31 December 2009

Oh Ten. Wait, that's not right.

Last weekend, while trying to describe our usual new years eve activities, I realized how silly our custom of watching 15 seconds of a three hour show just in time to watch a great big sparkling ball come down is. And how difficult it is to describe. I mean, what the heck is that about? It certainly reinforces my theory that new years is a fairly pointless holiday, though the year has to change sometime. Nevertheless, it is a good opportunity to evaluate my, um, goals from last year.

Now, most importantly, I did get a good flashlight for work. Thank you LL Bean. I haven't gotten any further into reading the Bible, so that goal will be tabled to next year. Other than that I'd like to write more, even if I have nothing to say. I'd like to do a better job trying to understand people. But my top priority is to finish this wild ass plan strong, and not to lose sight of why I'm here.

Oh, and write my 600th blog post. Done!

This was the first year ever I didn't have anything specific to do on new years eve. I am missing our big family gathering: an insane day of grazing, gift giving, good food, and catching up. Oh, and squeezing 40+ people into a room built for 10.

28 December 2009

Christmas in Shrop-shurr

There are a few things that make a British Christmas decisively British: crackers and crowns, pudding, roasted parsnip, mince pies, baking with alcohol, brussel sprouts, and boxing day walks. Over my Christmas break I had or experienced all of those things, making it a very satisfying time. I stayed with a lovely family in the county of Shropshire, a highly underrated beautiful place where England really looks like England. The family have two kids, neither of whom I could understand (at least for the first couple of days.) Though kids with British accents are pretty much irresistible. We baked together, saw the countryside, and ate tons of delicious food and met some cool people.
We visited the town of Ironbridge, where not coincidentally the worlds first iron bridge was built in 1779. Fun fact of the day. We also did some post holiday walks in the famous Shropshire hills, giving us wonderful views of the surrounding area and into Wales. We visited a Bronze age (2000-1400 BC) stone circle at Mitchells Fold. It's no Stonehenge, but it is pretty neat and even better that it is in the middle of a field of sheep. Legend says that a witch was jailed here after trying to take advantage of a magic cow. Those pagans!
In Shrewsbury, the birthplace of Charles Darwin, we drove by the sights in this medieval town and stopped in Attingham Park, a beautiful place with a big mansion and great grounds complete with a deer park. (Oh, and 'Wellies', first worn by the duke of Wellington in the early 19th century (another fun fact!), are tall rubber boots, usually required for jaunts into the English countryside as it is quite a wet and muddy place.)
On Christmas eve we were wrapping presents, filling mince pies, and hanging decorations. At least in that house, stockings are filled and left in each childs' bedroom rather than by the chimney with care.
A note on mince pies and Christmas puddings. Well, firstly, Christmas pudding isn't pudding at all, it's fruitcake. And mince (at least now) isn't meat at all but a sweet mixture of raisins, apples, and currants, marinated in rum for a few weeks. Likewise, Christmas pudding is made potentially months in advance and "fed" with liquor every few days. That's my kind of cake. On Christmas day the pudding is ceremoniously covered in brandy and set on fire. A good time is had by all.
Christmas crackers are a pre dinner activity, pulled apart with a snap and contain a paper crown, a toy of some sort, and an extremely corny joke. (we theorized that the cheaper the cracker, the more painful the joke, but really, they're all bad.) For example: "How do snowmen travel?" answer, "On Icecycles" Ow, my brain!
Oh yes, it is impossible to pronounce Shropshire properly with an American accent. Just forget the 'r'.

23 December 2009

If Only in My Mind

This Christmas is guaranteed to be outside of my normal. Completely away from home, rather, in someone else's home. I am being hosted by a family in the county of Shropshire (or Shrop-shurr) as I pronounce it.
HOST is a program where local families can host international students for holidays and weekends throughout the year. I am very lucky to get a Christmas placement, and it will be even more interesting as I will be sharing the experience with a Taiwanese student. The hosts themselves are a family of four, both children under six, and I'm told that for Christmas, the house will be filled with in-laws and friends as well. The host family seem really nice and they must be, as they get no compensation from any of the parties involved and host students merely for the good experience.
I am certainly looking forward to tucking in to a traditional Christmas dinner and am most curious as to what exactly comprises a Christmas pudding. I'm sure all my questions will be answered. As for the town, I'm thinking Dibley. There are less than 2000 residents in the area, and they asked me to bring my wellies. Always a good sign. Further, it has been snowing on the entire northern hemisphere except for Coventry this past week, so I'm really excited about seeing some of the white stuff. (Sorry home state, I'm sure you're sick of it by now)
I'm hoping that the season will be so far removed from what I usually do that it will dull the ache of not doing it. So, my bag is packed, my mother has most kindly furnished me with some thank you gifts from home, and I'm ready to hop on the train.

With all my heart, Happy Christmas.

22 December 2009

The Gym

"The Gym" is not a phrase which often passes my lips. For much, well all really, of my adult life, I have been a conscientious objector to the gym. All through school it was abundantly clear I was not sport inclined. For most of that time I believed I was being clever and practicing good civil disobedience as I refused to run around a track. The rest of the time I was being ashamedly lazy. (To be honest I still think that running should be reserved for fires.)
Thankfully, though, we can evolve. Here I can admit that I have been going to the gym for the last few weeks. Several things have motivated me, obviously a healthier lifestyle, jaffa cakes, it's now too cold to take the bike out, rain, Christmas, and perhaps most importantly, my accommodation fee includes membership to our sports center. So not going is a waste of money!
With mild irritation I endured the required gym orientation, but a combination of a very nice leader and my fascination with a treadmill that has a TV, and scales that measure in stones, something changed. Initially I was only interested in spending time with the stationary bikes, though now the bike is probably my least favorite thing to go on. I still never touch the treadmills. But, suddenly, I am over the idea of changing rooms, testosterone fueled weight lifters, and sweating in public, I am a convert. Now I say things like "I'm going to the gym." and even I think I've misheard.
I have happily made going to the gym part of my week. Weird.

17 December 2009

Caerdydd

We arrived in sunny Cardiff after a long bus ride and early wake up call. Because it was right across the street, we went straight to the National Museum of Wales. This museum fulfilled all of my nerdy needs: natural history, welsh history, and fine art. From dinosaur bones to Monets, it is quite the place. Something for everyone!
After seeing all we could and accidentally trying to read all the explanations in Welsh, we explored the city center. I think Cardiff is downplayed a bit as a capitol city, it is bustling to say the least. We explored it’s large pedestrian shopping areas, Christmas market, city market, and the ubiquitous, really old church.

We found our hostel and checked in without issue. I think I have been spoiled in my hostel experiences, as they’ve all been great. Due to it being winter our six bed room was never filled, and overall the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. But really with a free breakfast and huge shower (by any standards, let alone hostel standards) how could it go wrong?

The next day we got an early start to visit Cardiff Castle. It goes without saying that parts of it are really old, and by old, I mean the original castle wall dates back to the Romans. Of course, the Normans had quite a lot to do with fortifying it, and over the last centuries it has changed a bit, and its last lucky owner lived there because they could. Now many of the interior rooms are restored to whatever period which was convenient or pretty. Beautiful if not historically accurate as the Victorians liked old stuff and thus replicated it quite a bit.

That afternoon we successfully used public transport to get to St Fagans (they didn’t ask me to name it) National History Museum. This is a huge open air museum with 100 buildings on the property. Only two of these building are original to the site, the rest are from all over Wales, meticulously taken apart, transported and reassembled on site. To see them you’d think they’d been there forever. The buildings then have been furnished with period furniture, and have historical interpreters inside or local artisans, making wool blankets or pottery. It really is a lovely place and what’s more is that it is completely free.

In the evening they had their “Christmas Nights” event. After wasting an hour and a half in the one and only local pub, we went back to the museum and along with hundreds of others enjoyed Christmas crafts, Welsh carol singing, and very strange Welsh winter solstice traditions. It was really moving for me to see people young and old singing familiar carols in Welsh, it really felt like it was a bonding trait for everyone there.
One of the bizarre traditions the reenacted is called “Mari Lwyd.” In this instance a bunch of people carry around a horse skull singing a traditional Welsh song as a way of riding the town of evil spirits. I think today it’s used to scare the pants off of children.

We made it safely back to town and the next day went to Cardiff Bay. Once and still a very important port for the UK, now it's inner harbor is very posh and has many restaurants, theatres, and is very pretty. (sounds like another town I know) We enjoyed the visitor center, visited the church were Roald Dahl was baptized, and explored a lightship. The weather was a bit freezing and clouds almost completely obscured the actual water. But we made the most of it.

So, this entry got a bit long, but Cardiff is a great place. I am won over easily by free culture and mild weather. Plus, all we had to do was stand on the street looking slightly confused and strangers would ask if we needed help. What a city! I’ll brush up on my Welsh, and hope I return soon.

12 December 2009

Playing the tourist

Lesser known than the Shakespeare sites, Stratford is home to the UKs largest tropical butterfly farm, which as it turns out is an excellent place to visit. Even if you have a passing interest in butterflies, it is easy to be won over by seeing hundreds of them flying around a beautiful (and warm) setting. They also have Chinese quail, some other tropical birds I can’t identify, a room of rare (caged) insects from around the world, and the completely unmentionable room of (also caged) giant spiders. After spending about two hours there, we still had time to waste in beautiful Stratford, before our trip took us to Warwick.

Famous mostly for its huge, restored, and very intact castle, Warwick is a relatively small town outside of Coventry. I wasn’t planning on going to the castle, as it is very expensive (£18 for an adult) but I was overcome by the allure of a reduced student group ticket. I’m glad I went, it is a very beautiful place, and in winter, not full of tourists. Many of the estate rooms are restored to various periods, from medieval to Victorian. We walked around the original part of the castle dating to the Normans as well. Climbing the towers, although tedious, gave us great views of Warwick and the Avon river which runs past the castle. I have never in my life climbed as many spiraling staircases as I have in the last month. The whole thing didn't take nearly as long as I had expected it to, and everyone was back to the bus early.

06 December 2009

Lincoln, lincoln

This Saturday was the last of the International Office trips for the year. We went to Lincoln. And if you think that's random, you're right! But, like many random small towns in England (I am learning) it is full of charm and history.
I think my book will now be called “The giant cathedrals of England and their surrounding areas” as now that I think of it, the last three weeks I've been to three different towns and the first thing I've done is explore their ancient and huge cathedrals. With good reason. They are all beautiful and fascinating and Lincoln Cathedral is no exception.
The original church was built in 1092, dating it back to the Normans. Parts of the skeleton of the original church are still visible today, and things can be said like "That doorway is older than your...well everything." Like most old British buildings it has been through a lot; fire, earthquake, spires blowing off, and a complete collapse of the central tower, have shaped the cathedral into what it is today, an amazing building.
We climbed the dizzying staircase to the bell ringing chamber on our 'roof tour'. We couldn't see the 12 bells in the tower, but in the ringing chamber 12 ropes come through the ceiling allowing the bells to be rung without deafening the ringers. On the day we were there, the bells were rung for three hours in celebration of the Christmas market in town. Three hours of bouncing up and down pulling ropes tied to heavy bells, coupled with the ensuing sounds, I fear would drive most people insane. The effect it has on the town is far more enjoyable. They started ringing while our tour was going and it was surprisingly quiet even though we were standing in the room just underneath the ringers.
Anyway, enough about bells. We also were able to see what is basically the attic of the nave. Here, huge English oak crossbeams and original wood joints hold up the 800 ton lead roof of the church. It is amazing to think that it was built so long ago, before cranes and I beams, and most importantly before safety regulations.
In its far more recent history, some of the church was made to look like Westminster Abbey for the filming of “The Da Vinci Code.” Though if memory serves, I’m not sure the townspeople were too happy about that.
After an excellent morning, we headed to the medieval part of town and the cacophony of 12 church bells gave way to seasonal music as we entered the Christmas market. The concept of a Christmas market is something new to me, and it seems that every English town attempts to out-do its neighbors and the German originators of said markets. I don't know if they're anything like actual German Christmas markets, but they are pretty great. And popular. The crowd was so thick on Saturday that I probably could have stopped walking and let the crowd carry me. The visiting buses were strictly coordinated as well as the pedestrian traffic. People in their hi-vis coats annoyingly used bull horns to direct the crowds. Their all important messages were usually "please stay left" and "keep moving" oh, how helpful!
But despite the mad crowds, we were able to enjoy some Lincolnshire sausage, and visit the museum of Lincolnshire life, where they had Victorian "persons of the past" giving out mince pies and using annoyingly accurate vocabulary of the day.
All in all, it was a very nice day, and though I am again influenced by the lack of rain and mild temperatures, I am convinced that it would be great to visit Lincoln again when the market is not going on, when one could slowly wander down the cobblestoned streets, give the castle a proper visit, and see their copy of the Magna Carta.

02 December 2009

Helimed 53

Today I took the bike to the airport to do a site visit of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, whew! Better known as WNAA or by their call sign of Helimed 53.
Everyone was extremely nice and accommodating to my silly questions. This helicopter runs with one pilot, a paramedic, and a doctor. Having the doctor is "really handy" as they can do all sorts of crazy things in the field including thoracostomy (chest tube), thoracotomy (chest 'cracking'), surgical airways, clamp bleeds, amputations, RSI, etc. They average about five "jobs" a day, but like many medivacs, get canceled quite a lot.
All medivac helicopters in the UK are funded entirely on private and corporate donations. This really boggles my mind, as where I work, the helicopter is funded through billing, and where I live, it is funded through taxes.
Throughout the year, all of the medivacs have fundraisers and PR activites to raise awareness. In fact, some busses in Coventry have a WNAA ad on them. All this is pretty amazing to me as they cost millions of pounds a year to run, just in maintenance. Well done citizens of the UK!
The helicopters are staffed by NHS employees and members of the military. When the aircraft is grounded, the crew go out on a fly car to bring the doctor to the scene.
I had a nice chat with the crew that was on, and a cool tour thanks to the pilot.
Luckily, I beat most of the rain on the ride home, and about five minutes after I left, I heard them flying overhead, off to another job.
Unfortunately due to strict air laws, I can't do a fly along. But I do sense some time on the doctor fly car in my future. Until then, support your local air ambulance!

01 December 2009

Advent

Today (well officially Sunday) is the first day of Advent, the season of Christmas. A couple of weeks ago I received a mysterious box from my parents, not to be opened until now. I have no idea how she fit it, but inside a shoebox, my Mom has put 24 envelopes to open throughout the month and one Christmas present at the bottom. I mean, seriously! Once I stopped crying, I was able to open #1 and I have a little more idea of where this will be going. It was a piece of my favorite toys ever, playmobil. Will update. (Oh and yes, you must be crazy, which is why I love you.) It is pictured below with my official Top Gear advent calendar.
Here is a great article about how this calendar is contributing to putting "Christmas in danger of becoming an empty shell into which we stuff all our fads." Personally, I think it's brilliant. C and I are big fans of the show and I think a TG advent calendar isn't any worse than any of the non holiday themed ones I've seen here (High School Musical and Hannah Montana jump to mind).
Besides, my first fact was "Some say he thinks 10 lords a-leaping are just too many." That's holday related!
Even our extremely Christmas themed advent calendar at home became the source of some controversy. Once both the felt angel and star were revealed, they often mysteriously swapped places for the top of the ajoining Christmas tree. (It's a nondisposable felt tree for which each day you get a velcro-backed ornament for it.)

To feel loved and cared for is truly all I need to survive.