England just fell to the United States in a World Cup women’s semifinal match as I write this. As an American, I’m OK with that.
But women’s soccer aside, it’s easy to love England. It’s a place where it an American can feel at home and in an alien place at the same time. I’m close to wrapping up a three-week visit with my daughter, son-in-law and their three children in Norwich, England. I’m not sure when we’ll see each other again—but soon, I hope.
Anyway, I will remember a lot about Norwich. We were lucky with the weather, but the reserved English people can also be quite warm, too. As my daughter notes, they may not make eye contact at first, but are curious and friendly once a conversation starts.
There were a lot of highlights this visit. Of course, the chance to spend them with family ranks number one. But there was a lot more to this visit, too.
In particular, the food has been wonderful, both that which we’ve eaten at local restaurants or from the neighborhood fish and chips shop, and that which my daughter and son-in-law have prepared.
I also enjoy that we’ve seen many new things—touring Blickling Estate, visiting the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, walking by the lake at Whitlingham Country Park. I rode a rented bicycle 20 miles into pretty English countryside on Marriott’s Way alone, and cycled to a nearby city with my son-in-law.
Norwich is a university town that is not that different in size than Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both cities boast about 132,000 residents, for example. But Norwich seems more compact and is much older, however. The scale of things is all different here—sidewalks and streets here are much narrower than their American counterparts. Sometimes it feels a bit odd to me—sidewalks are so tiny here, and yet so much more used—walking is what many British people do. It’s nothing to stroll half a mile to downtown and to see hundreds of people at a time striding about.
When I rented a rode a bicycle here, I felt both safer and in more in danger than in the U.S. Bicycles are way more common here and used by a much larger percent of people as transportation, not just for recreation. Thus, auto drivers here are not so hostile to riders—bikes are too normal. However, narrower streets also mean way more proximity in traffic. To ride a bicycle on an English street is to be frequently, unnervingly close to both walkers and motor vehicles.
Well, I survived the experience. More than that, I really enjoyed it, all of it.
The reticent politeness of the English—strangers not making eye contact, but happily saying “cheers” if you open a gate for them. The odd assortment of fashion when parents drop off children at an elementary school on what seems to an Iowan to be a cool morning calling for a sweatshirt—some are dressed in business suits, some in winter wear, some in skimpy summer shorts. It feels like the parents were all collected from different climate zones.
Norwich! I’ve only really explored two English cities—London and Norwich. I did not make it to the capital during this visit, but that’s OK.
Norwich has been more than enough this summer. I’m not gone yet, but my departure for Iowa is only a few days away, and I honestly feel like I’m missing you already. Of course, it’s not just the place, it’s family, too. Time with my loved ones is precious and always too short.
The summer of 2019 has been one of diverse adventures—a wonderful trip to California followed by this respite in Norfolk. RAGBRAI is next, followed by “real” life.
Is there a point to this post? If so, I suppose it is to enjoy the journey if you are lucky enough to get the chance to travel. Let your family know that you love them. And never forget to try sticky toffee pudding.
I’ve given up pretending I aspire to daily blog posts during this visit to England, partly because I’ve been too busy recording my adventures in the UK on my bicycle rider blog.
But today was worthy. First of all, Amanda’s friend Lara texted her and invited us over for lunch, which basically was a traditional English breakfast—beans, eggs and toast—but done with flourish and some fresh tomatoes, too. It was quite nice.
But before that, we walked some distance downtown to visit the John Jarrold Printing Museum, a cramped, fascinating place in an old building scheduled to be taken down in an area redevelopment project this fall. I do hope that they find a new home for this museum and save all of the interesting displays; we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
The Jarrold name in Norwich is primarily associated with a downtown department store, but the family at one time were printers, too. In fact, they published the first edition of the children’s classic “Black Beauty.” Today, the small museum preserves many pieces of printing history.
We walked in, and at first were a bit lost in the clutter, until a nice elderly gentleman, one of many volunteers who gather at the museum, took us on a tour. He basically started with Gutenberg press technology, and delighted in telling the stories behind the names of many fonts. Every once in a while, he would would pose a question about print history, and seemed a bit taken aback when I knew most answers. Then again, he didn’t know he was giving the tour to a communication professor who teaches media history, but never mind.
Even if the ideas were familiar, seeing the actual machinery and mechanics of printing was still fascinating. And he knew many more details about how the printing actually works.
We moved quickly to the 19th century and the introduction of the Linotype machine.
The first volunteer later passed us off to a second gentleman, who explained lithographic printing. I didn’t realize that the offset presses most often used today actually use basic technology that dates back to presses using stones for offset printing in the 1700s—so I learned new information.
As we were leaving, a third volunteer proudly presented me with a one-page reproduction of Magna Carta, which is pretty cool and which I will probably frame and put in my office.
It was quite a day—the visit to the print museum followed by the pleasant visit with Lara and her daughter, followed by a quick bike ride.
I do hope Norwich has the good sense to somehow preserve this museum. It’s a treasure and is worth keeping.
I started off this visit with a short burst of energy that allowed me to write daily blog posts for the first two days of my English trip, but then jet lag kicked in. Each evening, I would edit and post a few images to Facebook, intending, after that, to write a blog post about the day.
And I failed each day. Except that today, when I checked my blog, there were three recent nonsense posts, one just the numeral 5, while the rest weren’t even words, just strings of letters.
Wow. Jet. Lag.
Anyway, the visit to England has been better than the blogging. Let’s see, what have I missed telling you about?
Wednesday, June 19—Walked grandkids to school, went to City Centre and arranged to rent a bicycle next week. Matt went on business trip and I borrow his bike—first short bike ride.
Thursday, June 20—We drove to a nearby village for book shopping and visit to nice outdoor gardens. Longer afternoon bike ride.
Friday, June 21—Audrey and I are “parents” on a school field trip, Lizzie’s Year 4 class walks to East Anglia University campus for nature hunt in green space by a river. Sunburn.
Saturday June 22 and Sunday June 23—We agree to watch the grandchildren so Matt and Amanda can celebrate their anniversary with a weekend getaway to London. It seems to be going well (knock on wood, it’s several hours before they get home). It’s not as much work as it could be, Juliet was gone for much of Saturday on a Brownie excursion to a zoo, and Elizabeth had a sleepover birthday party, but still, we get some good karma for being brave grandparents.
I complained about the UK a bit on my bike blog, because navigating the streets for a bicycle ride was more challenging that it should be in any organized universe. This post will be way more positive, because there is a lot to enjoy about England.
I can’t claim to be an unbiased judge of that. With my oldest daughter and three of my grandchildren living here, I am predisposed to have good thoughts about the place that pleasantly houses some people I love. Still, biased or not, I can judge when I want to, and isn’t that what a blog is for?
So here are additional good points of the UK.
First, the school system seems good here. I don’t know too much about it, but the Friday field trip was a positive experience. For one thing, it’s a bit of distance from the middle school Elizabeth attends to the university campus. Google maps says it’s 1.1 miles, but that seems like a lie, because that would be like waking from our house to the Collins Aerospace duck pond and back—and we walked a lot farther.
Of course, Google may not be accounting for the walk across the University of East Anglia campus to get to the site of the nature hunt, but that was not a great distance. I am not sure many American schools would walk four classes of fifth graders as far as we walked Friday—and that’s sort of a score one for England.
The day seemed mildly well spent. The teacher and aides seemed to know the children well and to anticipate and deal with issues. There was one allergic reaction to pollen, one girl with sunscreen in the eyes (luckily, not Elizabeth), and so on—normal school stuff, which was dealt with calmly. I imagine many American teachers and aides would have done as well, yet it was still good to see.
Rounders, by the way, looks like a drunk person tried to plan baseball and failed.
A second positive aspect of England is that walking and biking seem fairly normal here. On a weekend in City Centre, for example, there are crowds of people and hundreds of little shops open and bustling. The English are not hidden in their houses watching TV or playing video games, they are out and about. And using their feet and their pedals, many of them—auto traffic is heavy, too, but it’s startling how many people you just see walking downtown contrasted with what a comparable American city is like.
There is also the food. You can find plenty of bland and bad food in the UK—the British are known for it. But that has not been our experience. Of course, part of that is that my daughter is a much better cook than I am, and feeds us grandly. But the meals out we’ve had have been local, quirky and quite good. For example, on our art trip Thursday to the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre and the Alby Crafts and Gardens, we ate lunch at a tea room at the craft place.
I got a chicken salad, as did Audrey, and we shared an order of fries at the table. It was a leafy, fresh salad with a tasty dressing—somehow, despite all of their reputation otherwise, it seems many Brits have learned not only to cook, but to cook well.
Granted, we made the mistake of buying store meatballs to feed the family Sunday for dinner, and they turned out to be very bland and made us miss American store meatballs—but that was a culinary exception. For the most part, eating here has a been a joy, and we haven’t even had proper fish and chips nor sticky toffee pudding yet.
England! I could eat you up.
After leaving the grandchildren off at school, my daughter suggested a walk through a cemetery.
We’ve been there before, but not this year. It’s a pleasant place to walk, an old cemetery with fading gravestones, at least the part we walked in. I understand it has modern areas, too, but this old part is part burial ground, part urban nature preserve, and it’s a peaceful, interesting place for a stroll.
At one point, my toddler grandson wanted me to pick him up so he could bat his hands at low-hanging leaves on trees. He has an infectious chortle, and we heard it sounding out a bit in the quiet among the dead. It was a good place to be alive.
Following the cemetery stroll, we decided to walk across town. Rain was in the forecast today, but not until later in the afternoon, and we gambled we could cross the distance to the rail station and return before the rain set it. It felt very muggy today, but was a bit cooler than yesterday, so it was a nice day for a walk.
Along the way, when we got downtown, an old church used as a civic center was advertising an art exhibit/sale, so we went in. It was nice to see the church, even if it being filled with contemporary art felt a little dissonant. Much of the art was several hundred pounds in price, which was one discouragement—and also was bulky enough that fitting it into a carry-on could be an issue, so we merely viewed the art and church and then moved on.
The walk across town felt like several miles, to me. I’m hoping it was good cross training for RAGBRAI—and being comfortable walking some distance isn’t just cross training, it’s also training, since RAGBRAI can involve a fair amount of walking, too.
We have a bold plan—we are to care for the grandchildren this weekend while our daughter and son-in-law enjoy a weekend alone in London. The walk today was so that our daughter could get her train ticket.
We also stopped at a bike shop downtown where I arranged to rent a bicycle for next week and also purchased a biking map of Norwich.
Lunch was at a falafel eatery downtown—my daughter got us a group platter that could have fed four or five. The three of us, plus the toddler, gave it the old college try, but we ended up with a significant take-home box of leftovers, too. The platter was falafel and pita sandwich veggie fixings, including nice humus. It was filling and delicious.
We arrived still dry back at my daughter’s house about 2 in the afternoon, and I skipped the walk to school to pick up granddaughters so I could nap. I’m struggling a little to say awake right now, but the sunny walk today hopefully helped reset my bio clock, so I may not be blogging at 3:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. Knock on wood.
So today featured a long walk in a pleasant English city, including art and a cemetery stroll, a great lunch and the promise of future adventures—biking in the UK!
The luggage showed up quickly, and that was a blessing.
We flew from Detroit to Amsterdam to get here, and then from Amsterdam to Norwich. We had a fairly tight layover in Holland—but our overnight flight landed a few minutes early, and the connecting gate to our next flight to the UK turned out to be in fairly close proximity to our arrival gate.
But our bags did not make it with us, and we were not alone. At the Norwich Airport following the morning flight, there was a bit of a queue at the lost baggage desk. Sigh.
Still, entering the UK these days is pretty easy. There used to be an odd little customs card to complete, and a separate line for non-European passports that involved a bit more questioning. Monday, we were in line with all the British passports, there was no customs form and the questioning was concise.
We were picked up by our daughter, and met the toddler grandson who we have seen before, but mostly know via WhatsApp video calls. He was a little confused at first—those people from the computer can step out of cyberspace? —but quickly warmed up and even allowed me to carry him about the house a bit in the afternoon.
Our daughter had to leave on an extended errand, which was OK because my wife and I had at best only dozed on the long overnight flight, so we both took a 3-hour nap. And in the afternoon, we walked with her and the grandson to go meet out two granddaughters, who attend two different nearby schools. I felt a bit fuzzy headed on the walk—I’m afraid I was a bit of a living zombie—but the sky was pretty, and company pleasant and it was nice to be out. The strong cup of coffee my daughter made for me did not hurt, either.
I’m not yet used to the local geography. I sort of knew my way around Norwich before, from a previous house that my daughter and son-in-law were renting. They have since purchased a house. It’s in the same general neighborhood, but right now the streets are a bit of a confusing mess in my jet-lagged mind.
Still, despite being very tired, it was exciting to again see our Norwich family. The grandchildren didn’t appreciate my dad jokes, but nobody does, and that’s OK. After all, a dad joke (my oldest granddaughter is studying the Romans, which I suggested were named for their penchant for oars) is at best measured in a scale from “I don’t get it” to outright groans.
England is an interesting mix of familiar and alien. Roses are blooming here, as they are in Iowa. I saw bees among very familiar flowers—my son-in-law and daughter have very pretty foxglove in their tiny back garden, nice colorful blooms you can see from the kitchen window. At the same time, everything is different here. They speak English, but it’s not American English—you can understand them, but there is a bit of work to it. I suppose they feel the same about us. Their tiny row houses are all crowded together, which seems like a more space-efficient way to construct a city, but is not the familiar American ranch home on individual quarter-acre lots. When we were waiting at one of the schools, I looked out over a nearby hillside in view, and the rows of chimneys we could see looked very “Mary Poppins” or “Yellow Submarine.”
We were blessed with a nice day, warm and sunny, and are even more blessed with the warmth of familiar familial re-connection. The grandchildren are bigger and older, and I’m betting we will have some fun over this visit. The luggage, as it turned out, made the afternoon flight from Amsterdam and was delivered to a neighbor while we were doing the zombie walk to school.
UK! I’m tired, and I’m typing at 3:30 a.m., but that’s OK. We are here in Norwich, and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us.
I feel like I’m visiting my gardens now and then. We are travelling a lot this summer, so my relationship with the changing scenery outside is snapshots rather than the continuous story.
Not that I’m complaining. I loved the time in California, and I look forward to journeys to Okoboji and then England.
Spring has turned to early summer. Biking to campus today, I noticed a great patch of peonies on the back entrance leading to the library.
Peonies are popping all over town. They are barely getting going in my own gardens, but they are starting. Early in June, I’m enjoying irises, clematis, new phlox we planted this spring. It was a hard winter in my yards—four trees either completely died or were severely damaged, including a cottonwood (what kind of cottonwood can’t take a Midwest winter?).
But you can’t feel sad about winter losses in the time of Peonies. A soft scent, big showy flowers, vibrant colors. I love peonies, and they are a sign that summer is underway.