Archive for January, 2012

Week One

We were ridiculously pleased to wake up on Sunday morning (our first Sunday in the UK and the first of the first full week) to discover that we were staying with really, really nice people–Simon and Gill Ashby. Over a full British breakfast (sans the baked beans, I don’t know what in the world they’re thinking about that), we found that they used to work in the electronics industry and that the husband, Simon, is an engineer who knows quite a bit about common topics with Bear.

We had a very nice morning talking about everything electronica while drinking tea and watching their backyard for signs of wildlife. There were the requisite squirrels and a few sparrows, but then something darted from the woodpile and we saw our very first stoat.

In case you’ve never seen one, wait no longer.

Stoat Drain

If they'd let this stoat down the drains of Castle Rock, that whole Pennywise the Clown from IT thing never would've happened

Then followed a small, lively debate in which Simon and Gill tried to determine if it really was a stoat or just a least weasel. The final verdict was that we have no way to be certain but “A weasel is weasely identified, while a stoat is stoatally different.”

The first part of the week was devoted to settling in for me to get back to work and figuring out things about life in the UK. I’m not saying I’m a genius by any stretch, but I knew that the raw munkpower had been missed at work in terms of hands to do stuff, so I got hooked up onto the Wifi as fast as possible and started putting in hours. The best system at the moment (until we get into the house with a formal hookup) is to work 5-6 hours in the morning, then use the afternoon for essential appointments like getting into the national health system, stuff for the property, banking, etc. which simply have to be done in person, during daylight hours. Then I come back in the evening for me (late afternoon for the guys in the US) and work the remaining hours. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty great considering that I’m stuck in a bedroom out in Longstanton, Cambridgeshire and the nearest decent food is an Indian place called Rajah Bengal in the next village.

We took Monday afternoon to go to IKEA in a neighboring area called Milton “Land of the Roundabouts” Keynes where we risked life and limb to pick up essentials for the new house. Things like, oh, forks and bedsheets.  We also encountered an ASDA, which turns out is just Wal-Mart in a clever disguise. I know they think they can fool the Brits, but when you have a big smiley face announcing “Rollbacks” then I’m onto you.

Milton Keynes Roundabouts

The streets in the city go round and round, round and round..."


ASDA, AKA "Wal-Mart in a not-so-clever disguise"

Tuesday was devoted to getting onto the NHS (National Health Service) which you do by locating the office closest to your house and filling out about 10 questions. Honestly. After all of the incredibly stupid and picky paperwork I’ve done in the last 5 months, I could’ve delegated this one to a brain-damaged gibbon with Tourette’s Syndrome. While there in the office, we discovered that one of the doctors is training for the London Marathon, which I was interested in of course after my marathon experience last year. Maybe I’ll be the one giving tips this time around.

Wednesday was a work pretty much all day kind of day, trying to keep the hours going and getting faster at doing what I do with essentially one hand tied behind my back (not used to working strictly on a laptop without a second monitor and multiple extra power boxes). We did have to run into town to swap out the minivan (“People Mover”) we had rented to get all the luggage from the ship to Cambridge because it was costing a lot more than a regular car. Thank God our B&B people let us store all the suitcases in their workshop/greenhouse so we could change cars. (Small crisis when Avis gave Bear a manual and he had to wait until that night to swap for an automatic. Trust me, there’s enough going on without having to shift gears also.)

On Thursday after “first shift” at work, we went back to the surgery in St. Neots, which is the proper term for a doctor’s office and that takes some getting used to. “Are you all right?” “Just going in to surgery, thanks!” The local pronunciation is “Sun Knee-yots” as we’ve been coached. We also had lunch at one of the local pubs, trying to get a sense for where would have reasonably healthy options. The Bridge House was a winner by virtue of good salmon and huge number of vegetarian options.

River Ouse

River Ouse near the town center in St. Neots

We also got to walk over the aforementioned bridge and met what I believe is one of the local Asbo candidates. An Asbo is something like a misdemeanor in the States. It stands for Anti-Social Behavioral Order and you can get one for all sorts of interesting things, like swearing, littering, and one particularly person for congregating with more than 3 other youths. (Wait, wouldn’t that be the opposite of anti-social?)

There is a particularly famous swan in Cambridge actually known as Mr. Asbo, who was given a citation because of his violent attacks on the boaters on the River Cam

In his defense, “Swans have very poor eye sight and lots of the boats are white so he is probably mistaking them for other swans.”

Well, we’re living right by the River Ouse and my goal for the next few years is not to eat so many scones that I am mistaken for a boat by an angry swan. The one that we spotted looked pretty angry about something, no word what it was exactly, and all the other waterfowl were steering clear of him as he patrolled the river by the bridge.

Mr. Asbo the II

A potential Asbo successor, waiting in the wings

After delicately tiptoeing away from the river without being personally noticed by Mr. Asbo’s understudy, we explored the downtown of St. Neots. They have a public market in the square every Thursday, but it had closed down by the time we got there. We did however find, Waterstone’s, a really nice little bookstore that felt a lot like the much beloved and mourned Borders (edging towards Barnes and Noble).


Waterstone's, the book shop in downtown St. Neots

We also found the Caffe Nero on the square, which may be one of my emergency sites in case we lose connection at the house during working hours as they have good Wifi and I’m proving this week that I can be effective that way. Bear simply saw it as a snack opportunity and made the most of his new love of hot tea.

Caffe Nero

Caffe Nero...or possibly, Caffe Bearo

While walking back to the car, we found the mosaic in the square which is devoted to St. Neot. The night-time picture doesn’t do it justice but you can get a nice sense of it. He’s the patron saint of fish! No word on bivalve mollusks…

St. Neot

St. Neot's mosaic in the town square

By Friday we had reached a somewhat desperate situation with the laundry. We had gotten a call from Sheree the super agent with the bad news that we couldn’t get the house until Wednesday because of how long the paperwork was taking, plus checking references. (Yes, they had to contact my employers in the States to confirm that I really do have a job for a proper salary to afford what we wanted. And then they had to reach Bear’s accountant. It was almost as complex as trying to adopt a pet from the Clayton County Humane Society, and I still have the 7 page application I filled out for that one.)

Up until now we’d been living out of 2 Maxpedition packs we took off the ship and the supply of socks and other essentials had dwindled. I was actually on my second time through the socks actually and the t-shirts were talking about forming their own coalition government if I didn’t do something quickly. Simon and Gill told us that there really weren’t any decent laundromats but offered to let us use their washer instead. At this point, my error was in not asking “And the dryer too?” I mean…it simply never crossed my mind. As it turns out, the Brits are very, very, very concerned about the cost of electricity which means that the empire upon which the sun never set doesn’t have clothes dryers. They have racks. Frequently, they tuck them into the same cupboard with the water heater so as to make extra use of all that ambient heat.

I am not making this up.

Our room looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a Chinese laundry.

Laundry 2

All this was going on while I worked and I can safely say that Friday still feels just as good on this side of the pond. I had a fairly typical day, including a client who created a formula that replaced the utterly essential double quote “ with two single quotes ‘’. You may think that would accomplish the same thing syntactically. You would be wrong. The real shame is that this mistake was embedded all OVER the place in their project and I had to perform some gymnastics to figure out what was going on in the first place, but it was a good note to end the week on.

To celebrate, I took Bear out to the movies in Huntingdon to see Underworld: Awakening in 3D at the Cineworld (Kate Beckinsale, black leather suit–nothing was keeping Bear away from this one). While there, we discovered something marvelous—the unlimited movie card. No catches, it’s 14.95 a month for all the movies you want to watch (3D is a little extra). Are they crazy? Do they know just how many movies we watch????? What a terrific way to end the week, even though we have to wait a few more days for the house. To cap it off, we went to dinner at Prima, a nice little Italian restaurant that Gill the B&B lady recommended. While there, Bear ordered a sangria which arrived with a festive little straw.

Munk: Have you ever had sangria with a…straw in it before?

Bear: Nope. But when in Huntingdon!

Prima Sangria

Sangria and Straw: a love story

After a great night, it’s still fun to look forward to Saturday and the weekend is reserved for exploring. Next we’ll be on to see the cliffs and castle at Dover…


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Birds, Boats and Beaches

To better effect our escape from the Somewhat Unstable B&B, we planned a day trip just to get out of town and into the countryside where we could both breathe a little better.

One good thing that came out of the old B&B was meeting a health care worker from Norwich who waxed on rhapsodic about the area and told us that we really needed to go there if we had the time. We certainly did and we really, really wanted to get out of that B&B so we broke up (gently) with the proprietor, took our stuff to the new B&B which I had whimsically pulled out of a hat via the Internet, got the key so we could return late, dumped everything and hit the road.

At this point we had discovered a little thing on John’s phone that we like to call “Martha”. Everyone else here calls it Sat Nav, and back in the States it’s better known as GPS. But we call it Martha because it reminds us of our friend Martha Wright who is the most organized, precise and reliable person we’ve ever met. She’s also facing some difficult health times right now, so every time Martha tells us to do something, we say a little prayer for our Martha.

Martha proceeded to save our collective butts by guiding us through the wilds of Norfolk, a county whose claim to fame is being the birthplace of Lord Nelson (hero of the British Navy and the Napoleonic Wars), past RAF Lakenheath (where my good friend Karen was stationed back in the 80s), through Thetford Forest and on to a little place called Holkham.

We had trouble finding Holkham at first because, frankly, I couldn’t spell it. It certainly sounded like Holcomb to me, but Martha knew better and got us there safely. As it turns out, she doesn’t need petty little details like that. First we stopped for lunch at The Victoria, a famous pub there by the beach. The restrooms, in case you ever go there, are labeled Victoria and Albert. I’m just trying to help. The food was really good and the chef even took the regular fish and chips and just grilled it for Bear.

The Victoria Pub

Goat cheese starter at The Victoria pub in Holkham

Then we proceeded out to the beach area, which we had been warned was a bit of a hike. Um, no kidding! What they left out was the fact that there are bird watchers everywhere. I had no idea there could be so many in one place, and I’m from a family of birders. My grandfather wrote a 2,000+ page scientific work called The Birdlife of Florida  (which did not contain one single stinking picture of a bird. He believed that the kind of people who would use the book already knew what the birds looked like. Hardcore, baby.)

Pink footed geese

Pink footed geese scouting out a new subdivision

We hiked out through the flats through a break in the dunes to see the sea. We had been told that it was a beautiful beach, but being from Florida that’s a pretty hard mark to top so I’d braced myself for disappointment. I’m used to people saying oh, they have wonderful beaches and then I have to be polite and pretend that it’s pretty while I’m really thinking, “Uh, have you ever been to Destin?” But this actually was gorgeous and apparently they even get seals at times! It was gorgeous. (No sign of seals though—those come at other times of year, but I might go back just for them.)

Holkham Beach

Holkham Beach Panorama

Munker Wells Beach

Proof that chipmunks really do go to the beach

Holkham Beach 2

Sea and Sky

“This love’s like a labyrinth but I’m not afraid

You and me and a strong sense of forever

Like the old Swiss Family Robinson let’s drift away

If we go down at least we’ll drown together

(I can’t forget you)

You be the sea and I’ll be the sky

I want you with me now don’t wonder why

You be the sea and I’ll be the sky”

–“Sea and Sky”, Over the Rhine

After hiking up and down, we went back along the pine path with made a loop along the dunes. I never really thought about the UK having pine trees after having grown up among so many in North Florida, but those things are tough little guys and they are everywhere.

Bear Shelter

Bear Grylls was here!

Back at the cars, I broke down and had to ask one of the flock (ha ha) of bird watchers if we were looking for anything in particular. He explained that this was a winter gathering point for Pink Footed Geese and that today there was a Ross’s Goose in there somewhere.

“That’s special because it’s from the United States,” he informed me.

Ross's Goose

Pay no attention to me whatsoever, I'm just one of the lads.

Great. I came across the ocean to be swarmed by birders all looking for a dumb goose I could’ve seen back home. I whipped out a few snappy factoids about Canada Geese and how they all winter in Tallahassee now and the birders actually knew about St. Marks as a birding spot. It’s really a ridiculously small world. Later we did see some pheasant though, which was a nice surprise. You don’t see them randomly wandering around north Florida even though they’re certainly found in the States. They’re really pretty birds, not unlike a peacock in some ways.

Pheasant Frolic at Holkham

Pheasant Frolic at Holkham Hall

As a side note, I know exactly what the difference is between a pheasant and a peacock because I’ve been stalked by a peacock before and it was a very, very unsettling afternoon. He attacked my car and then he followed me up to my cabin and waited on the steps. I’m really hoping that doesn’t repeat itself here in the UK.

Peacock Attack

This is a peacock. This is a peacock attacking your car. Any questions?

We drove around to a nearby fishing village, Wells-next-the-sea which you would think was next to the sea, but as it turns out both the harbor was silting in and also the sea itself had decided to move due to really big tides, which left the boats just sitting there stupidly on the sand.


Wells-next-the-sea, or depending on how you look at Wells-Formerly-Beside-the-Sea-and-Now-Somewhat-Ambivalent-About-It

It gets dark around 4:45 p.m. and so we had headed back pretty early, slipped into the B&B and hit the hay, all the while hoping and praying that we’d picked a better spot to spend the week until we could move in to the new house, but we wouldn’t know until we woke up the next day.

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No Room at the Inn

So we landed safely in England with nary a single iceberg spotting—what could possibly go wrong now? Give it time, gentle reader, give it time.

Juliet was remarkably well-behaved on the trip and didn’t cry even once as we drove over to London, picked up an M (that’s an inter-state for regular Americans) and made it up to Cambridge. Therein the traffic problems began—because of our overweening confidence, we (and by that I mean Bear who told me it wasn’t necessary) didn’t get out the directions I’d printed and it took quite an expedition to locate the cattery and drop Juliet off at her new home for a few days. When she was let into the area, she hopped right into a soft fuzzy nesting box, turned around, flicked her tail, and settled in with a look that said “Please don’t put me back in that car again.”

Bear managed to drag me away and we went off to find our bed and breakfast which was not, repeat NOT, at the place it really should’ve been. It was dark by then and rush hour and that’s when we discovered the second most terrifying phrase in the English language.

Cambridge Cyclists

Cambridge Cycling

They're like tribbles...

They have no fear—not of you, not of the pavement, not of death or God above. They simply whizz along without any kind of high visibility clothing, in the dark of night, right out into your lane. We nearly hit 3 before we found the B&B, at which point we discovered that the B&B was completely deserted and we couldn’t call because we didn’t have a phone.

We wound up having dinner at a Thai place on the border of Parker’s Piece and convinced the waiter to let us use the phone. When we reached the proprietor she was really surprised (hey, so were we!) and told us to come back and she’d let us in. The place was well kept but the ownership was…well, undergoing emotional renovations and prone to grabbing on to you like a drowning person who just caught sight of the proverbial floating door (to keep the Titanic metaphors going). I spent the next 3 days trying to dodge in and out.

The following day was a nightmare blur. We tried to get cell phones at T-Mobile and found that to get a contract, you have to have a UK bank account. So we walked over to Lloyd’s and met a charming man named Perry who wanted to get me an account, but alas I have no UK address. So we left to get in touch with estate agents (realtors) and found that it really helps to have a mobile phone they can call you on…it’s like a Mobius strip, curling back on itself so we’re currently hooked up with pay as you go.

There was a subsequent blur of calling every estate agent I could find on the web and leaving messages, all asking for any rental place that would allow cats. Let me tell you now, if you’re considering moving to the UK…there’s not too many. I don’t know what’s up, but they don’t like cats in their houses or flats. Period. I think I’m currently known as the Cat Lady in the offices of at least 11 of these agents.

At that point, we were ready to take really anything that would allow a pet no matter what, which is what led to the viewing on Hemingford Road. Personally, I think the street should be renamed Birth Canal because that’s remarkably similar to the sensation one has while trying to park. We actually couldn’t even turn onto the street itself because it was so narrow that the Peugeot minivan we were in couldn’t make the turn without hitting 2 cars. When we finally got inside, it wasn’t much better. Yes, it’s close into town but, um…I’d never be able to leave once I got myself inside the building!

It was exactly like this, except on both side of the street. Seriously.

Cambridge Parking

A partial re-enactment of the Miracle of the Parking in which Bear parallel parked on Hemingford, which is exactly like this except with cars on both sides.

We decided to console ourselves afterwards by going out for dinner, which went very well until we decided (again, we being “Bear”) knew the way back to the B&B which landed us in the middle of the one way maze of streets and blind alleys known foreverafter as Hell. Really, there’s no better word. It was at this time that we encountered the first-most terrifying phrase in the English Language:

Rising Bollards

It’s like something out of Super Mario Brothers. You’re driving along and suddenly there’s a sign that says rising bollards ahead. That’s great, no problem, what the heck is a bollard? Oh, it must be a gate. Why, there must be parking here! There will be a little gate and a ticket and we slow down to take the ticket and go inside. Thank God, parking at last.

Um, no. No, it’s metal posts that rise up out of the ground and will dislodge your engine right into through the hood. In 2006, a man was thrown forward, hit his head on the windshield and DIED.

Rising Bollards

Rising bollards, looking deceptively coy

You really haven’t lived until you’ve nearly smacked into these things and had to do a U-turn with an angry bus behind you, because that bus has a magic power-up, also known as an electronic badge, that makes the bollard go back into the ground so the bus can rumble on. But not you—oh no, you’re stuck wondering where in the world the word bollard came from.

(In case you’re interested, Wikipedia says it’s “probably related to bole, meaning a tree trunk.[2][3] The earliest citation given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1844: previously, simpler terms such as “post” appear to have been used. The Norman-French name Boulard (still often found in Normandy) may be related.” Oh, of course, why use English when you can use French?)

In case you’re still laughing…

It had only been a couple of days, but it was feeling bleak to get response after response saying “no pets considered” no matter what we offered in compensation. I was doing massive web searches for any agencies at all, just blindly calling them, and bravely saying that we would consider a bit further afield than proper downtown Cambridge since everything was actually really close to itself. Yes, we’d found some wonderful restaurants and amazing architecture, but it turns out that these things are everywhere–target rich environment! Going just a mile or two away made a huge, huge difference in price and in space. And, let’s be honest, the bollards and the cyclists and the utterly impossible traffic (worse than London itself) were scaring the heck out of me.

There’s something about reaching a point of desperation that seems to unlock something within the cosmos (I like to call that thing “God”—deal with it). That moment was when we hit upon Haart. Yeah, call me sappy, but I liked their slogan – Haart Is Where Your Home Is. I called, threw caution to the winds, and they had 2 properties that would take a cat. Not only that, Sheree-Marie (yes, that’s her name and I’ll beat you up if you tease her because she’s my new best friend) could meet us right away at one of them.

We hit the road for Ely, a city just north of Cambridge to view a townhome which was nice and would’ve been fine, but something told me that the other property would be better. It felt great to have something in the back pocket though and we went out to dinner at The Boathouse, a restaurant right on the river in Ely which was excellent. (And it has a really incredible cathedral too, which is generally the criteria for being called a city in the UK — you have to have a cathedral or a royal charter.)

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral

Side note: British food is wonderful and I’ll beat you up for making fun of it, right after I’m done beating you up on behalf of Sheree-Marie the super agent.

The next day was Friday the 13th, which has always been a lucky day for me. It’s the day I met Bear and although we didn’t start dating for many months after that, it’s always been considered a special day, and so was this one. I won’t say much more until we actually move in and have pictures, but for now I’ll say that the place we saw that morning was perfect. It’s on a tiny island between two branches of the Great Ouse river, that there are ducks out back, a little garden (yard) with a huge rosemary bush, plenty of rooms for guests and my office, and lots of windows for a little cat named Juliet.

The river view

View from the back gate

Oh yeah, about that. The previous owner had 3 cats and completely understood. He even waived the pet deposit entirely when the few other places that would allow her were asking for 2 months additional rent up front. Happy Friday the 13th to us!

Now came the task of finding a different place to live for a week (without an emotionally fragile proprietor) until we could move in, breaking it to Juliet that she had to stay in kitty jail a little longer, and figuring out what to do with the weekend. The answer—road trip to Norfolk! Stay tuned…

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One danger of moving to another country with all your possessions in suitcases is that you can misplace things. It’s sort of like having nine children—you tend to misplace one or two from time to time.

We hopped on the task of packing up on our final day just like good citizens and when we had everything ready, we started wondering exactly how many bags were there supposed to be we sort of remembered saying there were 10 rolling suitcases plus two backpacks and two laptop bags, but there were just nine suitcases in the room. Hmmm. I convinced myself that we had whittled it down at the last moment and combined two bags, but Bear was positive there should be 10 suitcases.

Luggage Chaos

Luggage chaos prior to departure

Since we had specifically packed so just one bag would have all the stuff for the ship, we had stored the rest of them down in a locker and honestly hadn’t noticed. We really didn’t know how many there were supposed to be! Now came the delicate task of asking Larlet, the awesome ship’s steward, if he happened to misplace a bag along the way. No, the stewards confirmed, there was nothing left in the locker.

Then it dawned on me that perhaps the problem was that the bag had never made it to the room in the first place. With so many, who could tell! I called the purser and was faced with the problem of sounding like an idiot, you’d think I’d be better at it by now given how often I do this. If Bob Newhart had written this up as one of his famous telephone comedy routines, it would’ve gone like this when I called the ship’s purser’s office and the phone was answered by a very professional, cultured, young lady with a French accent:

Yes, hello. Thank you. We’re, ah, moving to England so we’ve brought a few more suitcases than usual. How many? Well, we don’t really know but we have a feeling that one of them is missing. No, it’s not a good feeling. What does it look like? We’re not sure. We think it’s black. All the rest of them are. Oh, and it has wheels. Yes, those are black too. When? Well, we haven’t seen it since New York, so I would assume sometime after that. Oh, you have 2 bags there at the desk? Could you describe them? Blue with red letters. No, that doesn’t sound like black with black wheels. And another one with flowers. No, that doesn’t sound like it either. Wait…oh wait, it might have flowers!

<Suddenly an image has come crashing into my head of Juliet picking just one suitcase that she liked to scratch her nails on—it had an embroidered tapestry-like finish and it had very feminine flowers all over it, so I didn’t care if she destroyed it because I didn’t want to be caught dead with the suitcase once we reached England.>

Black flowers? No, I think it had an embroidered, tapestry pattern. Embroidered. Many threads. No, I don’t know how to say that in French, I’m sorry. No, I’m not saying you…of course, you speak English very well. Maybe I could come see the bag please? Oh, it’s got the name Nicole Moore on the tag? No, I’m not Nicole. Well, we got all the bags at Goodwill and I didn’t check to see if any of the luggage tags were filled out for anyone else. I don’t think…no, Nicole’s not here. We’ve never met. I don’t even know her. Why do I have her bag then? Well, she donated it to…do you have Goodwill in France? Of course not. Well, it’s mine now and I’d be happy to describe the contents. Clothes, a stuffed orange kitten, three bags of Crystal Light tea packets and a large Dutch oven. Yes, I’m sure about that part. Should I ask for anyone in particular at the office? Oh, I see. Everyone knows about the flower suitcase. All right, thank you.

So we raced down to stand in line, got called up to a free representative and said that we might have a missing suitcase. “Do you know about the extra luggage?” I asked politely. “Oh yes,” he said with a slight smile. “Everyone knows about the flower suitcase.”

When he rolled it around from storage and I nearly jumped over the counter screeching, “That’s it, that’s it!”, then the purser’s office heaved a collective sigh of relief to have solved the mystery.

It shouldn’t have come as any surprise then when the next day we went to the main luggage hall where everyone’s bags had been collected to find nine of our suitcases dutifully huddled together while two rows over, the flower suitcase coyly standing off all by itself, proudly taking the center stage for the entire luggage hall.

Southampton Luggage

The Luggage Family Reunion

You see, everyone knows about the flower suitcase.

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Bear does not believe in pants. However, I feel I should make it clear that this is pants in the sense of American pants—trousers, slacks, chinos, jeans, that which clotheth the legs. (Apparently in the UK pants are underwear, and he is in fact a very big fan of underwear, so much so that he prefers them as his outerwear.)

I had no idea he felt this way until we were married, at which point it was too late to issue an edict such as “Wear pants if you want to marry me.” I just didn’t think I needed to make that a part of the wedding vows. Silly me!

Now we face charming situations such as having Girl Scouts come to the door to sell cookies, except Bear can’t get up out of his chair because he’s wearing no pants. To combat this, he keeps a blanket around at all times which he cleverly tucks on. He looks like any normal person curled up under a blanket, doing a bit of reading. I’m convinced it’s only a matter of months before he forgets himself and answers the door to the girl Scouts sans pants and winds up in jail as a convicted felon for exposing himself to minors.

He’s even taken to wearing one particular blanket wrapped around in a sort of sassy-looking sarong which will allow him to move around the house. This is an improvement over my original plan which was to hide pairs of shorts in ever room of the house. That plan came about after my mother dropped by the house one day and Bear was trapped on the side away from the master bedroom so I had to  wad up some shorts and lob them across the great room like a wobbly football so he could dart off to put them on and emerge, fully panted, and greet her.

All of this is background to understand what happened one morning on Queen Mary 2 while we were on our way to England:

Bear <hand on the balcony door>: Ooooo!

Me: What’s wrong?

Bear: Forgot I didn’t have pants on. Man, that’s cold!

Yes, he tried to walk out into the full force winds of the North Atlantic Sea while pantless.

Bear in pants

A rare pant-ed sighting of the Southern Furless Bear

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As threatened, here’s the second half of the report of the voyage to England.

By the end of the time, Juliet was rubbing on the bars, trying to get attention and seeming quite alert and playful. When we saw her, she climbed out on my shoulder and wanted to be carried around the kennel room for a while. Our cabin guy turned out to be friends with Dennis the kennel master and had been up to see her. He reported that he called her name and she came over and flipped for him, which proves that she was just playing sad to get our sympathies.

Juliet out of the Kennels

Juliet finally ready to come out and visit.

By the time of the photo shoot so the families could have pictures of the pets, we were pretty familiar with the rest of the group which included:

Bylur, a young Icelandic sheep dog

Wayra, a West Highland Terrier

Windsor, another (unrelated) West Highland Terrier

Bylur and Wayra/Windsor

Bylur at the gate with Wayra (or Windsor)

Firefly, resembled a miniature whippet with English Setter sort of liver-blotched colorings


Firefly being carried out for some air on the deck

Denali, an elderly Shiba Inu and Firefly’s friend


Denali, the Shiba Inu

Loki, a large white male bulldog

Eleanor, Loki’s smaller tan female littermate

Dennis, Loki and Eleanor

Dennis the kennel master with Loki and Eleanor

(Dread Pirate) Roberts, an all black cat

Inigo, a black striped tabby cat (both of these belonged to Bylur and his family)

Roberts and Inigo

(Dread Pirate) Roberts with his family and Inigo (behind the cameraman)

Roxie, a female bulldog (unpictured)

Everyone was very friendly and happy to help each other with keeping the dogs playing together or separated so certain ones could have family time in the indoor room.  Bylur loves cats and tried to take over Juliet at one point and had to be told by his mother, “Bylur, that’s not your cat!”

Our waitress then startled us by reporting that she’d seen pictures of Juliet, which led to our discovery that some footage of her being shown on the ship’s TV channel. Then someone stopped Bear in an elevator and said they’d seen his cat, which led us to realize that we too were in the footage. We camped out in front of the preview channel and learned that we look goofy as all get out, but you can indeed recognize us (and Juliet), which of course meant we had to order the DVD.

Juliet at kennel

Juliet getting treats in her kennel

Now that she was over her dislike of the barking dogs, Juliet only had one bad moment. While being carried around by Bear, she gave every indication of desperately wanting to meet Roberts, the cat in the kennel next to hers. When Bear carried her over and let them sniff, all was well until Juliet suddenly decided that she did not want to see Roberts and in fact Roberts needed to die. We immediately put her back in her kennel where she sulked and pretended not to notice that we were still trying to pet her. I think what happened was that she mistook Roberts for Richard, her old flame the all black cat next door and had a nasty shock. (We had a bad feeling that Richard passed on “to the tenth life” about a month ago but decided not to tell her.)

St. Juliet

The Ascension of St. Juliet

Meanwhile, we spent a ridiculous amount of time eating our weight in scones at the daily teas they hold with honest to God white-gloved waiters, including one named Denis (not to be confused with Dennis the kennel master) who was like a gold medal Olympic waiter. We often shared a table while listening to the string quartet or the harpist and met really interesting people. One was a car broker who picked up interesting things overseas to bring back. His best story involved trying to get a hotel room in Ireland on short notice and trying to bargain them down from 100 pounds a night.

“Look,” he said, “could you maybe do 85? We won’t even eat the breakfast.”

“No,” the desk manager said “The lowest I could possibly go is 75.”

So Gary swallowed his reaction, said OK, and then they asked him if he wanted the bath or the shower in the room. He asked the difference, in case that would affect the price.

“Well,” the manager said, “you stand up in a shower.”

Tea in the Queen's Room

Tea in the Queen’s Room

That tea was hard to top, but we later met an adorable Italian couple on their honeymoon. They were architects who had met in Israel while she was working on a restoration project. They have to live in separate cities though (Florence and Turin) and they have dinner by Skype each night. When Bear finally asked if they were big fans of Mr. Berlusconi, the wife blanched, put down her tea, checked her watch and said, “Oh, it’s so late now…”

We made a point to explore the ship even though we had spent most of our time in the kennels or trying to work out details for after we landed.

Deck pool

Deck pool off the back of the Queen Mary 2

We had lunch in the onboard Todd English restaurant, which was really terrific. I had the Portobello mushroom flatbread with butternut squash pasta and crisped sage leaves. While we were there, we saw the most adorable thing. A woman was dining on her own next to us and asked a question of a man on his own one table over. They started chatting about health and nutrition and other things and before you know it, he had hopped to her table. They had the most civilized, educated, cute little conversation in which it was revealed that he was widowed after 40 years and she had just left her position as a professor of psychology somewhere in the southwest (educated at Bryn Mawr) and Bear swears he heard her say that she was a widow too. By the time we left, he was asking her if she’d read C.S. Lewis’ book on the Problem of Pain and I swear if they don’t exchange emails and get married shortly I’ll be very disappointed.

Todd English

Waiting room for Todd English

Royal Theatre

Adagio Quartet in the Royal Theatre

Bear isn’t much on live theater and performances (he says you can’t top the time he got to go see Van Halen back stage on his birthday back in 1993), but he suggested going to see, Dale Kristien who had performed as Christine from Phantom of the Opera. You learn the most amazing things about your mate, such as, he knows lyrics you never imagined. He actually knew the words to “It Had to Be You” (his parents’ song as it turns out), “As Time Goes By”, “Memories”, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which for some reason always makes me think of my Mom. Spooky, our old cat, would have loved it.

Dale Kristien

Dale Kristien

I didn’t push the marriage envelope though and I went with our tablemates, Anne and Harry, to see a filmed version of the 2011 London Royal Opera House production of Carmen with Cristine Rice and Bryan Hymel. However, I misread the program in the dim light and thought it said Bryn Terfel. Not exactly. I was also thrown off because of Ms Rice’s uncanny resemblance to Jennifer Saunders on Absolutely Fabulous.

Christine Rice

Christine Rice as Carmen

It was a little eerie watching Edina Monsoon stroll about Seville, decked out as a knife-wielding cigarette factory girl. On the other hand, that really wasn’t so different from your average AbFab episode.

Edina Monsoon

(l) Jennifer Saunders as Edina Monsoon with (r) Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous

Everything wrapped up really well on board (the stuffed animals left the tip for our cabin guy and he really laughed) before we met with the DEFRA agents to get our papers approved to bring Juliet in without any problems. There was a brief scare when they thought her rabies shot was about to expire, but it turns out that they just read the date backwards because they reverse the order of the day and the month in the UK.


Tip for Larlet the steward from LuSeal, Ted and Ulysses

After we marched through the entire ship, carrying our animals, like a little line of gypsies, we shot out to find our luggage and then porters took us outside. I completely missed the moment when customs was supposed to occur. After all my concern that they would want to check our excess bags, we simply walked past them so quickly that I didn’t even notice.


Luggage at Southampton

I waited with everything while Bear went to get the rental and I heard, I am not lying, Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On” over the loud speakers as passengers were boarding. You simply cannot make this stuff up. But before I could ask someone official what in the world they were thinking to play the huge hit song from Titanic as people were boarding an ocean liner, Bear was back with the car, we loaded up and were on the road to our new life in Cambridge.


Pudgy the Peugeot

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I mean, when you sign up to move to a new country by way of ship, you sort of expect that. I swear on my honor that i only concocted the idea because they would allow you to take as much luggage as you wanted, plus there was a kennel space for Juliet. I had absolutely no idea at the time that it was such a nice ship. Apparently I’ve been living under a rock not to have heard of the Queen Mary 2.

Well, all that’s changed now. Oh my stars and bars, what an amazing vessel. True, it was January in the North Atlantic which meant snow on the deck the first day and we didn’t do much in the way of hot tubbing (at all), but it was a truly great way to go to a new life overseas. It was like paradise for nerds. But not to get ahead of myself, since it’s been so long since I could post, let’s back up to how we got to the ship at all.

We left Tallahassee and drove all day up to Sterling, Virginia and didn’t even stop at South of the Border, if you can believe that. We had an appointment early the next morning for the final vet treatment for Juliet, who tried to hide behind Bear but we didn’t fall for it.

Barbour Kitty

Juliet tries to hide inside my jacket

Scaredy Cat

And when that didn't work, she ran to Daddy.

The vet was great and used to work for the USDA, so she knew all about the paperwork, thank God. After that, we drugged Juliet again and headed up to Staten Island where we had time to ride the ferry, visit Ground Zero, have dinner in Little Italy at Pellegrino’s and go past the Statue of Liberty.

Woozy Kitty

Juliet perched on the luggage on her towel and drowsed most of the way.

John on the Ferry

Bear on the Staten Island Ferry, wearing the scarf my Mom took to Europe back in the 60s.

The next morning, we arrived at the pier and got Juliet bundled on board. The trip from the hotel on Staten Island to the ship terminal was surprisingly uneventful, despite New York’s best attempts to rename streets for no particular reason. We however had been trained by Tallahassee, a city with absolutely no logic to its gnarled tree root of a road system.

At the terminal

Waiting with Juliet to be checked in by the ship's purser

While Bear returned the rental van “Angel”, I waited with the luggage at the terminal and met some of the other families bringing pets with them. This included one stressed looking woman with a service dog that I assume was for her anxiety disorder. At the time we were checked through, she was still discussing one of the finer points of the paperwork with the ship purser and it didn’t look like things were going well. Words like “yes, but it’s not within the 48 hour window” were being batted around, so like cowards we ducked out. (Note: we never did see her on the ship. I don’t think the episode ended well.)

Dennis, the kennel master, led us directly through the ship up to the top kennels where we put Juliet, along with two large bulldogs, two Westies, and some other dogs to be named later. She didn’t look very happy, so we checked in again on her that evening and found her looking even less happy. She managed to crawl under her Hello Kitty blanket into a ball and was refusing to come out, which made us feel like utter $#!+.


Our cabin--incredibly January. Did I mention the North Atlantic?

That aside, the first night was wonderful. Our dining table put us with another couple in software from Boulder, Colorado and we really enjoyed visiting with them. They are also runners and cyclists so they enjoyed the story of the accidental marathon. We explored the ship some more and found the coffee bar area which made a really mean café mocha.

Before bed I surprised Bear with some shows I’d gotten downloaded before we left so he could watch some of his favorite shows and catch up while we’re on the way. We slept terrifically and I felt human for the first time in several months. The toll that the stress of preparing for the move had taken on me had a kind of cumulative effect towards the end and during the last week there were at least two nights of less than 3 hours sleep (and the others didn’t have much more than that). Sleep felt like a novelty.

This morning we saw snow out the balcony, spinning onto the balcony and collecting in all the corners. Up on the 12th deck with the kennels, ship workers were pushing snow off with large push brooms. Other than that, the weather was actually really good although the ship moved so fast that the wind was really biting up on the 12th deck. To pass the time, we explored the ship, got restaurant reservations, tickets to the planetarium, and visited the library.


An 8,000 volume library at sea...paradise.

On Thursday, we went to get breakfast and visit Juliet, who was still unhappy but doing better. She was hanging out some in her cage, but promptly went back under her blanket as soon as we showed up. After that, I announced I was exhausted and went back to bed for another 4 hours. The only disturbance in all this was Bear deciding he was bored and asking me where my iPad was. Seriously—your wife is sleeping the sleep of death and you wake her up because you’re bored?

Nap Time

Something about a ship makes you sleep like a baby

By the time we went back to see Juliet in the afternoon, she seemed to be doing better and we were able to take her into the playroom and shut it off from the other dogs. She got, for lack of a better word, long and low as she investigated the room. Later, at the 8 p.m. bedtime check-in, she was sitting on top of her blanket and looked much calmer and accustomed to our comings and goings. The owners of the Icelandic sheep dog informed us that earlier she’d had her paw sticking out through the kennel bars and seemed to be trying to play with something, which made us much happier to hear.

More on the rest of the voyage and England soon…to be continued!

Star-Crossed Lovers

Nothing could separate them from their love, not even iron bars.

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