Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The S-is-for-spoiled Generation

This Friday, our 10th grader is going on a field trip.  A local museum in London would be nice, right?  Or maybe one of the nearby palaces in the suburbs of the city. A bit farther afield, Bath offers some fabulous British history that dates back to Roman times.  Any of these options would be memorable.  However, they're crossing the English Channel and heading to a whole 'nother country in order to see World War I sights in Belgium.  

Back when I was a kid and we had to walk to school, uphill both ways, we were happy as pigs in mud to travel to Houston for the day on a field trip.  That was a big deal, traveling over an hour from the school to see the San Jacinto monument or Battleship Texas.  If we were headed to the Astroworld theme park, we thought we had died and gone to heaven.  We loaded up on the "yellow dogs", which is Texas speak for big yellow buses with no air conditioning or seat belts.  Heaven help us when it rained because we just about smothered when the windows had to be put up.  I'll never forget winning a UIL journalism event at the regional level in Brenham and getting to attend the state meet in Austin.  Do you know how far that is from the Beaumont area?  We're talking dog years, folks.  By the time we arrived, I felt like I was about to barf after trying to read a book, my only option for on-the-road entertainment, while being bounced around the whole darned day.  Of course, this was accompanied by dehydration from all that sweating and a permanently enlarged bladder from "holding it" so I wouldn't tinkle in my pants. 

I'm obviously taking my new role as the old fogey generation very seriously because I feel compelled to tell our girls how good they've got it these days.  Our teenage daughter will be traveling on one of the school's private coaches to Belgium.  They will be able to relax in a reclining seat with folding tray table.  It will be air conditioned or heated, as needed, and they will be able to view the scenery through the panoramic UV, non-glare glass windows.  If they need to potty, they just trot to the back of the bus and take care of their business.  I'm surprised the poor chaperones aren't required to roll a snack and drink trolley down the aisle in case the little darlings need some refreshment on their grueling trip.  They will be able to play games on their iPods, update Facebook pages on their cell phones and tweet about how bored they are sitting on the bus.  Yes, it's a tough life and they do have to make sacrifices like this on occasion, not entertained for every second of the day.  They're rotten, I tell you, with a capital R.

They have no idea what it's like to entertain themselves while trapped in a vehicle.  Anybody wanna play a game of I-Spy, State License Plates or Slug Bug?  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Someone Needs to Get a Hobby

I'm bored, like way bored.  So bored I need something demanding to occupy my time and give me focus.  So bored I'm considering that we need to add a new member to the family.  So bored that I'm longing for the pitter patter of little feet in the house.  So maybe a Norwich terrier or poodle?

I've recently decided to adopt the local fox we see slinking around our house.  I don't think the fox realizes this since it's not really cooperating.  It has been looking a bit thin lately and we don't cotton to skinny critters in our family.  I come from a long line of folks that love their pets to death with food.  Some people are more guilty of this than others, right mother?  Vienna sausage, cheese and wieners are really not appropriate snacks for a dog unless you're trying to get a pill down them.  Honestly, that lady at the Wal-Mart checkout always gives you the eye because she thinks you're eating those 15 cans of vienna sausage.  

With this ideology firmly planted in my brain, I've taken to putting out food for the fox every night.  For 26 pence, I get the least expensive container of store brand dog food.  It sounds fancy schmancy, like something you might find in a French restaurant - terrine of lamb in sauce.  It reminds me of the Alpo we fed our old basset hound named Jezebel when I was a kid.  I'm sure it contains only the finest local horse meat.  The youngest daughter helps me put it out every evening on the back patio and gags when she opens it.  It's pretty vile smelling, so I figure it draws the fox in like a magnet.  I bet it's not so removed from it's domesticated doggy cousins.  Our miscellaneous dogs from years past were always drawn to the fishy smell of cat food and have even been known to snarfle through the litter box for a little snack - ick!  And there's nothing better than something stinky and disgusting in the road that has been squished and thus requires a good roll.

Since moving to the UK, we've always had this fox nosing around the front drive and back patio.  This happens in the evenings and is always easy to spot because it triggers the motion activated lights.  Now that we're putting out the tasty terrine on a nightly basis, the fox waits until we go to bed to retrieve the food.  Its MO is to wait until the house gets quiet for the evening, then come up onto the back patio and carry the food farther away from the house to eat.  One evening I was up later than everyone else, reading a book, and saw the back lights turn on.  I tiptoed over to the window, darn those squeaking floorboards, to see the fox carrying the little tin of terrine out into the middle of the backyard where it proceeded to eat it.  

This really is the perfect sort of pet ownership.  I don't have to worry about it shedding fur all over my house.  It doesn't have any accidents on the carpeted floors.  The furniture doesn't get torn up or smell because it has decided the leather sofa is much more comfortable than the floor.  It's not necessary to have a wrestling match in order to trim its nails.  Then there's the whole rodeo involved in taking it to the vet, getting it into a carrier and then having it hike its leg on the reception desk when you're checking in to board it for a week while you go on vacation.  You've gotta be prepared to get a second mortgage on your house to finance a stay at the local pet resort.

I know I should be satisfied with this little arrangement.  Be careful what you wish for and all that jazz.  Hey - maybe the fox is a she and will have some baby foxes this spring.  I can up my investment to the 59 pence tin of terrine and feed the whole family.  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

United (Animal) Kingdom

Mimi, my mother, has been visiting us for the past week here in England.  She flew over from Texas and we've been exploring greater London.  We were blessed with nice weather every day except Friday, the day we paid for a bus tour.  We slogged around Leeds Castle in the drizzle and arrived at Dover in the cold mist, unable to see the 22 miles across the channel to Calais.  The rain was coming down in earnest when we stopped at Canterbury to view the cathedral, driven by the wind up under our soggy umbrellas.  This was the only day when we wished we had stayed at home in front of the fire instead of getting out to explore more historic sites.

In-between our touring schedule, we've been trying to lure the elusive fox to our backyard for a viewing.  When we first arrived in England, the foxes were present all the time.  At night they would wander into the backyard, tripping the motion activated lights to nose around the back patio.  We would hear them yipping in the neighborhood.  One afternoon I looked out the kitchen window to see a fox sitting on the edge of our front drive, up against the hedge, vigorously scratching fleas.  The foxes aren't exceedingly wary of humans and are slow to wander off once we've spotted them.  

After becoming rather blase about the foxes over the past few months, it figures that we would be unable to conjure one up for mother to see while she's here.  We came up with the idea of luring one into the backyard with some cheap dog food from the local grocery store.  We've been putting out terrine of lamb in gravy the past 4 nights, but no fox.  

However, Mimi's visit hasn't been completely devoid of animalia.  Remember the birds and squirrels?  They've been busy, busy in the backyard, feasting on the feeders.  Mimi has been amazed at the size of the ravens.  The day she arrived, we were sitting in the family room when we heard that familiar squawk/caw, the sound of my nemesis.  About that time, a 6" twig came rattling down the chimney flue and fell out onto the hearth.  Mimi was amused... me, not so much.  The management company finally sent someone out a few days ago to put some sort of cowl on the top of the chimney to keep birds from nesting up there.  I'm just glad they got this accomplished before any hatchlings made an appearance in my family room.

Our other animal incident involved a mouse.  We had to catch a 6:15 am commuter train into London for our guided tour out of Victoria station.  We were one of the first people at the rail station here in town.  Mimi was sitting on the bench and we were watching this cute little brown mouse scurry around, looking for crumbs.  It was a tiny little thing, between 2-3 inches long, zipping to and fro, checking out every little scrap to see if it was edible.  Every time someone new came onto the platform or a non-stop commuter train whizzed by, it would rush back to the wall, which must have concealed its home.  After one of its disappearances, I looked down to see it adjacent to mother's feet.  I squeaked out an alarm, whereupon mother promptly shrieked in surprise and threw up both feet, horizontal to the ground.  In the process, one of her shoes flew off her foot and we earned some odd stares from fellow commuters.  

Mimi flies back to Texas tomorrow, so it's our last night to set out one more container of fox food.  We'll probably end up seeing it every night once Mimi leaves, now that it has become accustomed to the free meal we've been providing on a nightly basis.  I guess we'll just have to take a picture of its little fox face plastered to a pane of glass in the french door leading out to the patio and email it to Mimi.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

Over here in the UK, you just don't see police speed traps.  Back in Texas, the local Barney Fifes and cowboy hat wearing state troopers were masters of surprise.  They were quite ingenious, hiding just past a bend in the road, over the top of a hill, right behind a copse of trees or in the shadow of an overpass on a sunny day.  They were the hunters and my SUV was the prey.  By the time you spotted them and hit the brakes, it was often too late.   

On this side of the Atlantic, I seldom spot law enforcement out and about, patrolling the roads.  And why should they waste the gas when they can just set up cameras all over the place?  On many roads, you even see signs warning drivers that cameras are in operation.  It's so strange to think that they pay folks to sit behind a desk and watch screens all day to spot serious criminals like me.

This morning I received a letter from the royal borough of Kingston-Upon-Thames, notifying me that last Sunday at 11:35 on Eden Street I violated Code 34J when my vehicle was seen contravening bus lane regulations.  In case I didn't understand this verbiage, they provided an English-to-English translation in parentheses for me... being in a bus lane.  

If I got a hankering to contest this with the hope of avoiding their penalty charge for my heinous driving offense, the letter also stated, "The alleged contravention was noted by camera operator number KT074 who was observing real-time footage from the CCTV camera taken at the time stated.  This alleged contravention is supported by videotaped evidence."  So yeah, it looks like I'll be coughing up the 60 pounds sometime during the next two weeks before the fine doubles.

There are two things about this situation that really irritate me.  The first one is that I had NO IDEA I was driving in a bus lane.  Since I made a perfect score on the written portion of my UK driving test, I was aware that it's unlawful to drive in a bus lane.  Of course, I already knew that since it's also a rule of the road in the USA.  How far did I travel in the bus lane?  Was it just a brief stint in the sacred area reserved for the bus or did I hog it up over the course of a mile or two?  At the risk of sounding like a smart a$$, I would honestly like to know.  The letter stated that it's possible to view the video evidence and I'm sorely tempted to take them up on it.  However, that would involve me driving back over there and I might inadvertently drive in the darned bus lane again and earn myself yet another fine.  Wouldn't that just be the icing on the cake?

The second thing that irritates me is I've been driving on a whole 'nother continent on the "wrong" side of the road as well as steering from what has always been the passenger seat in my vehicle back home... for a whopping two months.  I don't think I deserve special treatment and should, of course, be expected to abide by the rules of the road.  But can't you cut me some slack here?  I've moved beyond the borderline panic attacks from my first forays on the local streets.  It's no longer necessary to carry a paperbag in the car to control the hyperventilating.  I no longer curse like a sailor (usually) when the road narrows and I pass each vehicle parked ON THE ROAD in my lane of traffic, wincing as I anticipate the destruction of my left side mirror.  We're finally able to listen to the radio playing softly and the children are allowed to talk while I'm trying to keep from getting us killed as we drive to the grocery store for milk.  I keep reminding myself that bicyclists are not demons sent from hell to torture me every time I get behind one on a major thoroughfare, which happens every single time I venture forth in my vehicle.  Yes, even at night.

I'm glad the roads are kept safe for humanity.  I can only imagine the eyestrain these poor folks suffer, watching screens all day to jot down license numbers on cars driven by maniacs like me.  I just think they need to go after the serious offenders - folks who reach around to swat their kids in the backseat while threatening to pull the car over to the side of the road or maybe the ones who pick their noses while driving.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bye-Bye Birdie?

The bird saga continues.  I really hope we're nearing the end of this little drama.

The early bird isn't getting the worm, but rather chirping down my chimney every morning.  And it isn't some sweet little songbird that weighs just a few ounces.  Oh no - it's this loud squawk that has me picturing something the size of a donkey with wings.  Seriously, it's got this big, deep throated vocalization that gives me the willies when I hear it.  Now I'm not scared anymore, I'm pissed off.  These birds don't know who they're dealing with.  I don't have any qualms about killing ladybugs, remember?  As soon as I hear bird sounds from the chimney, I clap my hands, yell and bang a metal trash can on the stone hearth in a bid to scare the bird away.  It's like some twisted sort of pep rally to defeat my opponent, with all the clapping, yelling, and noisemaking.  I'm gonna win this battle against the fine feathered fauna in England.  

Next chapter in the bird book:  On Friday, Callie heard some chirps coming from the chimney and a few pebbles cascaded down onto the hearth.  I had called our property management company a week ago and had never heard back from anyone.  It just reinforced my foregone conclusion that everything moves along over here at a snail's pace.  With a second opinion in place, I rang them up again and was promised someone would swing by to check it out for us.  

Sure enough, about an hour later an older gentleman rang the bell.  He didn't look like your stereotypical blue collar worker, someone who deals with chimneys for a living.  It looked as if he was headed out to play a few rounds of squash later at his club and then enjoy a nice cocktail afterwards.  He was wearing khaki pants, with a long-sleeved, blue striped button down shirt underneath a green sweater.  And it wasn't just any sweater.  It was a Polo sweater because I recognized the little polo pony with player on it.  His silvery white hair reminded me of the patriarch on the TV show "Dynasty".  

I let him into the house and he asked to take a look at the fireplace.  I stood well back while he crouched on the floor and used this cute, but powerful flashlight to peer up the flue.  Nothing in there.  Then he asked to go out into the garden (English speak for backyard) and have a look at the chimney.  I let him know that there is a good-sized ladder hanging on the side of the garage, but he told me that would be unnecessary.  He then proceeded to pull out a pair of fancy binoculars in order to get a "good look" at the top of the chimney.  After a few minutes, he pronounced that it does appear a bird is nesting in the top... since we haven't used the fireplace this winter.  I should have caved to the youngest child's request to make some s'mores, bad mother that I am.  I could have killed two birds (insert evil laugh here!) with one stone.

The smartly dressed bird man told me he would let the property management company know about the nesting situation.  They would tell the owners of the home, who would give the go-ahead for removal of the nest and installation of some sort of fireplace cover to keep this from happening again.  Mr. Carrington, aka bird guy, would have his men - the ones who actually work for a living - come out sometime in the next week to take care of this for me.  

The entire time he was at our house, the bird guy was keeping up a constant chatter about a recent trip to Florida.  He had gone on holiday to visit his friends who live in some frou-frou golf course community over there.  I guess they pay these bird guys pretty well, so they can dress in top-notch clothes and take vacations to warmer climates during dreary English winters to work on their golf, or squash, game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Testing, testing... 1-2-3

After years of teaching my students test-taking strategies, I finally got to employ some of them today.  The rule of the road in the UK is that residents of the US have one year to become a licensed driver.  It's a handy way for them to make a bit of cash from the expat population.  Thus far I've invested about $140 in the process.

Last month I trotted down to the local Royal Mail post office to get a passport-style picture taken.  Those are always such attractive pics, especially since they won't let you have even a hint of a smile.  At that point I was afraid they wouldn't grant me a provisional license because it looked like I belonged on a Wanted poster.  Lindsey Lohan and Mel Gibson's mug shots, taken while they were on the backside of a drunken binge, were more attractive than the picture I sent in with my application.

It was a pleasant surprise when my provisional license arrived in one week.  When you submit your paperwork for the license, you also have to send in your passport, which means you can't leave the country.  I figured sometime during the stated 2-3 week window when my passport was being held hostage by the driver's license authority, some member of our extended family would get hit by a bus or win the biggest Powerball jackpot in history.  Here I'd be, stuck in England without my passport.  

This afternoon, I rode the train to take my theory test in a nearby town.  It was about 15 miles from my house, but in a large town with lots of confusing one way streets and limited parking - the stuff of nightmares that would frazzle my nerves.  Hmmm... maybe a shot of tequila or glass of wine would have calmed me down a bit?  I had a feeling they would frown on folks who show up at a driver's testing facility with alcohol on their breath.  So faced with that choice, it was an easy decision to hop on the train.  However, it wasn't so easy to hop on a train to my destination.  We were told there was an "incident involving police" at Waterloo Station in London, with seven of the tracks shut down for hours.  So I tapped my cold foot while waiting on the platform - the high was in the 40s today - and was about to hail a taxi when a train finally rolled in to the station.  I made it to the testing center with just minutes to spare... 55 of them, to be exact.  

I had to empty my pockets, turn off my phone and give them all my belongings as if I was headed for lock up.  Seriously, did they think the second hand on my Brighton watch was gonna help me answer the question about yielding to cars from the right on roundabouts?  I must admit that I was rather nervous until I saw my fellow testers on the computers - a room full of teenagers.  Wow, that put things into perspective.  I figured if a greasy-headed teenager with his butt crack showing above the waist of his jeans can sit the test without a hint of nerves, then so can I.  

I zipped through the test and aced it with 100%.  It seems my 28 years behind the wheel in Texas came in handy.  The next step in this process involves throwing some cash at Barry the Brit, a man who specializes in prepping Americans for the UK driving test.  I can't wait to hear about all the things I've been doing "wrong" since I started driving a car back in 1983.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

*%@# Birds

It's probably all my fault.  I have lured some poor idiot bird to its death.  

The owners of our home left a couple bird feeders in a tree out back.  With our big bay windows in the family room, it's the perfect vantage point to birdwatch.  We bought a couple bags of seed and filled them up a few weeks ago.  Since then, we've seen all sorts of local birds chowing down on our birdie buffet.  

We've also had to run off the squirrels that live in the large trees in our yard.  They act all innocent, foraging on the ground underneath the feeder.  Then, just like their counterparts back in Texas, they get bold and shimmy up the tree out onto the branch and dive headfirst into the feeder.  It doesn't matter that the branch is bouncing precariously or that they're hanging upside down to pillage food.  When she's at home, youngest daughter C loves to watch for the squirrel assaults on the feeder so she can open up one of the bay windows and bark like a dog.  This sends the squirrel hotfooting it back to the rear of the garden to the larger tree he seems to call home.  Of course, he's at it again a bit later because squirrels are quite persistent when it's birdseed they want.

So maybe this influx of local birds partaking of food in the feeder is the reason I believe one may have built a nest or gotten stuck in our chimney.  I had convinced myself that the random bird chirps emanating from the vicinity of the fireplace were just an echo.  Some really talented bird was able to throw his chirp so that it sounded just like it came from our chimney rather than the nearest tree.  

I hadn't heard a chirp for over 24 hours and chalked it up to my fevered imagination.  Then this morning, I heard another chirp.  My husband's suggestion that I check the flue met with a big old "hell no", so I called the leasing company that manages our home.  

Honestly, that was a mistake because now I'm cowering in the office.  The receptionist had to take a message and leave it for the leasing administrator.  She was regaling me with this nightmarish tale about how two birds actually flew into her house through the chimney a couple years ago.  Seriously, that's heading me towards breakdown territory.  I could end up in a mental hospital thanks to that woman. And have I heard back from the leasing company yet... of course not.  

No matter the outcome, I just don't think this tale will have a happy ending.  Dead or trapped bird.  Newly developed neuroses about birds.  Costly fee to check chimney.  Embarrassment if chimney is bird-free and I look like a birdbrain.