The question is not what you look at, but what you see – Part Five: U thru Z
Gosh, I jolly well hope none of you were holding your breath for this ‘and finally’ moment because if you were you are surely an unbecoming shade of grey-navy by now. But ‘and finally’ it is. My silly series of alphabetic ramblings on a year spent in The New World completes here and not before time, given that it was supposed to coincide with my returning to Europe on 1st December and we are now hurtling through a not so New Year for which I wish you joy and laughter, peace and content and above all things love, which, I firmly believe, really IS all we need. Hey presto bongo here we go:
U. U is for USA naturally enough. I’m a simple soul and I’m as apt to fall for the properganda and misinformation of others as the next girl or boy. It’s fair to say that before I had this opportunity to actually be in this place that it did not really penetrate my consciousness just how absolutely vast and varied it is. And this comes from a person who, in reality, has only scratched the teeniest scritch of New England. Like Europe, the USA is a country made up of lots of different countries except that they are called States. Since I take in my stride the fact that Italy is not at all like Germany, Belgium not a satellite of France but it’s very own bird and Spain certainly not a smidge like Britain it stands to reason when I take my silly specs off that California is really not at all akin to Alabama nor Wisconsin analogous to Texas or Maine to Hawaii. I understood after a while that New England is it’s own special corner of the USA and that it in turn, rather like the place I was born in is made up of five particular personalities who have their own idiosyncracies and peculiaries and delights. It may seem like kindergarten learning but it really did take living in the place to even begin to understand what a colossus it is. When I return, which I hope I will later this year and for at least twice as long, I intend to travel and feel for myself why Massachusetts is no more representative of the whole Union than Florida or Alaska or California or The Dakotas. I should also mention that the British tend to be a bit sniffy about the fact that many Americans have not travelled outside of their own country. Well my people, I have news for you …. I was brought up by parents who believed that it is essential to understand and know your own corner before you start venturing into foreign lands. With such a wealth of terrain, culture and, dare I say, history (for we Europeans tend to be snobbish in our assumption that these Americas are too young to have accumulated substantial history and in that hypothesis we are foolishy wrong), in just this chunk of North America without even venturing upwards to Canada or downwards to Central and South America, it strikes me that it is entirely forgiveable to live a life restricted to this continent.
V. V is for Viagra. Actually it’s for medical advertising but that doesn’t fit my carefully constructed alphabet so I’m stretching the elastic. Coming as I do from the land of the National Health Service where we are entirely at the mercy of whatever is passed fit and fiscally viable to prescribe by a body called (eroneously many would argue) NICE, I was fascinated by the sheer volume of advertising for drugs and medical aids all of which are accompanied by lengthy disclaimers about side-effects uttered by the voice-over artist at death-defying pace in a crescendo from insignificant rashes through paralisis and loss of limbs to death (I am entirely serious). Sometimes they are also chaperoned by the statement that if you are allergic to a particular drug you should avoid taking it. Really? … you know you are allergic but you decide to take it anyway, presumably in a fit of boredom that might be alleviated by a jolly solid and possibly deadly bout of anaphylaxis. In the case of Viagra, a slinky lady is seen to be skillfully seducing a fellow who is clearly very willing indeed to be enticed, and voice-over man states very distinctly that if you experience an erection lasting more than four hours you should seek immediate medical help. I nearly choked on my passion fruit the first time I saw this advertisement but when I asked meekly if anyone else found this odd I was greeted by tumbleweed and a sense that I was very clearly a foreign body. Or V could be for Vermont. We visited the North Eastern Kingdom at the outset of Fall and I left a little of my heart there. Not only did I get to wave at Canada from Newport (and get waved at by an amused train driver hauling huge cargo behind his glorious richly hooting engine) and to see the burgeoning of the incredible gilded spectacle of leaves donning their most outrageous regalia before falling away to leave the trees slumbering for winter; I got to stay in an enchanting log cabin at a magical place called The Olde Farmhouse in Danville and I got to sate myself on covered bridges which have long been an interest that blossomed into an obsession when Meryl and Clint played out their sweet-sad love story in ‘The Bridges of Madison County’. Covered bridges are not a purely New England oeuvre, they pop up in varying density from Alabama to Quebec. Indeed you will find a few in Europe too. I unswervingly adore them. They are evocative of so much to me from Headless Horsemen to Beetlejuice and endless galloping horses clattering over them on some or other grainy film on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I’m pretty sure John-Boy Walton must have driven over one in that truck of his and certainly there were imagined teenaged canoodlings with whoever was the dream squeeze of the hour in my youth peppered with American TV which was surely so much more enticing than anything Oxford could possibly offer a gauche girl like me. They just seem so romantic and being incapacitated from our usual walks and hikes gave left us free to hunt them down and snap and be snapped in my best Meryl poses all over this beauteous landscape.
W. W is for White Mountains. My leg injury put the brakes on our aspiration to hike all the 4,000 footers of the Presidential Range through late Spring and Summer but we did walk up Mount Eisenhower in December (naively without poles nor crampons) which revealed the most exquisite Narnia moment as we hit the snow-line (or more accurately that day, the ICE-line). I’ll be back and with The Bean we will conquer those peaks and drink in the magnificent panaramas this range exposes over New Hampshire and Vermont. And W has to be for Weather. I am of the opinion that if those bonkers nutcases that boarded the rickety Mayflower in 1620 had not landed at Plymouth and colonised what became Massachusetts, that it is entirely possible it would have been left to it’s own devices. It seems to me, a girl used to a little cold and a little heat that no-one in their right minds would willingly settle in this climate of extremes. In my year-long tenure the temperature plummeted to -24°F (that’s -32°C) and rose well into the 90°sF (40°sC) with high humidity in summer. I, being British, am hard-wired to be weather obsessed. I make no secret that had I my time again it would be as a weather girl and in idle moments I can be found practicing my sweeping hand gestures (with back to map) and seemlessly eddying between hilarious weatherly quips and serious warning face. Here though my fascination snowballed (quite literally) into a full-blown mania and I found myself lipsinking and second guessing my two favourite weather men Mike Wankum (yes, really and no giggling in the back row please) and the sublime Harvey Leonard. Both are incumbant on WCVB-TV and were I not happily married I might suggest a meteorological ménage-à-trois whereby we would huddle together and discuss the gravity of all the impending storms that we would watch closely for the viewer to facilitate a worry-free day for them, safe in the knowledge that the W-Team had got it covered. And of course we would be zealous in ensuring that all were versed in what effect the weather will have on a Patriot Game …. never mind that juggernauts might be crashing off bridges or houses washed away in floods, the important thing, the really important thing is whether The Gronk is going to get cold toes whilst he struts his finest at Foxborough. And if you are wondering what The Gronk is – Rob Gronkowski is Tight End for the New England Patriots … well you did ask. As a point of interest, last winter brought few storms and relatively little snow (which still seemed a fearful lot to me) to Massachusetts but Harvey was watching all sorts like a rear-gunner in a Lancaster bomber presumably swivelling hither and thither on his stool as he craned his neck for the best view. Despite this, however, he managed to entirely miss the two biggest we had, so twice I opened the back door to let The Bean (6″ at the shoulder) out for her morning airing to watch her quite literally submerge headlong into the snow mountain and then reverse indignantly shaking legs, tail and ears of the cold white stuff that encased her. Comedy value rating 10/10
X. X is for Xing. The first time I saw a sign saying Ped Xing I thought it was some sort of martial art. Then I saw Equi Xing and chewed on what on earth it could be for days. Finally my husband put me out of my misery. It means crossing. So Ped is Pedestrian and Equi is Horse aand there are many others including my favourite Moose Xing which they never did but they might have which is quite beguiling to a dull English girl like me. I don’t know if this is a New England foible but I must comment that America seems to love a little shortening (and not just in pastry). I find it quite endeering though it did make it near impossible for me to complete the weekly X word in the local paper as I struggled with acronyms and initials and generally had to content myself with the kids korner (stet K) to satisfy myself that I could fill in a grid at all and believe me even then it was barely.
Y. Y is for Yard. In France I have a jardin, in England I had a garden and in the US I had a Yard. This took a little getting used to because in England a yard is generally a concrete area and if it is domestic, typically swing-a-cat-at-your-peril tiny. In Massachusetts we have 1.6 acres (almost 3/4 hectare) of which much of the back is woodland. HB2 is proud of the fact that he has left this to be mostly natural not out of laziness but to ensure the wildlife have unimpaired habitat. We have chipmunks and squirrels as previously noted, we have deer and groundhog and skunk and racoons, turtles, toads and snakes and bullfrogs who croak their glorious bass choral mass through the night in mating season beating out their territorial warnings beginning with a loan booming bellow and rapidly escalating as not to be outdone they all join in their admonition of none shall pass here; there are mice aplenty which we discourage from the house and there are opossum. for me, I am ever hopeful that the black bear spotted in our neighbourhood will take up residence in our backyard but so far it has resisted my open invitation to join my Teddy Bears Picnic. And there are birds. If pressed I will admit to previously being phobic of birds and yet the birds captivated me when I was incapacitated by my leg injury and I turned into something of a latterday Snow White. I counted over 30 species from the rudely red Cardinals to the tiny gutsy Chickadee (state bird of Massachusetts) and graceful bluebirds which had me whistling Zipadeedoodah zipadeeay tunelessly; little Titmice with big startled eyes and mourning doves with their soft gill-of-field-mushroom-pink plumage. And occasional visitors including brown headed cow birds, grackles and starlings who fly in lairy gangs and face off like avian Sharks and Jets in a backyard West Side Story. Raptors too flying in on spec and emptying the yard in a fraction of a flash as their threatening sillouette looms stealthily overhead. The chipmunks were keen to nibble up the cast offs of the messier birds, sitting sweetly under the feeders and gratefully gobbling the nuts and seeds that hit the deck, their cheeks swelling comically like a child with mumps. The squirrels were less polite and we eventually conceded that the only thing to do was to give them their own food which they took an eternity to find (squirrel brains are quite tiny I imagine) but once found were bluntly offended if I forgot to replenish them regularly. And Yard sales. How I love Yard Sales. Sometimes they are efficiently advertised for weeks ahead both on a special website and by hanging signs on lamposts and trees and other times you are driving along and just like that, there it is …. the contents of attic, bedrooms, garage, shed, barn or any combination of the above and more spewed onto lawns sometimes neatly laid out and priced, other times just there and ask me. You can pick up fantastic bargains or you can find the owners a little over-confident of the value of their legless dining table – it’s all part of the fun. And finally I must give a nod to one of our neighbours who I am convinced sat with a pair of powerful binoculars trained on his lawn and ran out with nail scissors when a blade of grass was audacious enough to grow taller than his compulsory short back and sides – or possibly he used hair clippers to keep it so epically uniformed but I’m sure he remains appalled at our un-American approach to grass as a status symbol …. for me I’m happy to let it grow awhile because those dandelions are so damn pretty!
Z. Z is for Zucchine which ranks high amongst the vegetables that I had to remind myself are named differently than I’m used to. A zucchine is a courgette, an eggplant is an aubergine, a ruderbager is a swede and so on. This is not leading anywhere except that I haven’t forgotten my promise that I will write a piece devoted to the tangle you can get in when speaking English in America and vice versa. Z should also be for Zamboni. My first Ice-hockey (or more correctly, if I’m in the vernacular, just plain hockey) game was in Cambridge between Harvard and Cornell. I have been to a couple of games in England where it is a low-key sport but this was much more serious and although I must report that it was not the gmost exciting of contests – end of the Varsity Season and all played out, I imagine, I got the flavour and mostly I got to dream of driving a Zamboni in the break between each period. I too could sit like a casual cowboy on his non-bucking bronco, ironing that ice to sleek perfection and effecting effortless turns as I float on my grandiose and frankly heroic beast to the unfettered admiration of the packed stadium. Or at least that’s how I imagine it would feel. In fact it’s probably rather a self-conscious exercise and as thankless as the groundsmans task on a cricket pitch …. we see it, we admire it but we never really acknowledge it …. And finally Z is for Zzzzzz which is probably what you are doing now that you have endured the whole of my saunter through my sojourn in the States. I thank you for staying with me and I’ll see you on the other side ….
PS: If you want to read the other nonsense in this series simply type ‘The Question is’ into the search box – I shan’t be offended if you don’t. And as your long-service medal, here are my favourite moments from The Bridges of Madison County. I am you see, hooked on the memory of you, USA.