Monday, February 26, 2018

A Fine Mess

    I had just resolved to boycott FedEx for that company's failure to distance itself from the NRA when wouldn't you know it, a FedEx truck got stuck in our driveway. Teresa was just about to leave for town to help her sister. Now she was trapped. I had planned a quiet afternoon studying medieval British history. Instead, I put on my boots and grabbed a shovel.
    The driver had slid off the track that gets built up on our road over the winter. We are careful to stay on the track, but unwitting delivery men in a hurry sometimes slip into the valley and get hung up crossways in the road. That's what happened to this guy. He had 18" long steel tracks he was laying under his rear tires. I helped him shovel and replace the tracks for about half an hour when he gave up and called for a tow truck. "Here's your package," he said. "Thanks for your help."
      I started to heat my lunch when Teresa said, "He's shoveling again."  I went out to investigate. He said the tow truck wouldn't be here for an hour. "Read a book, man!" I thought to myself. "Queen Matilda's husband was only 14 when she married him. Middle Ages. Fascinating."
   I went to the garage and got two six foot planks and we stuck them under the back wheels. We were making progress. In three hours we would be in the yard where the van could turn around and carefully pick its way out to the highway. At last the tow truck came. He backed down the road, lights flashing and hooked up to the back of the van. As the truck drove ahead the van slid towards the ditch tipping so far the FedEx guy beeped for the tow truck to stop. I could see a consultation going on, and twenty minutes later a four-wheel drive tractor arrived. He plowed the road and pulled the van out of the ditch.
    The FedEx guy waved as he drove out of the yard. He's paid by the hour. I had the tractor guy, Andy, plow out the yard. I'm now on his list for snow removal after storms. His price is very reasonable and I have books to read.
The World Out of Time.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Month of One's Own

     People in nursing homes don't know the day of the month or, often, the day of the week. Even the undemented ones. There's no need. Knowing which season they're in suffices. After I retired, I started climbing into the same boat. Every day felt like Saturday, but it was annoying because I still had people expecting me to show up on time. I like the month of March because if I remember that Valentine's was on, say, a Saturday, I'd know for sure that March 14th was also a Saturday. It's because February has 28 days, four weeks, nice and neat.
     It would help everyone if all the months had 28 days. The extra days could be gathered into a new month, which I propose be named Mcdonnella. The new month could be slipped in anywhere except during winter. Winter is long enough. There are 29 extra days, so one of them should be made December 29 so as to mess up things as little as possible.
     Changes to the calendar are not  unprecedented.  In 1582, Pope Gregory changed the calendar to get Easter back to Spring where it belonged. We call his reform the Gregorian calendar. I plan to ask Pope Francis to help with my project. We'll call it the Francescan calendar as a way of saying thanks.  There's a February 29th every four years, which could also screw things up, so it will become the last day of the year when it occurs.  I suggest it be named "Teresa Day," in honor of my dear wife. That would really set her up for the new year.

Libera in toto orbe terrarum meum novum fastis*

*Deliver my new calendar to all the world.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

My So-called Retired Life

    Several months ago my California daughter-in-law, Ashley, who lives in Massachusetts with my son, sent us an email saying she had been perusing the Massachusetts Unclaimed Property website. She said she found my name on the list (but not her husbands). I try not to get too excited about these things. They're usually more trouble than they're worth.
    I followed the link just in case and found I was due $13.20  in insurance proceeds, probably from a small policy from one of my parents. I'd rather have my parents back, but sure, I'll take the cash. Another link led me to a form to be printed, filled in, and mailed back. "Please allow up to 180 days for processing." I'd also need to prove my tax identity so it could be reported to the IRS, and include a copy of my driver's license. Now I'm thinking: taxes, postage, envelope, possibility of paper jam.... I didn't hit delete, but I did allow the whole thing to sink under the daily accumulation of new emails.
      Every so often, Teresa would ask if I had done anything about that unclaimed property and I'd say, "yeah." Not a lie, but less than full disclosure.  Well today Teresa was cleaning out the in-box of her own account and found Ashley's email.  She asked again about the property. It was now so long ago I was able to feign forgetfulness. Teresa used to work for the State of Minnesota, and, being a loyal wife, she blamed the bureaucracy and not me. She clicked on the link and reached the same stage I had. I hoped she would continue with the heavy lifting, but she had plans for the afternoon. "You can buy groceries with that money," she said, using a non-sequitur that I could follow only too well.
     I printed out the two-page form with no problem and filled it in. I dug out my ancient Social Security card with my old Boston address and childish signature. I placed it atop the printer along with my driver's license and hit scan. Son of a biscuit! I should have hit copy. 'Scan' always causes a paper jam. From the bowels of the printer came the sound of crumpling paper. I had to rewatch the little video provided by the printer on how to remove paper jams. At last I got all my documents signed and in order. As I addressed the envelope, I imagined it being delivered with thousands of others to the jail behind the State House at the bottom of Beacon Hill. Processing these forms had to be the job of the prisoners with six month sentences.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Get The Iron Out

     Have you ever wondered why or when the Iron Age ended? We're still using lots of iron, but somehow we've moved on to whatever the current age is called. Take Britain. People have been in Britain for almost a million years. Right from the beginning they were using stones to make life better. The Stone Age didn't officially end until four thousand years ago when people figured out how to melt metal, copper mostly, mixing it with little tin to make bronze. Even with that breakthrough, lots of people kept using stone. It was free and was lying around all over the place.  The Bronze Age only lasted a thousand years. Iron was much stronger and more abundant. It was tricky to work with, but once they got the technique down, bronze was done.
     But what ended the Iron Age? My history book said the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD meant the end of the Iron Age. But the Romans used a ton of iron. Those swords, for example. But without further explanation, my book calls the next 400 years the Roman Age, followed by the Saxon Age, the Viking Age, the Norman Age, etc., etc.
     This really piqued my curiosity. I could call up the history department at my local college, but I'm too bashful. I could pore through my books for the answer, but that would take too much time. I knew the answer was out there somewhere on the Internet. I knew Wikipedia would have the answer. I just had to formulate my question correctly. After getting fancy with my google search questions, I simply typed in "Iron Age." Wikipedia had a gigantic article covering the Iron Ages in all the many corners of the world, but my answer was right there in the introductory paragraph: "The Iron Age is taken to end with the beginning of the historiographical record." So that's it! Once you start writing things down, you're out of the smoky, dirty Iron Age and into the lovely realms of paper and ink and memory palaces.
     No matter how sharp you are, if you don't take good notes, you're still a bit of a barbarian.
"We don't need no stinkin' books."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Poverty No-Name

      I read a profile recently of Ophelia Dahl, one of the founders of Partners In Health. For over thirty years, this organization has tried to establish health systems in poor countries. PIH attempts to get the local governments to expand the projects the organization starts. The governments are good when there's a crisis, but when things stabilize, the government will often cut funding.
     This is frustrating to Dahl. "Think about the airline industry," she says. "Can you imagine how complicated it is to run a passenger air system across this world?" She wonders why the same sort of thing can't be done with health care for the poor. The author of the article gently points out that the airlines operate on the profit motive.
     Here's my modest proposal to alleviate poverty. Let poor people sell their naming rights to companies as a form of advertising.  Half the annual fee would go to the individual and the other half to their country's health care system. There'd be lots of little Amazons and Coca-colas, but any company large or small could tap into this tax write-off. The poor could sign up for multiple names and whole swaths of the population would look like NASCAR drivers.
     Even us people in the first world can help. We'll sell our personal naming rights and donate our fees to the poor. We could search out names similar to our present names. I wouldn't mind being Joe's Crab Shack McDonalds if it would help eliminate poverty.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Rocky Road To London

(Part Three of Three Parts)

     We were down to the final few days of our three week trip around England. I have a friend who fills every minute of her travels with stuff. Much as I admire her stamina, I can't handle that kind of death march. I'm good for four to six hours of sightseeing per day, max. After two hours in a museum I can't absorb any more. I move on to plans B or C (Bed or Café).
     We had spent a week in the Cotswolds area and another on the Cornwall Peninsula. Now we would head east to Portsmouth and then back up to London and home. I wanted to see Lord Nelson's ship Victory at the Historic Shipyards in Portsmouth. 
     Portsmouth was 200 miles east of Penzance where we had been staying. The city of Exeter was about halfway to Portsmouth, a good place to spend the night. There was a big cathedral there so we could check "ancient cathedral" off our list. We had also been encouraged to get a cream tea while in England. A friend said the best cream teas were in Devonshire and Exeter was in Devonshire, so we could kill two birds with one stop.  
     Liz, our hostess at our Penzance B&B printed out directions for us which was helpful since there were over twenty roundabouts on our 100 mile trip to Exeter. We were booked into the Telstar B&B. in Exeter. With twenty rooms, the Telstar was more of an inn than a true B&B. I confirmed that there was no pub downstairs. Exeter was an even bigger city than Bath. I realize I've been complaining a lot about the driving here. but it was the elephant in the back seat. Teresa has a better sense of direction than me, but I'm a better map reader, so she should have driven while I navigated, but she declined to take the wheel, so we had the worst of a bad situation. Finding our way around a strange city was tricky. Whenever we took a wrong turn, which we often did, we had to pull over and study the map on the iPad and work our way back. This is exactly what it took to find the Telstar B&B. As I pulled into the narrow driveway of the Telstar I noticed the street we had been on got super narrow. Glad we don't have to go up that way, I thought. 
      I asked the manager if the Telstar was named after the communications satellite. He said no, it was named after the 1962 hit song that was named after the satellite, and pointed to a poster of The Tornados on the dining room wall. Our first job, once in our room,  was to log onto Wi-Fi and find ourselves a Devonshire cream tea.  A cream tea is not tea with cream in it (a sacrilege), but tea with a scone and clotted cream. And clotted cream is formed by slowly warming cream until it forms clots. It's more delicious than it sounds.  I googled "best Devonshire cream tea in Devonshire" and was directed to a cream tea website. There was only one tearoom listed in Exeter, located about a mile and a half from our lodging. This involved a walk through the busy, gritty  downtown area. On the plus side, there were numerous charity shops which of course we patronized. According to the iPad, our tea shop was across the River Exe, an area even grittier than downtown. In fact it was downright industrial. We passed a giant auto body shop. I could see a long line of wrecks inside. There but for the grace of God.... Teresa was beginning to doubt my map reading skills. A tea shop in this area started to seem improbable to me too.
      We recrossed the river and spotted three women having tea at the back of their apartment estate. They told us the best Devonshire cream tea was at a café across the green from the cathedral. As so often happened, we could not find the landmarks the women had given us. Luckily we could see the spire of the cathedral and we were able to guide ourselves by that to the aptly named Café on the Green. Our cream tea was excellent and now we wouldn't have to be ashamed if people asked why we had skipped cream tea when we had been right there in Devonshire.
Best in the world
     Revived by our tea and clotted cream, we headed over to the cathedral. There are several big cathedrals in the U.S., but the European models are in a different class. For one thing, gravity has been trying to pull them down for several hundred more years. And I may be romanticizing here, but they seem imbued with a more intense faith than their modern versions. Many of the cathedrals go back to the Norman period in the 11th and 12th centuries. The style then was Romanesque or rounded. When the buildings were expanded in later centuries, it was in the Gothic or pointy style.
     The 20th century added the guest welcoming area where you make your donation. Seniors get a couple of pounds discount. Sunday services are free. Near the entry was a large tent which housed the beginnings of an enormous Lego model of the cathedral. For a pound, you could buy a lego block to help complete the model. It's expected to take five years to finish. They've had to order some special blocks from Lego headquarters in Denmark.
   What's most striking about Exeter is the lack of pews and the ceiling vaulting overhead. There were a couple of baby carriages with mirrors instead of mattresses that you could push around to inspect the ceiling without craning your neck. Exeter has the longest uninterrupted vaulted cathedral in the world.
Grab a baby buggy, save a crick.
     One thing we noticed in most churches in England was that the faces of ground level saints and angels had been smashed in. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, and 100 years later during the Civil War, certain disgruntled people expressed themselves by picking up sledges. Cultural revolutions are always hard on icons.
     An employee invited us to stay for evensong at six. The organ had been warming up in a thrilling way, and we took our seats in the choir, an area of tiered seats in the center of the nave. Another thirty or so tourists and locals joined us. Promptly at six, the choir filed in, a mix of children and adults, mostly men, but with some women and girls. They all wore gowns and the kids had ruffs. The choir director was extremely lively. I could have heard the music just watching him. The singing was ethereal. It said the angel smashers would not prevail. As we left the church, we read a sign saying one of the side chapels had been hit by a bomb during  WWII. Modern angel smashers.
    Next morning, we studied our maps over breakfast at the Telstar. It wasn't going to be easy escaping the tentacles of this ancient city. At the second roundabout Teresa told me we were already off course. I pushed on a bit, and now we were being forced through a narrow passage with rumple strips, the kind I had trembled at yesterday. In fact, it was the other end of that self same passage, and there was dear old Telstar. I pulled into the driveway. People looked out from the dining room. Let 'em look! We studied the map again, and resolved to do better. It was nip and tuck for awhile, but soon Exeter was in the rearview mirror and Portsmouth was just 100 miles away.
    Much of the route to Portsmouth was on divided motorways so I could relax a bit. We spotted a McDonalds up ahead. McDonalds let's you use their bathrooms without buying anything, but we helped them out by getting apple pies. Taste of home.
    In Portsmouth, my goal was to see Admiral Nelson's ship Victory at the Historic Dockyards. I had booked a room at a B&B a couple of miles from the ship. This B&B only had two parking spots for its ten rooms so I planned to grab one early and walk to the ship. Victory is a major  tourist trap and they charge accordingly. My guidebook said I could save a few pounds by buying my ticket at the D-Day Museum on the side of town close to our B&B.  I figured I'd buy our tickets then park the car and hike over to Victory. It was raining hard now, and for the life of us, we could not see the D-Day Museum. I pulled into a parking lot and ignored the sign that said "Buy a Parking Ticket, Even If You're Lost and Just Looking for the D-Day Museum." I walked around trying to spot the museum but no luck. We drove to a fish and chips place and got vague directions, then tried another restaurant for more vague directions and finally pulled up to a bunker like building that had to be the place, except there were no signs saying "you are here." There was a guy in a van outside eating his lunch. "Is this the D-Day Museum?"I asked.
"Yeah, but it's closed for repairs."
"Are you working on it?"
"Yeah. It'll be open in the spring."
"Next trip," I said.
    By the time we got settled at the Blue Star B&B, Teresa decided she'd spend the afternoon visiting local charity shops rather than walk two miles in the rain to visit an old ship at great expense. "You'll enjoy it more than I would," she rationalized.
    After a quick snack, I headed to the dockyards. The rain had quit but there was a strong cool wind blowing in off the sea. I did not have Internet access, but my phone showed me as a blue dot traipsing through the town. Even with all this technology I still turned the wrong way. How did I find things in the old days? I would have used a paper map and a compass and a less torpid brain.
    You could spend days exploring the Historic Dockyards. I just wanted to see Victory, and mercifully, they let you buy a reduced ticket for just that part of the place. Once I arrived at the ship, I was glad I had come. It was immense. The ship has been in drydock since the 1920s so I could see its entire great bulk.  A cathedral of the sea. Victory was launched in 1765, but she is famous for her part as Lord Nelson's flagship at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This battle put an end to Napoleon's ambition to rule the seas and to the possible invasion of England itself. Nelson was killed during the battle by a sharpshooter in the rigging of a French ship.
Where Nelson fell. He lived another three hours, bidding farewell.
    After the battle, Victory began a long period of decline. A couple of times the Navy wanted to demolish the ship. It was obsolete and there was no money for maintenance. Public outcries preserved the ship and Queen Victoria put in her oar too. It wasn't until 2005 that the ship was restored to it's look at the time of the battle, and it will be a few more years before all the rigging and topmasts are back in place.
    There are over 350,000 visitors to the ship each year but only a dozen of us were aboard on this cool, rainy weekday. Once aboard, I noticed the other visitors all had headsets and tape players. No one had offered me a headset, not that I would have taken one. They always cost extra and I prefer to read the explanatory cards. But the cards only said things like "Nelson's Stateroom, push #5." All the information was on the tape! Fortunately my father had taken us aboard the USS Constitution and to various nautical museums as kids, so I knew my way around a man-o'-war. One thing intrigued me though. Why was Nelson's bed placed between two cannons just outside his luxurious stateroom? Was he such a heavy sleeper it took a cannon to rouse him?  The German bomb that landed next to the ship in 1941 would have awakened him. The Germans claimed they had destroyed the ship. The British said, No you didn't.
     As I walked back to the B&B a young man approached me. "Excuse me sir, can you tell me the way to the barber shop?" Tall and thin, with a goatee and an umbrella, he looked like a character out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. I gestured back toward the city center where I had passed a couple of shops. Teresa and I had noted that England has an inordinate number of beauty salons, open late into the evening, and usually filled with  men and women sipping glasses of wine as they awaited their turn. Very civilized.
     After Portsmouth, I had just more item on my list: Jane Austen's house in Chawton, forty miles south of London. There were no B&Bs in Chawton so we booked a room in the nearby market town of Aldon. Jane's father had been a clergyman and the family had a comfortable life, but when he died, Jane, her mother and her sister were left in genteel poverty. Fortunately an older brother had been adopted by a wealthy childless couple, and the brother offered a cottage on his estate to his mother and sisters. This "cottage" was a large brick house and the Austen women had servants to do the heavy work. Jane spent the last eight years of her life in this place (she died at 41). Once settled at the cottage, Jane had time to revise and publish her first three novels, one of which was Pride and Prejudice. She also wrote her final three novels here. Just before her death, she moved twenty miles to Winchester to be close to her physician. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
     Jane's mother and sister continued to live in the house until their deaths. The house was then used as lodging for farm workers, so there was no impetus to upgrade and alter the place. The house became a museum in 1947 and was restored to it's early 19th century look. Gathered in the house are many items from Jane's life including her small writing table. Seeing things like this is my idea of fun.
Jane left some big shoes.
    The Austen Museum gets a fair number of visitors, but nothing like Stratford-upon-Avon or Victory. It's close enough to London that tourists don't have to spend the night in the area, but we did. We spent two nights in fact. Alton was a fine little town and we felt we were seeing real English life away from the tourist track. The Swan Inn had reasonable rates and our room was much more spacious than at a typical B&B.
    The next day we ran over to Winchester to see the cathedral and Jane's grave. The drive over was not bad, but the streets in the town were narrow and confusing, and as soon as I could, I pulled into a small pay lot. I had not yet learned to pay initially for five or six hours right off and be done with it. I just paid for two hours and figured I could run back if we needed more time. I tried to memorize landmarks as we went so we could find our way back. "There's a Marks and Spencer store," I noted. "We're right down the street from that."
     We checked out the ornate city hall and admired the enormous statue of  Alfred the Great who lived in these parts back in the ninth century. He was one of the good kings. We walked along the pretty River Icthen and explored the ruins of the bishop's palace. As we headed to the Cathedral, we noticed the cathedral used bookstore housed in a large shed was just opening for the day. Wow! I love England. We each got a couple of books and the elderly cashier told us of his travels around the U.S.
     Once inside the cathedral, we claimed our senior discount ("concession" they call it). I wanted to see Jane's tomb, but Teresa thought we should join the one hour tour that was just setting off. I reminded her that our parking time would be up in 45 minutes. She suggested I stay for a half hour of the tour then run up and put more money in the meter.
     Roger, our guide, was an elderly gentleman dressed in suitcoat and tie. I believe that in his younger days, Roger had written a multi-volume history of Winchester Cathedral. It's amazing how much history can accumulate around a single building. We had only made it to the baptismal font near the back of the church when I had to leave. Roger was on a tangent about the carvings on the base of the font when I told Teresa I'd be right back.
     You know those dreams where you start off from home, sure of where you're going, but with each step you get more lost? Well that's what my search for our parking lot was like. I was totally disoriented.  I saw a Marks & Spencer logo in the distance. "Excuse me," I asked a woman. "Is that Brooks & Spencer?" "You mean Marks & Spencer?" "Yes." I said. "I'm trapped in this nightmare and wonder if there's a parking lot down the street from there." She said, "Yes, just turn left at the store and you'll come to the lot." Whew. I turned the corner and spotted the big blue P. Saved! But when I arrived, it was a much larger lot than the one we had parked in. I asked a man if there was another lot in the area. He directed me to another lot, but as I headed the way he pointed, I looked back and saw our original lot. In my frenzy, I had walked right past our lot. Talk about situational unawareness.
     By the time I returned to the cathedral I figured the tour would be well over, but Roger was still going strong, and the tour was only half way up the nave. People in the group seemed to take my return as a chance to fade away. Soon there were only three of us. I wanted to ask Roger where Jane's tomb was. The other member of our reduced group asked about an odd floor tile. Roger said an American tourist had broken through the floor here last year. Now this sounded interesting. Cavities under the floor. But before we could get the juicy details, we had to hear a dissertation on medieval tile making. There was never a pause or break in Roger's discourse. It was like falling through the floor with nothing to grab onto.
     Finally we broke away and headed for a group of tourists by a big plaque. At last the famous writer's tomb. A bunch of the tourists were standing, disrespectfully I thought, right on top of Jane's slab. What sort of acid would she have used to describe that? No, she would have seen the humor.
     In the gift shop I restrained myself from asking for a CD of the song "Winchester Cathedral." We had a pleasant lunch in a busy pub, then enjoyed our usual stomach churning drive out of town and back to Alton.  The highway itself was fine, but I never did master driving the narrow city streets. I needed a couple of more months.
Her words live on.
     Alton was not touristy at all. It was just a typical English market town and we liked it a lot. There were many charity shops to engage Teresa.  As we were walking along the quiet high street that evening, a vanload of lads drove by and one of them yelled "Oi," loud enough to make Teresa start, as the van swerved on down the street. Up to now, everything had been perfectly well mannered. This was a faint echo of Britain's dark side, of the likes of Jack the Ripper, football hooligans, Boris Johnson....
    When planning our trip, we hadn't made any provision for visiting London. Now, after seeing most of the things on our list, we still had two days in hand. I made reservations at a small hotel near Heathrow for the two nights before our flight home.
    What shall we do now? Windsor Castle's not far away. Nah, we're sick of castles and of paying a ransom to get in 'em. I saw on the map that there park on the west edge of London. We could go for a hike. We experienced our first traffic jam of the trip on the way to the park. Someone had told me the M-25 around London was always jammed. We left the motorway and headed to the park. On the way we noticed a gigantic flea market. Quite a comedown from Windsor Castle, but we decided to check it out. Parking in a big grassy field was three pounds; two pounds after noon and only one pound after two p.m. I pulled out a pound coin, but the keeper waved me on. Many of the vendors were packing up to leave, but there were still plenty of rags and bones to look at. This was the place to go for a cheap mattress or the materials to make a mattress. There were also tables of household goods and antiquities. One guy had a table of free stuff. I got an ancient egg beater that was probably used to mix up eggnog when Dickens was in charge of Christmas. I don't know where people get off saying London is expensive. I had just scored free parking and a free antique.
     We checked into our hotel and walked a mile to a pub for supper. Heathrow airport takes up a gigantic piece of land, but is surrounded by several small villages. Next to the Anchor Pub where we ate was a little field with two sheep grazing. You won't find grazing sheep two miles from LaGuardia or LAX.
    Our plan for London was to take a two mile bus ride over to the airport, then catch the Tube (subway) to the city center. But when we read the bus schedule that evening, we learned the bus did not run on Sundays. I confirmed this with a passerby. He said we could walk two miles to the bus terminal and catch another bus to the airport. I called a cab company. Twenty bucks! We decided to walk to the airport, though I didn't know if you could walk into Heathrow. Google didn't know either. Sunday morning we got an early start and saw there was a gate through the fence around the busy perimeter road that services Heathrow's five terminals. And there was a bike path next to the road. Most civilized!
    We had to dodge buses and trucks as we made our way through the parking garage and into the terminal. We bought our tickets and headed down to the Tube platform. It was only 12 miles into the city, but the trip took over an hour because of the many stops. At last we arrived at Piccadilly Circus. The 'circus' refers to a roundabout that's no longer there. There used to be a shop there that made piccadils, or frilled collars. That's gone too.
    We had breakfast in a crowded café. The meals are not more expensive in London than elsewhere, you just get less food. We made our way to Trafalgar Square, much of which was fenced off for an Indian festival. Many of the great museums are free, but we had no time for museums. We would just wander around goggling at icons. Then we saw Yoda, the first of many street performers we were to see. Yoda was levitating one foot off the ground. His feet were not visible, but the bottom of his robe rippled in the breeze of a little fan. He held a staff in one outstretched arm.  How did he do it? If you threw a pound in his basket he would nod to you, but speak he would not.
He never spilled his beer.

    We crossed the Thames on a pedestrian bridge. It's mind expanding to walk through sites you've seen on TV or read about. There was Parliament, and Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, and, and..., what's that big crowd about? It was another performer, letting two members of the crowd wrap chains around him. This had obviously been going on for a while, and he dragged it out another 15 minutes, priming us to put money in his basket when he finally shed the mass of chains. "A five pound note would be brilliant! I've got  kids to feed back home in Australia."
All the other tourist were striking poses, why not us?.
     The bells of the Abbey were ringing joyously. Teresa recorded a bit on her iPad. On the other side of the Abbey we ran into our first fellow Minnesotan, a young woman from the Twin Cities. She had a map of Minnesota on her sweatshirt so it wasn't hard to make the connection. She was studying in Spain and hadn't been home in months. She said we made her day. Nice.
    We passed the heavily defended 10 Downing Street, and the Horse Guards parade ground, then back to Piccadilly for lunch at the fifth floor café of the amazing Waterstone's, the largest bookstore in Europe. We strolled through the funky Soho area. Teresa found a popup charity store and the manager brought me a chair to relax on while Teresa aided the children of Afghanistan.
    We made our way along Oxford Street to Covent Garden enjoying the street performers and the very diverse crowd. I had read that the old London had disappeared, but I kept spotting ancient pubs nestled under newer buildings. London still seemed to have plenty of old stuff.
     We found the Covent Garden Tube stop to return to our hotel. There was a big crowd at the elevators so we took the spiral stairs down to the platform. Right away we met some exhausted looking kids, then nothing. Round and round we went. Near the bottom was a sign. " Stairs for Emergency Use Only! 193 steps, Equivalent to a 15 Story Building." At least we were going down.
     As we walked back along the perimeter road to our hotel, we popped into a Subway Sandwich shop, attached to a gas station. The shop was exactly like Subway at home, except one of the options was chicken tikka.
     We felt completely acclimated to England as we watched the Great British Bake Off show while enjoying our takeaway supper. Teresa had been careful about her purchases at the charity stores, but it still took a couple of hours to get packed. I had bought a new pair of shoes and had to leave my old ones behind. Perhaps they'll end up at the London flea market.
     It was only four miles from our hotel back to Hertz. I planned our route extra carefully. No screw-ups on the last day. As we pulled into the car return area we gave each other a high five. We had just navigated a thousand miles of the world's most dangerous roads without a scratch. Yes, I could have made our lives easier with a GPS and an automatic transmission, but where's the glory in that? The glory was in getting out and about, seeing all kinds of beautiful and strange things, hobnobbing with the locals, and having any prejudices washed away. It was great!
     I do have one last question though. Why do they give you half a pint of milk to put in your tea, while the ketchup packets don't contain enough to cover half of one French Fry, I mean chip?
Flowery Kingdom



Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Cornwall, Ho!

   (Part two of two parts)

After a week touring the Cotswolds area west of London, we headed south for the city of Penzance at the southwestern tip of England, almost 250 miles away. Britain adopted the metric system when it joined the EU, but it kept its land measurements in miles and miles per hour, which I appreciated.
 Back home we drive 350 miles to the Twin Cities at the drop of a hat, but 250 miles in Britain is daunting. I planned to break up our drive with a night in Wells, 80 miles to the south, and another in the village of Chagford in the Dartmoor National Park. We had no firm itinerary other than seeing Port Isaac, home of the famous Doc Martin.
  Some friends had taken a bus tour around England and told us Bath was their favorite place. It was also the site of ancient Roman baths. Bath was along our route so we decided to check it out and get some lunch there. With a population of 80,000, Bath was the largest city we had driven in so far. The city had nice wide streets, but was far more hectic than the one-lane villages of the Cotswolds. OK, we'll just park in the big  lot downtown, view the baths, have some lunch, and continue on to Wells.
  We followed the big blue P signs downtown, but, as so often happened, there was no lot to be seen beyond the last sign. There's never a place to pull over and take a look around. The press of traffic quickly ushers you out of downtown and up the hill and into the bewildering network of narrow streets. At least most of these streets were one way. That was a blessing.
  How about we just park up here and walk downtown? I knew we had travelled two or three miles from downtown. That's too far to walk.  Let's try to get downtown again. It really is an ingenious maze the people have built over the past 2,000 years.  Any invader would just give up and move on to a simpler town.
  After driving around on the hillsides for half an hour we found a parking spot across from an elementary school. As we left the car I just chanced to see a sign on the school stating that all cars must be off this street by 3:00 p.m. This was probably to protect the children from confused tourists. That gave us three hours to get downtown and back. We asked a young couple for directions. "Just follow the canal to Sydney Gardens, then turn right to downtown. It'll take you an hour to get downtown from here."
Down the lazy canal
  A canal! Yes here was the canal travelled by the longboats we had seen way up in Stratford.  As we started along the canalside path, we saw a longboat putting along toward Sydney Gardens. I estimated he was going two mph, because we soon overtook him. The captain was steering from the stern, his wife and dog beside him, a cup of tea in one hand, his pipe clenched between his teeth. How idyllic! To cruise along this bucolic canal with no parking problems. A sign said you could tie up along the canal for two days for free. Maybe next time.
  The canal walk was beautiful and the stress of the morning drive melted away. At Sydney Gardens there was a big painted map. As we studied our route downtown, a young woman asked us if we knew where the university was. She said she had decided to walk to school today rather than drive for the first time. "No, we don't live around here." She asked where in the States we were from. "My mother was from Minnesota too," she said. I asked her to tell her mother "Uff da" from Minnesota.
  Even with the route fixed in our heads,  we were soon disoriented. We asked a woman for directions. "Go up there to the big church and take a left, and that street will take you downtown." She had an eastern European accent like so many of the people we asked for directions or who waited on us in cafes.
  Speaking of cafes, we needed something to eat. If a café didn't have Wi-Fi, we moved on. We eventually found a place not far from the Roman baths. As we sipped our tea, I downloaded the route to Wells onto Teresa's iPad. It would involve around eight different roads and several small towns. Also, we'd have to pass through downtown Bath at the beginning of rush hour, which appeared to go on all day. By the time I got our route written onto a sheet of paper for Teresa's benefit, it was two o'clock. So much for the Roman baths.
  As we walked back I realized the woman who gave us directions earlier had sent us on the simplest route, but not the shortest. "Let's cut over this way," I said to Teresa. A short-cut in England is not a wise idea for a first time visitor. As confusion set in, I asked a man walking his dog if we were on the right track. "Not exactly," he said. "You cut across the park (Sydney Gardens) and you'll come out by the such-and-such museum. I highly recommend a visit to that museum. It's free." Sure. Next time,... when we take the longboat down from Stratford.
  It was getting late now. I didn't want our car towed by the school police. If we didn't find that canal soon...By golly! There it is! Saved! We knew now we'd make it. We even took time to chat with a couple on a longboat tied up along the way. They had been on the canal a week. It was slow going because there were lots of locks which you operated yourself. They said their 44' boat slept two comfortably, though you could squeeze another couple in. It didn't sound any more expensive than a B&B, and a car would be redundant.
  We returned to our car and girded ourselves for the downtown gauntlet. Though we had our map and written directions, the signs are highly ambiguous and we got to see a couple of back alleys where Roman legionnaires used to take their evening bath. Once out of the city, we only got lost once more on the way to Wells. There was construction on the street where our B&B was located. That was good because it gave us time to spot our lodging as we inched along. Liz, our proprietor, reminded us of Judi Dench, both in looks and manner. Could this be how Judi relaxes between movies? We dared each other to ask, but didn't want to break the spell.

Still waiting to hear back from the Vatican on our application

  Every place we stayed had a dandy tea-in-the-room setup, usually with packets of cookies and chocolate. We always brewed an afternoon 'cuppa' to relax after the road. About five p.m. we headed uptown to see Wells Cathedral and find a place for supper. Along the way we were delighted to find the Church of Saints Joseph and Teresa. This had to be the only so named church in the world. I wanted to have the priest renew our vows, but Teresa said it was getting late. Wells Cathedral, a bit further on, must have the widest façade of any church in the country. All these big churches request a £6-10 donation to keep the place from falling down. It was too late in the day to be worthwhile. We'd catch another cathedral down the line. We found a cozy Greek tavern for supper. The man at the next table said his wife was curious about my accent. "Minnesotan, with Bostonian undertones," I said. "Really! My brother drives bus in Boston. He says there's lots of murders there."
  We ordered appetizers and saved part of them to eat with our main course. But our main course never arrived. Here we learned another British custom. They don't bring out the entrée until you finish your starter, as they call appetizers. They don't want to rush you. Another six months here and we'd be finding invisible downtown parking lots with the best of them.
  There was a Scottish couple at breakfast the next morning. They have narrow roads in Scotland too, but the Scots complained of the hectic pace of the driving here in the south. I felt somewhat vindicated. We read the numerous postcards on the shelf. They all were either from Lands End in Cornwall or  John o' Groats in Scotland. Liz's place is a stop for cyclists traversing the entire length of Britain, an 874 mile trip that takes up to two weeks. There's no way either Teresa or I wanted to cycle along these crazy  roads. Walking on footpaths is longer, about 1,200 miles, and takes two to three months.
  After breakfast we headed for the village of Chagford. Our route passed through Glastonbury and we pulled in to check out the town. There's a ruined monastery there and a mighty natural sandstone tower called the Tor, neither of which we visited. I just wanted a postcard for a friend back home who is fascinated by monasteries. Of course we checked out the local charity store and I found an Afghani hat. It'll go well with my AK. I know the best Afghani hats are made in Pakistan. I checked the label. Sure enough, "Made in Pakistan".
 Glastonbury is rife with myths and New Age seekers. King Arthur and Guinevere were buried here the old monks said. Camelot was just up the road say others. There's also proof that Joseph of Arimathea brought the chalice from the last supper here after Jesus' death. He buried the chalice near  the Tor.  The proof is that the nearby Chalice Well still runs red from the remains of Jesus' blood in the chalice. Many cures are associated with the well. There's a bit of logic in these yarns. Joseph was a dealer in metals and may well have visited the mines of ancient Britain. There's even speculation that Jesus himself traveled with Joseph on an earlier trip. They were related after all, and the Bible says that between the ages of 12 and 30, Jesus was "in the wilderness." You never know.
  We continued on to the village of Chagford.  A couple we met in a pub back in the Cotswolds had recommended the place and Chagford turned out to be as picturesque as they said it was. I may be romanticizing England in the haze of memory, but this town of 1,500 had no false notes.
  I had booked a room in the Globe Inn. This was the first place we stayed that did not have its own parking lot. Their website  said there was free parking after five in the city lot two blocks away. Chagford was on the  north edge of the Dartmoor National Park. Dartmoor is famous for its moors and free ranging ponies. The Hound of the Baskervilles used to roam these hills. But the area around Chagford itself is wooded and hilly with narrow twisting roads. We missed the main road into Chagford and came in the back way. "Man that was hairy," I said superfluously to Teresa as we eased into the city lot. It was only one o'clock so we'd have to pay to park till five, but parking was much cheaper than in tourist traps like Stratford.
  We hauled our bags down to the Globe Inn. Our room was commodious and overlooked ancient St. Michael's Church. There were drawings of nude women on the walls. Teresa thought this odd, but I didn't see a problem. We had lunch at the bar downstairs and asked for tips for a hike. Yes, we could walk down Mill Street, hike along the River Teign for a mile then return to town the back way. I noted how steep and narrow Mill street was. As we hiked along the river we seemed to be headed into a hotel parking lot. We asked a hotel guest we met on the path if this was the right way. "Yes, the path continues just beyond the hotel," he said. We passed the hotel, walked along the top of a wall like in Peter Rabbit, till we ran into a tributary of the Teign. Never trust anyone in pajama bottoms. We retraced our steps, crossed the bridge, and found the true footpath.
Tempus fugit at St. Michael's Church. Seems like only yesterday it was 1200 A.D.

  We were to have five or six perfect weather days out of three weeks and this was one of them. As we re-entered the village, we passed a row of new senior housing apartments and gave each other an enquiring look.  The people here were exceptionally friendly. A farmer invited us back to the pony trading fair next week  We told him we'd put it on the calendar. I believe there's magic everywhere, but Chagford has a double dose. After supper that evening, we went over to the bar side to watch a darts tournament. Darts can be scored any way the contestants agree upon. I couldn't figure how they were doing it. The young man with perfect form seemed to be winning by a mile. But when it was over, the portly older woman was the winner. I congratulated her. "Yes," she said. "That was a miracle."
  Google maps was starting to irritate me. Google didn't care if it sent you down some medieval cow path. It told us that the steep and narrow Mill Street was the main route out of Chagford. Well, maybe we could dash down the hill before we met anyone. What a joke! It was rush hour in the village, with everyone, young and old, nipping up Mill Street for a spot of tea or a new pair of Wellies. We met half a dozen cars and our collision beeper was going off as though we'd discovered uranium. I even forced one old couple to back up 100 feet to a pull off. They're used to this, I figured. Finally we reached the bridge at the bottom. I had forgotten how narrow it was when we walked over it yesterday. "Caution, six foot bridge," the sign warned. That's six feet wide. We folded in the mirrors and Teresa walked ahead to guide me through. Whew! But around the next corner was another six foot bridge. The other drivers waited patiently as I inched across. The English are so polite.

The wide part of Mill Street

  On this day we would check something off Teresa's list: Port Isaac, the setting for the British series, Doc Martin. Port Isaac was once just one of a series of pretty fishing villages in Cornwall, but after the popularity of Doc Martin, the town had to build an enormous paved parking lot a ten minute walk above the village itself. Of course there was a meter where you could make donations to help pay for the lot.
  This was another perfect autumn day. We followed a tunnelly footpath downhill to the maze of crooked village streets. There were Doc Martin fans flowing in and out of all the shops and cafes; buying, eating, taking pictures in front of Mrs. Tishell's pharmacy.
Doc Martin's kipper catcher
  The tide was out so we walked across the sand and rocks to the jetty that protected the harbor. Then we hiked up the hill overlooking the town. I'm not a true fan of the Doc, but this was fantastic. I could see King Arthur's Castle at Tintagel a few miles up the coast.
  Since it was a Friday, Port Isaac was fully booked, so I had reserved a room at King Arthur's Arms in Tintagel. King Arthur's Castle, just outside the town is truly a mythmaker's dream. There are ruins of  a castle from the fifth century that would have belonged to a ruler possibly named Arthur. The story of Arthur has been used over the years to rally the English against invaders.  We checked into King Arthur's Arms around three. There was a pub/restaurant downstairs. Friday night...could be noisy. We got to the castle at four. Admission: ten dollars, closing time: in one hour. We decided to come back the next day. We were able to climb up to the courtyard overlooking the spit of land leading to the actual castle. The views to the rocks and sea below were spectacular. On our way back to the inn, we passed Merlin's Cave. At low tide you could walk inside, but now the waves were washing in and out. A couple of guys in wet suits were getting ready to swim over to the cave. We stopped to watch. Why do sportsmen take forever to get ready? Finally one of them set off, but the other was having trouble. He kept looking down into the waist deep water. His friend came back. The guy had lost one of his flippers. As we started to leave I looked back at the cave and saw a wizard at the entrance chewing on something rubbery, until the next wave washed the vision away.
  We had supper at the pub. It was indeed raucous. Fortunately the country rock band would not be playing until tomorrow night. We got one more lesson in pub dining. The tables were all numbered. You looked over the menu then got up and told the bartender what you wanted and what your table number was. Otherwise you could sit there a long time. While we waited for our meal, we noticed a young woman flitting from the bar to the different tables to chat. Her shirt said "I drink, I smoke, I ____ the boys." Her shirt was rolled up over her midriff so I couldn't tell what she did with or to the boys. When I went to the bar to refresh our drinks, she even chatted with me. She asked if I'd be back tomorrow to see the band who were all sitting right here. I had noticed earlier that one of them had a jacket that said "Proud To Be An American," though he was as British as King Arthur. I should have asked the friendly girl what her shirt said, but I liked not knowing better.
  I fell asleep when they pulled the jukebox plug at midnight. No more pub hotels for us.  When I looked out the window in the morning, a wild storm was lashing the coast. The castle had disappeared from view. Nevertheless, I saw tourists, British presumably, heading for the castle in their rain gear. Not us though. We settled for a charity shop.
   In retrospect, it was fitting to have had one day of really horrible weather on our trip. This was to be a travel day down to Penzance sixty miles away on the tip of Cornwall. Getting from Tintagel back to the A30 on narrow roads with 50' of visibility was not nice, but once on the main road, all was well. There are lots of classic sports cars running around the English countryside and I saw one guy that morning tooling along with the roof down, water streaming off his rain hat. I just shook my head in admiration.
  We arrived in Penzance around noon and shoved a bunch of pound coins into the meter in the big downtown lot. The population of Penzance is 16,000. That's nothing for a U.S. town, but because everything is so concentrated, the town feels much bigger than it really is.
  We checked out a few charity shops then stopped into the Front Room Café for lunch. I liked this place. There was a fenced in area under the stairs where you could let your kid play while you ate. The men's room had an upside down sink and toilet on the ceiling (in addition to normal ones). I told the owner I liked his sense of humor. He recommended we visit the Admiral Benbow for supper. "Be sure to try the Steak and Ale pie," he said.
  We checked into the Rosalie House on a street lined with by B&Bs. We had our afternoon tea, took a nap then headed for the Admiral Benbow. Our route went through a lush park and along a series of footpaths and alleyways, past noisy takeaways and musical pubs, emerging at last at our restaurant. Without our Google maps we might have wandered for hours. The Admiral Benbow is famous for its collection of nautical nick-knacks and curios. The dining room was meant to look like a captain's stateroom on an old sailing ship and it did, but it also included everything from the main deck and crew's quarters. "Over the top," was how the guidebook described it. The close quarters inspired chat with our fellow diners, a pair from Australia and another from Norfolk.  The steak and ale pie was delicious. As we left the place, Teresa heard a young man ask his friend if he had read Treasure Island. "It starts at The Admiral Benbow," he said. I looked it up later and he was right. Someone later asked if we had seen the pirate on the roof. We had to walk back the next day to see the pirate shooting at another invisible pirate in the distance. It must be great to live in a country chock full of historical references.

Waiting on time and tide
  England is also a country full of tourist traps. But they're wonderful tourist traps. Penzance's finest was a few miles up the road near the little town of Marazion. Just off the coast sits the island of St. Michael's Mount. It's a smaller version of Mont St. Michel off the coast of Normandy. Both islands have or had Benedictine monasteries. The French monks are still there. Henry VIII kicked his monks out and sold the place for cash. You can hike out to either place at low tide. The tide was still in when we arrived. A boat was shuttling tourists to the island, but we took a walk around Marazion until the waters uncovered the cobblestone causeway. We, along with a few hundred fellow pilgrims, made  the ten minute walk to the island. The walk was free but there was a fee to visit the castle on the mount. "Would you like to also buy the official guidebook to enhance your visit? Only five pounds." Of course I would, not that I was going to have time to read the thing before or during my visit. This island and the castle built atop it, with cannons pointing toward the bay and a flag flying over it all was worth all the trouble and cost it took us to get here.
  The same family has lived on the island for hundreds of years and we tourists are happy to help them preserve it. After touring the castle we hiked back to town along the causeways. We found a triangle shaped café for lunch, with a view back to the Mount.
Like ants, oblivious to the rising tide
  Teresa was now ready for a real hike, so the next morning we took the Number 6 bus over to the village of Mousehole, three miles up the coast. Teresa was willing to hike both ways, but it's my job to keep her from overdoing it, so it would be the bus over and hike back,  Mousehole is a cute village of narrow crooked streets. How our driver managed to whip his gigantic bus to the town center while cleaning his nails at the same time was a mystery to me.
  We wandered around town and took pictures of the boats and narrow jetty opening to the sea that give Mousehole it's name. We checked out the curio shops, chuckled at the 'Hole' Foods grocery, and headed back to Penzance. Walking is good. You see so much more of an area when you're not behind the wheel trying to avoid the angel of death. There used to be a lot of smuggling in this area, hence the 'pirates' of Penzance. The king used to get a large part of his income on import duties and wherever there's a tax, people will try to avoid it.

How Mousehole got its name
  Cornwall is famous for tin mining and for the pasties the miners took underground for lunch. On our last afternoon in Cornwall we decided to check out both icons.  There used to be many dozens of tin mines in Cornwall, some dating back to prehistoric times. They're all closed now due to cheap Asian tin. The Geevor Mine on the other side of the peninsula closed in 1990 and has been preserved as a museum. Our guidebook said the best pasties in Cornwall (and therefore, the world) could be found in the town of St. Just on the route to the tin museum. Great! A pasty, by the way, is a large pastry turnover filled with meat and vegetables, mostly potatoes. A simple dish really, which was why so many shops in the area could claim to make "The Best Pasties in Cornwall." Anyway, the place in St. Just made pasties to be eaten at home. There was no seating in the shop. Son of a biscuit! It was well after lunchtime and we were ravenous. I spotted a pub across the way with picnic tables out front. I asked the gent at one of the tables if we could consume our pasties there and he said, "Certainly." I bought glasses of wine inside the pub for Teresa and me, and Terry (the gent) invited us to join him. Chatting with the locals in their native tongue was one of the delights of our trip. Terry had once worked as a set decorator in the film industry. He is the only person I know who has both met Jimmy Stewart and lived through the London blitz. He was just a lad of seven at the beginning of the war. One morning he and his mates were delighted to find their school had been demolished by a Nazi bomb during the night. "Not to worry, boys," their teacher said. "We'll be holding classes over in the church for the time being." Jimmy Stewart came to England several years later  and Terry claimed "he was a real gentleman." But we already knew that from his films.
  The pasty was just as good as those I'd had in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where many Cornwall miners emigrated. We bid Terry farewell and headed over to Geevor. It was a gloomy afternoon and we were one of the few cars in the (free!) lot. Even on a sunny day, the old mine buildings would have had a derelict, forlorn look. If it wasn't for the special lottery that has poured millions into the place, it would look like all the other old mines, marked only by their smokestacks.
  We paid our entry fee, donned our hard hats and headed into the museum. The exhibits described how the mine worked and noted that tin was the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution. Over and over it was stressed just how vital tin was to the IR, because looking at these ramshackle buildings, you'd never guess it. This particular mine opened in the early 1900s and was updating its technology as recently as the late 1950s. The level of activity at the mine was tied directly to the price of tin. At times the mine would shut down, especially during the Great Depression.
 You had to use your imagination in the actual tin processing buildings because earlier pieces of machinery had been replaced by newer works. Of course, most of the work took place underground. One display showed the 85 miles of tunnels extending out under the sea, like colored strands on an electrical circuit board.
  The most interesting part of the tour was the miners' changing room. I'm sure everyone took his stuff home when the place shut down, but the museum has put things back so it looks like the day the mine closed for good. The boots, the hardhats, the stickers on the lockers...quite touching. There was even a naked mannequin in the shower. Teresa found this first, then set me up. Yes, she got me good. I should have been warned by the sign, "Naked miners only."
Nice tan
  "Why can't we go down in the mines?" I asked an employee. "Because they're full of water." Oh, yeah, they used to have to pump out thousands of gallons of water every day. But they did have a mine tour for us. When the archaeologists came in after the decision to preserve the mine, they discovered a long lost mine from the 1700s. This mine had been dug into the side of an adjacent hill so it stayed dry. Teresa and I were the only ones there for the four p.m. tour, which was good because it was very tight inside. "Yes, we sometimes get people with panic attacks," Ian, our guide, told us. "We get them out as quickly as we can." Ian said a mine like this would have been started by some one with enough capital to hire a crew of twenty or so miners and others to haul the ore up a shaft using donkeys. The ore would have been broken down by hand then crushed some more to float off the tin. The workers would have been well paid for the time, with all the pasties they cared to eat. The owner stood to get rich or go bust depending on how much tin was found and what price it would fetch. After the tour I asked Ian why the café adjacent to the gift shop wasn't named "Hard Rock Café, Geevor" He laughed as though he hadn't heard that one a million times. Nice guy.
Tinman and Wife
  Well, we'd walked the narrow footpaths of the Cotswolds and taken selfies in front of Doc Martin's surgery. Now it was time to tick off some of Joe's 'must sees'. That would be Lord Nelson's ship in Portsmouth and after that, Jane's House on the road to London. But that's a subject for another post.
Where all the world gets along