12 England July 30- September 5, 2004
Back in London
Air travel always creates abrupt transitions and going from the cold wind and rain of the Icelandic hinterlands to a hot, humid evening in London was predictably jarring. At least we were coming back to a familiar B&B in London, which made it a little like coming home. We spent almost another week being non-cyclotourists in London and the vicinity, where we took in some historical sights and tended to the specialty shopping chores we reserve for the big cities.
Even though we were still off our bikes, we loved being around them in London. We scrutinized every bike commuter that whizzed by on what looked to be a new network of bike lanes crisscrossing the city and admired the new set of 19 free urban route maps. Bike commuting in London isn't a casual affair as it is Austrian and German cities with their many out-of-traffic bike lanes. Commuting in London demands a head-down concentration to hold your own in narrow lanes often shared by a steady stream of too-wide buses and taxis. That steely, single-focus expression worn by most London commuters gave them the look of professional bike racers. It takes a lot of nerve and determination to cycle in London, though it is more organized than in cities like Athens and Naples and certainly isn't as dangerous as Paris.
About a quarter of the bikes darting through the city were small-wheeled, folding bikes which looked like excellent choices for London. Much of the city is flat and keeping your bike safe from thieves must be a much higher priority than the features most cyclists crave like suspension, lots of gears, and powerful brakes. Here, the ability to breakdown your bike to suitcase size so you can take it on the bus or into a store or your office without any hassles appears to be key. And the number of signs banning bike parking along the sidewalks vastly outstripped the bike racks we spotted, underscoring the range of challenges facing London cyclists.
Though they ride with the determination that makes them look like they'll be out for hours, I suspect that almost all of the London bike computers are only traveling short distances, as almost none of them carried a water bottle, even during London's heat wave. Few of the bikes even had bottle cages on their frames, though many were mountain bikes with the mountings ready to receive 1 or 2 cages.
The new commuter bike maps and cycling lanes spoke to the contemporariness of London, yet we were surprised at how often the functioning of the city seemed to be from a bygone era. In some areas, the layout of London looked like anarchy prevailed. The hodgepodge of rail lines, canals, over-ground pipes and haphazardly located buildings made parts of it look like a disaster area. Rather than quaint or charming, some of these areas looked like they should be leveled and given a fresh start. And the mid-day mayhem at London intersections and crowded, non-rush hour buses made us wonder about their bid for the 2012 Olympics. The aging, national rail system is a difficult assemblage of private lines with little cooperation between them, even within London. And sight on some of the station platforms made us gasp, as it looked like their maintenance had fallen decades behind schedule.
We also found the coin-op phones to be persnickety and quickly learned that a coin that was rejected a half dozen times might still work if we just inserted it a few more times. And I was amazed during my ritual journey to the post office to return our sleeping bags back home when the box was weighed on a mechanical scale and the clerk handed me a pile of 14 stamps to lick and apply. In almost all other countries, the weighing and posting of packages is much more automated. Even a museum tour guide commented that the traditional British stoicism required that they suffer through the heat without sufficient ventilation (let alone air conditioning) in most galleries of the museum.
Back on the Bikes
After more than enough frustrations with the disconnected rail and bus systems, we made our way back to our friend's house a couple of hours northeast of London. The Kelly's had kept our bikes and cycling-specific gear while we jetted off on our Icelandic adventure and we were treated to a wonderful home-stay with them before we headed out again. Being in their bright and fresh home was a joy and we loved the at-home amenities. It's very rare for us to have access to a washing machine, telephone and internet connection all under 1 roof. And having the spaciousness to sit on the floor and listening to the quiet sounds of a snoozing dog in the background reminded us of our former lifestyle.
At dinner each night, Des successfully challenged the reign of Czech beers in
Bill's mind with a sampling of East Anglian regional micro-brews. Of course, the names
themselves gave them a head-start with choices like: Morland's "Speckled Hen," Theakston's "Old Peculier,"
Greene King's IPA [India Pale Ale] and Shepherd Neame's "Bishop's Finger."
But mind you, these weren't selected for their names, but their complex and
robust flavors. Yes, even I was tempted to imbibe, but was quickly deterred by
feeling the effects after only a sip or 2.
We spent a day with the Kelly's sightseeing in the area, including climbing down into an interesting old flint mine. Riding around in their VW camper van made it easier to visualize the next wrinkle in our traveling life when daily biking becomes too much. Good food and good company made it hard to leave, but the bikes beckoned and we needed to be on our way. The night before we left, Bill and Penny poured over the wealth of regional cycling route information she had tracked down for us while we were in Iceland.
Des guided us through the back roads to get our first day on the bikes off to a good start. We were a bit wobbly the first few moments on our loaded bikes after almost a month's break--probably our longest hiatus in 5 or 6 years. We appreciated being followers while we reoriented to pedaling and to riding on the 'wrong' side of the road again. And it was good to have our bikes carrying our luggage after a month without those expensive luggage carts.
The Year of the Telephone
Though we were thrilled to be pedaling again, we were quickly reminded that 2004 will be remembered as "The Year of the Telephone." For the last 4 (going on 5) months of travel this year, we've had to make daily phone calls for lodging reservations--hardly the spontaneous life of bike travel we had come to love. It started as we left the decorated cave region in southern France, became more urgent in Iceland and was even more pressing and expensive in England.
In hindsight, we can see we had it easy where it first began in France. We could tap into the chain motels near the freeways when lodging was tight and have a high probability of getting a cheap room pretty easily. The neighborhood ambiance was nonexistent, but the clean, fresh rooms ran as low as about $40 for 2 and we usually had an in-room telephone, making calling for the next night's lodging easier.
Iceland was more difficult. There weren't any great clusters of budget motels for "Plan B" but instead a thin sprinkling of farmhouse accommodations and guesthouses in the vicinity of the larger villages. We never had a phone in the building where we stayed and we kept a fist-full of coins handy to feed the cranky pay phones, often spending a half hour and several dollars a day making calls for a night's lodging.
We felt sorry for ourselves in Iceland, but August in England was the worst. We were now in the thick of high season and it was horrific locating lodging. Our first weekend back on the road, we spent about $15 just locating places to stay for 2 nights: about half of that amount was fed into the pay phones and the other half went to a booking agency when we came up empty handed.
That Saturday we spent hours on the phone and the best we could do was get a place 5 miles backwards on our route--we didn't even put in the planned day's ride for lack of a place to stay after dozens of phone calls. Saturday nights were the most difficult night to book, usually because of wedding parties. The next week we started calling on Wednesday for Saturday night and luckily got a place on the second call. But then Friday was the bug-a-boo, necessitating laying over a second night earlier in the week and making up the lost distance on the train.
And as expected, the rooms in England were budget-breakers. We skimmed along just under $100 a night, often for some really regrettable places. Damp, moldy rooms overstuffed with a hodge-podge of furniture and lumpy mattresses were the same high price as lovingly decorated and maintained B&B gems. We longed for Iceland's unique sleeping bag option to take the sting out of the cost of a private room.
The phone problem became a crisis, as at the end of our second riding day (August 8) Bill tweaked his right knee as we were heading for our reservation at a freeway interchange-type motel (though it was more than double the price of the chains in France). The sudden, sharp pain that started with a minor "ouch" while walking in Iceland weeks earlier now left Bill believing that his next stop was under the surgeon's knife. The immediate wave of pain passed fairly quickly as we paused to assess the situation. He could barely walk and the pedaling motion, even without powering, was out of the question.
Bill took advantage of one of the many benefits of having cleats or clips that attach your shoe to the pedal and proceeded to our motel by pedaling very slowly with just his other leg, letting the injured leg dangle. Once we checked in, I fetched ice from a nearby restaurant, he popped ibuprofens and we began strategizing about what to do. Clearly we needed access to a phone so we could start calling doctors and possibly making plans to return home if he didn't have a miraculous cure or if it suddenly got worse.
But even this modern, business-person's motel didn't have
in-room phones and I was sorry to discover that the pay phones on the premises
were blocked for international calls of any kind. We expected to be calling the
US-based medical referral group that we have used in the past and knew we would
need the ability to receive phone calls from them. To meet that seemingly
simple need of a telephone, we spent much of the next day getting ourselves to
another chain hotel on intersecting truck routes near a freeway exit, Bill again
plodding along with single legged pedaling on the shoulder of a freeway.
The comfortable room had very welcome and rare air-conditioning, but a truck stop is a horrible location to be housebound for days on end. Stocking up on food for our isolation from markets was reminiscent of Iceland, though we substituted fresh cauliflower for our nightly dose of boiled cabbage. The truck stop snack bar operators were very kind about giving Bill ice each day for his knee. We spent our days reading, writing, and culling photos, with watching the rabbits that came out at dusk being the high point of the day.
Bill felt able to hit the road again after a 5 day rest but our relationship with the telephone wasn't over, even though we never phoned any physicians about his knee. Lodging continued to be tight and would be at least through the bank holiday weekend at the end of the month. After a couple more lay-overs forced because of lodging shortages, we started booking 5-14 days in advance.
Our friends the Kelly's recommended planting ourselves over the upcoming holiday weekend as it would be impossible to stumble across lodging on this, England's biggest traveling weekend of the year. Bill looked at the map and picked Newcastle on the eastern coast as our bank holiday layover, not knowing if his knee would slow us down and we'd have to take the train to get there, or if we'd overshoot it and have to loop back. Even booking at the freeway-styled motel 2 weeks in advance only landed us the disabled guest's room--the last room in the complex.
Prices in England
As expected, Britain was expensive. We managed to stay under a $100 for a night's lodging and though the absolute cheapest B&B we stayed in was $72, our average stay was about $90. Most weren't places we stayed at because we liked them but instead were places that we could get. Our best values were the freeway-styled motels that ran about $85. The predictable ambiance of these motels was a relief. They weren't damp, nor were they cramped and overstuffed with mismatched furniture and nick-knacks. Unlike the B&B's, their prices didn't include breakfast, which suited us just fine. "Full English breakfasts" are often cereal, juice, bacon, sausage, eggs, fried (in lard) bread, toast, and maybe fried mushrooms and tomatoes. We'd rather eat our own low-fat breakfasts and pay less for the room, but that wasn't an option at B&B's.
It was hard to get over our instant reaction to most posted prices which was "That's pretty reasonable". Of course, it was only reasonable because our first take was thinking the posted price was in dollars or Euros. After multiplying the price on a pound of cherries or a double room by 1.8, the price suddenly was a disappointment. And at $7-12 per person, we became more selective about which cathedrals we visited. We also missed the variety in our diet that the high expense of food triggered. On the continent where the prices are more affordable, we happily indulge in a greater variety of fruit and vegetables and experiment more freely in the grocery store. The "Iceland Diet" induced by high prices was the most restrictive diet, but we realized that because of prices, in England we are eating the "Modified Iceland Diet" with a bit more variety, but not as much as we normally are willing to finance.
We expected the northern European countries to be more expensive, but this year we better understand just how expensive they are. We found ourselves reminiscing about the economy of traveling in eastern central Europe where the prices are much lower. In our mental bookkeeping, we spent the money we saved by touring farther east the previous 3 summers in Iceland and England this year. The high prices have prompted us to erase Map Man's plans for riding North Sea route as a continuous journey, which would have included the Scandinavian countries. Instead, we now envision popping north each year to visit a non-continental country or 2, then retreating south to more affordable lands. Being so budget conscious takes some of the fun out of traveling, so we'll limit the time we have to be so conscientious each year.
We would have saved money on lodging by camping this year, but we left our gear at home, expecting our more northerly route to be too cold and wet for pleasant camping. Though Iceland wasn't as cold as we expected, England was certainly wetter than anyone predicted. We weren't hit by the brunt of the storms, but the nightly TV reports on the previous day's weather were awesome.
"An inch of rain in an hour," "Two inches of rain in 1 hour," "One inch in 12 minutes," and "Five inches in 6 hours" became ordinary news. Places that got less than an inch of rain last August received over 10 inches this August. An upcoming forecast in the newspaper began with "Another deluge of torrential rain and gales will sweep Britain...." Flooding in the southwest required 120 people being plucked off of house and car roof tops in a matter of hours and a few days later, almost 60 more people in Scotland were also rescued by helicopters. Video footage of submerged, floating or mud engulfed cars were ordinary. Global warming is blamed, with England generally expecting drier weather but getting torrents when it does rain, like this summer. I presume the the lack of a few huge watersheds is what prevents massive flooding like occurred in central Europe in 2002. Instead, England got isolated areas of flash flooding.
And of course, the farmers suffered from all of
this unseasonable rain. We rode by fields of plump, mature cereals left standing
in the fields too soggy for harvesting equipment. Corn too was left in the field
because of the mud and fields of Iceberg lettuce sat rotting in muddy puddles.
Raspberries were blackened blobs on the bush and apples were dimpled like golf
balls from hail. By the end of August the analysts were saying that the weather
effects on the agricultural industry were worse than the effects of hoof and
mouth disease 3 years ago. And one person commented that the beach resort towns
suffered financially from this extreme
weather that had vacationers making other plans. And then there was the nasty
matter of the sewage overflow into the rivers after the deluges overwhelmed the
systems, with the regrettable effluent ending up on the beaches.
The rains started when we returned to England from Iceland at the end of July and as we approached the last week in August, there was no end in sight. Amazingly, we rode in very little rain. Our week of sightseeing on foot after returning from Iceland and Bill's knee injury both dramatically cut down our riding hours per week and were in eastern England, which received much less rain.
We did get absolutely drenched while visiting St Albans north
of London while on foot and scooted along next to the buildings to avoid the
relentless lightning storm that accompanied the rain. Lightning from that same
storm did kill one teenager closer to London and 2 other kids were also hit by
lightning. And on Bill's first rehab day ride, we sat under an eve for an hour
and half as another fierce lightning storm got hung-up overhead. The lights in
the building we were next to flickered
after one of the many nearby strikes.
The meteorologists' comments like "Once in every 50 years" moved up to "Once in every hundred years" and on August 20, one region's meteorologist was predicting a record-breaking amount of rain for the month. The ongoing rains saturated the ground so that it has no capacity to absorb the fall rains, raising concerns about more landslides and flooding in the fall.
The first weeks of the monsoons were hot and humid, but then the temperature began to drop. In late August we found ourselves wearing our wool socks and long johns, even for sightseeing on foot and sitting in our room at night, as damp weather in the 50's is enough to chill. And disappointingly, frost was already creeping into the overnight forecasts. My clothes tell the tale of this generally cool year as it is my long john top that is sun-faded from such regular outdoor wear, not my sunscreen shirt. And I don't think my sun hat has even made it out of the pannier this year.
Seeing the Sights
But unlike some less fortunate holiday-makers to other parts of England, the monsoons didn't interrupt our travels. We lamented the summer that didn't really happen but carried on with our sightseeing. As often is the case, we arrived in England with a short "must see" list and hoped to learn of additional intriguing sights as we traveled. The British Museum; Hadrian's Wall (from Roman times); Stonehenge and Avebury megalithic sites; and Birmingham, the heart of the Industrial Revolution; were the extent of that list. But here are some of the sights that didn't even make it into our trusty guide book that piqued our interest along the way:
Flint was much sought-after by prehistoric peoples of Europe for tool making, but in some eastern parts of England, flint is literally everywhere you look. Broken and intact flint nodules were mixed with mortar for building rock walls and houses and crushed flint was literally under our feet every day in eastern England. I looked down at this stone with its distinctive, dull steely sheen and couldn't believe that something so precious to some in the past was used for ordinary gravel. It's the sharp edge that can be formed by those who know how to take advantage of its special fracturing qualities that made it so precious. Flint fractures in concave and convex patterns, like obsidian with which some of you are familiar. Obsidian makes the sharpest edge known to date, though its not a very durable edge for cutting. Flint, is less sharp but both more durable and more available than obsidian, which made it the material of choice for the prehistoric tool box. And though flint tools went out of use in England when bronze entered the scene, we saw examples of flint edges being used on 20th century grain thrashing boards in Greece.
The flint is so plentiful here that it was actually mined in prehistoric times, rather than just picked up out of stream beds. Our friends the Kelly's took us to Grimes Graves, one of the few flint mines in Europe (and not a cemetery as one would expect from the name). We climbed down a ladder to the main chamber of the mine and poked our noses in the half dozen low corridors radiating off to the sides. Like cave painting in France and Spain, flint mining involved too much on the belly or hands and knees work for most of us.
The conversation with the sleepy-eyed attendant was the unexpected highlight of the visit. He had a bit of the "nobody's home" look about him but this flint expert perked right up when we cautiously asked some of our long-standing questions about flint. We would never have guessed that flint is a slightly water-permeable stone and so the mined flint was far superior to the 'lying about' flint used elsewhere. Being water logged and then exposed to freezing temperatures creates tiny fractures in the flint as the captured water expands. But the flint mined from the chalky ground was protected from freezing, so it cleaved more predictably when struck. We were left to wonder as to the nature of the characteristic light colored 'shell' around flint nodules, as the experts have yet to decide, thought the best guesses are that it is the look of flint that is either being formed or being broken down.
Flag Fen (named for the local Flag Iris) in eastern England was a Bronze Age settlement that has been partially reconstructed. The pride and joy of the site is a large, humidity controlled room with hundreds of timbers that remain from the thousands pounded into the marshy land to build a long path over the warter about 1300 bce. I was enchanted by the wooden wheel in the small museum from about the same time, as never before had we heard of the wheel being in use anywhere in Europe so early. We will also remember Flag Fen as the site where we sat out a ferocious lightning storm.
We didn't actually visit peat bogs, but in England we were indebted to them for what they had preserved. Like the water-preserved Bronze Age timbers and wheel at Flag Fen, the many peat bogs and water-logged areas in England created just the right environment to preserve organic materials that quickly decompose under normal soil conditions. At the York museum we saw large pieces of leather sandals, a small corner of a leather tent, pieces of fabric and a hank of human hair--all found in the former Roman city. At the Viking exhibit in York, they had clothing, leather and wood items from about 1000 years ago that had been preserved in the soggy land.
Quasimodo Move Over
As with most European travelers, it is not easy for yet another Gothic cathedral to grab our attention, but the Lincoln cathedral roof tour piqued our interest. It was fascinating to walk along the wooden catwalks and look down a few feet onto the topside of the vaulted ceilings rather than looking up at the under side of them hundreds of feet away. Never before had we heard about the need for piling on tons of rubble work (odd stones) and mortar onto the stunning ribbed ceiling vaults to hold down the arches.
We stepped outside through a little exterior doorway cut in the steep roof and pressed our noses against the lead sheeting making the roof water tight. We marveled at being told that 2 plumbers (workers of lead) continuously replace the roof as after 150 years the material sags like glass and becomes thin at the top of the sheet and thick at the bottom. It is melted and reformed to once again clad the roof. We also looked down into the interior of the nave from our bird's height perch and resisted the temptation to touch the centuries-old painted glass window behind us. We scuttled under the eves of massive, ancient oak beams that support the steep, lead protective roof. And as we walked down the corkscrew stone stairway, our guide pointed out the few limestone wall blocks that were reddened during the (first) devastating fire in the 1100's.
One of my long standing questions had been "How do stone
buildings burn down?" Over and over in Europe we had heard of great fires, some of
which destroyed stone buildings. "But if they are stone, what was burning?"
always haunted me. Looking up at the tinder-dry, massive oak beams and looking
down at the deep, conical pits formed by the vaulted ceilings made it ease to
imagine the answer. Lightning, or in modern times an electrical glitch, could
ignite the well-seasoned beams. Falling cinders and beams would likely collect in
the funnel-shaped low places in the ceiling below, with the combination of the heat
and the weight of the debris finally breaking through the ceiling to the floor below. Once at
ground level, the flames would easily set ablaze the wood carvings, benches,
tapestries, fabrics and rugs. Perhaps the stone in the walls cracked
or became crumbly from the heat, damaging the massive structure.
Like Lincoln's cathedral, many English cathedrals are struggling to keep afloat financially and many are now charging admission. It's a shame they're not all offering roof tours like the one we took in Lincoln. I wasn't pleased to pay the $7 to walk in the door of the Lincoln cathedral, but the free though restricted-admission roof tour was worth the admission price. I would happily pay it again at a couple more cathedrals to see if there was anything new to learn in their rafters.
After having our attention drawn to the cathedral's lead
roof, Bill began noticing the liberal use of lead on residential roofing. Foot-wide strips
of lead are used for flashing as we use copper in the States. We of course
keep wondering about the incidence of lead poisoning due to all the run-off from
these roofs, both in people and fish. We saw people collecting rainwater off
their roofs for
their gardens and wondered about the risks associated with that practice where
lead has been so widely used since Roman times.
For the Kids
The Brits outstrip any other nation in their attention to kids in their museums. The children's activities are amazingly creative. At the British Museum in London, kids were decked out in costumes of the ancient Greeks and paraded around the museum as a part of an hours-long activity program. At the National Railway Museum, the activity table offerings ranged from free coloring sheets to little kits of paper locomotives to assemble that sold for $4.50. At the Viking museum in York, the kids had outfits to try on and rubbings of Viking warriors to make. A very animated man with a crowbar and a wooden crate that needed opening grabbed kids attention at another York museum as he unpacked fossils with great fanfare. And often museum exhibit cases had a small stuffed animal or other symbol to direct kid's attention to text written just for them. British kids must be let-down when they visit museums out of the country, as we haven't seen such engaging kid's activities anywhere else. We get a little benefit from this focus on kids as often some staff people are available to answer our questions too.
Books in Britain
Of course, one of the joys we savored in England was being able to read the displayed information in museums and at archeological sites. And as expected, being in Britain has given us a special opportunity to fill-in our history lessons because there was English all around us: the museums, the people and the books created a unique opportunity to get our questions answered. Usually our portable library contains overview books on general subjects or very narrow topics directly related to a specific museum, like Bill's 600 page book on D-Day, which was technically a one day event. But in England of course, we had thousands of titles from which to choose.
When in London, I went looking for the current book of my dreams that I imagined would be titled Prehistoric and Ancient Trade Routes of Europe and the East. Even though the helpful clerks thought the archeologists had missed a bet in not fulfilling my wishes, I had to again accept defeat on this search. One of the clerks was taken aback when I instead bought The Quest for Food: Its Role in Human Evolution & Migration. He wasn't satisfied with my explanation that "I have a lot of interests" but he reluctantly let me buy the book anyway. The little book entitled Fascism is finally making it clear to me just what that "ism" was about and the even smaller book on Bronze Age Copper Mining (in Britain) is filling in some missing pieces for us on that subject. My latest find: Salt, A World History, is a light and entertaining historical overview.
But amusingly, even with tens of thousands of English titles around us, we still walked away with what we could have, not what we wanted, like when on the Continent where we often only had a couple of shelves from which to choose. But nonetheless, I had to squeeze a "book overflow bag" on to my back rack to accommodate these extra purchases as we have learned to grab interesting books when they are available. Our reduced riding schedule imposed by Bill's rehab is leaving more hours in the week for reading than we usually budget, so hopefully our library again will fit inside our panniers before too long. Of course, there is the deeply discounted, latest Harry Potter book that we have so far resisted buying....
Our TV viewing skyrocketed while in England, in part because virtually every B&B provided a set and in part because the all-English programming was seductive. But we were deeply disappointed at the paucity of international news. Neither of our old friends CNN-Europe nor the BBC World Service appeared when we channel surfed. The 2 primary national BBC stations tend to limit themselves to one breaking international story per day, and that's it. They did break the rule on one day and reported both on Clinton's upcoming bypass surgery and the fiasco with the terrorist's who held hostages at the Russian school. But events in Iraq, the Middle East and the Sudan have dropped away and we wonder what else has happened that didn't make the cut for the 1 story per day allotment.
The BBC and the couple of other British stations we saw have their share of TV programs that make you wonder what the world is coming to, but there were also some fascinating programs. Some of the specials weren't of particular interest to us, like the exposé on some of the horrors in preschool nurseries, but we watched them anyway for the general cultural insights. But we stumbled across an odd assortment of riveting programs, including: the 1996 disastrous Mt Everest climbs; old and new fishing lifestyles on the remote coastlines of Ireland; the behind-the-scenes fighting over the design for the building to replace the Twin Towers and the formula nature of 'boy bands' like The Monkeys. And then there were weekly series, like on the wildlife in Australia, "The Worst Jobs in History" and the "Battle for Britain" that we looked forward to seeing when we could. We always got the same 4 stations, so we found ourselves making mental notes of upcoming programs to watch for, like a special on obesity in Britain.
And we won't soon forget the pre-Olympics build-up of an hour
long special entitled the "Animal Olympics." This very clever TV special selected
an assortment of animals to compete against each other, with each representing
one of five animal kingdom groups:
insects, mammals, herptiles (like reptiles), fish, and birds. The animals
competed in standard summer Olympics events, like swimming, archery and various
track and field events. Each animal was digitally scaled up or down to the average human height of a little
under 6'. With this scaling factor, a much enlarged beetle competed against a
downsized elephant and 3
other animals in weight lifting. The footage wasn't animation but the product of high speed
digital photography, resulting in documenting movement details never
before captured on film. A side benefit of this spoof was that some scientists were able to educate themselves about
animal movement patterns from
the unique and detailed footage generated.
The intent was humorous, but the educational element of the Animal Olympics was unexpected. The scaled-down elephant was actually beaten by the beetle in the weight lifting competition and it was incredible to watch a scaled-up fruit fly maggot fling itself higher over a high jump bar than a person could have done. And it was hard to believe that the Australian tiger beetle ran so fast that he exceeded his eyes ability to gather photons of light to see so it had to stop mid-race for his vision to catch up. And the creators weren't confined by good taste: one fulmar chick used its projectile vomiting to score in the shooting competition and a caterpillar was flinging fecal pellets at the target as they do in nature so the odor won't betray the nest. The subtleties of this program would have been lost on us had we not heard the show in English and it certainly put a fun spin on the upcoming Olympics.
One of the unexpected themes that emerged from our more serious TV viewing was the British frustration with the lack of top-down information. One of the many spells of horrific weather shut-down Heathrow airport for 2 nights resulting in owners being separated from 6,000 pieces of luggage. The primary complaint from the passengers a couple days later was the complete lack of information about what to expect from the airlines about getting their luggage returned. A few weeks later, British Airways cancelled dozens of flights because poor scheduling resulted in a lack of ground staff and the airlines left the stranded passengers in a complete information vacuum for hours. And as much as we Americans scoff at our government's terrorist alert system, the Brit's point to it with envy because at least some information is coming out of our government. The British government wants to avoid the criticism generated by the deeply flawed US system, so it has chosen to err on the side of saying nothing.
Our frustration with the scant international coverage and the Brit's complaints about information shortages from higher up have rekindled Bill's longstanding joke about Europeans' stinginess with information, which is "If you needed to know, we would have told you." That summarizing comment was made by him in our very first touring month in Germany in 2001 and reinforcing events haven't allowed the comment to die. It has made us aware of what a presumption we have in our US culture about our right to know. As Americans, we clearly aren't satisfied with being told just enough--we expect access to the full story so we can make our own decisions. In almost all of the countries we have visited, we have felt like other cultures are much more stingy with information at all levels and the people accept the information shortage as the norm.
Attitudes about Failure
Our British TV viewing also rekindled another 2001 memory. While visiting Verdun, France in 2001, we spent a delightful day with a British history teacher and his 2 teenage sons as we all visited the historic sites in the area in their car. One of his comments stuck with us, which was "Only the British celebrate their failures." It was one of those entertaining pronouncements which we could only appreciate in a superficial way, though knew it resonated more deeply for him. After watching segments of the British coverage of the Olympics, his comment 3 years ago took on new meaning.
During the Olympics, we began to see that the British commentators had almost a fetish for failure. Interviews with athletes and coaches were slanted more towards rehashing failure than anticipating success. At a time when I expected the coverage to be uplifting and dreaming about what was possible, they were reviewing past disappointments. The attitude was definitely "a glass half empty" instead of "a glass half full."
This near obsession with failure was clearly was underscored in the coverage of one of their heralded athletes. She all but collapsed during her best event in which she was expected to win gold, the marathon, creating a huge media uproar. Five nights later, just before she was to run in a less favored, consolation event for her, the BBC showed a special video segment summarizing all of her other failures over the years. Scene after scene showed her exhausted, in tears, in pain, and failing. We were all anxious and hoping for the best for her when the media smacked us with doom and gloom. Yes, the Olympics is a time to appreciate the sacrifices and challenges that world class athletes face, but it is also a time to celebrate their accomplishments and triumphs that got them to the Olympics.
In later coverage, when the rising star 17 year old boxer had to settle for the silver instead of the gold medal, the commentator added that it was really better for him not to have received the gold. A silver medal was a fantastic accomplishment for this young man, but the "better this way" comment diminished this young man's goals and efforts. This reveling in failure instead of celebrating accomplishments, whether they yielded medals for the athletes or not, seemed very bizarre to us.
The paucity of information for the common person in Europe and the British celebration of failure reminded me of another smoldering theory, which was about British intellectual elitism. I quickly learned as we traveled these last few years to take a second look before buying a British book, as in general British authors have struck me as being more elitist than American authors. My American bias was that if I was picking up a non-technical book to educate myself about the topic that the author would help me out--that they would bring me up to speed, but that assumption wasn't as often true with authors abroad as at home.
I often carefully reread the first couple of chapters of non-fiction books as they create a platform upon which the book will be built and that is where my opportunity lies to do my remedial work on the subject. British authors however tend to set the bar higher by not as reliably providing the background information and often exclude those of us that are new to the subject. It's like being curious isn't enough, that you also have to qualify to be allowed to learn. I finally threw out my first book on WWI, highly recommended by the British English history teacher we had met, as the author was fond of long quotes in French which he didn't bother to translate. I was annoyed at the snobby attitude and suffered from the lack of continuity that came with missing whole paragraphs. Now I read more pages of British books before I buy to confirm that the author has a sufficiently inclusive approach.
This elitist attitude or approach reappeared during the coverage of the Olympics. When in the States, I remember that part of the fun of the TV coverage was all the education that came with it. For 2 weeks all US viewers could enjoy the thrill of being mini-experts as the commentators explained the terminology of the sport, gave us some of the history and traditions, filled us in on the gossip and rivalries, and told us what to watch for in each event. As viewers we felt temporarily included in the inner circle of these top notch athletes and felt involved in the hoopla.
The British coverage of the Olympics was not inclusive: we generally left the coverage of an event knowing no more than that with which we arrived. Little was explained about the sport or the terminology or the strategy. During the gymnastics events, the broadcasters would comment on the excellent performance yet offer no theories as to why the judges gave it low marks. Even with the appropriately heavy bias towards covering the British athletes, they didn't even follow-up to explain why a British women's swim team had been disqualified in one event. One of their rowers commented that all the teams had added devices to their boats to compensate for the notorious Greek winds, but there was no follow-up about the boats and the modifications made. Over and over again we felt like we had been teased--that interesting comments had been made but were only intended for the insiders.
We were also surprised and disappointed not to hear any analysis of the related issues like ticket sales, facility quality or other behind-the-scenes issues that contribute to the viewer's understanding of the bigger picture. We felt like we were only getting half of the story that we would have heard from US commentaries. We of course didn't see every minute of the Olympic coverage but we probably watched a percentage similar to that we've watched back home.
While we were involved with daily watching of bits of the Olympics, we visited the National Railway Museum in York. I was stunned at a quote there from an English Duke in 1829 bemoaning the fact that the advent of the railroads would allow lower class people "to move about more readily." This priceless quote underscored the greater class differences that are a part of British history than are a part of US tradition and may have contributed to the elitism in information sharing.
And though we found some authors and some TV commentators annoyingly elitist, we encountered none of that exclusiveness on the streets. Instead, we found the British people to be very generous, welcoming and accepting. Everywhere we went, there were people who were quick to chat and to offer a hand. At one bus shelter picnic 2 different older women offered to bring us tea and one was eager to get us a proper can opener for our tuna, which we declined. At another bus stop lunch, the elderly man living next door chatted a long time offering us tea, fresh milk and use of his toilet, which showed unusual insight to the needs of our traveling style.
A number of times in Britain when we stopped to reevaluate our direction, people offered help before we got organized to ask for it. And one man topped-off his directional help with a couple of cold sport's drinks (like Gatorade) for us and then hopped on his own bike to get us started on the back way into town. The Brits in general have been quick to be welcoming like the Spanish and are outgoing to strangers like the northern Europeans. Of course, if we had come to Britain first, the Brits would then be the benchmark by which we compared the others.
We felt well received in Britain as Americans. Many people we talked with had been to the States or have family members that live there. Almost all peg our accent immediately and many are quick to inform us about their recognition of our slightly different vocabulary. And the encounters that became longer conversations invariably turned to "What part of the country are you from" instead of politics. All seem content to set the controversial politics of the day aside and instead prefer to compare travel notes.
The ability to swap stories with other native English speakers was part of the fun of being in England. Most conversations were the usual topics: where are you going, where have you been, and where are you from. But there was no language barrier inhibiting more involved conversations about more complicated topics. The most memorable chat was with a longtime mountain climber whose party was stranded on Greenland for an additional 10 weeks because the early pack ice prevented their scheduled ship from picking them up. They were eventually rescued by helicopter, but only after living on packets of sugar for the last 3 of the unscheduled 10 week stay.
This climber spoke of coming to terms with the thought of cannibalism. He said that towards the end of being stranded, he went to bed every night imagining eating the fat buttocks of the base camp cook. He and the other climbers had agreed that they wouldn't kill her, but that if she died, that they wouldn't hesitate to eat her. They of course all realized that because of her plumpness, that she would likely out live them all. I'd love to know if any of the climbers ever revealed their fantasies to this much coveted woman. Amusingly, he also said that there was a polar bear was keeping an eye on the defenseless climbers like they watched the cook.
Like with this unexpected story of anticipated cannibalism, we never know what or where we will learn. We were surprised that to learn more about the US economy while in traveling in Europe than when we studied economics at home and likewise, being in Europe has given us a deeper understanding of our political heritage than we previously grasped. Seeing what you aren't makes it easier to see what you are.
Being on the Continent for the last 3 years has given us a vivid backdrop against which to look at our culture, and being in Britain is especially interesting because it is a cultural middle ground for us. It's more than just the shared language that is comfortable--Britain's traditions are the source of much of our nation's culture, even for those of us "Out West".
One of the trivial yet startling differences between western cultures is park etiquette. We were well reprogrammed by the French that lawns are to be admired, not walked on or sat upon and parks aren't for picnicking. While in England, I found myself almost quivering when a castle tour guide kept rounding us up and telling us to stand on the grass while she spoke--an absolute taboo in France. On the same castle grounds, little kids were rolling down the grassy slopes and we enjoyed our lunch at one of the picnic tables provided in the green expanses. All over England we looked at the "No" list at park entrances and never was picnicking excluded. Ball throwing and dog fouling (pooping) came up frequently, but sitting or eating on the grounds just wasn't a problem. Yes, these were our people. (We just don't know where they went wrong about that driving on the left thing.)
And despite the French prohibition against sitting on lawns, we've always been horrified at their tolerance for letting their children systematically trample other people's formal flower beds. In contrast, I was quite interested to watch a British toddler repeatedly bounding across a lawn and screeching to a halt before hitting the flowers. He wasn't even teasing Mom--he knew that the plantings were off-limits.
Such cultural overlaps with the Brit's are interesting to notice, as are the places where the American and British cultures diverge. Brits definitely have the European relationship to their government and the European emphasis on the group over the individual. As I mentioned earlier, the Brit's suffer from the too-tight-lipped attitude of their government and institutions as do most of the folks on the Continent. And we've been surprised to see that the British cultural attitude is generally more deferential to the needs of the group over the needs of the individual, as in most of Europe--a problem solving approach that grates on our nerves over and over again while abroad. We've struggled to understand where the US diverged from its European heritage on the matter of the group vs the individual, and the little bits of British history that we are collecting suggests that this cultural value may be anchored in the century's-old foundations of the legal and political systems.
Seeing a couple original versions in England of the Magna Carta from 1215 reminded us of the roots of our US legal system and had us eager to learn more about how the Brits dropped the ball on these constitutional-type rights when they were out in front from so long ago. Traveling in Britain has us asking new questions about the differences in the paths traveled towards democracy in the US and in Europe. It also has given us a new way to appreciate the questions asked since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq regarding a society's readiness for democracy. These stirrings about democracy will have us book shopping in Edinburgh for something like "A Brief History of Democracy and its Role in Currently Developing Nations."
Where We Are Now 9/9/04: Edinburgh, Scotland
Limping along, we made it to Edinburgh in time to meet up with traveling friends formerly from Portland. It's been just over a month since Bill injured his knee and he is doing quite well. Almost all of our rides have been in the 25 mile per day range, which has helped to keep the daily elevation gain below 1300'. It is the powering required for climbing that takes its toll on his still-recovering knee, so keeping that effort under control has been critical to his "relative rest" rehab program. Unfortunately, the terrain has kicked out a dozen or more short grades in the teens each day. Bill is now up to riding the 10% grades and only pushes his bike up the steepest grades. He could probably pedal up them, but is erring on the prudent side to support his healing. He is still icing with our daily bag of frozen broccoli and still quickly deferring to his knee's grumblings. We are hopeful that when we leave Edinburgh on 9/12 that his knee will be back to normal.
The wet August and typically cool and damp Scottish weather has Map Man itching to make an early dash to Spain to catch the last bits of summer. But it's always hard to change plans and we still have a number of sites in western England to see. So, Map Man is concurrently planning a loop north along the much touted western coast of Scotland and keeping his options open for making a beeline for Spain. Decision time on whether our route takes us north or south will likely be in about a week.
FYI: internet access has been very poor in northern England and in Scotland, so bear with us if we are slow to respond if you write to us. We essentially never have phones in our lodging in Britain, internet shops are non-existent in the tiny villages we travel through in the northeast and libraries have given way to book-mobiles, so that option for checking e-mails has also evaporated. We seem to be restricted to connecting in the big cities, of which there are few 'up north.'