Tuesday 29 March 2011

Coming to the end of classes

It was like summer today - a warm breeze blowing and buds just itching to bust out. The rose border along the path on Carrow Road next to the football stadium is out in leaf, but the blooms likely won't appear until June.

We had the last class of our publishing module today, and some of us - Juliet, Adrian, Desmond, Nicoletta, Wendy, Michelle and I - went to the Sainsbury Centre for lunch to talk about it. A good way to debrief. I realized that I likely won't be seeing some of these people again, at least not for a long time and only if someone decides to cross the Atlantic, and I definitely had the sense that something quite wonderful had come to an end. I was talking to one of my profs about the group and mentioning the great rapport we have, and she said that it was actually quite rare to get a group that works together as well as ours has. So it's not just my imagination.

Looking toward the Red Lion Inn (right) on the River Wensum.
When we left the Sainsbury Centre, some of us were taking the bus - I was heading home to the flat, but others were going to the railway station and taking trains heading to Lincolnshire, Cambridge, and London - north, east, and south. We were scattering into the wind. Some of us though will be meeting up again in London next week for a talk by Michael Holroyd at the National Portrait Gallery on biography and portrait painting. I'm really looking forward to that - any excuse to go to London and a bonus to see my fellow students one more time. Pip and Selina have invited me down to Hampshire for Easter, which will be wonderful. The boys and Emi will all be home from university and I haven't seen them since Christmas.

These beauties were right outside the seminar room.
Now that the classes have ended, except for the autobiography session next week, which is pretty much a review and a chance to talk about our essays (and not to mention the wrap up party!), I'll be focussing on the essays. I want to get one out of the way by the time Sally arrives next Friday. It's pretty much in hand, so I should be able to enjoy her time here and go exploring further afield. I'm going to take advantage of the £9 weekend car rental special and we'll likely head east to see the cathedral at Ely and then on to Cambridge to visit the university and maybe rent a boat and go punting on the River Cam. Should be a great photo op.

My plan is to finish the second essay by May 12th and then move right into the dissertation, which I hope to complete by mid July. Then it's back to Vancouver. I feel I jumped into this with both feet (firmly on the ground) and now I sense one toe of one foot inching its way back to the west coast. It's too early to spend much time thinking about it yet, too much writing left to do, but I'm excited about the thought of going home.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Road Trip

I woke up excited about the planned drive to the coast. It started out a little rocky though. I had organized a rental car and was feeling very pleased with myself for finding Enterprise Car Rentals – with a weekend rate of £9 and they pick you up and drop you off. Enterprise is near the airport – a £12.50 taxi fare from the flat. I know because that’s the way I arrived at Nancy’s on my first day here last September. So it’s cheaper to rent a car for the whole day on Saturday and Sunday than it is to take a cab one way from the airport. Crazy. The young man, Sam, called in the morning to ask if we’d mind meeting him at the train station (a ten minute walk from the flat) because they were picking someone else up there at 11:30. No problem, I said, still in a flush of happiness about their excellent service. Nancy and I packed up and headed off into the bright sunshine. It’s been cloudy all week, so I couldn’t believe our good luck with the weather. We arrived at the train station and started scanning the crowd for someone who looked like they might work for a car rental agency. We didn’t see anyone who looked like they were looking for us. We waited and waited. I then realized that I hadn’t given them my mobile number, only the landline number. I didn’t have their mobile number either, so I went into the station to look for a phone booth and a phone book, which of course no longer exist. But I did find a display with information pamphlets and called the tourist information number, asking the young woman if she’d mind looking up Enterprise Car Rentals for me. She cheerfully produced the number, but when I called it, an automated message said that Enterprise was open from 8:00 am to 12:00 noon on Saturdays – it was 12.20. I went back outside to Nancy, who was still scanning the crowd, and said that I’d walk back to the flat and see if there was a message from Enterprise on the voice mail. Sure enough, when I got back to the flat, there was a message from “Vince” at 11:23 am saying that he was outside the flat waiting for us. I tried his mobile number, but he didn’t answer. Of course, I thought, his work day is over. I left a terse message about how they’d spoiled not just our day, but our whole weekend, and why didn’t they communicate with each other, that we’d been told to walk to the station, so what was he doing picking us up at the flat. I left my mobile number and finished by saying I’d never rent from Enterprise ever again and I’d tell all my friends to avoid them like the plague. Arrrggghh.

I walked back to the train station, spitting mad, and told Nancy the bad news. We were both disappointed, although Nancy was being the mom. She suggested we go inside and have a cup of coffee and think about what we should do instead, maybe walk up to the cathedral and have lunch somewhere. I felt like a kid who’d just been told the circus was cancelled. Nancy said, “I guess that’s why they only charge £9 a day.”

View from the pier towards town.
Looking towards the end of the pier.
Looking back at the town.
Me looking happy.
A windmill B&B.
Horse and driver.
Nancy in the sun.
We were sitting having coffee when my mobile started vibrating on the table.  When I answered, Vince said he was sorry for the confusion and asked where we were and would we still like a rental car. Well, of course, we would! He apologized for the confusion and said he’d pick us up in 10 minutes. So it was on again! Vince arrived on time and drove us to the rental office twenty minute away, got us into a sweet little black Toyota, and off we headed along the Norwich Road to the coast. I loved the freedom of driving after a six-month hiatus and the car, while being a stick shift, was easy to manoeuvre. After less than ten minutes we were in the country, daffodils waving at us from the roadside, freshly tilled fields warmed by the sun and waiting for their seeds.
The lifeboat station - still working.
 Within half an hour we arrived at Cromer, a classic English seaside town with a long pier, at the end of which sits a pub, a theatre, and a lifeboat station. There was a chilly wind blowing, but adults, children, and dogs ran and played on the long sandy beach. For lunch, Nancy and I chose The Rocket House right on the beach, named after the place way back when where the rockets were launched to warn the life boat people there was a boat in trouble. A little like how on the west coast, boaters shoot off flares to attract help. We ordered the crab cakes, which came as two thick and crispy flattened rounds filled with crab and bits of spring onion. They were served with homemade tartar sauce, a stack of lovely French fries (chips), and a mound of lightly dressed leafy green salad. I had a coke and Nancy had a cup of tea. After refueling, we went made our way down to the end of the pier. People sat with their kids and dogs, enjoying cups of tea or pints of beer on the little tables along the pier. We saw two boys who’d been fishing all day, their gear neatly piled against a wall.

An amazing photo - more like a painting.
We then got back in the car for the spectacular drive along the coast on the Cromer Rd, through places called West Runton, East Runton, Sheringham, Salthouse and Cley-on-the-Sea, where we stopped to browse in a second-hand bookstore. Many, many years ago, December 1975, I took my sister to Cley. She was 17 (I was 27), and we rented a car and drove to St. Margaret’s Church, late in the afternoon in the freezing cold, to rub the brasses embedded in the vestibule floor. We had to take off our shoes and put them on the corners of our rubbing paper to keep it in place. While we were reproducing the images of certain ancient saints, a group of schoolgirls came in and started decorating the Christmas tree by the entrance. They had turned on the string of lights and were singing Christmas carols as we gathered our things together in the cold, fading light and left. Mickey has never let me forget that I didn’t take her to London and places like Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and the Parliament Buildings, but to some remote spot in the North of England to rub brasses in an ancient church. Sorry Mickey.

After browsing through the bookstore, we headed off to Blakeney to make a surprise visit to Nancy’s friends, Michael and Susie. They were home with their daughter and their three beautiful grandchildren – Fern, Peter, and Rose, aged four to eight – who entertained us non-stop with their dancing and singing. They had an endless supply of musical instruments that they retrieved from a corner cupboard and played for us – recorders, drums, harmonica, accordion, castanets, and rattles. Funny, outgoing, and talented kids. Then we looked out the window and saw the supermoon rising in the distance – the largest the moon has been in the past 18 years, the closest it’s been to the earth. We ran out of the house and down the path through the gorse to get a good look at it. I’m glad Nancy had her camera (she took all the photos because my camera had run out of memory).

Thinking of Geoff.
We headed back to Norwich along the country roads with the full moon lighting our way, arriving at the flat at 10:30 pm. The end to a perfect day.   

Thursday 17 March 2011

All Work and No Play

I just realized it's St. Patrick's Day - happy St. Patrick's Day! It's been all work for the past few days and I feel the need to do something fun and entertaining. Nancy is still here for a bit longer, so we decided that tomorrow we'll rent a car and drive up to the North Norwich coast. I haven't been there for years - probably since 1990. We're going to "make a day of it" as the English are so fond of saying. I'm looking forward to having fish and chips in Cromer. I was craving them yesterday, so when I went into Morrison's to get a few things for dinner, decided to treat myself to theirs, having had them only once since I arrived six months ago. The idea was better than the reality. The fish was excellent, fresh and hot with a light, crispy batter, and the chips were good, but it all suddenly seemed like too much food. I picked off a lot of the batter and made a mess of things. There were also mushy peas on the plate - straight out of a can but delicious and reminiscent of dinners at home when I was growing up. We always had mushy peas, Bird's custard, and all things English, given Mom was from Manchester. Probably another reason why being here evokes so many fond memories from childhood. I hear scraps of conversation in shops and on the bus, and her voice comes back to me across all the years she's been gone - "Aw ya awl roit then, Loov? Nice day, in it?"

I'm reading Hermione Lee's autobiography of Virginia Woolf and finding all sorts of material for one of my essays, which I hope to have done by the time Sally arrives on April 8th. That'll just leave one more, due on May 13th, after which I'll have to make a plan. Do I go back to Vancouver and write my final dissertation, due September 20th, or do I stay here and finish writing it? I'm leaning towards the second option as I'm afraid I'll lose my focus if I go back home too soon. Nancy is happy to have me stay at the flat, so I don't have to worry about a place to live. I know it'll all become clearer to me as May approaches, but those are my thoughts so far.

It's another grey day here in Norwich and I'm longing for some sunshine. Hopefully it'll arrive by Saturday when we head up the coast so I can take lots of nice photos. I hope too that I still remember how to drive, having not held a steering wheel since last September. That, coupled with the fact that I won't be driving on the familiar side of the road, could make for an interesting journey.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Back to the Blog

It's been awhile since I've written in my blog,  so there's lots to report. We had reading break at the university last week, and after the last class I went to have cortisone injected into my trigger finger. Very painful, and I didn't think it had worked, but am feeling some relief from the locking. Now when it locks I can unlock it by extending the finger, whereas before I had to unlock it with my other hand. I've bought a squishy yellow ball from a toy store (it has a happy face on it) which I squeeze to exercise both hands in the hope of fending off any more repetitive action injuries.

On Thursday I took the train to Wales to visit my long-time friend, Frankie. We first met in 1973 when she came to Vancouver from the UK -- twenty-one, fresh-faced, and ready to take on the world. She'd just been married and arrived with her new husband. I was pregnant with Geoff and working as an office manager in a small architectural firm on Howe Street. Frankie heard there was a job coming available and arrived for an interview. We immediately became friends. Thirty-eight years later and much water under our bridges, we had lots of to talk about. We last saw each other 18 years ago in London. She hadn't changed a bit and she said neither had I. How nice is that.

She and her partner Tony picked me up at the train station in Hereford after my eight-hour journey from Norwich. It wouldn't have been so bad if I could have just stayed on one train the whole way, but I had to change four times. For some reason my bag was quite heavy and I found myself lugging it up the stairs and across the bridges over the tracks to get on the right platform - more than once. You'd think if I were travelling in one direction, the train would always be leaving from the same track, but no. It was quite a work out. At one stop, Birmingham I think, I was told the train would be leaving from Platform 1B, but intuitively decided to ask one more train attendant when I was standing under the 1B sign, only to be told it had just been changed to Platform 2. I had to grab my bag, heft it up the stairs and across the bridge to the other side, with one minute to spare.

After I boarded and sat down, trying not to breath like I was on my last gasp, a shaved-headed man about forty sat down opposite me. He had on a black t-shirt with "Police" written on the sleeve. Another man wearing the same t-shirt sat across the aisle and it was obvious they worked together. The bald-headed man said he was racing out of the precinct to try and make a meeting with his son and teacher for a parent/teacher session when the sarg asked him to come and have a look at some human remains. He told the sarg he had a meeting to get to and could he ask someone else to look at them.

Here they come, off in the distance.
Given it was reading week and I was supposed to be reading, I had brought books with me. But it was hard with all the fascinating conversations going on around me. And the scenery was starting to get interesting too. I looked up from my book to see a goat in a field climbing up on the seat of a small tractor, trying to make himself comfortable. Then I glanced up just in time to see the sun peek out from behind a cloud and then disappear again. The route I took was Norwich, Peterborough, Leicester, Birmingham, and then Hereford where Frankie and Tony met me. I got there two hours before they were due to arrive from Llandrindod Wells - an hour's journey away - so I walked into Hereford. There was something strange about the town, or city I should say, as it has a cathedral. It had one very old building - "The Old House" -  right in the middle of it, but everything surrounding it seemed quite modern. The Old House was built in 1621 and is one of the famous black and white timbered structures from the Jacobean period. There are lots of these houses in Shrewsbury, where I went many years ago with my brothers. The Hereford Cathedral is home to the Mappa Mundi - the oldest map in the world. I would have liked to have seen it, but there wasn't enough time.

I arrived back at the station just before seeing Frankie come walking towards me, calling my name. It was wonderful to see her looking so well and meeting Tony who is warm and friendly and a perfect match for her. They said we would stop on the way back to their place and have dinner in a pub, so we drove to Titley, home of the Stagg Inn, a beautifully maintained pub that is part medieval. It was dark when we arrived and the place glowed with soft light and shining waxed floors. A fire burned in the grate - definitely the quintessential English pub. We ordered a glass of white wine each for Frankie and me, a pint of beer for Tony, then enjoyed delicious steak sandwiches with chips and coleslaw. I couldn't have been happier. Here's the website if you'd like to have a look at the pub: http://www.thestagg.co.uk/The_Stagg_Inn/Home.html.

We arrived at Frankie's place in Llandrindod Wells and had another glass of wine before Frankie showed me to my room. She lives in an old Victorian hotel - Barcourt - built in 1905, which belongs to her parents who are in their nineties and live down the hall and up and down some stairs in another flat. They haven't run it as a hotel for about thirty years. There's a twin hotel next door which belongs to Frankie, left to her by her grandmother. She had it renovated into three flats and rents them out. We left her cozy, firelit sitting room and made our way up some stairs and through a door that took us out into the other (colder) part of the hotel. We walked down a very long hallway, at the end of which was my room - No. 7. Frankie then told me to follow her and we went back down the long hallway where she showed me the toilet, then up some stairs and down another long hallway where she showed me the bath. We said good night at the juncture where she left to go back to her flat. I managed to find my way back to No. 7, but when I headed out to go to the bathroom had some trouble remembering where the hell it was. Also, when the hall light was turned off - the switches being at the far end of the hall from the room - I was cast into complete and utter darkness. I felt my way along the wall until I arrived at my door. It was all quite exciting and I thought how fortunate it was that I'm not afraid of the dark.
See how good we are?

Anyway, I slept soundly in my big, comfy, flowery duvet-covered bed. In the morning, after coffee and granola, Frankie asked me if I'd like to take a drive into Hay-on-Wye, about half an hour away. It's exhilarating driving through the countryside in Wales. When I first visited this part of the world, back in 1986, I was struck by its incredible natural beauty. We drove through softly rolling hills, over the venerable River Wye, and past lush green fields with sheep grazing everywhere. There were hundreds of new lambs sticking very close to their mothers. The gorse hedgerows are ancient and are all the fencing that is necessary for keeping in the sheep. Still, the farmers let them out to graze on the grassy verge of the road, which is a bit scary. Frankie said they're seldom ever hit.

Ponies with attitude.

We arrived in Hay-on-Wye, and although it was a cloudy day, I could see why this is such a favourite tourist spot. This is where the world famous book festival is held every year. Frankie invited me to come back and stay for a week during the big event, which runs from May 26 - June 2. I just may take her up on that. My last two essays are due on May 13th, so what a wonderful way to celebrate. When we drove into the parking lot at the edge of town and Frankie went off to find the pay parking kiosk, I amused myself meeting some dogs with their owners and two spunky horses who were interested in the dogs - a great photo op.

The town is full of second-hand bookshops and antique stores, all of which I think we managed to visit. We stopped for a quick lunch of humous, olives and toast and then hit the shops again, spending a total of seven hours in this little jewel of a town. Here's the website for the town and festival: http://www.hayfestival.com/portal/index.aspx?skinid=1&localesetting=en-GB

In the evening, we went to dinner in the bistro at the hotel where Frankie has worked as a manager for twenty-odd years. Her two sons, Nicholas, aged twenty-five, who was visiting from Cardiff, and Ryan, aged thirty, who has his own flat in Barcourt, joined Frankie, Tony, and me for a sumptuous meal of Welsh beef burgers and chips or Welsh steak and chips. Her third son, Jason (twin to Ryan), was in London so I didn't get to see him this time.

Frankie standing under a leek.
In the morning, Frankie drove me and Nicholas back to the station in Hereford, Nicholas heading to London for a job interview and me to Norwich. When we got there, we found out there was a trade union work action and there would be no trains leaving Hereford that day. After a brief panic about what to do, we found out that in fact there was a train that day, but not until 1:30 pm. So off we went to see a few sights and have a quick sandwich and a coke at Marks and Spencer.

I didn't get back to Norwich until 9:30 pm, and arrived at the flat to find Nancy and her friend Robert enjoying a cup of tea so I joined them. Nancy came back from Morocco the day after I left for Wales. She needs to have some urgent dental work done and felt they'd do a better job here in the UK. So now I have a flat mate again. I related my journey to them and they told me about their day trip to Cromer on the coast and that they'd had a feast of fish and chips which were the best they've ever had. I must plan a trip to Cromer.

Self-portrait showing off new haircut.
Yesterday I went to get my unruly hair cut and was very pleased with the result. My pregnant haircutter was away sick, so the manager took me on. He's been cutting hair for over 22 years and it was obvious. I felt the need to take self-portrait.

Now back to the books. At the moment I'm reading "Memoir" by John McGahern - a touching, lyrical story of a young man growing up in Ireland in the 30s and 40s with a brutish father and a loving, gentle mother. The Irish certainly know how to tell a story. The course work is so much easier now that we've arrived at the 21st century autobiographies, which are infinitely more entertaining than the early Victorians.