Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Visiting the Canterbury Tales

Canterbury is famous for two reasons: One, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, was cane-slaughtered in front of the Canterbury Cathredal. Two, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the gaudy, boozy stories of pilgrims venturing to Canterbury.

I've already been on Canterbury's "ghost tour" where a man in a black cape and top hat showed us where Becket was murdered. I visited the Canterbury Cathredal. I figured all that was left on my must-see list was the Canterbury Tales.

Luckily, there is a Canterbury Tales exhibit where you can tour musty-smelling rooms and hear/see each pilgrim's story. One lackadaisical Sunday my roommates and I decided to do it, excited to see our 9th grade reading assignment unfold.

The exhibit is in an old medieval church, where, according to our ghost tour, they used to throw naughty (or Catholic) nuns off the top of the building. With that in mind, we headed inside to the brown-paneled room. 

                  Zoe posing with the priest                 

Me imitating the Wife of Bath

You take an audio guide and are hustled into the first dark room, where the dungeon doors to the lobby shut menacingly behind you. I think they sprinkled horse manure about the area to give it that "medieval-chic" smell, because it stunk. Molded casts of double-chinned priests, beggars with beard stubble and empty flasks and bacteria-laden porridge bowls littered the room, only seen by firelight. 

                 The first room on your pilgrimage                     

Drunken buffoon

We wandered room by room, with our audio guides pressed against our cheeks, wondering why we paid 3.50 for manure and dirty casts of horses. 

We saw the Wife of Bath riding in a glossy forest, which reminded me of  being in the Rainforest Cafe, saw murals of Chauntecleer, a naked bum hanging out the window and getting branded, fake rats, dirty streets and smelled that lovely manure. Thank goodness I'm not a pilgrim.

Typical medieval street

The trip was a great refresher of Chaucer's tales, but I was ready to get my hand sanitizer and fresh air as soon as I left those dungeon doors. 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Learning the English Lingo

My mom never let us say "pop" when we were little. It was always "soda" or "coke." I suppose it was an effort to retain our Maryland roots in the midst of nasal-y Midwesterners saying "paaaap." Nonetheless, "soda" has stuck.

That was the only small regional language difference I learned. Other U.S. lingo can be easily picked up: east coasters sometimes say "wicked," or "shady, " and, according to my Californian roommate, "stoked," and "hella" are popular Cali terms. I may not live there, but I can figure out what these mean.

In Britain, it's a whole different ballpark. Phrases and common courtesies are completely lost on me. Here's my William Safire list of British say-isms that still boggle me.

1. "You all right?" or "You ok?" I jumped when the cashier at Parkwood Essentials asked this as he scanned my two gallons of Strongbow. "Ah, yeah, I'm fine?" I nervously glanced down to see if my pinky was bleeding or a pad was stuck to my shoe. Nope. Later my English friend Sam asked me this on the phone. I mumbled "Oh, yeah, uh, fine...how-are-you?" Just how do you answer "You all right?" I usually blush and quiver, worried that my face reads "My life is not ok right now. Please ask immediately." Apparently, it's the American equivalent of saying, "Whatsup," or "How are you." So now I answer, "I am all right. Are you all right?"

2. "Cheers." I love this one. My roommate and I have taken to saying it after any remark, like, "I have to go to the bathroom. Cheers." I still don't know how to correctly use it, for English people say it constantly. After you put your food in your own grocery bags at Tesco (ridiculous), or a server takes your plate away or you thank someone for directions, you hear "Cheers!"  I think it's like, "cya," "have a nice day," and "your welcome" combined. But I could be off the mark. In any event, it's great to say when clinking glasses or talking about how your cat just died.

3. "Manpoints."  Our English guy friends told us about this one. They said it's the universal guy code of giving points for doing "manly" things. I said, "Like hunting?" They said "Noo!" . Their example is if you run through a club naked and smack a girl's bum, you get one Manpoint. Or if you sleep with a girl and then do a backflip into the pool naked and the girl steals your knickers, maybe five (That's considered a lot). 

They constantly debate how many points to delegate. Not to be left out, my roommates and I have created "Geez points" (English people sometimes answer the phone, "Whatup Geezer!" and so developed Geez). I have 3/4 of a point for trying to do a dice move dance-off in a club, as does a friend who asked random boys in a bar to be our tour guides for the night (they declined). I don't know if we'll graduate to the "run through a club naked" points yet. Maybe we'll just settle for hunting.

4. "Wankers." This is a bad word, and not to be thrown around lightly. I didn't know that. My roommates and I were eating at a Japanese restaurant called Wagamama's, asking our waiter what Wagamama's meant. I playfully said, "Wanker?" He got quiet for a second and then said, "Woah! I wouldn't say that! Don't hear that from a girl." Yeah, maybe just don't say it. Just think of the word, and corresponding motion. Got it?

5. "Toilets" and "Pushchair." The British are so practical with their vocab. Where are you going? To the toilets (although I don't like to say this. I feel like it gives a vivid picture of what you're about to do. I stick with "restroom" or "loo"). What is a stroller exactly? Well, it's a chair you can push. Pushchair. Bam. It just makes sense. 

6. "Well, hello sailor!" I was walking through Whitstable yesterday, a quintessential English seaport town with pebbles on the beach, fish and chips shops at every turn and pubs galore, when a man stopped me. He said, "You've got something on the back of your leg." This felt like someone was saying "You all right?" again. I turned frantically, and then he said, "Well hello sailor!" I laughed and walked on. Still don't get it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Snow Day in Canterbury

This winter, Milwaukee has received 100 inches of snow. They've had no snow days. 

Last Monday, Canterbury received one inch of snow. Snow day. 

Either the English freak about the slippery driving conditions of one inch or they're so infatuated by snowfall they can't possibly do anything but stare. Whatever it was, students went wild. 

Hundreds of kids in our apartment community gathered on their front lawns making snow men, raced through the streets heaving snow balls at strangers or pushed boulders of packed snow to the front door of the convenience store and left it there.

My roommate and I headed out to the football fields where dozens of students were snowball fighting or building snowmen. We decided to build an igloo. Like the kind from Pippy Longstocking, except we didn't make chocolate cake and swing in circles singing Christmas carols with monkeys on our shoulders.

It was perfect packing snow, and we were able to build the igloo about five feet high. About eight first-year British boys and one short bossy girlfriend came over and asked to help. They got into the spirit of igloo building, discussing the dynamics of where to fit snow, what kind of snow to use, and how to properly construct a roof (one did it with no gloves but claimed he didn't need any because he was "from the mountains").

Zoe scrupulously building the igloo

The girlfriend stood around saying, "Boys, you've got to use soft snow because it's more malleable. "

One replied, "Stop using posh words. None of us know what malleable means."

She told us the boy's concentrated snow building efforts just goes to show how all boys are 12-year-olds at heart. True, but I think snow days bring out everyone's 12-year-old. I fanatically ran down the street yelling to my other roommates, "We're building an igloo with British kids and it's really big! Come!"

Our helpers also said it rarely snows in Canterbury, and we were lucky. Oh yeah, I really miss the 84.4 inches of snow in Milwaukee. 

After an hour the boys gave up, and so did we. The best part of building something is destroying it, which we did, gleefully, in a crash into the igloo and fall awkwardly with your crack hanging out way. But it was a nice igloo, Pippi would have appreciated it. 

We walked home through the snow, grabbed some Ben & Jerry's Caramel Chew Chew Ice Cream (or just I did), and snuggled into our Swedish roommate's double bed while he was gone to watch some Arrested Development on a small Mac computer. A great Canterbury one-inch snow day.

Final unfinished product

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

London Calling

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Villette, the main character, Lucy Snowe, arrives in London for the first time alone. 

She says, "Descending, I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstacy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got-I know not how-I got into the heart of city life. At the West-end you may be amused, but in the city you are deeply excited."

Deeply excited was the way I felt when I discovered London for the first time. Watching haughty guards with black poms poms perched on their heads carry the British flag across Buckingham Palace, seeing the Rosetta Stone, posing with the doorman at Harrod's-everywhere I looked there was something new, historic, dazzling-and expensive. 

        The Rosetta Stone                            
Within our first step we discovered London's high cost of living.

My roommate and I walked into Victoria Station with our hefty backpacks and the flushed faces of tourists. We were ready to conquer London. But first to find a bathroom. I found a "loo," only to discover you had to pay 20 p. to enter the bathroom. 20 p. to pee! Ridiculous. That was the first eye-opener that England really is the most expensive city in the world. 

We took a 10 pound cab-ride to our hostel in Bayswater, London. The hostel had white columns, was next to luxury condos, bordered Hyde Park and was near a pub called Whiskey's. Jackpot. It had to be good.

We entered the hostel to the blast of crooning emo-music, a mildewy/b.o. smell and a disinterested girl at the front desk with a lip ring and boyish red hair cut. Hostel life here we come. We learned we had to pay 39 pounds each for two nights, 5 pounds for a lock, 10 pounds for a security deposit and then 5 pounds if you want to rent a towel. Note to self: bring a towel and lock next time.

We walked into our room where a red, jungle gym array of bunk beds were smashed together. After fumbling with the lock for our bags for 25 minutes, we rushed out of the hostel for the non-B.O. smell of the city.

Like Lucy Snowe, we got into the heart of city life. We visited the British Museum (which was free, thank goodness), and strangely enough contains the main artifacts of the world: the Rosetta Stone, Cleopatra's mummy, a piece of the Great Sphinx's beard. As I walked through its great dome and arching pillars, I thought how the museum really showcases how imperialistic Britain once was. 

Cleopatra's mummy

To add to our cultural experience we bought tickets five minutes before to "Jersey Boys," a musical about Franki Valli, the high-pitched, greasy-haired, Jersey boy of the 1950's. The show was as American as you can get.
Jamie and I in front of "Jersey Boys" at the Prince Edward Theatre.

We sat 8th row, in jeans, next to fur-clad old women. At intermission, we split a three-pound Haagen Das the size of a Chef Borardi container. We were living the good life. After the show we ate at an American diner called "Ed's," similar to Johnny Rockets. Very American. They had hamburgers and shakes (yes!) along with a grand selection of beer and wine. 

We walked through part of crowded Tottenham Court Road. We were in a little cobblestone street but it felt like Time's Square. Horns tooted, men on bicycle cabs yammered, people spilled out of pubs, there was life everywhere.

We spent the next day perusing Hyde Park. We saw an Indian family getting attacked by swans and pigeons, little children playing soccer games outside Kensington Palace, and dogs frolicking leash-less through the park. I wanted to live there.

Family getting attacked by birds in Hyde Park
Throughout the afternoon, we watched the changing of the guards, took pictures of Big Ben and the London Eye, wandered into the National Portrait Gallery and about Trafalgar Square. I remember standing in Trafalgar Square and turning in a small circle. At every step I could snap a picture of something beautiful-the grand facade of the South African embassy, the two fountains, the Gaza protests and armed police. And in the foreground, in front of the National 


Portrait Gallery, behind the man singing jazz into a microphone, and behind the straggly-haired hippy chalking "All You Need Is Love," on the ground, was Big Ben. I felt happy, amazed, like Lucy would when she saw this. 

Our last stop was Harrod's. I can't comprehend the sheer opulence of the place-it puts Marshall Field's to shame. Harrod's has everything: a bank, an optometrist, a pet parlor, boards of Clue, a room dedicated to meat...One wonders why you would ever need to leave. We walked into Harrod's "Ludree," their tea room where you can have a 21-pound tea underneath shelves of pretty little pink and green boxes.  We settled on 1-pound Krispy Kremes.

The doorman at Harrod's and I

After two days in London, I was ready to return to my simple room, eat a free dinner, and pee in a free bathroom. But I can't wait to go back and see more.