British pop culture, history, travel

British vs. American: Part 3

Continuing with this series, today I’ll be waxing longingly about travel around the UK. I just started with the cute cat picture because I simply had to. (It’s been approximately a week since I used a cute cat picture in a post — too long.) It’s a British shorthair, so it also works for the purposes of this post.

And while we’re at it, you’re welcome for the cute puppy picture, too… (A lovely little British bulldog…)

When I lived in England, we were in the Midlands, this absolutely beautiful, hilly, very green in the spring and summer, a little more bleak and wet but still lovely the rest of the year, region between the North and the South of the island (hence the name).

Some of the hot spots for travel in that area include Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon (or, former home of the Bard), canals along the famous River Avon, automobile and airplane museums, various sporting events (such as football and cricket), and some absolutely gorgeous public gardens.

The really great thing about England being so small (compared to, say, America) is that you can easily get awesome day trips in by simply hopping the train to the next town or county. If you have the money, you can travel by coach or ferry to Scotland or Ireland, which are so close, but so magical, and even more gloriously foreign to stuck-in-a-rut Americans like me.

(By the way, I just spent all weekend watching Outlander on DVD, and I didn’t even like the book. But it was so totally worth it for the Celtic scenery and accents.)

Being able to walk out your front door and see countryside like this is just a totally amazing experience for me. Yes, I live in a very tree-filled area of North America, with four seasons and plenty of historical monuments. But none of that changes the fact that the British Isles have been continually settled by more or less the same peoples for the past thousand years. Their history and traditions and culture are so much more rich and deep and complex and long-standing than anything I grew up with.

Not that I would wish to actually be living in the past (like Outlander). What I really love is that the past has such a strong presence in the current lives of British citizens. History isn’t considered “irrelevant” or “unimportant” (did I mention I’m American, and pretty ashamed of what many of my peers here think of history?).

These places are real, not movie sets, or found only in pictures in books. Strolling along the canal, seeing actual castle turrets in the near distance, while you pick wild blackberries growing near the water of the River Avon, is the type of thing many American tourists dream of, the type of outright magical experience that I cherish in my memories and my heart.

I so want to go back. That’s pretty obvious. Before too much longer, I’m going to need to. I need to walk in the woods that inspired Tolkien’s forests of Middle Earth. I need to climb to the top of that castle turret. To embarrass myself at a Renaissance Fair. To eat haggis while searching for Nessie.

(By the way, the Loch Ness Monster is 100% real. I won’t believe any naysayers.)

I need to show all this to my boys. To the one who was so little when we lived there that he doesn’t remember. And to the one who has no idea anything bigger than state route 13 even exists.

There is so, so much on these wonderful, small islands, boys, so much. Go and see, experience, live, be part of it.

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British pop culture, Fantasy fiction, reading

Discworld Appreciation Day

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There are so, so many things I could say about my love for this series. Recently I’ve made a concerted effort to start collecting my favorites, because with the passing of the author, I’ve begun to feel the need to own as much as I can of the genius and beautiful words that came from his pen.

Two years ago in March, when I found out Sir Terry Pratchett had been carried away by his depiction of Death, on the back of Binky (come on, let us have that image), I cried for three hours straight. And then I started re-reading everything of his I’d already read, and reading what I hadn’t before (which wasn’t much), and feeling this little ache inside.

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The literary world had lost something spectacular, something magneificent. And while we do have so many of his published treasures to continue to adore, the loss in my own life took a bit more getting used to. When I was a young writer, I felt lost, not sure where to go with my intentions for pursuing a career in authoring fantasy. There was so much that had already been done, and wasn’t inspiring to me anymore. Then I stumbled on a copy of a Discworld paperback that had been left in our rental house (of the time).

It was The Fifth Elephant, and while it meant that, being so deep into the series (canon-wise, it’s around book 20), I had a lot of catching up to do and there were things I didn’t yet understand (like character traits and Pratchett’s love of footnotes), there was no stopping me afterwards. It was just what I needed to pull me out of that slump, and for the last 15 years, I’ve been happily catching up.

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With each foray into the magical multi-verse of Discworld, my love for the characters and their stories have only deepened. Although I hardly read the series in order (gasp! I know, a cardinal sin of booklovers), rather in whichever order I could get my hands on them (due to what was available in the library that week), I was able to put together the bits and pieces of backstory and connections and things you could expect to see in almost every installment.

My favorite sub-series are the ones involving Death (aka the Grim Reaper of Discworld) and the Watch. Before starting to read Terry Pratchett, one of my main phobias was skeletons. (Having to take an anatomy class in college was *torture*.) A major thing about becoming attached to a character portrayed as a tall skeleton in a long black cloak meant that I no longer have that phobia. It’s a pretty cool development.

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And, yes, I have owned a cat named Binky (supposedly after Death’s horse — I’m always letting myself believe that). And really, how could I, the Cat Whisperer, *not* have a soft spot for a Grim Reaper that loves cats?

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At the moment, I’m finishing a re-read of The Fifth Elephant. Just this morning, I came across a part I’d forgotten, that contains a significance that had previously escaped me, and…well… Let’s just say my Vulcan side experienced an extremely illogical moment of emotion.

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Although I recently changed my TBR for the summer, it does have me wondering how quickly I can get my hands on more Discworld re-releases.

This series will never stop amazing me with the wit, the humor, the beauty and poignancy in its honesty. Basically, I will remain in awe of the craft Sir Terry so compassionately shared with us. If my characters ever feel half as real to my readers as Death, or Sam Vimes, as Susan Sto-Helit or the Archchancellor of Unseen University have felt to me, then I will consider it the highest honor.

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books, British pop culture, Fantasy fiction, movies, reading, Science fiction

Ways In Which I Am Not A Traditional Geek

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Most of the “the world” would consider me a geek. I am rarely seen without a book in my hand; I won’t be watching the latest chick flick, but a new sci-fi movie I’m game for; I have (shamelessly) cried like a baby during Doctor Who season finales.

But, there are several views I hold that would be shot down by the same “geek” community many would subscribe me to. So, I guess it’s confession time.

I don’t play video games. That’s right. The only reason I know so much about them is White Fang’s dad was a game designer. I have failed horribly at first person shooters such as Halo; been the master of mashing buttons in Dead or Alive (4, I think); and the last Final Fantasy I played was, I believe, 10. All of these experiments weren’t my idea (though I will admit to enjoying DoA and FF). The screenshot above (from Minecraft) is courtesy of White Fang, who is basically a programmer in training, and the resident Minecraft fiend in my midst. When I see ads for new games in a series I’m familiar with, or game-inspired movies, I’m a little bit in the know, but very little, and that’s not likely to change.

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I love ballet. A lot of “geeks” are into Broadway and the ballroom/jazzy/hip-hop style of dance that’s predominantly featured in those shows. But that’s just not for me. (Further confession — I don’t even like musicals. Sorry, folks.) Classical is the style I love the best, that my body appreciates and emulates the most, and that I am likely to drop everything for. (No offense, anyone, but) I won’t race to the TV for a clip of Hamilton; but a new version of Swan Lake — and children need to learn to watch themselves.

I don’t like Star Wars. This one may get me in some hot water. But it’s just a fact. And I’ll hasten to add, it’s just my opinion. If you’re a massive Star Wars fan, good for you. (I’m not one of those jerks.) But I’ll just have to politely excuse myself from the in-depth discussions about Jedi vs. Sith and the complexities of The Clone Wars.

I gave up on Doctor Who halfway through Matt Smith. Like many fans who had mixed feelings about the story arcs after Amy and Rory were close to leaving/had officially left, my drive to keep caught up on new episodes really faded out. And I just did not care for Clara or her storylines. So, since I don’t have to plant myself in front of the TV for this show, I’m not. I still fondly re-watch the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant eras, and am content to stay there.

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I never read comic books, have barely touched manga, and avoid graphic novels. Again, this is purely personal taste. The main reason I don’t do this format is simply because I find it confusing. Following the text in the bubbles and the action in the pictures with no over-reaching narrative to explain what’s really going is super tough for me. I truly appreciate the work these artists put in to their genre, though; so, for their sake, I’m really glad I’m in the minority of non-fandom.

The only Star Trek series for me is the original. (Leonard Nimoy was one of my childhood heroes, and I want a Tribble; I’m aware of the risks.) Am loving the new movies that go back to this show’s roots.

I’ve only read through The Lord of the Rings books once. No, this does not make me a traitor, I swear. And I saw the movies before I started reading the trilogy. Still not a traitor, really.

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Along those same lines, I generally don’t read high fantasy. Not knowing how to pronounce anyone’s name, or where they’re going, is a real turn-off for me as a reader. I’d much rather (gasp!) wait for the movie to come out.

I don’t even belong to any fandoms. Stop shouting at your screens, I swear I am a true geek. When I was 7, I wanted to marry The Goblin King, and be Almathea (The Last Unicorn). Rose Tyler is the best Companion ever; it’s officially carved in a block of ice on the planet Woman Wept. For my birthday I got an Evenstar. I proudly carry a TARDIS tote bag. Minecraft has llamas now. See? For me, it’s more about time than anything else. I have a slightly obsessive trait buried down deep (because I’ve repressed it to survive), and if I let myself get started on the forums and the accounts and the threads, I would never eat or sleep or take care of my kids. And those things are kind of important, too.

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British pop culture, Encouragement, history, travel

British vs. American: Part 2

Today’s theme: entertainment. I’m including little snippets on film, television, music, and literature all in one. (Get a comfy sofa and a cup of tea and a package of biscuits.)

When I was a kid, my favorite TV programs were British exports (Danger Mouse, The Clangers, Bagpuss), as I’ve written about before (here: https://daleydowning.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/all-roads-of-inspiration-lead-back-to-britain/). Oh, I watched American stuff, too, but my preferred viewing was always English — period dramas (think Downton Abbey), Masterpiece Mystery!, adaptations of Jane Austen novels and Shakespeare. My heart definitely lies with the likes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, the scenery from Highlander, The Secret Garden, Pride and Prejudice, and pretty much anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch (because, hey, the eye candy doesn’t really get better than that).

Many of the American authors I read in my youth let me down; I was just bored by cliched plots and stereotyped characters and plots that I had figured out by page 50. Once I discovered Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman, there was no going back (and I’m very happy to be a regular visitor to their fictional worlds). Even before I hit England’s shores and was introduced to such bands as All About Eve and Clannad, the greats of the past were always high on my radio-station-choosing-criteria — David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd.

Probably it comes as no surprise to most of us that British entertainers, performers, and writers are known around the world. After all, if you search the internet for many of the names found in blockbuster movie credits, or look up who’s responsible for most of the music hits in the past 50 years, or who’s on the bestseller list in fiction, you’ll see that Brits from all areas of England, Scotland, Wales — and the lovely Irish, too — are world famous. And the British Empire’s former colonies in Australia and New Zealand have now produced rich centers of culture and talent with their own flair and fame.

As someone with a lot of Anglo-Saxon heritage, I take great pride in coming from one of the most influential places on the planet. Yes, it was several generations ago (my ancestors came to “the colonies” even before the Revolution), but the lineage is still there, and for my oldest son, who is genuinely half-American, half-English, it’s very strong.

It’s very interesting that both my kids (although the youngest has never set foot in the UK, and, really, has no idea what a country even is) are more into British/British-inspired entertainment than American. The toddler is not at all excited by Disney or Nickelodeon. But Thomas and Friends, he just eats up. And the original Bob the Builder — we can still get the DVDs (made and produced in England and exported with American voices dubbed in) from our local library — he loves that. And The Clangers are back (yay!) — programs that thrilled White Fang when he was a little guy, now Muffin enjoys them, too.

It turns out that even Warriors, which is one of White Fang’s favorites, is authored by the British, set in England, and the cats are, for all intents and purposes, Brits.

What is it about the Brits that creates such a prolific resume of creativity and leadership? For centuries, they’ve been enormously influential not just in the arts, but world cuisine, politics, scientific discoveries, architecture…

That’s right, I’m supposed to be discussing books and movies and plays…

And yet, I think I’ve just said it all.

So much of the entire world has been reached by the pens of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie. By traditional Celtic ballads and hymns that are most at home on the Scottish Highlands and the sweeping Irish countryside. By performances of the Royal Ballet, at the Globe Theatre, or the Royal Albert Hall.

Fascination with legendary figures like King Arthur and Robin Hood lives on to this day. There’s something about bagpipes and haggis that many foreigners find so endearing. (For the record, I love haggis, and make no apologies for it.)

At home, and abroad, British culture has provided inspiration to millions and millions of people.

And we should be proud of it.

 

British pop culture, family, humor, travel

British vs. American: Part 1

This is the start of a new series, capitalizing on my time abroad. Today’s post highlights the differences between American and British food, and what a U.S. citizen, born and raised like myself, will likely experience upon setting foot (for the next four years, in my case) in Great Britain.

Growing up, most of my diet consisted of the average American dishes for that time — a variety, in other words, the “melting pot” that meant pizza and spaghetti and takeout Chinese and a roast chicken dinner would easily all be on the weekly menu of a single household. In some ways, I was pretty ready for what British cuisine would be like. Since we lived in the Northeast, with a similar climate and geography to England, I was used to seafood, Sunday dinners, and plenty of soup in the winter.

Some foods I had for the first time in England, such as lamb, curry, and real chips (not fries). And I learned that “cookies” are really called biscuits.

Here are some of my favorite British staples:

Fish and chips:

CHIPS, I need real chips!!! But for the love of humanity, hold the mushy peas!!!

Mushy peas was something I tried once, and then promptly reached for the nearest pint of milk to make the memory go away. It has stayed with me just enough to remember not to do that again. (Sorry, mushy peas fans.)

Jaffa cakes:

“Omg, I’ve just remembered — I’ve got some Jaffa Cakes in my coat pocket!” — Tim in (the British telly program) Spaced

These are totally wonderful, indulgent biscuits, that combine sweet fruity jam, chocolate, and a soft, cookie-like base. For what more could you ask?

Sunday dinners with Yorkshire puddings:

Would anyone like to find a way to mail authentic Yorkshire puddings?

Baking my own Yorkshire puddings did not turn out that great. Well, they still tasted good, but were rather, er, collapsed. I definitely need the real thing, made by someone else’s expert skills.

Bacon sandwiches:

Hmmm, bacon… “But think of the piggies!”

See my post “Bacon Wars” (https://daleydowning.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/bacon-wars/) for the full reference on that remark.

And I cannot stand this item, but it’s worth a mention, as it’s such an oddity and so particular to the British:

AAAHHHHHH!!!

Marmite is just bizarre. It’s something that involves yeast and goes on toast. Yes, you read that right. Again, I won’t go near it. And for this I make no apologies.

And of course, this list would not be complete, nor authentic, without… Tea!

YES, please — two sugars and cream.

I was never much of a coffee drinker — oh, the occasional fancy lattes and cappuccinos. You know, the whipped cream and flavored syrups and sprinkles of cinnamon… Anyway, tea is just so much better, on the whole. Tea is soothing, comforting, you can still drink it hot in summer, it doesn’t absolutely need milk and sugar, but it’s better that way…

I’m off to put the kettle on. See you later.

British pop culture, family, friendship, history, travel

How to be an American in Great Britain

When White Fang was young, we lived in England for a few years. This is a topic I’d really like to write more about, and just haven’t gotten around to, for whatever reason. Today I’m touching on the fact that I was a foreigner in that wonderful place, so, despite my best attempts to blend in, I definitely was identified as a visitor pretty quickly. (Generally opening my mouth and speaking in an American accent let the cat out of the bag.)

Luckily I was a huge fan of imported British television growing up, and had read a lot of books by British authors (classics and modern novels alike), and therefore I was aware of some popular slang terms, and knew some particular important details (like who the current monarch is, what the big cities are, and that “the loo” meant the restroom). But of course there was so much more to learn, so much that you can really only learn by being immersed in a foreign culture — for example, by living there for 4 years.

Once I got used to the time difference (5 hours ahead of what I was accustomed to), and started to settle in, the adventure really began. One of the biggest changes for me was the food. For me, “pies” had only meant apple, strawberry, pumpkin…not meat, chicken and mushroom, or vegetarian. I’d never had sweet corn on pizza before, or lamb chops, or curry. (Now I’m devoted to chicken tikka masala.) And British chips are what we’d call fries…but chips are so much better!

We visited places that I knew existed — such as Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and places that were new to me –like Warwick Castle in (sensibly) Warwickshire. I watched movies — sorry, films — and television with titles that were familiar: Pride and Prejudice, Harry PotterJames Bond, Sherlock Holmes…and came across new favorites — Lord of the RingsDoctor Who, Monty Python, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I listened to lots of Pink Floyd, and began consuming books by Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett at a nearly insatiable pace.

Almost like a native…

Some things I never did get used to. The pronunciation of certain words, or the way kids had to wear uniforms to school. The way the sun doesn’t set until 10:00 at night in the summer. The fact that summer seems only to run from late July to the beginning of September.

It was a small price to pay to be in a country I had dreamed of visiting since I was about 7 years old.

Since Americans and the British have a lot of cultural exchange, not only were there familiar TV shows on in the evening, and songs on the radio I had heard before, but I hung out with other Americans abroad. In the pub on a Saturday night, there would sometimes be half a dozen of us gathered together at a corner table, commenting on the climate, the dialect, the National Health Service, the Eurovision song competition. We were all in awe or puzzlement, or both, of all these things, and shared this feeling in a way that only other Americans in England could.

Visiting Great Britain in the 21st century is, in a lot of ways, like visiting it 200 or 300 years ago. Historic preservation runs rampant, and since I come from a country that doesn’t necessarily think knowing its history is important, this was a refreshing change. People actually know who the statues on street corners are representing; if an old building is falling apart, funds are gathered to repair it; there are signs all over the place explaining which important person slept where in what year.

Despite this island country being a very influential world power, it still looks a lot like the farmlands and forests it was in centuries past. One day you’re strolling down a thoroughly modern street with cars whizzing by; the next you’ll be walking in a woods that could easily be home to faeries and hobbits.

Do I miss it? It’s been nearly a decade since we returned to the nation of my birth; and yes, I do miss my adopted homeland. My family over there bears no legal ties to me, and only to my son by blood; but I know they love me as if I came from the UK and not the U.S.

Airfare is expensive these days, so traveling across the Atlantic probably won’t happen in the near future. I can hope, though…