Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Duke of Wellington, the Prince of Wales, and Me

I can't understand why so many people want to live in England. For starters, it's always raining. On top of the foul weather, England is expensive and the NHS isn't exactly all it is cracked up to be. Last time I went to the hospital the "doctor" treating me had to look everything up in a book. I went in with an ear ache and left with an eye infection.

But apparently people come here because the benefits are good. I wouldn't know. I don't benefit from the govmint. I pay them. And what do I get in return? Nasty bus drivers, too many indistinguishable roundabouts and badly named roads and highways. As far as I can tell every single road in England is called the ABC123.

Nevertheless, we still love England. We love windy country lanes, tea and scones, the English gentleman of course, and his handsome kit. Who doesn't find a clever well dressed fella attractive? Let us not forget their sense of humor. The English are quite funny when they are not quite serious and quite distant.

They are smart too these Englishmen, I tell ya. Not only in dress but in intellect. Though I wonder sometimes how so many smart guys who debate things so eloquently as they do in the Houses of Parliament manage to muck things up so royally. They do things that just don't make any sense. I mentioned the naming of roads, didn't I?

And now, well, apparently they have a housing crisis. Which of course needs fixing. By way of solving the problem and creating more housing despite the admission many houses lie empty, the govmint is attempting to increase the number of available homes.

For example, they are ordering the county of Hart where I live to build five thousand new homes. Effectively, this means destroying the countryside to put up thousands upon thousands of indistinguishable semi-detached brick buildings where there would otherwise be an unspoiled wood, park, or farmland.

I recently went to my local council meeting with my father-in-law because some ghastly developers are attempting to put these 5000 new homes two miles down the road from us. This would probably also involve a new school, a new road, a new shopping center and god knows what else in place of a wilderness that is already surrounded by charmless developments.

The meeting was interesting, albeit a bit civilized. Most people including all of the councilmen were against it, but as the orders come from London there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do about it unless another area of land in the county can host the new settlement. The government is unlikely to overturn the mandate.

One of the councilmen suggested the Duke of Wellington had a much more suitable piece of land for the project because it was well connected to Reading and a few of the ABC123s. I went up there yesterday near the Duke's estate and all I could see were horrible developments. But wouldn't it be nice if the Duke could fork over some land, make a nice buck in the process and save Winchfield from the third estate?

And then, in an infuriating announcement on the eve of his 66th birthday the outspoken but powerless Prince of Wales says the English are out of touch with the land. He believes the countryside is not valued highly enough.

I am inclined to agree with him.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Separated by a Common Language

Last week my father in law and I were discussing how best to address someone in an email. We both agreed on dear. "I prefer yo to hi",  I told him. "Even though it's ghetto, I find it funny." He asked me if it was a Yiddish term. My side still hurts from laughing. But despite the language barrier at least we agreed on the use and the pronunciation.

I told the lady behind the counter at the farm shop cafe I wanted a bottle of sparkling water. She said "Wot?" three times before I was forced to clarify my request in an emphatic voice, "a bottel of spaaarkling wohta," using an exagerated English pronunciation rather than a phonetic one. She didn't ask again after that. Only a few minutes later the lady at the flower stand said she couldn't make out my accent and was I American. "I went to school there," I said. But really all I wanted to do was tell her that everyone speaks English nowadays and that considering their country's immigration policies perhaps she and the lady at the cafe should think about enrolling in a hospitality course at the local college.

That the English have anything to say about a mid-Atlantic accent like mine is laughable considering all the ridiculous pronunciations associated with their English, not to mention the incomprehensible Northern accent. For starters they don't say water, they says wohta. They prefer restauran to restaurant and speciality to specialty. I'll give them schedule but that will not make up for Worcester pronouced Wooster or Cholmondely pronounced Chumley.

The most annoying of all is their love of cheers. They're always cheering each other on even when they're not drinking, which is practically never. Cheers here cheers there cheers everywhere.

Well, no cheers for their provincial approach to English. I like my garage just fine, I don't need a garaj. Nor do I need their pudding. I like dessert. I don't mind their supper though I eat dinner. I prefer trucks to lorries and hoods to bonnets. I would rather have a beer than a lager, even though they're the same thing. Of course loo is way better than toilet, but then a lot of people go to the toilet around here. I head for the john whenever I'm not near my bathroom.

Don't even get me onto the cockney rhyming slang. Apparently it was invented by the poor folks to fool the rich folks and somehow Barney Rubble means trouble.

Sometimes I get so confused by l'anglais I need a kip, that means nap. Other times I just get confused and want to throw my toys out of the pram, which means having a temper tantrum.

Believe it or not, the other day I had to explain to one of my writers that no one was going to understand him if he used the word fanny when referring to a man who was not actually gay but preferred women. Apparently here, fanny is the same as a front bottom. Yeah, that's a real keeper. To hell with peepee.

Mr. Cooke and I are often at cross purposes because he is usually up for something when I'm down for it. But despite the confusion neither of us knows what it means when something is mutually exclusive.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Friends and Neighbors

Country life is exhausting. Houses and gardens require maintenance. Lots and lots of maintenance. As soon as one project finishes two more present themselves. Mixing in all these tasks with work and a social life is endless. All I want is to go to bed. Solo bed parties or bed parties accompanied by husband and dog are not nearly frequent enough. In fact, if I could be in bed forever I would be in heaven.

But my life is what happens between bed parties. Since I was last at the DVLA, the British equivalent of the DMV, it has been nonstop back and forth between town and county. Last weekend was spent at a wedding in Cowes. Why do the English call it the Isle of Wight instead of Wight Island? I suppose because they are English and they know better.

Cowes is an odd place. The main drag looks just like any English street, only it is a few feet from the sea and has more pubs and people walking around in sailing gear. Sailing people always wear sensible clothing. It really isn't very attractive. Neither is the main drag in Cowes where a number of delinquents hang around drinking beer out of cans and scratching their fury parts openly. I didn't feel very at home there but then I'm not into drunken sailors.

Thank god we were only there for a day before heading back to London for a Mardi Gras themed party at Loulou's. We listened to a fabulous New Orleans jazz quartet and a brass band with lots of people donning feathers and playing instruments one has never seen before. Even the boys in the kitchen came out to parade through the club banging on their pots and pans along with a feathered Indian and sequin-clad dancers. They really know how to do it at Loulou's. It's as good as home but without all the mess to worry about.

Before the party we had dinner with some friends. There is nothing nicer than having dinner with friends. I'm not sure I understand why people like to socialize and meet new people so much, though I suppose they are upwardly mobile and need to for business reasons. I really dislike going to parties full of people I don't know, especially rich people who want to make new pals. Yuk! But this night was different, we had dinner with old pals, got drunk and then spent the night at their flat. We woke up hungover and had a delicious brunch together before heading back to the country. This is what having a good time is all about. Meeting new people is for networking. The English understand this better than Americans. They are quite friendly with people they don't know but not so friendly to give the impression they actually want to be friends. In a way it's cold, which Americans are not, but it's also a bit more honest. I don't think anyone should be too friendly with someone they hardly know unless they want something from them, which is just a bit wily if not weird.

My idea of fun is to have the neighbors come over and get totally plastered. By neighbors I mean friend neighbors, neighbors we like, not just any neighbor. Unfortunately two weeks ago we had one such evening and our neighbor got busted, or done as the English would say, for drunk driving. It was an extremely unlucky thing considering he literally lives across the road. He is expected in court tomorrow. I hope he doesn't lose his license even though he had had about 6 gin and tonics. What is it about the English and gin and tonics? My mother always told me it was a nanny's drink. But here I come to find out it's just an English drink. She must have had an English nanny. Made well, with a bit of cucumber, a G&T is really quite good. I can knock back a couple easy.

We suspect the new neighbor down the road loves to call the police and that she was the cause of the drunk driving incident. There was no reason for the police to be on our quiet lane at 1:30 in the morning, even though it was a Saturday night. Apparently there had been a "disturbance" call. It was probably the old lady who heard the wind rustling the trees or something insignificant like that. She's old and anorexic and walks her anorexic Lurchers without smiling. Apparently her poor husband isn't well either. The story is they rented the cottage next door while they finish construction on their new house. People say she called the police to report another neighbor for fly tipping. Poor guy was just cleaning out his garage. Perhaps I will invite her over for a few gin and tonics, we really can't have the police hanging around these parts too often or they might bust me for drunk and disorderly in my own house. You know how the English are about health and safety...

Monday, September 15, 2014

English Law vs. Greek Law and My Lack of Enthusiasm for Swansea

The English love to follow rules. Being Greek, I find this counter intuitive. My instinct to cut the queue and find the fastest route to a particular goal or destination is strong. I am learning that in England there is a different queue for everything, and unless you are in the right one, you will be diverted so far off the original path it becomes hard to remember what the goal was in the first place.

Getting a driving license here, for example, is a total nightmare. For starters, it's expensive. You need to take lessons. You need to download the right study apps and buy the highway code. You need to learn how to drive all over again, the English way. This is not so easy considering I have had about 30 years to develop my own driving habits. Driving on the left isn't the hard part. Learning which lane to take through a roundabout, especially a roundabout on an unknown road, is the puzzle. Further to that, everything looks the same. Indistinguishable roads are connected by a series of indistinguishable roundabouts which lead to indistinguishable lanes on motorways with a confusing set of numbers and letters that all seem the same even though they are different.

As a result, I have been living in England for more than 5 years, but am only now just getting around to getting a license. Of course this is much to the chagrin of my father in law, who doesn't understand my genetic distaste for bureaucracy. He was quick to point out that driving as I have been on my American license is against the law. He also pointed out that I was uninsured to drive any of his cars and that I really must get an English license.

Unfortunately, he was right. Without an English license I can't do half the things I want to do, most importantly, getting from one place to another. An already difficult task considering I cannot understand which lane to follow.

And so I set out to get my license a few months ago. First I had to get a provisional license which requires sending a passport and some photographs to an agency in Swansea. Two weeks later, my passport and provisional license were returned by the Royal Mail. Then I had to take a lesson and study for the theory test. Apparently it is one of the hardest in the world. My driving instructor is my neighbor's dad. His name is Malcolm and he drives a Harley when he isn't in his driving school Vauxhall. I got a neighborly discount, which was well deserved considering what a lesson involves.

I like Malcolm, but he is a tough instructor. Barreling down country roads at 50 mph apparently isn't fast enough. The speed limit is 60 mph, which is way too fast if you ask me. Navigating the roundabouts with a fat Englishman making jokes and berating you with instructions while relearning how to drive stick the English way is frightening and made me want to eat 50 cookies to make me feel better. After an hour of instruction, I wasn't sure I would ever drive again. I still hear Malcolm in my ear correcting me when I shift after 2000 rpms and roll to a stop instead of reaching it in gear.

After the one lesson I decided I would study for the theory test instead. Not much easier, really, especially if you leave it until the day before the test, which I did. I studied furiously, read the code and did one practice test after another until I could pass them consistently which I managed to do the morning of the test. Mr. Cooke took a practice test and failed. Apparently the test he took 20 years ago was much easier and there was no theory, much less a hazard perception test which is now required and involves spotting hazards like in a video game.

Mr. Cooke drove me to the test, I thought it bad karma to drive myself illegally to the test centre (as we are in England I will spell center the English way). When I arrived a friendly lady asked me for my documents and if I had taken the test before. I was then offered locker number 7, which I thought was auspicious, where I had to leave my things including any tissues. My husband was told he had to leave. I was then asked to empty my pockets, though I had none, and push up my sleeves. I had to put my hair up and show the lady I had nothing hidden behind my ears or under my bracelet. Finally I was allowed into the test cubicle number 1, also a good sign.

I took a few deep breaths and started the test. I answered 50 multiple choice questions, four of which I was unsure about, and did 14 hazard perception clips, all while trying to calm my nerves. Three quarters of the way through the test I felt I might have passed. As I walked out of the test looking down on all those poor pockmarked English teens trying to pass their tests for the second and third time, I pushed my nose up in the air and brushed my hair off my face. To Swansea with them all I thought, I have an American license. I don't need any stupid English health and safety rules and regulations.

I got my jacket and bag out of the locker. As I returned the key I was slipped a folded sheet of paper. I read the first line, it said Congratulations!...I tried to contain my excitement, a la the English. The thought of having to tell my father in law I had failed, aged 38, was too much to bear. But now I didn't have to tell another lie. I hoped he would be pleased that I was only a few more weeks away from driving legally. Actually, my driving test is in two months so until then I shall relish my status as an illegal and hope I don't get caught in the wrong lane between now and November 7th at 9:07am, another auspicious date. Malcom says I will lose a lot if I do. I doubt him though, I will just tell the police I have only been living in the provinces for a month. Anytime I spent in London before becoming Mrs. Cooke doesn't count. At least not according to Greek law.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Biscuits and Basingstoke

I call them cookies, but the English prefer biscuits. My mother in law keeps giving me boxes of them. Ginger snaps yesterday, macaroons the day before.  Maybe she knows I like them. Maybe she is just trying to get rid of me by making me fat and disgusting. It could be a war of attrition. Stranger things have happened in the English countryside, I am sure.

Just yesterday my new husband took me to the cinema in Basingstoke. Basingstoke is the most boring town in England. It has a mall. After the movie we had dinner at Wagamama, a chain Asian family style restaurant where you have to sit with other people. The nice waitress who seated us was surprised when we asked to sit at the bar instead of one of the tables. You see, the bar faces a wall and only has four seats. She said she didn't seat us there because most people get pissed off when she does. We were thrilled not to have to sit with all those Saturday night diners. I suppose they go out to see people and socialize. A dreadful idea if ever there was one.

Everyone was either very fat or very thin, and most of them had bad skin. The waiters at Wagamama seem to have better skin and look more fit than your average pub waitress who is overweight and pockmarked. Mr. Cooke and I wondered why their skin is so disgusting. Is it genetic? Waiters in London look better than they do here in the provinces. They should really do something about their condition. No one wants to buy food from a red pusy face.

I buy my soy chai tea latte in the mornings from some young people at Costa coffee in Hartley Whintney, a charming village a few miles down the road. The barristas, or whatever they call them at places that are not Starbucks, have good skin and are good looking. While I wait for my order, which they usually get wrong though I don't mind because I live in the country now and I am always in a good mood, I check out the local talent. During the week I see men in bad suits looking businesslike, though they aren't fooling anyone out here who has ever been to London. They probably work at the local estate agency. I see groups of mothers all having coffee together. Thank god I don't have any children yet or I might have to pretend I have something to say to them. They probably take yoga classes together from some crazy hippie who has never even heard of Bikram Choudhury. They plan. They organize. They all look miserable. On the weekends you might see an aging hipster who looks vaguely attractive and wears green knee socks.

The thing about living out here, a short hour from London where you can get and have everything except a smile, is that the people are nice. Most of them, anyway. I went to the hardware store to buy some caulk for Mr. Cooke and some picture hooks for me, and they didn't know what to do with a woman, much less an American sounding woman. The man behind the counter served the builder who had come in after me first, and had trouble getting a word out. Apparently my mother in law has had the same problem for the past 30 years. Maybe I will give her cookies to the men behind the counter and see if that will warm them up a bit...