Over the Tall Grass Prairie

prairie1In the early 1970s my parents moved from Iowa to Seagate in Brooklyn, New York City.  At this time Seagate was nearly exclusively populated by Jews, so much so that I believed menorahs were Christmas decorations and didn’t understand why our house didn’t have one.

Women often tried to speak Yiddish to my dark haired, dark complected father, while my freckled WASP mother fielded questions about whether folk in Iowa still had problems with the Indians.

prairie2Problems with the Indians.  In 1973.  Bear in mind most residents of Seagate have been no further west than Staten Island, but still…

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The Midwest of America has a rather poor reputation, when it has any reputation at all.  Most people in the UK when I tell them where I am from say “Oh, right…that’s one of those middle ones,” in a disappointed voice because I am not from New York, Florida or California which are the only states most of them recognise.

Presidential election coverage gives the Midwest a different reputation as being that swath of Republican red which streaks through the country like a bloody wound (my two states Iowa and Illinois are nearly always the solitary splotches of blue on that map by the way).

prairie4Even our fellow Americans seem to look down on us as being that enormous thing which prevents them from enjoying a shorter LA-NYC Red Eye flight.

prairie5I used to feel the same way.  I would look around the endless miles of cornfields broken up only by endless miles of soybeans and just feel depressed.  Flat, boring, stupid Midwest.  Then a friend of mine told me to shut up and look up.  “Just look at that sky,” he told me.  “There aren’t very many places where you can so that much sky.”

prairie6I looked up.  He was right.  Midwestern sky is overwhelming.  It’s dizzying.  How could anyone not realise the world is round after looking up at that enormous bright blue dome?

prairie7My next revelation of the beauty all around me came when I began regularly biking along Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  In the early 1990s, an effort was made to encourage native prairie grasses and flowers to grow along the edges of the trail making a beautiful path for walkers, runners and bikers.

prairie8Signs were posted at regular intervals informing bikers, runners and walkers not to disturb the natural growth of the prairie.

Many other city planners and conservationists have worked hard to preserve the Midwest’s ecological heritage.  As my father explained to his granddaughters, in pioneer days there would have been tall grass prairie as far as the eye could see across most of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.  West-ward expanding nineteenth century Americans on horseback would have waded through it up to their chests.  The idea astounds them.prairie9

In the twenty-first century, nature reserves throughout the Midwest,including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, offer visitors an opportunity to see, smell and hear the history of the land.

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Look up, look down, look out on the beauty of the prairie.  An “alien” landscape to English gardeners (according to my Mother-in-Law), but as much a part of the Midwest as big sky and rolling cornfields.

All photographs taken at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge by Paul and Freya Elmer.

Guest Post on our visit to the Mississippi River by Freya Elmer aged nine

river and flagsOn Wednesday  the 31st  July  my Mum, my annoying  sister Juliet , my grandma, my grandpa and I went  to the Mississippi river.  First we came from the Chicago airport from Brussels and Manchester.  We went on an airplane two times.  Then my mum’s friend Lisa drove us to a hotel which took four hours!  Then we drove to the Mississippi River with grandma and grandpa.

miss and missesMy annoying sister Juliet and I threw stones into the Mississippi River.  Juliet threw one of the stones into my head “accidentally” she said.  I went along the dock and almost gave grandma a heart attack. The Mississippi River is so big and the current is so strong that it could take me away in two secs to the open ocean.

freya riverThe Mississippi River is epic!

When a Yankee Visits Yorkshire: Part One

In a few weeks my dear Aunt Margaret will set foot on British soil for the first time.  She has been peppering my inbox with questions about what to wear, what to do and whether I have a working hairdryer.  I have given the usual advice: bring tough walking shoes, a pseudo-military style water-proof coat and assume it will rain every day so you can be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t.  Despite all this, Auntie Madge is beyond excited about her up-coming visit.

When I travel to new places, which isn’t often, I always purchase a Rough Guide.  I love Rough Guides.  They never steer me wrong for places to eat or sleep.  They also include a nice list of top activities and attractions for their topic country.  The England Rough Guide’s list includes many things you would expect: go to the pub, have high tea, visit a castle.

These are all nice things to do, but I think this list needs a more personal touch. It needs me to add details and examples from my experiences in Yorkshire.  Auntie Margaret this is for you.

busblogGet on some public transport.  I would say train but your great nieces would advise a double-decker bus.  Either way, take a thirty-sixty minute journey in a confined space with a bunch of locals.  Taking public transport in Britain provides opportunity to enjoy two of the best things about this country: the rural landscapes and the regional accents.  If possible, seat yourself near some older people because, in general, their regional accents will be stronger.  If you find a flock of old ladies you have hit the jackpot because they will chatter like chickens and you can listen like a magpie, taking away a great culture experience. Since you’re travelling with a Yankee posse, chances are very high that within a few minutes one of the locals will engage you in conversation, especially if you are talking about what you plan to do when you get where you’re going.  This is tourist Nirvana and a real aural cultural treat. Disclaimer: none of the above advice works on the London Underground or during Rush Hour on any commuter routes.

Try the weird crisps.  You call them chips, but here they are crisps and here the crisps have some rather unusual flavours.  Common varieties include: Prawn Cocktail, Steak and Onion, Cheese and Onion, Roast Chicken and Salt and Vinegar, which make them sound more like a full course meal than a bagged snack food.  The best bit: all are labelled “Suitable for Vegetarians.” You can also find Wooster Sauce, Tomato Ketchup and Pickled Onion.  My personal favourites are Vintage Cheddar and Onion Chutney and Smoked Monterey Chilli with Goats Cheese (best dipped in hummus).

hikerblogWalk Through Someone’s Back Yard.  In the UK we have what is called “Right to Roam.”  Without getting bogged down in precise legality, it essentially means hikers can go wherever they like as long as they stick to marked walking paths.  Anywhere they like!  There is an official organisation called The Ramblers Association who make it their business to maintain the walking paths of Britain, keeping them clear of debris and safe for hiking.  The first time I went on a hike in the Yorkshire Dales, my walking companions came to the end of an obvious road, then climbed over a fence into a field full of sheep and carried blithely on.  I kept waiting for an angry farmer to run out with a shotgun and see us off.  I thought the sheep might try to charge us.  Nothing happened.  Madonna, when she lived in England, tried to close off the walking path which crossed her land.  She failed.  Disclaimer: obviously you can’t just walk through anyone’s back yard—marked paths only—but I thought it made a good title.

Drink beer and eat curry.  I know you aren’t much of a drinker, Auntie, but surely you might make an exception here because nothing goes better with a curry than beer and I know you like your curry.  Indian food is to Britain what Mexican is in the US: our number one foreign cuisine.  My first Curry and Beer night was in Leeds.  We went for drinks first at Whitelocks.  Bitter Ales are what Britain is really known for, and in Yorkshire that has to be Black Sheep.  I would put in a vote for anything by Wychwood Brewery which has managed to perfect the balance of great bottle art and great beer.  Afterwards, we topped off our nice inebriation at Darbar—easily the most spectacular Indian Restaurant ever with giant Elephant pillars, eye scorching colour schemes and enormous chairs.  Once you have sat down in your enormous chair, expect a tray of “pickles”: mango chutney, raitha and the rather sexy lime pickle, served with crispy popadoms big as your head.  Order Chicken Tikka Masala a true fusion dish adapted fifty years ago by Indian chefs for British customers unaccustomed to the exotic look and taste of curry.

townblogbeachblogGo to the seaside.  Britain has quite a lot of seaside and you would be a fool to miss it.  Don’t bother bringing your swim suit, though.  This is the North Sea and you need to be bad ass as my Northern daughter to try swimming in your skivvies.  Here most people swim in head to toe wet suits.  But that doesn’t mean a day by the Yorkshire coast isn’t one of the best days ever.  Sandsend near Whitby is my favourite spot.  Walk along the cliffs, collect shells and fossils on the beach, wade into a rock pool at high tide and see what you can find.  And you MUST finish your day with fish and chips.  The sea air adds a salty sharpness to the food complimenting the vinegar you sprinkle over it.

wallblohFind a stone in a ditch.  One thing Britain has that America does not is history.  Don’t tell the Brits I admitted that because I persist in arguing we have plenty of history, it just took your lot ages to add to it.  Evidence of Britain’s long history is everywhere from the walls around York to the stone circle of Ilkley to Hadrian’s Wall further North.  My mother, your sister, hunts down history relentlessly when she visits. My husband (and hers to be fair) often tease her about “looking for stones in ditches” but they cannot curb her enthusiasm.  Just don’t let on to the Brits how impressed you are to be touching something which has been standing since before the days of Christ because their smugness will be worse than Mom’s after winning a game of Bridge.

Doctor-Who-Mid-Season-7-Poster-570x806Watch a bit of telly.  If you do not get the opportunity to eavesdrop on public transport conversations, watching television is the next best thing.  News is particularly good for accent explorations, though it would have not been so a generation ago when Received Pronunciation (or as my students call it “talking posh”) was expected of presenters.  This is no longer the case.  Television presenters tend to use their regional accents, which makes it a great way to tune your ear.  In terms of other programming you will learn two things from watching a bit of British telly.  First, you will realise just how pervasive American culture is because we import a lot of programs.  This was a nasty shock for me when I first moved here, though not as horrifying as the McDonald’s sign fused to an ancient wall surrounding the Tower of London.  You will also realise the British are not so different from the Americans.  It’s not all Downton Abbey and Sherlock, some of our telly is truly awful.  We have fame whores flocking to reality shows, minor celebrities making idiots out of themselves and some truly questionable game shows—sometimes all three at once.  But there is new Doctor Who to look forward to and I will keep Mayday and The Secret of Crickhollow on the Sky Plus to restore your faith.  

Obviously this is not a comprehensive list but you are only here for a fortnight, Auntie.  I will fulfil my standard obligations: take you for tea at Betty’s and to Skipton so you can wander around a castle.  Then, when it inevitably gets to be too much, we can ditch the others and sod off to the pub.  But do not neglect the little cultural gems which can be found on your first trip to Yorkshire.

In the next installment of this 3-part series I will explain what NOT to do.

Ode To Snowdrops

The following includes an extract from my novel A Circle of Lost Sisters and photographs by Paul Elmer.

snowdrops blog

Ingrid arranged to meet Leighton at The Swan Café in the village of St Agnes Kirkmore, which lay at the foot of Kirk Moor—the largest if not the highest of The Fells.

snowdroplog blogThe day was pleasant for February and a pale sun offered hints of the coming Spring.

snowdrop patch blogClusters of white Snowdrops gathered to swap stories of their long hiatus.

snowdropwoods1 blogTiny buds tested their strength along the bare limbs of welcoming trees.

snowdrops2blogSoon Crocuses would carpet the landscape, birds would warm up their mating songs and baby lambs would annoy their lazy mothers with demanding mouths and bouncing bodies that danced for joy with the discovery of what their brand new legs could do.

Dude, Where’s My Tardis?

My genius design student Declan Price and marvelous set builder Dan Clarkson constructed this fabulous recreation of the Tardis for a recent performance at Sherburn High as part of their A-Level Performing Arts course.

Lewis Cole took up the role of Time Lord.

The interior of the L-Shaped flat was inspired by classic Doctor Who.

I am one proud geek Drama teacher!

Up the Whitby 199

On the East Coast of Yorkshire is one of my favourite places in the world: Whitby.  One of the most startling attraction of this seaside town is the famous 199 Steps to Whitby Abbey.      Of course, my family and I had to meet the challenge. Even three-year old Juliet was up for the big climb!  If you chance to visit Whitby, here is what you can expect from the obligatory tourist climb up East Cliff.

The first site as you ascend is a sculpture of a fisherman tending his nets. 

Half-way up, be sure to look out on Whitby harbour.  You can catch your breath under the auspices of “checking out the view”.

If possible, bring some younger, fitter friends to cheer you on.  Nearly there!

At least!  You made it up all 199 steps of East Cliff.

At the top of East Cliff the first thing you see is Caedmon’s Cross.

The single most Emo Goth vista in England greets you as you turn around: Whitby Abbey.  Dracula fans flock here to look pale and melancholy.  The town is actually host to a Goth Weekend twice a year.

But if Captain Cook is more your thing, leave the black clad behind to sail on a mini replica of Endeavour.

Scarborough may have better beaches, but Whitby has more class and historical interest which makes it my place to go in East Yorkshire.  Or maybe I am just Goth at heart.

A Right Royal Fall-Out

One year ago today Prince William married Catherine Middleton while the world watched on their televisions.  I didn’t have a television to watch it on because I was there.  Yes.  That’s right.  I was there as crowds of people flocked along The Mall and flashed their phones at the procession of history.  Of course I was there!

When I was ten-years old I woke at the crack of dawn to watch Charles and Diana’s wedding.  I repeated this ritual five years later with Andrew and Sarah.  I even watched Edward and Sophie’s modest little affair.  All my life I watched royal events from afar.  I was not about to let this one go by without being part of it.  So I found two friends who wanted to go (both American) and we made our plans in eager anticipation.  But there was one thing I did not plan on: my own British royal family.

I genuinely adore my in-laws.  My Mother-in-law is a former science teacher, avid gardener, legendary cook, aspiring photographer and fiercely committed Labour supporter, which means she is somewhere left of Michael Moore in her political affiliations.  She finds the Royal Family at best an embarrassment and at worst an inappropriate addition to a free Democratic Society.  And she is not alone.

When I proudly boasted about travelling to London for the Royal Wedding, my American friends and family were universally jealous and anxious to see photos and hear stories of the day.  My British friends and family thought I was joking.  When they realised I was in earnest, they turned…not exactly hostile but their disgust was clear.  Several rolled their eyes and mumbled “She’s American” by way of explanation.  One commented in shock: “I had no idea you were royalist!”  The horrified tone of voice meant to indicate he had learned I was a closet puppy torturer or secret collector of Nazi memorabilia.

From my in-laws there was a lot of tense silence.  No one wanted to talk to me about it and went ominously quiet if I introduced the subject, like it was something embarrassingly private, not suitable table conversation.  When I spoke to my husband about the travel arrangements he gave a heavy sigh of resignation, as if we were discussing my preparations to undergo life-altering surgery.  I found the whole situation thoroughly confusing.

It’s your Royal Family not mine!  This is your history and your culture.  What is your problem?

Intellectually I understand why the Royal Family might be a source of shame.  I agree completely that power and title inherited by virtue of familial connections is out of step with democracy, equality and freedom.  I appreciate how the mere existence of the Queen encourages a culture of class-conscious elitism which trickles down through society.

Unfortunately Britain, no one gets to choose their family—especially not their Royal Family.  Not without revolutions and chopped off heads, which did not work out so well for the country last time (*cough* Cromwell *cough*).  Like it or not, Britain needs the Royals and they are a part of you.  The Queen, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard: these are the images the world associates with Britain.  Tourism would crash and burn without the fairytale appeal of the Royals.  They might cost in pride and taxes but they make up for it when hoards of overseas visitors flock to UK shores lured by this ancient, majestic institution.

But the Royals are also an inescapable part of Britain’s national life story, and the British are not known for giving up history easily.

The British understand history…they have long memories and an appreciation of time which most Americans lack.  The first flat my husband and I lived in was a converted Gothic church.  The congregation faded away but the building remained.  In America that church would have been torn down and replaced by a modern high rise without a backward glance or a batted eyelash.  The Foss Way built in Roman times, now known as the A46, is still a regularly used road.  A ROMAN ROAD!  We got rid of Route 66 after less than 60 years.

I understand why the Queen is controversial, particularly for my left-leaning family and friends.  We have an auntie in my family we never talk about either.  But like all families, the Royals are a part of the British character.  They may not be a part every Brit wants to boast about or invite over for Christmas dinner, but the Royals say something about who Britain is and where Britain came from.

They also throw an awesome wedding!

Shamelessly in Love with Shakespeare

Nearly 450 years ago a boy was born in an English village.  No stars aligned to signal the birth of a literary saviour, he was not showered with privilege or power, his family was not terribly remarkable.  The boy’s parents lived in a small town surrounded by farm land and populated with simple people who spent their days in largely manual labour.  As the ordinary boy grew, he filled his life with ordinary pursuits: he attended the same school as everyone else in the village, he learned a trade and he went to church.

Somewhere along the line, the ordinary boy learned how to write—and he ceased to be ordinary.  What this boy put down on paper was inventive, imaginative and immortal.  There seemed to be nothing special about him, but his grasp of the best and worst of humanity appeared almost supernatural in its ability to see into our souls.  And what the ordinary boy from a simple farming village did with words changed our language and our ability to express ourselves forever.

This is the beauty of Shakespeare for me: that a boy from such simple beginnings could carve a place for himself in heaven with no greater tools at his disposal than imagination, observation and empathy.  Anyone might have done the same if they chose to open their eyes wide enough to see the comedy, tragedy, beauty, music and magic in the world around them.

Scholars say it was his time which made him—that Shakespeare lived in a period of intense drama—and they are right.  That simple boy witnessed incredible change during his lifetime, just as everyone else in Tudor England did.  But it was that ordinary boy from a simple village who made the most of his time, who captured not only the essence of the era but also the essence of us.

On this day I honour the power of an ordinary person who created extraordinary plays and poems which have been inspiring, entertaining and exposing humanity for nearly five centuries.  The characters’ struggles and passions are as meaningful today as they were then, though the resonances have changed over time.  His work is the true definition of universal art.

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Photographs from Sherburn High’s production of Hamlet directed by Katharine Elmer.

Photo Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe

Across the Globe fans of the Bard gear up to celebrate his “birth” and “death” day on the 23rd of April.  In the first of my celebrations honouring Shakespeare and St George, enjoy this photo tour of the reconstructed Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside.

The Reconstructed Globe Theatre includes the theatre itself and an extensive museum.  It was Sam Wannamaker’s labour of love, though he died before its completion.

I like to believe he sits somewhere in the God Machine looking down on all he created.

The Globe’s production of Titus Andronicus makes my top five theatre experiences.  I stood in the Yard as a Groundling, close enough to feel nauseous at Lavinia’s bleeding tongue.  And yes, we got rained on.  It was awesome!

If I had been quite posh I might have sat in the Gentlemen’s Boxes.  These are still a work in progress, the painted walls showing images from the plays and poems.

The ceiling above the stage is the Heavens, painted to represent the night sky.  The zodiac circles the trap door.

Every possible detail of The Globe was constructed with historical accuracy.  Notice the wooden peg holding up the beams above the stalls.

The walls are made of a plaster constructed with dung and horse hair.  No, it doesn’t smell.

When I first visited The Globe they attempted to cover the Yard with nut shells (which made it very bouncy), but there were drainage issues and now it is cemented.

I cannot recommend ENOUGH a visit to The Globe for a tour and performance!  If you have any love for Shakespeare it is a spiritual experience.  If you could care less, it will make you a believer!

A Journey Along South Bank

On Saturday 24th March (I hate to admit that the British way of noting the date makes a bit more sense in an OCD sort of way: day to month to year)  I took my show on the road for a day trip to London with some of my dear Drama students to see Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre starring Lenny Henry.  The play included the most impressive set, the wildest chase scene and the most gratuitous string of fart gags ever!

Before the play we toured the Globe and took a lovely stroll down London’s South Bank.

South Bank refers to the area along the southern side of the Thames River which winds through the city.  As my clever tour guide from The Globe Theatre pointed out, South Bank used to be a den of iniquity: home of bear baiting, whorehouses and that worst of all sin palaces the Theatre.

If you care anything about Shakespeare a visit to Sam Wannamaker’s reconstructed Globe Theatre is essential.

Iif you love Shakespeare as much as I do it is a religious experience of epic proportions.

This skate park along South Bank is generally packed with hooded dare devils, unless you happen to be touring it on a Saturday morning.  Free to explore the skate park more closely, I noticed some interesting graffiti art ranging from standard spray painted words and phrases to artistry such as this.

Tourists and sunny Saturdays inevitably bring out the street performers.  Along South Bank these can range from the yawn-worthy:

to the very odd:

to the interactive:

I can definitely think of worse ways to spend a Saturday than to stand in sunshine making giant bubbles for children to chase about.

Diversity can be hard to come by in London.  One of my first impressions of the city, coming from New York, was just how white London is.  These street performers were a welcome addition to the sites along South Bank.  Part dance, part acrobatics part contortionist act…they got my pound donation for ten minutes entertainment.

When it was first built the London Eye was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world.   It is still the tallest in Europe and a hugely popular attraction.  I am not a fan of heights or fairground rides, but I was forced to ride it on one occasion.  On a good day it can offer the best views of London.  On most days it offers a fabulous view of clouds.  It offered me stomach upset and vertigo.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament stretch across a wide section of the opposite shore, making South  Bank an ideal spot from which to photograph them.  And of course we all know Big Ben is not actually the clock but the bell inside of it.

Yeah, I didn’t know either but damned if I am going to admit that to a clever student.