Thursday, January 31, 2013

The End of an Era

They said it would start in the spring of 2012 and be over by August. Then it was to begin in July, then August to be finished by October. But the scaffolding—in preparation for our new windows—did not go up until the day we returned from our visit to the States in mid-September, 2012. Even then, however, they told us the project would be over by Christmas.

Through hail, wind, rain and snow; I bet the workmen
wished they had begin the project on time.
Well, since that day in September, we have been looking out of our windows at a criss-cross of galvanized steel pipes. It looks unsettlingly like a prison from in here, as if we have been locked up for some tenant-related misdemeanor like trying to hide holes in the walls by spackling them over with peppermint toothpaste, or turning the spare bedroom into a meth lab.

But, as they say, when life gives you lemons, open a fruit stand and have some underage illegal immigrants work all the hours God sends, selling lemons for 5-cents a day (but that 5-cents is in addition to free room and board; that mattress under the table in the meth lab is a lot more comfortable than where they are used to sleeping) and pocket the profits and buy a jet ski. Well, that’s what I thought they said, or maybe it was something about lemonade.

Anyway, you get my drift. Not one to pass up an opportunity, I was out on my new deck on day one. To me, it was not an unsightly scaffold; it was an extension to my balcony. Not everyone was as quick to seize the opportunity as I was but, over the weeks, more and more tenants began using the scaffold as an auxiliary storage area. As the months went by and deadline after deadline passed, I became so accustomed to my new deck that I realized I was going to miss it when they finally took it away.

This has been my axillary recreation area since last September. 
Well, that day has come.

Yesterday, they began dismantling our recreation decks and storage areas. The front of our building is now scaffold-free and as I write this (no, really, the truck pulled in just as I typed that line) they are getting ready to remove the rest. By this afternoon, the galvanized, steel-pipe prison will be gone.

Accordingly, after the workmen left yesterday, I spent one last evening on the deck. I had a contemplative cigar and a soothing beverage, washed the windows (really, when am I going to get a better chance to do that?), packed up my chair and table, took down the flag and returned to the confines of my flat.

Another era comes to an end, just six months behind schedule.

The men are out there now, wandering past my window, clanging pipes around, taking up the decking. Maybe if I go out there with a flask of tea and a few portraits of the Queen, I can convince them to leave my bit up.

What I'm seeing outside my window at this moment.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


 Bath, as noted in my previous post, is a lovely place. It’s also quite old, dating back to the Iron Age when the settlement was called Bah. This was because they didn’t have a word for “A really pretty place but of limited use,” so when people asked what the area was called they just said, “Bah.” Eventually a settlement grew up around the River Avon and, because “Bah by the River Avon” was too long to chisel into the “Welcome to the Town Of...” sign, they just called it “Bath.”

Bath was discovered by the Romans who assumed, because of the name, that there would be baths there. Imagine their disappointment. So being the world-class engineers that they were, they diverted the hot springs from Hot Springs, Dorset, to the now aptly named town of Bath. Hot Springs, Dorset, naturally, fell on hard times with the loss of the mineral water trade, and is now known as Lyme Regis.

(Incidentally, this is the same thing that happened at the town of Battle in East Sussex; the Normans and the English were looking for a place to have the battle of Hastings and, even though Battle is some miles away, they decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up, so the armies marched out to the marshy fields around Battle and, well, had their battle. But the march tired out Harold’s men and that was why the English lost.)

So the Romans built the baths at Bath and took their baths there and the fortunes of Bath rose, as did several temples, an abbey, Marks and Spencer, an architecturally sympathetic Waitrose and at least one proper cigar shop.

In 1987, in recognition of its outstanding retail appeal (they have a Next, an East and even a Paperchase), Bath was named a World Heritage Site, ensuring the livelihoods of architectural restoration tradesmen throughout Somerset for many years to come.

(Editor’s Note: none of that is actually true.)

Just a random street in Bath; really, just about any place is pretty.

Abbey Green, a quaint and quiet little cul-de-sac.

Because of the tourist trade and their connection to Roman Britain,
people are encouraged to walk around dressed as Roman Centurions.

The main bath with the Abbey in the background; truly stunning.

This is another of the baths, a pool fed by hot springs for a jacuzzi-like experience. 

See, I told you...

One of the things that surprised me was how big the bathing complex was;
the building in the middle with the roof cut away is where the first photo was taken.

No trip to Bath is complete without a visit to the oh so elegant Pump Room.
This is where Jane Austin and her set hung out. When I entered the room,
the music was loud and I told my wife I was going to ask them to turn it down.
Then I saw these guys.

Of course you must have a Bath Bun while you are there!

Um, there's an abbey; sorta okay, but York Minster was better.

Although, Bath Abbey does have this: the holy relic of the
Justin and Janet Wardrobe Malfunction.

This is the Circus, after the elephants have all gone home.
This ring of Georgian houses was build by John Wood Sr. & Jr.
1754 thru 1769

Even the basement apartments are luxurious, though they
call them Garden Flats.

This stunning semi-circle of Georgian homes, just down the street
from the Circus, is the Royal Crescent. When they use it as a
backdrop for period dramas, they make everyone move their cars.

It is a fabulous bit of work, but it was supposed to be a full circle.
John Wood, Jr built this in 1767 thru 1775 and was determined to
show up his dad by making this a hug circus. But then he ran
afoul of the zoning commission so he just completed half of it,
called it a crescent and said he meant to do it that way.
(Editor's note: he's doing it again.)

There is no reason for this photo other than to show my friends
back in New York what winter in southern England is like.

This is an authentic recreation of a Georgian Garden, at the
rear of Number 4, the Circus. Notice the lack of grass; that is
because they hadn't invented lawn mowers yet.
(Editor's Note: that is actually true.)

This is the oldest house in Bath, which means, in 1482, there was just
this house sitting by itself near the river with nothing but fields around it.
(Editor's Note: this, actually, is not.)

Almost anywhere you go in Bath there are stunning sights.
We ran across this--Camden Crescent--during an aimless ramble.

This is the view the people lucky (and rich) enough to live
in Camden Crescent have.

The Pulteney Bridge.

On the bridge; I walked across it without knowing it was a bridge.

How many beers did it take to make this sign necessary?

View as we walked down the hill on the way to the station.

One last glimpse at a very beautiful and historic city.

Sorry about all the photos, but I hope you enjoyed looking at them as much as I enjoyed taking them. And, really, you need to get to Bath.

Monday, January 14, 2013

But First a Word about the Hotel

We just got back from Bath. It is an amazing place. You must go visit it immediately. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Back so soon? Wasn’t it grand? Well, before we start exchanging snapshots (and believe me, I have plenty) I want to tell you about the hotel.

The Lansdown Grove Hotel is a marvelous place with grand views, bright rooms and a staff of polite and accommodating Eastern Europeans. The food was superb, the atmosphere convivial and the overall impression one of olde worlde charm. I highly recommend it.

This was the same hotel my wife and a few of her friends stayed in while she left me without adult supervision back in October and I was, therefore, aware of the dinner routine, which basically assigned you to a table where you sat for the remainder of the week. This worked fine on day one, but on the second day, there was another couple in our seats!

In looking back, I am sure what happened was that this couple had come into the dining room only to find their own table occupied, forcing them to take a different one. The people at their table, naturally, had also likely been deposed from their rightful seats by another deposed couple. All of this could have been traced back to a single, negligent couple who just swooned in and took the first table to strike their fancy. The cheek!

But instead of ferreting them out, we just took a vacant table, no doubt deposing yet another hapless couple. For the remainder of the week, anarchy reigned.

Another notable dining room feature was Natasha. This isn’t her real name, but she never wore her name tag so, really, it’s her fault I have to stoop to stereotyping. Anyway, Natasha was a perfectly lovely young woman, tall, slender, blonde, with an admirable grasp of the English language. But she hailed from one of the half-dozen countries that sprung up like mushrooms after the disintegration of the Evil Empire and, with her rapid-fire speech and thick, Soviet accent, you tended to feel like you were being interrogated by the KGB rather than engaging in polite banter.

When Natasha asked, “Did you enjoy your meal?” she asked it in a way that made you certain, “YES! Very much!” was the only acceptable answer, at least if you wanted to see your wife and children again.

The rooms were bright and airy and well appointed. Ours even came with a balcony and a stunning view. The balcony was a shared walkway, but it was still a nice feature and would have made a lovely place for morning coffee if it hadn’t been so cold.

The coolest thing was, the bathroom was also on the balcony, and it also had balcony doors and a stunning view. A loo with a view, so to speak.

The Loo with a View
My only regret was that the balcony doors in the loo didn’t open; so, although I was allowed an expansive view of the outside world, I was denied the authentic hug of Mother Nature. Pity, that.

The View from the Loo

It was not, however, without its flaws.
Overall, however, the room, like the hotel, was comfort personified; nothing, it seemed, was too good for the guests, which leads me to the bed.

It wasn’t that the bed had a duvet; that I can forgive. For those of you unfamiliar with this device, a duvet—or Continental Quilt, as they are sometimes called—is an all-in-one bed covering and is basically a quilt that you can skin. The business portion of the duvet is a big bag made out of sheets and the quilty bit is a naked quilt that fits inside of the bag. This makes it a snap—literally—to make the bed; all you need to do is grab one side of the duvet, shake it and smooth it over the mattress.

The drawbacks become apparent when you need to wash the sheet bag, which means you have to manhandle the quilty bit out of the sack and then into another sheet bag. This is no easy task, I am here to tell you, but all in all that wouldn’t put me off of them if they weren’t saddled with a fatal design flaw that people (e.g. those who run hotels and boarding houses and who don’t actually have to use them) continue to pretend doesn’t exist: they are terribly uncomfortable to sleep under.

The astute among you have already figured this out from the clue “all-in-one.” If you are covered with a duvet and happen to be sleeping somewhere above the arctic circle between the end of September and beginning of April in a room with the windows open, you will likely be very comfortable; anywhere else, not so much.

When you are covered with the duvet, you sweat like a pig strapped to a barbecue spit. So you throw it off (or, in my wife’s case, pile it on top of your husband) but soon find it is too chilly in nothing but your Winnie-the-Pooh Underoos and, in desperation, devise some method whereby you use 3/5 of your right leg and your left arm up to the elbow as a sort of heat sink for the rest of your body.

This (and the aforementioned quilty bit wrangling) is why my wife and I have gone back to the old-fashioned, inefficient method of a sheet, blanket and bedspread. But I don’t fault the hotel for using them; the savings in time and materials is far too tempting to pass up. No, I fault them for the pillows.

I refer to them as “pillows” only for the sake of clarity, because calling them “pillows” is an insult to pillows. They were, in reality, just pillowcases with a rectangular hunk of some flattened, harden substance inside, providing all the comfort of a doormat. We checked the crannies (and the nooks) in the room and did find the back-up pillows, but all that did was provide us with the luxury of resting our heads on two doormats.

This truly mystified me, because everything else about the place spoke of luxury and customer satisfaction. It’s as if the guy in charge of ambiance went over the hotel accoutrements in this manner: “period wallpaper – check; linen table cloths – check; realistic-looking faux fireplaces – check; French windows and balconies off the bathrooms – check; comfortable bed pillows – um, we seem to be running out of money, just stick some old roofing tiles in a sack, they’ll never know the difference.”

It made for such an uncomfortable night that I felt like going out to the local British Home Stores, buying a couple of puffy pillows and pointedly walking though the lobby with them. I didn’t, and that’s just as well; no one would have caught my meaning.

But, as noted earlier, Bath is lovely, and the Lansdown Grove Hotel, for the most part, exceeded expectations and I heartily recommend you stay there.

But you might think about bringing your own pillows.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Foundering in a Sea of Idioms

Having been in the UK for over a decade, I felt confident I was fully bi-lingual. At a recent gathering, however, I used the term “nickel and dime” (as in, “these fees are going to nickel and dime me to death”) and was met with blank stares.

It was also brought to my attention—via Expatmum—that Brits are unaware of what it means to “get the drop” on someone.

Don't get your knickers in a knot
If I had been made aware of these potholes in my linguistic education, say, a year ago, I might not have made the decision to have a British protagonist in my novel-in-progress, or at least I might have considered having a few Brits scan it for cultural accuracy prior to publication. Despite it being edited by the publisher, and proof-read by a handful of (unfortunately) American readers, Finding Rachel Davenport  has a regrettable number of “Americanisms” in it.

I have to hold my hand up to using the word “pants” several times when I should have known better, but who knew that Brits don’t donate old clothes to the Goodwill?

Also, despite knowing enough to call a” parking lot” a “car park,” I continually, thereafter, made reference to the “lot” (as in, “I arrived at the car park and, when I looked across the lot, I saw…”).

Mutton dressed as lamb
But the best one concerned bobby pins. Somehow, at some point over the past ten years, it came to my attention that bobby pins are not called bobby pins over here, they care called “curly grips.” Or, at least that was what I thought my wife said, and I had no reason to question it as it made perfect sense: they are curly and they grip. Unfortunately, what she had actually said was “kirby grips.”  My heroine, as you have guessed by now, uses “curly grips.”

Perhaps this is why the book is selling much better in the US than in the UK, despite it being a UK-based book: the Americans read right over those things, whereas they must leave the Brits feeling out to sea.

My reaction was to chalk it up as a lesson learned and plan for a more rigorous—and culturally appropriate—proof reading next time, but then the publisher offered to update the text of the novel. Second chances don’t come that often, so I am grabbing this one with both hands. However, I may need some help.

Me re-reading the book for the umpteenth time is not going to catch any Americanism because, in case you haven’t guessed by now, I am an American. And my wife, being too well-acquainted with my American dialect, would not be the best candidate for this exercise, so I am looking for an unrelated Brit (or three) to read my book and report back to me any words or phrases that—culturally speaking—should not be floating around in my main character's head.

(Not really an idiom, but it makes me giggle)
So, if you are British, and living in Britain, and would like to help make my book better, please e-mail me. I can’t promise any compensation (in fact, I can promise no compensation) but you would have my undying gratitude, the knowledge that you contributed to the betterment of a work of literature, and the satisfaction of knowing it is because of you that my protagonist is wearing knickers instead of panties.

There is a time limit, so if you want to help, please let me know soon.

(NOTE: I now have a sufficient quantity (and demographic) of cultural proof-readers necessary to get the manuscript in shape. Thanks to all who offered!)


And even if you can't help, thanks for reading, and don't take any wooden nickels.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2013 – A Retrospective

What’s this? The 2nd of January already! Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday we were saying good-bye to 2012 and looking, with renewed hope, into the New Year. Overall, 2013 has been pretty good so far. As I look back over the year I see it has been warm and tranquil, a time of progress, renewed purpose and fun.

2013 began with me out on the scaffolding (apparently, they are going to make this a permanent feature), playing Auld Lang Syne on the bagpipes. Just a bit of holiday whimsy, but it taught me a few important lessons: 1) preparation is key, 2) even with all the preparation in the world, unanticipated events may still arise, 3) sometimes things work out better in your head than they do in actual practice, and 4) overall, just have fun.

I couldn't get an actual photo of the event;
this is an artist's reconstruction.

It wasn’t a disaster, but I misjudged the amount of space bagpipes require and kept bashing the drones against the gutters, which caused them to go out of tune (the drones, not the gutters), which caused me to think more about the drones than what I was supposed to be thinking about (i.e. keeping the bag inflated), which caused the overall melody to sound less like a tune and more like someone strangling a cat, which caused at least one neighbor to peer out her window wondering just what the fuck was going on outside. Despite that, I made it through the entire song; I had proposed to do it, and I did, and this set the tone for the rest of the year, so far.

2013 began with me freshly redundant working full-time as a writer and I used the changing of the year as the impetus to dive headlong into what writers do; namely, write. It has been a productive time, which bodes well for the remainder of the year.

And the weather was so much better. Unlike last year--a 12-month period crowned with the title, “The Wettest Year on Record.”--2013 arrived with clear, pristine blue skies and a big yellow ball glowing in the east, which caused a bit of consternation until people remembered it was the sun. After that, the cheerful weather enticed us outside to enjoy nature, sweep the cobwebs of holiday television from our minds (“50 Worst Holiday Songs,” “Sappy, Made-For-TV Holiday Movie,” “Sappy, Made-For-TV Holiday Movie, the Sequel”) and begin the long and arduous process of shedding the results of too many turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwiches.

So yes, 2013 has been a good year so far, one we can look back on with satisfaction, and continue to look forward to with optimism and purpose.

What’s left of it, anyway.