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Christmas Letters

Christmas Letter 2011: A Tale of Two Cities

This year’s Christmas letter is being written later than usual. I blame Facebook. After a year of prolific posting, I am frankly bored of myself. (I can only imagine how my Facebook friends feel.) Still, despite the never-ending status updates featuring snapshots of husband drinking Riesling, there are a few things left to say about our year.

River Spree, Berlin

2011 is a tale of two cities, one I will tell here in the type of revisionist history that befits a Christmas letter. In other words I will highlight all the best bits and skim over the seething underbelly of marital discontent I provoked by our move to the first of those two cities, Berlin. It was not exactly a life of hardship, what with the company-sponsored Mercedes and apartment, not to mention all that two-euro-a-glass Riesling. And yet while I revelled in nostalgia from my childhood time there in the eighties (courtesy of my father’s employment flying shuttles with Pan Am), husband felt like he had gone back in time to the grim environs of northwest England circa 1976.

To cheer him up we made frequent visits back to the Cotswolds, like the time we went back to celebrate a little local wedding. We watched from the wine bar — where else? — as Kate and Wills tied the knot, then celebrated our own tenth wedding anniversary a few months later in Paris. But returning to Berlin did not get any easier for husband, although it was lightened by a few welcome visits from friends and family. Late in the summer my personal best interest aligned with my professional best interest when I finagled a new job opportunity at my company into a move stateside, where husband was yearning to return. And so in October I bid my goodbyes to Berlin—her golden Lizzy, her Käsespätzle, her nudist Tiergarten sunbathers.

Elterwater, Lake District

We returned to England where we were treated to a special melodrama facilitated by the US embassy in
London. Husband went in for what should have been a routine visa interview, and yet somehow my plans for post-interview celebratory champagne at Claridge’s turned into manic taxi rides around London securing missing paperwork before degenerating into a week of obsessive waiting for his visa to arrive. When it did we finally felt secure enough to start saying our goodbyes to those places and people we had grown to love most over the past six and a half years, up in the Lakes then back down in the Cotswolds where our last stop before Heathrow was, naturally, the wine bar.

Boston Common

In November we arrived in the second city of our tale of two: Boston. We quickly felt at home — it’s not called New England for nothing. (Husband was, I daresay, a bit miffed to find that his collection of cravats, bow ties, and tweeds would fail to achieve the desired effect of standing out as English in this town.) After skirting our way around “hills” in Europe — the still-waiting-for-gentrification perimeter of Notting Hill, the ‘wolds, and atop an old rubble heap that comprises one of the few rises in Berlin — we have settled on Beacon Hill, complete with views of the Common and Public Garden. Sure being above one of the busiest crossroads in the city means it sometimes sound like we are sitting track-side at Nascar, but never mind for now. We are told that soon enough the snow will come, nature’s welcome muffler.

The year has ended on a sad note. My grandmother, Willie Pearl, passed away at the age of ninety-two. (I wrote a little about her here.) There is nothing nice about death, but the fact that this one happened so close to Christmas forced my family to let go of any expectation about the holiday. There are fewer presents under the tree and no turkey in the freezer. This is all fine with me. At the risk of having an expectation, I’d be happy with scrambled eggs for Christmas dinner.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, whatever your table holds!


The Witches’ Table

To get to the barn that houses the main retail area of the wine bar you have to cross the courtyard out back. When the weather is mild, the courtyard is also a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine.  In the far corner of the courtyard there is a large table fashioned out of an old French door painted blue and mounted on rod iron trestle legs.  It is large enough to seat ten comfortably.  In fact it may seat ten too comfortably, which would at least partially explain its evil influence.  For when one sits at the recently christened Witches’ Table, one rarely leaves the wine bar sober.

Husband and I fell under the spell of the Witches’ Table earlier in the summer at the sardine bbq.  This is the only explanation I have for the ten strips of raffle tickets (charity unknown, but I can safely assume it was for a good cause) and the small cut above my eyebrow that were in my possession when I awoke the next morning.  I do recall that the occupants of the Witches’ Table that afternoon came up with an excellent outline for a panto we intended to stage at the village hall in winter: a mash-up of “Sin”-derella and Priscilla Queen of the Desert of the Cotswolds in which the struggle is to get Cinders to Pippa and Prince Harry’s wedding at the local inn (at which there was no room according to husband’s diligent BlackBerry notes and in an apparent misguided effort to weave in the Christmas story).  I believe this falls safely into the category of it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time.  More recently the Witches’ Table cast its evil influence on one half of doppelgänger couple when, after an evening of wine and a misjudged shot of absinthe, he forcibly ejected the contents of his digestive tract via his mouth into the adjacent well.  Thus forth it has been known as Crispin’s well.

On Tuesday evening we decided to brave another session at the Witches’ Table with the fairer half of doppelgänger couple (Crispin was still hanging his head in shame from the well incident).  We had dinner reservations in half an hour and so, we assumed, there was no time for anything to go too far off the rails.  The table was already in session when we joined, populated by seven of the usual suspects.  Things got off to a safe start with a vigorous debate about the proper use of semi-colons that swiftly moved into a vigorous debate over the etiquette of turning an empty wine bottle upside down in its ice bucket.  (In the end we agreed it was ok, as long as it wasn’t in somebody’s house.)  Things generally proceeded in this vein of polite banter, with the small exception of when our local Roger Moore lookalike stood up to pour some wine and I complimented his arrowhead belt buckle, causing the entire table to look in the general direction of his crotch.  In the end we had an unintended second bottle of wine and were an hour late for our table, which on balance is an excellent outcome for an evening at the Witches’ Table.

Cotswolds England

Royal Wedding Red Carpet

All the Cotswolds, even this folly, was decked out yesterday for the royal wedding.  Well, that’s not totally true.  Despite my earlier assertion that the ladies of the Cotswolds would be wearing their finest hats for the viewing at the wine bar, I was the only one (unless you count L.’s floppy straw number and a couple of men in baseball caps).  In fact attendance was rather sparse when husband and I first arrived at 9:30AM.  In a classic Toff display of the middle-finger-to-the-world attitude, A., one of the scariest dames of the neighboring villages, hadn’t even bothered to put in her dentures.  I guess she didn’t really need them for the coffee with a snifter side car of something or other she was drinking.  She did, however, seem amused by my small-pink-bird-just-exploded-on-my-head hat, quipping with a front-toothless smile that there was still time to make it to the Abbey.  Vera, the eight-year old pug who had the bar stool next to me, also seemed to like my hat.  Or at least my croissant.

By the time I was on to my first Bellini of the morning the place had started to fill up.  This provided me with an audience for my running red carpet commentary on the guests, something the BBC broadcast was too dignified to provide.  It went something like this:

  • Pippa the sister should have never been allowed to wear white.  If it wasn’t for her spray tan she may have stolen the show.
  • Eugenie and Beatrice did steal the show, but not in a good way.  In an ugly stepsisters in a Cinderella panto kind of way.
  • The Queen looked radiant in yellow.  Not a hint of Big Bird despite my initial fears when I first glimpsed her in her car on the way to the Abbey.
  • Advice to Harry: stand up straight.
  • Advice to Wills: shave it off.
  • Advice to SamCam (PM’s wife): next time wear a hat.
  • I shouldn’t have liked Miriam González Durántez’s (Deputy PM’s wife) Cruella de Vil get up but I did.  It takes guts to wear a floral turban to the Abbey.  Very Sunset Boulevard.

and finally,

  • Best hat goes to Zara Phillips for her silvery-black tilted UFO.

Congratulations, William and Catherine!

Cotswolds England

Royal Wedding Fever

I was nine years old when Prince Charles married Diana, and I still remember getting up early in the morning to watch the grainy broadcast in the family room of my suburban Southwest Florida home. I was glued to the television. I wanted to be Diana—not because she got to marry Charles but because she got to wear those acres of cream puff silk—or at the very least one of her bridesmaids, who I thought were the luckiest girls in the world. And now that their son, William, is getting married I am just as engrossed.

For one thing I now have a personal, if very tenuous, connection to the royal couple. It was at a wedding in the very church of our very Cotswold village where the couple appeared together in public for the first time in months last October. In the universe of royal watchers, this was a highly significant event and fueled speculation (correctly as it turns out) that the announcement of their engagement was imminent.

My own preparations for the royal wedding are well under way.  To start with, I will be leaving a business meeting in San Francisco a few hours early in order to make the 6:55PM flight that will get me back to the UK on time. (If anybody asks, I’m prepared to defend my decision with an explanation that, as a UK passport holder, I am virtually obligated to be present in the green and pleasant land to witness the big event.) I will be taking the day off so that we can watch the wedding from the wine bar, which will be hosting a prosecco and bunting studded big-screen viewing. The ladies of the surrounding villages have already agreed to arrive in hats, and my own, a hot pink number that last had an outing at Royal Ascot some years ago, will soon be retrieved from its pentagonal box in the far reaches of the wardrobe. I plan to pair it with my Target-Lily-Pulitzer-knock-off sundress and a pair of vintage pink crystal strawberry-shaped clip on earrings. I’m sure I’ll still be basking in the afterglow when I drink my coffee out of my Kate and William commemorative mug the next morning.


End of an Era

Wednesday night was R.’s last regular gig behind the wine bar. He’s been in love for about a year now, and he’s finally packing his bags and heading for Shropshire to move in with his lady love. It’s been fun to watch a sixty-nine year old grin like a schoolboy each time he talks about his girlfriend, who is an old flame reignited. Still, I am sad to see him go.

R. has been around since the start of our Cotswoldian epic, and fifteen or twenty years before that at the wine bar. I think of him as our Cotswolds welcome wagon, introducing us to many of our now friends for the first time in his assumed role as host of the town cocktail party, which is how the wine bar feels on its best evenings. He can be a prickly character if he doesn’t like you, but, luckily for husband and me, he has fond memories of working in America and seemed glad to have an American around with whom he could reminisce and talk politics (even if those politics were a million miles away from mine). He’s also ruddy faced, a bit deaf, stubborn, opinionated and very generous. I can’t count the number of times he’s treated us to a glass of wine despite our protests. Oh, and he loves the devilled kidneys at the Wheatsheaf.

I’ve blogged about him before, like how he refused to learn to operate the fancy cappuccino machine when it was first installed at the wine bar, insisting that “the girls” do that. More than a year later he has now mastered the steaming, spurting chrome beast and is rather proud of his barista skills. I’ll miss his coffees and his banter and most of all him, although he is promising to make guest appearances behind the bar now and then.


Man Creche

…Or the latest reason I love my town.
This sign appeared in the window of the wine bar last week:

Ladies are you tired of trying to entertain the man in your life?
Do you need some free time without him getting in the way?
The answer’s easy: The Man Creche
Simply drop the little rascal off with us. Here he can play with friends in a secure and encouraging environment until you are ready to collect him.
We’ll keep him warm and fed and, don’t worry, he won’t go thirsty.

The Grand National

The UK is in love with horse racing, so much so that there are betting tips every day on BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news program, Today. Another regular segment on this show is Thought of the Day, in which a priest or rabbi or imam offers some spiritual insight in the form of a quickie sermon. That these two segments sit alongside each other without any trace of either irony or discomfort is perhaps the best illustration I can offer of the difference between America and the UK.

Yesterday was my favourite horse race of the year, The Grand National, which takes place at Aintree in Liverpool. We went into the wine bar to watch where M. was working behind the bar. He just happens to have a bookkeeper who is also a bookmaker—a dangerous combination if I’ve ever heard one—and so the small group that had assembled was able to call in some bets before the race started. (Between this and the wine, farmyard eggs, and homemade marmalade on offer, this place is getting dangerously close to supplying all my needs in life.)

I broke my cardinal rule of choosing my bets based on horse’s names that strike my fancy, instead opting for two tips I read in the appropriately named How to Spend It supplement in the Weekend FT. Thus it was that I had Snowy Morning and Butler’s Cabin to win. We also put £5 on Darkness to win after we realized that the wife of the man responsible for providing half our income owns him. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

At 4:20pm the race got underway in a manner fitting of the Mr Toad’s Wild Ride of horse racing. There are no starting stalls in The Grand National. Instead the forty competing horses simply rushed the starting line like a school or crazed fish. There were two false starts before the official let them get underway on the 4.5 mile course. The other distinctive feature of The Grand National is the fences, thirty of them to be exact. These are no ordinary fences. They look like giant hedgerows, taller than the horses, some with ditches and water features and names like The Chair and Becher’s Brook. The process of elimination—which is as much what winning this race is about as being fast—starts at the first jump when a handful of horses or their jockeys or both go down. This continues over every jump and it is a dramatic, sometimes wrenching site with horses lolling on their backs and jockeys in a protective, head clutching fetal position as they try to avoid impact from other horses still flying over the fences behind them. There are a handful of jockey-less horses still making their way around the course at any point in the race, oblivious to the fact that they’re disqualified and generally posing a hazard to everyone else. None of our horses won, but it was no small feat that all three finished. Only seventeen of the forty did.

Besides the finish line, another milestone was reached yesterday afternoon. Husband finally relaxed enough to start introducing some humor into my recent health scare, joking with M. about how it would go down in the community if he left me now that I am a “disabled lady.” M. wisely replied it would depend on how fast and with whom I then took up, a scenario I think husband had failed to consider. In any case, it was a good sign that husband was starting to feel a bit less stressed after the past three weeks of playing the full-time role of responsible grown-up and emotional rock.

I am feeling great but cautious, having made the mistake of spending an hour on WebMD this week reading up on MS after showing such exquisite restraint earlier in my treatment. It was filled with depressing articles called things like “MS and Your Career” or “MS and Intimacy.” But the thing that gets me most about my prognosis is the uncertainty. From here on out a diagnosis of MS is 50/50, but even if I am diagnosed it doesn’t offer much more insight into what happens next. The symptoms I could experience range from a little muscle spasicity or feeling like my foot is asleep to sudden paralysis or blindness at intervals of oh, anything from weeks to months to years between episodes. I couldn’t help seeing some parallels to the Grand National, first in the rapid fire process of elimination that got me to my initial diagnosis. Stroke, voicebox damage, and brain tumor knocked out in consecutive days like horses fallen at consecutive gates. And like MS, the odds mean little in The Grand National. The winner, Mon Mome, was 100-1, while another favourite, Hear the Echo, collapsed and died in the run in. I’ll take comfort in Butler’s Cabin, one of my bets, who finished in seventh but collapsed shortly after crossing the finish line. He was quickly revived by a dose of oxygen, springing to his feet to the relieved cheers of the crowd.


Fat Boys

Friday was the Fat Boys lunch, an event husband had been invited to by M. and for which I had been enlisted as a chauffeur. Husband was titillated by his inclusion and spent the morning weighing his clothing options aloud like a teenage girl anguishing over her prom dress. Coral coloured cashmere sweater vest or tweed blazer? Was his sheepskin coat too “urban”?

The arrangement was to meet at the wine bar at noon. At 12:30PM husband was just wrapping up a call so I was dispatched to the wine bar on my own to stall for him. I used the time to enquire about the etymology of the lunch’s name since the attendees, while not in danger of anorexia, were neither overtly fat nor boys. A., a local writer who resembled Paul Bunyan in his leather waistcoat, attempted to explain as he poured me half a glass of champagne (I was the driver after all). The account was delivered in an authoritative and confident voice that tricked me into believing it was a coherent response, a common characteristic of the posh spoken. There was something about Oxford and self-employment and a loose association with the arts, but it took some prodding before I was finally able to work out that the most important qualification was that you didn’t have to go back to the office afterward. As A. commented in a moment of unusual lucidity, “I’ve always thought if you don’t have it done by Friday lunchtime, you’re unlikely to get it done by the end of the day anyway.”

Overall the explanation had a bit of machismo, chest beating pride on behalf of the assembled guests, who included a magazine editor, the publisher of a local newspaper, writers, and a former military man turned vintner. Husband in fact is in the employ of someone else who might reasonably expect to be able to reach him on Friday afternoon, but seemed to qualify on the basis of his employer’s association with the the-uh-tah and possibly because I drive a station wagon which M. suspected he could persuade me to chauffeur. But all these men shared at least the illusion of being in charge of their own destiny for this particular afternoon, and they were going to spend it drinking copious amounts.

Husband materialised (having chosen coral cashmere) and, after a case of wine was loaded into the trunk of the car, we were off. The brief journey to the pub was no cause for a respite in gossip. A story about how the ex-wife of one of the Fat Boys had a lover in common with Princess Di (presumably the reason she is now an ex) was my reward before depositing my charges at the door of the pub.

The call to retrieve them came five hours later. When I arrived they were on whiskey and cognac and there was no sign of the case of wine. One suede loafered man was wondering around with a half empty bottle of port, and the ex-army officer turned winemaker was telling me how he was shocked to learn over lunch that I stripped my way through college to pay the bills. After an aborted attempt to find someone from Suffolk presumed to still be in the pub, I managed to herd them into my car and back to the wine bar where the man from Suffolk had already made his way.

The scene that followed was much as you might expect after a dozen men have spent five hours drinking champagne, beer, red wine, port and whiskey. M. kept falling into a coat rack. His ex-wife did not look amused, and was not her same warm, friendly self towards me. I imagined she was rather horrified husband seemed to have fallen in with this crew and assumed our marriage was headed for the same eventual destiny as her own. Husband mistook a request for his last name from a fellow fat boy attendee as some kind of insult, then insisted his response was meant to be “a joke.” The man from Suffolk kept telling me his life was a mess — just back after ten years in Japan, freshly divorced and with two kids — all of which seemed incongruent since he reminded me of the gay, lecherous Uncle Monty from Withnail and I from the moment I first saw him.

It seemed best to dissociate myself from the fat boys, so I mingled. The most amusing of my new acquaintances was a portly man of about sixty who was a good six inches shorter than me with thick, black-rimmed glasses on a cord, horrible teeth, and a very posh accent. When I asked him what he did he said, “My dear, I own Farmington,” which is the village up the hill from us. Twice he told me I had a very red nose, which is true, and twice that he’d just as soon comment on my body as my nose but he couldn’t see it underneath my coat. Despite his behaviour which I suppose could be construed as piggish, I found him entertaining and was half tempted to drop the coat and strike a pose. All the better that I didn’t seeing that his wife was losing her patience at his refusal to leave the wine bar and go to dinner. His defense was that he wasn’t leaving with a bloody half bottle of wine left. She barked orders at him like he was a naughty dog, which I suspect was deserved, and finally he made his exit. Husband had apparently had his fill of being a man in charge of his own destiny and offered no resistance when I told him it was time to go, using the age old lure of sausage, chips and curry from the Chinese takeaway across the square.


Cappucino Comes to the Cotswolds. Almost.

The changes to the wine bar promised back in August are starting to come to fruition. A handsome new bar made from varnished wine crates has been installed up front, and last week an impressive piece of machinery materialised on its far left corner. Said machine looks capable of dispensing serious caffeinated beverages. I am very excited. The other offerings in town are, well, no Starbucks.

Saturday morning I stopped by for an inaugural cappuccino. R. the barman was manning the shop.

“I see you have a new toy,” I said, gesturing to the chrome beauty.

“Hrmphh,” he grunted, rolling his eyes in the direction of the beast. “I don’t agree with that AT ALL,” he went on as if we were discussing stem cell research or new taxes.

My heart sank a little bit. I could see where this was going.

“Do you know how to use it?” I asked cheerily.

“I am leaving that to the girls,” he responded, referring to T. and the two Es, none of whom were on duty. “Can I get you something else?” he asked earnestly, as if I might consider a glass of Gamay at 10:00AM.

I got the impression he wanted me to stay for a chat, although obviously not enough to learn how to use the coffee machine. In its new configuration the bar does remind me just a little bit of Bar Le Louis IX , where we used to go for café crème and croissants after a jog around the Île Saint- Louis. Despite the croissants we always felt like conspicuous health freaks compared to the jumpsuited municipal workers capping their breakfast with a marc. I’ll skip the drink but stay for a chat. We have a whole presidential election to dissect.


Duck Plucking and Sheep Shagging

Friday night the wine-maid (do wine bars have barmaids?), E., asked husband if he shoots. The sum total of his firearms experience is a morning downing clay pigeons on a North Yorkshire estate. I can better this having once conducted target practice with a pyramid of beer cans in a swampy Florida field. After a moment’s pause to consider if any of this qualified, he answered no.

E. doesn’t shoot either. She was asking because she just bought a bird plucker and is trying to drum up business. She went on to describe how her new piece of culinary apparatus works like an Epilady for poultry.

I rather admire E. and her entrepreneurial streak. She is recently split from her partner, whom it has been indicated to me in hushed tones is someone of note in the horsey set, but seems to have wasted no time getting on with it. In addition to her wine bar duties she has launched a home cooked meal service that supplied a Thai red curry for a dinner party we hosted a few weeks ago. Now the mechanical duck plucker. She is the embodiment of the plucky (no pun intended), pull yourself up by the bootstraps, country gal archetype. I may have to take up shooting just so I can see the bird Epilady in action.

My education in how food makes it to the table didn’t stop with E. This week I also learned, courtesy of an episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, that the coloured markings on a sheep’s behind indicate whether or not she’s been shagged. A device harnessed to the ram’s chest supplies the dye.

Out for a walk today, a ewe looked me straight in the eye and began to stamp her front hooves like a demanding child. She had a freckled face and excellent posture. She stamped some more before turning away to reveal that her entire back half was covered in orange. Apparently the ram in this field likes sassy types.

A second look around proved the ram in this field isn’t picky. The pasture was a walk of shame on a grand scale, a virtual promenade of harlots with orange bottoms everywhere. I felt a bit sorry for those few gals that hadn’t seen any action, their still-white coats a prudish badge.

Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall also provided an explanation for the sudden appearance of all these orange backsides: if you want a lamb for Easter, the rams need to make a visit by Guy Fawkes (the fifth of November). The technical term for the mating season is the rut, a word which has several definitions including “a recurrent period of sexual excitement in certain male ruminants” and “a fixed, usually boring routine.” Guess it depends if you ask the ram or the ewe.