Imagine if you will a real-life, modern-day Saint Francis – not all the high-born and father didn’t like his name stuff, but the animals part. The friend to all creatures, critter-whisperer. That Saint Francis. Well, here’s the thing. I know this man. This latterday guardian of all living things. All living things except humans which might be construed as a crucial difference between this man Frank and the Assisian original.
In fact Frank is of the opinion that there are far too many of us human varmints jostling and barging one another through life, and that instead of dwelling on our own selfish needs we need to protect our planet for those that have no voice and no means to halt the uninvited destruction of their world. I imagine his sentiments are perceived at best as highly eccentric and at worst with a great deal of suspicion by many. But much of what he quietly iterates resonates with me.
I had heard much of Frank before I met him. I knew that he had a squirrel whom he had nursed back from injury and who he had recently discovered was in fact Josephine rather than Joseph. She has the run of his backyard now that she is fit and hale again but during her long convalescence had a tree, a full sized tree, in the house to be her natural squirrelling self in. And for the avoidance of doubt, the house is a modest house, in an ordinary street not a gaspingly vast mansion. She is a cared for and nurtured squirrel and he files her claws regularly since she is not scampering around a wide-open space as she would have been had she not succumbed to a speeding car in the particular suburb of Boston that she lives in. His next door neighbour is a Dental Surgeon and he has asked him to make braces for Josephine’s teeth since he worries that her fang-angle is becoming an issue. Not cosmetically, you understand but rather in terms of her ability to gnaw gustily. Excited to meet this tiny mammal saviour, I had rehearsed my appropriate conversation opener. Donning my most charming and inclusive smile, I commented that I had heard all about his squirrel and that in fact my mother is called Josephine. He stared hard and with undisguised mild alarm and softly murmured ‘Your mother? Is a squirrel?’ Seldom lost for words, my powers of pithy response evaporated and the previously alluring smile froze unbecomingly on my nonplussed face giving me a distinct air of rampantly and irreversibly imbecilic. It turns out that there really is no comeback from the disquieting visual of your mother become rodent.
Most people discourage mice in their homes. Frank calls them ‘the little people’ and actively ENcourages them by leaving all their favourite treats in prominent places. He doesn’t shoo them off the table but rather invites them to share his plate. I do not have a word powerful enough to describe what a peace-loving soul Frank is. Strange certainly but bloodless and I feel remarkably tranquil simply writing of him.
Frank is companion and protector to all animals. He is their true and unwavering friend. He does not do this in the name of anybody’s God but simply because he can and he wants to. Surely that is what true friendship should be based in. Love, decency and kindness. This little traipse into the world of Frank is prompted by the Weekly Photo Challenge dubbed Friend. You can potter through the superabundance of delights here, and in honour of Frank and Josephine here are two plumptuous Squirrels partaking of the feasts I put out daily, when I’m in residence, for their delectation in our Massachusian backyard.
PS: The title is stolen from Zeffirelli’s 1972 film of the life of Francis of Assisi, ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ which in turn come from Saint Francis’ own praises for all creatures written when he was very sick himself. I reproduce a little excerpt here because, despite not being of his faith, I am of the belief that a beautiful piece of writing should be celebrated simply for being a beautiful piece of writing, not tainted nor tarred with prejudice, nor owned exclusively by one self-elected sector of society. Simply embraced and cherished. Like friendship.
Praise be to Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures, Especially to my worshipful brother sun, The which lights up the day, and through him dost Thou brightness give; And beautiful is he and radiant with splendor great; Of Thee, most High, signification gives.
Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars, In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair. p. 153
Praised be my Lord for brother wind And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather, By the which Thou givest to Thy creatures nourishment. Praised be my Lord for sister water, The which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire, By the which Thou lightest up the dark. And fair is he and gay and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth, The which sustains and keeps us And brings forth diverse fruits with grass and flowers bright.
And for your bonus, Donovan sings the title song he wrote for the movie:
‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon, I seldom see your tune – preoccupied with selfish misery’ ….
We might be minded to take that line to heart, do we think?
Up in le massif de la Chartreuse where the boozy monks make their famed green elixir, we happened on these perfect primevères perkily posing on the muddy, rocky, thorny path up to Mont Rachais. I love Primrose and can never see them without being reminded of the supposedly curmudgeonly Queen Victoria. When Benjamin Disraeli died, amongst all the extravagant floral tributes was a simple wreath of Primrose with the message ‘His favourite flowers’ written in the Queen’s hand. An unlikely pairing – she the Monarch, he a Jewish novelist, and we are not talking heavyweight tomes here but rather the Victorian precursor to a celebrity memoir with a heavy emphasis on the gossipy, with not an aristocratic bone in his body they nonetheless shared a true and deep friendship that had nothing to do with his being her first minister though I am sure it helped the process immensely. He loved primroses, and wrote to her ‘I like them so much better for their being wild’ a fact with which I am wholly as one with him. The untamed, the untarnished, the unfettered have always called loud to me. There is something remarkable about flora and fauna that survive and thrive with no interference from human(un)kind … a reminder that often the best way is to leave well alone.
I have no particular reason for sharing my simpletons philosophy except that the picture was taken on my road travelled, not the one less travelled by, which is my preferred route but the one I am choicelessly taking with every breath, every heartbeat, every step of this one little life I am living through and in which I try to be as tolerant and uninhibiting as possible for the rather dull and untrumpetworthy reason that I actually do not believe I am any more important than anything on this earth we call home. Certainly no better than the brave primevère blooming in February at 1,100 metres altitude. In fact put like that, I’m rather feeble in comparison, I would aver.
PS: The title is plucked from Hamlet. Ophelia genially berates her brother Laertes, reminding him that he should refrain from pontificating whilst he himself blithely flies in the face of his own wisdom.
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, And recks not his own rede.
If the cap fits, wear it but it’s probably better to tighten your hatband and admit that casting those boulders in fragile huts of glass does nothing whatsoever to enhance one’s credibility.
PPS: If you ever get the chance, do visit Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire (Disraeli’s home) and if you can make it in early spring you will be treated to a carpet of primrose that will melt your heart. I promise. The promises of nature, you see are only broken when she is tampered with.
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 Danvilleand 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.
This Eve of Christmas I wish you all a peaceful and joyous festive season and the hope that whatever path you choose from here that it may bring you to the best of all things yet to come in your life.
My picture, taken in the woods near home in Massachusetts reminds me of the wisdom of Robert Frost and fit’s perfectly, at least in my opinion, the photo challenge set by WordPress this week titled ‘Path’ … if you are twiddling your thumbs for a moment you might like to take a look at the full gallery of beauteous entires here
And PS: I have tended to opt for the road not taken in my own life and it has made a difference which others will doubtless take pleasure in judging the value of. And so, living as I did this past year in Massachusetts which, though not the birthplace was the home and deathplace of Robert Frost, this poem which has been tucked snugly in my heart for as long as I can remember, seems appropriate to share with you as we all gently propel through the holiday season and towards the New Year.
To your undoubted relief, this is the penultimate instalment in the musings of an alpha-betic woman on the occasion of her leaving the United States. Papa to Tango here we go. My father was always Papa to his grandchildren and he was very light on his feet though I am fairly certain he never tangoed.
P. P is for Patriot’s Day which is celebrated each year in the States of Massachusetts, Maine and Wisconsin on April 19th to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord which formed the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775. Since we live very close to Concord (pronounced Concud) we decided to go and watch the re-enactment on the day. And a jolly event it was. We joined crowds walking down the street from the rosette, garland and banner festooned town square passing waiting carriages bearing presumably important dignitaries and gathered in the Minute Men National Historic Park just up from the Old North Bridge where the battle took place. We watched as British Troops in their foolish scarlet coats, fur and feather adorned hats and bright white breeches, not to mention glistening gold braid which was never going to see reputable service as camouflage, marched towards the bridge and the excitement mounted. All of a sudden a shot rang out and the commentator told us that this was ‘the shot that was heard around the world’ I have to confess I hadn’t heard of such a shot before but that is surely because I learned about this period in History from a British perspective because I was schooled in Britain – history is all in the retelling, don’t you find … the drama and tension crescendoed as the British took aim and fired and the rebels, warned by the relentlessly galloping Paul Revere (is that where the word ‘revere’ comes from because he is truly revered hereabouts) that the army was on the move, flooded down on them. All on the little wooden bridge you saw at the top of the last post. Then mayhem. All around me people screeched and bellowed ‘go home Lobsterbacks’ and I, mildly bewildered at the rising zeal mildly anxious at my Englishness in the face of this sudden hostility and probably lightheaded, enquired of a particularly vociferous woman why the Minute Men are called Minute? I was careful to utter the word as I thought it was pronounced – My Newt? Is it, I enquired because they were particularly small? She gaped at me in a way that told me exactly and precisely what a buffoon I am and explained very sloooooowly that its pronounced Minit but I was left no wiser as to what that minute was as she carried on hurling abuse at the British once more, her fervor presumably further piqued by her newfound surety that we are a tiny nation of ignorami.
P is further for Pie … I worship at the alter of all things pie and pastry and in this country pie is a venerable artform. When I wandered into the store the day before Thanksgiving, I was greeted by more pies than I have ever seen collected in one place, in so many varieties as to make my eyes water with glee. I won’t tell you what my favourite pie is … I am after all an international woman of mystery and it is important for me to keep my veneer intact. But suffice to say – you can tempt me with most but the sweet potatoe marshmallow affair proved a pie too far. And P has to be for Poets. This country has produced some of the finest and this corner a good slough of my favourites. We have Longfellow and Thoreau and Poe, we have Plath and Dickinson, we have Stanley Kunitz and at his death there was Robert Frost. It is hardly surprising to me that this place breeds poets of note. I should note the light …. it is quite unlike any other to me …. soft and subtly iridescent. Maybe that is true all over this continent. One day I will discover for myself. I really will. And finally P is for Pompositicut which is the Native American and original settlement name for the town we live in. Forgive me, good people for thinking it said Pompous Idiot when I first arrived ….
Q. Q is for Quantity. I am used to metric measures and I am used to imperial measures. Here in the kitchen I must use a cup and in the car I must remember that a gallon is smaller than I am used to. This is something that makes my childish husband smirk – a ten gallon hat is smaller here than in Briton. I rather think that the average Brit would look foolish in a Texan 10 Gallon let alone a magnified british one. The bet bit for me is that my US Dress Size is two numberals lower than my British one meaning that I can almost kid myself that all the pie has not made a jot of difference and indeed has mysteriously sylphed my figure …. Q is also for Quite. One thing I had to understand quickly was that this word is actually very complimentary. If something is ‘quite nice’ it means it is really good. If you quite like it you are genuinely enamoured – it is a word to express enthusiasm rather than the dullard, non-commital rather average way it is used in Britain. And Q is for Quaint. I was born and raised in a place that would certainly be thought of as ‘quaint’ by Americans …. thatched rooves, little brick or stone cottages, white-wash and half-timbering are plentiful though of course the myth-busters can compile a polar opposite list to pop the utopian bubble very easily. But, you see – I find it ‘quaint’ here … the houses clad in wood painted in a luscious variety of colours, the veranda’s and porches and the churches some brick some wood but always with a white spire reaching optimistically towards it’s heaven.
R. R if you know me at all was bound to be for River and in particular because it runs close to the house here and I have spent SO much time walking by it, the Assabet. And running. Our go-to running trail is along the river so I guess R must be for running trail too.
And if you know me a little better than at all there will be absolutely NO surprise that R is for Rowing. I’ve been to two big events this year. The Women’s Varsity Boatrace in Shrewsbury in May which is in effect like the Oxford and Cambridge University Boatrace in Britain but with many crews rather than the two blue boats doing herculean battle one on one. The top crews will decamp to Henley-on-Thames in June for the Women’s Regatta and I can report from personal experience a few years ago, scarily good they tend to be too. In October we headed for the Charles in Cambridge to watch the Head of the River race there. Head races, for the unitiated are time trials and taken from a rolling start. The river is broad and not a snip to navigate and some of the classes were clearly particularly hard fought. The carnival atmosphere was infectious and although Rowing can never be regarded as a spectator sport the crowds were clearly undeterred by that very minor detail. My daughters will all attest to the uninspiring vision of watching rowers battle it out on river or lake, having spent many many hours of their childhood watching mummy compete or more accurately getting distracted by something much more interesting, like a blade of grass and altogether missing mummy’s glorious triumphs. I am scarred by their collective disinterest.
S. S is for Sport. Sport is a mahusive part of the culture here. As it is in Britain and in France and probably in most places. But there are differences. The obvious is that what I call Football they call Soccer and it is a minor sport. Football is like armoured rugby and fanatically followed. Our local bigshots are The New England Patriots and everything stops for a Patriots Game. I watched the Superbowl Final (not featuring The Patriots last season) on TV in an attempt to feel American and understand the game. By the end of the match I can confidently say that I do. I think. And that I hope one day I will go to a real game. And take part in a Tailgate party in the stadium parking lot. This is where you mass cater a huge picnic amongst a group of spectators and basically have an al fresco banquet in the carpark served out of the boot (or trunk) of all your huge trucks and SUVs. I believe this, in itself can get a trifle passive-agressive competitive amongst the ladies but this may be an urban myth. Then there is Basketball (local side The Celtics) where it is an advantage to be at least 6′ 7″ tall and lean like a runner-bean with un-naturally long legs and arms. Ice Hockey also favours tall people (as does football where your shoulders need to be as wide as you are tall and the upside down V is further enhanced by enormous body armour) and is possibly the most violent game I have ever witnessed. I was therefore quite shocked to discover that a Mini Mite starts out at less than 7 years old straight into playing the full game thus batised and fired like little iron-men they progress through Mite, Atom, PeeWee, Bantom and Midget before fledging as Juniors at 18+. To be frank I wouldn’t tangle with a Mini-Mite let along a Midget. Our big side is the Boston Bruins but I have only been to a Harvard-Cornell college game which was quite tame in comparison to the professional game presumably because it is somewhat important not to flirt too zealously with concussion which is an ever present risk even with the compulsory and quite gladiatorial helmets. Finally there is of course Baseball (Boston Red Sox) …. this is played in summer and I found myself slowing down many times as I passed school teams playing – let me tell you THIS is the stereotype of America that a dull English girl like me imagines. It really is. Baseball players chew tobacco and spit and the pitchers seem to develop rather pronounced derrieres. I don’t know why. And S is for Salem. Famed for the Witch Trials of 1692, Salem was also one of America’s most influential ports. Brimful of history it is also an extremely laid back and slightly offbeat place. Very artsy and full of excellent restaurants I have a love of it and it has to be included.
T. T is for T. I haven’t lost the plot. The T is the public transport system for Boston and Greater Boston region. Run by The Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority no-one has yet been able to tell me why it is called The T. But if you want to get about Boston you’d better buy a Charlie Card and hop a subway or bus rather than try driving in a city which is only for the brave or foolhardy and probably both. I get the subway from Alewife (pronouced Al Wife) to Park Street on the Common and find it surprisingly restful particularly when it chugs across the wide expanse of The Charles. I like The T.
T is also for Trash. We have a huge bin for trash and a gigantic bin for recycling provided by our trash contractor, which is very green and pleasant. Our trash goes out on a Tuesday which makes for a satisfying American Alliteration. I try not to be prone to being over-interested in what others do which might sound odd given that my writing is all observational but I have no desire to be Pinnochio. However, having spent a year here I couldn’t fail to notice that one of our neighbours manages to fill to overflowing and beyond both bins every week. How do you produce so much waste in one household (apart from the fact that the pizza van is a nightly visitor) and what sort of an example is it to the two children who are part of the family. And why do you never shut your garage doors … do you encourage deer and racoon to reside there? And mostly why do you walk across my front lawn as though it is your right and let your two dogs poop on it. It is time for me to go, there is no doubt because these questions have begun to permeate my nights, riddle my dreams and have me rehearsing withering retorts in the bathroom mirror. When I return, which I hope to next year, I will endeavour to maintain my swan-like serenity but if you do read, in the Boston Globe that there has been a hideous trash-related incident in Metro West Massachusetts and a deportation has resulted, it’s been nice knowing you ….
PS: Because it’s another song that surely sums up America to an English girl, here is Don McLean with his monumental American Pie. Singalong, please do!
The top and bottom pictures were taken in Autumn, the fourth season I passed here.
On Thursday, I will have been here for exactly a year and to mark this significant anniversary I will be leaving on a jetplane not knowing when I’ll be back again. As it rightly should, that decision rests with the venerable United States Customs and Immigration Service.
It has been a captivating sojourn in many ways and so as I prepare to depart, I leave you with an alphabetic homage to the melting pot of things that I’ve loved muchly, not loved quite so muchly and been altogether bemused by whilst living an everyday life in this USA.
Not wishing to tax you, I’ve divided the alphabet into 5 almost even chunks so today we have the Alpha to Echo of ‘Osyth Stateside’:
A. Let’s start at the very beginning, which is, Miss Andrews tells us, a very good place to start! A is for American and the first thing you learn here is that being American means a micro-awareness of your heritage which one is given by way of introduction. ‘Hi, I’m Delores O’Fanakapan …. my father was Irish-American and my mother was German-American but my Great Great Great Great Grandfather was actually Swedish-American’. The builder who is working on this house is Italian-American and always says ‘ciao’ at the end of every conversation but was entirely confused when I spoke to him in Italian. He’s not Italian. His ancestors were. You can buy an Ancestry DNA kit for $99. I’m altogether tempted …. Which brings me to A is for Accent. To be very clear, I don’t have an accent … I speak what the British would regard as BBC English circa a distant and all but forgotten epoque, but here my accent is an object of fascination. My husband has a Scouse (person from Liverpool) accent, particularly when folded into the bosom of his family, and sounds entirely different to me. I would be ribbed as posh in Liverpool, but here we collectively have a British accent. It’s not unsual for people to simply not understand us. Therefore I have developed a sort of verbal tick – I automatically repeat what I have just said but very very slowly and a little too loudly. And I smile. A lot. As for the language of American English – that deserves a post all of it’s own and it shall get one. Suffice for now that I speak American like a Spanish Cow in the same way as I speak French comme une vache espagnole.
B. B is for Beaver … they live here and are probably no more exciting than a badger is to a Brit but for me they are a source of amazement and delight. From their tree felling to their lodge building to watching them silkily cutting through the water and stealthily, silently diving under for a quite breathcapturing length of time in the river at the end of the road I am captivated and I will miss them deeply and achingly. I would include B is for Bear because we have had recent sitings in our town but I haven’t seen one yet so it feels a little like cheating. Instead I will say that B is also for Biscuits which is VERY confusing for a well dragged up English gal. A biscuit is what I call a scone and I would serve it with butter and jam and if I was feeling greedily decadent, clotted cream, but here it is served with gravy which isn’t even vaguely brown but palest creamy white and it has bacon or sausage broken up in it. What I call a biscuit you call a cookie. Biscuit means twice cooked, cookie’s are definitely once cooked because they are delectably chewie and often absolutely gargantuan. Biscuits in my venacular are dry and snappy. Rather like me. It’s fine though, no hard feelings – I’m very happy with your biscuits and I’m extremely satisfied with those cookies. And I do know that you know about scones too … and may I say that B probably should belong to Baking because heavens to betsy you people can bake!
C. C is for Critters … where I, as an English girl have wildlife in my garden you have critters in your yards. And they are all SO cute! C is especially for Chipmunks with their tails at 90 degrees to their bodies like a flagpole and those squidgeable little stripey faces … honestly and surely, no-one could say they are not adorable. I had one in the kitchen on a hot day in summer. I don’t know who was more surprised. Fortunately The Soporific Bean didn’t notice …. The critters here include skunks (they walk SO slowly and awkwardly it is hardly surprising that they get rolled over on the roads a fact that is signalled by their singular stench from a great distance) there are turtles and frogs and bullfrogs that belch and groan in chorus all night long in summer, which I find surprisingly restful, and we have a groundhog that lives under our shed, there are raccoons (generally referred to as bandits) with their masked faces and little leather gloved hands and pink tailed oppossums and there are squirrels – big fat bruising greys that are sometimes black and look like they’ve been pumping iron and steroids and little red ones that nip about at a crazy pace and treat me to their finest squirrel pose when they find nuts or corn to nibble. We also have ground squirrels which I believe to be the love-child of a red squirrel and a chipmunk – perhaps I should try Ancestry.com DNA on one ….
D. D is for Diner. I worship at these holy temples. They vary of course but the good ones …. with wonderful staff who fill your cup with coffee tirelessly and cook breakfasts and lunches or that combined wonderment called Brunch … eggs, bacon, sausage, home-fries and a short stack with oozing butter and smothered in maple syrup must rate as one of the finest of fodders the world over. And the opportunity to eavestrop on the best of intimate conversations ranging from politics to pumpkins and cosmetics to contractors is irrisitible. Or I could drive by D for Dunkin’ Donuts (‘America runs on Dunkin’ if you didn’t know) but my husband doesn’t. In fact recently at our nearest Mall and suffering from terrible bun-lag (a condition discovered by my mother many decades ago which is that moment when you are shopping and you start to fade and only cake will revive you), I persuaded him to queue with me at the Dunkin’ (by the way I don’t think there is a single community, plaza or mall n Massachusetts, birthplace of Dunkin’, that doesn’t sport it’s own, however small) … he is a man of fastidious palette and I don’t think a Dunkin’ has ever passed his lips – I was so sooooo tempted to go for the Reeses Peanut Butter filled caramel topped cream donut but the look of absolute and abject pain and disgust on his face made me volte face and opt instead for a sober plain pumpkin ring. It was nice. It was really nice but the regret will live with me ever more (or until I can sneak one on my own and guzzle it in solitary splendour some day over the rainbow).
E. E has to be for Election (that Presidential one in case you are in any doubt) but only to note two things. The first is that I have been genuinely privileged to be able to follow the proceedings at first hand from Primaries to President. And a privilege it is. I noted once before, in France, that my opinion is of no interest to anyone but I was fortunate to see it with my own eyes – watch entire news programmes, read several newspapers and journals, watch the ‘Town Halls’, the debates and the interviews, speak to people whose country it is and who were going to vote for someone, as the spectacle, a gruesome bloodbath that might have been more fitting to an amphitheatre full of baying Romans watching Christians wrestle lions and Gladiators Gladiating, unfolded. I feel extremely lucky and my American friends who have been embarrassed by the antics and apologised – please, there is no need. To be in a country which is electing it’s leader rather than in another gathering snippets and thinking you have the facts is a quite amazing opportunity and I am glad I was here. What I was horrified at was the manner in which the media conducted itself and I do hope that a little less partisan behavior might ensue one day. Sadly, I think it won’t. In fact I have often noted that the British have an unfortunate knack of embracing the worst of this side of the Atlantic whilst seemingly being blind to the many wonderful things they could grasp and cleeve to and it seems the British media is becoming smitten with the same tune so I fear we just have to go with it and try to retain our own faculties sufficiently to understand when we are being beaten round the head with someone else’s opinions rather than being given a plateful of news to sort out in our own sweet way. E is also for Enormous. I thought of making B for Big but it simply doesn’t cover it. Everything is humungous. Cars, trucks, cups of coffee, meals out, banners (starspangled and otherwise), TVs, houses – everything is just so much bigger than I am used to and on occasion I have felt like Alice after embibing the cherry tart, custard, roasted turkey, toffee and hot buttered toast spritzer and shrunk herself to teeny tiny. We drive a mini cooper which is possibly not helpful. And E is for Eggs. I’ll take mine over easy …
So there you have it a little stroll through a few of my favourite things and a nod to my not so favourite. Meet me back here tomorrow and I’ll treat you to my F-J if you can stand it.
PS: The title is from Henry David Thoreau in a journal that he started at the suggestion of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. You cannot, simply cannot be here in this corner of New England without getting immersed in the pair of them. Thoreau’s impact on modern American thinking cannot be underestimated and it is a further joy to me to have been able to walk in his footsteps on more than one occasion.
The first and last pictures were both taken in Winter when I first arrived.
I’m a simple soul and I’m a fortunate one. Not because I have riches that I can greedily count in gold pieces stashed in a safe box in a bank vault in Zurich, not because I have jewels to gloat over nor lands to survey from my ivory tower. I’m fortunate because most of what I need I can get simply by surveying the beauty of a landscape and preferably by being in it. I need little, I lust after less. Mostly. I’m imperfect so I am allowed lapses of grace from time to time. It makes me more interesting. That is my excuse and I will doggedly stick to it as long as I draw breath after which time people can say what they like and I won’t give a damn.
I have been here now in every month that assembles a year (today is November 1st) and I have been here through all four seasons. Fall (Autumn it would be if I was in England) is my favourite out of four favourite seasons. Here in New England it is truly glorious. Nature’s blaze of glory before she breathes her glacial best and ices the landscape and the flesh for the grey and gloomy months of winter. Those months when a blue sky is like a venous opiate lifting the spirits from varying degrees of malaise and doldrum to a frenzy of good cheer and often as not casting one back to the weary treadmill of a life lived in darkness as the days shorten such that you are never home in daylight. I paint a despondent picture – actually I love winter as much as I love her three sisters – there is delight in the darkness, as one gathers oneself into a snuggly woolly pully and drinks cocoa or vin chaud in front of an open fire. And for me Christmas, for others Hannukah, Eid, Diwali, las Posadas, Kwanzaa. And making no apology for hefty comfort food. And snow. Mostly I love snow and ice and frost. So winter I malign you unfairly but Fall you are the Fairy Godmother that transmogrifies landscapes such as this one into a trinket box of ruby and amber and coral sparklers and the once lime verdant slime on the water hushes its tones to paler green lying effortlessly chic on the glistening water like an elegant cashmere shawl thrown casually over the liquid satin evening gown of a ’30s siren.
Yes, I’m a fortunate girl. Fortunate to be able to witness all of this and fortunate not to need more.
I define transmogrify as a magical transformation and not necessarily specifically into something grotesque or comical as Websters insists. For example, Cinderella’s pumpkin transmogrified into a sparkling glass carriage – surprising and enchanting certainly, absurd if you are splitting hairs but not at all freakish or repulsive. Correct me by all means, but I am confident that I have it right. Pedant is my middle name when not using Osyth and it happens that my definition concurs with the Oxford Dictionary and after all I AM an Oxford girl ….
PS: The title is from Pete Seeger’s wonderful song made legend by The Byrds. The lyrics, with a few deft strokes of his own were borrowed from The Book of Ecclisiastes. I think it rather apt to read and absorb his version as we face the last week of the bloody slanging match that is the election here and the equally bloody wrangling in England over whether or not Article 50 should be triggered. I will remain decorously silent in opinion but believe me it is hard for me to tape my tongue on either issue.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
To everything, (turn, turn, turn). There is a season, (turn, turn, turn). And a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap. A time to kill, a time to heal. A time to laugh, a time to weep.
To everything, (turn, turn, turn). There is a season, (turn, turn, turn). And a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to build up, a time to break down. A time to dance, a time to mourn. A time to cast away stones. A time to gather stones together.
To everything, (turn, turn, turn). There is a season, (turn, turn, turn). And a time to every purpose under heaven. A time of love, a time of hate. A time of war, a time of peace. A time you may embrace. A time to refrain from embracing.
To everything, (turn, turn, turn). There is a season, (turn, turn, turn). And a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to gain, a time to lose. A time to rend, a time to sew. A time for love, a time for hate. A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.
My home is in France. I will reside in the USA until mid-October. My heart breaks for this place. Of course my heart breaks for France. It’s my status quo. That my heart is breaking is hardly surprising. Here, numerous lives wasted by guns. In France, just about to lift it’s highest possible security alert after the abominable attacks last year, 84 literally mown down and numerous others injured many left in a life-threatening condition which you can seamlessly translate to ‘if they live they will have a steep slope to climb if they are ever to live a full life again’ in Nice on 14 July. A bloodbath on 14 July in France, by the way, is akin to a massacre on 4 July in the USA..
And then there are those others. The copious blood spilled in numerous locations which cannot have escaped your attention, lives exterminated, bagsfull maimed in other places. None of it is justifiable to a reasonable person let alone a pacifist. None of it is right to a rationalist let alone an idealist. All of it bids to erode my inate and possibly foolish optimism. But I will not let awful un-lawful acts rule my life. I will strive to find a way through.
How so? How on earth? First I must comment that what happened in Nice is in all likelihood not a terrorist attack. You can play with the semantics, of course and you can tell me that most nutters root back to religion, politics or any combination therein that feeds their sick souls but I don’t count that. An organisation has taken the most half-hearted responsibility for the 19-tonne truck deliberately barrelling down le Promenade des Anglais just when it was bound to be full of revellers gathered for le Fête Nationale. They were clearly going to. Fear bolsters up their macho resolve, so to claim responsibility is almost inevitable. Some sort of tenous connection makes us all feel even more scared. When I was growing up in England it was the IRA – any mention had us quivering in our boots, soiling our knickers and feeling very very insecure. The world moves on. Though I must say that I fear that the IRA never really went away. And the recent British Brexit vote that narrowly resolved to leave the EU (or UE if you are French) will add fuel to that nicely weakening fire. So claims are made and responsibility often falsely attributed and we all quake and shake and wonder if we can really really go out of our front door safely and if our babies and their babies and their babies not even thought of are ever EVER going to be safe.
I put two notions to you.
The first is this. We have become an increasingly tiny planet. By this I do not mean that the world has physically shrunk from a big fat fully inflated and energetic basketball to a teeny weeny, possibly depressed ping-pong ball but rather that we know what goes on in every crevice and we feel a part of it where once we did not. Media and especially social media shout and scream at us even when we sleep – buzzing and bleeping and flashing that something is happening. I remember Gerry Anderson’s ‘Thunderbirds’ – I remember those puppets being woken by the bleep-bleep of a catastrophe. And they went out and resolved it. Solved it. Made it all right again. Kept us safe. Now we all bleep and buzz and ring and weep. It is not healthy. We cannot absorb it all. Leeloo in the 1990s sci-fi film, ‘The Fifth Element’ starring Bruce Willis, of all people, could not absorb it without breaking down with the sheer emotion of it, and she was manufactured to be the savior of humankind – it’s too bluddy much for one person, one creation, to take in:
The second notion is born of my idealistic nature. I think that if we can, and do spread love and decency and kindness and tolerance eventually (not in my short life-time), eventually the world will see sense. I will leave the notion of spilling blood to others. But I will give you this thought. This weekend I had a situation that should have ruined my relationship with my husband. This weekend I was told I was hated by his son, by one of his son’s closest friends. This weekend I could easily have told my husband I wanted to terminate our relationship because of his closest kin, his spawn. But I didn’t. I squawked and I cried and I shouted and I threatened but I stayed. Out of love, I stayed. I am imperfect. If I can reach into my vat of love, we all can. I say this because I am absolutely unperfect. Blemished and scarred and not at all pure. So it stands to reason in this tiny brain of mine that we CAN all tolerate if we firstly want to and secondly put a little thought into the process. Here’s the thing, we can all be decent just because we want to be decent. It is absolutely in all our hands and minds and hearts to want to change and to stop being selfishly driven by our own needs and to accept that we are all particular and that none of us is a better particular, a more worthy particular than any other.
The picture is in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge ‘Detail’ – my title is a bastardisation of the known (‘The devil is in the detail’) and the less known but proper (‘le bon dieu est dans le détails – ‘The Good of God is in the details‘). With my mish-mush belief system I can take from both and manipulate you as all good terrorists do. What I will bring to you is the detail of harmony, peace and tolerance – not things that just magically happen but things that require work. My picture illustrates this through the idea of a diversity of lichens co-existing on a rock.
If this is my rock then let it be known that every religion,whatever colour, LGBT, men, women, straight and yet to be determined, able bodied, disabled, are welcome, Don’t rock me and I won’t rock you. Fact.
PS: I find it interesting that ‘The Devil is in the detail’, most notably attributed to 20th Century German Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is the accepted venacular over the original le bon dieu est dans les détails which is attributed to Gustav Flaubert (author of my beloved Madame Bovary) who died twenty years before the turn of that century. God-Devil. Good-Bad … personally I think we are better placed attempting to be good ourselves rather than bathing in books and falling back on them when their language will surely fail us so long after they were supposedly penned.
I’ve mentioned before the wise advice of a friend to ‘find the purpose in the way things are’. The last three months have necessitated reaching out to those words and hugging them close and often.
Let me elucidate. When I moved to France. To Cantal. To the pays perdu that I persist in calling home, I cleaved to it. I knew I was home. Clock forward two years, two months and a few days and I was thrust into a New World. The New World. A doddle for a cosmopolitan gal like me.
Or not. The fact is that I struggled to settle and root even a little here. The fact is that my heart and my eyes and ears and all my senses were gazing, reaching and yearning for France. The fact is that I went through the motions every day. I strove to get myself into a groove on my long playing record that would make a melody that I could sing along to. Hallelujah and pass the tambourine, I got there. I AM here. And I now honestly feel that I can love the one I’m with (or more accurately, in). I have retrieved my inner explorer and pressed re-set. I am finding so much to be enraptured by. And why on earth wouldn’t I? What an opportunity I have. To live on another continent, find the beauty and the warts and the eccentricities and get under the skin of a place that is such a collosal collision of cultures that a few meagre months or years can never do it justice. And, I finally get to live with my Two Brained husband – one love. My love.
The picture? Walking up Mount Eisenhower in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was a tough walk up because, apart from being relentlessly uphill and steepish, at the time I had neither crampons nor poles to walk with and above the line it was frozen to the sleekest shiniest glass whenever the canopy of trees gave a skimpy opening for the glacial breath of winter to polish the ground with her frigid glaze. And all of a sudden this …. my Narnia moment. Paradise frozen – water (my enduring love) stopped in it’s tracks until Spring decides to wave her wand, scatter her fairy dust and let it flow once more.
PS: The quote is C.S Lewis from The Problem of Pain … known for the Narnia Chronicles it is worth getting to know Lewis, the Christian writer whether or not you believe in his God. He said ‘love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness’ and though I am a true devotee of kindness I support his assertion unreservedly.