Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Christmas in England, Part 5 and Conclusion--Pheasants, Garden Walks, and Pantomimes

Pheasant on New Year's Eve

We returned from the Cotswolds on New Year's Eve, just in time for our brother- and sister-in-law's grand New Year's Eve feast. Dave had procured perfect pheasant from the butcher and had made another splendid, elaborate meal. We'd never had pheasant before--it was very tasty--but we were amused when he told us to watch out for buckshot!

Dave serenading us before dinner

Mike, Olga, Kath, and Dave before dinner

Kath after opening her Christmas cracker

We ate very late, and after dinner it was soon time to watch the New Year's Eve countdown on television. I have to say that the British New Year's TV countdown is much more entertaining than the New Year's Rockin' Eve celebration in New York. Paul McCartney and Kylie Minogue (still a huge sensation in the UK) did a duet, and it was a regular dance party all night long.

At midnight we were poised with champagne in one hand, and a bunch of grapes in another hand. Apparently it is a Spanish tradition to eat a grape with every chime of the clock...and Mike's family adopted the tradition when they were living in Panama. Dave was very concerned that the grapes would spoil the taste of the champagne...so I ended up eating my grapes before the clock struck 12 and sipping my champagne instead!

Other traditions in Mike's family are to wear a new item of clothing on New Year's Day, and on Epiphany, the "Kings" leave a small gift for each person in his or shoes, if you leave them under the Christmas tree.

We have developed two New Year's family traditions of our own, which we did not follow this year...we eat fondue on New Year's Eve, and we have everyone in our home (guests included) write down things that they are thankful for in the previous year, and wishes for the coming year...and we deposit them in a little velvet bag. Part of the fun is to look back on the previous blessings and wishes each year.

A National Trust Walk

On New Year's Day, we took an outing to Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property, where we had lunch and took a long walk through the gardens and grounds, which I imagine are gorgeous in the spring and summer. Here are some photos of the walk--I apologize for the poor quality, but the day was very overcast, and my video camera seems to do best in sunlight.

My little elf (who refuses to wear coats)!

The whole family

With Kath and Victoria

Mark, Victoria, and Dave

An English Pantomime

On the day after New Year's Day, Olga treated us to an English Pantomime of "Cinderella." Last year, a local Portland theater company put on a Pantomime version of "The Princess and the Pea," and it was great fun. When I first met Mike, I thought that Pantomime was some version of a mime. How wrong that is!

Here is an explanation of a Pantomime...it's very broad, raucous comedy, with men playing women and women playing men, one-dimensional characters, slapstick and physical comedy, silly music and jokes, and hilarious villains.

The audience was positively packed with children and families, and the woman sitting next to me kept elbowing me (how pleasant!). The worst thing, though, were the strobe lights. Practically every child, it seemed, had been bought a flashing strobe light toy wand or sword, which they all waved around wildly when the house lights went down. The little girl sitting on her (elbowy) mother's lap right next to me constantly waved her flashing wand in my face. It was all I could do not to grab it and break it in two, and it truly gave me a headache beyond being merely distracting. Finally, I put my program up right next to my face so I wouldn't see it any more.

Our children LOVED the panto...Mike laughed uproariously (as he is wont to do at broad comedy), and I chuckled, when I was not shocked by the double entrendres and frankly much more sexually implied comedy than ever would be acceptable in the U.S. It really makes me think that Americans are uptight about sex, perhaps myself included, given my reaction! At one point, a main character who is a man physically gropes the chest of a man dressed as a woman. Yes, it was funny, but to be honest, it's not really what I want my 11-year-old and especially my 4-year-old to see. I think it went over their heads, though.

Here's a photo of the four stars: Cinderella; her best pal, Buttons; and the ugly stepsisters (and stars of the show), Dolce and Gabbana (played by the male director and choreographer of the show). In true panto tradition, Dolce and Gabbana were hilariously awful and were constantly booed by the audience. Cinderella was one-dimensionally sweet (although not terribly bright), and I found the Prince Charming and her/his sidekick Dandini (played by two women) to be really quite annoying! It would have been easier if they had actually looked like men instead of slender feminine women wearing short little skirts, heels, and ponytails! The whole thing was a little weird.

The whole thing reminded me a bit of the Takarazuka Revue, a totally over-the-top and little-known Japanese cultural phenomenon, where young Japanese women are trained to play male and female roles and sing, dance, and act in these major stage shows.

Visiting with Friends near Saffron Walden

As I said in another travelblog, sadly we were not able to catch up with very many British friends or family members during our recent visit. Fortunately, one of Mike's friends from Oxford, Vicky, settled near a village fairly close to Cambridge. We spent a fun evening catching up with them toward the end of our stay. Nigel commutes daily to his job in London, and he told me that it actually takes him only a bit longer to get to the office than it did when they were living in a suburb of London. He hops on the train and it drops him off near his office, whereas before he had to take a circuitous route of train, tube, etc.

Vicky and Nigel have three children: Jacob (14), Joshua (11), and Isobel (8). Jacob loves the United States and was asking all sorts of detailed questions about speed limits on American freeways, among other things. The boys are very sporty, and Isobel, who has Down's Syndrome, is a very sweet soul who loves her toys, books, and dress-up clothes. Chris hit it off with the boys immediately because they all played the X-Box together. It was wonderful to spend time with another very warm, relaxed family.

The kids (minus Nicholas)

Chris' photo of the rest of us
Last Day in the UK
On our last day in the UK, I requested a trip into town for one final shopping expedition, and a walk through a college. We went to Kings College and discovered that the chapel was closed, but at least we were able to walk through the grounds. We also had lunch in a wonderful little church in town.

Posing in front of Kings' chapel

Another pose (Chris took this one)

On our last evening, I had requested fish and chips...and Kath and Dave suggested an excellent chip shop in a nearby town. Our takeaway fish and chips were excellent. It's getting easier to find decent fish and chips in the U.S., but it's very tough to match the quality in the UK. And no, they do not serve them on newspapers any more because of concerns about hygiene.

The Trip Home

Our flight out of Heathrow was due to depart at 10 a.m., so we left Cambridge at 5:45 a.m. to arrive there in plenty of time. British Airways again proved to be complicated on the return flight, because they could not issue our seats ahead of time...I'm not sure whether that was because they were frequent flyer tickets or because of our separate booking for Nicholas.

I was most worried about the flight home, because (1) the flying time was longer because of the jet stream and the trip to LA, (2) it was all to take place during the daytime rather than at night, and (3) we had a long layover scheduled in LA. In the end, the children did phenomenally well--we couldn't have asked for better behavior. It is definitely the last international trip I will take with a toddler on my lap, though! It will certainly be more expensive to buy him a ticket, but probably will be slightly more relaxing for me.

We were all extremely happy to arrive home, at the equivalent of 4 a.m. or so British time! It took us a little over a week to recover from the jet lag. And that's the end of my Christmas UK travelogue. Hope you've enjoyed it and learned a little about English traditions!

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