28 November 2008

Giving thanks

Yesterday was Thanksgiving – the quintessential American holiday. My favorite holiday, in fact. I love its autumnal colo(u)rs, its food, and its focus on gratitude. I did not miss being in the US yesterday, but I was very thankful right here, where I am.

The day began with a sound knock on our door. Parcel Force had arrived with a HUGE package. My mother, god bless 'er, sent over a wildly extravagant Thanksgiving care-package from America. I’m not kidding; there can be no doubt from whence I get my “champagne tastes”. She really outdid herself this time – nearly surpassing the Christmas package I received from her while I was living in London during my undergraduate Junior Year Abroad.

That Christmas my mother sent a 10lb smoked turkey and a homemade lemon pound cake from America, hand-delivered to me by childhood BFF (Best Friend Forever)! Now that is a care-package. My poor friend had to wrestle a 10lb turkey and a lemon pound cake as carry-on luggage through Customs on both sides of the Atlantic. You’d never get away with such shenanigan now, that’s for sure!

My mother is a bit more restrained these days, but not by much. This time, via Parcel Force, she sent two, whole, smoked pheasants from Vermont, Canadian ham, fruitcake, freshly baked Stollen, Christmas pudding, and an array of Tipton’s sauces. Bless her, I have tried to explain, but she fails to listen/accept, that I live in the land of freshly killed pheasants and homemade Christmas pudding; and Tipton’s sauces are available at my local Sainsbury’s. But, as they say, it’s the thought that counts, and what a dear thought it was.

Thankfully, the early parcel arrival helped me to build up enough steam to make it to Morning Prayer at St. Peter’s -- an ordinary event for a Thursday in Barford, but one that held special significance for me yesterday.

As thankful as I am for this new and amazing life, I must confess that I spent most of yesterday in a rather low and melancholy mood. We have guests coming on Saturday for a Thanksgiving Feast—more on that later—and so I busied myself by finally tackling the boxes of clothes that have long overrun the guest bedroom. Luckily, it was also collection day for clothing donations for the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Helicopter Ambulance unit, so a good old sort out was in order.

For some reason, facing my wardrobe yesterday was like reading through old love letters, or rummaging through old family photographs.  Trouser suits. Skirt suits. Silk shirts. Leather bags. Suede boots that would make Sarah Palin weep. Ann Taylor this, Anthropologie, that.  J. Crew for days. Fragments of my former, sassy, New York, “diva professor” life. 

I picked up a slinky, black, schoolgirl-style jumper dress that I have yet to even wear; I looked at it longingly, hoping, praying it will still fit. My life, before I discovered British carbs. At my smallest, last year, I was a size 0. Those days are long gone.  I stopped, and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and what I saw was a chunky, little, Warwickshire hausfrau in comfortable sweats and wild hair. What’s happened to me?

As you can imagine, this line of thinking only led to a larger, more pathetic re-evaluation of my life in general. “What are you doing?” I asked myself aloud. “Get a job, get a life!” I barked at the woman in the mirror.  “I’m doing the best I can,” was her weak response.

One of my very best friends, another sassy New York diva (she would probably say “the” sassy New York diva) left New York two years ago, and now lives in Hong Kong. She recently described to me a scene similar to the one I had, and my advice to her at that time was short, snappy, tough-love: “You’ve got a great life. Get over yourself!” The truth is, leaving the paying, professional world behind to follow your heart and your dreams is actually quite tough. And it didn’t really dawn on me until now. I owed her an apology. So I dropped her an email and said:

You realize, as always, I am about six months behind you. It is slowly sinking into my rather thick skull that my world now revolves around Sainsbury’s, my BBC Good Food Guide, creative ways of making dinner, laundry, pet food, and the Barford W.I. Who have I become? Who am I kidding? I'm still waiting to have the last laugh. But, maybe the joke's on me.  I miss who we were. I miss dressing up for work.

She’s away on holiday, so I’ll have to wait for her reply. In the meantime, I have treated myself to my own short, snappy, tough-love: “If you love that cashmere sweater dress – put it on!” and so, I did. I went on: “Listen. You made the decision to leave the workaday world, so live with it. Now, you work for me!”

I threw off my sweats, brushed my hair, squeezed myself into my grey cashmere sweater dress, and felt so much better! Okay, I work from home. I’m trying to build a career as a freelance writer, and that is work. It is just as much work as my old, “sassy suit” job in New York. Sure, it pays a whole lot less, well, okay, it doesn’t pay anything yet, but at least this time, it’s about me and for me. And for that, I am truly thankful.

26 November 2008

Northern soul

Warwickshire, the English county that I live in, is often referred to as: “England’s England.” 

To be sure, Warwickshire it is a truly remarkable and enchanting place.  A place I feel proud and very lucky to call my home. But, if Warwickshire is as it describes itself, “England’s England,” I have decided that Cumbria must be “the England of our dreams.”

The Cumbrian landscape is dotted with quintessentially English-sounding place names, names that make American ears tingle with glee: Greenodd, Arrad Foot, Cartmel, Hard Crag, Castlerigg, Hawkshead, Buttermere, Haverthwaite, Bassenthwaite, Windermere, Barrow-in-Furness, Low Brow Edge, Loopergarth Clappersgate, Ambleside, Cross-a-Moor, and so on… 

This is the England we Americans imagine in our most nostalgic, Anglophilic fantasies. Fantasies nurtured and nourished by a steady diet of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “Fawlty Towers”, “Miss Marple,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Mystery!” and countless other British imports presented in heavy rotation on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). 

For me, Cumbria and the Lake District – the land of Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth – is a magical landscape that fulfills every one of my romantic English imaginings.

We drove up from Warwickshire on Wednesday night. Got stuck in bottleneck traffic on the M6 out of Birmingham, for what felt like hours – eager as we were to get to Backbarrow. It was nice, however, it to have the D.E.B. all to myself, and we laughed and talked all the way. Once out of Birmingham, it was smooth sailing “up t’North.” It just started to drizzle as we entered the enchanted land of Cumbria.

Even with leaving Warwickshire at 6PM, we didn’t get to Backbarrow until around 10PM-ish. We had hoped to make last orders at the pub, but opted to find a “chippy” (Fish n’ chips - my fave!!) in Ulverston, the nearest big town. 

We found a Chinese take-away that specialized in “Chinese Meals and Fish n’Chips” – what more could you need in life, anyway? 

A really sweet, young Asian woman – sporting a New York Yankees hat no less!--served up absolutely dee-lish fish and chips, and offered me my first sampling of the lovely, local Lancashire accent.

It is in these moments that I’m reminded how in the States we are often misled to believe that are only two native English accents: “posh” and “not posh,” a.k.a., “Cockney” (Thank you, Mary Poppins.) When in fact the English phonetic landscape is so very diverse, surely as equally varied (more so?) as  American accents are—which are themselves more varied than most English people have been led to believe, a vicious cycle it seems. But, I digress. 

Our first night in Cumbria…It was too dark to see anything. I was so eager for daylight I almost found it hard to sleep, like a kid waiting for Christmas. I say almost, because, truth be told, I slept like a baby. We’d rented a lovely cottage called “Abbot’s Vue” from the D.E.B’s friend, Richard. 

The DEB’s wonderful rellies/relatives (I absolutely adore them!) Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Colin had offered us to stay with them on Walney Island. And we would have, but we had Lucy, the Princess Collie, along with us and Dorothy and Colin have cats that hate dogs. 

It would have been nice to stay with them, but staying in Backbarrow did put us more inland, and closer to the Lakes. Abbot’s Vue is a lovely cottage, with all the “mod cons” as folks round here would say. Wood burning stove, spacious kitchen, comfy beds with feather-filled pillows and comforters—it felt like sleeping inside a croissant! 

Abbot’s Vue is in a perfect location for exploring the Lakes, with lots of nice restaurants and pubs nearby. Previously, Richard only intended to rent/let his place to friends and family, but I think he is considering broaden his scope. I’d recommend his place to anyone! We loved staying there.

Waking in Cumbria the next morning was magic. I whipped open the bedroom curtains to discover soft grey and pinkish light beaming behind thick white clouds that hung low atop steep, rocky hills. The warm, red brick of Warwickshire had given way to ashen stone and pebble-dash houses with slate roofs the colour of charcoal. 

I hope that I can get away with saying this, I do mean it with utmost love and respect, but to me it felt like being inside that old  "Hovis" bread commerical. Okay, I do realize there are a number of problems with my using the famous Hovis ad as a reference: a.) The ad is meant to be depicting Yorkshire, not Cumbria; but I’m just going to claim American ignorance of the difference between the two and let it go.  And, b.) I also realize that the Hovis ad, though supposedly depicting Yorkshire, was actually filmed in Dorset…the mind boggles…So, given its own complex history, I think I can use this ad as I wish!

I threw open my window, wanting to breathe in beautiful Cumbria all at once. The DEB drew me back down next to him, and whispered in my ear: “I want to make you this happy for the rest of your life.”  (…SIGH…)

After breakfast, we did a big walk up the steep hill around Brow Edge and Low Brow Edge. We drove along the coastal road toward Barrow-in-Furness, stopping at picturesque beauty spots along the way to take pictures, and allow the Princess Puppy to chase seabirds on the rocky beaches. 

As we passed through Morecambe Bay, the DEB remembered a little bayside village called Rampside that he’d visited with his family as a child. 

We drove there, and the old hotel that he and his family had stayed in was still there! I insisted we stop and go in.

The DEB’s mum (Elsie, sister to Auntie Dorothy) was born and raised in Barrow-in-Furness, and was proud of her Northern roots. The DEB’s family always spent their summer holidays in Cumbria and the Lakes. 

Once, on a summer visit, the DEB’s Aunt and Uncle were having work done on their house, so the DEB and his family had to stay elsewhere. They stayed at Clarke’s Hotel. There is a blissful twinkle in the DEB’s eyes as he recalls those bygone family times, and I am elated as he shares them with me. He was just a little lad then, and so excited to be spending a holiday in this swanky seaside hotel. (I can just imagine a little DEB, in his little schoolboy shorts and summer woolen jumper/sweater! Too cute for words!!!!)

I was just as excited to see it now, as he might have been seeing it for the first time all those years ago. And Clarke’s did not disappoint. It, too, played right into my nostalgic, Anglophile fantasy. 

The manager, Mr. Thomas Twigge, a tall, thin, reed of a man, with cute sticky-out ears, greeted us from behind the bar with a big, broad smile. As he pulled us a pint and a half (I’m dieting) of the local ale, I had a look around. 

The Clarke has an old-fashioned charm, and has retained its understated Victorian glamour. It’s all ‘dark wood, roaring fireplace, over stuffed chairs, and a view of the sea’. The feeling is one of warmth, coziness and comfort. 

The bar’s sitting room is like being in your Granny’s parlour – well, that is, if your Granny had been a late Victorian woman of some means, perhaps a former high-society Madame, who’d landed on her feet as the mistress of a wealthy industrialist. 

The Clarke's Hotel is a study in contrasts: elegant, yet humble. Needless to say, I fell in love it. We stayed for lunch (huge portions), and a few more pints. (The diet had already been blown by huge honking portions of hot roast beef sandwiches and chips, so why not?)

After lunch we waddled back to car and headed for Walney Island to see Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Colin. After a cup of tea, Dorothy and Colin showed us a few of the highlights of Barrow-in-Furness, such as Furness Abbey and Biggar Bay Beach. 

On a clear day you can see the Isle of Man. The DEB and I took the Pup to play and watch the sun set on the Irish Sea, while Dorothy cooked us a huge meal for dinner: Steak and Mushroom Pie, with mash (mashed potatoes) and peas (green peas). I LOVE Northern food! Good solid, stick to your bones fare. After all that, all we could do was collapse.

The next day, Friday, we spent the day on Lake Windermere – England's largest lake, and an extra treat for me, Oscar Wilde fan that I am! (One of his plays is Lady Windermere’s Fan, though I don’t think it actually has anything to do with the Lake…)

It was a glorious day, even if it was a bit brisk. The town, Bowness-on-Windermere is a little touristy, but I’m a tourist, so I loved it! This place – and the Lakeland area generally—is Beatrix Potter mad. I love Beatrix Potter, too, so I was in heaven. 

They don’t seem to make as much of a fuss over the fact that this is also “Wordsworth Country”, though. Wordsworth’s house, “Dove Cottage,” is really quite splendid. Goes without saying that the Lakes are a walkers/hikers paradise. There is just too much to see and do in one little visit, so I have demanded that we go back as often as possible. I love that DEB’s family had a tradition of going there every year, at least whilst the DEB and his brother were little boys. It is my goal to resurrect that tradition!

We ambled through Ambleside, saw Wray Castle from a boat on Windermere, and at the end of the day the DEB drove us to Grasmere. 

Grasmere was one of the DEB’s parents’ favorite places. They spent their honeymoon at an old inn (The Wordsworth Hotel) in Grasmere.  (So romantic.) And while there, they fell in love with the works of the Lakeland painter W.H. Heaton Cooper. 

So, we visited the Heaton Cooper Studio, which was still open after 5PM on a late autumn night, surprisingly. Another nostalgic moment for the DEB: after their honeymoon, the DEB’s parents started collecting works by W. H. Heaton Cooper. Sadly, both the DEB’s parents have passed away, god rest them, and the paintings they collected have been passed around, ultimately ending up (equally sadly) in the hands of the DEB’s ex’s brother. Apparently, “The Ex” did not like them, which, of course, is/was her prerogative. But, I have to say: Where’s your sense of romance and family tradition, girl?!?

Here is where a dreamy (in the sense of “head full of dreams”), nostalgic, Anglophile American damsel comes in handy! We LOVE stuff like this! I mean, just think about the scores of little side-of-the-road Antique shops (I use that term lightly…) on American highways and byways offering to sell you “Instant Ancestors” – I’m not the only person who has seen these! 

Basically, they are old, black and white photographs – of strangers. These strangers become your “Invent-a-Story” relatives. I realize I have now given away a huge State Secret here, but there it is. I’m not saying it’s bad thing. If purchasing a photo album full of “Invent-a-relative” pictures makes you happy, and feel better about yourself, more power to you!

The bottom line is that Americans LOVE history. We LOVE tradition. Americans love history and tradition so much, that if we don’t like our own, we will gladly latch on and co-opt someone else’s! 

I also think this goes a long way to explain why WE are the nation that invented the ridiculous classification: “First Annual…” (insert any appropriate phase here, i.e., “Chili Cook Off,” “Pumpkin Festival,” & etc.). This grammatically challenged bit of phrasing is one of the most apt signs of the American love of, nay, need for history and tradition, it says: “We’ve always done this!” So, unlike “the Ex,” I’m genetically programmed to be enamored of such things. Besides, the look on his face as we surveyed the paintings in the studio…who wouldn’t want to support that, have a share in that? 

The rest of our holiday was much, much more of the wonderful same: ambling along footpaths, walking—in my case twirling—on beaches, cozy fires, countless pints, spending time with family, and scenery to die for.

On our last day in Cumbria we went to Coniston Lake and saw the peak called: “Old Man”. The DEB climbed this peak as a boy. It seemed like Everest to him then. Our last stop was Tarn Hows, a mountain lake where the little boy DEB fell into the water from a broken bower. 

He’d been goofing around with his older brother, and fell in fully clothed. His parents were furious. The DEB and I both laughed until we cried at the thought of it, as we stood where it’d happened. Amazing memories.       

Memories of his past that prompted us to have a conversation about our future, and our future (hoped for) children. Of course, I’d want them to cherish their American roots and ancestors, but I want them to have little Northern souls, and magical childhoods like the D.E.B.’s, full of Lakeland walks, Cumbrian food and seaside memories.

19 November 2008

"On Holiday"

Going up North to Cumbria for a short "holiday" to visit "the rellies" in the Lake District! Back next Tuesday, 25 November...

Sugar and Spice? The Modern British Woman

Get ready for some really interesting numbers. This past weekend, The Sunday Telegraph published results of a recent survey of over 1,000 British women. The results are fascinating, and offer an intriguing glimpse into the mind and ways of British women, and a provocative commentary on British society & culture generally…

73% - # of women surveyed who would prefer to have a male boss than a female boss

38% -  Described themselves as “feminist”

46% - Believe couples should live together before they marry

49% - Do not believe couples need to be married before having children

66% - Believe it is better to divorce that to stay in an unhappy marriage

67% - Said they would rather hold out for “a perfect, romantic partner” than settle for a man who’s just “good enough”.

42% - Women who have never been on a diet

21% - Women who do not take any form of exercise during the week

50% - Were either “very happy” or “fairly happy" with their bodies

91% - Said they would rather have a new kitchen than a face-lift

30% - Lost their virginity before they were 16 years-old

9% - Met their husbands through the Internet

Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela topped the charts for “Greatest role models - female/male”.

Only 1.9% found Keira Knightly to be “the most attractive famous woman,” which, as far as I’m concerned, goes someway to rectify (though not excuse) the  somewhat scary fact that Jordan/Katie Price placed 3rd in the “Most Admired Woman” category, after The Queen (#2,) and Margaret Thatcher (#1). 

Jordan/Katie Price is a reality show “star,” from the UK version of the reality show “Big Brother.” I’m guessing that the American equivalent would be someone along the lines of  Tia Tequila or “New York,” from the reality show, “I Love New York.” (Interesting.)

So, what do all these numbers tell us about today’s British woman. Well, beyond the Jordan anomaly, today’s British woman seems a forthright, free-thinking gal, with a mind of her own; who’s not afraid to go against the grain in terms of tradition and conventionality; she has a take charge attitude, though she may prefer to remain the chief and/or only lioness in workplace pack; and I think most notably, she is not nearly as self-consciousness (dare one say self-obsessed?) about her weight, body, and/or looks as her American cousins.

To my mind, today’s “Modern British Woman” is not such a far cry from the modern British women of yesteryear. A few days ago, as I was recovering from my job interview woes, I was invited out for tea by Tracey, my neighbour, but one. (Don’t  you love that? “My neighbour, but one.” That’s a fancy English way of saying: “Tracy, who lives next door to the person who lives next door to me.”) I felt too woebegone to go along, but in the end I went, and met Tracy at the Machado Gallery on Wellesbourne Road.

The Machado Gallery is a snazzy little art gallery that is an institution here in Barford. It is “art central” for the village of Barford. I went there for a “Coffee Morning” a few weeks ago, and by the end of a two-hour visit, I had been “volunteered” to lead the soon-to-be-formed Barford Writers Group. 

Tracy and I were joined for tea by her friends, Sonia and Armelle. Sonia is the Barford “Lollipop Lady”. 

She stops traffic, and keeps all the kiddies safe as they cross  the road going to school. “Lollipop Lady” -- is that not just the most adorable name ever? You can’t help but smile when you say it! In America, we’d call her something utilitarian like: “Toddler Pedestrian Patrol Officer”, or “School Crossing Attendant”. Every time I see Sonia in her bright yellow jacket and hat, I nearly lose my life rushing across the street to hug her!

I was stunned to find out over tea, that Sonia is well over 60. She is so youthful and spry. She and Armelle kept us all in stitches with their tales of life in the “good old days”. Armelle, who is nearly 80, has a mischievous sparkle in her bright blue eyes. Call it writer’s instinct, but I took one look at her, and knew she had a story to tell.

1948. She was out with her “best lad”. He had taken her up to “The “Pally” - the Palace Ballroom  in Leamington Spa. Lo and behold, in the midst of the foxtrot and the waltz, Armelle urged her dance partner to let loose, and she began to dance “the jive”. Jive, then a new-fangled American import, was of course frowned upon in good society, and the Palace Ballroom Dance Master was swift to put an end to such nonsense. Clapping his hand upon Armelle’s shoulder, he declared her “barred from the  Ballroom.” Armelle and her escort were forced to leave immediately. But Armelle was a popular gal, and when her large gaggle of friends warned the Dance Master that they would all leave and never come back to the Pally -- unless Armelle was allowed to return, he changed his tune. As Armelle spoke, with her soft, gravelly voice, I could hear that old '80s tune, “Come Dancing,” by The Kinks in the back on my head. I used to watch that video on MTV, Armelle actually lived it.

And this was not her first scrape against the grain. Armelle was a rebel from the beginning. Her mother, who was French and very Catholic, sent her to “convent school” in Kenilworth, and Armelle hated it. She begged her mother not to go, but her mother would have none of it. With no other means of reprieve, Armelle set about driving the nuns to drink.  She regularly played truant, and eventually gave up altogether and got a job. And she became a Librarian. (Could this woman be any more my hero?)

Bad behaviour seems to have been rife amongst young women in 1950s Britain. Sonia, the mild-mannered Lollipop Lady, got barred from a ballroom in Hampton-on-the-Hill in 1950! Those were the days, they say. Of getting dressed to the nines, and walking fours miles home, over rolling, green English hills by the light of the moon. What days those must have been.

15 November 2008

Happy Birthday, H.R.H.!

Friday, 14 November 2008

I adore Prince Charles. I always have. And I don’t really care what anyone else thinks, or has to say about it, him, Diana, Camilla or whatever. I respect and admire him. And have had a crush on him as long as I can remember.

His life, however comfortable, has not been easy.  Consider this: spending your entire life in stasis, in training, in-waiting for a job that you can only obtain through the tragic loss of a dearly-loved parent. Now that is a double-edged sword if ever there was one. I love the Queen, and I hope that she continues to reign for many, many years to come, but I also hope that one day Charles may be King. Tricky stuff.

Shakespeare explores the dilemmas of kingship beautifully in the Henry IV plays, and he tackles the burden of majesty exquisitely in Henry V. I recall hearing Prince Charles recite one of Henry’s wonderful speeches from H5 (“Upon the King”) many years ago.  He read it as part of the lecture he gave for the Shakespeare Birthday celebrations here in Stratford-on-Avon in 1990. That seems a very long time ago now. And here is how it began…

They needed a boy and a girl. Two students were needed to officially represent The Shakespeare Institute at the annual Shakespeare Birthday celebrations. The annual Shakespeare Birthday celebrations are serious business here in Strat-ville. The celebrations for 1990 were no exception. In fact, the Birthday celebrations reached an all time high that year with His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, giving the official “Shakespeare Birthday Lecture.”

For this special occasion, The Shakespeare Institute wished to show itself modern, progressive and equitable. The then-Director of The Institute, Stanley Wells selected one of his favorite students, a Simon Pegg look-alike, also called Simon, and me. Even though it earned me the ire of more than a few of my fellow students, I was honoured. I did wonder, albeit fleetingly, at Professor Well’s choice of me. Until that point in time, I thought I moved within his sphere virtually unnoticed and undetected. However, upon reflection, I have surmised that of all the young women that inhabited the Institute at that time, I was probably, to his mind, the most effable and certainly one of the better dressed. (Thank you, big pearls and cashmere!)

The Shakespeare Institute at that time was populated by a small gaggle of British women who were on the whole sweet, stoic and silent; a few women from Asia (Japan and China, to be precise) who were less stoic, equally sweet, and even more silent; a handful of Europeans (mostly French) who were blisteringly intelligent, chain-smokingly elegant, and utterly aloof; and a legion of American women who fell into two distinct camps: loud, serious and somewhat dowdy feminists, with bad hair cuts and sensible shoes; and frilly, frothy “Ren Faire” princesses, with lissome limbs, flowing locks, and not-so-secret ambitions of playing Juliet. My guess is, to someone like Stanley, I seemed to fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum of femininity, a sort of United Nations of academic womanhood.

At any rate, I was chosen as the female ambassador to the most spectacular gathering of the 1990 Shakespeare Birthday celebrations: an invitation-only, morning coffee soiree atop the Swan Theatre, with His Royal Highness, Prince Charles. This was not the sort of event that could be left to chance, or in the hands of a drippy, doe-eyed Ren Faire princess—who might swoon at any moment—nor an anti-disestablishment feminista, with an axe to grind tucked in her Dr Martens. Stanley had entrusted me with this task, and confident though he was that I would represent the Institute well, he insisted that we practice my royal introduction ad nauseam.

“Um, Alycia,” he would call out to me in the courtyard, stressing the last syllable of my name with a long “s,” routinely and incorrectly, with firm and adamant British resolve. “I’ll be the Prince, and you be you.” he directed. Very simple instructions, followed by even more simple stage directions: He beamed. I curtsied.

On one occasion, during one of our numerous rehearsals, the actor within me awoke from her slumber, and grew brave. Perhaps my bile had been raised as a result of overhearing the bad haired feministas gossiping about me in the tearoom: “Who’d want to be Stanley’s trick monkey, anyway?” I’d heard them screech. I needed to assert my humanity, reclaim my dignity. So, in this last rehearsal, I grew bold and brazen. I dared to improvise.  Following my deep and graceful curtsy, I lifted my head, my eyes met Stanley’s, and I began to speak: “It is a such honor to meet you, Your Royal Hig...” Abruptly breaking out of his regal character, Stanley balked: “No!! Oh, no, no, my dear! Don’t say a word. You mustn’t speak to him. He will shake your hand, and he will move along. He will not talk to you.” 

Smile and curtsey. That was all that was needed. I could do that. And what meant more to me, was that Stanley thought that I could do that, and that I was the best of the scholar-girls who could do it. It was approval. Odd approval, but still, approval nonetheless. Stanley’s approval was a high and heady thing back then, to all of us young and restless, wanna-be Shakespeare scholars. One look, one nod of his could place you at the summit of academic bliss, or so we believed. I recall a day – before the Prince of Wales event – as I scampered into the building, the Head librarian, came out of her office as I was checking my post box, “Stanley’s been looking for you,” she said. My heart stopped. I had recently given Stanley a copy of my undergraduate honor’s thesis (on Juliet and Cleopatra) to read as part of my application for the Institute’s Ph.D. program. Had he read it? Did he think I was a genius? Was he staggered by my brilliance? Was I in, or was I out? I crept up the dark, creaking staircase, his office was of course at very the top of the stairs. I meekly knocked on his door. Time stood still as I opened it slowly, after being commanded to “Enter.”

Clemency. It means: “Disposition to forgive and spare offenders; mercy. An act or instance of mercy or leniency,” and “Mildness, especially of weather.” But in this instance, “Clemency” was Professor Well’s daughter. He needed me to babysit her for the afternoon. She was, and probably even now as a young adult still is, quite adorable, and there are of course worse ways to spend a mild, sunny English afternoon. Skipping out to the garden, with delighted four year-old and her plastic clod-hoppers in hand, I took comfort in the fact that while I had yet to earn Stanley’s respect as a scholar, he clearly had no doubt of my abilities to amuse a precocious toddler. 

Stanley’s clemency, with a small “c,” would soon be put to the test, however. Fast forward to the “big event” with HRH, and another darkened stairway. Following Prince Charles’ brilliant lecture, those of us who had been selected to meet and have coffee with him (myself, my fellow student, the actor Michael Maloney who was playing Prince Hal at the RSC at the time, the Lord and Lady Mayor of Stratford, & etc.) were ushered up the back stairs of The Swan Theatre, to the rehearsal room, which led to the balcony where coffee would be served. As I made my way up the stairs, I heard someone whispering my name. It was my buddy, “Proud American Princess.” “Sneak us in,” she hissed from the corridor. The “us” she referred to turned out to be herself and (I could not believe my eyes) Sam Wanamaker. Yes, the incredible ‘I’m-going-to-rebuild-Shakespeare’s-Globe’ Sam Wanamaker. I froze, did a double take and thought I was dreaming, but before I could contemplate the gravity of my actions, I motioned to the two them to fall in behind me. And the three of us marched across The Swan rehearsal room, and out onto the sunlit balcony overlooking the River Avon.

It gets better. (Or worse, depending on where you stand on decorum and protocol.) Stanley Well’s plan for an orderly procession of regal handshaking and curtsying was utterly obliterated, as Sam Wanamaker made a swift beeline to  Prince Charles. And why not? Wonderful Sam should have been invited anyway! At least that’s what I thought as I snuck him through the door…

Following Sam’s cavalier lead, my sassy friend, “Proud American Princess” sashayed over to H.R.H., took his arm and threw me her camera. Although this is considered a huge, major, major and unforgivable faux pas—I did detect a faint gasp from someone across the room—Prince Charles was completely undaunted, and smiled broadly as “Proud American Princess” giggled on his arm. What could I do but take their picture, even though I knew it prove the last nail in my coffin.

As this royal Coffee Morning had now gone to hell in a hand basket, and as I was dead meat already, I went ahead and switched places with “Proud American Princess” when she urged me to do so. Though I did not take hold of Prince Charles’ arm, nor giggle by his side. (Just doing my bit for decorum, folks.) Then, after our photograph, the “impossible” happened. Prince Charles turned, and spoke to me.  He wanted to know what had brought me to Stratford-upon-Avon, why I had chosen to come here from America to study Shakespeare. Ultimately, his asked, “Why Shakespeare?” I was stunned -- and not just because I had been programmed to say nothing. I came up with some sort of witty reply that sufficed in the moment, but I have never really come up with what I feel is a truly satisfying answer to that question. It has become a life pursuit.

Charles, if I may, was in fact very keen to know what we thought, and what mattered to us. And his own thoughts about Shakespeare and education were quite inspired and inspiring. I don’t think Stanley Wells has ever, ever, e-v-e-r forgiven me for that day. To be sure, it was not most responsible thing I have ever done, but I have to say, if I could live that moment again, I would make exactly the same choices.

Happy 60th Birthday, HRH!

(and, God rest ye, Sam Wanamaker.)

14 November 2008

Wet day in November

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Wet, November days have always been a sort of gage for me.  Whenever I’ve been faced with a major, life decision, I always stop and ask myself: “How will you feel about this on a wet day in November?” So here I am on a cold, wet day in November reflecting upon the choices I have made. Okay, not exactly reflecting, as much as sulking.

I spent the morning sulking in bed, after making the firm decision—wet day or no—to stay in bed and sleep my life away. But, I suddenly sprung to my feet at 9:00 AM, lest I risked the danger of becoming with the British call a “lay about.” Although, I think I have good cause to lay about today.  

I didn’t get “the call.” During my interview on Tuesday, I was informed that: “the successful candidate will receive a phone call within the next 24 hours, the rest of the candidates will receive a letter informing them of their status, in about 7-10 days.”  May I just say, it seems to me to be a bit of a waste time, energy and paper to send out letters to all of us losers, since we will (obviously) have a very clear indication of “our status” when we our phones remain silent.

And silent my phone remained. Except for the calls I received from the D.E.B., and the Lost and Found Office at the Stratford-upon-Avon Bus Depot. In the flurry of my interview day, I left my cute, pink, Motorola flip-phone on the X18 Stagecoach from Barford to Stratford. Apparently, there are no Good Samaritans left in all of South Warwickshire, and my phone has not be handed in. Just one of my many joys of Big Pearls & Cashmere Tuesday...

I spent all of Wednesday (yesterday) waiting. And waiting. I wanted the call to come, and I didn’t want the call to come. As the afternoon waned it became a matter of strident pride: “How dare they not call! How dare they not pick me?!”

The D.E.B. has done his best to keep my spirits up. Tuesday night, he took me up to The Granville my favourite restaurant these days, “for a meal” to congratulate me on my interview. Yesterday, when it became clear that “the call” had not, and would not come, he left work early, and phoned me from the car to find out if I needed him to collect “a bucket of chicken” from KFC on his way home. (He knows me.)

The bucket of chicken was not needed yesterday– though I think I may need it tonight. To avoid sitting, quite literally, by the phone, I busied myself by doing laundry, hoovering and cooking.  I was fine, I told myself, in the midst of my cleaning frenzy. But the minute the D.E.B. walked in, I fell to pieces. Little, tiny, broken pieces, that he gathered up, gently, and put back together.

It was a night of comfort and treats. I'd made a huge vat of Sicilian sausage pasta, enough to feed the entire village, that went down beautifully with the Chartreuse de Bonpas the D.E.B. had brought home for us. After dinner, there were “pressies” a gift set of Champney’s spa collection, my new favo(u)rite bath and beauty products. (Their ‘rose’ stuff is to die for.) And a night out on the town to see the new James Bond film! And at proper cinema! The D.E.B. booked my favourite seats (dead centre, close, but not too close, to the front), ordered luscious, Brazilian red wine in the cinema bar, and insured that I had chocolate, and the largest bucket of popcorn available. (It’s all about the popcorn.) And the movie was fabulous! Daniel Craig is growing on me, and is slowly winning me over as a convincing Bond. 

In all, a wonderfully restorative evening, topped off by the D.E.B. whispering the words: “I think you might need to be ravished,” as he led me up the stairs. The only thing better than a bucket of chicken for a sad girl on wet November day.

12 November 2008

Big pearls and cashmere

I think job interviews are possibly the only experience worse than the British Driver’s Test (which I failed twice). Notably, I failed my first Driver’s Test before we even left the Testing Centre. I will never forget it. My Driving instructor, “The Saint,” drove me to the Testing Centre, gave me a hug and said, “You’ll be fine.” I failed that test so quickly, he hadn’t even sat down properly with his cup of coffee, before the Examiner, “Satan,” and I had returned into the Testing Centre. At best, I had failed that test in under 5 minutes. I stalled the car in the Testing Centre parking area. We didn’t even make it to the road. I was crestfallen. But, my instructor assured me I would have my day.

On Attempt No. 2, I actually made it out of the Testing Centre Parking Lot, a miracle, and felt that the only way was up. Up and down, all around the traffic nightmare that is Stratford-upon-Avon. I managed the “Up hill start,” the “Down hill start” and (my personal favourites) the Three-point turn and the Reverse parking between two vehicles. (I can do these maneuvers now, blindfolded in my sleep!) Just when I thought “Success!” I panicked during my “Emergency Stop” maneuver on the Clopton Bridge. I had failed the test at the painful, bitter end.

My friend, Catherine, will be taking her Driver’s Test Attempt No. 3 in two weeks time, and she is sure of success. I have assured her, too. There is something to the “Third Time Lucky” phenomenon when it comes to the British Driving Test, and even romance, but job interviews? No, you only get one shot at those to Pass or Fail.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if job interviews were more like the Driver’s Test? You have a go, have a chance to get some critical feedback from your examiners, then you go away, have a think and a cry, practice, practice, practice, and then come and try again. And again, until you get it right. To be sure, this would hardly be the most cost-effective or time sensitive way of screening applicants, but how much more humane then the “Act now!” shot-in-the-dark approach we all have come to accept and endure.

To their credit, the English are at least very efficient in their interviewing processes.  I recall an interview I had for a Drama Lecturer post in Chichester several years ago. I was still a lowly Ph.D. student, and considered myself quite lucky to even get the interview. The letter I received informing me of my selection, also informed me that I was one of three candidates being invited along to interview. I was even informed of their names. (!!!!) Imagine that, I thought. (Alas, that this happened in those heady days before Google, so I was unable to ‘google’ my competition, as one could now.) What I could never have imagined was the shock I encountered when I arrived in Chichester at my designated interview time, only to find the other two candidates arriving as well. Yes, the three of us were in fact being interviewed together. And believe me, it was as much the nightmare scenario as you imagine. A situation I would not wish upon anyone. Any-one.

The significance of three keen seekers being forced to cat-fight for the golden egg was not lost on me, Shakespearean that I am, I knew immediately that I had been woefully miscast as "Cordelia" in a low-budget production of King Lear. And like the ill-fated Cordelia, I had hoped that my grace, charm, (and my big pearls and cashmere) would see me through, and win the day, whilst my competitors “Goneril” and “Regan” clawed out each other’s eyes. 

Chichester is 102 miles/165 kilometres from Stratford-upon-Avon.  That’s over 5 hours, 37 minutes, and four changes/transfers via train on British Rail. Anyone who has taken British Rail anywhere in this country will agree that train journeys, however enjoyable, are quite often a saga in themselves. One finds one’s self waiting (and waiting and waiting…) on cold, windy platforms, for trains that are inevitably and often indefinitely delayed, and then endlessly transferring from one train to the next, and the next, because getting wherever it is you want to be can’t be accomplished by traveling in a straight line.

Eventually, bone tired, battle-weary, and emotionally drained, I ambled home from the Stratford-upon-Avon train station. As I walked through the door, I noticed my answering machine’s angry red light blinking in the darkness. With my last ounce of energy, I dashed across the room and pressed the button. From the machine came the sonorous tones of the Chichester Department Head who had (gleefully) enjoyed the role of King Lear all day. Efficient to the last, his message was short and direct. No “Hello,” “Thank you,” or any other customary niceties, just simply: “We’ve given the job to Jessica.” Keys and Gucci briefcase still in my hand, wet raincoat still hanging about me, I just sank and wilted onto my settee (couch), and didn’t bother to turn on the lights.

By contrast, my experience of American academic job interviews has been the opposite extreme. Once, I interviewed for a post in a small town in Michigan, and I was there on site for nearly a week! And it was five days too long. I mean, of course after five days you would indeed have a “real sense” of a place, and its people, but really, oy vey! I mean, five days? That’s long enough to meet people, get to know them, fall out with them, and draw battle lines.

Of course, that’s an extreme example, but it does seem to me that American academic job interviews go on (and on, and on, and on…) in a tiresome parade of meetings, handshaking, and endless meals wherein the job candidate is the beggar at the banquet, or the fool at the feast, forced to talk and entertain, whilst everyone else digs in and chows down. It’s almost as if American academic interviewing committees have developed some strange strategy wherein, the thinking goes, that the longer they keep you smiling and tap-dancing in one place, depriving you of food and sleep, the more likely you are to reveal yourself to be a raving lunatic, homicidal maniac, or both.  Given the choice, I think might prefer the more brutal, English “King Lear” approach. Sure, it’s lacerating, but at least it’s swift.

Thankfully, my interview yesterday at The Shakespeare Institute, another big pearls and cashmere day, was neither a “King Lear experience,” nor a “Five Day Sojourn.” I would say it was more like facing a friendly Firing Squad. It was an utterly surreal experience for me, having been a graduate student there years ago. I kept hearing that Janis Joplin quote in my head: “You can never go home.”  And a homecoming it was in many ways, but I tried not to focus on the metaphysical, full circle-ness of the moment, but rather deal with the task at hand as best I could.  The Institute has changed significantly since my days there as a student. And perhaps, for all my youthful exuberance, I may indeed to be too much of a harbinger of the past, too “old guard” to meet their present and future needs. The Shakespeare game has changed a lot since I was a grad student, and The Shakespeare Institute now has far more competition than ever before. Notably up the road in Warwick. Everyone is striving to have “the edge,” the upper-hand. 

The other “sticky wicket” in all this is my own indifference. On one hand it is everything I have ever hoped for, trained for, prayed for, dreamt of; while at the same time, I am terrified of losing the new found and hard-won freedom I now possess. I fear that I am only erecting yet another obstacle to fulfilling my dreams of writing. Perhaps, I don’t even believe I can cut it as a writer. So, I faced yesterday very torn. I wanted to do well, of course. But I’m not sure this is something I really want. I mean, of course it is! But, it also isn’t... Not the best state of mind to be in when one is trying to make a good showing at an interview. The way I see it, let the fates decide. It will be a “win, win” for me either way.

The D.E.B. is as loving and supportive as ever. He just wants me to be happy, and wants me to do whatever will, in his words, “fulfill” me. I just don’t know what that is anymore.  Some days, I relish the idea of being just another “country wife,” as it were, here in Barford: doing laundry, quilting, gardening, etc. I went to my first Barford “Coffee Morning” at the Machado Gallery last Friday. And there I met two lovely women from the village, and we started hatching a plan to create a Barford writers group. I don’t want to miss these organic, spontaneous life opportunities, opportunities that may in fact lead nowhere, professionally, but offer moments of connection. Moments that don’t require big pearls and cashmere, but would be all the more enjoyable in them.


10 November 2008

Unforgettable November

"Remember, remember the Fifth of November,/ Gunpowder, treason and plot./I see no reason why gunpowder, treason,/Should ever be forgot." - Guy Fawkes/Fifth of November Nursery Rhyme 

What a week! What didn’t happen this past week? Let’s see, the Barford W.I. had its Annual General Meeting & Ploughman’s Supper, the D.E.B. & I attended a late night performance of Twelfth Night at the RSC, I experienced my first Barford “Coffee Morning,” and…oh, yes…the world changed!

These are indeed amazing times, and I count myself lucky to be living through and in them. (And even luckier still to have been a part of the seismic shift that has happened in the United States.) 

I came across a book a few months ago (I have a very, very bad book habit that no amount of rehab can curb) called The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life, I have yet to carve out enough time to actually read it, but I remember quite vividly, that Barack Obama was the first person who came to mind when I saw this book on display. Like him, or loathe him, there is no denying that he exudes “the power of kindness.” To be sure, Barack Obama is but one man, but his election as the 44th President of the United States can do nothing but inspire us all to be our best and better selves. Something long overdue, I feel.

The D.E.B. and I stayed up until 5 AM last Tuesday night watching the results and euphoria pouring in. When the BBC announced the results from California, I gasped and began to cry. I watched people dancing in the streets of New York City, my former little Village. I longed to be there. This was my America, and suddenly she, my homeland, seemed so far away. That complex and magnificent nation that I had oh so  easily and gladly left behind, I now wanted to embrace and hold close to me. In the wee hours of our morning, and late U.S. night, our phone began to ring and did not stop. “We will tell our children about this night,” The D.E.B. said, smiling that smile, with very, very heavy eyes. Poor thing had to be up in less than two hours for work.

Wednesday, the next day, was a blur for me. But it was in fact another day of triumph. Guy Fawkes/Fifth of November. Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, is an annual celebration that commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of the 5th of November, 1605 when Guy Fawkes and a number of other Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliment and kill the King. When the 5th of November falls on a weekday, celebrations are usually postponed until the weekend. That was the case this year in Barford.

“Have nothing in your home or life that you don’t find beautiful or useful.” – William Morris

Thursday – Barford W.I. Annual General Meeting & Ploughman’s Supper. I failed to even place in the “15 minute Handi-craft Competition.” We were given two sheets of paper, a pair of scissors, glue and tape. With the words of William Morris as our only directive, we were given of 15 minutes to create something from nothing. The winner, “Mrs. Crafty Boots,” made (and decorated) a fully functioning money-box. In 15 mins! I made a brooch. Okay, a flower. But it could be worn as a brooch.  I have got to work on my crafting skills if I’m going to keep up with these gals.

Friday – Late Night Shakespeare at the Courtyard. An abridged version of Twelfth Night with a live rock band on stage. (Well, someone has to.)

Saturday – BONFIRE NIGHT!!!  The Barford Bonfire was stellar! The D.E.B.’s nephew, Harry, came over for the Bonfire and stayed with us for the weekend. He is such a dear. As I said to the D.E.B., after he took Harry home last night, I would be pleased as punch if we were lucky enough to someday have a son like Harry. 

Harry is a gem, a D.E.B.-in-training! Honestly, I can now see how it works. Harry is 15 yrs old; he says “please,” and “thank you”; can hold his own in conversation with adults; opens doors; helps little old ladies across the street; and respectfully prefaces any dialogue he has with the D.E.B or myself with “Uncle” and “Aunt” (e.g., “Thank you, Aunt Alycia, that was a lovely meal.”) He has been taught not to turn up empty-handed when one is a guest. He arrived at our house on Saturday night bearing gifts: a game pie and two recently killed pheasants, feathers and all. (This is rural Warwickshire after all.)

I am slowly getting to grips with English country life, and am proud to say that I didn’t flinch when I opened the door as discovered Harry standing there, holding out to two beautiful, dead birds. Actually, I was rather thrilled. I have never cooked, nor have ever tasted a pheasant. Hurrah! A new experience!

The D.E.B’s older brother, “The Guru,” is a keen sportsman, and Harry goes out shooting with him on weekends. We were lucky enough to have a share in the spoils this time.

Post Script – Pheasant is simply GORGEOUS and very easy to cook. Effortlessly impressive. Has a “gamey-er” (is that a word? It should be.) taste than chicken or turkey.  The D.E.B. and I are now contemplating pheasant for Christmas Dinner this year.

Barford Bonfire

My boys: The D.E.B. and Nephew Harry at Barford Bonfire Night

(It is difficult to photograph fireworks...)

Harry about to 'dress' one of the pheasants for us

Nephew Harry is now Lucy's hero

Remembrance Sunday
Two minutes of silence observed to remember those who have fallen