Tuesday, February 15, 2005

February Break

Church Farm House
Originally uploaded by HocusOpusUK.

February break. My colleagues have raced off to foreign parts for the week - Eastern Europe, Italy, North Africa, Sweden, and the 'States. We've elected to stay in the UK, sleep and eat when we want and plan our days one day at a time.

I don't usually find it very relaxing to travel. If you're visiting friends, you have to keep to their hours. You worry about being in the way. Both guest and host participate in a complicated dance, negotiating how each minute of the day is to be played. If you're staying in hotels, you feel pressed to get the most out of your trip by visiting every museum, cathedral, souvenir shop, and historic building in the area. You eat strange things and overindulge at the table and the bar. That's not my idea of a relaxing holiday.

I have a friend in the 'States, a former high school classmate, who has a yacht which he sails from California to Mexico. That's the perfect way to go - take your home with you!

I DO enjoy the adventure of visiting new places, but I know in advance that it will not be relaxing. You have to gear up for it and the purpose of the trip is entirely different. (This from someone who took a Greyhound from El Paso to Mexico City and spent six weeks of Peace Corps training in Afghanistan.) I think Easter might be a better time to set out on a mini-adventure. Spring will have truly arrived and the light will be different.

After months of short grey days and long dark nights, of going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark, February break is for recharging the batteries. Tomorrow, we head off on a three-hour drive to visit friends who run a Bed and Breakfast in Norfolk, East Anglia. It's not like being a guest; it's like going to Grandmother's house.

I'm not sure that they would appreciate the analogy, but it reflects the welcome we receive when visiting them. Their 16th century thatched farmhouse is decorated with warm colours, plump, comfortable furnishings, Persian rugs, and dozens of ticking clocks which chime at different times. In the huge, farmhouse kitchen, they create multi-course gourmet meals. The days are filled with quiet times for reading, easy conversation, walking the dog in the woods and occasional excursions into the local market town. In the evenings, we linger over a late supper, good wine and good company with the fireplace crackling in the background.

This is rural England. The nights are pitch black. There are no streetlights, so if you're visiting the neighbours, you need to carry a torch (flashlight). Unlike where we live in Surrey, there is no light pollution from nearby towns. On a clear night, you can see the whole dome of stars. During the summer, the garden can be enjoyed until at least ten o'clock without lanterns or candles. The restful sound of water from the two fountains trickles over the stones. There is traffic, but nothing like the constant roar of the M25 which we hear day and night from our house.

Lots of schoolwork to do before we go back on Monday, but I'm looking forward to this mini rural retreat. Our friends have just returned from a six-week trip around the world - Dubai, Thailand, New Zealand, Easter Island, Ecuador, The Galapagos, and Florida. We'll enjoy hearing about it and be grateful that they, not we, made the journey. Thankfully, they don't think of us as guests; we're family and it'll be good to be home.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Twelfth Night

“Twelfth Night”. The name conjures up Shakespeare’s comedic love story of twins, cross-dressing and mistaken identities or the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Maybe “conjures” is the appropriate word here, for Twelfth Night is when the traditional Wassailing ceremony is performed. According to the pre-Gregorian calendar, this took place on the 17th of January. It has strong links with Britain’s pagan past.

For some, it’s just an excuse to drink strong cider, but for others it’s an opportunity to welcome the near end of year through time-honoured ritual. Traditionally, this ceremony takes place in an apple orchard, the apple representing fertility, spring, new beginnings, etc. Today, Wassailing is still practised in parts of the West Country - Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, and Wiltshire.

I was privileged to attend a Wassailing ceremony last year around this time while visiting a friend who has retired to Wells, a cathedral town near Bath, Bristol and Glastonbury. The middle-class suburban home of our hosts was filled with the smells of good food and hot, spiced cider. Arriving guests were offered a choice of drinks and we chatted with interesting folks from all over the UK. Some had downsized or retired and moved to the West Country from larger cities. Some were professionals who still commuted to Bath or Bristol. Others worked from home or locally as artists, computer programmers, teachers, chefs, etc.

A while later, everyone gathered in the front yard where a tree had been decorated with apples and a “robin”. Our host and hostess appeared dressed as the Wassail King and Queen in masks and a robes. The tree was hung with a piece of bread and cider was poured on the roots as a kind of offering. We recited poetry asking for a good harvest in the coming year. Bad spirits were chased away by firing cap guns into the branches, and by whirling noisemakers and blowing horns. The Wassail bowl, traditionally made of wood and filled with spiced cider was passed around the circle of friends. Finally, the bundle of ash faggots was lit. The embers would be used to light the fire in the coming year. Afterwards, everyone moved indoors to eat. drink, talk and listen to music.

I was struck by a number of things. One, that we were made to feel welcome without prejudice. My friend, another transplanted American, has been accepted into the community through friends in the area. As her friend, I was welcomed, too. I think that I was most surprised at how publicly people practice old rituals.

Britain is officially an Anglican country, but religious tolerance is far more prevalent here than in the US. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Wicca, and Druidry are recognised and openly practised along side the various Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Each year at the summer solstice, Stonehenge, which is normally closed off by ropes, is opened to pagans who celebrate the longest day of the year.

Those who live in the country seem much more connected to the cycles of nature and the abundance of earth. In fact, they seem more connected to each other as well. The Wassailing festival is a lovely way to mark the natural cycles of our calendar, celebrating with friends. Much better than tearing off the pieces of paper labelled January, February, March, etc.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Modern Addictions

Our skybox died on Thursday. It had been sick for some time, but it finally bit the dust after a lengthy, but irregular illness of screeching and frozen pixels. I’m not a slave to it, but there are some programs which would be unavailable through the terrestrial channels. (There are only five in the UK.) The repairman arrived at ten AM Sunday morning.

I have a few shows which I tape regularly and watch at my convenience, fast forwarding through the ads. The new season of our pics has just started - 24, Nip Tuck, CSI (all three), Cold Case, and some new American series about medical emergencies, very much like CSI. The characters are well-developed and unpredictable, the plots varied and interesting.

Could I live without the TV? Yes, definitely. But I do need to know what’s going on in the world. BBC Radio Four is fantastic. I’ve listened to books which I would never have read. They interview authors, produce radio plays, comedy shows, in-depth, serious news programs. They discuss WORLD news, not just what’s going on within the UK or the US. And they present different perspectives, a refreshing idea.

I talked with my sister today. She has no TV reception where she lives in rural Pennsylvania. There’s no antenna, so she relies on videos, DVDs and the internet for entertainment and contact with the outside world. She has my old Apple iBook, the blue clam-shaped one. Now she’s hooked on the internet. Just like the rest of us.

TV, I could live without. Radio, I wouldn’t want to. But without the internet, I would be lost. We’ve been discussing going to Norfolk, Spain or France for a week this summer to rent a cottage for a week or more. The dilemma is that we’d most likely have no internet access. Intellectually, I know it’s ridiculous to allow that to be a factor, but it is. We haven’t reached the stage where we log on to the internet through our cell phones. Is that what the future holds?

Looks like we’ll be doing day trips around Surrey and Kent instead of jetting off to Europe. Meanwhile, 24’s about to start. Time to log off....