Joining an English Family

Over this past weekend I had the opportunity to stay with a family in northern England. I was initially told I would be Shap, but when I asked about the town to the family, they let me know that I was actually closer to Penrith in Cumbria county. It started with a short three hour bus trip from Edinburgh. For some reason, this trek warranted an intermission at a truck stop. Since I hadn’t eaten dinner yet, I was forced to get some grub. My options were slim and I was not about to pay £5 for a chilled “egg-mayonnaise” sub. I ended up getting some onion rings to tide me over at the local fast food place. It was called, “Wimpy” and the onion rings were delicately plopped into the deep fryer directly from the freezer bag. Aside from being the store most likely to fail in America, Wimpy had some terrible “chips.” I boarded the bus again full of hot grease and general unhappiness. Luckily the family meeting us at the random parking lot (along with all the other families) was incredibly friendly. They had already loaded up on groceries for the weekend and we chatted on the drive through the countryside back to their house. The family consisted of two teenage girls, their mother and a wonderful pooch.

The first night consisted of a home cooked meal and generally awkward conversation. To make the situation worse, my stomach was grumbling loudly throughout the meal. Each uncomfortable lull in conversation as accompanied by a symphony of MMMMAAAHHH and GRUHHHH from under the table. Finally, the thirteen year old erupted, “Does anyone else hear that noise?!” I was petrified. Luckily the mother (either because she knew it was me or was completely deaf) replied that she didn’t hear anything and change the topic of conversation. A few minutes later, the girl piped up again, “I think it’s the dog, she’s really loud tonight.” I hated to use the nice, and relatively quiet, dog as my scapegoat, but I refused to come to it’s defense and ruin my first impression with my new family. The rest of the evening past without incident and assuming they never stumble on this entry, I think I’m in the clear. We played a lengthy game of Trivial Pursuit (this particular “international” version was impossible) and hit the hay. A small note on the extent of warmth of the family: the two daughters gave up their rooms to the visiting students (there were two of us and we’d been roommates during orientation) and refused to let us share a room. The mother slept on a couch and also refused to move.

The next morning we met their neighbors and headed off for a hike around the nearby lake. It was windy and wet, but that seems to be the usual forecast here. One of their neighbors was a tall Englishman with a heavy accent who was very entertaining, when I could understand him. He made plenty of jokes about the weakness of the American dollar and soon we were trading friendly put downs about each other’s countries. He remarked how easy it was to be an American History major, because “you blokes don’t have any history at all!” The walk consisted mostly of dodging huge puddles on the path and snapping pictures of the expansive, gray and windy landscape. The entire area reminded me of a mountainous and foggy Maine.

Even though the conditions were less than perfect, it gave me a great feel for the region. I was impressed by how many elderly people were out walking and particularly a group of four men in there 70s who had the veteran “fell-walking” poles and looked completely at home on the trail. We ended our hike with a cup of piping hot chocolate in the nearby town, which greatly resembled a ski-town. Finally, we picked up some haggis to celebrate Burns Night and headed back to our little cottage by the river. After dinner we enjoyed tastes of a variety of whiskey and while it’s definitely not a drink of choice, I’m beginning to appreciate the subtle differences in flavor. The neighbors came over and we spent the night discussing town lore and other gossip. Everyone was friendly from the minute you met them and I immediately felt at home.

The next day we woke up late to the surprise of a sunny day. Our host family led us out on a walk all around their area and soon we were cutting through sheep herding pastures, streams and what felt like back yards. At one particular gate I was greeted by a large ram who slowly followed me and progressively picked up pace until I was running away trying to get pictures of the whole affair. I barely escaped by slipping through another gate and on the return walk he thankfully kept his distance. The countryside was remarkably quiet and peaceful, reminding me of a mix between Maine towns and Virginian farms.

Castles, Cemetaries and Assorted Old Things

Over this past week I randomly ended up in a cemetery in downtown Edinburgh and I visited the iconic Edinburgh Castle for a full tour. Last weekend I went out to wander around the city and explore some neighborhoods I hadn’t seen yet and along the way I noticed an old stone entrance that was ajar. As I wandered in a nervous looking woman came out. I shrugged off the suspicious character and explored further. As I meandered through the tombstones and monuments looking for an Elliott, I found myself at a large memorial for David Hume. Yes, the David Hume. Buried in a crumbling old cemetary without much fanfare. Next to his resting place was a memorial for the dozen or so Scottish soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, which I had instantly and incorrectly identified as a cenotaph for Lincoln. At the top was a quote and simple statue of honest Abe (I had to attach a picture for you, Pops).

On Wednesday I got up early to spend a full day touring the Edinburgh Castle with two friends. I wish there were some crazy adventure that came out of it, but frankly it was a castle and there were items you would expect to find in a castle inside. For Scots, this clearly is the crown jewel of the city (and not just because the crown jewels are housed on the site). While checking out the tiny church at the highest point we were approached by a lively guardsman who proceeding to give us a rundown of major events in the castle’s history and then his own family history. He made a point to stress how not all young people were Neds and that some, including his son, were a shining example of success and civility. After wandering around the castle some more we noticed him making the same speech to a new group of visitors. There was plenty to see in the War Museum, but we went through it pretty quickly due to a certain member of our party having an aversion to military history. Based on the artifacts I’ve seen around the city, I think I’ll have many more opportunities to see ridiculous medieval weapons.

Aside from the gas masks and and piles of old weaponry (including assorted “knuckle dusters“), the creepiest sections of the war museum were the life size dioramas. Most scenes were a single figure with a backdrop and a short story. My personal favorite was the tale of Private McBain at Malplaquet. Apparently as he was passing his wife, she handed him their infant son, but as he was on parade he just kept marching with the baby. They marched right into battle and he fought with his child in his knapsack. It took me a while to notice this crazed man had a baby in his knapsack, so hopefully this picture will do it justice.

I’m off to Shap, England for the weekend, so hopefully I’ll get some pictures, meet some new people and return with a few good stories.

Haggis. Neeps. Tatties.

Finally. I had the notorious haggis. Much to my surprise it looked like ground beef and tasted incredible. There was a spicy after-taste and it was very filling. Deep down I knew that it was a pile of mutton thrown through a JuiceMan and then wrapped in the poor sheep’s stomach, but all in all, it was fantastic. If I ever have the opportunity in the future (which I certainly shall), haggis will be on my plate. As for the “neeps” (turnips) and “tatties” (mashed potatoes), I’m not so sure, they were equally pulverized and didn’t add much to the meal. As for presentation, the Scots definitely go for the straightforward approach. My dinner looked like it had come from the Sloppy-Joe Lady in the cafeteria. Finally, here is a picture to prove I had it.