Saturday 28 May 2011

Busting Out

Busy evening in Cathedral Close.
Except for a refreshing break for tea with Thea at Costa's yesterday, I've been feeling slightly too cocooned in the flat and buried in the work, so last night I downloaded a fluffy escapist movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer called "I Could Never Be Your Woman," which was just the ticket. I microwaved a package of frozen McCain fries for my dinner, made respectable by pairing those soggy little chips with a glass of decent red wine from France (picked from the half-price bin at Morrisons for £4.49), and settled down in front of my laptop, the only choice for watching movies at the flat.

One of the gorgeous houses in the Close.
This morning, still feeling a need to nurture and be kind to myself, I made blueberry pancakes - berries from Spain, free range eggs from a local Norwich farm and the last of the Quebec maple syrup Sal brought over as a gift from Vancouver. I turned on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits in iTunes and felt transported (just a click away from the Word document I should be working on), getting up and dancing to the songs that compelled me to, like "Hurricane." This afternoon I hiked into town to see the final performance of the musical "Footloose" at the Theatre Royal. What a show - amazing singing and dancing! The whole audience, young and old, were standing and clapping their hands at the end as the cast gave us one last rollicking number. It seemed odd dancing by myself, but everyone else was into it, so I went along. Whoever said the English were a reserved lot? They were dancing their booties off and talking to strangers next to them.

After all that, I should now be able to dive seriously into the writing again, a process that has me poking into dusty corners I haven't visited for a long time, and likely the cause of the nervous energy and avoidance factor.

Sign of summer: Boats mooring along the River Wensum.
Given it was an afternoon matinee, I left the theatre at 6:30 pm and headed through the cathedral grounds to the River Walk, which was the right choice. The lowering sun cast a golden light over the stone houses along the Close and the wind stirred the leaves in the massive willows that line the path. It was a perfect day and a perfect evening. Tomorrow I'll get serious about writing.

Crossing the bridge at Prince of Wales Road.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Rain Rapping on the Skylights

The weather has cooperated in the opposite way for me today. I had decided to stay inside and just keep writing all day with no plans to go out into the world. Outside the wind is howling and rain is rapping on the skylight. It's been sunny but incredibly windy here in the east of England for the past few days. In fact, high winds were responsible for a death in Scotland and there were reports of minor damage throughout the area.

Only in England do you see signs like this.
Last Sunday I'd decided to take a nice long bike ride, stuffing my backpack with a bottle of water, a book to write in and a book to read, a pen, and a bag of nuts - just in case. I cycled towards Thorpe Road and headed in the direction of Cory's Meadow, the supremely sylvan pastureland I discovered quite by accident a couple of weeks ago and which I wrote about in this blog, but somehow lost the whole post. I'm still mad as hops about it, but there doesn't seem to be a thing I can do. No one at Google answers any of my help questions. At least I still have the photos of that outing and I'm going to include them here even though I didn't go back to the same places this time. Instead, I cycled up the road in the direction of Cromer, briefly entertaining the ambitious idea of cycling all the way to that seaside town and "making a day of it" as the British say. I hadn't gone more than two miles though, all the while battling the wind in my face, when I decided to give up. At one point I was nearly de-biked by a strong gust that sideswiped me. Drivers too seemed to be taking great delight in seeing how close they could come without actually hitting me. After trying to tissue grit out of my eyes, which were irritated anyway from my hair whipping into them, I turned around and headed back home. I learned later that the winds had gusted to 50 miles per hour. Silly me going out in that. I took a camera video of the trees swaying, but no one was able to view the last video of the sailboat going into the water, so I won't bother including the footage here.

The sunny day scene weeks earlier.
I can see you, but you can't see me.
As I got back to the park where the swans were serenely floating and seemingly oblivious to the wind, I noticed again a welcoming cafe that I'd passed before, locked up my bike, and went in.  There was an interesting array of people either eating or just enjoying a coffee, so I ordered a clubhouse sandwich and a glass of water and picked a table by the window. A woman in her seventies sat at the next one over, wearing a wildly patterned sundress that just managed to hold in her ample figure. She had short-cropped, died-black hair and it was like she hadn't been able to decide what to have because she was eating an ice-cream cone, while in front of her sat a cup of coffee and a glass of red wine. A older gentleman at the next table on the other side of me was having a quiet conversation with himself as he enjoyed his coffee, so I took out the book Sally had highly recommended - Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, which is hilarious and just the right thing to be reading while I'm here in the UK. His descriptions of Brits are dead-on and, like David Sedaris, he is a hugely funny and self-denigrating writer. Bryson manages to capture the accent of the small town English and write it down, which is not easy - I've tried. I do like recording snippets of conversation though. One day as I was waiting to cross the street by the post office, a van came careening around the corner with two young women going somewhere fast, music blaring. One (the driver) was on her mobile, talking to someone, and I just caught, "Right...we'll see you soon then. What's that? Of course you can rip my knickers off later if you want to."
I've heard of "Ladies and Escorts"...

Tuesday 17 May 2011

The Joy of Riding on Trains

I absolutely love traveling by train. There's something soothing about the gentle rocking rhythm as the train transports you away, physically and mentally. On Saturday morning I walked to the Norwich Rail Station and got on a train to Stratford, then off the train and onto a bus for a short hop to Stratford International where I then boarded the fast train to Faversham in Kent. Instead of the gentle rhythmic rocking, I felt like we were leaving the runway on a 747 - incredibly exhilarating.

The painted eye.
A bouquet for Seithr.
Readying the sails.
Waiting for the tide.
I'd been invited to the launching of Nancy's friend Robert's sailboat Seithr (it means a kind of magic practiced by Norse shamans). Nancy wasn't able to share in the excitement unfortunately, being already back in Morocco. When I arrived at Faversham, Robert was there to meet me at the station and took me back to the boatyard where his daughter Winn, an artist, was just finishing painting the eyes on the boat so "she could see where she was going." Her dog Arthur, an eight-year-old whippet, very enthusiastically ran to greet me and jumped up, oblivious to the fact that I had worn my white sailing pants just for the occasion. We spent a bit more time putting all the pieces of Seithr together before attaching the trailer to the car and heading for Broadstairs, about an hour's drive away, where she was to be launched. The boat is a 17' ketch with mainsail, mizzen sail and a jib, which all needed to be rolled up and put into their respective canvas sacks and tucked inside the boat. The detachable rudder is normally put in the boat too, but it was too complicated to fit it in so it was packed in the car, a VW Golf. After all of us and Arthur got in, there wasn't much room for anything else. The drive to Broadstairs towing this boat was quite an adventure. At one point, Winn said quietly from the backseat, "Dad, you missed that bus by one inch, not even one inch." Robert seemed oblivious to the fact that he was pulling a 17' boat and trailer and whipped along the narrow roads like he was on a motorcycle. We got there though without incident.

Lots of helpers.

Pretty sea monsters ready to escort us out.
When we arrived at the beach, we backed the trailer down onto the golden sand and took the sails out of their bags, mounted the mast and put all the lines in order. Then Robert's friends started appearing on the beach, most of them having arrived by car or train from London. It was a diverse group who showed up, ages ranging from 20 to 70, all sorts of Nationalities and talents - artists, singers, musicians. They all offered their support and we got the boat pushed and pulled down to the incoming tide.  When she was ready, Winn read a lovely speech and sprayed champagne all over the bow. Then the winch was released and Siethr was eased into the water as four of us jumped onboard. Rockets were launched into the sky (even though it was daytime), air horns were blown and a trumpeter blared out a tune. Needless to say, quite a crowd of onlookers had gathered to take part in the celebration. Robert had even thought to have a bouquet made for the bow, which we threw over as we got under sail - a ritual performed to release the boat from her land ties. Two women friends wearing wetsuits and sea monster costumes, guided us out. It was a fabulous send off and everything went off without a hitch. We went out and picked up a few good breezes, just enough to know the boat could perform, and headed back in.

Having completed her truncated maiden voyage, we put her all back together again, like a puzzle, and headed up the hill to the Broadstairs Sailing Club, a tiny venue with stunning views across the water we'd just sailed in from. Robert's Moldavian friends had prepared a feast of poached salmon, salads, olives and cheese, granary breads, and desserts. We ordered whatever we liked from the bar, and I chose of course a glass of sauvignon blanc. When everyone had eaten and chatted while the music played, it was time to dance, which we did until 1:00 am. I was dropped at my prebooked B&B as everyone else went back to Robert's at Faversham. When I called the next morning to thank Robert for a wonderful party, he said that when they got back to his place, they'd continued partying until 4:30 am. Thank god I had a B&B! The Merriland is a place I would highly recommend. Spotlessly clean and comfortable and only £45 per night, which includes breakfast.

Unfortunately, I couldn't sleep in because breakfast was served between 8:30 and 9:00 am. The young woman who owns The Merriland is from Manchester - a real sweetheart. She told me about a path that went along the beach from Broadstairs to Ramsgate, about an hour's walk one way. I decided to book in for another night to take advantage of this charming town, and headed off in the direction she'd pointed me.

Bleak House
Broadstairs was Charles Dicken's favourite seaside town and he spent many years there. In fact, Bleak House rises up above the beach like a fortress. But when I went to the Dicken's Museum later in the afternoon, I was told my the curator that in fact the Bleak House in Broadstairs was built 50 years after Dickens died. He wrote the book, Bleak House, in Herfordshire. That was hard news to hear because I'd felt quite moved when I first saw this forbidding structure looming above all the other buildings. It was, however, the original Dickens Museum for many years, before the house was sold to a private buyer.

Wild flowers growing along the cliff.
Looking back towards Broadstairs.
Walking along the headlands towards Ramsgate.
I started walking south along the path at the top of the chalk cliffs where you get the most commanding views, passing lots of people walking their dogs on this sunny Sunday morning. It took exactly an hour to get to Ramsgate and I decided not to pause long as it seemed like too much of a holiday atmosphere with children's bouncy castles and shops selling cotton candy and sea toys on the beach. I turned around and headed back to Broadstairs, stopping to have a coke at a little kiosk on the path.

When I got back to Broadstairs, I walked along the boardwalk and looked in shop windows, visited the Dickens Museum, and kept my eye out for somewhere to have dinner. There was a great looking Italian place on the water and I decided I'd come back to that after I'd freshened up at the B&B. I walked past houses with typical English gardens bursting with roses in bloom and saw an amazing flowering blue tree. I sent my friend David, who knows these things, a photo and asked him to identify it. He said it's a Ceonothus arboreus (pronounced "see a noth us") and is the finest specimen he's ever seen. It must be the southern exposure that provides such a perfect environment for so many flowering plants and trees.

It was about 4:00 pm by the time I got back to my room and made the mistake of lying down on the bed, promptly falling asleep for over an hour. By this time I was really hungry, so walked back down into town, only five minutes away, and took a table in the Italian place I'd seen earlier. It was quite full with a cheerful crowd and I ordered my food and a glass of wine, and read my book. The clam vongole, with fresh clams in a white white sauce cooked with garlic and tomatoes was delicious. I couldn't wait to get back to my room though, and had a hot bath before climbing into bed - it was only 9:00 pm.

Again I had to get up early to take advantage of the full English breakfast - coffee, eggs, bacon, sausage, broiled tomatoes and mushrooms with toast and marmalade. How can you resist when it's all included? And besides, in total I'd walked four hours the days before. After chowing all that down, I got my bag packed up and wheeled it down the road to the railway station for the return trip to Norwich. I was so happy I'd made the effort to get down here and enjoy celebrating not only the launching of a lovely sailboat, but submitting my last essay of the program the day before. Now on to writing the final dissertation, which I estimate will take me until July.


What Happened to My Post?

I had put together a much more interesting post than the May 10th one, but it seems to have disappeared. Too bad - it took me quite some time to write it. I was mentioning a walk I'd taken and discovered a beautiful meadow. I'd also added some nice photos. It's obviously a mistake with "" because to delete a post you need to go through quite a rigmarole - or at least you're asked twice whether you're sure you want to delete it. So that was a complete waste of time and now I'm going to be writing about my weekend, which was great fun. I'll hopefully post it by tomorrow.

Meeting Up Again

Yesterday I met with my classmates and professors from last semester to talk about our dissertations. It was great seeing everyone again - for some of us it's been since Christmas. Instead of sitting in a seminar room looking out at grey winter days, we were basking in a room full of sunlight. I can't tell you how exciting it is to be at this stage of my year in Norwich. I'll hand in my last essay on Friday and then start the dissertation soon after. I feel almost more intimidated about the program ending than I did about it starting. What on earth do I do for an encore?

Today I cycled into town to have my hair cut at Toni and Guys. On my way to the salon I cycled past little streets with names like "Upper Goat Lane," and "Lower Goat Lane" and "Lobster Lane," then on to "The Garage," the dance studio where I'm taking dance classes for "over 50s." It's not exactly a challenging cardio workout, but the gentle modern dance exercises give me a chance to stretch to music. Most of the women in the class are older than me. Oh well, at least it forces me to go for a bike ride and, for a change, I don't feel like the oldest one in the dance class.

The city was beginning to get rowdy when I left the dance studio and made my way down through the market. Norwich Football Club won the game on Saturday against Coventry - I could tell by the loud cheering and singing that drifted over from the stadium (and the inevitable police sirens afterwards). Now Norwich has advanced to the Premier League and will be playing against such greats as Manchester United - Rod Stewart's team. I can't imagine the present stadium having the capacity to hold the kind of crowds who would pour in, but who knows. I'll probably be gone by then. Anyway, there was an unusually large number of unusual people in town today - maybe because of the Norwich team festivities that'll be in full swing by now.

When I was facing the mirror while getting my haircut, I noticed a pouchiness below my eyes that I've never seen before. It worried me. Nevertheless, feeling chuffed about my new haircut, I left the shop and was nearly run over by woman in a motorized wheelchair. She was in her forties and had no legs and only flippers for arms - a thalidomide 60s child. I berated myself for fretting about something as paltry as baggy eyes.

Speaking of team sports, I'm getting very excited about the Canucks and their chances for the Stanley Cup this year. I've been following them through the Vancouver Sun online. What is it about team sports that can bring out the community in us? I think about the energy that permeated the streets of Vancouver during the Winter Olympics and caused even the dourest of city dwellers to smile and enjoy the patriotism. As long as people don't use sports to take out their aggressions like, sadly, certain groups in Glasgow apparently, then it's a good way for us to feel the joy of a shared goal (excuse the pun) - to win. This is hardly intellectual reflection, I know, but I think I'm in need of a break. Back to the essay first though.


Thursday 5 May 2011


"We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us; to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter." - Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet.

Today marks seven years since Geoff left us, drawn towards that shimmering portal he saw in the night sky. The ache and grief from his leaving have softened, but the gap he left, taking his physical self away from us, will never close. We hold his place.

Time is a strange concept. It is seven years today, but it was six years and 364 days yesterday. I think of him every day, several times a day, so what does an anniversary mean? It marks it, I suppose, in time. I usually don’t like anniversaries of any kind, except for birthdays. I especially abhor Mother’s Day. Why can’t everyone be nice to their mothers every day instead of hauling out the cut flowers and chocolates and Hallmark cards on “Mother’s Day”? Wedding anniversaries – are people celebrating because they’ve made it through another year? Why not just try to put your best self forward to each other every day of the year? There would be less to make up for on the anniversary. I’m being a bit cynical. Sometimes it makes sense to celebrate on a given day in the year. Mickey and I, being born ten years less three weeks apart (me first), take huge pleasure in celebrating our decade birthdays, doing something extra special like splurging and staying in a nice B&B somewhere beautiful. We have a solid sister bond and have never crossed each other. Maybe that’s why we only feel a need to celebrate our birthdays together once every ten years.

Six thousand miles away in Norwich, forget-me-nots blooming.

There is something in the air when an anniversary comes around, something to remind us of the past. For Geoff’s anniversary, it’s the spring forget-me-nots. Just over seven years ago, feeling heartsick, I was walking down the railway tracks near our home with my dog Tess when I spotted a bunch of wild forget-me-nots growing against an old wooden fence. I found huge comfort in that. Now at this time of year, the forget-me-nots are out in full bloom again. And I remember that sometimes, when life hardly seems worth living, you can always find something that will shift your perspective. You just have to remember to keep your heart open to it. Like Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”