotamia: the name derives from the Greek for 'between the rivers'. The walk to Marston Road via King's Mill gate was laid out in 1865 and is just under a mile long.
Throughout the walk, the path was mostly paved with some sections of very packed dirt. There were very few people using the paths, but not so few that it was seriously spooky. The park was removed enough to be almost devoid of city sounds. All in all, a very nice little walk.