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Finally, Brethren

Writer's block happens. And it really, really sucks.

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In Stores Now: Hallomas

After seven years, it's finally happened: I've gone native. I don't mean the accent (which I will probably never pick up very thoroughly), a tolerance for large quantities of rain (never gonna happen), or even my tea addiction (which existed long before I ever set foot on European soil). I mean that it is only October, and I have been getting ready for Fauxmas for weeks.

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The Hostel Cake Story

Hostels. The word conjures up a vision of a slightly quirky, decidedly downmarket crash space, full of long-haired, unwashed hippies, toting hiking boots and hefty rucksacks.

I'll categorically state that that's not usually accurate. I stay in hostels quite often, and while I have been in places that fit that image perfectly (New Orleans and Zermatt come to mind pretty readily) a surprising percentage of the people I've met have been retirees, and most of the places I stay are cheerful, clean, and apart from the fact that you're in a dorm with bunkbeds, pretty close to a hotel.

That said, I'm pretty sure I'm the first person to haul a stand-mixer into a hostel.Read more...Collapse )
I don't like autumn. Or warm tomatoes. I'm not keen on peanut butter. And soup isn't one of my favourite foods.

So have no explanation for why I'm so pleased that the chilling weather means it's time to pull out recipe for West African peanut butter soup, a recipe I only fix seasonally but really, really love.Read more...Collapse )
I've been in the Midlands for several months now, long enough to feel rooted and like this is home. The Greyfriars, at least: Worcester itself still feels like a place I'm trying to learn. I know my immediate neighbourhood quite well, but I don't have that dug-in, familiar-with-all-roads feeling like I had in York. South of the Severn is completely terra incognita; I think, from driving through it on the road to the Malverns several times, that it's mostly suburban housing. Much like York, Worcester "proper"- the stuff I actually really need to know about- is within the figurative city walls (we had them, and they're mostly gone- the bottom of my garden is part of the only stretch with any remaining stonework) or immediately nearby. My house is unsually happy in its situation, geographically: I can easily walk to virtually any shop I could need, I'm on the one really lovely, historic street in town, all the good restaurants and quirky little independent shops are right on my block, and while there are lots of pubs and clubs on the next street down, making it a bit raucous at night, my street is dead quiet. (It doesn't hurt that the house is walled in and fortresslike.) I've got the one actual garden, with trees and flowers and green space where I can go out at night and, city lights notwithstanding, see the stars. And I can walk down to the river in ten minutes and enjoy the peace of being by the water.

If I don't go around the streets of Worcester with the same blissed-out, how-did-I-get-so-lucky feeling I had in York, I do feel that way about the house itself. I couldn't pick one aspect I love the best. Having space- lots of it- feels wonderful; I've never really adjusted to the small-house scale of England. I continue to marvel at all the myriad of quirks- the sagging, wonky wood floor in my bedroom, the fact that half the windows can't be opened, the raw beams in the living room, the way absolutely no angles in this house are right and the corners are never quite flush. Even though it thrills me intellectually to think that I'm living in a building that existed during the period I study, and the house does feel saturated with history and stories, it's not a museum. There's nothing prissy and precious about it. I love it here, but like all the best loves, I'm conscious of its drawbacks, too: like the Villa, it is always cold inside. (To which someone always counters, "Oh, that'll be nice in the summer", but let me point out that we're having the coldest spring in aeons, and anyway, yes, cool is nice in the summer, but there's a certain low temperature past which one still does not want to go, and, yes, I will be wearing sweaters indoors in July.) All things taken together, I can't think there are many available places that I'd enjoy living in more.

Of course one of the big adjustments, at least on the surface, is the fact that the house is a National Trust property and parts of the building are open to the public during the afternoons. That means that volunteers and staff are bustling in and out, and now that the weather is a bit better, there are lots of people sitting on the patio drinking tea. It's actually nowhere near as strange as you'd think it might be. Really, it's just traffic, much like having the Villa right on the sidewalk meant you had people occasionally walking past. For the most part, they leave me alone- one thing which has surprised me is how few people stop to peer in the windows. I am perhaps aided in my privacy by the fact that there are bushes and ivy all over the front of the house, two, three feet deep, so people can't get their noses right in the window, but you'd be surprised by how few people even try. Or maybe that's just me, being one of the nosiest creatures ever concieved: if there's a window I will look, if there's a door I will try to open it; I tend to assume other people share that quality. Generally, I stay out of the way when there are groups around; I wouldn't really sit in the garden most afternoons anyway, between work and trying to avoid sunburn. But I also don't mind the bustle. In Somerset I felt terribly cut off from the rest of the world, and that's less of a problem here. I can always go out and say hello to the tourists or volunteers if I fancy (though mostly I don't), and I'm friends with the property manager, which is rather nice. One odd thing is that we get weddings here on a fairly regular basis, and it's strange to see wedding parties and brides scuttling around what is essentially my front yard. (We tend to stand around outside and comment amongst ourselves about the dresses and the hats.)

The only real drawbacks are that I can't just take the car in and out whenever I want to, not just because of the property being open (and my driveway right in the middle of the afternoon's tea shop) but because the street is pedestrianised during the day, and the fact that I'm wary about singing in the shower, since the bathroom is situated as the open-to-tourists end of the building, and I'd rather they not hear my ghastly warblings.

In all the times that I've gone to historic properties that have residences, I've wondered what it must be like to live there, to be those people. I can't say that I've stopped wondering that, but now I tend to answer myself: it's just like anything, really. It's just your life, and it doesn't seem weird. Hopefully you have moments of realising that you're incredibly fortunate to be there, but for the most part you just do your thing. Life doesn't change because you're in a house that other people come to as tourists: you've still got to do the cooking and the laundry and whatever your day job is. And sleep is still sleep in a four-poster Jacobean bed.

Historic Houses Make Me Lose My Mind

It's now official- and officially public knowledge- that I'm moving. I'm still not sure I've quite assimilated this fact, despite the boxes piling up in the living room.
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The Verdict on Les Mis

Musings on the moment when, for the first time in five years, I got my ass into the cinema.
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No Words

Unsurprisingly, given my accent, I'm often asked where I'm from. It's a bit of a complicated question, because there are lots of potential answers I could give, but the answer I will always give is "DC and Connecticut". After all, during the ten years before I lived in England- ie. my entire previous adult life- that was home, DC during working times, Connecticut in the summers and holidays. I never bothered to get more specific, because people here tend to have a rather shaky grasp of American geography (understandably- it's a bloody big country) and anyway, who on earth other than a local would know where Newtown was, anyway?

As of last week, pretty much the whole world.

I was in Sainsbury's on Saturday morning, waiting for my friend O. to buy her breakfast, and happened to glance at the newspaper. I rarely read past the headlines, but a school getting shot all to hell in the UK was a rarity and I wondered where it was. I almost passed out cold when I saw the caption- pretty sure I yelled "Holy shit" in the middle of the store. I had to read it three times before it made any sense. Newtown, Connecticut. My Newtown. Place of Christmas drives with my sister at midnight to get diner coffee. Of drinking margaritas on the deck and lighting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. Town where I have spent hours combing the library for yet more ancestral names. Home of my family for about thirteen generations. The town my ancestors founded, where their bones are buried, where, for ten years, I went, like following a homing beacon, any time life in Washington got too complicated or messy. Newtown, the place where the weird coincidences of my life rooted. Where I could always find my own center of gravity because there, more than anywhere else in the world, I knew who I was because I knew where I'd been.

I can't write about what happened there, because I can't make sense of it. Not in an "it could never happen here" sort of way, because anything can happen anywhere, really, but because I keep thinking, Anywhere else in the world. I'm not wishing a mass murder on anywhere, but I can't shake the feeling: Couldn't it have been anywhere else and spared that one beautiful place that means so much to me?

It's simultaneously too far away and too close to know how to process it. Unlike my sister S. the Elder, who lives there and who tends to be overly empathic by nature, I can't cry or even feel anger, not viscerally. I'm not a parent. I can't relate. To try to feel a genuine grief for people I didn't know seems like an appropriation of what is, by all rights, theirs. I'll never be able to comprehend even a fillament of what they're going through, so I'm not going to try.

Their tragedy is a billion times worse, but the lesser loss belongs to everyone even remotely connected to Newtown. What's been lost to those people is Newtown itself. From now on, Newtown won't be a place that is graced with our individual memories, it will be defined by this collective, terrible memory. It won't be somewhere that has to be pointed out on a map, it will be located in the national geography next to Columbine- a place you've only really heard of because something awful happened there. In my mind's eye, I'll probably always see first the ancestral houses and the library and the cemeteries when I think of Newtown, just as I always have done- but everyone else will forever think "Isn't that where all those kids were shot?" Iraq and Persia may occupy the same ground but they don't mean the same thing. And that's what this feels like, two different places in the same space.

So I don't have any eloquent words. Just a lot of trying to figure out what Newtown will mean to me in the future, and what it will be like when I'm there again. It makes me physically sick to think that the place where I spent a few days this autumn, thinking how wonderfully unchanged it was, is, in essence, gone. I don't know what will take its place. Life goes on, but you can never go back to before.

Whistling Dixie in the South of England

I got up early this morning to mow the lawn*. In between emptying out bags of wet, chopped grass, I heard it on the breeze: a car horn. Playing "Dixie".

Most anyone in the States has probably heard this at one point or another, especially if you've spent any time in the South. But here, in semi-rural, very English Somerset, it struck me as peculiar. After all, it's not exactly a feature that comes with a new car- you have to very deliberately go out and track down, and install, a car horn that will play this piece. What, I wondered, does it mean to have your car play "Dixie" in England?

"Dixie", in America, is inherently encumbered with baggage, and what it means there depends on where you are specifically, and why you've installed it, and what sort of thought process or knowledge informed that decision. A lot of people, especially in the North, tend to assume that it's got to be in a ginormous truck, probably with a Confederate flag on the back window, driven by a redneck named Bubba. All of which is quite unfair, and every bit, in its own way, as racist- or classist, or something -ist- as the beliefs probably assumed to be possessed by said truck driver. In reality, I've heard "Dixie" piped from everything ranging from the aforementioned stereotypical truck** , to minivans, or fancy sports cars, driven by anyone from teenagers or business men. (I'm not implying that this is a common choice for a car horn, but I've definitely heard it in several cases that defied the presumed stereotype).

Maybe it's because the Civil War is my secondary historical period, or because I'm a reenactor, or maybe it's because I'm into genealogy, but I absolutely believe that it's possible for someone to embrace "southern heritage", with its flag and its music, without in any way embracing the bigotry that is assumed to go with it. The two aren't inherently the same thing. That's like saying that being proud of my English heritage means that I think colonialism was a great thing and we should take back India. (It wasn't. We shouldn't.*** Obviously.) You can be proud of your ancestors without condoning or agreeing with everything they did. (Come on- my ancestors were Puritans. Do you honestly believe that I approve of almost anything they said/did/believed? Or vice versa: they're none too chuffed about their liberal/feminist/atheist/theatrical many-greats granddaughter.) While some people- politicians especially- Republican politicians especially- do use the "heritage, not hate" slogan to cloak the racism they don't wish to publicly admit, I believe that other people use that expression, and act upon it, in absolute sincerity.

But that's in America, where the complicated subtleties of history are only dimly understood by most people anyway. How much less must it be realised here, where it's someone else's past and cultural baggage? England has a very different heritage with respect to issues like race relations and slavery- we got rid of the latter quite a while before America did, and it was never the enormous social and economic institution/factor that it was in parts of the States. I'm not going to say that there isn't such a thing as racial tension in the UK, but it falls along different lines, and is the result of different circumstances, so it just doesn't manifest in the same way. And while it's far from socially acceptable in most of America, I daresay it's even less kosher on this side of the ocean.

So what does it mean to have your car horn play "Dixie"? Is it a nod toward home from a Southern ex-pat? Is it in the vehicle of a fellow reenactor? (Interestingly, England does have a large number of reenacting groups dedicated to the American Civil War; one of them was the first organised reenactment society in the entire country.) Does it belong to someone who saw Gone with the Wind a few times and has some sort of faux-nostalgia for a fictional idea of the South? Is it as simple as "it's a catchy tune"? (It does work well as a car horn.) Perhaps more importantly: does "Dixie" carry any real baggage here in England? What assumptions would my neighbours make about that driver? Does the owner of said horn realise that, were he in the States, it would be impossible to avoid confronting the question of meaning made by his choice?

Of course I have no answers. But it calls into question all sorts of bigger issues about cross-cultural phenomena, whether across borders, oceans, or time. Can we ever really understand the nuances of meaning in the trappings of a culture not our own? In this case, it's not just a few thousand miles, it's also a century and a half of layers upon layers of issues. What does that kind of distance do for other things- for example, the plays that I work on? I wonder: in another five hundred years, will a car playing "Dixie", anywhere in the world, even raise these questions? Hard to remember now, emotionally, that the end of the great play cycles, caught in the teeth of Reformation, must have been hugely controversial, heartbreaking, and complicated for the people living through it. Fighting to get one more year in was inevitably putting an ideological stake in the ground, even if, at heart, maybe what you were really fighting for was one last fun hurrah with your guildmates. And now it's had to see how it could matter if the Marian sections were played or not, how the character of God onstage could be a problem, how a series of amateur dramas could pose any real threat to the monarchy.

Maybe in time the edges wear off, and things like "Dixie" or the Confederate flag won't carry the multiple, complicated, controversial meanings they do today in the States. Maybe those things never existed here in the first place. But since it'll be a few centuries before we get there to find out, I still don't have any answers about "Dixie" right here, right now.

* The intermittent rain-and-sun cycles that define English weather mean that grass grows ridiculously fast, and that's is extremely hard to fit in mowing since the rain is the more frequent of the two options. I would normally not want to do this on a weekday, much less haul my butt out of bed to do manual labour, but between the weather, lack of time, and upcoming travels, I realised that, by September when life settles down, my front lawn would resemble the Amazon.
** Albeit in northern Michigan, which is actually a lot more racist, in my experience, than most of the South.
*** We should, however, be damned thankful for the infusions colonialism gave to our cuisine.

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Settling In II: Me & My PhD

Although I'm still in the very early days of my PhD, and am as yet in no way an expert on the process, I've already learned a great deal. I don't just mean about what I'm researching (where what I've learned so far is that getting access to the information I need requires acts of congress and/or deities, and may not even exist once I get there), I mean in terms of the process, on a personal level.

I'd love to tell you that I'm getting up bright and early, having a healthy breakfast, sitting down to work for eight hours, doing the housework, maybe reading a good book or going for a run, and then going to bed, and doing it all over again tomorrow. That's the sort of schedule we're accustomed to think of as "working" or at least "the way grown-ups conduct their lives". And I tried, I really did. But it's just absolutely incompatible with the way I work, with the way my body functions, and so lesson number one has been that work on this project has to be sculpted around my own way of doing things, rather than the other way around.

I'm used to multi-tasking certain chores, and this isn't something I can do while there's anything else going on. No telly, no music, no conversation- just dead focus. Which, in turn, can only be sustained for so long- I do not, as it turns out, have an eight-hour, monotrack attention span. After about an hour of Serious Concentration, at the very least a bathroom/tea/Facebook break is required for the maintenance of the longer-term attention span. On some days, with this system, I can put down more than eight hours, and I'm quite pleased with that. On others, it's like my brain has been invaded by ADD moths, and I either have to wait until they settle down, or accept that I'll do what I can around them, but it's not going to be great. Fortunately, over the course of a week, it probably averages out fairly well.

Also, I've found that one of the best ways of keeping the ADD moths at bay is not to get up early and start right away. This should be a no-brainer, because I've been a night owl since birth. A burst of productivity midday, and another one through the evening, seems to be the best way to get things done. So my bedtime is 2 a.m.; except on days when I have to get up early to go into the library, thereby totally bolloxing the schedule, it just seems to work best. And I'd rather be exhausted for one day, than non-productive for five.

Like anyone, I imagine, I'm more apt to really work hard when things are going well. Already this is a bipolar rollercoaster: some days I'm banging my head at the wall, totally frustrated, and other days I feel like I'm really making progress. I suspect that I won't have a very clear picture of the long-term trajectory of this until after I can get to the national archives in London, which, at this rate, won't be until mid-September at the earliest. Unfortunately, the work this week has been more a case of Learning What You Can't Access (right now or ever) than making arrangements for what I can see. The past two days were more along those lines, whereas today started off with the delivery of a book from Amazon that I really needed for some foundational information, so I'm feeling at least slightly more perky.

I can't wait for the autumn, when the library opens back up completely, when they Olympics are over and London is once again visitable, and I can start to feel like I'm actually really going somewhere with this. I'm still pretty uncertain about how much is going to actually be out there, which may necessitate a restructuring of the original plan, but that's okay- one of the good things about this particular PhD was that I didn't come in with a Very Specific Project in mind; I knew there were several options, all of which were good, so I'm not mortally wedded to anything and will not be totally gutted if it proves unviable in its current incarnation. Meanwhile, I know a hell of a lot more about midcentury Britain than I ever would've expected, and I'm far more knowledgeable about the Festival of Britain- and, moreover, what hasn't been written about the Festival- than I was two months ago. And that, I suppose, is exactly the progress I ought to be expecting at this point.

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