The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Week In The Jolly Old

[Note: The below was written at about 3AM Saturday after a couple of glasses of cognac, when I really should have been sleeping. Which may explain why it wanders off-thesis about halfway through and never quite finds its way back. Apologies in advance for slandering your fine country, whichever one it may be.]

As I've mentioned before, the competition between low-cost airlines in Europe makes it relatively affordable to get around within Europe by air when the train would just take too long. My Mom and Dad go to the British Isles about every year for vacation, and this year, since we were, y'know, in the neighborhood, they invited us to hop on Easyjet and come up to spend a week at a cottage they were renting in the Peak District.

[photo: the Pennine Way crossing the Edale Moor]

The Peak is (by English standards) a wild, rugged, remote area of the country. It is the equivalent of, say, Montana, if Montana was located about an hour east of Manchester and wasn't home to wildlife that might eat you. Still, tell an English person that you're vacationing in the Peak, and you'll get one of two reactions, depending on the outdoorsiness of your interlocutor: Either: "Wow, that's beautiful country up there," or "Why on earth are you going there when you could be going somewhere civilised like say for example y'know London."

[photo: Chatsworth House, home of the Duke of Devonshire, seen through a sculpture. V took this one; good instinct, I think]

When I was 15, my first trip overseas took me to England. I had been to Canada (a.k.a. "America Jr.") before that, but this was my first real trip abroad, and my 15-year-old self grooved upon the strangeness of it all: the funny accents, the weird money, the lamentable television. When I got back to East Mecklenburg High School for my junior year, I imagined myself so worldly, so changed by the wig-flipping, perception-rebooting foreign-ness of it all.

Twenty years (!) later, and with the added perspective of having lived in France for a year and a half, I came to an entirely different conclusion: England is (almost) just like home.

[Photo: ruins of Peveril Castle, as featured in Sir Walter Scott's Peveril of the Peak. Just like it was in Robin Hood's day, minus the jet contrails]

Never mind that whole batshit-insane driving-on-the-left-side thing. You'll get used to that in just a few days of near-fatal near-accidents, and before long driving on the wrong side will be just as easy and natural as throwing a 50-yard pass lefthanded off the wrong foot. Your passengers will stop screaming eventually.

No, if you've been living in France, England seems exactly like an old shoe: not stylish, not especially pretty, maybe a little moldy...but boy is it comfortable.

[photo: trail to the neolithic hill fort at Mam Tor]

Example: In packing, V. happened to leave her iPod charger at home. So we swung by a mall in Manchester, and there was a freaking Apple Store right there. Right between a Body Shop and a Gap. We might well have been in Durham, except that there were no black people (what gives? I know England has plenty of black folks; do 100% of them live in London?), and everything appeared to cost very little but in fact cost very very much.

Beer? Yes. Good beer everywhere you look.

Food? Erm. English pub grub is solid and filling but unadventurous. But the Indian food! Krishna H. Vishnu, was it great! We stopped in at a random Indian joint in a random Derbyshire town, and holy smokes the menu was eight pages long, with entire sections of stuff we, as grizzled veterans of every tandoori joint in the 919, had never even heard of! Indian restauranteurs of America, I implore you: rise to the challenge of your countrymen! If you build it, we will come.

[photo: paragliders launching off Mam Tor]

The Fabled British Humour? We passed a large sign advertising "Manchester's Best Five-Minute Hand Job." It was on a car wash.

Fashion? OK, England, c'mere a minute. Look, it ain't no big thing. And you know, I ain't GQ Johnny mydamnself. But... Tracksuits? Ugg boots? In 2007? On the other hand, I understand the climate means you've got to wear wellies a lot of the time, and I respect that: I even dig the big ol' wooly sweater bit. Covers up some of that... well, those cumberland sausages are tasty, aren't they? It's great that you don't spend a lot of brain cycles worrying about what you look like. Unlike people in a certain continental European country I could mention.

[photo: Countryside viewed from Mam Tor. Note the smoke-spewing factory at left, like a cigarette burn on a handmade patchwork quilt... as V. said, "I see what Tolkien was on about."]

The language? It's something of a revelation to once again be able to read and understand every sign, every billboard, every advertisement. Everything makes sense. Comforting. Comfortable. Like an old shoe.

V commented that we're living in the wrong European country, that we're doing it backward: we should be living in England and vacationing in France. She would revise this sentiment slightly in Italy two weeks later... but more on that to come.

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