Farewell, Brittania

Posted November 23, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Road Trips in Europe

Tags: ,

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I’m actually in France now, since yesterday afternoon, but there’s more of England that I’d like to show you before we delve into the realities of going to language school 9 hours a day, with homework every night. That starts tomorrow, and I can’t wait! But meanwhile, back across the Channel…..

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I went on a little two-day tour in a minivan, with three other Americans and a family of six from Myanmar. The first stop was Oxford, which was quite lovely IMG_8543 IMG_8545 IMG_8547 IMG_8552 IMG_8553 IMG_8555

but pretty much everything to do with the University was closed to non-students, so it was just a lot of looking at buildings from the outside. My favorite part, actually, was coming upon a group of guys selling the Socialist Worker and gathering signatures for a petition in support of striking National Health workers. I was amazed at how many people stopped to sign the petition, a steady stream, during the half hour that I sat in the square, reading the Socialist Worker and listening to what turned out to be Afro pop rappers for Jesus. When I finally figured out what they were saying I headed back to the bus and we all headed to the Cotswolds.

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The first stop was Stow-on-the-Wold, a pretty little town, sort of the Carmel of the Cotswolds, with lots of cute little shops and restaurants, and, of course, a poppy memorial.

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I did buy some exceptionally good Cotswolds cheeses to share with my bus mates, not sure whether folks from Myanmar eat cheese or not. But yes, they did, much to my surprise.

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This was the first real butcher shop I’d seen in a long time, and the fact that there was leg of goat in the window made me long for a kitchen. IMG_8568

In this cozy pub there was a sign saying that if you were only there to use the loo (as I was) you should make a financial contribution. So I went to the barkeep and said that I wanted to contribute to the loo fund, holding out a handful of change. She gravely picked out 30 pence and said “that’ll do it, then.” I have to confess that in a week in England I never did figure out all of their coins, which are especially obscure.

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After that we made a quick twilight stop at Bourton-on-the-Water and when  I saw this house

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I immediately knew that Shel would have wanted to live there. We arrived in Cirencester after dark, and I stayed in a B&B that was a long way from dinner. As I hobbled into the closest pub, alone, I was expecting to feel welcome, but it was a place where everyone clearly knew each other and liked it like that, and although the welcome was correct, it wasn’t any more than that, so once again I praised the Kindle gods.

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Next we visited Lacock, a dead village from the 13th century that’s been nicely preserved. Here’s where I discovered that I was really missing fresh air and the countryside. Instead of visiting this little abbey I preferred to hang with the sheep in their meadow on its grounds.

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Happily, there are still a lot of thatched cottages in that part of the country.

And finally we went to Avebury, where there’s a henge.

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We walked into the largest stone circle in Europe, dating to about 2600 BC. I was really hoping to feel something special there and I went to a stone and put my hands on it and closed my eyes. Uhm, rock, big rock , cold rock. Just rock. One of the Myanmar contingent touched my rock and said “Nothing.” That’s what I felt too, alas.

So my short time in England was peachy, and now I’m in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a whole ‘nother world. Soon I’ll tell you about that, but for now I’ll just say that I’m so happy to be speaking French again, and having French food, and all that stuff I’ve been dreaming of for the past year, since Shel and I left France, for the last time, together.

Heaven And Earth

Posted November 19, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Road Trips in Europe

Tags: ,

IMG_8647It’s probably not at the top of everyone’s list of what to do in London, but my personal dream was to watch Parliament in session. I’d heard that the queues were long and that I might not get in, especially as there was a Question Session with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. But in the event I just walked right in, happy as a clam, until I saw all the steps leading up to the Gallery where one may watch from behind (presumably bulletproof) glass. As soon as I asked for a lift and explained my predicament, I got a personal escort up in one lift, who stayed with me through the Speaker’s Procession where the Speaker of the House, the Sarjeant at Arms, and a doorkeeper process past the waiting crowd and a police officer yells, quite loudly Hats Off, Strangers! My escort then took me up in another lift to the gallery, where I happily installed myself to watch the wheels of government turn. You’re not allowed to take any pictures inside Parliament, in fact, they take your camera and phone away from you, so all I have is pictures of the outside.

IMG_8651IMG_8657It’s quite spiffy though, inside and out. But I wasn’t in it for the beauty, I wanted to see the famously rowdy House of Commons strut their stuff. But while there was a little jeering, mainly it seemed that Members were earnestly trying to get their work done. The Speaker did offer this rather singular reproach “Will the Honorable Member please turn around, as we do not with to see the back of his coat but rather the front of his face,” and the Deputy Prime Minister did actually use the phrase “suck up to” in disgusted response to one question, but all in all it was tamer than I’d expected. Although, come to think of it, if Joe Biden said in public that he wouldn’t suck up to some Senator we’d absolutely never hear the end of it.

IMG_8663After that very down to earth couple of hours I went across the street to Westminster Abbey, another place where you may not take photographs inside, which is probably a good thing because it’s so overwhelmingly filled with beautiful things that no one would ever stop snapping pictures and the gridlock would be unbearable.

The list of people buried there is staggering – basically all the kings and queens of England from 1066 through Elizabeth I, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Purcell, George Frederic Handel, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, the list goes on and on. Not to mention the fact that most of England’s monarchs were crowned there, and many significant weddings also took place under the superbly vaulted ceilings. I could hardly breathe. The sense of history is palpable there, and I had to sit down several times just to remind myself that I was walking in a place that had been central to the whole story of England since 1066.

IMG_8679Lots of the time you’re even walking over the graves, although the most important people have huge monuments. After seeing the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I had to ask one of the staff whether the current Queen would also be buried there. “Oh no,” he said “we’re full. There hasn’t been a burial here in 100 years.”

As I was leaving, the light on the outer, photographable, parts of the abbey was gorgeous. Here’s your dose of beauty for the day.

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Dining Alone In London

Posted November 18, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Road Trips in Europe

Tags: ,

IMG_0224-001No, I promise, I did not eat a Starbucks Marmite and Cheese sandwich! I just want to show you that it exists, it’s a thing. Not my thing, but a thing. However, I did go into a Starbucks and get a coffee, when I didn’t seem to have time for lunch, and it gave me a great idea.

Before coming by myself to London my greatest anxiety was about eating dinner alone every night. That, amazingly, has turned out to be a piece of cake. Skipping lunch is part of the key, and the magic of Kindle is the other.

My hotel feeds me a copious breakfast every day, included with the room. In fact, their fried eggs are so perfectly cooked, so much better than any fried eggs I’ve ever made myself, that this morning I asked to go into the kitchen and talk to the cook about how she makes them. So that gets me off to a great start, and not eating lunch is pretty easy. The hotel also happens to be in a neighborhood chock full of little, and not so little, ethnic restaurants, places where I can have a whole dinner, with wine, for about the price of a main dish in a posher place. So all in all, I’ve figured out the secret to solo dining happiness, and I’ll share it with you.

I walk into one of these places early, 6:00 or 6:30, before it’s busy. Restaurants aren’t empty, though, at that hour, and eating early means that when I’m ready to leave and walk back to my hotel in the dark the streets are still teeming with people. I get a glass of wine, open my Kindle to something fun, and then try to befriend the server. I happened on this strategy accidentally. In an Argentine restaurant I commented that the fish reminded me of moqueca, and it turned out that was pretty much the local dish from the server’s hometown. Then the guy who brings around all the meats offered me beef and I asked for chicken hearts. “Ok, she knows moqueca and likes chicken hearts!” (which were indeed fabulous), from then on they were being super nice to me for the rest of my visit.

In an Indian restaurant the food wasn’t spicy enough (Brit tastes, I guess) and when I asked for a dish of chilis the server, formerly quite formal and distant as Indian servers often are, lit up. He took the most solicitous care of me for the rest of the evening, spent a lot of time explaining to me how the restaurant had been named for a warrior princess “so beautiful, so brave,” and I didn’t feel alone at all.

Tonight, in a Greek place, the server was perturbed by my request for three starters instead of a main course, and even shook her head at me a little. But when I lamented when she told me that they were out of retsina, because her boss thinks that people don’t like it, I told her that it seems normal to drink Greek wine with Greek food and besides I like retsina, and she beamed. Shortly thereafter she brought me a bowl of beautiful fruit “on the house, on the house,” and when I explained why I don’t eat fruit, or pita, or rice, she told me “I understand, but I offer it to you from my heart.”

Talk about food, which is the cross-cultural, universal language, and the kindness of those who spend their lives serving the food of their homelands to itinerant foreigners: they’re saving me on this trip from the potential awkwardness and loneliness of eating out alone. I don’t know why I worried.

Roman Bath

Posted November 16, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Road Trips in Europe

Tags: ,

IMG_8593There was a point when Shel and I said “ho-hum, more Roman ruins,” since we were so surrounded by them in the south of France. But today, in the ancient Roman town of Bath, I was wide awake.

IMG_8591And who wouldn’t be? Just look at this gorgeous bath, jade green, pristine, so seductive.

IMG_8597Fed by this steaming thermal pool

IMG_8595and guarded by these beauties

IMG_8594it’s all I could do to keep from jumping right in,

IMG_8604from putting my feet right here where Roman feet stepped, just before they got a good soaking.

IMG_8600But even this fierce man, guarding a temple doorway, couldn’t save the Roman empire,

IMG_8601which eventually crumbled, its power drained by the forces of natural decay that affect all civilizations.

IMG_8602Although as drains go, you have to admit that this one is pretty picturesque.

IMG_8586Fast forward to 1499, when construction began on Bath Abbey, although it wasn’t finished until 1616, so if your contractor is late with your remodel, cut him some slack. The Abbey wasn’t open to visitors when I was there, because services were being held. I sneaked into a Choral Matins, a lovely thing with a choir of 30 boys and men, singing like angels under the soaring vaults of the church. I had planned to sit in back, so that I could slip away for more touristical pursuits, like shopping, but an usher led me way down front. And thus it was that I heard my first-ever Church of England sermon, in which the priest surprised me by referring to the ongoing G20 Summit as an opportunity for rich countries to address some of the greater global inequalities.

IMG_8609After church I eased back toward modern times gazing at the breathtaking Pulteney Bridge, which was completed in 1774, at which time the United States didn’t yet exist. Swimming in those Old Country waters really puts things into perspective.

Mind The Gap

Posted November 15, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Road Trips in Europe

Tags: , ,

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If you’ve been in London you’ve heard the iconic “mind the gap” that greets you at many Tube stations, where there’s a gap between the train and the platform wide enough to swallow your foot. It’s perfectly emblematic of all the gaps in my life right now, to wit: what insanity led me to get a new laptop and a new phone, an iPhone that’s barely compatible with my PC (whence this abbreviated set of mediocre pictures) right before leaving home, and to set off on my own with 85 pounds of luggage? Why did WordPress, home of this blog, decide to change their GUI to something really wonky at just the moment I had all these other gaps? And why didn’t I realize that I’m not only travelling solo for the first time in 20 years, but also travelling handicapped for the first time in my life? I knew that I had trouble walking when I left home, but somehow I didn’t translate that to having to face walking through miles of airport and Tube corridors, painfully slowly, and I do mean painfully.

These things, when combined with eating dinner alone in restaurants, and stupid stuff like not recognizing English coins and having to hold out a palm-full of change like a little kid for vendors to pick through so that (I hope) I’m paying the right amount, and tossing and turning all night from the pain in my hip, are making it hard for me to actually have fun. I keep telling myself that this part of my trip isn’t actually about having fun, it’s about learning to face every sort of adversity without Shel’s help and support, and believe me, that proposition is getting a workout. However, there have been some fun moments, and that’s probably what you’d like to hear about instead of all this whining.

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For example, I did hobble through the Tower of London, and saw the end of the stupendous poppy installation, where nearly a million ceramic poppies were installed in the moat to commemorate the centennial of the lives lost in World War I. It looks like rivers of blood, just as it was intended to. A woman I spoke with at the installation told me that each and every poppy had been bought, for 25 pounds apiece, by families that had lost someone in the war. People were out in force, even though the installation was being dismantled.

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The forces were also out, this being Prince Charles’ birthday, and a 21 cannon salute being in order. Since my photos aren’t cooperating with WordPress, I’ll just throw, more or less randomly, a few more Tower images at you, gritting my teeth all the while.

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You aren’t allowed to take any photos of the Crown Jewels, but I thought they were kind of ho-hum. They’re replicas, anyway.

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And then, because the sun came out unexpectedly, I hopped on a Thames River cruise to Greenwich. As it turned out, the things I thought I was going to see were also unexpectedly closed for a private event, but it was great being out on the river, by day and by night.

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But my favorite moment of the day was when I was waiting at Westminster Station to get on the Tube, right at rush hour. People crammed into the car until one guy and I were the first people not to make it in. He and I raised eyebrows at each other and shrugged. Then one man in the train, a greying, balding guy, raised one eyebrow at me, moved a fraction of an inch, and looked down at the tiny space next to him. I jumped into it, wondering what would happen next.

There then ensued a conversation between several of us who were so crammed in that we had nothing to hold onto and were counting on the sheer crush of humanity to keep us from falling. I, of course, was crushed against the guy who had made room for me. In a sort of pre-emptive strike I said to him “it’s very kind of you to have let me in, so good for international relations, now I’ll have to write home about how kind the English are.”

By “home” I, of course, meant that I’d have to write about it here. And then a pretty blonde, very young, one of us who hadn’t anything to hold onto, said “We English are really kind, not like the Americans, who are so rude.” Very softly I said “But I am American.” I thought she’d faint, she turned beet red and began stammering her apologies. “I thought you were Canadian, because of your accent”she managed to choke out. “Oh god, I’m so sorry.” And there was a murmur all through our part of the car. And the nice man who had let me on wished me a pleasant stay in England, while she absolutely melted into the crowd and was swallowed by the gap.

So then, feeling pleased with myself despite my accent, I went to a Brazilian restaurant and there, sitting at the bar, was the Ugly American. The guy who loudly proclaims that “Hillary can never be President because she let Chris Stevens get murdered in Libya when she could have prevented it,” not to mention a bunch of asinine remarks about our President. In self defense, the Brazilian waiter and I talked about how the grilled chicken hearts were the best thing on the menu, and they were, indeed, delectable.

So many holes to fall into, sometimes it’s only chicken hearts that keep you afloat. My own personal heart is feeling pretty faint from all of this, but I’m still paddling away, doing my best to mind the gap.

Return And Turn Again

Posted November 12, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: The Road To France

Tags:

DSC_9232Here I go, on my way back to France, via a week in London. In London my plan is to be as much of a tourist as possible, so I promise to show you all the sights, as soon as I get used to traveling on my own after 20 years of travelling with Shel.

Once in France I plan to nestle in, finding a French life that can be mine alone. Shared with you, of course, but otherwise mine, all mine. Wish me luck and please come along for the ride. It might get a bit rocky, but I hope it will be rewarding.

Ashes To Ashes

Posted November 8, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,

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For the past seven months Shel’s ashes have rested in my closet. I didn’t know what to do with them, but the closet didn’t seem to be really the thing. Today, getting ready to go back to France, they were on my mind.

I’d already decided to take some with me to France and scatter them there, and I thought I’d keep some for myself in a little faiënce pot Shel bought me about 15 years ago in Moustiers Ste. Marie. Beyond that, I had no idea.

But today I was cleaning out a lot of Shel’s stuff, making space for the person who will be living in our house while I’m away, and it struck me that I shouldn’t just go off and leave Shel’s ashes in the closet with a total stranger. I decided, just like that, to scatter his ashes today.

I made a little urn to take some to France, and set aside small pots of ashes for myself and for Eric. I scooped them out with a kitchen spoon, in case you were wondering. And yes, I’m going to wash that spoon and return it to service.

That all barely used up any of the ashes. A person leaves behind a surprising amount of physical residue, and it’s heavy. I carried the box up to the garden and spread some around, thinking that rain would wash them down to the roots of the plants that will bloom so beautifully when I return in the Spring. But the ashes looked so starkly grey against the lush autumn soil that I felt compelled to cover them all with dirt, a little burial.

And then I waited. I waited for the tide to be higher, for the tide to be lower. I wondered whether I should put the rest of Shel in the water on a rising or an ebbing tide, washing toward or away from Seattle. I wondered whether I should really instead scatter them in deeper water, from a ferry in the middle of the Sound. I waited for the answer to these, and other, questions. Questions like: do the ashes bear any relation to the person? Would Shel be nearer or farther from me once his ashes washed away? Would the ashes wash into our oyster bed?

And finally I came to know that I wanted the ashes right in this water, not deeper water, but right here in the water that I see every day, so that whenever I look out I’ll know that a tiny part of him is there. And that I wanted to scatter them when the tide was right up high, so that a bit of Shel would stay as near to the house as possible.

So when the sky and the water were pink and violet with sunset, rare after so many days of rain, Toby and I went down to the beach. We stepped across the concrete pad at the bottom of the stairs, where Shel’s and my names were inscribed in a heart in the wet concrete. We went right down to the water, which had risen up to where I stood against the bulkhead and could come no higher. I put the ashes gently into that water and watched while it turned to milk. The white, white water lapped against my feet and Toby jumped up to safety. I watched and I watched, but Shel didn’t wash away. As long as there was light to see, his ashes stayed close to home.


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