Belated, But Never Too Late: Reasons 5-7 of Why I Love The UK!

It cannot be denied:  driving in the UK can present interesting challenges!

It cannot be denied: driving in the UK can present interesting challenges!

Sorry for the absence.  I’ve been getting ready for the big move back to the States, which included leaving behind a much-loved job.  That sucked.  On the plus side, I’ve been to my daughter’s graduation and saw my sister on her sixtieth birthday.  But just because I haven’t been writing, it doesn’t mean, dear reader, that I haven’t been carefully honing well-selected phrases in my mind.  To the contrary, you’ve never been far from my thoughts.

Anyway, enough groveling for forgiveness.  It really doesn’t suit my personality.  However, I have been thinking very hard about this next installment of my UK swansong and I’ve decided to focus on those things that most Americans find tiresome about this beautiful country.  These are, of course, driving, the weather, and British cuisine.

5.  Driving

Even if you were raised under a rock, you would know that in the UK they drive on the left (or, as many of my compatriots prefer, the ‘wrong’) side of the road.  And for some reason, this fact creates a nearly unsurmountable barrier to driving for them, which is richly ironic because so many Americans grow up believing that getting behind the wheel is their God-given birthright.  Sniveling about driving is as much a part of an expat’s life as complaining about the food and weather (see below).  “Oh, I never go off the motorway if I can help it!  The roads are so narrow! And the curves!  And you’re driving on the wrong side of the road!

Pussies.

Frankly, I think that Americans have it far too easy when it comes to driving, and as a result they have lost a real sense of pleasure when they hit the open road.  Straight, wide highways where high volumes of traffic can flow with a pretty good degree of efficiency (discounting major FUBARs during rush hour) actually detract from the joy of driving.  It’s mind-numbing to drive under those ideal conditions.  Next time you’re on the road (preferably as a passenger—God knows I don’t want to indirectly cause an accident), take a good look at the face of the person driving the car next to you.  Chances are, unless he or she is chattering away on the Bluetooth, you’ll see a look of grim determination mixed with hopeless ennui.

Nah.  To really enjoy driving, you have to experience its challenges.  And for my money, there is no better place to test your limits than the highways and byways of rural Great Britain.  Like Mr. Toad, I think there’s nothing more fun than to get into my roadster and terrify the natives as I wend my way through hedge-lined lanes with gay abandon.  A sign announcing a stretch of road nicknamed “13 turns” is, to my mind, not a warning, but a treat.  Plus—and this is really cool—it is almost impossible to get lost!  Every village has at least five roads leading to it, and if you’re sufficiently patient (assuming that what you’re driving on is, indeed, a road) you will eventually reach your destination.  This fact is especially comforting to the spatially challenged, such as myself.   Being an island is quite handy in this regard, as you’ll never inadvertently end up in a non-English speaking country (unless you count Cornwall).   Getting from Lincoln to York by way of Harrogate might not seem especially efficient to you, but trust me—it’s a journey worth taking (if not exactly reproducible).

Your author, Ratty, and Ratty’s husband Mr Badger, out for a jaunt.

My only concession to American driving fears is that I do bless my automatic transmission as I climb gravity-defying hills in the Yorkshire Dales.  But otherwise my jolliest japes have been, by far, when I’ve been gallivanting through the countryside with my best mate, Ratty, by my side.  (Ratty is my sensible, yet poetic, English friend who can manage to read the maps and listen appreciatively whilst I wax melodical about the raptures of the countryside.  She is also the one who reminds me from time to time that, whilst one may drive 60 miles an hour down a twisty narrow lane and across a humpback bridge, perhaps one shouldn’t do so.  Ratty can be a killjoy at times.)

So, “Poop, poop!” and “Tally-ho!”  When the sun is shining and school is out, the lure of the tarmac leads me on!  Which brings me too…

6.  The weather

I know, I know.  Everyone bitches about British weather—even (especially?) the Brits.  I can kind of see their point, too.  Being in transit over the next several weeks means that I am living out of my luggage, but instead of having two summer suitcases, I actually have suitcases for two summers:  tee shirts and shorts for Maryland, and trousers and raincoats for England. After all, nothing says ‘British summer time’ like a warm woolen cardigan!  And winter has been particularly grim this year, with record rainfall and temperatures well below freezing.  However, given my druthers (and I usually am), I would much rather be freezing my ass off in a draughty house in England than sweating it off in the steam bath that is Baltimore in the summer.  You can always throw on another layer (on the coldest day this winter, I had long johns, two sweaters, a slanket, and a cat, and I was snug as bug, if somewhat immobile), but when you get down to your naked body, there’s not much else you can do to relieve the sweltering.  Also, chafed cellulite is deeply unattractive.

However, it is not merely because the moderate English weather juxtaposes so pleasingly against the appalling Maryland climate that waves of anticipatory nostalgia roll over me.  It is also intrinsically lovable, for many reasons.

First of all, you’ll always have something to talk about.  Even the most taciturn old fart will gleefully discourse on how, precisely, miserable the weather is.  As a conversation starter, it even has dogs beat, because while even in England there are one or two people who don’t like dogs, everybody has an opinion on the weather.  It’s too hot, or it’s too cold.  It’s too wet, or it’s too dry.  If it’s sunny, then they’re likely to burn, and if it’s overcast, then everyone is suicidal.

However, they are quite adaptable to the weather, which is the second reason why I love it so.  Yes, the weather is absolute shit, but that won’t spoil a Brit’s day out.  They simply wear clothing that is appropriate to the weather and, hey, presto! They have a brilliant time!  Ratty recently told me a bit of family lore, when her youngest son, chomping thoughtfully on an al fresco sandwich, declared that he didn’t realize that you could have a picnic when it was warm.  I’m fairly certain that British babies are issued wellies upon birth so they can get used to merrily tramping along in crap weather, and they are none the worse for it, let me tell you.  Americans marvel at the miracle of the Blitz, when the nation responded to a crisis with cheerful resolution.  It’s really no mystery:  a lifetime spent insisting that enduring gale force winds when ‘sunning’ on English beaches is fun inures one to all kinds of deprivation.

And yet.  Looking out my window as I type this, I see the kind of glorious cerulean sky usually reserved for ad campaigns by the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce.  Like the little girl with the curl on her forehead, it’s far too easy to remember when British weather is horrid.  But when it is good, it is very good—and everyone pulls a sickie to go out and enjoy it.  A hot, sunny day draws people out, exposing various bits of pasty flesh that hadn’t seen the sun in a looong time as they try to stock up on a year’s supply of Vitamin D over the course of a weekend.  While the aesthetics of the situation are questionable, there is no denying that there is a distinct joie de vivre that is otherwise lacking in the British psyche.  Gorgeous weather is rare, and your average Brit is too good natured (and intelligent) to take it for granted.

Oh yeah.  Let's complain about weather like this!

Oh, yeah. Let’s complain about weather like this!

But the thing I love the most about the weather in Great Britain is its variability. I recall a day during the first November I spent here.  I was writing an e-mail to my mother-in-law, telling her what a lovely day it was.  It then started to chuck it down (that’s ‘pour’ to you Yanks), and then we were gifted with hail balls as large as small rodents before a fluffy snow blanketed the ground.  By the time I finished writing the e-mail (I am rather prolix), we were back to the glorious sunshine, wiping out any trace of the snow.

You can’t say it’s boring here.

Nature’s meteorological display is especially dramatic in Lincolnshire:  although its reputation for flat fenniness is grossly exaggerated, Lincolnshire does have a big sky.  Consequently, it has big sky shows:  clouds gathering ominously over the Trent valley, glorious sunsets silhouetting skeletal winter trees, lightning streaking a summer evening, double rainbows in a grey sky.  Also, thanks to the fact that there is nothing taller than the North Sea between it and the Ural Mountains, nothing calls to mind better the howl of steppe wolves than the Lincoln wind.  The Romantics were right:  nothing clears the cobwebs and creates a sense of awe half as well as a sudden downpour and a brisk wind.

So.  I love the British weather.  And here’s the last ugly duckling I love.

A quick note.  Since first writing this blog, I’ve moved back to Baltimore.  I must say that the weather here isn’t as bad as I anticipated.  It is worse.  Much, much worse.

7.  British Cooking

For all you food snobs out there who sneer at British cooking, I have only one thing to say to you:  shut up.

Every American (especially those who’ve never come across the pond) ‘knows’ that Brits can’t cook because they had rationing during and after the war, somehow discounting the fact that it has been sixty years since rationing ended, and the country has been flooded with ‘how-to’ cookery books by Nigella, Jamie, and Gordon.  Sure, there are plastic pubs out there that serve 2-4-1 crap, and supermarket ready meals tend to have more gristle and fat than a grizzly in autumn.  But frankly, someone who lives in the country that perfected the Super-Sized Slurpie Corn Dog with Cheese has little room to talk.  British cuisine at its best cannot be beat—and trust me:  I’ve eaten loads of food in three continents.

Don’t let the name fool you: spotted dick is NOT a disease!

What’s especially nice about food over here is its homeliness (in the British sense of being homey, not the American sense of being butt ugly).  Even the names are comfortable (with the possible exception of spotted dick).  Who can’t adore a gastronomy with recipes named ‘Eton mess’ or ‘roly-poly pudding’?  But the food would still be outstanding even if the recipes were called ‘green turds’ or ‘chalky chunks of snot.’ Whose mouth doesn’t gush with saliva at the thought of leg of lamb, seasoned with rosemary and garlic, and served with roast potatoes and fresh veg?  Or Ratty’s fish pie, made with buttery mashed potatoes, generous chunks of fish, and a silken cream sauce?  And dessert!  Soft, squidgy puddings that squirt toffee and butter when you press them!  Apple-rhubarb crumble with double cream! And cake!  Heavenly, lovely, utterly devourable cake!  Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeessssssss!  I want what they’re having!!

Excuse me.  I got a little overwrought there.

The key to the food is the ingredients.  Cows are yummy because, oddly enough, they are fed the nutritious things that cows need to transform themselves into steak.  They don’t imbibe cocktails of steroids and antibiotics, and they tend to spend a good deal of their lives outside.  Similarly, lambs and pigs are treated to high standards of animal welfare before being carted off to the abattoir. There are also excellent sources for fruit and veg, including, if you’re lucky, your friend’s husband’s garden.  And thanks to poly-tunnels and global warming, British farmers are providing more exotic fare to delight your palate.  In fact, did you know that English sparkling wine kicked French champagne butt last year in several serious competitions?

So stop dissing the food in Great Britain.  Instead, come over and give it a go.  Or better yet, don’t—that way, there’ll be more for me.

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