19 February 2009

Birds of a Feather

Dearest A.,
I am glad you're back from the 'savage lands' of the USA! It's been a long sojourn and I'm sure filled with important and excellent things. Good for your Darling English Boy for winning you back for us! It may take time to adjust, but you belong with us!

-- excerpt from a letter from a wonderful English mentor of mine. Dated 12 Feb 2009
This letter arrived just as I have been contemplating my place in this, my new world. I hope that she is right, that I do indeed "belong" here. It feels right, it feels true and best. The longer I remain here, the more at home and at peace I become.

I think one of the absolute smartest decisions I ever made was joining the Barford W.I. It meant putting myself out there, walking into a crowded room full of strangers and saying, "Here I am." But, my life seems to have been full of such moments, so the prospect was not as harrowing for me, as it might be for some. That is not to say that I wasn't shaking in my boots, because I was!

In the W.I. I have found only welcome, friendship and fellowship (or should that be sistership?). Not to mention the fact that my jam-making skills have improved. Improved? They were non-existent before!

More than anything else, the W.I. has provided me with a window into British culture, in all its fascinating--and often side-splitting--glory.

Last month, at our first W.I. meeting of the year, our guest speaker was Nikki Cockayne, a lady Falconer from here in South Warwickshire. (Where was that on "Career Day"? She has a super job. She trains birds for television costume dramas, theatre and films.)

Here is an extract from the Barford W.I. President's meeting report:

At the January meeting members were delighted to be introduced to Pedro, Winston, Shylock and Mopsa by Nikki Cockayne. These were birds of prey – a kestrel, a falcon, a barn owl and a tawny owl.
They were all stunning and Nikki gave a fascinating talk and demonstration with her birds. Several members were brave enough to hold the birds on a well-gloved hand and get up close and personal. There was not too much flying around (by the birds) so those of a nervous disposition were fine. Thanks must go to Louise Cleife who efficiently did the equivalent job of the man behind the horse with the shovel!

The President's report only touches upon the sheer hilarity of this meeting. One the birds took flight and actually landed on a member's head! We all laughed until we cried. And I fulfilled a dream of holding a kestrel on my arm.

From birds to birdbrains...

Later in the month, the Barford W.I. were set to compete in the Warwickshire Round of the annual "Federation of Women's Institutes Quiz Challenge." This was to become my first true introduction to the British phenomenon that is "The Quiz Night".

The Barford W.I. is renowned in these parts for making a very strong showing in the annual quiz. Last year, the Barford Team made it as far as the finals! As a newbie, I could but dream of what one day might be.

The Barford W.I. 2008 Warwickshire Quiz Teams: "Barford 1" and "Barford 2," had been selected long before I joined. But, as the fates would have it, the Team 1 stalwart, Hilary, was laid low by the flu, and a Reserve Member was needed.

For me, proud nerd, devout history buff, and ferocious Trivial Pursuit player that I am, this was my moment, my dream came true, my hope beyond hope! I thought to myself, all I have to do is shine like a star, help the team WIN and my place in the Barford line-up, and Quiz History, would be set!

Oh, the naive ambitions of the proud and foolhardy. During the long-ish car journey to the Quiz, as we navigated the dark, foggy, Warwickshire back roads, Ann, the driver, mused aloud with a smile, "Gosh, I do hope I have prepared enough." Prepared? Prepared what? I panicked to myself quietly. "Well, I did remember to memorise the current and past Presidents of W.I." Diane remarked softly in her warm Scottish accent. "Oh, we'll be all right then." Sue, sitting next me, said reassuringly. Heaven help me, what have I got myself into, was all I could think.

Clearly, this was to be no ordinary "take your chances" Quiz game. This fact was confirmed as soon as I had arrived along with the rest of "Barford 1" to the village hall in Ashorne. All the women present were sociable and friendly, but one thing was clear: these ladies were serious, and they were taking no prisoners. Every single woman there was "in it, to win it."

Some W.I.'s had even attempted to increase their odds by putting forth more than two teams! (And in some cases, more than 3 teams!!) Personally, I think this is a grossly unfair advantage. But that could just be a case of sour grapes. Yes, we lost. And, we lost big. "Barford 1" came in 8th out of 21. ("Barford 2" came in 10th.)

But the embarrassment wasn't just limited to the end result. Oh no, I also successfully managed to embarrass myself and my team, completely. Being unused to "proper Quiz etiquette," I committed a heinous, public faux pas.

At the end of round one, the Adjudicator stood up to announce the first round scores. A hush fell upon the room. She began solemnly: "Barford 1...8 points." At which point, possessed by a spirit of impending victory (or insanity), I yelped. Aloud. No, truth be told, it was more of "rebel yell," although, more of a "Whoo-hoo!" than a "Yee-haw!" Nevertheless, it was utterly inappropriate.

All around me, a sea of bemused British female faces. That is, apart from my team mates, god bless them, sweet Barfordian souls that they are. Blushing, red faced and a little taken aback, they were nonetheless amused by my extreme team pride and enthusiasm.

Thankfully, the Quiz Mistress also smiled, and with her gesture, it seemed that the air returned to the room. My cheeks burned with the thought of whispers going 'round the room: "She's American."

How had I allowed myself to become a "loud, American" cliche? Perhaps, this cliche, is not so cliche, after all?...

My feeling of "having let down the side" continued as the Quiz progressed. Determined to prove my smarts I was ready to "rock 'n roll"--as I am often wont to do--in Arts, Literature and Popular Culture. I dazzled my team by knowing Madonna's proper name (Madonna Louise Ciccone).

But, then, the humiliating change of fortune as I was blindsided by two questions centred on iconic Americana: "In what American city was Coca Cola invented?" I KNEW the answer was Atlanta, but I didn't trust myself, and said: "Chicago."

Then, the ultimate: "What was Judy Garland's real name?" If only this had been the sort of quiz where you can phone a friend. I mean, really I should know this! I used to live in the West Village, for goodness sake, just blocks away from Stonewall, and how many gay men do I know??! And, I worked in the theatre! But, for all that, I could not recall her name to save my life. Of course, I know now that it is: Frances Ethel Gumm. I will go my grave knowing that name. ARRGH!!!

"Never mind," said Diane in her soothing Scots voice. But I did mind. And, I vowed to myself then and there that I would redeem my wounded reputation. A week later, I gave Di a call: "There's a quiz on up at The Granville next week, let's do it."

Di is splendid, and always up for a quiz challenge. The ever supportive and super-smart D.E.B. made our third team member. We were ready.

"This is going to fun." The D.E.B. said, putting his arm around me as we huddled together against the cold, and walked up to our favo(u)rite water hole. "Fun?!" I exclaimed, "No, we have to win."

To my surprise, the atmosphere at the Granville Pub Quiz was completely different to that of the W.I. quiz. (Where, I failed to mention, two teams nearly came to blows disputing the correctness of an answer.) All the teams at the Granville Quiz had very cute or cheeky names. The D.E.B. dubbed us "Shakespeare in Love" -- as it was a pre-Valentine's Day quiz. There was one team present who called themselves: "Norfolk and Chance" (say it fast, and with a slight Irish accent). And funnily enough they did walk away with the wooden spoon for having the lowest score.

This quiz was so much fun! Everyone laughed and joked. The wine flowed, and all the questions seem to fall in our favo(u)r: "Which pop diva played Wallis' girlfriend on the American television sitcom 'Different Strokes'?"; "The line 'If music be the food of love, play on' is from what Shakespeare play?" Excellent.

We blasted through the Classic Film round (Thank you, Dr. Zhivago!); and Di and The DEB rocked out in the "Character Couples" round that wanted to know the names of British soap opera pairs and partners, even though neither of them watch much telly. The DEB reigned supreme on science and technology, and shocked me by knowing some obscure fact about Christina Aguilera. But my absolute favorite moment was the "All or Nothing" round.

The "All or Nothing" round, as the title suggests, is exactly what it implies. You answer as many questions as you can, but if you get any answers wrong in that section, you lose the entire section, right answers and wrong ones alike. Of course the point is to get as many as you can absolutely right, but there's no room for guessing.

So, in this round, the last question of the night surfaced: "What is the name of Hank's wife, in the American television cartoon series 'King of the Hill'?"

I closed my eyes. Peggy. A voice in my head whispered. I knew I was right, but I wasn't sure. I could hear the Southern drawl of the be-spectacled, cartoon Everyman, Hank, saying her name. "Peggy," I said aloud softly to my team mates. Di's eyebrows lifted and she smiled, "You sure?" I took a breath, and said "...Yes..."

Without hesitating, The DEB wrote the answer down onto our sheet. The Adjudicator came round to collect the sheets. "Wait!" I implored, "What if I'm wrong?" "Sweetheart," said the rock-steady DEB, taking my hand in his, "it's just game."

As the scores were tallied, I apologised profusely to my beloved team mates. Then, after "Norfolk 'n Chance" were awarded the "Wooden Spoon" for their total of 11 points, "Shakespeare in Love" were declared the winners with 81 points! This time, the rebel yell was a collective one! "Whoo-woo" and "Yee-haw," indeed!!

My chum, Di, with a fine, feathered friend

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