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Christmas Letters England

Letter from the Lake District: Christmas 2013

The Christmas lights on Regent Street in London

I’m writing this year’s Christmas letter in front of a crackling fire in the resident’s lounge of possibly the best pub in Britain, the Britannia Inn in Elterwater, Cumbria. Our trip to England has so far been an embarrassment of rural idyll riches, having started in the Cotswolds where, for the first two weeks, we requisitioned the flat of our dear friends (a.k.a., Rupert and Ralph) and finished out the remaining work weeks of the year. We’ve now embarked on the northern leg of our journey to spend Christmas and Boxing Day with husband’s family, starting with an interlude in the Lake District.

The Britannia Inn, Elterwater, where we nearly divorced while arguing over the answer to Maggie Smith’s Oscar winning film during the pub quiz

Between all the bucolic bliss, we managed to spend 2 nights at the Portobello Hotel in Notting Hill, which I highly recommend if you want to feel like you’re in a Richard Curtis film. The room featured a freestanding bath tub with a view of a private garden (yes, just like the one Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant broke into in that film). Breakfast in the sitting room consisted of the most beautiful heap of scrambled eggs sitting atop a piece of toast with the crusts trimmed off. It arrived, of course, beneath a silver dome. All this pampering didn’t come without its price, but seeing as we were celebrating husband’s 39th birthday for the tenth time, it seemed apropos.

Favorite breakfast ever. Certain it was made by Mary Poppins.

We also managed to indulge in a little shopping, spurred on by the discovery of the charming shop, Stumper & Fielding on the Portobello Road. On a stretch of London that’s been blighted by tat, Stumper & Fielding is a bastion of English sartorial standards, from Tootal scarves to Loakes brogues. Husband got so carried away he purchased a pair of booties of the latter make in a size too big, a fact he failed to notice until he had marched the length of Kengsington Gardens, Hyde Park and Mayfair to deposit ourselves at the Duke of York’s theater for an evening of Jeeves & Wooster (splendid, go see it if you’re in London). Blistered and bruised, he hobbled into Stumper & Fielding in the morning to find that, amazingly, for only a pittance to cover the re-soling, they were willing to exchange the shoes. What could I do but buy myself a velvet-collared Harris Tweed blazer to express my gratitude at their professionalism?

Husband, crippled by his new shoes, leans on his favorite shop

Here I will pause for a moment to acknowledge my self-consciousness at the outpouring of wonderful life-ness I have just directed you to read. I fear you may be finding this year’s Christmas letter devoid of the gleeful Schadenfreude you had hoped for, and I wish to provide comfort. You see, this is a Christmas round-up letter, which means I am practically legally obligated to only write about pleasant events. Rest assured that I, in fact, pay very good money to a very nice lady each week to divulge my life’s tribulations. I think we can all agree that’s the appropriate place for such strife.

I did toy briefly with the idea of telling you about my challenges earlier this year of finding an MS medication that didn’t involve a needle and feeling like I had the flu on a weekly basis. But then I was reminded of the dreaded part of my weekly telephone conversation with my mother in which she debriefs me on the maladies of people I last saw thirty years ago. Terribly dull stuff, so, suffice it to say, I have settled on a twice-daily pill that also happens to be used industrially to make foods taste sour. Its worst side effect is to occasionally give me ruddy cheeks. If it makes you feel better, you can also use the MS narrative to justify the indulgence described above—you know, ‘life’s short, live it while you have your health’ kind of stuff. But, let’s face it, we both know I was a skilled indulger before the arrival of that dratted disease.

You may also take some comfort in the fact that my first book, Americashire, failed to, ahem, crack any bestseller lists. Somehow, despite this, it was the highlight of my year: a fantastic education marked by some terrific moments. These include meeting my fellow inaugural She Writes Press authors at our joint event in Berkeley in May and collecting the Indie Reader Discovery Award for Travel Writing at Book Expo America in New York in June. Husband was a supportive presence at both, and a big hit with the literary ladies. I also have a debt of gratitude to all of you who so patiently put up with endless self-promoting tweets and Facebook posts. Some of you were even so kind as to buy the thing and write nice stuff on Amazon and Goodreads. Thank you. You can’t imagine how much your actions mean.

Me at Book Expo America, prouder than I have any right to be

Back in California there were highlights, too, including our BYO Zen sitting group, seeing husband’s two idols, Shatner and McCartney, on stage together in a benefit for the Los Angeles Shakespeare Center, and our discovery of Ojai, or, as we like to call it, the Cotswolds of California (which I wrote about here). And so, friends, I think this place of gratitude for the year is a good one from which to take my leave. A pint and a packet of Scampi Fries await me in the pub. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Ask and You Shall Receive

All is redeemed at the Eltermere Inn. On our last morning I noticed the small print on the breakfast menu imploring me to enquire if I desired something not listed. And so it was that this golden treat arrived on my table.  (Still no foil packets of Robertson’s Silver Shred though.)

One of the things that will be hardest about going back to the States is giving up my laissez faire attitude towards food. I can hardly remember those pre-European days when a croissant was considered a treat rather than a staple, to say nothing of bread fried in lard (admittedly still considered a treat). I know before long I will be back in the land of skinny lattes and calories listed on menus. For now, pass the fried bread.


Elegy to Eltermere

We are back in the Lake District for a farewell visit, although husband has forbade me from using words like goodbye, last, farewell, and final in the run up to our November departure for Boston.  Call it what you will, but the the truth is I am busy soaking up my favorite experiences in England while it is still convenient, i.e., the Atlantic Ocean does not lie between them and me.

We are staying in the same hotel where we have stayed most years since before we even lived in England, the Eltermere Inn.  I wrote last year of its gentrification, which has continued unabated in the thirteen months since we were last here.  There is more glass-encased taxidermy and our favorite room has been collapsed into the room behind it to form a suite with, what else, a claw foot bathtub in the center of the rear room.  Shame there isn’t a hot water tank at the hotel large enough to supply two consecutive baths in it (guess who got the first bath?).  Never mind, I still had my Lakes breakfast featuring fried bread and marmalade to look forward to.  But no, as I found this morning the fried bread is gone from the menu, leaving me to nibble on a delicate eggs Florentine.

And so against all better judgement I offer up the ode to fried bread that this hotel’s breakfast first inspired me to put on this blog some years ago:

Fried Bread & Silver Shred

As a Yank I cannot abide
Beans in morning, even on the side
But when staying in the Lakes
Fried bread for breakfast I embrace

Transforms mere grain to food divine
Layering of fat and tart
‘Tis a culinary art
Echoed in things much esteemed:
Fruit compote and foie gras terinne

Golden toast and tangy ‘lade
Coin in which I’m gladly paid
For my labour up fell and crag
Richly fed I shall not lag

Books England Europe

Remembrance of Things Past

Turns out Proust was an apt choice for my “lite” summer reading. Last weekend’s break in the Lake District was filled with nostalgic musings brought on by the fact that the hotel we have stayed in every year for the past five years has changed hands since our last visit.

On the surface the new owners have made improvements. Paint and soft furnishings have been changed from florals to tasteful neutrals, tongue and cheek taxidermy graces walls and mantel pieces, and vintage accessories of the riding boot and croquet set variety are strategically dotted in corners of rooms. In other words, it now looks like every other country house hotel in England. The menu, previously of the home cooking variety by a lady named Viv, now has the same scallop with pancetta and pea puree type repertoire found in every gastropub in England (not that my scallops with pancetta and pea puree were unenjoyable). Jam served at breakfast comes in shallow porcelain ramekins instead of the foil topped plastic packets of Silver Shred I once paid homage to on this blog. And all these changes are reflected in the average age of the clientele, which used to hover around seventy even when you included husband and me. In a hotel of fifteen rooms I counted only one elderly couple, she sporting the reliable female OAP attire of ped socks in wedge sandals, he nodding off on the couch in the lounge after their 7pm supper.

Husband and I made good sport of lamenting all the so called improvements, the edge of which was taken off by the amazing (that’s an average day to you in L.A.) weather and the splendid isolation of the place, features that a lick of sage green paint and a stuffed owl in a glass box don’t change. Still, I’ve noticed in our middle age we are getting more and more sensitive to changes in places we hold dear. Earlier in the month in Paris we spent the best part of an hour venting our disgust over the appearance of a Lacoste shop on the site of a former crumbling down patisserie in the Marais. It wasn’t even a good patisserie—I once had a very mediocre lemon tart there—and yet there was something unmistakably violating about the appearance of the shiny new global retail brand in its place.

All this longing for the way things used to be makes me feel old and boring. We’ve become the kind of people who like the memory-fueled idea of a place more than the place itself, and, even worse, are prone to wheeze on about it. The only remedy I can think of is rather palatable as far as medicine goes: time to book a vacation to a place we’ve never been before. Then we can complain the whole time about new things.

Books England

Summer Reading

The New Yorker summer fiction issue arrived this week, which got me thinking about summer reading. In my California days, summer reading meant something along the lines of reading The Da Vinci Code by a hotel pool while sipping on an over-priced piña colada at 11AM without guilt. In other words, summer reading was a blissful reprieve from standards, both literary and moral, observed in other seasons.

Summer reading this year has meant something altogether different. Here in England it is the run up to the longest day of the year, and we have been enjoying daylight until nearly 10PM for weeks. On those mid-week nights when husband is in London and I am in the Cotswolds on my own, I retire to bed by 9:30PM for a benign menage a trois with my French companions, Marcel and his precocious, mommy- obsessed protagonist of In Search of Lost Time, to enjoy some day lit summer reading. In reading Proust I am not abandoning my customary June relaxation of standards but rather making good on an old—2009—new year’s resolution to finally read the fabled author. (The truth is I wanted to read Alain de Boton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, but I didn’t feel entitled to do so without having attempted Proust first.) The novel is slow going, dense stuff but not without its rewards. There was the madeleine incident early on and, later in Combray, I recognized the compulsion to capture a place — the landscape and seasons and walking through them—that I feel about the Cotswolds.

Husband and I will be in the Lake District this weekend for the longest day of the year, enjoying an early celebration of our ninth anniversary. The hotel in Elterwater is a converted country house with the most perfect lounge for reading, complete with comfortable chairs, a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding fells, and a kettle and biscuits. (Even husband, who finds movie watching to be a far superior form of leisure to reading—in which he only indulges via The Economist and Hollywood biographies—can read for hours in this lounge.) I may even indulge myself and pack the Alain de Boton, never mind the fact that I’m not even half-way through the Proust.