Sunday, July 13, 2008


Thoughts from Abroad

I’m writing this on the road – by the time it’s posted, I’ll soon be back in Wisconsin, stumbling around with jet lag. I agreed to share some thoughts months ago, before this trip, and without any idea what I would say to my Farm Family, The 'Other' Herd, a group so varied, and some so widely read and travelled themselves, that it’s outrageous to presume to have anything worthwhile to say. But here goes – rather than ‘what I did on my summer vacation,’ I’ll try to share some personal observations and feelings, for what they’re worth, off the tourist trail.

First, some background – I signed up a couple years ago (when I had just one, healthy horse, a couple cats and llamas, and one dog) to teach in Wisconsin in Scotland, a program in which a consortium of University of Wisconsin campuses lease a 300 year old palace in Dalkeith, a small town down the road from the Scottish capitol, Edinburgh, to offer a study abroad experience to college students from the Upper Midwest.

Our landlord is the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, owner of four major estates and one of the largest landholders in the United Kingdom. A member of Parliament’s House of Lords and president of the Scottish Trust, a preservation group, he’s CEO of Buccleuch Properties, a diversified portfolio of investments with 1,000 employees that among other things manufactures horse treats.

Some of us caught a glimpse of him as he toured the grounds on his annual inspection, staked out as we were, hoping to look inconspicuous with our cameras hidden, and wondering if he would arrive with an entourage, wearing kilt, accompanied by bagpipers, or trumpets, and driven by a chauffeur in a limo. But, no – he drove his own, small car and wore street clothes.

The summer session is six, 4-day weeks, broken up with a week off in the middle to afford more time to travel. I taught Intro to Mass Communication, a journalism course that counts as an elective and emphasizes critical thinking about messages that we get from the media, and their impact. I get to fault the stuff I teach others to do the rest of the year, things like advertising and public relations. As they say in the UK, and maybe at home too, since overused phrases with nonsense syntax circle the globe at the speed of electrons, ‘Brilliant!’

My life got ‘way more complex, as readers of this site’s bulletin board know, last summer when I took on responsibility not just for Star and Windsor, two Refuge Farms horses, but also Bobbie, a horse formerly owned by neighbors forced from their rural place in the financial crisis, and two dogs that were to be a short-term foster that turned permanent.

So my first story is about the incredible support that impressed me so much on my first day in the driveway of THE FARM, back in May 2005, and that continues to impress me, about THE FARM Family. Volunteers Gail B. and Paula L., who had wonderfully cared for my smaller family of critters over two, month-long winter vacations in the past, once again stepped in to care for the newly-expanded critter clan. And many others, as though they don’t have enough else to do, offered to mow my yard, visit my critters, drive me to the airport shuttle bus (after I insisted I wasn’t going to be driven to the airport itself), and just be there as needed.

As readers of the bulletin board also know, this trip saw the loss of my equine partner, Blaze, which Gail and others (whom I haven’t sorted out yet to thank more personally) pulled together to deal with in my absence. My shy cats, after nearly nine years of only showing themselves to me, are coming out of hiding to demand affection from their caretakers, proof that none of us is irreplaceable. While some might find that unsettling, I think it’s great.

My second story is therefore about letting go – not just of attachments to a horse I greeted daily for nearly 20 years, the loss of whom will probably hit me more when I first view the emptier pasture, but of connections to life as I’ve known it. I turned off the wireless service to my home (along with the frig, water heater, etc.) for the 10 weeks I’d be gone, having no idea that I wouldn’t still be able to access Web mail – to me those are two different services, and it was a shock to find I wasn’t able to see my email remotely. With only a few email addresses ‘in my head’ and some of those blocked by the recipients’ spam filters as unfamiliar when sent from my office email account, a peek at the bulletin board has been my only contact with the life I left behind.

It’s also very freeing – not having to delete the 400 spam emails a day I typically get, just to see if there’s one or two in the batch that I want to read. A whole lot happened that I will some day sort out, if I need to – I get snatches of the news from people I meet, or on the telly, about a storm that washed away a lake that I didn’t know existed in Wisconsin, about gaffes of political candidates, heat waves and cold fronts, economic woes and world crises, but I can’t do anything about any of it, so I don’t worry about it. I have relished this extended chance to be adrift in a fluid world of swirling images rather than anchored by the predictable and mundane.

My third story is about how this trip has served as a constant reminder that each moment is unique, and there is no one way to categorize the world. Although I knew Europeans were into animal rights and the environment, I was surprised at the extent – television ads took valuable time to say that farmed salmon met voluntary goals about animal care; a common bumper sticker says ‘A dog is for life.’ Hostels put out organic milk to pour over breakfast cereal. And tour agencies tout that they are carbon neutral, planting trees and buying renewable power to offset the environmental impact of the trips they offer.

On the flight over, the basic meal choice was ‘meat or vegetarian,’ as opposed to the standard ‘beef or chicken.’ I had only experienced that choice in India, a decade ago; I typically order a vegetarian meal when flying and the passengers crane their necks to look at me like I’m some diseased creature to be avoided, when it arrives. How nice to be part of the norm!

There’s the highly touted free health care, now in its 60th year in Great Britain – but one hears it isn’t the perfect solution one might assume from viewing Michael Moore’s movie, Sicko. There are stories about removing the lottery system around health care so it doesn’t matter where you live, you can get prescriptions. Wow, there’s an idea . . . you mean it mattered before? A TV drama about doctors has the hero attacking the system as once great but now declining so doctors are more about paperwork than health care – something often said about HMOs in the U.S.

Yet the highly touted BBC news offers up air time to extol the virtues of the health care system in something that resembles a free advertisement more than a balanced assessment – along with over-the-top coverage of the releases of the Indiana Jones movie and Sex in the City. So it’s not just the U.S. media that has gone soft in its watchdog role. Complex topics are given brief coverage, while sad but simple stories – a Brit who murdered his family – are analyzed and replayed exhaustively, and documentaries are advertised with lurid but misleading descriptors (‘Queen Victoria’s many men’ turn out to be advisors) reminiscent of U.S. tabloids.

While baser language and nudity are readily shown on TV, there are rules against advertising during children’s shows to protect them from being preyed upon by marketers. There’s an interminable assortment of soap operas and game shows in prime time and a relentless stream of reality shows – celebrity chefs (including one whose language on TV is so – well, salty – that the show is called The F Word), talent contests, people competing for the best dinner party, people trying to flip investment property. The Apprentice – same name – actually began here, I’m told – the version with Donald Trump was a knock-off on the original in which billionaire Sir Allen Sugar is the hard-talking boss who fires a pleading, back-stabbing, sycophant screw-up every week. And there are old shows directly from the U.S. – Desperate Housewives, Will and Grace and Frasier are among those I’ve seen.

And there’s graffiti in larger cities – something that I guess goes with urban settings, but which I’d forgotten about since moving four years ago from Los Angeles. There’s restless hordes of youths, loud and cheeky, to use a local term, though as with youth elsewhere, often a lot nicer when encountered one on one than as a herd.

With the cradle to grave (as they like to call it) Socialist system, there comes greater government involvement – we all had to undergo two hours of training and pass a test on safe food preparation since the students work in teams setting up the continental breakfast each morning, and assisting the chef who makes our lunches, and we all make our own suppers in the large institutional kitchen. Toasters in hostels have stickers showing the date they passed the safety test.

I used to think giving the right of way to pedestrians went with caring societies, but here natives as well as tourists flee the onslaught of vehicles that come hurtling off the ever-present roundabouts at all angles into people scrambling to cross the street.

In the land of gun control, there are predictably different views on things but often the same result. People don’t hunt, they cull. The man in charge of caring for the 1,000 acre estate around our palace (a marvelously sophisticated and witty former anaesthesiologist) sells the right to cull deer to hunters from other countries such as the U.S. who are accompanied by a ‘ranger’ who indicates which members of the herds to kill – the smaller, older and weaker specimens, rather than the trophy animals.

While carrying knives (even a Swiss Army knife) is illegal, there was such a spate of knife deaths this year (19 in 6 months in London) as a result of pub fights among youths that the news is full of crying parents pleading for an end to the violence. One of the Harry Potter actors was killed in such a fight, defending his younger brother. I guess they’ll give up their knives when someone pulls their cold, dead fingers from the handle.

There are closed circuit TVs everywhere, used to monitor traffic flow, crime, etc. City buses purport to have eight such cameras each, and while you ride, the images rotate, just to prove the point, on a screen at the front. A study indicated that in spite of the cost, there hasn’t been a decrease in crime.

There are signs on the buses saying ‘Our staff deserve not to be hassled.’ Grammatically it should be ‘deserves’ but here at the heart of the English language, these signs are just one of many examples where the grammar is incorrect.

I never saw examples of anyone hassling the bus driver, or anyone else, and found the ‘natives’ wonderfully kind. Perhaps helped by long hours of daylight (we’re on the same latitude as Moscow and Hudson Bay, with enough light to read outside after 10 p.m.), it felt very safe to be in the city late at night.

But as wonderful as mass transit is, I’ve realized how hard it is to use on a day-to-day basis. I often dream of a world where the interests of the public and environment, instead of the auto makers and oil industry, win out – trains running alongside I-94, mini buses running down Hwy. 29 – so elderly people can get to doctors and business people can get to work and families can shop, without driving. I could park at the Red Barn and hop a mini bus to The Farm, or to work.

However, reality meets that dreamy picture with a clatter, as I daily see elderly people thrown about on the bus as they try to navigate to their seats while the vehicle lurches through traffic. Families with shopping bags, small children and strollers struggle to manage all of this in the crush. The other day three women with strollers (called ‘buggies’) and toddlers tried to manage around a woman in a wheel chair and a man with two dogs, all on a crowded bus – it was like one of those children’s puzzles where you jiggle the little, numbered squares around in a small, handheld plastic frame until the numbers are in some proper order.

One woman, travelling alone, was unable to hold her infant while collapsing the buggy, and without options she struggled while the woman in the wheel chair glared at her and we all waited; another woman alone with the same predicament twice handed off her child to strangers to hold while she folded or set up the stroller. The young men chosen for the task were cheerful both times about it, but it brought back memories of why I left Los Angeles – the constant feeling of needing a sky hook to cling to until enough space on the ground opened up that I had a place to exist for a few minutes at least without being in someone’s way. What looks good from afar is sometimes not so great when you live it.

On our 10-day mid-session trip, a faculty colleague and I visited Ireland, Wales, and parts of England, where tour guides and self-paced tours unfolded centuries of history. So much took place here in Biblical times – Stonehenge is the third go-round of early peoples to create whatever that’s meant to be, on the same site – prior versions include ‘wood henge’ – like the Three Little Pigs, they finally learned to build something that lasted – dating back 3,000 years. In Bath, we saw extravagant examples of Roman construction 2,000 years old. Little House on the Prairie cabins of our own young country had become more prominent in my thoughts as examples of earlier times than the advanced cultures of Egypt, Greece, Rome and many places in Asia, which this trip served to refresh.

Another feature of this trip was the ‘people who hate the British’ tour – exposure to the extent to which the ‘United Kingdom’ – so named when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, uniting the two nations, in the early 1700s – is still paying the price of bad public relations from its colonial past. This is the King James for whom the Bible translation was named, and while the ‘united’ name fit at first, there has been chafing of late in the kingdom as many in Scotland want to pull away and be on their own. Scotland has its own Parliament, as part of the ‘devolution’ of 1999 in which it was given self-government, but oil reserves in the North Sea and enough sheep to last a long time leave some Scots thinking they can go it alone.

Among the more recent issues cited was a peacefulness on the part of Scots (having gotten over that Braveheart thing, apparently) that makes them not want to be part of the militarism of Britain (think the war in Iraq). All of the UK has lost just over 100 service people in Afghanistan in seven years there, but they are very public with the losses, with the flag-draped coffins prominently portrayed on the news, compared to the U.S., where there’s a blackout on that type of visual.

The Republic of Ireland is separate from the UK, using the Euro as currency instead of the pound sterling, and there’s a whole head of steam on the Emerald Isle about past injustices at the hands of the Brits such as the handing off of Irish land to Protestants (which created Northern Ireland, part of the UK), suffocation of Catholicism and the forced building of senseless stone fences leading to nowhere that was extracted in exchange for rations of gruel during the potato famine of the mid-1850s when 40 percent of the Irish starved, or immigrated – which is how my ancestors got to the U.S.

Today, while hardly any one speaks the Irish language, it is placed above English on signs throughout the country, at huge cost, just to be separate, and the Irish have cultivated different sports – hurling and rugby – in which to excel, while ‘football’ (called soccer in the U.S.) is the dominant sport in Britain and much of the rest of Europe.

In Ireland I was on a bus tour predominantly peopled by college-age students from the U.S. and Australia, all of whom seemed content to sleep, plug into their Ipods, flip through trashy celebrity magazines, text their friends, and in general ignore the tour guide and the scenery that for 6 hours (broken up by visits to sites) rolled by outside. I wasn’t personally offended, as I suspect the guide was, but was despairing for the future of our world when young are so unimpressed with anything more than five years old and not on a screen – it was real life vs. YouTube.

Then I got back ‘home’ to the palace, where our students were unpacking from their trips to Italy, France and Spain, where they toured the Louvre and the Sistine Chapel, and read for pleasure books like Jane Eyre while sunning by the pool. So every time I find something about ‘students today’ or ‘the British’ or whomever, there’s another example waiting to knock me over.

Now I’m finishing up my time in Scotland and heading to mainland Europe for three more weeks of travel. This has been an incredible opportunity, a wonderful gift. Yet I know it can’t go on – winter here is miserable, to use the local expression, and in the full semester, the house, which holds 200, fills up a lot more, creating a density of human contact that my reclusive self would find deadening. So I need to be grateful for what has been, to accept that it is ending, and move on.

The time ahead will be fascinating as well, but more rigorous as I’ll be on the move, and dealing with languages I don’t know (instead of just accents that are hard to decipher). My interest will be more quickly sated, as my fascination with big, old buildings and statues has already waned. More often now I raise my camera, shrug and think, ‘I’ve got a photo that looks like this already.’

My past travels have been preoccupied by exotic peoples, their cultures and crafts – Asian, Latin American. Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. It was much cheaper (the U.S. currency is now trashed by both the pound and euro) and also more fraught with difficulty because of extreme cultural differences, and gut-wrenching poverty that made theft by locals from comparatively rich tourists common, and had me constantly on edge watching for con artists and pick pockets. On this trip, it’s much easier to relax in a higher standard of living and common culture, but there’s less to be awed by, when nearly everyone looks and lives like us. Like with the visit by the duke, when we shrugged and said, ‘Why waste a photo on a guy who looks like everyone else?’

Meanwhile Wisconsin’s as vague in my thoughts today as the places I have yet to see. I watched a service dog on the train back from a weekend in London anxiously gazing at his owner, and I thought how much I wanted to hug and pet him, yet when I tried to picture the dogs that share my life, even Lula, my canine partner of nearly nine years, I couldn’t pull up an image. Soon, that too will change; until then, caio!

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