My week with Julia was rapidly drawing to a close - just a few short days left and I'd be heading back to my home planet. Julia had some work to attend to Saturday morning, so entertaining the crazy American fell to Charles for a bit. Charles wasn't the least bit daunted by the prospect, instead proposing we motor about the countryside in his wonderful old open air '74 Land Rover. I eagerly donned my scarf and gloves to fashion a protective barrier against the cold March air as Charles fastened the ecstatic dogs securely in the back cargo area.
We pulled away from the Malt House and began rumbling along narrow country lanes that bisected vast plains of green dotted with the forms of creamy white sheep grazing contentedly on a late winter afternoon.

After we had ambled about the area a bit, Charles turned into the driveway of a place he thought I might like to visit that purveyed local produce and other goodies. Being an unashamed food snob, I was thrilled when I walked through the door and saw all the quaint delicacies for sale that never quite make it to the other side of the pond: free range quail eggs, rendered duck fat for cooking, local cheeses, smoked trout and a colorful assortment of old fashioned sweeties. I selected a perfect little steak and kidney pie to heat up in the AGA for lunch when we got home and it satisfied an itch I’ve carried for many years since it’s not very easy to find a good steak and kidney pie in the U.S.

We piled back into the Land Rover with our sacks of plunder and headed back to the Malt House for a late lunch. Julia soon returned from her afternoon assignments and suggested that we go and visit a friend of her’s named MEM that she thought I might like to meet. (MEM being an acronym of her given name, but a moniker that has stuck and absolutely everyone uses). I had been regaled earlier in the week by the tale of how MEM had recently been kidnapped by gypsies(!), so I felt certain I DID need to meet this woman.

Moments after we'd settled at the table in her cheerful and comfortable kitchen, MEM’s tea kettle was whistling merrily. Her hypnotic voice - a buttery confection of English toffee and Australian honey with the rumbling tremor and dignity of Charles Laughton thrown in for good measure - held me in thrall from the moment she began to purr the lines of her first teatime tale. I listened contentedly to local gossip, stories of recent wildfires in Australia and all sorts of other fascinating ephemera - and of course a first person narrative of the kidnapping! The teapot was almost drained by the time Julia and I thought to excuse ourselves. Tea with MEM had been beyond perfect, but it was frightfully close to dinner time.

Julia and I rushed home and then joined Charles at the local pub (mere yards from The Malt House, mind you) and threw back a pint whilst eyeballing the locals and chatting with their affable friend Nancy. We returned to the Malt House for some dinner, which inspired Charles to volunteer to make a nice lamb dinner for our Sunday luncheon.

Charles, as it turns out, is an excellent cook. He roasted up a wickedly good lamb loin, served it with homemade mint sauce and a variety of delicious side dishes. It was a real treat. I'm happy to report that Julia adhered bravely to her vegetarian regimen even though Charles and I made strange noises relating to the deliciousness of our roast.
Sunday afternoon, Julia took me to one of my favorite places in absolutely any city I visit - the grocery store. I filled a small handbasket (the one I'm taking to hell) with essential English provisions, a little something to extend my visit into the coming days. I've found that a cup of strong black tea and a nice digestive biscut go a long way toward soothing the teatime withdrawal pains once I'm back in type A America. As we pushed our basket along, a woman carrying a clip board wrangled us into joining her in the laboratory for a taste test. Julia and I had the great fun of trying to act serious about tasting sour cream from little fluted paper cups with miniature spoons and making helpful comments. I think our exhuberant attitudes probably cheered up the data gatherers a bit.

Sunday evening there was just enough time left to get in a few last visits before I departed. Julia and I enjoyed a splendid tea with her parents in Ascot and then stopped by her friend Sue's for a quick goodbye. Nancy hosted us for wine and dinner and dog petting. We had to make an early evening of it, however, as Julia would be driving me to the airport early the next morning.

Just before we left for the airport, a bit bleary eyed and on edge, Charles took this picture of Julia and me:

When I look at it, I'm amazed by how extremely like and utterly different at the same time those two girls are to the ones seen sporting lampshades in 1973. They cling to each other in reaction to the same exact event: putting a good face on parting. What's clear to me is that the ready ease and deep bond have not altered, even if tresses and dresses have. Our oppositeness is still in evidence, but our common bond is much more assured.

I feel certain there will be further portraits with which to watch this marvelous friendship develop.


June is Bustin' Out All Over, Milady

Julia and I had tickets to see the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "Carousel" at the Savoy Theater in London on Friday evening and so had planned to ride the train into town shortly after noon. But first, the biweekly visit of the Bookmobile to its appointed spot outside the village hall (just across from Julia's house - you can see it from the kitchen window in the picture below) insured that we would be able to pop in for a cup of tea with the village locals before heading off to town. When we arrived, we received an enthusiastic reception from several familiar and friendly faces (Sue had even brought her sweet dog, Ruby) and were soon able to find a couple of empty seats around the cluster of tables pushed together in the middle of the hall. Many of the ladies were drinking coffee, but I opted for tea instead and paired it with a tasty classic oat digi bicky called a "Hobnob" All sorts of local news was batted about the table until Mary was prevailed upon to regale the group with stories of the village from half a century ago, including a charming tale of a woman named "Miss Pink" whose fatherless child had caused a stir with the local Ladies League. The conversations continued along at a lively clip until gradually, one by one, the ladies began excusing themselves to away and conduct some pressing errand or other. Time to quit shilly-shallying about and get on with the day's business!
After we'd helped wash up the tea things, Julia and I returned to the Malt House and assembled all the items we'd need for an afternoon and evening in London, including maps to several places we had a mind to visit. Julia also packed a huge tome to read in spare moments on the train - a selection SHE had made for her book club but one in which she still had a mountain of pages to read before the meeting, less than a week away. The book was about a historical figure named William Wilberforce who was instrumental in turning the tide in how we think about slavery, someone Julia admitted to having the biggest crush on, even though he was born in the 18th century. While Julia gulped down the text, I amused myself more than adequately by watching the quiescent English countryside streak by the window, my eye resting for a single perfect frozen moment on the sight of a glossy auburn fox sitting contentedly on a grassy embankment near the track, gazing intently at the passing train.

Shortly after we arrived at Waterloo station, Julia's eldest son Hamish (say: HAY-mish) met us and escorted us to a wonderful cafe he knew of nearby, where Julia and I enjoyed a delicious late lunch and Hamish hovered over a yummy looking coffee with milk drink. I ordered a crisp fermented apple cider to compliment my meal and it was mighty tasty. Why on earth do people have the impression that English food is bad??? I just don't get it.
After lingering awhile over an enjoyable lunch, the two of us left Hamish to rejoin his classes (he's studying law) and took a bus to the bustling Covent Garden area in pursuit of some excellent poking around. Covent Garden is packed with interesting little shops, restaurants, pubs, something to interest absolutely anyone. In the Market square area, there's usually a nonstop parade of street performers vying for the attention (and financial consideration) of passing shoppers, amazing their audience with feats of derring do and sorcery. As we wandered about, I entreated Julia to duck into several shops with me in pursuit of shiny objects seen or imagined from the front door. We struck pay dirt at one place - every single thing in the shop had an accent of glitter at the very least, if not a solid covering. It was full of girly things, sparkly and bright and glamorous and nothing else! I fell in love with a garland of bright pink butterflies iced with orange and topaz glitter accents and before I knew it, Julia had snatched it up and bought it for me, beaming proudly as she handed the box to me and said, "Unfortunately I wasn't around for your 14th birthday, but I can still give you your present." I loved that so much. It's a wonderful example of the joys of Julia.
One of the stops I was insistent on making since we were in the vicinity was to the pantheon of cheese, the pinnacle of fromage, the halls of Mount Curd - Neal's Yard Dairy. Neal's Yard began in 1979, initially pursuing the business of producing artisan cheeses. They soon decided, however, to quit the production end of the business and focus on distributing the products of other dairies. They have since become one of the world's most important distributors of artisan cheeses (500 tons a year!). Their strategy is to procure small batches of exquisite hand made cheeses from British and Irish dairies, store a good bit of them in a mysterious old London warehouse near the Thames to age, and then dole them out to the the faithful and lucky in a little shop near Covent Garden.

As soon as you enter the shop, you're greeted by plucky cheese purveyors who encourage you to taste absolutely anything you like. When my server asked me if I knew what I wanted, I responded with exaggerated seriousness that I was looking for was a cheese that would make me cry. Without skipping a beat or changing expression, he asked drolly, "Cry like 'boo hoo I'm sad', or cry like 'oh, I'm so happy!!'?"
I like a man that can understand a woman's needs. I left with three gorgeous wedges of cheese at a fraction of the price I'd have paid at Central Market and as fresh as I would ever experience them. Sighhhhhhhhhh.
As we meandered through the lanes and alleys of Friday evening London toward the Savoy theater, the light began to fade, pooling here and there in great golden glowing patches.
The streets were alive with people walking in every direction, pressed forward by the tantalizing scent of diversion, minds visibly occupied with the logistics and rewards of their rendezvous. Julia and I found a nice little pub less than a block from the theater where we could relax and have a drink before the show. I chose a Sapphire and tonic, Julia an erudite glass of red wine. I had a plate of bread crumby English sausages dipped in a sharp ochre colored mustard, Julia a small plate heaped with golden chips dancing around a tub of tomato sauce. It was that kind of day and I loved it.
The Savoy is a classic old London Theater, last extensively remodeled in the early 1930s and still gleaming with bold silver art deco accents. Julia and I took our seats and indulged in the ancient pleasure of watching people while we waited for the curtain to rise.
I don't know why it didn't occur to me at any time prior to the first actor uttering the first words of his first line: those poor Brits were going to have to produce an obscure regional American (Maine) dialect from the late 1800s, one that most Americans couldn't even come close to imitating correctly and it was going to be a massacre. After the first scene, I had fully gained a new respect for every British subject that has ever had to sit through an American production of My Fair Lady. I was particularly appalled when the police officer arrived to chide Billy at the fair, walking onstage wearing a BOBBY'S hat, quipping with a heavy Cockney accent, "G'day, Guvnah!" Horrors.

Obscure regional dialectical atrocities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed it, singing along quietly in the dark, marveling at the audacity of the dream ballet sequence and crying buckets of big sloppy tears at the appointed times. It's such a dark, dark musical, Carousel - a rarity if you think about it. Apparently it was Rogers and Hammerstein's favorite collaboration. And rightfully so. You'll Never Walk Alone is a good enough song to be a whole career! Uh-oh. I think I just outed myself as a musical geek. Oh well - quelle suprise.
After the theater, Julia and I wandered back toward the tube station, musing on the dark messages that had been sung so soaringly to us. We wondered how we should react to the outdated concept of glorifying a wife who uttered a sentiment such as "When he hits me it feels like a kiss!" Happily we have a modern disdain for the beating of women that makes it feel a bit archaic and awkward.
As we reached the station and began the long descent down the thrillingly steep escalators of the London Tube, I was greeted by a site that made me feel old. For as many years as I've been riding the London Underground, there has always been a long row of framed handbills - shows, fashion, food, little ads of all sorts - posted in carefully relegated intervals from top to bottom. Well, the modern age has arrived and lo and behold the cardboard inserts have disappeared, replaced by a row of glaring monitors nestled into the same exact footprint, pixels replacing glossy four color printing. The visual impact of a long sloping row of identical images stretching out over a trajectory that had to be three or four stories long was mighty impressive even to a jaded antimarketing fanatic like me. Very Blade Runner.

Julia and I scooted on home on the late train and were in bed shortly after midnight - well pleased with a delightful day.


The History of Rock and Role

Thursday had the same wonderful start as Tuesday when I arrived downstairs for my first cup of tea of the morning and was greeted by the tantalizing aroma of Julia's cooking. This time, she was preparing a savoury (I'll include the "u" in honor of the locale) tarte for our luncheon, and the smell of sauteed onions and fresh pungent greens filled the air. I watched raptly as her hands hovered over the made-from-scratch crust without the need for visual supervision (once again the two of us were talking a mile a minute) and felt envy at the way they disposed of their task with such effortless and unconscious grace.

Julia was hosting the other three members of her tennis foursome for a luncheon to celebrate the birthday of one of their company, Deborah. Hanging out with the tennis crowd fit right into my English country fantasy vacation package, so I was delighted to be included.

Whilst I sat sipping my tea, installed in the choicest spot in the kitchen, (on the little tuffet next to the miraculous AGA stove where I could be warm and cozy and watch Julia flit about) Julia handed me a small pile of freshly opened note cards that she had just retrieved from the mail slot. They were lovely hand written thank yous from the ladies of the village complimenting Julia on the success of her epic tea party and transmitting their pleasure at having met her American friend. In this, the age of electronic greeting cards and Evite invitations, I found it so quaint to actually have people hand write thank you notes and drop them off at your door rather than mailing them. Amazing! I'm telling you - I visited another world.

We took a break from the preparations to make a quick trip to the grocery store, which is always one of my very favorite places to visit when I travel, no matter where I go. I greedily snatched up a hand basket full of English comestibles, including some Fizzy Lifting Cakes, a giant bottle of Shandy and a nice big box of Quality Street chocolates for Mark. Groceries ended up being almost all of what I took home with me from my trip - I guess I'm that rare bird that actually LIKES English food.

After we returned home, Julia put the finishing touches on the meal and soon afterwards, the first guest arrived. It was Sarah, toting parcels beneath her arms containing ripe red strawberries, thick cream and a tantalizing confection she called chocolate biscuit cake, formed in the shape of a large D, for Deborah, naturally. The next arrival was Frances, very recently returned home from an extended trip to IND-ya, and who had the good sense to bring along an ice cold bottle of pink champagne in addition to her gift. The birthday girl was the last to arrive and it was only the wink of an eye before Julia had whisked tall crystal flutes filled with bubbling pink liquid in front of each one of us. A toast to the birthday girl! Yea for ladies luncheon! (Left to right: Julia, Deborah, Sarah and Frances) The unwrapping of gifts commenced: a book from Julia, an affable chicken bedecked tray from Sarah and a piece of intricately printed cloth from India from Frances. We soon became famished from all the oohing and ashing and sat ourselves down to the lovely lunch Julia had prepared. In addition to the watercress and Parmesan tart, Julia had made a salad of fresh rocket (what we call arugula here in the States, but much more creatively named in Europe) and had placed a goblet of delicately flavored lemon grass water at each place. If we had been wickeder, maybe instead we'd have quaffed tall gin and tonics and gotten ever-so-slightly drunk to aid in gossiping about local minutiae, but we opted instead to be more demur and sophisticated, the pink champagne summing up the tone of the gathering perfectly. After the chocolate biscuit cake D had been properly candled and lit, we sang a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" in an effort to speed things along so we could have cake and strawberries. Well, I guess you see I'm speaking for myself here. Yes, yes, happy birthday now let's get on with it and have some of that delicious looking cake!

I put away forkful after forkful of dark chocolate crumby goodness, enjoying a cup of coffee after deciding I couldn't possibly eat even one more tiny morsel of cake. We all lingered a bit over coffee to aid in reviving us from our chocolate induced torpor, but it wasn't long before the guests each set out on their separate ways, leaving Julia and I just enough time to walk the dogs down to King John's castle before sunset.

It was a bit chilly, so Julia and I bundled up before setting out on our romp with Pegs and Monty. On our way to the canal, I spied an enormous tree in a neighbor's yard that must have been at least 500 or 600 years old, every one of the limbs that branched off the main trunk like an enormous tree in its own right. It was apparently some sort of conifer as the ground was littered with delicate cones that very much resembled dun colored roses scattered about the grass.

We continued down the road a short way to a footbridge which crossed and then ran alongside a charming old canal that had serviced the area for many years but had recently fallen into disuse. I had read that the footbridge was home to a rare colony of bats, and so scrambled down the brambly bank to see if I could observe any sign of them at the shadowy mouth of the tunnel, but they appeared to be deep within, protected from the great wash of humanity by a solid metal door to discourage trespassers. The water was crystal clear and slow moving, forming a lens of sorts that allowed a clear view of all the interesting aquatic plants undulating beneath the surface. We followed the path along the canal, coming upon a family of nesting swans that the dogs were very certain they weren't interested in investigating. While seemingly very picturesque, Julia warned, an angry swan defending it's nest can be quite aggressive, leading me to the certainty that this was not something I was interested in investigating either.

It was only a short distance before we reached the ruins of Odiham castle, referred to by the locals as "King John's Castle". It was King John who commissioned the lavish castle in 1207 and in fact, for all you history buffs, it was Odiham castle where King John was lodging when he was collected and escorted to nearby Runnymeade and strongly encouraged to sign the Magna Carta by a bunch of petulant barons.

Little is left of the original structure save the mortar and napped flint walls of the huge keep area (it was already being described as a "ruin" in 1605), but a series of informative signs help the visitor envision just how the original buildings might have been constructed.

It was a lovely time to be there, the slanting golden beams of light from the setting sun illuminating select spots in the scenery, providing dramatic contrast with the proliferation of twilight shadows. The dogs weren't quite as caught up in the moment as we were, so after a quiet turn around the perimeter of the walls we followed them back up the canal path to the house, the sun a glowing orange ball sinking behind the distant horizon.

Later that evening, we ventured out to pick up Sarah (who had joined us at luncheon earlier) and take in a showing of a new film called "The Young Victoria" about the early years of Queen Victoria's reign and her relationship with Prince Albert. It certainly wasn't a great movie, but it fit in so well with all the things I'd been seeing and doing that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It also gave the three of us a fascinating point to discuss: the movie includes an event that never actually happened - something added simply to give the narrative a little more flair. It made me think about how some tales are hard to tell because creating suspense is virtually impossible. There isn't much tension, for example, about whether Victoria and Albert are going to get together in the end or not. So, the director of "The Young Victoria" took the liberty of spicing up the content a bit by adding a scene where Albert is shot while protecting Victoria during a ride in an open carriage. Pure fiction, never happened.

So where are we supposed to draw the line story telling? I love the quote often attributed to Winston Churchill but articulated by many, "History is a tale told by the victors." It's a great reminder that all of it's pretty much just made up anyway.

Still, the inaccuracy of The Young Victoria reportedly annoyed Queen Elizabeth II following a private screening of the film. She of all people should be cautious, however - what on earth will the story be on that dreadful hat she wore in 1969 when historians muse on its hideous appearance 500 years hence?


An eye on hats in London

Shortly before noon on Wednesday, Julia and I rode the train into town so we could take in a few big city sights. Julia had made reservations for us to ride the enormous Ferris wheel called The London Eye that carries riders high above the river Thames to enjoy an incomparable view of the London skyline. It was built at the time of the year 2000 festivities and sits right in the middle of the city for added viewing pleasure.

The weather the night before had been ghastly: cold and rainy and gusty. We had worried that our view the next day might be miserable or even outright cancelled, but when we arrived that afternoon at the modern plaza that led to the Eye, the sun was shining, the sky was vivid blue and there was a profusion of puffy white clouds moving at breakneck speed across the sky.

We were moved efficiently and politely from one post to another on our journey to queue up for our car, one of the last stops being an inspection post where our handbags were to be examined. A nice German woman sporting an official looking security costume rummaged through the contents of my purse for a moment and then stopped to admire the fetching design on the outside of the bag. "I like zat! It's MES-MERH-I-ZEENG!" I reached over eagerly to demonstrate the bag's finest feature saying, "Why, that's not the half of it! Just see what else it can do!" I set the spiral disk to spinning in a hypnotic swirl and shortly thereafter the woman pushed it away forcefully with a sharp laugh, "Don't DO zat!" she cried "I've got a horr-uble hangover!" We all laughed a hearty laugh of recognition and since I understood her pain intimately, I brought the spinning disk to a screeching halt. I liked that gal. She had spunk and she made me laugh.
On to our last queue - this one much like a set of cattle chutes next to a loading dock. One by one, the pods move s-l-o-w-l-y past the loading area and guests are let gradually out of the chutes and herded into their designated glass bubble. It takes about as much concentration as getting on an escalator, but it's way more thrilling.

Our pod was loaded, doors secured (although seemingly a little insubstantial) and we were on our way in mere moments. In no time we were soaring high above the river with London stretching out as far as the eye could see in every direction. The familiar sights of the Big Ben tower and Parliament just across the river gave me that buzz that comes from realizing you're seeing the real thing instead of a ubiquitous reproduction. Big Ben is also a marvelous reference point when trying to get the lay of the land from that vantage point. To help make heads and tails of what you're seeing, each visitor to the Eye is given a fantastic fold out souvenir that diagrams points of interest in each of the four compass directions. Julia and I alternated between picking out as many places as we could and just silently marveling at the sheer mass of humanity and industry that surrounded us. Most of all, I secretly loved looking at the mechanism that supported and turned the little Eyes around and around. It was a marvel of rigging and structure with hydraulic dams as big as phone booths and state of the art pivot joints. Man, I'm such a geek.

We saw several remarkable buildings, one on the distant horizon that was almost a dead ringer for the Eiffel tower (we found out later it was an antenna) and a relatively new building that all the locals lovingly refer to as "the Gherkin". The Gherkin is a shiny rocket fuselage of a building with a jaunty curving stripe. I wasn't able to get a good picture myself, but I snagged the image seen here from Wikipedia so you can enjoy the whimsy of the Gherkin for yourself.

It took us about half a fascinating hour to complete our turn around the wheel, whereupon we were expelled unceremoniously into the colorful din and whirl of the streets of London. I just love that city! I think it's my favorite city in the world. As we crossed Waterloo bridge, it made me smile when I saw a group of Asian tourists taking turns posing for pictures so that it looked like they were leaning like giant Godzillas against the Big Ben clock tower. We wandered onto the tube and headed to our next destination, the Victoria and Albert museum.

There are so many wonderful things to see at the V & A, but we were there to see a special exhibition that had just opened on the history of hats. As we walked into the atrium of the museum and headed toward the reception desk, I was tickled to see an absolutely enormous chandelier hanging over the area that had quite obviously been fashioned by hot glass genius Dale Chiuhuly . A cheerful tangle of yellows and greens and blues, it was so wonderfully incongruous with its surroundings and it made me very happy.

After collecting our tour tickets, we decided some lunch would be a splendid idea, especially since the offerings in the cafe looked so delicious (they even had Limonata in the cooler, the sign of a truly fine dining establishment) - plus, we would be able to sit in the lavishly decorated dining hall to nibble our sandwiches. When we arrived with our trays, we found that there was only one empty table - one that had been branded a pariah by virtue of the asynchronous orbit it followed over the floor when set in motion by the merest touch. Ha! It wasn't anything we couldn't manage. As we made short work of our tasty Mediterranean heroes, we ogled the ornate gold trimmings and hand wrought ceramic cherubs and played the "what one luxury would you take with you to a desert island?" game while being regaled with the flourishes of Mozart concerto played on a grand piano by a kid young enough to have been a babysitting client of mine some years back. It was in this setting that we encountered the second inspired chandelier installation of the day. This room featured a set of huge orbs constructed of glowing white LEDs tangled into a tumbleweed of gleaming silver wire. They were so ludicrously at stylistic odds with the other furnishings of the Victorian salon, but they looked so exquisite there! The soft white light they generated cleverly mimicked the color and glow of real candlelight, setting the gold accents to gleaming warmly, much as they would have in Queen Vic's day.

After lunch we wandered around a short while and then headed to the hat exhibit to see what we could see. When we entered, I was pleased to see the hats were arranged in a style I've come to really appreciate - without regard to chronology, but rather centered around shared thematic elements. One of the cases, for example, was comprised entirely of top hats and bonnets. In one corner sat a wonderful modern bonnet that a fellow exhibition goer and I decided should be in a Tim Burton film of an Edward Gorey tale (the hat is called Kiss of Death -at right- and it's by Jo Gordon) and it was sitting mere inches from an intricately woven horse hair bonnet lavished with salmon grosgrain ribbon that Queen Victoria had worn as a young woman. Nearby, Prince Albert's dapper top hat presided above several other more modern and colorful examples of what has become an indisputable classic in the world of head coverings.

Julia and I moved from case to case, jostling for a place at the front of each where we could read the descriptive labels and marvel at some of the older examples of millinery - for example, a three horned 16th century jester's cap (just like you see in illustrations!) made of brown leather, trimmed with bells; or a wool felt apprentice's cap of the type you've seen in so many paintings from the middle ages - but this one being an incredibly well preserved specimen of the real thing! There were a great many fun hats in the exhibit by modern London milliner Stephen Jones as well as a huge case of celebrity head wear, some famous, some infamous. It was a member of the latter category that had me completely intrigued, before I even knew why.

As I worked my way toward the front of the crowd that was densely packed around the hats of celebrity, one hat in particular caught my eye, lodged somewhere between Marlene Dietrich's black sequined beret and Camilla Parker Bowles's spikey wedding headpiece of sharp olive green feather thingies. I couldn't put my finger on what it was that made it so familiar, but I was sure I knew it from somewhere. My eyes wandered up and down the staggered rows of notorious hats, but my attention kept coming back to that curious cream hat, over and over. When I finally reached the panel of labels at the front and read the identity of the mystery hat, I laughed aloud with final recognition: it was the ugliest hat in the world!
The first time I saw the ugliest hat in the world, I was a young girl and not very savvy in the ways of fashion. Still, even as a preteen, I had known that this hat was deplorable, enough so that it sticks in the mind clearly, like an accident or a tragedy. The hat I found myself staring at, slack jawed, there at the V & A, was in fact the hat worn by QEII at the ceremony to invest her son Charles with his own duchy. A hat so excruciatingly awful that almost everyone I've asked about it since my revelation has said, "Oh THAT hat!"
When I went looking for pictures of it for this post, I found that really, unbeknownst to me, an even greater atrocity had unfolded in 1969: there was a whole outfit! Apparently the damage couldn't be contained to the hat alone and it extended to cover an entire ensemble. I guess the only way to hide the fact that you've just conned one of the most famous heads of state in the world to put the ugliest hat on the planet on her head is to give her matching gloves, purse and a parasol, by gum! Lends that air of having the courage of your convictions. All Liz is missing are some big round dark glasses with cream colored frames to protect her from the sun glinting off the spaceship when it lands to pick her up.
. .
Julia and I laughed all the way back to her house about our fortune at getting to see the ugliest hat in the world. We scooted back to Greywell on the train that ran just before the rush hour commenced. The two of us stayed up well after Charles retired at a reasonable hour after dinner. I later retired at an unreasonable hour, but filled with good cheer from the enjoyment of a delightful day followed by a nice long intimate chat.


The institution of tea

Julia had been kind enough to arrange a gathering in my honor the next day, inviting some of the village ladies to come and meet her crazy American friend and take proper afternoon tea with pinkies lifted. When I came down from my apartments that morning at the leisurely hour of shortly before noon, the kitchen was alive with activity, sumptuous with the aroma of baking in progress. Julia had already turned out several batches of golden shortbread stars and was busy at work preparing layers of Victoria Sponge and tiny oval scones (for our Utah readers: please see photo of actual scone at right). Julia is a wonderful cook, but is excessively modest and will proceed to eloquently argue her ineptitude while effortlessly trimming a crust to fit the edges of a fluted pastry pan. I felt certain I had wandered onto the set of a fancy cooking show when I saw her SIFT some dry ingredients together. Now that's some fancy cooking!

After I had polished off my second or third cup of tea (along with several pieces of shortbread that I managed to filch from the cooling rack) I insisted on joining in the preparations and was given the enviable job of fashioning delicate cucumber finger sandwiches. I set up a finger sandwich center of operations so I could sit and turn out sandwiches while we chatted, which we proceeded to do for several pleasant hours while busily mounding trays with mouth watering tea morsels.

Tea had been arranged for half past four, and shortly before the guests were due to arrive, I reminded Julia that we simply must pop upstairs and change into our tea frocks. (Tee hee! I have ALWAYS wanted to say that!) It probably won't surprise you to learn that I unashamedly mined the depths of my Anglophilic fantasy while visiting, sounding its furthest recesses by frequently lapsing into a dreadfully inept English accent to amuse myself and confuse others.

It was a blustery late winter afternoon, windy, raining, cold. Charles had been kind enough to lay in the makings of a splendid fire in the huge fireplace at the end of the sitting room and we ignited it just as the guests began to arrive. The flames were soon licking at the logs with a satisfying crackle, creating a warm glow in the room and a rich gleam on the silver. Julia couldn't have created a more beautiful or perfect backdrop for afternoon tea.

Julia’s parents Donald and Joy drove down from Ascot to join us and were the first to arrive. Donald greeted us warmly and then sensibly retreated to the farthest reaches of the house to read the sports page and avoid the gaggle of women that had begun gathering in the foyer and would soon be attaining dominion over the tea table.

When all the guests had arrived, we settled into various cozy spots in the beautiful sitting room and a flurry of activity began in the vicinity of the tea pot. Delicate china vessels (the sort you're only allowed to use when company comes) full of rich brown tea, riding on saucer skirts, began circulating around the room from hand to hand in a clicking clanking quadrille. I added a lump of sugar (not a pedestrian cube, mind you) and some milk to mine, transforming it to a beautiful creamy red brown. Several of us practiced holding our cups so as to produce an expertly crooked pinkie and Joy (from the village, not to be confused with Julia's mum) expertly schooled me in pronouncing "DAHR-leeng" just so. Conversation was lively, and was only briefly interrupted from time to time when one of the guests would retrieve a tray from the table and begin offering delectables around the circle in service of being a gracious guest. As soon as I noticed the pattern, I began to pay more attention to the finer points of etiquette surrounding what we were doing and soon got a lesson on that subject that tickled me to no end.

One of the gals that came by passing a tray paused to offer refreshments to the guest on my left and then discreetly to the guest on my right, but quite purposefully passed me by in what I'd have to call an expert toreadoric move. Her omission was so slight as to be invisible to others and was really only barely perceptible to me. I, however, having no shame and little dignity, hailed her, "Say - I'd like one of those lovely morsels!" She smiled shyly as she returned to proffer the tray and replied discreetly “Sorry – I saw that your plate was full and thought you might feel embarrassed to take something else.” Now, some might take offense at a statement like that, but interestingly it didn't even occur to me to do so because something important stood in the way: who this woman was being made what she'd just said to me feel solicitous and inclusive - she was trying to help me understand how this game was played so I could be a part of it and not feel awkward. I quickly glanced around the room, and sure enough, not a single other person had more than one item on their plate and most plates were empty or on their way to being so. When I thought about it, I realized the diference was mainly cultural - Americans epitomize the buffet mentality - heap everything on your plate to celebrate and prove prosperity. Around the English tea table, life unfolds much more like a series of gifts, one after another, flowing until you've had your fill. The tray passing gal wanted to share that with me and for that gift I am grateful.

I spent the next hours in so many fascinating conversations that I couldn't imagine where the time had gone when the first person stood up and declared they must be going. Over and over I found myself imagining that I was smack dab in the middle of my own little BBC series, enjoying each new character as she was introduced and told her story.

One by one the guests departed in a flurry of thank yous and good byes, and finally Julia and I were left alone in the quiet to wash the cups and compare notes on what we had learned at tea. I proudly related my lesson, even though it was a bit hard to explain without sounding like Pollyana. (Who, Julia later explained to me, was a marvelous communicator - much more so than the simple optimist that is associated with her name. I mention this, dear reader, to give you an idea of the range of our conversation over the course of the week.)

Charles was soon home from the city and the three of us enjoyed a relaxed dinner together. Not long after our meal, I retired to my heavenly bed chamber so I could crawl under the duvet and curl up. Jet lag was a great cover for just plain old exhaustion brought on by a long exciting day.


Oh to be in England now that spring is here!

I consider myself pretty well travelled, having happily ambled about the world a good deal of my life: across the street, across the city, across the country, across the ocean, across the world. But I don’t remember ever having been so present to feelings of having visited another world entirely as I was on a recent trip to England to rejuvenate a friendship with a long lost companion of my youth.

Barely a year ago, I received an e-mail out of the blue, generated from one of those dreadful high school class reunion websites that lurk on the Internet, seductively offering one the chance to engage in the banally voyeuristic pleasure of seeing what your former classmates are busy creating an impression about having accomplished. I don’t know what on earth led me to register – perhaps an exceedingly rare moment of boredom, since I haven’t spoken to a single person related to my pre-university scholastic career since I escaped the torment of public education lo those many years ago. Still, I shouldn’t be so petty considering the miracle it generated for me.
The e-mail was from a vivacious and lovely girl that I had known for only a few short years in the early 70s as Julie Stephenson, now the more grown up and more distinctly English sounding Julia Annandale (that's us, circa 1972, already sporting lampshades at parties). Julia had done a bit of sleuthing and located my e-mail address in order to see if perhaps I remembered her, but what she probably had no idea of when she wrote was there wasn't any way I'd forgotten her - she was a tenured member of that special class of acquaintances with whom a link so strong is forged that it can never be completely dissolved. I was overjoyed to receive her message and the reintroduction led to an instantaneous resumption of our friendship.

What we quickly discovered in the flurry of e-mails that followed was that after enjoying our brief intersection well over 35 years ago (Julia’s father was a British employee of Shell Oil who had in 1971 taken a two year assignment in the tropical hell hole of Houston, Texas where I lived) our lives had taken radically different paths and lay in almost diametric opposition. When we compared notes, we managed to discover several items we had in common (we both recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversaries, for example) but for the most part, our lives are dramatically different in almost every respect. And yet even though we have little in common, we have each other in common, and that's what seems to have lasted so well after all these years.
I recently decided the time had come to go and visit Julia and experience what her life was like firsthand. I wrote to see if she’d be willing to tolerate my company for a week at her home in the tiny village of Greywell, about 40 miles southwest of London. She responded enthusiastically, assuring me that she’d be delighted to have me come and warning me that I might find her existence a bit tedious considering the colorful life I seemed to lead.
I arrived at London’s Heathrow airport on the morning of Monday, March 2 and emerged from the cattle holding pen of international arrivals to see Julia waiting for me at the exit. What a miracle it seemed to have reached this apogee in a circle formed by the intersection of two arcs, both of them crossing at age 11 and then again at age 48 - very like a diagram of geometry illustrating how a circle can continue and diverge at the same time. A strong sense of disbelief that had been building from the time we first renewed our friendship culminated in that moment as we embraced each other gratefully. I experienced a sense of release that gracefully gave way to feeling completely at ease.
As we departed the airport and headed toward her home, Julia asked if I wouldn’t mind stopping to take tea with her parents, Donald and Joy, at their home near Ascot. My memories of Donald and Joy were glowing and warm, full of affection and admiration, so I was delighted to hear we’d be stopping for a visit.
When we arrived, the sensation that the intervening years had melted away, leaving all of us merely in somewhat different costumes, continued unabated. Donald had retained a clear and sparkling eye, a wry chuckle and a marvelous ability to discourse intelligently on history and politics. Joy was every bit as elegant and gracious and kind as I remembered her, yet somehow made even more distinguished by the glorious cloud of silver candy floss fetchingly arrayed about her head in sumptuous waves. I was ushered into the parlor (where I had last sat in the early summer of 1973), and was greeted by a merry fire which added a warm glow to the lovely tea service which had been laid out in preparation for our arrival. How delightful to begin my visit with one of my favorite indulgences – afternoon tea! We whiled away a very pleasant hour or so sipping tea from delicate porcelain cups and filling in random pixels in an effort to articulate a portrait of where our lives had carried us, who we’d become. I got to enjoy the wonderful sort of love we experience when we get to refamiliarize ourselves with cherished acquaintances. Julia and I took our leave as the afternoon light began to slant and headed toward her home, The Malt House.
I’ve always found it exceedingly quaint to name one’s home, and it makes me wonder what the name of my odd domicile might should be. How about the Lay-uhr of Pank Hay-uhr?!? Hmmmm! Even sounds vaguely Celtic!
As we turned off the motorway and began down the narrow country lanes leading toward her home, Julia pointed out the local attractions, peppering her sentences with descriptors such as “Cromwell” and “King John”. My love of history was thoroughly engaged as we passed through this realm so rich in story and beauty.
When we arrived at the Malt House, I was taken aback. Julia had sent a few pictures of her home with her e-mails, and while I could tell her place was lovely and quaint, I was in no way prepared me for the immensity or age of it. The Malt House can be traced back to at least the era of Cromwell (that’s the 1650s for those of you less than enamored with English history) with historians being able to document that in addition to the house having been used to process hops, it had also been used for a time as a court of law for trying Cavalier prisoners rounded up by our victorious Puritan forefathers, shortly after the execution of Charles I. It never fails to boggle my mind to live in such proximity to history, probably because America seems like such a recent and juvenile nation. When we talk about something being really old in the U.S., it’s often no more than one or two hundred years old at the most. Living in a house built in the 17th century or earlier seems amazing to me. I was dazzled by the enormous fireplaces, low slung hand hewn timbers of the ceiling, ancient brickwork and masonry. We stepped out the heavy oaken door at the front of the house so Julia could show me the new lambs grazing in the pasture across the road and there to my amazement grew an enormous wisteria vine which Julia said had been estimated to be at least 400 years old. I found that staggering since I can generally manage to kill a houseplant in under a week without even trying.
I was soon introduced to the charming animal inhabitants of The Malt House - two affable and well behaved dogs, Pegs and Monty, (who would become gratifying partners in an enjoyable week long game of fetch in the garden) and Julia's adorable new kitten Marmite, named after the curious salty spread that Brits so eagerly apply to their toast. I felt certain after meeting Marmite that I’d be leaving with hands that resembled those of a seasoned blackberry picker as I clearly have no natural resistance to the unmitigated joy of playing with a kitten.
Sitting down to another lovely cup of tea at the kitchen table, Julia and I began a discourse that continued most of the time we were together for the next week. Both of us eagerly took turns filling in stories and opinions that helped formed the warp and weft of a tapestry that each of us had spent 48 years in the making
It wasn’t long before Julia’s husband Charles arrived home from his job in London and as soon as we met, the intuition I'd had that the two of us would get along swimmingly was immediately confirmed. Charles has a wry and pervasive wit, and it's obvious from the outset that he’s one of those bodies of still water that runs inconceivably deep. Wine corks were soon extracted and dinner set steaming on the table, allowing us to relax and converse animatedly without distraction. After a few glasses of wine, the length of my day began to show a bit and I was soon off to bed. After changing into my distinctly Jane Eyre styled nightie, I burrowed ecstatically beneath the snow white duvet that topped my bed, flouting the cold air which came as part of my authentic 17th century lodgings package. Julia had been kind enough to install the distinctly 21st century convenience of an electric heating pad under the sheets, so my little nest was warm and cozy. There in my bower above the kitchen, I could hear the whistling of the wind outside my windows as I drifted off into a deep and contented slumber.