Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Rabbie Burns" Supper

I grew up in a small town of just 600 people, about 85% of whom traced their heritage to Scotland. (My own heritage, through my father's side, traces back to the Maisley-Mcwilliams who hailed from Banffshire. On my mother's side, we are descendents of a McDonald clan.) Our town's name of "Embro" was understood to be a corruption of "Edinburgh" which, pronounced in thick Scottish brogue, pretty much comes out sounding like "Embro." And our elementary school --Zorra Highland Park (which Deanna also attended)--was populated by all sorts of McIntoshs, McKays, McWilliams, and Mathesons.

So it was a wonderful treat for us to be invited by Maggie and Gordon to join them and two other couples to celebrate an authentic Robert Burns Supper, a Scottish tradition honoring the nation's most famous bard, taking place the last weekend of January. It was one of the most wonderful dinner parties we've ever attended. Before each course we enjoyed readings from Robert Burns or other contemporary Scottish poets, and even some authentic Scottish music played on an Appalachian dulcimer. And our hosts and their friends were so wonderfully hospitable and humorous, we were made to feel right at home.

Of course the center of any Rabbie Burns dinner is the main course: haggis, with "nips and tats," preceded by Scottish smoked salmon, and followed by a sweet desert with fruit and then Ayrshire cheese and a digestif. Now, growing up in Embro, I had heard swirling tales about the annual haggis dinner at the community center--tales of sheeps stomachs and intestines (along with rumblings about blood pudding!), none of which enticed me to actually attend such a dinner. But none of the horror stories proved true; quite the opposite: Deanna and I absolutely loved the haggis! It was delicious. All in all, the food coupled with lovely fellowship made for an evening we shant forget.

A Day By The Sea

On Sunday our family, along with a group of international students, including the Calvin group, boarded a coach bus for a day of fun in the sun. It was about an hour's drive to the east coast of England and the scenery along the way was delightful. Rolling dales dotted with woolly sheep, steeper moors with dried heather, and hairpin turns as we began our descent into the ancient fishing town of Whitby. Presiding over the town, on the cliffs high above, are the ruins of an abbey built in the 7th century. It was deliberately toppled almost 1000 years later by King Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries in his efforts to separate the Church of England from the Catholic church. All because he wanted a divorce! What still stands, is majestic.

When we finished our tour, we traipsed down the 199 steps to the village itself (mindful that that was the only way to return as well!), to find some fish and chips, reputedly the best in all of England. We were not disappointed. However, at this point, my camera stopped working and let's just say my attitude needed a little adjusting. If I could not capture Jackson posed under the giant jaw bones of a blue whale, or posed beside the statue of Captain Cook (Whitby's home town boy who founded Canada, Australia and New Zealand), then really, we should just go home! Jamie encouraged us to absorb it all, and we would remember it together. Who was this sickly sweet Pollyanna man coaxing me out of my sulking? I wanted to stamp my feet. What good was a scrapbook layout if I didn't have enough pictures? We kept wandering, and the charm of this quaint little town was magic enough to leave a lasting impression. The steep cliffs, the soaring seagulls, the cobbled, crowded streets, the smell of vinegar carried by the ocean breeze, the fishing boats in the harbor with lobster pots lining the docks and most especially, the feel of warm sunshine on our faces in mid January, was certainly enough to restore me to good humour and to be nestled away for future reminiscence.

We browsed in a few shops where the kids got some post cards, bought some penny candy and then we dashed back up the 199 stairs (okay, trudged) to catch the bus to head down the coast to Scarborough. Think Atlantic City, only seedier. And Victorian. With surfing (sorry Bill, with no camera, you'll just have to imagine it). We were told however, that the best ice cream comes from this town, so in case anyone ever asked us for an ice cream reference, we thought we better try it. Delicious. Not as sweet as American or Canadian, but much, much creamier.

We boarded the bus once again for the return trip, nodding off along the way. Wind blown, sun kissed with wonderful memories dancing in our heads.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Stretching a Dollar to a Pound

Living in England is a bit of a fiscal stretch: while we're here, I'm still just being paid my Calvin salary (which isn't exactly lavish to begin with), in American dollars, whilst trying to maintain a home of six in the British economy (it doesn't help that walking everywhere seems to make our 4 kids absolutely ravenous). While the exchange is a touch better than it's been over the past 8 months, it's still basically 2:1; that is, something that costs £1 = $2USD. So as we're walking through the supermarket, we double what we see.

However, some things are remarkably inexpensive here. For instance, Stilton cheese--a veritable luxury at home--is ridiculously cheap. A wedge that would be $12 at home can be had for 75 pence here! We've already had chips (80p) drenched in Stilton and farmhouse cheddar one night!

We've also learned some tricks. For instance, Deanna noticed that if we get to the supermarket about 40 minutes before it closes, all sorts of fresh things get drastically reduced--including baguette, scones and "baps" (buns for lunches). We've also found all the no-name products available. And once I even got 3 bottles of Stella Artois from a broken case for 50 pence/bottle!

Plus, the challenge of stretching a dollar to a pound constitutes its own kind of free entertainment: the supermarket becomes a hunt, a puzzle, a contest. Even the kids join in the game, trying to find ways to squeeze some luxury--like a bottle of Coke--from an American paycheck.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tandoori Take Me Away

Last night we decided it was high time to take advantage of some of the wonderful opportunities available to us at York Minster. We invited the children to attend Evensong with us with the added incentive of dinner out afterwards. In the Anglican tradition of following The Book of Common Prayer, this service would be under the section of "evening prayers". The difference being, all of the prayers were sung by a choir which included children. We arrived for the 5:15 service and were ushered by a kind priest to a "family pew", complete with a door that enclosed us and plush kneelers (not foot stools as the kids first supposed!). It was a pleasant experience (although I couldn't help thinking how much more my good friend Lisa would be appreciating it) and I loved the prayers the priest prayed and the responsive readings and reciting the creed (what is happening to my pentecostal self?). The kids were great if not a little creeped out by all the dead people buried inside.

After being fed spiritually, it was time to find some dinner which lead to out and out warfare over where to eat. No one in our family disagrees quietly. Jack just wanted some normal food (meaning pizza), Gray just wanted some place nice (meaning expensive) and Maddie and Cole weren't really sure what they wanted but it was for sure not what any one else wanted. The nice family dinner we'd imagined was quickly slipping away. We finally stumbled upon an Italian restaurant run by Eastern Europeans that had delicious looking pizza for take away(which is cheaper than eating in-but I don't know why). Jamie and I decided to get that for the kids and that just the 2 of us would have a nice family dinner out! Coleson proclaimed the pizza some of the best he'd ever had, second only to Giordano's in Chicago.

We dropped the kids off at home and headed to the Indian restaurant around the corner called York Tandoori and Take Away. I was a little apprehensive. Could anything be as good as our beloved Bombay Cuisine back in GR? It was fantastic. Jamie got Tikka Masala and I got the Butter Chicken all washed down with the bottle of white wine we purchased at the corner store. Turns out you bring your own! The table of two beside us brought 2. They were very friendly.
Upon arriving home, Jackson informed us they'd been keeping tabs on us. Turns out you can see from our upstairs window right into the front of the restaurant! (That's the view from our window on the left.) There's just no getting away from them!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

day full of fun

today i went to the Grand Opera House to do a dance that i have been practicing for a week, everyday of the week. It was African themed and i played the drum and danced like i was an African animal. I had loads of fun!
After that we went to the York Castle Museum. It had a ton of facts about the Victorians, which was helpful to me because we are studying the Victorians in school. I was quite disturbed by one of the displays because it had a rabbit hanging from the sealing and it looked so real i could swear it was. But then it got worse my dad replied, " That's dinner for them tonight." i then replied, " That is so rude!" and we ended the discussion with that. Moving on, after that we saw what a street would look like in the Victorian times. It was really amusing, they had a post office and a grocery store and they carts in the middle of the street that people would have pushed around. They had like ice cream and bread in them.

We then went to Sainsburry's to get a FEW groceries. Turns out we got lots of food, over half of them being cookies for 'tea time' says mum. on our way out I saw a sign that says some person has a telly for sale. Since we were looking for a telly i told dad and he came over and looked at it called the person and it is being dropped of at out house to night. Sad thing is we are not going to be able to play the PS2 because we already tried to see if it would work with this plug that was apparently to strong or something, so it got fried (not literally) but at least we get to watch the news or something.
thats it for now!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In Praise of Floors

Once each year the nave of York Minster is emptied of its 800 chairs in order to provide a glimpse of how the space would have originally looked in the 14th century. One result is that one's attention is drawn to the floor that would be otherwise ignored.

This reminded me of a poem I wrote when I visited York last May (2007), doing reconnaissance for our current stay. Curiously, even then, I was drawn to the floor.

York Minster

Vaulted gothic arches careen
upward to heaven luring
the eye to beatific contemplation.
No end to the encomiums to height and splendor
of (almost?) Babelian proportions.

But in such spaces of ancient transcendence
and medieval aspiration,
I have always been fascinated by the floor.
The lowly floor: without the dazzle of rose windows
or the allure of gilded frescoes,
kenotic space calling to mind
the rough ground of a stable and manger.
The gnarled stone
trod by saints of millennia past (and not a few sinners).

The floor: cold, hard receptacle of knees knelt
in penitence and praise
by princes and paupers.

The floor: from which those ashamed
could not lift their eyes,
and to which the blank stares of boredom
settled as the resting place of an attitudinal gravity.

The floor: without the crackling spectacle of stained glass,
yet created by artisans no less called,
whose work has supported the faithful for centuries,
undergirding the people’s work of liturgy—
in praise of him who humbled itself from vaulted heaven,
God of spires and floors.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Vinegar or Gravy

I read a very interesting article last week in the Sunday times about health and nutrition. The UK is also struggling with the problem of childhood obesity and the need for everyone to have healthier diets. More fruits and veggies, less fat, and more fiber. It pointed out that the average adult only gets about a 1/3 of the daily recommended amount of fiber. The author had some helpful suggestions that were pretty much in line with some healthy habits we've been trying to establish. How then, to reconcile this with the daily temptations of fish and chips and all this yummy English Stilton cheese? Well, good news. Jamie and I went out for "chips" for lunch yesterday and while I was waiting for our order, I was reading some of the posters on the wall. You can only imagine how excited I was to read these interesting facts. An average serving of fries has twice the amount of fiber as an average size serving of brown rice or a bowl of oatmeal. I'm not gonna arue with that folks. It's about my health. I have to look after myself. The only thing stressing me now is, gravy or malt vinegar? That is the question.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Yesterday was our first Sunday that we were able to go to church here in York. (Last Sunday, the day after arriving, we were still in a bit of a jet-lagged haze and somewhat concerned the agents from the Home Office might still find us and reconsider their decision from the day before!)

As planned, we went to St. Michael-le-Belfry, right next to the Minster. Unfortunately, this didn't go as well as we might have hoped. Like many more 'evangelical' churches here in England, the church has sold its soul to a ridiculously "seeker-senstivie" mentality which creates 5 different services looking to cater to the "needs" of all kinds of different people. In addition, they seemed to want to make church as happy and "not boring" as possible. And since we attended the "Family Service," this seeker-senstive mentality basically translated into license for children to roam the sanctuary unattended with various adults chasing as needed, with two "perky" leaders on the "stage" that reminded me of Romper Room. (Did I mention that we also stopped for a 20-minute juice & granola bar break in the middle of the service?!) It didn't feel like worship at all; it felt like some sort of religious version of The Wiggles. If I was looking for child-centered chaos, I could have stayed at home!

So, needless to say, we're looking for a church.

But today Deanna and I had an experience that made up for this: we enjoyed Holy Communion in York Minster cathedral. Holy Communion is celebrated each day at 12:30pm, so we enjoyed a small company of saints (we were certainly the youngest!) who gathered in St. John's chapel. We were a little out of our element, but the Book of Common Prayer has become important to us over the last few years so we also felt at home. It was so refreshing and nourishing, we're hoping to make this a daily, lunch-break habit.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


school started on thursday. its okay everyone smokes though
they offered me, but i politely refused.
i have a couple friends and they all are obsessed
with one tree hill and the OC.
and they say 'well good'
i like it

Friday, January 11, 2008

feelin better

warmish greetings from York!
feeling better and happy,today we had our last day of school till next week. Yesterday I had P.E. and thankfully I had time the night before to catch a bus to go find a swimsuit and P.E. kit (clothes). After school I signed up for the Drama club barely actually it is a very big class! But very fun, we acted like we were a giant board game and we were the pieces. It was well funny! I am also going to join a couple of other clubs like the art club and possibly the net ball club. Right now i am also doing a dance festival thing. It is African dancing and we also play the drums and bongos while others dance. We do that next weekend and when i say we i mean most of the girls in my class including my friend Ellie and and other Ellie as well also Maya, Thea, Freya, Marissa, Katherine, Beth, Claudia, Becky, Dion, Shannon and i think that is all. I can not remember every!body's names.
that is all for now.

Monday, January 7, 2008

My first day of school

Today I had my first day of school. We first talked about our favorite 10 minutes of our vacation was. I chose getting off of our last flight when we landed in Manchester. It felt so good to be off the plane from the temptations of eating snacks. Because every time i ate i threw up right after it. which ended up to be a total of 8 times.
My school is called Park Grove and my teachers name is Miss Tait. She is very kind and was very helpful to me on my first day. I met some new friends, their names are Ellie, Holly, Becky, Freya, and Abby. They are very nice and fun
When you talk to them at first it is hard to understand them. Like i asked for an eraser which they call a rubber and they do not say hot lunch they say "hot Dinner". They also do not call people mean they call them disgusting.(even though they shouldn't call anyone that!) Every Monday we go swimming. We get a lot of exercise because we walk everywhere. and we change for P.E. also except we wear shoes called plimpsoles. they are just plain black slip on shoes. There is also only one sixth grade class except they call it sixth year. Thats all for now!

Safe and (Relatively) Sound

Warmest greetings from York! We are settled in after an exciting adventure in travel. It is 2:45am and jet lag has us awake, so I thought I’d make good use of my time.

Our journey began as scheduled when our cab arrived at 2:45 on Friday, Jan. 4th. We couldn’t all fit after we crammed our luggage in and so thankfully our friend Melissa was on hand to transport some of us to the airport. It was nice to have a familiar face to see us off. We were quickly checked in and had plenty of time to relax and get a coffee. The children seemed mildly excited except for Maddie who was complaining of an upset stomach. We assured her she was probably just a little nervous about the trip.

We headed to the security check and while in line Jamie and I were busy sorting our boarding passes and passports. It was then we heard a splattering sound and turned to see that Madison had thrown up. All over her backpack. And not a little. Jamie and I locked eyes, checked our watches and then dashed to the restrooms. He with the backpack and me with Madison. Let me just point out how difficult it is to wash up in a bathroom with automated taps and NOT automated hand dryers. We did our best and headed back out. A security guard was waiting for us and escorted us to the front of the line, where we were then informed that our family had been specially selected by our airline for extra security screening. The boys went in with Jamie and Jack volunteered to be first asking them if they were worried that he might have a bomb (apparently if you’re under 10, such jokes are still humorous, as no TSA officials immediately tackled him). Maddie and I were then summoned, at which point I asked whether they could wait while she finished throwing up in the trash can. They said they could. Satisfied after the frisk down and sorting through all our belongings that indeed we had no bombs, we were sent off to our gate with 5 minutes to spare. Thank goodness for our timely arrival.

We boarded the plane and settled into our seats. Maddie threw up once during takeoff, again around Gander, Newfoundland, somewhere south of Iceland and finally, approaching Ireland. We had a kind attendant who supplied us with wet paper towels and assisted me in cleaning the floor outside the bathroom.

At sunrise, Jack and I were gazing out the window and were excited to see the coastline of the Netherlands appear on the horizon. You’d have thought it was Mecca for my young, Dutch proselyte. I was a little excited myself to be arriving in a new country. And not just because I could add another dot on my “places I’ve been map” on Facebook. No, I was eager to see a new culture, different faces in the crowd. We deplaned. The children were no longer mildly excited. The wooden shoes in the souvenier shops did not excite them. They were homesick. It must have been all those tall, blonde haired, blue eyed people reminding them of whence they’d come. No worries, we weren’t there long. After only a little blip in the security line when they confiscated my tiny bottle of wine I’d received on the previous flight, we were off.

It was a short flight. We received tiny cans of coke and honey BBQ dorrito twists. We were mesmerized by the lush green of the British countryside and dazzled by the warm sunshine pouring through the windows. Yes, that’s right. Sunshine. I considered it a good sign.

We deplaned again and were pleased to queue up in a very short customs line. We handed over our passports and Jamie’s letter from York St. John’s. They asked a few questions, such as What will your kids be doing? Going to school, we said. Well, they can’t. You don’t pay taxes here. Well, last time we were here they did with no problem. Well, that was illegal. Oh, we said. Okay, I guess we’ll homeschool them then. Then they said to us, no, that won’t be possible. We are denying you entrance to the UK. You will have to leave and apply for a work permit before you can come back. We were then escorted to a holding area. They asked if we would like some water. Maddie said yes, she would. I was about to caution her, but then thought I wouldn’t mind if she threw up all over their carpet. The supervisor came back and said they were filling out the paper work for our deportation. They thought they’d give us a few days to rest up so how would next Thursday work? We told her we didn’t think we had anything on that day. It would be a great day to be deported. She said okay then, we should have this done in a couple of hours. In the mean time, Jamie could go with the security guard to claim our luggage and dismiss the driver who’d come to pick us up. The children and I sat in stunned silence until Grayson murmured something about someone needing to be sued. Coleson mentioned that he couldn’t possibly go back. They’d had a going away party for him, for Pete’s sake. Jack then lamented that he couldn’t go to the Viking Museum and Maddie sat sipping her water and holding her Motion Discomfort bag from the plane. I myself was wishing I had that tiny bottle of wine that the screeners back in Amsterdam had surely drank by now. And was wondering how long until Jamie had a nervous breakdown, and how messy it would be and if he would get arrested. That got me really irritated thinking about having to travel back to the US by myself with the kids and then realizing that we had no place to live since there were students renting our house. By that time, Jamie was back and I decided to go to the restroom to pray a little and perhaps cry a tiny bit. That done, I washed my face, noticing how bloated it was (flying always makes me retain water) and then looked in the full length mirror. Gosh, even my butt got bloated this time. It must be the long-haul flight. I’m sure it has nothing to do with all the Christmas goodies.

That done, I headed back to the holding area and noticed Jamie talking to the customs agent. They were both smiling. I took that as a good sign. Turns out they didn’t realize he was a visting academic. They thought he was on a business trip (the irony). Of course you and your family are welcome here. Yes, your kids can go to school. We’ll just stamp your passports and you’ll be on your way in about 5 minutes. So, I’m not sure what part of Jamie’s letter saying he was a professor leading a group of students and teaching them 2 courses was confusing to them, but we just decided to leave it. We all hugged. And smiled and cheered. And prayed thanking God for his help in our time of trouble. And then it dawned on me. The kids were excited. They were very excited to be going to England.