What are neighbors like in Britain?

On Not Another Tall Blog, Angie K. wrote recently about English people’s reputation for being cold. No, she wasn’t not talking about the weather, she was talking about whether there’s a downside to all that stiff-upper-lip-ness and explored the question of whether the British are good neighbors. Then she asked if I’d tackle the same question.

I sat at the computer and was pontificating away about how to define good neighbors and the differences between neighbors in New York, Minnesota, and Cornwall. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy echoed around inside my mostly empty head. It wasn’t relevant and I knew that, but it came to mind anyway. I was failing to be either funny or interesting about any of it when the doorbell rang and who should be there but our actual neighbors—or two of them anyway, along with their baby. You can’t plan this stuff. You could make it up, but as it happens I don’t have to. I shut the computer down, made a pot of tea, and grabbed some brownies out of the freezer (they’re good frozen—I don’t even apologize anymore), and we sat around and talked and admired how well the little guy’s walking.

He’s a gorgeous fellow, just a year old.



So yes, we’re of good terms with our neighbors. We’re closer to some than others, but where isn’t that true? Some of them seem standoffish, but ditto. Others are warm and delightful. We have small, human interactions with people we don’t know well, and it reinforces the shared idea that we live near each other and can get along. We ask after health, partners, gardens, kids, pets, and anything else we know about. We talk about the weather. Y’know that stereotype about the British and the weather? It’s true. People have a lot to say about it. I mean, we’ve got a lot of weather. And it’s free. Why let it go to waste?

On the other hand, if you take a survey of the village you’ll find we also argue about fences and boundaries and who said what to who and whose fault it was, or whose kid’s fault it was, or what exactly the it was that started the whole disaster anyway. We take each other to court. We pass along stories that are sometimes true and sometimes maybe not so true and sometimes, true or not, should’ve been kept to ourselves. We join clubs and committees and organizations, where we either get along so well we all want to get married and move in together or we have a bitter, six-year battle over whether to start the meeting at 7:01 or 7:03 and whether we need to open a checking account for the £4.39 in our treasury. We think about assassination and wonder why it’s illegal. Memories last a long, long time, and relations can get as toxic here as they do anywhere.

But just over a week ago when our younger cat, Smudge, was killed by a car (yes, today’s photo is actually relevant), the neighbor whose house he was nearest to activated the network—human and virtual—to find out whose cat he was. No more than an hour had gone by before Wild Thing saw the notice on the village Facebook page, and only a few more minutes had passed before someone knocked on the door to ask if he was ours, just in case we hadn’t heard. (Wild Thing had already gone to check, and she brought him home.) If they’d all shrugged their shoulders and told themselves it wasn’t their problem. we’d have spent days looking for him and worrying that he was trapped or hurt somewhere and then finally, endlessly, wondering what had happened to him. I’m grateful to them for letting us know, and grateful for the sympathy they expressed, because we miss him and somehow it helps to hear a few words of comfort.

So neighbors? I’m not trying to draw any large conclusions here, but ours are wonderful.

What Brits really think of American tourists

Gunta asked, “I often wonder what Brits or folks from other cultures think of us Americans at the tourist spots. It can’t be good.”

So I asked around. Most of the answers come from a village Facebook page. Yes, that’s an ancient custom in Cornish villages, having a Facebook page. We do things quaint around here. (If I were Cornish, I believe I’d say, “We do things proper.” But I’m not, so I won’t risk it. When you’re not 600% sure of what you’d be saying, implying, not saying, and vaguely hinting at, I’d advise playing it safe and sounding like yourself. In my case, that’s risk enough.)

Roman wall. Exeter, Devon, U.K.

Nearly relevant photo: Part of the Roman wall in Exeter. Hey, what tourist wouldn’t want to see that? This bit is right beside a parking ramp–or car park, which sounds like a place cars go to play in their time off. The bit of modern fencing looks kind of puny beside it.

A lot of the comments were positive, although I as I’m writing this I seem to notice a tinge of not-so-positive underlying them. I’m not sure if people were being polite (ah, yes, people around here are polite; except when they’re not, of course, but that happens waaay less often than in the U.S., and it has a lot more impact because it’s so unexpected) or if I’m just a sour old bat who’s importing her own view of the world into places it doesn’t belong. Take it all with the usual half cup of salt.

Several people mentioned Americans’ enthusiasm for how old Britain is. V. wrote that anything over 250 years old excites them. Which reminds me to mention that 250 years isn’t all that old around here. I mean, if we’re talking about stone circles, we’ll have to count in thousands of years, not hundreds. So 250 years? Nyeh.

S. wrote that she enjoys Americans’ love of castles, even when they don’t understand what they’re looking at.

What don’t they understand? Well, when N. “worked in Windsor years ago, I heard two American tourists looking up at the castle while a jet flew over out of nearby Heathrow. One said, ‘Gee, you’d think they’d have built it further from the airport.’ ”

If you can top that, you have to leave a comment.

M. wrote that “my dear sister-in-law is American, and when she was dating my brother she was still a tourist (she’s a hard-nut Londoner now, innit?) and we had some fun with her, like the time we (almost) convinced her that Stonehenge is moved around each solstice so it’s never in the same place twice.”

So, enthusiastic, appreciative, and, um, not necessarily well informed—either by their own (lack of) research or by their loving hosts.

And then there are the ones who are well informed but—well, H. wrote about a couple she met when she ran a B & B: “His knowledge of British history was incredible but he did admit it was easy to be an expert when surrounded by idiots. He requested clotted cream with his porridge!! She had a BRAG book containing photos of her grandchildren and proudly bored us for rather a long time.”

I should add that H. liked them. In fact, she called them fabulous.

What else?

Tourists bring their preconceptions with them, and look for ways to reinforce them. A. told a story about running past a group of American tourists (she was late, and stressed, and I’m guessing not in the best of moods) and hearing one call out, “I told you there would be rosy cheeks.” At the time she was annoyed. In retrospect, she thinks it was sweet.

She has a more tolerant nature than I do.

I hadn’t thought of rosy cheeks as something Americans expect of the British, but they do figure in a lot of English novels. So yes, I guess as least some people will come looking for them.

Another distinctive factor is that American tourists tip. And the British, in most situations, don’t. Still talking about her sister-in-law, M. wrote, “One thing I remember about going out with her in London as a tourist is that she never had an umbrella (she certainly does now), and that bar staff loved her, as she had no idea that you’re not supposed to tip them.

“Well, you aren’t, are you?”

Americans, you are not to take that as an instruction not to tip, because A.2 wrote, “And that’s why Americans will always get served before a tight, non-tipping Englishman!!”

Besides, it’s the right thing to do and you know it.

The most negative comments weren’t about Americans as Americans but about the sheer tourist-ness of tourists. T. wrote, “I think it’s just tourists not American tourists. There are a lot of people who simply forget they are travelling to someone’s home / work / life and have a responsibility to allow that to continue. Perhaps it’s just that in recent years there have been more of them and they are often …. easy to spot.”

Like all the other ellipses here, that “…” is his, not mine, so try to hear a pause there while he searches for a polite phrase.

Picking up on his comment, V. wrote, “Much like surfers, small groups of tourists always better.”

As if to prove that it’s tourists, not necessarily American tourists, G. wrote that “most English folk can’t differentiate between an American accent and a Canadian accent.”

I can testify to that. Periodically, I get asked if I’m Canadian. Since Canadian tourists are scarcer than the American variety, I’ve assumed they thought a Canadian would be offended at being taken for an American but that the reverse wouldn’t be true. And, in fact, I’ve never been offended by it. Baffled at first, but not offended. I admit, I’ve never checked my assumption about their assumption against anything as deflating as reality, so don’t take it too seriously. Especially since S. wrote to say that she gets asked the same thing “and I’m German!”

I can’t find any way to account for that.

J.’s American and does know her U.S. accent from her Canadian. She wrote, “I tend to hear [American tourists] before seeing them.” Ah, yes, the national volume control knob. Wild Thing—whose personal volume control knob is set pretty close to High—said simply that American tourists are loud. And our English friends D. and D., who visited us once in Minnesota, told us they’d always thought Wild Thing was loud until they changed planes in Chicago. So I think we’ve got a small consensus here.

Then there’s the question of looks: M.2 said American tourists “do often hit the stereotype, with the cameras, the bum bags, and the baseball caps, but I think that’s quite sweet.”

M.3 thinks they look “jolly, with their shorts and trainers [those are running shoes if you’re American] and baggy T-shirts, whether they’re male or female. They look really happy to be in England. They can’t wait to find out about it all.”

No discussion of Americans would be complete without World War II coming into it, and J. wrote that the “young Americans were very welcome in 1944, and Britain could have not have managed without the Marshall Plan in 1945.” To which V. answered, “Whilst their help in ’44 was invaluable, I didn’t think the UK got that much comparatively from the Marshall Plan … and what we did get took until this millennium to pay back … no economic miracle here (unlike Germany).”

Americans, is that a bit of history you ever heard about?

Finally, to put all this in perspective, V. told a story about her mother, who “stood at the top of the Empire State Building, looked down at the road system and said, ‘I think they could have done that a bit better.’ My sister’s response was to apologise to nearest American, saying, ’I’m so sorry, she still thinks we have an empire …’ “

I’d encourage you all to chip in with a comment, but I figure you know that already. Let’s hear what you can add.

Class and power in rural Cornwall

I was listening to the radio a while ago (Radio 4, a BBC station, has some great shows, along with some deeply strange ones) and someone said in passing that in the U.S. class is all about money. And I stopped mid-stir (I listen to the radio either in the car or when I’m cooking) and thought, Well, what else would it be about?

Why, heritage, of course. Generations of titles and inbreeding and self-congratulatory silliness. The system’s antiquated and doesn’t match the realities of power anymore, but it’s still creaking around the room on its arthritic legs and interrupting the conversation with irrelevant and embarrassing observations every chance it gets. An aristocratic family may have given its grand house to the National Trust because it couldn’t afford the upkeep, it may have sold it to a celebrity or some foreign oligarch, or it may have kept the place and opened part of it for the riffraff to wander through and gawp at (or as much of the riffraff as can afford the entrance fees, which range from the predictable to the exorbitant), but by god it still has a name and thinks it matters.  (We all have names, I remind myself, but they’ll be happy to tell you that they really have names. The rest of us just have a bunch of sounds for other people to call us by. And in my case, the family name has changed a few times, so that says something about how important we thought it was.)

North Cornwall's coast

Irrelevant photo: The cliffs on a hazy day.

But even in Britain, class isn’t all about heritage anymore. Pick any village and someone’s likely to think they’re the lord or lady of the manor. It’s possible that their ancestors once were, but it’s equally (or maybe even more) likely, at least in our part of the country, that they moved down from London a few years ago, bringing a pile of money made doing who knows what, and now that they’ve bought a big house in a small village it’s all gone straight to their head. They throw their weight around in village events and committees, half expecting to recreate the days when Lord Hooha’s word was law. But whether or not they actually are Lord Hooha, it’s not the nineteenth century, never mind the middle ages. Sometimes they get away with it but often they don’t. Either way, the rest of us are torn between annoyance and mockery.

British and American English: The Easter update

The Methodist Church in our village has its annual egg roll at this time of year, and you need to understand that this is an event, not something to eat. If it was something to eat and if we were speaking British, it would be an egg on a roll. If we were speaking American, it would be a deep-fried appetizer from a Chinese restaurant—what the British call a spring roll. But no, this is more along the lines of the Gloucester Cheese Roll, only without insanely steep hill and the ambulances. And the cheese. It’s a bunch of kids rolling eggs down a hill. The one who reaches the bottom first (or at all, since chickens never designed their eggs for racing) wins. I’m not sure what the prize is. A deep-fried appetizer from a Chinese restaurant? An egg sandwich? A chocolate bunny?

I’ve never gone to the event, but I was specifically invited the year A. was a judge. Unfortunately, I got sick and stayed home, and that left me free to imagine it any way I want. What I imagine is that Easter in Britain is about rolling an egg down a hill.

Irrelevant photo: A tiny waterfall. Looking at this, you can almost believe the legends of fairies and little people.

Irrelevant photo: A tiny waterfall. Looking at this, you can almost believe the legends of fairies and little people.

In its more commercial form, Easter’s also about chocolate eggs, and these are massive things—not American football size, but moving in that direction. All your childhood dreams of greed, shaped like an egg. The Guardian (that’s a newspaper, in case you need to know) likes to compare the prices and qualities of different brands of food, and this year’s chocolate Easter egg comparison shows that some of them get into silly money territory. Hotel Chocolat? £27, and it’s filled with smaller chocolates.Harrods? £29.95. The paper recommends that one for Russian oligarchs, who aren’t known for their sense of humor so let’s assume the paper’s not making fun of them, and for safety’s sake neither am I. Marks & Spencer has one for £40 and that kind of money buys it its very own link. (FYI: Links here are not for sale unless I’m making fun of something at the other end, in which case no one’s likely to offer me money. I am so pure I’m almost invisible.) M & S’s egg is a “giant golden lattice egg with a delicate show-stopping small egg perched inside. . . . Because they’re so special, we’ve only made 7,500 eggs, each one numbered on the presentation box for an extra touch of luxury.” And then you eat the sucker and it’s gone, leaving you with nothing but that numbered presentation box and a bunch of adjectives. Spend enough money and you get a lot of adjectives. The original copy had even more, but I’m still an editor at heart and just had to cut some. And in case you’re worried, the gold is edible. Which is another adjective but an important one The Guardian doesn’t specifically recommend this particular egg for Russian oligarchs. I’m not sure why.

Back in the land of the sane, you can find chocolate eggs in supermarkets for £5, or for £2.99.

And we still haven’t gotten to chocolate bunnies. I’ve seen these in two sizes: nestle in your palm size and coffee mug size. I brought a small one home from a grocery shopping trip and Wild Thing reports that they’re good.

In the U.S., you can’t make your way through a store in the weeks before Easter without tripping over egg-dying kits. Or—well, I assume that’s still true. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around, never mind at Easter. In Britain, though, making Easter eggs from actual eggs don’t seem to be a big thing.

And this seems to be a leap, but it’s not: When I first started to write fiction, I wrote a transparently autobiographical story about my Jewish atheist family that included the sentence, “We celebrated Easter.”

My father read it.

“We never celebrated Easter,” he said.

I think that, in his quiet way he was scandalized. He was also, in my opinion, wrong.

It’s true that we didn’t celebrate it in a religious way. But we dyed eggs every year, and found people to give them to (who may have wondered about them but were kind enough not to ask). My brother and I woke up to Easter baskets—jellybeans, a chocolate rabbit (in my memory, they were huge), a panorama egg with a sugar shell and little cut-out figures inside, small chocolate eggs in foil wrappers, all of them nestled in fake grass.

Give a kid candy like that and she’ll think it’s a celebration. Add dyed eggs and, yes, you have a holiday. Sorry, Dad.

It didn’t turn me religious, but it did leave me with a fondness for chocolate bunnies, even though I don’t eat them anymore. I worked in a candy factory when I was in my twenties, and it left me immune to candy’s lures. The one exception is good, and very plain, dark chocolate. But I do like to see chocolate bunnies in their gorgeous foil wrappers.

I can even get sentimental about jellybeans. They never did taste good, but I ate them anyway. Like Everest, they were there. How could I not?

So if you celebrate Easter, happy Easter. And if you don’t, I can still recommend the chocolate bunnies. They don’t care what you believe.

The British countryside and Winnie the Pooh

Nothing reminds me that I’m living in the British countryside quite the way crossing a ford does.

I know. Fords have been around ever since people and small rivers were first introduced, but even so the fords in our village make me think I live in Pooh Corners. And for the record, no, I’m not sure there were any fords in Winnie the Pooh, but there was a stream and—well, I don’t want to pretend I’m being reasonable about this. What I’m remembering, I think, is one of the illustrations, about measuring the height of a stream during a flood.

Funny what sticks with you from your childhood.

North Cornwall's coast

Irrelevant photo: North Cornwall’s coast on a hazy day

This all goes to show you what a New Yorker I am. New York City doesn’t do fords. In fact, it doesn’t do streams. As far as I know, many years before I was born, someone (or more accurately, some many) maneuvered all of New York’s streams into pipes and then paved them over. The city does have three big honkin’ rivers (or two, or maybe one, depending on what you count as a river and what you count as a straight), and that’s plenty, thanks.

When you grow up with pavement, not having streams seems natural. So much so that I used to wonder where streams came from. Not where rivers came from. They came from upstream, as any fool could see. In case you need further proof of how attuned I was to the natural world, I once looked into a huge hole in the street and was surprised to see earth and rock under the pavement. I don’t know what I expected, but scaffolding probably wouldn’t have surprised me. So living in Cornwall not only with streams but with fords? That’s exotic.

Wild Thing grew up in Texas, and her family used to spend time in Colorado. She swears that when they came to a ford and the river looked higher than usual, her parents would have her wade across to make sure it was safe for the car. She never got washed away, so I’m guessing these weren’t raging torrents. Her parents weren’t reckless or neglectful, but it’s also true that they never stopped her from exploring abandoned mine shafts, so I don’t have the impression that they were over-protective either.

In fairness, she wouldn’t have told them she was exploring mine shafts, but a different set of parents might have asked. Or discussed. Or at least warned.

Whatever the pluses and minuses of their approach, she came out of it with an enviable gift for gauging the depth of a stream, and that’s something I don’t have. I understand three levels: low enough to wade; higher than the waterproof part of my shoes; and ask Wild Thing before taking the car across. The first two are reliable. The third? It’s helpful only if Wild Thing happens to be with me. So far I’ve managed not to get swept away, which is why I’m sitting here typing this. I’ve turned back only once, and I probably I didn’t need to, but I figured it was better to wonder than to be wrong.

Years ago, some government agency set up gauges beside the fords. These look like gigantic rulers and go from 1 at the bottom to You’re in Deep Shit at the top, although in my city-bred opinion you’re in trouble by the time the water reaches 1, because for the most part the gauges sit serenely above the normal flow and I’d turn back long before the water reached them, even though at most fords that means having to back a long way. I’m good at backing a car. I’m not good at estimating fords. Give me a choice and it’s pretty clear which I’ll take.

I’m not sure what the gauges are for, really. Maybe so that, Pooh-like, we can measure the depth of the stream for no better reason than to know if it’s still rising. The valleys here are sharp and narrow, so the rainfall spills into the streams quickly. In a heavy storm, a stream that’s normally a trickle can rise to a torrent, especially if the ground’s already saturated. It can fall just as quickly as it rises, and I suppose a gauge could keep you amused while that’s happening, although you might be smarter to go back to your nice warm kitchen and wait. You could also look for another route if you’re driving. If you’re walking, the fords have foot bridges, so you should be fine. If the water comes up over that, you’d be smart to get out of there instead of watching the gauge.

In my city-bred opinion.


And unrelated to that, Notes has now been updated, with a new theme that looks one hell of a lot like the old one but should work on phones. In addition to that, it was going to have all sorts of added Googlery that would tell me if a gnat flew past your screen while you were reading it, and which would also reach through atmosphere and hijack unsuspecting readers, launching my stats to astronomical levels, but the whole thing went wrong and instead my posts stopped reaching most of you. The ancient Greeks called it hubris. So the googlery’s disappeared, everything except the new, barely discernible new theme is back (I hope) to where it started, and I’m toning down my ambitions. Or looking for another way to channel them.

Thanks to the people who wrote to say they couldn’t click through to the “Trouble, trouble, trouble” post. It’s now reappeared (along with a great comment from Cats at the Bar) and I’ve lost another post, which was nothing but an attempt to update the people who couldn’t click through to “Trouble, trouble, trouble.”

Don’t worry about it.

If you have any trouble let me know. But if you get this, that probably means you’re not having any problems.


Strange British traditions: cheese roll and flaming tar barrels

The other day, Wild Thing and I were talking with friends about the Gloucester Cheese Roll. Unlike an egg roll, which in Britain is an egg on a roll and not (as it is in the U.S.) Chinese veggies and sometimes meat or seafood deep-fried inside a wrapper, this is not cheese on a roll but an event where people chase a wheel of cheese down a very steep hill. (The event is also called the Cheese Rolling and the Cheese Race, but let’s stick with the more confusing name, please.)

In Britain, what Americans call an egg roll is called a spring roll. In the U.S., a spring roll is an unfried egg roll and in case you need to know, I like them better. That’s all as irrelevant as it is confusing, which is why I include it.

For endless images not of an egg roll but of the cheese roll follow this link.

Irrelevant photo: Launceston Castle, with a church in the foreground

Irrelevant photo: Launceston Castle, with a church in the foreground

But back to the event: The winner of the race gets to keep the cheese. The ambulances at the bottom get to carry selected losers to the emergency room, which in Britain is called Accident and Emergency.

That business about the ambulances? That’s not a joke.

“Why,” I asked (and you may need to be reminded at this point that I was sitting around with Wild Thing and our friends), “do people do this?”

“Boredom,” D. said.

Both friends, irrelevantly, have names that begin with D.

“Think of it as a Saturday night in February in a small-town Minnesota bar,” Wild Thing said. “A couple of people go outside and punch each other, then they come back inside and everybody keeps drinking.”

I never lived in small-town Minnesota, but Wild Thing did, so I’m going to have to take her word for this. I do understand boredom, but my way of dealing with it doesn’t usually involve hospitals. So I told D. and D. about our village’s earring fishing contest, which is an ordinary enough fishing contest except the contestants have to use an earring as a lure. It’s been running for a few years. I told them about the Boscastle raft race, in which the teams build rafts but can’t use anything nautical. Last year was its first year. My favorite entry lost. In fact, it sank. It was a picnic table on beer kegs, with a parasol that blew off either before the race started or right after. If I remember correctly, the raft was paddled with skateboards. Still, no ambulances were harmed in the making of either the race or the fishing contest (although the contest didn’t amuse the fish particularly), so I have less trouble understanding them.

From what I’ve seen on the internet, the official cheese roll ended a few years ago, when it couldn’t get insurance, and it’s now organized by an informal (and presumably un-suable) group. The mention of insurance reminded D. (well, one of them) of the flaming tar barrel race in Ottery St. Mary, which went on safely for years, even though people were racing around with, yes, flaming tar barrels, until some idiot tossed an aerosol can into one, and the can did what aerosol cans do when exposed to flaming tar: It blew up. No one—as far as I know—was hurt, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people were scared shitless.

The race continues. I don’t know what they do about insurance. Or aerosol cans and idiots.

The events we talked about fall into two categories: new and ancient. Many of the ancient ones seem to reach back to pre-Christian times and then piggyback themselves onto more recent holidays—May Day; Guy Fawkes Day. You can see the echoes of spring fertility celebrations, of the fall equinox. The tar barrel race is in the fall and you get fire, and days growing shorter. It’s insane, but I do see a connection. The cheese roll, though? It’s in the spring and I may be missing something, but it doesn’t strike me as an obvious way to celebrate the earth’s fertility.

What does it say about a culture that it creates these wonderful, lunatic events? I don’t have a clue, but I do know that they’re not commercial inventions, and they’re not the synthetic creations of a bunch of people nostalgic for the good olde days when knights were bolde and old crones knew the use of every weed that grew in the hedges. They’re created by real people, in place after place. Sort of like weeds, since I just mentioned them. No one plants them; they just grow. If you want folk culture, you could do worse than look here. And I can’t help imagining that they all start in the pub. Go back to Wild Thing’s February small-town Minnesota bar. Boredom plus beer. What could be more powerful? But instead of a simple brawl, these are elaborate events that demand months of planning. Commit-tees. Meetings. Ambulances. Delayed gratification, if you like. Which may be a good thing and may not be. If what you really want is the adrenaline of a fight, you probably fall on the not side. You end up starting a war. Or running through the streets with a flaming tar barrel. Or getting someone else to do it while you stand on the sidelines with a starter’s pistol, you clever devil.

In the interests of learning more about my new home, I hope to get to this year’s cheese roll, and to report back. If all goes well, we’ll discuss the tar barrel race. I make no promises.

The cheese roll is in May and I’m keeping my eye on the calendar.

An American gives directions in Cornwall

Something notable happened the other day: A guy in a landscaping van stopped while I was walking the dog and asked for directions, and even though he heard my accent (yeah, well, how could he not hear it?), he drove in the direction I suggested.

I should mark the date on my calendar so I can celebrate it next year.


The Cornish relay delivery system

Not long ago, someone asked if I could return a handful of leaflets to someone in Truro. Or to someone else in St. Austell. The problem was that I live about an hour from Truro and, oh, 40 minutes or more from St. Austell. I didn’t want to make either drive just to hand over some leaflets, then turn around and drive home.

An aside here: P. told me long ago that time’s an American way of measuring distance, but I swear it’s the only way that makes sense here. Speed depends on the road, and Cornwall’s full of back roads, so distance is only going to tell you just so much.

The solution was to employ the Cornish relay delivery system. Wild Thing and I were meeting with someone relatively nearby (around here, nothing’s truly close) the next morning, and he was meeting with someone else in the afternoon—in Truro. So I gave him the leaflets and asked him to pass them on to the next person, who I’d emailed and who had agreed to either drop them off where they needed to be or let someone pick them up.

Irrelevant photo: Spot the direction of the prevailing wind.

Irrelevant photo: Spot the direction of the prevailing wind.

The same system delivered a leg of lamb to our house a few years ago. Wild Thing—the household meat eater—had bought a leg of lamb from A., who raises lamb, but when she went to pick it up, it had already left. J. had stopped by and was on her way to see a neighbor of ours (let’s call the neighbor J.2 for the sake of either clarity or confusion, take your pick). As far as A. was concerned, it had been delivered. Only we didn’t have the meat.

We went home and Wild Thing called J., who’d stopped by our house, she said, but we were out, so she left it with J.2, who stuck it in her refrigerator.

Are you still with me?

Wild Thing went to J.2’s house, collected her leg of lamb, and stuck the meat in the oven.

We thought it was all very villagey and—here we go again—quaint until we used the same system ourselves. Then we thought it made perfect sense.

Avoiding quaintness in Cornwall

“I can see how easy it is to think of us as quaint,” J. said, having read I can’t remember which of my blog posts.

I admitted that I was stretching the quaintness and she admitted that she understood that and we’re still speaking, for which I’m grateful because I like J. But the comment stays with me. I’m not sure if she was amused, hurt, critical, or some mix of them all, and I didn’t think to ask.

I’m not sure how I feel about the conversation, either. Is quaint even the right word? I do look for things to laugh about. Does that end up painting a picture of quaintness? I’m not sure, but I hereby officially admit that I’m exaggerating when I write about Britain. Or as a karate teacher I used to study with liked to say, over-exaggerating. Not by making anything up, but by ignoring the counterbalance: both the oddities of the U.S.—my home country—and the ordinariness of Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Early flowers. Damned if I remember what they're called.

Irrelevant photo: early flowers. Damned if I remember what they’re called.

But foreigners are always tempted to do that. The mailboxes are a different shape? How quaint! How charming! Or, if you’re looking for something to disapprove of, as some people are the minute they’re out of their comfort zone, How backwards! How ignorant! Mailboxes should be square, with a rounded top.

Besides, it’s harder to see the oddities of the culture you’re used to. That’s one of the gifts that being an outsider brings. Drop me back in the U.S. after almost nine years in the U.K. and I expect things I took for granted would look odd. But I’m not there. I work with what’s in front of me, always trying to remember my own absurdity as well, and if possible put more stress on that than on anyone else’s.

So for the sake of balance, here’s a list five of non-quaint things that happened recently.

  • The sun rose this morning. It has no accent, respects no borders, and is not impressed by anyone’s nationalism. Thank you, sun. We all need to be reminded.
  • My car’s oil pressure is low and I left it with the mechanic. [This actually happened a few days ago, but I’ll leave it in the present tense for the illusion of immediacy it creates—and out of laziness.] Probably my fault (bad car owner, wicked car owner). I’d let the oil get low, but I don’t think it was low enough to account for idiot light flashing on. This is distinctly un-quaint, and I feel distinctly idiotic.
  • The mechanic just called. On Wild Thing’s phone, which is the number we gave him. That seemed to make sense at the time—never mind why—only Wild Thing’s not home right now and she couldn’t give me the number to call him back because it’s on her phone and she was using the phone to talk to me and yes, she could have hung up and written it down and called back but she doesn’t have a pen with her. Or paper. And the phone numbers here have a shitload of digits; they’re hard to remember. I’d look the number up but it doesn’t belong to a shop. The mechanic’s a local guy working out of his garage and using his cell phone. Besides, I don’t actually know his last name. Everyone around here swears by him and the garage I’ve used up to now just screwed something up for me. So Wild Thing called the mechanic to give him our home number, but he was on the phone too (it happens that way sometimes), so he couldn’t enter the number. All of that could happen anywhere. I’m not playing quaint with this, although I could. It’s just what happened.
  • A couple in the village are coming up on their golden wedding anniversary. Yay them!
  • I’m trying to remember how many years a golden anniversary marks. If I have to bet, I’m putting my money on fifty. Google could find someone who’d be happy to let me know, but I’d rather be amused by my ignorance.
  • I am, not uncharacteristically, cheating on this list since points two and three are related and four and five are are too. Which is why I’ve added this as a bonus point—six items in a list of five. You can’t say you don’t get your money’s worth out of this blog. Which is a double negative, giving you even more bang for your buck.

The iconic British phone box goes literary

BT (that’s British Telecom—a.k.a. the phone company) has been uninstalling the iconic red British telephone boxes all around the country in recent years.

Now, I understand that pay phones aren’t a money-making proposition anymore, but where cell phone coverage is spotty (and around here it has a bad case of the measles) they can be a lifeline. Besides, people like them. They’re iconic. They’re red. They’re shaped like Dr. Who’s police box.

In places, villages have fought to keep them, and as far as I know they’ve lost the battle, no matter how good their arguments. My village lost two—one by the beach, which could potentially have saved a life because it was in a measles spot, and another along the road, which was less important, although could have presented a better argument for keeping that one if somebody hadn’t set it on fire.

In a few places, though, villages lost the phones but kept the boxes and turned them into tiny red libraries, where people take books, leave books, and, judging by the number of images online, take pictures.

Relevant photo for a change: a phone box library at Wall, Staffordshire. Photo by Oosoom.

Relevant photo for a change: a phone box library at Wall, Staffordshire. Photo by Oosoom.

In Banbury, Oxfordshire, a (rare, and probably endangered) working phone shares its red box with a working library, and BT recently made enemies by threatening to remove the shelves because, they wrote, they’re “concerned the books and shelving could cause injury if they were to fall.”

No doubt. They’d cause an even worse injury if they exploded, but neither one is likely, and local residents launched a twitter campaign to save the library: #Saveourphoneboxlibrary.

I haven’t a clue what this has to do with the usual intercultural mayhem I write about. I’ve seen neighborhood-maintained libraries in the U.S. They looked like oversize birdhouses, not phone boxes. But then, I don’t think the U.S. has any phone boxes left in the wild–they’re all in zoos now, where they fall into despair and refuse to breed. Maybe that says something about our cultural differences. I leave it to you to figure out what.