Thursday, September 27, 2012

...And The Days Dwindle Donwn To A Precious Few...

...and the English visit draws to a close.

That's the bad news.

The good news is I return just in time for the first presidential debate. While there's no lamenting missing the onslaught of political messages and relentless coverage that has no doubt plagued the news cycle, it has been interesting to experience the Obama/Romney kerfluffle from here -- in addition to getting a big kick out of all news coverage, especially the little bits. We used to call them "filler" in the old days. They were the tiny stories needed to fill space on a page, like the one about the woman in Aberdeen, Scotland who reached into her cutlery drawer and found a black and brown striped snake believed to be an escaped pet. Was it?
No idea. Or the guy in Runnymede who, when cited for drunken driving, cited Magna Carta as grounds for not acceeding to a breathalizer test. The judge disagreed, citing Magna Carta as grounds for finding him guilty and assessing a fine.

Town names here are good for a smile and a giggle, like Cold Ash and Ozleworth, until one considers Texas towns like Cut'n'Shoot, Tow and Dime Box. Better yet are the television shows. Numerous American series have made it across the pond, from oldies like "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," "Frasier," "Judge Judy","Everybody Loves Raymond," and "Rules of Engagement." There is not much likelihood of reciprocal episodes of "Psychic Sally on the Road," "Hunky Dory Blockbuster (the equivalent of QVC)," or BBC's "Ripoff Britain" in the morning and "Watchdog," in the evening -- both of which cite by name companies caught in the act of defrauding consumers.  In one disquieting episode, an enterprising but ethically challenged entrepreneur was videotape leaving court (after being fined for fraudulent television repairs) and became so angered with the waiting TV crew that he tosses the contents of a bottle over the interviewer's head.  The liquid turns out to  be urine. I'm sure that encouraged the viewing public to do business with him.

And speaking of the public, language on television here would probably come as a big shock --or at least a revelation -- to those unaccustomed to hearing salty dialogue on channels not relegated to cable. I mean, George Carlin would be proud.

Traveling the English countryside has also been a revelation, especially local grocery stores. The two most notable are Waitrose and Tesco -- both comparable in one way or another to Central Market or Whole Foods. Especially impressive are the frozen food offerings which include traditional shepherd's pie, fish & chips, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and -- drum roll, please -- an American Tex-Mex selection of fajitas, chili (spelled 'chilli' here) and barbecued ribs. Particularly impressive are the labels that the food industry is fighting stateside: nutritional information that includes fat content, caloric value, sugar, salt and saturated fat percentages -- on all labels. Equally conspicuous is the absence of additives.  Canned goods do not include salt. High-fructose corn syrup is nowhere to be seen. No MSG, no food coloring, no artificial flavoring (unless clearly stated on the label) and fruit juice from real fruit.

Fish displays are also a pleasant surprise. I encountered a Tesco employee who gave me more time than I deserved  upon being interrogated about where plaice, hake, haddock and mackerel originated. In between serving actual customers he confided that he had only been on the job for three weeks, having walked away from his job as a registered psychiatric nurse -- too few beds, not enough staff to do the job properly. Dover sole, it should be noted, is as pricey here as it is in our neck of the woods.

And speaking of food, as is often the case, English food in 2012 is a far cry from what it once was. There are wonderful meals to be had in towns large and small. I thought about the fox family that used to live at the bottom of the backyard space at Molly's house and was lured to The Snooty Fox in Tetbury, a town in the heart of Gloucestershire's hunt country. The shrimp and haddock fishcake, topped by a perfectly poached egg and finished with a chive butter sauce was outstanding -- as were the steamed mussels in cider cream served with house-made white bread sliced thick.

By the by,  brace for sticker shock. Food, like everything else, is expensive, whether dining out or shopping to eat in.

But some things are worth paying for, like dining out. First, there was the perfect meal at Number Seven Fish Bistro in Torquay. This exquisite family-owned restaurant features fish caught daily, and the flavors --and a packed house on a mid-September Wednesday evening stand in testimony to a sturdy reputation for quality. It worth a trip to Torquay just to eat there. Which is not to say that the menu at Jesse's in the town of Cirencester is anything to be sneezed at. Situated down an otherwise unremarkable alleyway, just behind the butcher shop that share's its name,Jesse's is reason enough to go to Cirencester. The seared sea scallops, the chicken liver pate (with red onion marmalade and toasted granary bread also justifies the trip to Gloucestershire. Other than my friend Cath's cooking (this evening she made and outstanding Beef Stroganoff), these were among the best meals consumed, or, more accurately, devoured, here.

If you can get to Bath, and this World Historical Site is just too wonderful for words, have lunch at The Pump Room. On the day we visited the lunch specials featured roasted fennel and butternut squash with a blue cheese dressing; lamb and rosemary cassoulet with roasted garlic and baby green beans; and for dessert,orange marmalade bread and butter pudding.

Yes, we had good food in London, but here in the hinterlands is a happening food scene too.

So as I wind down my escape from 24-hour political stuff (hate that I missed P.M. Cameron on Letterman, but apparently his inability to identify the author of  "God Save the Queen" was disquieting for the local newspapers).  Yes, plural. Newspapers. Five, I think. Even the rail system has free newspapers with synopses of local, national and international info.  Anyway, I will be home in time for the first debate.

Meanwhile, permit me to lord over you that fact that by the time I return I will have seen three episodes of "Downton Abbey" and you, my friends, will have to wait until January for Season Three.

Shall I tell you what happens?

Nah. I was just stirring stuff up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Greetings from the Cotswolds

I am in such a beautiful place I can't believe it.  I'm visiting a friend who was my neighbor when I lived in England 40 years ago. She lives in the village of Malmesbury in the County of Wiltshire in a stone house built in in the 1820s -- one of the newer houses in this town, where parts of it date to the 13th and 14th centuries. The Avon river courses through her property and today we watched a heron hang out near the water's edge for more than an hour.

The roads are barely wide enough for two tiny cars to pass one another by, and we had a near miss when an oversized lorry  -- sorry -- when a big-assed truck came toward us at a rate of speed sufficiently intimidating to force us to drive off it into a patch of green to let it pass.  There are no overhead lights so roads are eerily dark at night, and the fines for driving under the influence are wicked enough to persuade everyone to either have a designated driver or not drink at all.

As in: at all.

All said, since I'm terrified to drive on the wrong side of the road I'm letting Cath drive, so I'm having the time of my life, and I will share more detail than you probably want to read when I return.

What I really want you to know is that no matter where I go, no matter what the conversation has started out to cover, it invariably turns to the 2012 campaign -- the one i fled the country to avoid hearing or reading about.  Yet here I am, sometime among conservatives, sometime among socialists, sometime among independents, who have all, at one time or another, characterized the Republican side of the campaign as "Mitt the Twit and that other guy."

That's how things are playing out on this side of the pond. I now have way too many clippings from various papers that allow as how well, Obama might not be all we had hoped for, but he is a damned sight better than the alternative.

And, as it should come as a surprise to no one, folks over here know a lot about various candidates.  They've read about Akin's ridiculous "legitimate rape" comments; they hold Elizabeth Warren in high regard; they find it hard to believe anyone would opposed creating health care for all Americans -- just as they are appalled at Rick Perry's efforts to withhold funding for women's health programs. They know about this stuff.

Honest to God, I am not making this up, the Brits are tracking us. They want to know if Jan Brewer is going to be re-elected because they think she is dangerous. The think Eric Cantor is not unlike a nematode and they find unfathonamable the notion that a significant portion of a congressional body can hold a country hostage to its resolve to defeat a sitting president, primarily because they oppose abortion.

And each time someone says to me either by way of a rhetorical question or a direct comment that the brouhaha is directly linked to Obama's skin color, I smile and say "What do YOU think?" The response is invariably "yes."

Having said that, everyone is also stunned by the murder of the envoy and members of his staff (although here they are asking why there were no marine guards to fortify access, given the tenuous relationships throughout the Middle East  Here folks can't believe the US didn't carry the Paralympics, which attracted as many people as the Olympics did. And of course they're all a twitter over photographs of the Cambridges in the buff.

Me, I don't care one way or another. This is England, which is consistently full of surprises.  For instance, next Sunday (Sept 23) the gardens at Malmesbury Abbey --which are stunning beyond description -- will have a "clothing optional" day when naked gardeners will be at work trimming trees, pulling weeds, pruning plants and such like. Visitors can come clothed or stark naked.

I plan to be there.

Until I return, cheerio.