Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Countryside, the Beach and a Punting Adventure

This is a story about a British girl who was lucky (or unlucky) enough to meet four awesome American girls. Well, not really, but that is technically where our story begins.

Austin, Caitlin, Libby and I met our friend Beth the weekend that the Freshers moved in. Over time, we became quite good friends with her. As we all became better friends, the idea of us going home with Beth for a weekend was brought up. After it came up a a few more times we figured this was actually going to happen (and not some casual suggestion not actually intended to pan out) and so we began making plans. We had been encouraged to visit friends' homes to get the full British experience and Beth is pretty awesome, so I couldn't wait.

When the weekend finally rolled around, we boarded a bus to Cambridge with our backpacks as well as wine and Cadbury Roses for Beth's parents. Beth picked us up from the coach stop (she'd gone home the night before) and drove us to her home in Suffolk County after a quick stop at Tesco for some necessities (Pimm's, Bailey's and sweets).

Side note: when we were checking out the woman made a big deal about checking everyone's ID to confirm that we were all in fact 18 years of age. Caitlin even had to go all the way out to the car to get hers. I guess I understand the idea, but if you are of age you should be able to buy what you want, regardless of the people you are with. What if you are just shopping with your little brother? Or on the flip side, what if (like me) you're just the youngest of your friends. When I get home and most of my  friends are 21 do I just have to never go shopping with them? I just think it's stupid. If an underage person has found a legal person to buy them alcohol, you can't stop it. They'll just exchange at a different place. Carding the entire group won't really help in the long run. Okay, rant over.

Anyway, we got to Beth's house and got the grand tour. Her house is in the country and is absolutely beautiful. We also got a tour of her land where her family has horses, chickens and other crops and animals. We don't really spend much time outside of cities because Oxford is obviously a city and we primarily just travel to other cities: Edinburgh, Dublin, Cardiff, London etc... so it was nice to go for a walk in the clean, fresh air. It was refreshing.

That evening we made something that I was looking forward to trying as soon as Beth told me about it. It's called Eton Mess (after the famous boarding school) and one of its main ingredients is one of my personal favorites: meringues. Basically, take double cream and whip it up, add in crushed meringues and raspberries (or strawberries in our version) and mix it all together and you have Eton Mess. When we were at Tesco we accidentally bought extra thick double cream and we weren't sure it if was going to work. Beth's ten year old brother Henry (who was helping us) had some wise words during this confusion: a somber "I think you made the wrong decision." It was absolutely hilarious. And luckily he and Beth were able to figure it out, so we had an awesome Eton Mess for dessert that night. We played some Table Tennis with Henry, had dinner, hung out by the toasty fireplace and worked out sleeping arrangements and before long we were in bed, excited for the next day.

Saturday we took a road trip to Aldeburgh Beach on the coast of England. Although Suffolk is called the sunniest county in England, it was a rainy and cloudy day. It was still a lot of fun and made for an authentic English experience. They don't really have sandy beaches in Britain so it was a pebble beach. For our purposes this was really nice because we didn't get sand in our shoes. Sometimes walking on a beach can be such a pain. But no sand=no problem. We threw rocks into the water and skipped stone and then enjoyed the beautiful tiny seaside town.

And of course we couldn't go to the beach without eating fish and chips, so we got some to go from "The Golden Galleon". Beth even got mushy peas for us to dip our chips in, which is apparently a thing to do here.  We ate in the rain on a bench overlooking the beach.  I just felt right, sitting on the beach, eating fish and chips, feeling the rain on my head and just soaking in the British experience.

While we were eating, because they know I really don't like birds, my friends joked about knocking my chips on the ground so that the (strangely large) seagulls would swarm. I laughed and then proceeded to accidentally spill the rest of my chips. Figures. The seagulls started to gather around, keeping their distance but eyeing me (or rather my chips) purposefully. Any time another joined the stake out, the rest would squawk at him, trying to scare him off. As we finally left, I watched them fly at the chips, devouring them until no more than one minute late the chips were all gone and so were the seagulls. It happened so fast that I didn't even have time to snap picture.

After that we explored this interesting building (almost like a military fort) that was just a mystery to us. No sign except one mentioning the "privacy of guests", I still have no idea what it is. I think it's now accommodation you can rent out but that doesn't explain what it used to be and what its purpose used to be. Walking around the structure, I suddenly heard Beth crack up laughing. Walking towards her, I soon understood. Sitting in a window, surprising me, was a tiny dog. The absurdity of this tiny dog at this mysterious fort was too much for us and we couldn't stop laughing.

After that we piled back into the car, stopping for a typical road trip picture at a sign for the town called Snape. We stopped off at Beth's sister's field hockey game for a bit and then a pub for a drink where I was surprisingly good at darts before returning to Beth's house. It was a great road trip!

Back at Beth's we got to see Beth in her element--riding her horse Marmite. It was really cool watching her jumping because we knew how much she loved horses (she studies Equine Science and Thoroughbred Management) and she looked at home in the saddle. It was a treat to see this side of her. After they finished their jumping practice, Libby and I got a turn to ride Marmite as a warm down for him. I think I rode a horse once or twice as a child, but I don't really remember much about it. It was an interesting feeling, sitting on an animal and working together with it. Granted most of the time Beth was just leading us, but I was able to signal Marmite to stop, go and turn a bit which was a little bit scary but a lot of fun.

After our horse experience, we retreated back into the warmth of Beth's house. Beth's parents us for dinner a delicious roast: broccoli  potatoes and carrots, chicken and of course gravy. It was one of the best meals I've had in a while. Absolutely delicious.

We spent the evening with Beth's family watching British television including X Factor UK and Take Me Out, my newest guilty pleasure obsession. It's a dating show where a man comes down the "Love Lift" and then thirty women keep their lights on if they like him and switch them off ("if you're turned off, turn off") if they don't want to go on a date with him. This goes on for three rounds: first impressions based on style and music, a video about the guy narrated by him and then either a talent a or a friend of the guy's commentary on him. If they guy gets though all three rounds with lights still on he gets to choose who to go on a date with. Each episode features four guys and videos from the dates of the previous episode's pairs (so obviously I had to watch the next week as well to see how the dates went, and so my fascination was born). Interestingly, they tried a US version this summer and although it is hugely popular in the United Kingdom, I'm pretty sure it crashed and burned in the United States. And after watching an episode I can see why: the single girls who recur in every episode until they find a man, while endearing in the UK version are just plain annoying in the US version. Plus, George Lopez just doesn't have the same cheesy amazingness as the very Irish Paddy McGuiness. So yeah, the UK version is much better.

Later that evening one of Beth's friend named Daniel, who we'd met in Oxford when he came to visit Beth, came over to Beth's and we spent the evening drinking Baileys and talking about anything and everything. For dessert, Beth and Dan put together a spreading consisting of mango, Eton Mess, and about six kinds of ice cream including Bake Alaska complete with tiny white chocolate polar bears. We were all very impressed by their effort. Altogether, it was an awesome night with delicious food, hilarious entertainment and great company.

The next morning we decided to spend some time in Cambridge before catching our bus back to Oxford. Now, I might be a bit biases, but I think that Oxford is a much better city than Cambridge, no matter what anyone says. It seemed as though Cambridge was a bit more commercial than Oxford. I know that it's supposed to have great shopping so maybe most people consider that an advantage but given that I can't afford Burberry or Polo Ralph Lauren, it doesn't really effect me at all.

We walked by a few of the Cambridge colleges but we saw most of the colleges in a more Cambridge like way: punting! It was a nice enough day for November with the sun shining and the cost was right so we figured it was something we just had to do. It turned out to be the perfect end to our weekend with Beth. We punted along the River Cam and got to see the backs of he colleges that line the river. This may sound like a sketchy way to see the colleges--why would you want to see the back of a building?--but it's Cambridge University, so of course the entire buildings are beautiful and elaborate. The Backs is actually a place to see, even featured on post cards.

Trying to punt the "right" way. 
Punting was certainly an experience. I had an awesome time but then again I was just sitting there , so it was pretty easy for me. Beth was our punter extraordinaire and she did a really good job. And let's just say we're really original punters. About five minutes into our trip we realized that we were punting opposite from everyone else. Most people (aka everyone) stand at the back of the punt and punt forward that way. We, being original, free thinkers punted from the front so that we and the rest of the punt were behind Beth. Once we realized we were doing it wrong we tried to turn around but our punt just did not want to go that way. We would get turned around and then it would just turn us around again. Oh well, we were doing fine anyway. Well, on the way down the river at least.

When it was time to get back up the river to retrun the put, it got a little more complicated. We just could not get the punt the stay straight. But luckily we had the paddle which Libby and Austy expertly used to keep us in the right direction  We ran into some branches and nearly collided with a few  other punts but they were being punted by professionals so they were able to avoid us. I was actually surprised by the number of punts out and about given that it wasn't necessarily warm out. I can't even imagine how crowded it must be during the spring and summer.

We did get a few strange looks from other punters (yet only two offered advice) but we just embraced our unique style, decided it was the "Oxford way". I was really glad that we had the opportunity to go punting because it is a quintessential English activity, especially in cities like Cambridge and Oxford.

After that it was back on the bus to Oxford. We had an amazing time being show around Suffolk County by a local, especially one as awesome as Beth, and this was one of my favorite trips we've taken.

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