From England

Shopping the British Way

I know I’m not breaking any new ground, travel-wise, here in rural England. But sometimes it’s just fun to marvel at how different a place can be just in terms of its regular day-to-day shopping.

We hiked down to Blackbushe Market, which sounds twee because it has a little -e on the end, but is really just a gargantuan parking lot with people selling socks, DVDs and cheap clothes. You can shop from secondhand, garage-sale people for free, but it’s 50p entry to mill around the new stuff.

On offer were quite a few things you wouldn’t see in the U.S. Such as:

...Postman's legs.

It’s true–the British really love their dogs. This is a photo of a small area, and it doesn’t show the vast size of the stand selling pet gear and food–a double-wide lot. And it wasn’t the only operation at the market. In the village near us, where there isn’t a real grocery store, there is a giant pet-supply shoppe.

Oh, why I am just describing it? I do have a photo. I just didn’t want the post to skew too heavily toward dog food. But maybe that’s fair.

The smell wafting off these bones was a little intense...

At Blackbushe, there was a stand selling South African food. Have never seen such a thing. The place was packed, and not, apparently, with South Africans. Spicy stuff is thin on the ground here, so perhaps that’s part of the appeal. Well, that and jerky. In the convenience store in the village near us, they sell kits for making nachos. The brand is Mexican Discovery, with the tagline “More Adventurous Tastes.” Sigh. I miss Mexico.

Elsewhere at the market was a stall selling oil paintings–new and horrible ones, like you’d see in a cheap motel. Where do they come from? And even more baffling, who buys them? It felt very Dutch golden age, when oil paintings went mainstream.

Nearby, someone else was selling “hi vis vests.” Cyclists here are big on reflect-y things. What you especially wouldn’t see in the U.S.:

Mommy's Little Helper is great at working road construction!

Also surprising at the market was the number of butchers. One was even auctioning off hunks of pork roasts, with the head butcher wearing one of those head mikes so that he looked like Britney Spears on tour, and riling up the crowd to bid higher.

Remember how I said British signs were wordy? This is partially what I mean.

Also liberal with the use of quotation marks...

On the other hand, here’s an excellent use of quotation marks:

No, officer, these aren't "counterfeit."

After the market, we hiked back to Hartley Wintney, the village near us. That village with only a convenience store. Which I know is not exactly a fair place to judge a culture, but you can buy these everywhere:

Both of these products, in fact.

It’s times like this I’m glad we get fed in a cafeteria here on the campus where we’re staying–a cafeteria where I can just point to what I want, and don’t actually have to ask for a pork faggot. Or a postman’s leg.

England: First Impressions

I have never felt quite so much like I’m living in a movie than I do here in rural England. My previous experience in the U.K. consisted of a dreadful six months on a student work visa in 1994, during which I worked in London and managed to lose money. My then-boyfriend and I went to Wales for the weekend, and I think also to Edinburgh.

So England outside of London has been created in my mind solely through PBS miniseries. You know: rock walls, grand manors, men in rubber boots walking enormous dogs on the heath.

Uh. It’s all true. So much so that I kind of keep doing double-takes. We arrived on a Monday, cruising up a tree-lined drive past a 17th-century mansion. The next day we went walking and passed not one but two men with giant dogs. And boots, natch. The day after that, I was tempted to tell people they could just stop with the accents now.

What else?

  • Ale tastes better here, in situ. It’s warming, and drinks like a meal.
  • Food is a lot better than when I lived here in 1994. There’s real coffee now, not just instant, and ingredients seem fresher. Here where Peter is doing his thing, the cafeteria serves “Bramshill estate cured venison” at lunch. That’s where we are–Bramshill estate. And I saw the deer–there are scads of them. Somehow, in the U.S., there would be a law against serving that deer to people.
  • The only problem with the food is that it’s still British. I mean, a good chicken-and-mushroom pie is a wonderful thing. But after a while, you crave a little spice. Spice and texture. I’ve seen “squidgy” on food packages as a point of pride, not a point of nasty.
  • English English is very wordy. You see a warning sign, and you just think, Eesh, I don’t want to read all that. My editing brain is in overdrive, mentally striking out all the unnecessary words, phrases, whole sentences. But then, on the plus side, that warning sign often explains why you’re not supposed to do something, which is helpful.
  • It’s a little unfortunate that the tube that goes from Heathrow into London is the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters. And then right near where we live there’s a house called Moorcocks. It goes on. And once you’re in that frame of mind, a place called Hazeley Bottom also makes you snicker.
  • Footpaths are fantastic. That’s where the real PBS miniseries feeling kicks in, when you’re striding across someone else’s property, past all their orchards, on a trail that they’re obliged to maintain and signpost. Very classy. We’ve now walked many miles, as the nearest pub is at least 30 minutes away.

The gap between London and the rest of England is vast and real. Not in a bad and scary way, like the difference between rural America and New York City. I know it’s lazy journalism to quote your cab drivers, but the first one we had was resoundingly atheist, solidly left and very well informed on all manner of current issues, and was from the not-even-a-village right here.

Which reminds me of another driver we had. “Yeah, the lottery–they say the winners are very unhappy,” he told us. “It’s because they become classless, you see. They don’t know where they belong anymore.”

I’ve spent most of my traveling life thinking I needed to get below the surface, that the obvious stuff was trumped up just for tourists. Being here makes me think I’ve been getting it very wrong. Or maybe in this case, TV has been getting it right.

Queen Mary 2: Galley Pr0n

We thought maybe 30 people would show up for the tour of the main galley. Whoa, were we wrong–it was more like 300 people, and the line stretched down the hall and through the pub and back to the casino.

What is so gripping about industrial food preparation? I know the output is generally bad, but all that stainless steel sure is great to look at.

Peter took these photos. See ’em all here.

Thanks to the British influence, it was a very orderly line waiting to see the galley.
Orders flash up on this screen at the front. Guests in the restaurant have a choice of many apps and mains, so service can be pretty intense, I imagine.
Cold apps being plated.
Note the pile of bread slices with rounds cut out for little canapes.
Scarily huge soup tureens.
Man tending less huge soup pot.
The only thing they don't bake on board, they say, is bagels. Those, it seems, they get from whoever supplies the airlines--ie, not a bagel expert.
Wedgwood china, stickers still on.
State-of-the-art phone.
Not many kitchens have escalators.

During dinner service, they have the Parade of Chefs, where the kitchen staff march out in their white jackets and toques and file all up and down the staircases, in Broadway-like precision, while everyone, led by the Commodore Himself, claps in unison. It was a great throwback bit of showmanship, and having seen the scale of the galley and considered the size of the operation, I really appreciated the French brigade system in a way I haven’t before. And it maybe made my beef Wellington taste just a little better…

Queen Mary 2: Pro Tips

Last week’s post was all the philosophical wisdom one gains from a grand trans-Atlantic crossing. This week: the practical stuff, ie, Handy Tips for Younger Passengers, or What the Savvy Traveler (but Non-Cruiser) Needs to Know.

1) Book early. We booked in early summer for the first week in September, and at that time the cheapest fare (about $1,100 per person) applied to the three lowest room categories, which includes the rooms with balconies cut into the hull.

These balconies are supposedly not as nice as the proper-balcony rooms on higher decks, but I could sit outside and not stare at the sea and contemplate how terrifyingly far from land we were, which was a bonus in my book.

The front half of our cabin, with our balcony doors open. Bed just to the left.

2) Board late. The older-skewing demographic means there’s a big easily worried, early-arriving camp. We got to Red Hook Cruise Terminal at 3:10pm for a 4pm sailing, and didn’t have to wait in line at all. One woman even said, “You got here at the perfect time!”

Just a warning: They take your photo when you first get on the boat. You might not want to wear a see-through shirt.

3) They’re not kidding about formalwear. I just assumed everyone would half-ass this. Lordy, no! I’d also misread the materials, and thought there was only one truly formal night. Actually, no to that point too. Five out of seven nights are formal. I honestly have no idea how you really pack for that, unless you also have a coolie to tote your steamer trunks.

[Public apologies to Heather, who helped me pick my formalwear at the Salvation Army. I promised her a photo of the ridiculous red polyester with red glitter dots, but failed utterly.]

But as I said in my last post, you can opt out and eat at the buffet restaurant, which actually feels better for your health anyway, as you can eat as much salad as you want.

4) The Todd English restaurant is worth it. You can pay $35 per person extra and eat here. Do it once, at least. It’s what the main dining room is trying to be, but is automatically better because they’re only doing 40 covers a night, not 800.

I kind of scoffed before our dinner there: “Humph–Todd English! He has a restaurant at La Guardia!” But even the prosciutto-and-fig pizza tastes better on a ship than in the main terminal at LGA.

5) Be sure to go to the buffet restaurant the night it’s in Lotus, the Asian zone. Because that’s when they might have the Filipino pork belly with adobo. Hot damn, that was good. They need to let more of their Asian staff cook.

6) The library is great. The real pro cruisers were all in there in a mob the first day, snapping up the John Grisham books, I guess. The library didn’t have a copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, but they did have The Pale King, which I should’ve read instead of Freedom. (Sorry, thought I got over that–I think I’m done grumbling now.)

7) Feeling seasick? Go to the pool. We bought a three-day sauna pass, and the first day we went was the “real ocean weather” day. It was a little icky sitting in the steam room, in the dark, and in fact a guy who was in there when I was went from cheerful to miserable in a matter of a minute. But floating in the pool, even though it was crashing around dramatically, was instantly relaxing–call it the aqua-gyroscopic effect, I guess.

8 ) If you’re young, introduce yourself to other youngish people. We should’ve done this more. There weren’t very many of them, but I imagine they were all feeling as out of place as we were. Or…they might’ve looked at us and thought, Why are these old people talking to us?

9) Going solo is fine. Think of all the reading you could get done! You can order room service, and the Caesar salad is pretty good. But, yeah, it is pretty solidly couples all over the ship.

Here I am enjoying my room-service cheese plate, on our poor-man's balcony. You have to stand up to see the water.

10) Don’t plan on doing anything important in the first four days off the ship. Just when your inner ear gets all groovy with being on the water, you’re dumped off on dry land. And everything seems to tilt way this waaaaay, and then way that waaaaay. Exercise and walking helps, but sitting still is difficult.

Also, the time change going east is surprisingly a drag–they set the clocks back an hour on every night but the first and the last. These shorter days, plus the world tilting, makes you feel jet-lagged even though you’re not exactly, and you can’t cop that excuse.

Any other questions? Ask in the comments.

Queen Mary 2: What I Learned

Being on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic gives you plenty of time to think. To keep your mind of unpleasantries like “Just how far is it to the bottom of the ocean?”, “How fast are we killing the planet?” and “Who are all these rich people?”, I guess you’re supposed to attend scarf-tying classes and all the other activities.

Instead, I slept a lot and read all the literature they gave us. Here’s what I know now. (Photos from Peter; see them all here.)

1) It’s an ocean liner, not a cruise ship. Flimsy little cruise ships are too feeble to even get anywhere if they’re in serious swells.

Handsome!

Each day at noon, the commodore came on the intercom for announcements, just like in school. Unlike in school, I could listen from the comfort of my own bed. Which I often did, and dozed off again when he handed the mike to the German announcer.

On Day 3, when the ocean was quite rough, with serious pitching such that every 10 seconds or so you felt like you were on one of those free-fall rides at the fair, the commodore came on the intercom to say cheerily, “This is real ocean weather for a real ocean liner–something to savor.” I think I will savor that phrase forever.

2) It’s a crossing, not a cruise. Actually, I knew this already from the literature, but it was surprising how many people (ie, lots) had done cruises before. Also, it’s still ridiculous to me that straight people use this as a verb so innocently. I managed not to snicker whenever someone said, “Yes, we’ve cruised quite a bit,” while patting his wife on the knee, but it was difficult.

3) I’m not old, but I’m not young. Peter went to crash the “young adults” get-together, for people 30 and under, in the G32 disco, but by the time he got there, everyone was over 60, as they were everywhere else on board. This wasn’t terrible, but also not very invigorating.

Peter and I got to be on nodding terms with the only other person in our age bracket, a solo girl of about 30, who read a lot and stared moodily out to sea. Also, apparently this guy was around, but I’m not certain we ever saw him.

4) Singalongs are fun. They’re overdue for a comeback. On Day 3, the day of real ocean weather, we happened across a mob assembled for “Groovy Choir,” even descending the two main curving staircases, like a Broadway musical. We sang a bunch of 80s songs, and “Waltzing Matilda,” while swaying with the ship. At one point, someone was doing a disco move in the glass elevator as it went up the atrium.

(Corollary wisdom: Karaoke isn’t as much fun outside of Asia. Or Peter and I need to work on our act. “King of the Road” isn’t a natural duet, really.)

5) Jonathan Franzen is overrated. I checked out Freedom from the surprisingly good ship’s library, and I’m still irritated that I wasted three perfectly good reading days on it.

6) I was tricked into going to a resort! On Day 6, it came to me: Duh–the QM2 is just an all-inclusive on the water.

Ah, rats--we never did play shuffleboard.

But the fact that it took me that long to realize why the whole dynamic felt familiar (buffet lines, activities, karaoke every night, etc.) is pretty good testament to how well the QM2 manages to preserve the lingering romance of the trans-Atlantic crossing. And even if you’re just eating a hot dog for lunch, at least you’re sitting out in the salt air and seeing nothing but horizon all around.

7) The Titanic wasn’t a disaster. On airplanes, they take care never to remind you that planes can crash. But on the QM2, you can have your portrait taken in front of a Titanic-interior backdrop. The Titanic sinking spot is marked on a map on Deck 8, and the commodore announces when you’re passing it. And, the commodore later told me, the movie Titanic actually caused a spike in demand for trans-Atlantic crossings, and motivated the building of the QM2.

8 ) Americans are over-eaters, but I owe them. I read in the Cunard literature that the buffet-style service (as opposed to formal table seating) was added, following demands from Americans. But the buffet was the only place you could eat at night without dressing up in formalwear, and I had seriously underpacked in this respect. And the buffet wasn’t a disgusting explosion of gluttony–it was actually quite tame, with only a few options each night.

Plus, if we’d had to eat sit-down fancy food every night, I think we would’ve been ill. Even with the best of intentions, dinner for 600 in one seating is going to be all wrong. Imagine a whole week of wedding food.

Our assigned table was out of the frame to the left.

Due to our preferences for comfortable shoes and green salad, we basically abandoned our assigned table-mates in the formal dining room. One night midway along, we peeked in and saw the four of them sitting there. Oops–we’d assumed everyone would go their separate ways.

So when we ran into both couples very near the end, we felt a little sheepish. We had a nice talk with one set, a just-retired couple from Long Island who were off to Paris for a week. But then we spotted the other couple in the G32 disco, and, well, you haven’t been snubbed until you’ve been snubbed by a 50somethng gay man in a navy-blue club jacket.

9) The commodore is the captain. I went most of the week thinking he was some flunkie, assigned to doing the daily announcements and glad-handing us all at a cocktail party on Day 2. But then we got invited to dine with him. Peter wasn’t quite as clueless as I was about the commodore’s rank, and had slipped him a copy of his book at the cocktail party.

The commodore was thoroughly charming, especially considering he has to spend most of his time making announcements and chatting with people at dinner every night. (His wife, I noticed, was showing a little luxury-lifestyle fatigue, as she had strawberries for dessert instead of baked Alaska.)

The other people at the commodore’s table that night were

  • a couple of vintage-car collectors from Australia, fresh from the show at Pebble Beach;
  • the Lessers, a frequent-cruising couple with Diamond status on Cunard, the man of which introduced himself as “the evil of two Lessers”; and
  • world-champion ballroom dancers, recently wed.
Guess which are the pro ballroom dancers.

On the cocktail party night, the commodore made a very nice speech about how we were carrying on a grand tradition of travel, there in the ballroom in our fabulous formalwear. (Well, mine was from the Salvation Army, and might’ve counted as formal only in 1974.)

And the history is certainly the thing that makes the QM2 not a soul-killing cruise that induces David Foster Wallace-style alienation and despair. Plus, the decor is all Art Deco-ish, and genuinely classy.

On a less classy ship, this bronze statue's boobs would've been all shiny from people rubbing them during photo ops, I bet.

So how about some jazz bands and phosphates and sleeve garters? There was only one man aboard who was sporting mustache wax, and that is just a tragedy. And I want to see the return of the bouillon cart I read about on one of the history panels all over the ship. This was an afternoon service for everyone bundled up in blankets on their deck chairs–loads better than tea. What the heck, throw in some con artists and flimflam men too.

Other ideas? I have a direct line to the commodore.