Oxford & Two Conversations

So, last weekend we took the train down to Oxford.  Before I get into all that, let me just pause to say what an excellent public transportation system this country has.  It is clean, efficient (mostly), safe and inexpensive.  The train station here in Warwick is about a 10 minute walk from our house and it took about 35 minutes for the train to deliver us to the center of Oxford.  We briefly considered renting a car, but it is honestly a bigger hassle to drive to drive in England.  It’s the traffic circles.  I think traffic circles are where Dante got the idea for the Circles of Hell.  We all know the scene in the movie European Vacation where Chevy Chase gets stuck in the traffic circle.  Look kids, Big Ben . . . Parliament.  That actually happens here.  We have experienced it and it’s very stressful.  We rented a car for a few days when we first moved to assist with our hunting and gathering efforts.  This was after a traumatic trip by bus to IKEA that resulted in the 3 of us carrying two each of those giant blue IKEA bags, hauling them onto the bus, realizing there were no seats on the first level, hauling them up to the second level (Carolina crying at this point), and cramming them in the tiny spaces around our bodies.  So, yeah, we rented a car.  Only that kind of sucked worse.  Because of the traffic circles.  Now, we did have traffic circles in South Africa, but those were smallish, two lane, two exit, wimpy traffic circles.  The circles here involve anywhere from 3 to 5 lanes and they have many, many exit options, so that if viewed from above they would look like massive angry octopi.  And the roads are already super confusing, what with the changing names at each intersection and the combo name/number system.  For example:  A road might be labeled M16/Leek Wooton Road, but then you cross an intersection and suddenly it becomes M16/Regency Street.  WHAA?!  Then, you have the traffic circle exit signs.  Each one lists at LEAST 5-7 options.  So, if a circle has 6 exits with 6 destinations on each exit, that is a total of 36 possible options!  The worst part is that when we rented the car Will was the only listed driver, so I became the default navigator.  This is a recipe for divorce people.  Do not, if you can avoid it, come to England with your spouse, rent a car and only list one of you as the driver.  It is VERY important that you each get a chance to experience the stress and horror of both driving AND navigating, so that when you leave England, you are still married.  What’s that you say?  Why didn’t we get a GPS?  Here, I quote my husband, “Why would I spend “blah, blah” pounds on a GPS system, when I have a perfectly good map right here?!”  Uh - because a map is only as good as it’s reader maybe?  Below I give you a sampling of one of our navigation/driving conversations:

WILL:    Ok, we are coming up to a traffic circle.  What exit do we want?

BETH:    Well, we are headed to Stratford, so whatever one says Stratford.

WILL:      Wow, people are flying around this thing, I can’t even get on.  How many exits around is the Straford exit?

BETH:    I don’t know.  This is my first time on this traffic circle.  Just like you.

WILL:    Ok, here I go.  Doesn’t the map show which exit we take?

BETH:    Um, it looks like there might be a few different options for Stratford.

WILL:    Well, we need to know which one, because I need to know which lane of the circle to be in here.

BETH:    Just get in the middle-ish one, until I can read some signs.

At this point we have made two full rotations.

BETH:    Wow, these signs have so many options.  You are going to have to slow down, I can’t read anything going this fast.

WILL:    I am going as slow as I can.  People are already flying around me and riding my butt.  Seriously, where are we going?

BETH:    Ok, that sign says Stratford/A465.  Oh my goodness, it also says Sheepy Magna!  There is a town here called SHEEPY MAGNA!!  We should try to live there.

WILL:    Oh my god, Beth, please focus!  I can’t just keep going around this thing.

BETH:    Sorry, but that is just awesome.  I mean, if we have an opportunity to live in a place called Sheepy Magna, I don’t think we can pass it up, do you?

WILL:    Give me the map!

BETH:    No!  You cannot possibly look at the map and drive in this madness.  Have you seen how fast people are flying around this thing?

We are on at least our 6th rotation.


BETH:    Ok, calm down.  You don’t need to raise your voice.  I’m sitting right here.

WILL:    I’m getting over into the second to last outer circle to give us strategic placement for exit.

BETH:    Ok, let’s just take one of these Stratford exits and hope for the best.  Take this one.  Here, HERE!!  Oh wow, I think this is actually right, I think we are going the right way.  Ok, keep going we have about two miles on this road and then . . . oh crap.

WILL:    What?

BETH:    Another traffic circle.

So, in the interest of our marriage, we took the train to Oxford.

Well, I have to admit I knew very little (okay nothing) about Oxford before I arrived there on Saturday.  I didn’t really even research.  I just figured we would walk around, see the sights, eat, shop.  Will was attending a conference at the Said Business School, so it was just Carolina and me.  And sightseeing in an old British town is kind of a 12-year old’s worst nightmare, so it was pretty much all me.  Well, the town is so gorgeous.  Inside my brain, I have always thought there was this place called “Oxford University” and it was located in the town of Oxford and really smart people went to school there and that’s about it.  Mais non.  Oxford University is made up of thirty-six different “colleges” spread throughout the town and they are surrounded by incredible churches, castles, markets and waterways.  And everything is about 500 years old.  WOAH!  The total student population is around 20,000.  The individual colleges house smaller numbers of students and serve as the hub for their living, social and tutoring environment.  It’s an amazing system really.  We toured through some of the colleges and hit the markets and ate lunch.  Christ Church college was our favorite.  Founded in 1524 by Cardinal Wolsey and taken over a few years later by Henry VIII (I think he chopped off Wolsey's head or something), Lewis Carroll wrote “Alice in Wonderland” while teaching there and it is the home to the one and only dining hall of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizadry.  There were no floating candles though (disappointed).  We accidentally trespassed at Worcester College (not all of the colleges are open to the public) and got kicked out by a very cranky old man.  I will call him Cranky McMeanypants for ease and accuracy.  It was kind of the highlight of the day because, well, this:

BETH:    (gazing at the school grounds)  Oh, wow, Carolina this place is amazing.  I can’t believe people get to attend school here.  Can you imagine?

LINA:    Huh?  Yeah, awesome.  I’m hungry.

Cranky McMeanypants:  EXCUSE me, can I help you?

Let me just pause to note here how quickly the English accent can go from charming to condescending.

BETH:    Um, no, we are just enjoying the scenery, but thanks.

C McM:    Well, you are not allowed to enjoy the scenery.  You are not supposed to be in here!

BETH:    Really?  Oh, I had no idea.  I’m sorry.

C McM:    (points to rather large sign that apparently says something about us not supposing to be in there).  Didn’t you see the SIGN?

BETH:    No, I didn’t.  I’m sorry.  We will just be going.

C McM:    You did not see the sign?  How could you NOT see the sign?

BETH:    Um, I’m not sure.  It IS rather large.  I think I was distracted by the view.  I mean, is this place not gorgeous?!  Do you just pinch yourself when you realize you wor-


BETH:    Well, yes.  I see that now, but um, ok, . . . we are just going to go.

C McM:    I don’t understand how you could miss the sign?!

BETH:    Ok, you DID NOT just say that.

LINA:    (pulling my arm)  Mom.  PLEASE, let’s just go.

BETH:    (Lina is pulling me out the door)  No! this guys is nuts!  He is a total nutcase!  NUT!  BALLS!

And then, I swear to you, this:

C McM:    addressing a woman stander-by “How could she not see the sign?”

UN-REAL people.  Wow.  You just can’t top that.  So, we had a snack and called it a day.

Oxford I recommend.  Stay out of Worcester College.  Or, go and tell Cranky McMeanypants I said “Hi”.  Something tells me he might remember me.

Here is a link to Oxford pictures:  http://gallery.me.com/bskillman#100077

Can Opener Update!

I would like to thank all of you for your kind messages of comfort and offers to send can openers.  I went to buy a new can opener, but the only ones I can find are just like mine.  The good news is that it does open some cans - just not all.  I am imaging receiving a bunch of can openers and if that happens I have a plan.  I will have a can-opener sale/workshop at which I will offer, to the general public, can openers with free lessons on how to use them.  I figure it could be very healing.

Love to all,  Beth

15 November 2010

So, here’s the thing about making bold moves.  Moving to another country type moves.  It’s not the big, obvious things that get you and make you doubt what you are doing.  It’s the little things.  Like opening cans.

Here in England, we are renting a furnished house.  A well known fact about renting furnished houses:  despite the exorbitant amounts of money you might be spending to rent the house, the house will be “furnished” with all manner of “my great aunt died and willed me the contents of her house” type of stuff.  When renting a home in a foreign country, you often have no idea what half that stuff even IS.  There are approximately 5 gadgets in my kitchen, the purposes of which elude me entirely.  I did unearth what appeared to be a can opener about a month ago.  I decided to make spaghetti and meatballs for my family and - don’t tell anyone - I use canned tomatoes when I make my sauce.  So here is what happens.  I assemble my ingredients on the counter, and begin chopping and sauteing.  Then I go to open the cans of tomatoes.  First, let me say the can opener is manual, not electric.  It looks a little different from my American can opener, but whatever.  It has the sharp wheelie thing and the grooved wheelie thing and the turner thing.  But, for some reason I cannot figure how to attach it to the can.  The grooves and wheelies are not lining up and I’m turning it every which way and nothing is working.  This goes on for a while and I’m kind of panicking because John & Lynn are the in the South of France and we don’t know anyone else and I need my CANS OPEN!  I mean . . . stuff is sauteing!  So, I turn to my trusty advisor, Mr. Google.  This is what I actually typed into the Google bar: ‘how to use a British can opener’.  When I typed that I remember thinking, ‘I hope nobody ever finds out about this’.  Anyway, the Google gives me some options and there, on the screen, is a picture of a can opener just like mine with some instructions, but they really don’t make any sense and there are no illustrations and this is just not working.  At this point it becomes clear that I need an alternate dinner plan.  I am feeling like a complete idiot and can only half-heartedly throw myself into feeding my family chicken (sauteed in garlic and onions).  So, fast forward a few weeks and we have some friends over.  I decide I am going to discreetly ask one of the women, who is British, if she can show me how to use the can opener.  But, she is a very animated person and she thinks it is extremely amusing that I don’t know how to use a can opener.  Before I know it, I am being looked upon with pity and dismay by several advanced degree university students.  This is not going well for me.  So, animated-but-well-meaning British women goes and gets the can opener and begins to demonstrate how to use it.  To my utter horror she begins by pulling the handle (the handle that APPEARS to be a single plastic piece) APART.  Holy crap.  The handle slides apart into two pieces.  Which is what makes it attach to the can and, therefore, work.  Well, needless to say, the rest of the demonstration is pointless and my night, if not my life, is ruined.

So these past few weeks I have been confidently buying canned items.  I have been buying things that have no business being in a can (meat), just so I can have the smug satisfaction of opening cans.  Today, for my inaugural can opening I decide to make tuna fish salad (don’t judge, I like it and it’s good for you).  So, I get out my can opener and proceed to open the can of tuna.  Only, it’s not opening.  I have pulled the handle apart and attached it to the can and I am cranking away and it’s not working.  I decide maybe I have it backwards, so I re-adjust and start turning the wheelie and . . . nothing.  Okay, maybe it was right the first time.  No.  Perhaps I am not pressing hard enough.  Nothing.  Could be it’s not at the right angle.  Nope.  Oh my God this is not happening.  At this point, I am banging the can on the counter yelling about the fact that “it’s not my fault I grew up using an American can opener” and “doesn’t the can opener know I have been buying nothing but canned food items for weeks and my family is going to starve if I can’t figure this out!!” and I’m probably really freaking out my neighbors.  I end up sliding down the side of the cabinets, and I’m on the floor sobbing and re-evaluating every choice I have ever made because if I am not smarter than a can opener, clearly something, somewhere has gone very wrong.  Right?!  I mean, if I can’t figure this out, how am I going to get through all the days that are filled with NOTHING BUT figuring things out?  . . .  And that, my friends, is the truth about bold moves.  You have a thousand doubts.  They just don’t reveal themselves until you can’t get the can open.

6 November 2010

Hello friends!  What a whirlwind this has been.  Will is already taking mid-terms!  Actually he just finished them yesterday.  Carolina is headed to a new school on Monday.  We switched her to a smaller school that is closer to our home.  We were not sure moving her was a great idea (too much change, etc.), but when we toured the school we knew it would be perfect for her.  They have a massive design studio, a fantastic art program and drama lessons through The London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art.  All stuff that is right down the Carolina alley.  It’s a great opportunity for her and she is excited.  We spent yesterday getting her new uniform  - complete with crested blazer!  She is mortified (lots of eye rolling), but we think it’s adorable.  I will try to use a bright light to stun her so I can get a picture to post.  She will never forgive me, but isn’t that what mothers are for?  Therapy fodder.

Are you all glad the elections are over?  I was in a job interview and the guy actually started talking about American politics (not in a good way, of course).  It was so awkward.  I’m thinking, “If I agree that George Bush is evil, will I get the job?” . . . I mean, I need to pay for Snickers ice cream bars.  Why do people think it’s OK to completely trash another person’s country and government right in front of them?  I’m going to start trash talking the Queen and see if they like it.  Start making fun of her hats.  Seriously though, I know we have inserted ourselves in to an academic environment, but I hate talking about politics.  Especially in job interviews - sheesh!  So, I just changed the subject and asked him how he felt about God.  I didn’t do that.

Well, I promised to share some more about our sweet little town.  Just today I had this great chat with an old Scottish man at the grocery.  I was trying to decide what beer to buy (huge, amazing selection) and he starts talking to me like I have know him since I was a wee lass.  I really have no idea what he said, but I think we may have a date this Saturday night.  Seriously, he was definitely pouring on the charm, which is not too tough for a Scottish guy (can anybody say “Sean Connery”).  Even if he is old enough to be my grandfather.  He was adorable.  I love living here (and not just because I get hit on by old Scottish dudes).  It’s just this little town is so . . . livable.  Every single thing I could possibly need is within walking distance - butcher, hair dresser, market, coffee shop, sporting goods, drug store, stationary, bank, etc.  We have great restaurants - some of the best in Middle England. And, of course, there are pubs!!  Like 8 of them.  In this tiny little town.  I can’t figure out why we have not been able to duplicate the pub in America.  Maybe it’s the dreary weather here that makes the pubs seem all the more cozy and inviting.  But, I can’t think of a bar I have ever been to in the US where I could go in on the middle of a Saturday, curl up on a couch by the fire and read and have a pint (or not) and talk to whoever came by who was feeling chatty (or not).  It’s fantastic.  And there are parks and greens everywhere here.  The River Avon is just down the street and the castle grounds are so beautiful to walk around.  I know the fun and newness will probably wear off, but I feel so lucky to be experiencing living this way.  Will has had a few tough commutes on the bus, and I thought he might break down and buy a car, but he is hanging in there.  If I start working at the University (see interview nightmare above), I will be joining him in the bus commuting world.  All types there.  Should make for some great stories anyway. 

I might try to do some video of stuff around town.  For now, here is a link to some pictures of the more famous sights around Warwick.

Next time I’ll do photos of some of the places we hang out.  For more information on some of the places in these pictures:

The Lord Leycester Hospital dates from the 14th Century.  The term hospital in those days referred to a home for retired soldiers and that is the role the building continues to serve today.  Even though it looks like it could fall down at any moment with a strong wind.  The walls are wonky and lean every which way.  It’s like something straight out of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

The Warwick Castle is the premier medieval castle in England.  It was built by William the Conqueror in 1068 and has been the home of the Earls of Warwick since 1088.  It is magnificent and very well preserved.  Some of the pictures are taken from a garden at the bottom of the Mill End street which is just below our street.  The garden has been the lifelong project of Arthur Measures and sits at the base of the castle.  We have not toured the inside of the castle yet (we are waiting to go with visitors from American  . . . hint, hint).

Part of St. Mary’s church dates back 900 hundred years, but most of it was rebuilt after the great fire of 1694.  It’s one of those magnificent old cathedrals where every nook and cranny is gilded or adorned with jewels.  There are also crypts scattered about everywhere and a few of the Earls of Warwick are in there.  We did a tour and Carolina eventually realized we were walking on tombstones and she freaked out, screamed and jumped up on a pew.  The docent was not amused.

OkenOken.  The building dates from the 16th century.  It is also very wonky (but warm and cozy) and we love it.

1 October 2010

As I type, there are two men outside my house painting the window frames.  They have been conversing loudly for 30 minutes and I have not understood one word of it.  Where are we?

It has been 2 weeks since we left the US for England and we have been BIZ-EE.  A lot has happened so I will summarize thusly:

Tornado in New York - flight delayed interminably, seamless transition to rented car/driver (nothing like the June ‘10 Heathrow incident), arrive at adorable house and realize we need sheets and pillows, attempt bus transport with no schedules or any other clue as to how it all works, embarrass child with public argument regarding evil bus system, successfully obtain bedding but do not successfully obtain sleep, repeat above (minus air travel, substitute other various household sundries for bedding) for next 4 days, finally breakdown and rent car when faced with another trip to IKEA, secure TV, phone and internet service, unravel such mysteries as shower, washing machine and window latches, get husband and child off to school, breathe.

So, I’m going to attempt to blog a bit about our experience here.  Tune in if you are interested and I’ll try to keep it interesting.  I have mixed feelings about blogs (are the self indulgent? are they useful?).  Probably a little of both.  For me, it’s part of the process of finding my voice again.  A year and half ago, I knew who I was.  I knew what I was supposed to do.  Then I got caught up in someone’s selfish, ambitious mess.  There are many good things that came out of that mess.  I learned a lot, I got to live in a cool place, I found out who my friends are, and got a glimpse of what it could be like.  It’s beautiful.  Beyond words, beautiful.  At the end of it all, even a glimpse is enough to keep me going.

Next time I will write a little bit more about why we are here.  For now, here are a few pictures from my walk to the bank yesterday afternoon.

Love to all,


Castle Lane walking towards our house