Helen’s neighbor Susan is ebullient. She bursts forth with conversation like a shaken carbonated water. The Brits call it fizzy water, except Susan is not British, she is Canadian. We’ve joined her and her family for dinner to celebrate her niece Megan’s master’s degree in archeology from Oxford. Susan pops in on topics from American politics (She’s afraid of a possible President Sarah Palin) to her wacky in-laws, who actually happened to be dining with us. Cousins on her husband’s side of the family are llama whisperers of sorts and train 8 llamas and an alpaca, which have been taught to jump through hoops and do other odd tricks. Sadly, the llamas have stage fright, so no taking them on the road.
I am back in Oxford and Ugo has come along to see another part of England. After a few hours of navigating the streets of Oxford crawling with tourists and doing a bit of shopping, we enjoy an entertaining evening with Susan and family. Her brother-in-law’s name is Robert, but the family calls him Robin for short. We dine on the delicious pub food at Helen’s neighborhood pub, the Anchor, and wish Megan well on the next stage of her life. Susan is still bubbling with conversation and invites us back to her house to see what an original Victorian home looks like. She is proud that her home maintains its original footprint in stark contrast to Helen’s landlord’s home, which caused a stir in the neighborhood with the addition of a pvc pipe and plastic porch construction or monstrosity, if you ask Susan. She is somewhat of a neighborhood historian and tells us that Hayfield Road was where Oxford’s poor lived. Susan’s home has two of the original fireplaces that would have been in each room of the house and the french doors in her living room overlook a narrow 18-foot yard where families would have kept their pigs and chickens. Susan’s yard boasts two bushy trees bending with apples and other flora. We chat late into the evening about books, being a working woman in the 1960’s and having the freedom to choose your career path in 2011.
The next morning Ugo heads back London and Helen and I embark upon another pub walk, this time to to The Perch. It is a mere 25-minute walk through Port Meadow in comparison to the hour-long trek to The Trout the week prior. Port Meadow is still scenic. This time we see more fishermen and horses than cows along the way. But what is really beautiful is the pathway to The Perch, lined with trees and vined greenery. It seems that we could be walking in an enchanted forest and The Perch magically appears before us, a rustic hutch surrounded by picnic tables. It looks to be the perfect place for Lewis Carroll to perform his first reading of “Through the Looking Glass” per local lore. Inside, The Perch is still rustic but quite sophisticated as we are greeted by a well-dressed, pony-tailed maitre’d. Helen and I decide on the Lazy Sunday Lunch, because, well, it’s a lazy Sunday. She has a deconstructed nicoise salad as her starter and I have the gazpacho, which is smoothly pureed and refreshing. We both opted for the pork roast as our main course and could barely finish the savory meat and perfectly roasted vegetables, which were the true stars of the meal.
After capping the meal with espresso and coffee Helen spots an Oxford colleague and fellow Swarthmore grad named Tia who specializes in Chinese political science. We go out to the garden and meet her husband Tom also a Swarthmorean. They are having beers with a few other Oxford academics, a typical Sunday activity. We move on to check out the Binsey Fete. We saw signs for it along our walk and decided not to miss this bit of local culture. The Brits have eschewed the French pronunciation of fete for something that sounds like fate or fait. We aren’t sure why. The Binsey Fete was akin to something like a country fair meets a neighborhood block party in an open field. There were moon bounces which they call bouncy houses, tractor rides, bales of hay for climbing and you could guess the prized chicken. Each chicken was inventively named making it hard to choose. Kate and Naomi were named for the models, a mohawked chick was named for Sid Vicious and an aging but impressive chicken was named for Methuselah. But the thing that gave this party its truly British feel were the Morris dancers. They were young and old, tall and stout, male and female and each had a spring in their step. Bells attached to their calves jangled as they waved white kerchiefs in the air. Helen didn’t quite know the origins of this quirky tradition, but according to Wikipedia, if you count it as a reliable source, Morris dance may have originated in Spain as a dance celebrating the defeat of the Moors. Moorish may have evolved to Morris and is now a traditional British dance performed on holidays like May Day and the day after Christmas. Whatever its origins, it is proof that Brits can be sprightly and spry at times, particularly when silver mugs full of beer are involved. I think it’s the perfect way to end my time in England, seeing and experiencing something so authentically British. I wonder what surprises Denmark holds. I look forward to finding out.