Birds · British "stuff" · British Birds · Fitting In · Garden · Home · Life · Musings · Nature · UK · Uncategorized

The Bird Watching Diary

They are coming more often now to the backyard. My part in that being dotting more food stations and water around, and replenishing them more often.  They also seem to be moving more in pairs, showing off in a dance sashaying their wings, and singing in unintended chorus that make mornings so much more beautiful.  I will miss this when I go back soon.  But not to worry, hubby is putting cameras inside the bird houses (we have 2) and I will be able to see how they are growing their families. If I often gripe about how Technology has alienated people from one another, I marvel at how close it has brought us to our animal friends. :)  Note:  Magpies, I learn now, are not just black and white.  They have that electric blue stripe from the edge of  wings to tail.  As if they could get prettier.

“The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”  ~ Willie Nelson

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"Britishisms" · Accent · Books · British "stuff" · British Television · British Traits · Entertainment · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Lost In Translation · People · UK

Quiz Love

I love British TV and one of my favorite genres is the quiz-themed.  For me, it is relaxing, and at the same, ironically, provides a chance for me get hyped shouting answers at the telly– cathartic when you’re in a country where you have no friends, family or work colleagues to talk to just any time.  My favorites (in order) are:  University Challenge (BBC), Mastermind (BBC), The Chase (ITV) and Eggheads (BBC).

I began to follow a full season of University Challenge (meaning, start to finish) last year. When I was in the US, I would catch it on delayed run on YouTube. I have also introduced a few American friends to it, and they love it.  Which makes me wonder why Quiz shows are not as big or common on American TV, but anyway.  I digress.  University Challenge got a spike (not just in viewership but in social media buzz) largely because of Canadian Eric Monkman and his team mates Justin Yang (also Canadian), Ben Chaudri (who has made “Nominate Chaudri” a popular byline when you need help with answers) and Paul Cosgrove (he of the bemused smile and closing-bracket sitting position) from Wolfson College, Cambridge.  And also the team from Emmanuel College Cambridge led by Bobby Seagull and his baby-faced teammates.  Monkman’s tight-browed intensity and booming voice is a stark contrast to Seagull’s smiley enthusiasm, but they seem to share an endearing lack of arrogance or self consciousness.  And altho neither team won the Championship — that honor went to Oxford’s Balliol College (led by Joey Goldman) — they came out with their own cult following.  The bromance also produced radio stints and a book  (which I must admit I have yet to get a copy, but I will).

So far this year, the show is at the quarter finals level.  My favorite team is Ulster University — if only because, or maybe precisely because, they are so out-of-the-mold of the teams or winners:

  1.  They are from Northern Ireland (largely under represented in UC)
  2.  Their average age is 50 which makes them often more than twice the average age of their opponents (“You’re never too old!”)
  3.  They are a very good, solid, cohesive and fast team
  4.  They are NOT Oxbridge (to point out the obvious)
  5.  Their spirited, excitable and animated expressions when they get a question right or wrong.

They have that underdog quality that makes you just want to root for them, because they represent the quiet and deadly potential, nay power, of the unexpected.  I really hope they win (they lost to St. John’s Cambridge, but still have another shot) or at least go through to the semis.  Go Ulster!

Books · British "stuff" · British Birds · Chicago · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Gadgets · Garden · Gifts · Life · Nature · Photography · UK · Uncategorized

Bird Watching

When I tell friends in the US about the “British things” I like or do when in the UK, I get reactions like eyes widening (or rolling) or raised eyebrows.  Drives home the reality that my lives on either side of the pond are VERY different, and this oftentimes makes my interests on one side of the pond sound quite incredulous to people on the other.  But I always say “vive de difference” as it is always difference, diversity, even incongruence, in life that makes things inviting and fun.  The latest thing I have developed is (get ready for this) BIRDWATCHING.  In Chicago, I don’t get the chance to see the variety of birds that i can when in our little village in the UK.  I can tell you though that at any one time when I look up the sky in the Windy City, I can see at least 3 planes flying northwestward over Lake Michigan, en route to Ohare International.  Mechanized flying things that roar, not quite as graceful as birds and their songs.  And so I started noticing these feathered friends from those daily look-outs from the window by the kitchen sink here in England, and hearing their tweets and calls.  What a refreshing treat.  Not long after my father-in-law gave us a colored poster of common birds (pull out from a Sunday paper) which piqued my curiosity even more. Add on a day at Caernarfon Castle with the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds) selling (and me buying) lapel pins of a host of bird species to raise funds, and the serendipitous £1 find I got from a charity shop (RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds by Simon Harrap) the very next day, and there we have the perfect storm of the birth of a new hobby.

Over Christmas, Hubby bought me a pair of binoculars, specifically, a NIKON PROSTAFF 7s 10×42.  They are not the typical small little things that birdwatchers can thrust into the pockets.  More the type you hang on your neck while you move around. They feel “substantial” — which I like, because they have more the feel that you’re holding a piece of equipment rather than a toy.  The best part of it is that it is lightweight, for all the power it packs in.  IMG_3358

I keep on the window sill the RSPB pocket guide, and a more expansive “Birds of Britain and Europe” by Rob Hume. I like that both books either describe the bird voice/sounds or illustrate their flight pattern.  Both books also provide a cross reference to confusion species or similar species.  I also have a small notebook where I have begun to note down the birds I have seen and where.  For now, I think the most special one I have on the list is the Great-Spotted Woodpecker which honored us with its presence when it came for the bird-feed pellets we have just put out.                                                                                                                            With his bold black wings decorated with little white dots, and a bright red crown and under tail — what a beauty.  We now have 3 feeders in the backyard, and we like to think it has become Blue Tits Central in this little neighborhood.  They fly together, and oftentimes we have finches, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins, starlings, chubby wood pigeons and even the odd pheasants joining in there party.  I am so looking forward to more of these glorious feathered creatures, in number and types, coming over in the spring and summer.

“…I keep looking for one more teacher, only to find that fish learn from the water and birds learn from the sky.” ~ Mark Nepo (author, in “Facing The Lion, Being The Lion, Finding Inner Courage Where It Lives”)

Architecture · Art · Chicago · Kent · Life On The Road · Road Signs · Transportation · Travel · UK · Weather

Tudeley All Saints Church : Inside a Gem

#RochesterKent

A few years ago, I watched a BBC television feature on a little church in Tudeley which housed stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall.  By the end of the program, a visit to All Saints Church Tudeley was in my Bucket List.  So when 3 weeks ago the Hubby had a couple of days’ work with a client down in Rochester (Kent), I grabbed the opportunity to tag along with the goal of striking out to neighboring Tudeley from there.  I planned to go via Tonbridge, about an hour away by train from the Strood station, which was in turn a bus ride and walk from the hotel.  A long-time admirer of Chagall’s works, I have been lucky that 2 of them are within easy viewing for me when in Chicago :  the Four Seasons outdoor mosaic murals (4-sided) at the Chase Plaza entrance to the Dearborn Blue Line station; and of course the America windows at the Art Institute.  All Saints in Tudeley is particularly special because it is the only Church where all (12!) its stained glass windows are works of the Artist.  There is a tragic, heartbreaking story behind the Windows’ commission, but it all turned to good as both Story and Artwork are now immortalized by the collaborative genius of Chagall and glassmaker Charles Marq of Reims.

My trek to All Saints Church Tudeley began with this page, and the “How To Find Us” directions here.  For all the big-time, long-road, open-sky driving that I do in the US, I cannot drive here in the UK (yet). So, from among my available options to get to the Church, I decided to do so by-foot, instead of cab or bus.  That decision came easily enough : The walking directions, which I carefully copied by hand, had described the trek as “delightful”; and I was quickly sold on the lyrical characterization of the landmarks along the way:

“the road rises to the crest of the hills and then descends”

parade of shops”

little black and white lodge” 

green footpath fingerpost”

“charming foot path lane between high sided walls (may be wet underfoot)”

charming wooded dells”

Indeed, a pied it is.  Surely, I thought, there will be a throng of visitors headed the same way from the train station.  That scenic 2.5 mile walk will be dreamy and enjoyable; and it will give me a good 5,000 steps exercise on the walking app (multiplied by 2 if I walked back!).  I also envisioned having interesting exchanges with fellow enthusiasts.  EASY.  Or so I thought.  

I hurled the first of my assumptions out the window as soon as I got off the train.  I should’ve known that a gloomy, chilly, windy Thursday is not exactly the best day for the Chagall Window Enthusiasts sub-set.  Or perhaps any one for that matter.  I found myself walking alone, often bemused if a house or footpath qualifies as “charming” as described in the Directions, and second-guessing what exactly “wooded dells” looked like.  I was a City-Mouse lost in the deep country.  At some point I found myself the only human within sight, often shadowed by that nagging feeling of being followed.  Of course, it turned out that the imagined sound of footsteps or rustling was actually my backpack rubbing against my neoprene jacket.  I walked through lush fields, mountains of molehills, nettles and brambles that whipped at the hems of my jeans.  I wondered where to shelter if the clouds suddenly gave in and poured, and hesitated when a path Y’s out to different paths.  It amuses but doesn’t surprise me, on hindsight, that “The Blair Witch Project” movie was on my mind as I sallied forth.  [Slideshow below to view some of the bits I saw along the way.]:

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By the time I finally managed to get the Destination within sight, the clouds have given way and Sun was out full-blast.  I had sweat running down the small of my back.  My ankles were soft and wobbly.  My pedometer indicated that it took Lost and Flat-footed Me a total of 7.1 miles (2 hours +) to do the 2.5 mile walk. :)  I crossed the dusty road to a little village church that looked outwardly plain and unspectacular, curious to see what lies inside.  [Hover mouse over the bottom of each pics below to see my marginal notes!].

As it turned out, the church building’s deceptively unsophisticated exterior was the perfect tension before the BIG WOW.  Pushed open, the main wooden door was the rabbit-hole to a wholly different world.  The plain white walls and exposed beams provided the perfect canvas for Chagall’s masterpieces.   That day, within that smallish space, on a gloriously sunny afternoon, I walked into a magnificent crossfire of light from 12 vibrantly colorful sets of windows, — primarily beaming the Blues of night sky and deep sea, and a couple golden Yellows the color of corn and sunlight.  The Windows framed an eclectic collection of Biblical characters, members of the  D’Avignon family, the Moon, fishes and doves, sea creatures, playful donkeys, mythical birds, the whisper of Chagall’s term of endearment for his wife (“Vava”), and a selfie of the artist himself!

I’ve read somewhere that the experience of Tudeley All Saints Church feels like being inside a jewelry box.  That is an understatement — I felt like being inside the jewel itself, — and a perfect, most sparkling one at that.    Slideshow below : — 

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Best of all, I had that wonderful space all to myself for most of the time.  It’s not always like this.  The place gets packed with visitors in the summer apparently.  And so I lingered a bit, savored the quiet and the glow of natural and enhanced lights, and remembered my dad.  How I wish he were still around to hear me blabber about this.  And finally, when it was time to head back, I took the bus.  Exhausted and jelly-legged, thoughtful and happy. :)

VISITING TIPS:

1. Don’t forget to walk into the open Vestry on the west side of the Church (directly opposite the altar).  There is a switch towards the back which lights up the Boscawen Windows (Victorian glass) on the south wall.  These panels were replaced by the last Chagall installations.

IMG_5982

2.  The walking from Tunbridge station is indeed scenic and beautiful.  However if walking through isolated paths is not your thing, make sure you plan ahead and go with a group.  It may not be easy to navigate the Directions on your own.

3.  If you are taking the walk, make sure you pack enough drinking water, your phone is charged or bring back-up power so you can keep in touch if you get lost.  It is quite a long walk, —  with lots of ups and downs and uneven grounds, — and you WILL get lost if it is your first time.  Give yourself enough time allowance, and the cardinal rule:  wear comfortable shoes.

4.  There are interesting and very good publications and postcards on the side of the church.  And a donation box to drop payments and donations.

5.  There is a labyrinth on grounds.  I didn’t see it though.

6.  1.5 miles away is the St. Thomas a Becket Chapel. No longer in active use.  Supposedly has fantastic 13th century painted murals.  It’s still on my list of to-sees.

7.  Bus service to the train station is infrequent — an hour between buses.  And they don’t run late.  The last bus is just past 4:00 p.m., so plan accordingly.  

“If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.”
― Marc Chagall

Accent · British Traits · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Life · Life On The Road · Lost In Translation · Shopping · UK

Snippet on Adjusting to Life in the UK

I realize that I haven’t posted in a while; and I am a little half-hearted about jump-starting it with a grumble.  In particular, it will be about (the virtually non-existent) customer service in the UK…. again.  It’s the one thing about  UK life I can’t quite get my head around, just because it’s a puzzle that in a country where everything is about civility, politeness and niceties, very few stores (or “shops”) seem to be able to get it right.

Today I headed into town to run a few errands at the bank and the post office.  Too early for the return train — and yes, I DO have to rush back home as I have a conference call to Chicago by 9:30 Central Time — I decided to go to Debenhams to use up an expiring gift card.  The gift card had a 24-month lifetime, and we got it as a wedding gift 2 years ago.  Hence the urgency to use it before its expiration.  I got a few small things at the home section, and headed up to pay.   Here goes the convo at the till:

Cashier :  Hi, you alright?

Me :  Hi, yes, I’m good how are you (waited for her to scan the 2 items, tell me the total, and then I handed over the gift card)

Cashier :  (peering from the top of her bifocals for some time and swiping it) — Do you know how much money you have on the card?

Me : (slightly surprised why it was up to me to tell her how much was left on the card — she could swipe to find out couldn’t she? — and trying to remember how much I had left on the card).  Hmmmmm…. I’m not too sure.   I think I might have around £120-something on it….

Cashier : (looking back at me)  So, in other words, — you do not know…..

Yup, those were her words  — “so in other words, you do not know….”

I am only slightly amused, but  mostly annoyed at myself, for being thrown off by comments like these, especially when they come with an accent and a nose in the air (literally, as it tried to hold up her bifocals).  I am not too sure whether to react the “American way” of always being right as customer; or to tread the polite line of putting sales staff softly in their place by a slight change in my intonation, the right choice of words, or the just-enough raise of my right eyebrow.  It really is tricky to make that split-second decision to either dare to be yourself and risk awkward attention; or to live as the Romans when in Rome and tone everything way way down.  I just know that each time I come over to the UK, I do not stay long enough to get out of the mode of being the visitor or the outsider, and to know how to deal with situations the way locals do.  But because that is my choice and this is my life, for now all I can do is sigh.  Until I get it right, if they don’t.

British "stuff" · Entertainment · Life On The Road · Photography · York

Bright Lights

We visited beautiful and historic York on Friday night to catch “Illuminating York“, an annual light and sound festival which alternates among landmarks of the city.  I believe this is the 6th year of the festival.  This year’s son et lumiere piece entitled “Rose” was designed by award winning projection artist Ross Ashton and sound artist Karen Monid.   The lights were played against the South transept of the York Minster where the awesome Rose Window is housed.  I truly enjoyed the visual and audio experience — the loudness of it, the brightness of it, just the hugeness of the experience under clear skies with just-right cool, jacket-hugging weather.  Unfortunately, in our rush to head out to the venue before the rush hour traffic, I’d forgottem to bring my (heavy-duty, literally) tripod.   Which makes taking any nighttime photos a bit of a challenge.  To keep my shots as steady as possible under the circumstances, I had either rested the camera on C’s shoulders or head, or at best, lean one corner of the camera on the ground while tilting the lens upwards.  Many shots came out blurred sadly, but hey.

Below is a collage I’ve put together.  Not all that brilliant, given the limitations.  Caveat:  they’re lightyears away from the beauty of the real deal so it is highly recommended that you catch it next year (or later) if you can.  :)

Illuminating York. York Minster. October 2010.

I’ve shamelessly submitted my pictures to the photography competition of the event.   100 GBP in photography vouchers at stake (you amused?).  Nothing really fancy, but think of the bragging rights for an uber-amateur like me:  yup, priceless.  To my pleasant surprise, I received an email from one of the reps asking for high-res copies of my shots.  I complied with 7 shots, gladly and with all the chutzpah that I can muster.  Even better, the organizers have humored me by putting them up in their official Flickr page, along with seriously beautiful captures.  Now THAT has amused me no end.  Please check it out:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/official_illuminating_york/

Trust me.  It will be worth your while to see the photos.  Not (just) mine.  But those of the others. ;)

Illuminating York  Website : http://www.illuminatingyork.org.uk

Twitter handle:  @illuminateyork

Flickr page :  http://www.flickr.com/photos/official_illuminating_york/

British Business · Hotels & Inns · Lawyers Life · Life On The Road · Travel · UK · Work

Charge for Wifi? Why, fie!

 

From a little corner table at the hotel cafe, Nottingham

 

Travelling away from home has a funny way of making days pass by quicker.  For the past weeks, C and I have been living our usual pretty itinerant lifestyle, a different part of the UK every week.  C covers his consulting gigs, and I tag along with my own hardcase of paperwork to do while away.  Actually “away” is not quite the word.  Perhaps I should fine-tune that word to “further away”, especially when the conveniences and comforts available while working from our home in Manchester are not available.  My work as an attorney in the US requires me to pass big bulks of work across the Atlantic.  And so when we are on the road, I have to find my nook to do work, and equally importantly, I need to have internet connection to send work across.  Unlike in the US, many UK hotel groups/chains do not offer free internet connection.  Not even when a big chunk of their clientele are business travellers.  For instance, C is a frequent user of another hotel group (Let’s call it “P Hotel” The Premier Inn group) for his business travels.   The said Hotel chain is extensive, and you generally can also find one located outside of city centre and anywhere across the UK — convenient for C as power plants are usually located quite far from them.  I like that P hotels Premier Inns have spankin’ clean rooms, are pretty no-frills (altho very often, I wouldn’t mind some pretty frills), and — they have showers and not just bath tubs (happy me!)!   However, what seriously irks me is that the P hotels they charge for internet.  Their rate?  £5 per hour, or £10 for any time use within a 24 hour period (multiply that by a 4 day stay).  The guest must pay this upfront (front desk), and they give you a “scratch” card with a password.  There have been many times when, just for the principle of it, I want to refuse to pay more than the room rates (which believe me, can go quite high when booked on short notice).  But then I tell myself “what principle are you talking about?  It’s just how they choose to do business”,  knowing that sticking to my guns would go against professionalism.  No choice then but to suck it up and pay for it.  Alternatively I would/could take the bus into town, find a Starbucks, and work there until the Barristas either become my good friends or get annoyed.  Trust me, it is awful to feel that you’ve overstayed your welcome.  So it usually ends up with me spending more money for coffee and cookies.  Bottomline, what I had done in these instances really made no economical sense.  To save £10, I spent more (bus ride to and from, coffee and cookies).  So what do I do but gripe silently to myself in utter frustration?  And outwardly, act nonchalant and bear it.  That’s the British way, and when in Rome.

One of the places we regularly stay in when in Edinburgh is the King’s Manor.   This hotel is managed by the Best Western UK group (Twitter handle:  “BestWesternGB”).  They provide free broadband to guests.  What a relief.  Hotel people who understand that providing internet connection today is the functional equivalent of having bedside and lobby telephones in yesteryears.  A simple, basic feature like this,– and I am less antsy about not being able to take care of my clients overseas.  In the end I enjoy travel and stay that much more.    I hope hotels in the UK realize that the value of providing broadband to guests, and the competitive advantage it provides to their business mark worldwide, are much more than the sum of its actual costs.  No hotel guest wants to feel isolated from contact, or to feel that they have to pay additional for a few hours of de-isolation.  Too much nickel-and-diming your clients. And really, how silly.

So this week, we booked ourselves in another Best Western hotel.  This time, the Westminster in Nottingham.  We will continue to stay in BW hotels and look into them wherever we travel.

Anyway, by way of  FYI, since this is a blog about expat life, here are some of the hotel groups in the UK where guests PAY FOR WIFI:

  • Hilton
  • Travelodge
  • Holiday Inn
  • Marriott
  • Malmaison
  • Premier Inn and
  • Thistle

And those that PROVIDE FREE WIFI TO GUESTS include:

  • DE VERE
  • RADISSON
  • SAS
  • CITY INN and of course,
  • BEST WESTERN

(Source :  “Do Not Disturb” magazine, Issue No. 1)

p.s.:  Best Western GB has come up with the first magazine issue called “Do Not Disturb”.  The magazine is unconventional, fun and interestingly quirky — definitely in line with the company’s byline “Hotels with Personality”.

Cover of "Do Not Disturb"
British "stuff" · British Food · British Traits · Lost In Translation · UK · Uncategorized

Ambivalently Proudly British

“Really rather good”

Originally uploaded by MissChicago

The Brits rarely hardsell anything. They are the masters of underplay and understatement. And even when they must toot their own horn, — what in the cut-throat world of marketing — they seem to be reluctant about going all-out.   I found this packaging on Marks & Spencer’s Rich Team Cream Fingers quite amusing: “Really rather good”. In America, there would be no qualms about something being “ooh oom good” or “finger lickin’ good”. But M&S proudly declare these little sweethearts to be, uhm …. “REALLY RATHER Good”.  “Really rather” sounds like an oxymoronic pair of adjectives that cancel each other out.  But somehow, knowing their British origins, it adds to its charms.  That tendency to false modesty which really translates to “Go on, YOU tell us it’s really good, because we’re not going to!”.

They are proud in their humility.  Proud that they are not proud”.  ~  Robert Burton (British Clergyman) 1574-1640.

British · British Food · Food · Life · UK

Treat or Treats

Reading through my journal notes, I found this one written about a year ago.  I’m re-posting it here, — another story about life in the UK.  Note:  this was written a couple of months after we got married in Chicago, and I moved across the pond.  :)

Today is a day of FIRSTS, and SECONDS.

My first time to tag along to C’s [i.e., the hubby]  racecar sprints.

My first time to Aintree, home of the Grand Nationals (supposedly one of the most difficult horse steeplechase courses in the world). See: http://www.articlesbase.com/sports-and-fitness-articles/history-of-the-aintree-grand-national-race-course-374614.html

My first try at a right-hand drive vehicle; and my first to revert to a manual transmission in many years.

During the lunch break of the sprints, C and I each had a medium-sized whippy ice cream more popularly known as “99”. This awesome to-die-for piece of heaven on earth is a huge, rich, creamy, milky mass of the whitest ice cream on a cone, with a little Cadbury chocolate flake on the side. You can opt to have raspberry syrup swirled on top of your ice cream. C did, I didn’t. 99s are popularly sold in soda fountain set-up moving stores (fairly large trailer-type vehicles, with open windows on the side). I love them because, unlike American ice cream, they are not overly sweet. They just taste….rich and full. I had that as dessert after a lunch that included ham sandwiches, cold chicken legs, a “Walker salt and vinegar crisps” (chips in the US), and a can of coke. Admittedly, I felt slightly guilty to indulge in dessert.

But when C clocked his personal best time today, and finished a very close 3rd in his Class, we decided to celebrate, and went back for a second round of 99 whippy ice cream. It tasted just as good as the first. This time, I felt double the guilt I had from the first one. After all, in a span of 3 hours, I had all of 198 (99, 2 times).

When we got back home, I went straight to the weighing scales. I weighed a grand total of 8 stones (dreadful and unprecedent — go figure that in lbs). Groan. I promise to have none of that for the rest of the week. :)

Happy Saturday!

More on the Whippy wonder 99 :
1.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/99_Flake
2.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/5223328.stm

"Britishisms" · British "stuff" · Canterbury · Life On The Road · Lost In Translation · Road Signs · Travel · UK

Sign Language

A couple of days ago, while walking down the streets of Canterbury (Kent) towards the center, I found this little sign by the under-serious-renovation St. Mildred’s Church:

Yeah, I too always thought signs best served their purpose when they are very simple notices.  If possible even understandable by older kids.  In the US, this same sign would probably read “Watch Out (or Keep Out).  Falling Debris.”  But this one looked, amusingly, more like a legal document.  “Falling Masonry”?  and “Inclement Weather Conditions”??  As I often tell the hubby, …. “seriously, who talks like that in daily conversation?”  :)