Tuesday, November 18, 2008

England travel blog June 2007

Stream across the street from our hotel in Canterbury
Bath begonia garden

Rye street


Cotswold gardens



Cotswold cottage




Sue and Steve’s Big Trip to England

Some background for those of you I haven’t contacted in awhile:

So this has been an eventful year for us. Last summer Josh and Julia married and still live in their house in Dexter (the same house featured on HGTV’s House Hunters-the show where a couple outgrows their house and investigates 3 replacements on air-this was the house the couple outgrew) Julia finished her paralegal program and works for an attorney in AA. Josh still is an engineer for **** and has survived numerous downsizing initiatives. Julia has turned into quite the runner and finished 4th in her age group at the infamous Dexter-Ann Arbor Race this spring. We have a granddog-the extremely energetic German Shepherd, Sunny. Sunny has helped Julia’s running program as it begun, in part, as a program to siphon off some of her energy.

Steve’s brother  has seemed to successfully battle brain lymphoma-a scary, tiring, unpleasant treatment 7 month regimen. He no longer could care for their mother Terry in NYC so after much discussion, Terry made the big move to Seattle to stay in assisted living where their sister Maddy lives. As Terry is extremely phobic about flying and has panic attacks, this was no easy move. Also there was the problem of establishing identity for her to fly as she unofficially had changed her name and has never driven. Steve made the big trip with her worried that any moment Terry would scream that she was having a heart attack or worry outloud (very outloud) that the plane was crashing aborting their flight. But she is settling in attending Vespers (despite being Jewish) and reports that though she still hears voices, she can’t make out what they are saying as her hearing isn’t what it used to be. The devil and Nazis have spoken to her in the past. She still has some rough moments that Maddy has to deal with but is with her grandsons and is a much nicer place than the NY place with views of the Olympics from her window.

Shanna moved back to Michigan last fall. LA was wearing her down and she was hoping for a fresh start here but the economy here is really awful (see below) and it is impossible to find a job as a scientist now in Michigan. Sometime soon she will become Shanna Shammas and move to Boston where the job situation is much better with her fiancé Ramy, a biochemist/electrical engineer who will work for a research arm of MIT. We have just learned of this while on our trip and plans are way up in the air. She met Ramy years ago when she worked for Pfizer. Their friendship has outlasted 2 former fiancés of hers. He has been patiently waiting in the wings for her. They are very happy but have many decisions to make.

Naomi still is quite the athlete making varsity as a sophomore for the school’s basketball team-an honor. She eventually made the varsity volleyball team too. Her travel AAU volleyball team did well too winning their division’s state championship going to Nationals right before our big trip. She also played school soccer at a lower level to keep in shape for her other sports. She spent the past year juggling boyfriends-we don’t let her date yet as she is too easily sweet talked. In many ways, she is a young girl trapped in this powerful woman’s body that attracts many guys.

So in January our company announced they were going to close the Ann Arbor Site-the largest private employer in AA and biggest taxpayer. This was a big blow to the area. Already the declining auto industry had taken a huge toll in SE Michigan. Lots of foreclosures and empty houses. About a third of the researchers are moving to other sites of the company’s. Lots of anxiety, anger, sad stories, complete life changings all around. The situation makes it impossible for Shanna and Ramy to stay here. She has been going to school in another field in order to stay here but will probably abandon that too. As for us who have worked 31 and 34 years for the companies that our employer  bought up (and then spit out), we’ll be OK. We will get 2 years salary apiece, health insurance until we can get Medicare, and could collect retirement if we need too. But I am thinking something will pop up and we could work part-time, if needed. Also, we get a retraining allowance-I will be retrained on the company’s dime to become a French pastry chef or maybe an Italian chef-not sure which-but I will take my training in another country. In the meantime, most of my immediate co-workers have left. I will help close the labs up and leave in Sept Steve will leave sometime in 2008 so we won’t get 2 lump sum severances in the same year and by IRS rules, can access his 401K as he will then be 55. (I will just have to wait to get mine). In the meantime, Pfizer has work that needs to be done. Steve was asked to supervise an important project (co-incidentally a project that I work on) in Sandwich, England for 3 weeks. So to England he went, and as soon as I could, I joined him. First I had to deal with finals that Naomi needs me to help with and to take her to Chicago for 3 extremely hot days for the National Volleyball Championships where they finally were taken out of the competition by very talented Hawaiians who although they had noone who was even close to Naomi’s size, were unbelieveable defensive specialists. They gave as macademia nuts to soften our loss. Also finding a ticket at the last minute to England was a challenge but using lots of ff miles and flying out of Minneapolis, I was good to go.

Sandwich, a tiny village, is on the coast 60 miles SE of London. The huge research  complex lies just outside of it. For the 2 weeks before I joined him, Steve stayed at a musty old hotel perched by itself on top of an enormous chalk cliff in Ramsgate. Soon he grew tired of long walks on deserted beaches picking up stray pieces of chalk for my rock garden. He did go on many side trips on the weekends as he had a train pass. He took the bus to work. The company has private buses that picks up their employees in nearby towns.

Day one: BUSINESS CLASS AT LAST The days leading up to my departure were hectic beyond belief between work, finals, sports parties, going away parties, the out-of state-tournament that was a logistical nightmare in itself. The night before I leave, the girls get into a huge fight about who is less attractive. Naomi meanly points out that all the men on the subways always focused on her and ignored Shanna who then pointed out that’s because she dresses like a slut in training (she had her volleyball uniform on). It went downhill from there with lots of tears and declarations that they won’t be able to stand each other while I was gone so I better have a back-up plan. I did call in Josh to help resolve the impasse but was able to settle things down right before I left with lots of bribes. Although I fly out of Minneapolis instead of Detroit, I get to fly business class-- a dream of mine. While I wait in Minn, I get to go to a Northwest’s Perks Club. Here I can eat and drink all I want. I also get to read which I haven’t had time to in a while. Thousand Hundred Suns. A good read but very depressing. On the plane, I get my own little pod that fully reclines, a toiletry kit that includes earplugs, slippers, a sleep mask. My bed/chair has a massager built in along with numerous controls to inflate parts of it for my comfort. I get a large (compared to steerage which I was in on the way back) videoscreen to watch my progress or to watch a whole menu of movies. I settle in with The Namesake after my deluxe dinner complete with champagne, several wines, etc. A memorable experience. I was too excited to sleep even though I got up very early to get a run in and pack which I couldn’t do earlier. The sun seems to be setting as we leave Minneapolis. Over the next few hours, it still seems to be almost setting. I am confused as I know it should be dark going east but the light keeps getting brighter. But on the mapscreen, we are flying over Hudson’s Bay and later Greenland where the sun never sets in June. In England, the days were long with the sun rising at 4 and setting after 10 especially when we were up north in York. Despite my comfortable surroundings, I only sleep for a few hours.

Day 2:CANTERBURY After breakfast, we land at London Gatwick, go through customs quickly as I am first off the plane, and I easily find my train and I am on my way to Canterbury 40 miles away. Much, much easier than other cities I have flown too. Paris is really a pain involving lots of transfers, lugging things up steps numerous times. My biggest struggle is to not fall asleep on the train thus missing my stop.
Steve knew I wouldn’t appreciate the Ramsgate experience with the signs warning not to open the windows too much or you will be sleeping with the gulls (England hasn’t heard of screens but have few bugs) so he arranged for us to stay in the Abode in a room that runs $300/night (company paid) in Canterbury-a town 10 miles due east of Sandwich that is a major tourist destination due to its history and beauty. It is indeed very beautiful and very unlike anything in the US but I am tired beyond belief. Fortunately I was allowed to check in early and sleep. I get up for lunch. We are right in the center of the city and numerous restaurants surround us. The streets are full of French children on tours. I settle on a tapas place run by a sweet lady from the Canary Islands that gives me free treats (must be a Spanish custom-we got lots of extras in Spain). A British retired couple dine next to me and are very talkative (I kept finding similar couples the whole trip-very friendly people). We discuss the differences between our respective countries-lots of them including the language. I can’t explain Bush to them-not my fault he’s around. I then tour the beautiful city until I am tired and then sleep again. Steve comes back-we haven’t seen each other in 2 weeks. We eat outside at a traditional English restaurant, The Old Weaver’s next to a beautiful stream. The restaurant is in a 500 yr old half-timbered building. I have a pint of the local ale and chicken and leek pie. Tasty. Steve has to duck to get through every doorway.
Day 3: CRAB AND WINKLE WAY Steve leaves to work while I sleep. Our hotel has a very nice restaurant in it. Every place we stay (except one) offers an ‘English Breakfast” full of things I can’t stand. Bangers(gross sausages)bacon (which in general I like but not English Bacon which is like soggy, fatty ham)eggs(semi-raw but I don’t even like them cooked, beans (puke)black pudding(no way) a cooked tomato and mushrooms (okay but not too filling on their own)toast served in its own little rack(I survived on that but wouldn’t eat the vegemite and marmelite-both yeast extracts that were provided to put on it)Fortunately they have a buffet full of French yogurts (the best), almond croissants, various cheeses, muffins, fruit, antipasti such as parma ham so I felt like a queen. Bad coffee though. You are given semi-skim milk for that. Cream is for tea.
I rent a bike and head north to the coastal town of Whitstable. The Crab and Winkle was the first passenger railroad in the world but I see a troubling statement in the brochure that a winch was needed to get the train up a particular hill which I go down on the way there. Also it is not paved and I am bushwhacking through weeds and through the Blean (bleak forest). I see the ocean. Whitstable is the oyster capital of England but is not particularly charming. Plus I can’t find my trail which ended right before the city and noone seems to have heard of it before. It is a major crime to ride a bike on a sidewalk so I have to ride on busy streets on the leftside. Right turns are particularly dicey. A car would have made our life easier but between the twisty, shoulderless roads, left side driving, having to shift gears with your left hand, driving seemed dangerous. As it was, I had to rescue Steve numerous times for walking in the path of cars because he didn’t look right. I am obstructing traffic at times but noone yells at me like they certainly would here. Bikers are tolerated. It is uphill all the way back but very pretty. I couldn’t find the village that I was supposed to stop at for tea. At one point a huge bug flies under my glasses and completely straddles my eyeball with its legs that seem to have suction cups. I pull it off. Thankfully whatever it was didn’t sting me. I eat late lunch back in Canterbury at their Farmer’s market-Italian goodies. Canterbury is very multinational. Everything is so expensive in England-roughly twice to three times things in the US. The median price for a house is 8 times the median income and rising. Gas is $9/gallon yet they don’t drive the minicars that the French drive. As of July 1, smoking is banned in public (we got there too early) but only in the pubs did the smoking bother me-not as common as it is in France and Spain (no non-smokers there). Light Italian that night at a chain called Ask that always have their restaurants in historical buildings. Waiters never give you the ‘bill’ (not check) without you asking for it. For salads, you either have dressing or not and there is no choice on what kind. Rocket and Cos are two kinds of common lettuces-the latter being romaine. If you want bread with your meal, you pay for it. They routinely serve a bucket of vegetables with the dinners. Some English complained to me that Americans are stingy with their vegetables. At night, we walk on top of the city’s wall. Lots of walking but it is fun.
Day 4: RYE AND SANDWICH Steve takes the late bus so he can eat breakfast with me. I try to run in Canterbury but hard to find a good path. I take the train to East Sussex to the beautiful, medieval town of Rye. It is market day there which is fun to explore. The city is beautiful-cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses. It once was a port but the river silted up. I take an English high tea in a beautiful garden. Cool and sunny. I then take a series of trains to get to Sandwich. Various groups of young men are really obnoxious swearing very loudly-pounding on things on the train. A retired barrister is on the train with me tut-tutting the behaviour of the kids saying they were badly influenced by American TV but I said that these kids are worse than the American kids. Barristers still wear wigs in court despite the younger ones wanting to change that. I think we got rid of the wigs 200 years ago. In Sandwich we met up with Jared and Lorna, New Zealand natives that recently transferred from Ann Arbor. I had mentioned to Lorna in passing at her goodbye party that I would be there in a few weeks and she said to look her up. Also joining us was a young couple from Ann Arbor that I hadn’t met before that made the big transfer too. In all 10 AA chemists will work in Sandwich. They were all taking English (vs American) cultural immersion classes mandated by the company to adjust taught amusingly by a German. Jared had already adopted a British accent-his Kiwi accent had been very light but I guess he was copying us early on to adjust to the US. Lorna, however, has charmingly maintained her accent, which the English mistake for American (not even close). They have to make lots of adjustments. Even drying clothes is a challenge. No big American dryers there. You are to use the line (Iffy with the rain). I have had a whole series of English bosses and co-workers so I am used to the speech patterns and some of the vocabulary. Still some of it is pretty funny. Like the hotel clerk who asked me if I would like him to knock me up tomorrow morning. No thanks. Apparently villages used to have a chief knocker-upper (not a stud) who would go by 2nd floor (what they call 1st floor) windows with a stick to get the workers up on time. We ate at the Fleur-de Lis which may sound French but was a traditional English Pub. Very good food. We shared an enornmous cheese plate for dessert. Different but good cheeses. But it was fun hearing their adjustment stories and their perspectives on things.
Day 5: FRANCE I decided on this at the last minute when I saw I could get there and back for only 8 lbs. Unfortunately I didn’t research this out beyond that or I would have opted for Boulogne, a cool city, instead of Calais, which is closer but seems to be the Flint of France. I thought the dock would have maps and info but no-only for the English side. The ferry was full of those obnoxious British kids in huge unsupervised groups. They are much worse than American kids. So in a steady drizzle, I walked blindly towards their city center (centre ville). I hadn’t packed any euros so I had to get them as soon as I could find a bank. England is part of the EU now but still keeps their pricy pounds. Also I had to go through customs which I didn’t need to do going from France to Germany in the past. Some countries must be more EU than others. The British had leveled Calais during the war to oust Nazis. The rebuilding occurred in the 50s with bleak, utilitarian buildings. Still their Hotel de Ville was ornate (I used to think that was a chain of hotels until I found out it was the city hall-better name than the Rathaus which means the same thing in German) and the town has nice gardens. The rain stopped, I found a source of Euros and an internet so I could tell Steve not to panic because I had to take the late ferry back. I did have a good meal at a seafood restaurant. Got to practice my poor French. Was rescued again by the English who invited me to eat with them. The special was monkfish, whose French name I had not heard of. I did recognize the word for scallops (coquilles a la provencale) Excellent choice with wine finished off with a crepe and very, very good coffee. The English couples were very nice and entertaining. Later I got French ice cream-the best-apricot which tastes like pure fruit. I also brought back some reasonably priced (vs English) wine. Lots of English go there to buy much cheaper goods. Ladies were bringing back bedding plants which are unbelievably expensive in England despite being the garden capital. I almost missed my ferry as I failed to consider that France was in a different time zone. The train ride back was scary. Initially only a young girl and I were in our car but 4 very drunken guys soon got on and immediately went for the girl (she was 14 and looked it). They took her half-eaten candy bar saying she had to share Then they were asking her sexually suggestive questions-only one of them thought they should leave her alone as she was so young. Just as I was going to find the conductor, he appeared and tried to defuse the situation. As he suggested they get off at the next stop, one of them was very combative and hit him though his mates pulled him off and they left the train. The girl was very shaken up and sat with me to Canterbury.
Steve and I went to Carmen’s the good Spanish place for Paella for our farewell to expense account meal.
Day 6: YORK York is in the north of England but first we had to change trains and stations in London. We had to take the tube only 4 stops but it was $16 for the two of us. The tube is crowded and chaotic especially when you have all your luggage. There is no single rail company in England. There are regional rails and then several long line rail companies. We took the Scottish train north. For roughly the same distance from AA to Chicago, we got there in 2 hours vs the 6 hours Amtrak takes if one is lucky. York is beautiful. It is a walled city. We stay 10 minutes by foot away in a B&B in a dormer room on the 4th floor (a fun climb with suitcases) We eat in an English pub that is very cute and explore the city. We later have coffee and Belgian treats in a Belgian café next to the River Ouse. We make the long walk back to our b&b to rest but can’t muster up enough strength to return so we picnic in front of the house. I still have the French wine with me.
Day 7: YORK More exploration. I get up early to run along the river. Very nice. Yucky English breakfast. I gnaw on toast and Weetabix. We walk the walls of the city, eat in cute cafes-a nice time but then it begins to rain and it’s Sunday and the stores are all closed. We buy wine and Cornish pastries to take back. Steve is mad that I didn’t let him buy the umbrella at Poundland (his favorite store-think dollar store only double). I left ours in the room because it didn’t look like it would rain. We have a skylight right over our bed for ventilation but the steady rain starts to get in.
Day 8: BO LLOCKS! FLOODS!!!! Bollocks is the word the British continually use when things don’t go their way which is how this day went. We sloshed our way to the trains early before breakfast in a bad mood. We should have taken a taxi but Steve is antitaxi. We did catch a train right away (Virgin train) to Oxford and were merrily tooling along sipping decent coffee for a change when the announcer said something about floods in the Concaster tunnel might impact our ride. I had no idea where Concaster was but was hoping it was very far south but no. We get to Sheffield-yucky steel city and are told to get off the train as there would be no travel south today due to flooding. Try again tomorrow. But I have reservations in the south!! They suggested we stay in Sheffield or go back to York. Staying in Sheffield would have turned out very badly as a few hours later, a levee was breached and a 6 foot wall of water rushed through the streets drowning 5 people in the process. I could just see Steve and me pushing our pathetic wheeled suitcases through this. And it kept getting worse over the next week with even more rains. We got out the big map and weighed our options. Maybe Liverpool would be cool-northwest of us. Just as we got on a train for that, we were told that line was terminated. Bollocks again. Manchester was due west and had to have trains going out of it so we hopped the Transpennine Express and away we went cross country. The Pennines are the closest things to mountains the English have but it was a pretty ride. From there, we were told we could get to Birmingham which was closer to our target Cotswolds but that ride took twice as long as scheduled and again we were terminated, this time even in a yuckier city. Steve was especially crabby blaming me for overlooking a closer pathway. At Anyrate we ended up taking 8 trains in all, lots of terminations, rushing up and down staircases to find a train that would get us closer trying to squish ourselves in crowded trains full of frustrated people who had similar ordeals though not as long. Twelve hours later we were in Moreton-in Marsh in the Cotswolds. It hadn’t rained there. We stayed at the Warwick house on the edge of the town (pop 1000) with very friendly hosts.
Day 9: COTSWOLDS I got up early for a run in the country. Despite the area being very hilly, my path was quite flat and very nice. Another English breakfast but I need to cut back as it is. After exploring our little town-we take a minibus to a cooler town Chipping Campden-which is full of thatched cottages with beautiful gardens. We walk for miles in the countryside. Paths all over the place. Although our town is only 8 miles away, the minibus takes 40 minutes going through numerous towns-it was quite the trip. We eat dinner at the Black Bear Inn. Very English but tasty.
Day 10: BATH I go for another run as Steve sleeps. After breakfast, Charlie our host lets us use his internet which we had trouble finding wifi spots past Canterbury. Steve had left his project without finishing it so he is nervous about how it is progressing without him. Over his shoulder, I see an e-mail from Shanna. BIG NEWS, it says. But does he open it-no. He deals with some work crisis while I talk with Charlie and his much younger wife about life in the Cotswolds but he finally does open it and SHANNA IS GETTING MARRIED. So this is a surprise.
I will go on with part 2 in a few days