Sunday, August 31, 2008

Globalization ???

As I approach the end of my stay in England, I'm coming to some very broad generalizations about the differences between countries and cultures.

Language and Culture

We hear so often that the world is shrinking and that societies and cultures are becoming homogenous. And yet I'm struck by the differences between Britons and North Americans. As I occasionally struggle to understand their accents and to use the correct words (aubergine not eggplant, petrol not gas, toilet not washroom), I'm not even sure we speak the same language.
'Mamma Mia' is a hit movie in England as well as Canada, and Coca Cola is available worldwide, but there are so many distinctions.

North Americans have a sporty casual dress style. Clothes are somewhat tailored, and we wear a lot of synthetic fabrics. English women favour cotton and linen and softer, more feminine clothes.

British comedy is clever and self deprecating. It relies on verbal jokes rather than slapstick. It's intelligent humour but often mocking and it relies on puns and word jokes. For instance, I can't imagine Canadians ever labelling an ATM bank machine a 'hole in the wall'.

Political media coverage appears to be more about issues than personalities with in-depth coverage rather than 30-second sound bites. The Times and the Telegraph are extremely well written, and the journalists aren't afraid to use words of more than one syllable. And, as national papers, they cover bigger issues.

Don't get me wrong. Not all British people are intellectuals. There are football fanatics and lager louts. But they do appear to maintain somewhat higher standards and don't appear to have chosen to follow the lowest common denominator. Is it the remains of a hierarchical class system? Is that bad?


England is such an old country. Both Fosdyke and Sigglesthorne were listed in the Domesday Book so they date back to the early 11th century. Stonehenge and Old Sarum are signs of an even more ancient past. There is a sense of history - a sense of place and of being part of a continuum - that isn't present in white North American society.

England is also a very small country with a very large population. The network of footpaths and the man-made environment of the Fens emphasize the human impact on the environment and again tie in to a sense of history.

In Canada, we have so much space that we only label and identify outstanding geographical features. So the Rockies and the Badlands and the Okanagan Valley are labelled, but we don't label each patch of hills as they do in England (the Lincolnshire and the Yorkshire Wolds). I'm not sure we'd even call them hills in Canada as they are very gentle, rolling hills. But in England geography, history, and habitation are intertwined, and the Wolds are still a more isolated and less populated part of the country.

I'll end by mentioning one of the great advantages of England's smaller size and denser population. I went for a walk today inland along the River Welland. I passed fields of cabbages (they become more attractive with every passing field - the veining in the cabbage leaves is distinctive!), passed two farms, and walked through a field of sheep. It was very rural and apparently off the beaten track. However, after an hour-long walk, I arrived at the community of Surfleet Seas End and a riverside pub called The Ship, which serves very good meals and drinks. What a very civilized hike!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Falling in Love with the Fens

I have been going for long walks on the sea walls over the fens. The sea walls are not stone walls like in Vancouver but rather large earthen banks. The medieval sea wall is lined with hawthorn bushes in many sections bearing a rich crop of red berries. There are also tall elderberry trees. The new sea wall is more open as you are walking beside the River Welland. The Welland is not a wide river and it is tidal so it appears even smaller at low tide. Both walls curve at times and sometimes dip down to the level of the fields, but there are long straight stretches disecting the fields of wheat, kale, potatoes, and cabbages. The land feels timeless with few signs of human habitation.

I went out on a grey, blustery day which suited the landscape perfectly. As I got closer to the mouth of the river, the salt marshes spread out below me. Sturdy blue-green grassses blended with soft green grasses while there were whole banks of tall grasses with dark purplish-brown seed heads bending and dancing in the wind. There were winding mud channels and small ponds with the land seemingly stretching to infinity, the grey sky blending into the grey waters of the Wash which opens on to the North Sea.

In places, the wall dips down to the level of the fields and you skirt isolated farmhouses. The Hundred Acre Farm had 3 curious Shetland ponies munching the long grass. There are also large ditches and pumphouses to control the water level. Sometimes the path is very overgrown. Blackberry brambles tear at your clothes, and you must work hard to avoid the stinging nettles. Swifts, ring doves, pigeons, and seagulls swoop overhead, and there are a few small flowers in the grass. Apparently you can see hares in the fields in spring.

The past week has been dry so the farmers have been working long hours to harvest the fields. The wheat fields in front of and behind the cottage were cleared last evening with the farmer working until after 11 pm. In fact, the farmers hire contractors with large harvesters to harvest the crop. As we ate supper, we could see into the large, air-conditioned cab where the driver was sitting with his wife and two daughters as they circled the field.

Last Saturday we drove to King's Lynn, which is a charming, old port on the River Ouse. Like Boston, King's Lynn has been a thriving port and central to England's commercial activities since the Middle Ages. The wide quays and attractive Customs House indicate the importance of trade between Britain and Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France (the Hanseatic League). The town wasn't bombed during World War II so there are lots and lots of very old houses - substantial Georgian merchants' houses with barley twist columns at the front door, old houses with wooden beams and crooked windows, tiled roofs that dip and curve, even a Renaissance tower. But the quays are now almost deserted - the real activity is now in the pedestrianized shopping area with modern stores and restaurants. Everything changes while everything stays the same. Commerce and shopping are still central activities.

We visited a deconsecrated church that had a lovely tall ceiling with wooden rafters that was lined with large wooden carvings of angels. There were stone carvings of two devils struggling to enter the church on either side of the main door. They had managed to get their heads and shoulders inside the church before they were walled up and unable to proceed any further. King's Lynn was also a fishing community, and Vaughan Williams came Rhapsody.

Friday, August 22, 2008

R & R in Lincolnshire

It is hard to believe that Lincolnshire is even flatter than the Canadian prairies, and yet it isn't surprising. Over the years, more and more land has been reclaimed from the sea so it is flat and fertile with ditches rather than hedges separating the fields. I am staying in a very small village called Fosdyke which literally means 'ditch-ditch'. Many of the villages were initially founded on islands in the middle of the rivers. Just beyond the almshouses you can see two sea walls. The closest one is the medieval sea wall that was built centuries ago to hold back the tides and floods. Beside the River Welland is the more recently-constructed sea wall. The sea has been pushed back year after year to reclaim more land.

The house is one of a series of almshouses that were originally built in 1615 with a generous bequest from a local when he died. There is a jewel of a garden surrounding the house that is so very British. Lavender bushes border the path, and roses and clematis frame the windows. Beyond the garden there are fields of wheat and large expanses of sky. The rooms have low, beamed ceilings, and even I have to duck as I enter the dining room. Large chimney places occupy a central spot in the two front rooms. The houses were enlarged and doubled in size in the 1980s but maintain the heritage appearance with beams from France. Janet and Richard have decorated it beautifully and yet comfortably. I sink into comfortable chairs while admiring the original art on the walls. It is a very restful, pleasant place to spend part of my holidays.

August has been very wet, and the farmers are struggling to harvest the wheat, potatoes, cabbages, and cauliflowers when they can. Traffic is slowed down by lumbering tractors, and there are crews of migrant workers, many of them from Poland, in the fields throwing cauliflower into large canvas-sided trailers. Richard says that it's a hard life for the migrant workers who make very little money while the farmers and crew bosses make good money and buy fancy cars. It's fertile land because of its origins so Lincolnshire is an important farm production area.

Although the fields are large and flat, the countryside in no way resembles Saskatchewan. We are only 15 minutes from Spalding, a major town, and there are small villages scattered across the last landscape, only one or two miles apart. Church towers and steeples dot the sky. We drive to Holbeach to pick up some groceries at Tesco and stop on our way back to visit a beautiful Norman church in Whaplode. Their is a very moving 17th century memorial to some local nobles. The couple are stretched out in all their finery as if on a bed surrounded by 10 columns. Kneeling along the sides of the bed are their five children. The figures are sculpted lovingly and in great detail - I long for more information for they look like a very happy family.

The countryside is crisscrossed by a complex network of footpaths, bridle paths and cycle paths. My first walk was along the modern sea wall beside the river. To find the start of the footpath, I turn right at the coastguard cottages (there is a small marina beside the bridge, both leisure and industrial boats) then proceed on through a gate marked Private Property and continue up the driveway until I reach the top of the bank. The land is very featureless with little on the horizon except a boat dredging the river channel. The path does a zigzag, and I cautiously descend a steep bank and stumble through the ditch and up the other side, trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid the patches of stinging nettles. I then follow a track between two fields of potatoes and wheat until I reach the road.

I am staying with cousins whom I have visited frequently over the years, and I settle easily into a comfortable routine. I am quickly absorbed into their large family with 4 children and 9 grandchildren ranging in age from 5 months to 18 years. The baby is a delight. He has a big grin and loves to be held and to bounce in your arms. It is lovely to temporarily become a part of this extended family. I also feel younger in England as I came here so often in my teenage years.

The weather is very variable with rain and cloud only infrequently interspersed with warm, sunny spells. I take advantage of the sunshine to walk or sit on a garden bench and feel the sun on my face. I am thoroughly enjoying the isolation and quiet to read voraciously. Janet had amassed a stack of books for me to read, and I am doing my best to devour them all before I leave. I highly recommend The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett about the Queen of England starting to read and the impact it has on her life. It's a charming book portraying the power and importance of the written word. Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda brings tears to my eyes and helps me to believe in the inherent, although often buried, kindness of human beings. Four very fragile, broken human beings come together and form a community. It's a heartwarming story, and the character development is absolutely sensational.

Take out curry is on the menu for supper this evening - such a ubiquitous part of British life. And it will be accompanied by cider and baklava that we purchased at the continental market in Spalding this morning.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wessex - Pretty and Civilized

From France I moved to Salisbury and Thomas Hardy country. To me, this area is truly the heart of England's 'green and pleasant land'. The country lanes are narrow and wind their way through green leafy glades and fields surrounded by hedges. The roads are so narrow that cars had to back up and make way for the bus to pass, and some of the lanes are so deep that the hedges and banks of the road were over the roof of the bus as the roads have slowly sunk over time. The small villages each have a church tower or spire; the gardens are walled and full of flowers; and many of the houses are very old. It is a very pretty, civilized part of the world. The people are more civilized too as they are used to living at very close quarters. Housing is very close together so that even though there is a very large population, there are still green woods and fields with pastures full of sheep and cows. There is a very strong sense of history as well - Salisbury Cathedral is 750 years old while the Abbey in Shaftesbury was started in 888 AD. The Cathedral was built with stones from the church at Old Sarum, and the Abbey, which is now a ruin, built much of Shaftesbury, although the original abbey ramparts are still visible on Gold Hill. Again, it's a form of civility as old and new are combined so that old street facades house very modern stores.

Salisbury is a thriving county market town. It's a popular tourist destination as it's very close to Stonehenge, and the cathedral is very large and very lovely. The Cathedral Close is a green square surrounded by lovely old houses that provided housing for the church priests and bishops. My friends live in Bishopdown which is up the hill from the town centre. You can walk over the paths to Old Sarum with a wonderful view of the downs on all sides. The harvest is nearly over so the rolling hills of the downs are yellow stubble. My favourite walk, however, is across the water meadows to Harnham Mill. This view of Salisbury Cathedral was made famous by Constable. The fields are full of sheep, and tiny water vole sat munching of fresh greenery on a rock in the stream.

I spent a very enjoyable day in Shaftesbury, which is on top of a hill and has preserved a curving, steep streets of old houses - well known from Hovis bread commercials and tourist postcards and calendars. There are wonderful walks around the top of the hill with views of the surrounding countryside. The audio guide for the Abbey provided an interesting take on life in a medieval monastery.

I had a pub lunch (Somerset brie and chutney sandwich with cider on tap) on a hillside terrace. Later we had a pub supper outside of Salisbury at The Black Horse. It was a very doggy pub with photos of the owner's dogs on the wall and customers standing at the bar along with their dogs. I am very accustomed to eating on my own in restaurants, but I still find English pubs somewhat intimidating as you stand at the bar, quickly scan the menu and place your order and pay the bartender. There will be multiple beers and ciders on tap so that calls for a quick decision as well. Then they pour your drink, and you head off to find a table.

I spent another day with a family friend, and we spent a very enjoyable few hours at Kingston Lacey, a stately home and garden run by The National Trust. I am particularly fascinated at the glimpses you can get of life in a different time - the dumbwaiter that brought food up to the dining room, the narrow stairwells so the servants can deliver hot water in the bathrooms, and the rooms decorated like tents for the bachelors who came to visit on the top floor of the house (often used as a nursery wing when there was a family). Wealthy Britons of past centuries enjoyed travelling just as we do, and they brought home souvenirs too. However, their souvenirs are somewhat larger than ours! Kingston Lacey had a baroque ceiling fresco, leather wall panelling, and large paintings from Italy as well as an Egyptian sarcophagus in the garden.

One of the delights of staying with friends is that you get glimpses of their lives. The Walkers shop at Tesco but inform me that Waitrose is more upscale. We watch Coronation Street, Hotel Inspector, and television mysteries and read The Telegraph. They're an older couple so the main meal is at lunchtime with supper at 6 and a snack at 9 (marmite and brown bread with digestive biscuits). They still have a proper roast dinner on Sundays.

The gardens are still lovely - the last of the roses (so many different sizes and varieties) along with hydrangea and whole bushes of fuschia. England at its best - pretty and civilized.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Leisurely Lille

Lille is in northern France, right on the Belgian border so it is a fascinating mix of French and Flemish architecture - black slate rooves with mansard windows and curving Dutch roof facades.
It is so good to be back in France after a 30-year absence. I delight in the musical French voices and the day-to-day courtesy. You say 'Bonjour' as you enter a store or restaurant and 'Good day. Enjoy your afternoon/evening' when you leave. The French are reputed to be snooty and unhelpful, but I thought they were wonderful. They were helpful in showing me what wines were available with screw caps (No, I don't travel with a corkscrew) or in giving me minute quantities of all sorts of lovely chocolates. Life seems more leisurely as well. Sidewalk cafes abound and are busy all day long with people stopping for a beer or a coffee or a glass of wine with friends and family. Stores aren't open 24 hours a day. They actually shut on Sundays and sometimes over the lunch hour. It's August so many of the stores and restaurants were closed for annual summer vacations - unheard of in North America, perhaps because there are less family-run businesses, but it's also a different mentality. In fact, my hotel was officially shut on the last day I was there as the owner had gone on holiday. But I had a key to let myself in and left it behind when I left.
French life seems less anonymous as well. There are small tabacs selling newspapers, cigarettes and coffee on every street. And unlike 7-11 which are staffed by bored teenagers, the tabacs have an actual owner who knows his customers and has coffee with them.
I visited Amiens and Arras as well as Lille and was delighted by how little vehicle traffic there was. Train stations are downtown and the central core of all three cities was pedestrianized. Amiens was lovely with canals intersecting the city and surrounding it with water meadows with cottages, market gardens, and parks intersected by canals and streams. Also the largest cathedral in France. Arras has two squares surrounded by Dutch roof facades.
I think I did everything I had hoped to do in France. I ate good cheese, excellent pastries, couscous, crepes and drank wine, beer and cider. I visited 4 art galleries, La Piscine in Roubaix in a renovated art deco swimming pool was exceptional. I even went to a classical music concert in the Conservatory with Suzanne Ramon playing the cello.
Now, there are things I wasn't so keen on. The majority of French people seem to smoke, but I avoided them most of the time. The suburbs are a deserted concrete desert on Sundays. And I'm really not convinced that downtown squares should be made into 'beaches' with paddling pools, slides and mist machines with lounging chairs.