Aye-Up, Tour!

10458444_10152532787108659_6439064225440468270_n“The world is watching us,” said the man from Malham in the Yorkshire Dales tourist office.  “We best make a good showing of it.”

Aye.  The world is watching my neighbourhood.  And not just in a creepy googlemaps kind of way.  And not just watching.  Over the next few days the world—or at least the bicycle lovers of the world—will be descending up on us as host to the most prestigious cycling event on the athletic calendar: The Tour de France.

For those of you who are rather confused why Le Tour is coming to Le Nord, allow me to refer you to my blog post of January 2013.  If you can’t be bothered to click on the link, let me sum it up for you: The Grand Depart (start) of the Tour De France (big bike race) will be in Yorkshire (Leeds-Harrogate then York-Sheffield) this week-end.

10513471_10152554109763659_21541252559353369_nI have never been at Ground Zero for a major sporting event.  Being taken unawares once on a Saturday morning during football season in Lincoln, Nebraska was enough to turn me off all sporting events for life. Not that I was ever turned on by them.  If you are not au fait with American College Football, in the mid-late 1990s, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were Kings of the…errr…I want to say “pitch” but I’m not really sure what to call the thing people play football on. For me, that nightmarish football Saturday felt like being caught up in some cult parade: a human tide of red surging in one direction with singular intent.  I dropped my farmers’ market booty, got on my bike and pedalled away at speed just in case the mob needed a virgin (to football) sacrifice.

My bicycle saved my life that day, and it was not the only time.  Children of the 80s lived on bikes and I was no different.  As a teenager I hated my driver’s ed instructor so much that my bicycle became a form of protest.  “I have no need of a car.  My two-wheeled environmentally-responsible rebel vehicle takes me where I need to go in this frankly very small town.  I shall ride it with smug superiority.”  And I did.   Everywhere.

10421206_10152554097403659_260002573400864410_nIn fact, my best memories of getting from point a to point b all involve a bicycle.  Racing a thunderstorm with my cousins in Iowa, the sirens blaring in our ears, rain drowning us and lighting all around.  Riding Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois during my college years on a bright red Trek mountain bike I named Felicia.  I even, one memorable evening, rode it in the dark without a bike light.  But only once.  It was far too scary.  But memorable.  The summer I spent as a girl scout camp counsellor in Wisconsin.  Every day we had two hours off.  Every day I spent those two hours riding around the incredible countryside.  I saw the best sunsets that summer.  And here in Harrogate we are lucky enough to cycle paths like The Nidderdale Greenway, where I experienced my favourite moment as a parent so far: seeing my daughters biking side by side. 10438918_10152487063738659_6333466069554672502_n

I am certainly not alone in my love of the spoke and chain.  Recently, cycling has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the UK.  Great Britain has won The Tour de France two years running and dominated cycling events at the 2012 Olympics.  This has led many to take it up as both exercise and a greener way to travel.  I see more bikes every day.  Maybe in the near future York will be like a second Amsterdam in the sheer number of people cycling everywhere.  Who can say what Le Tour may bring? 10514590_10152554102568659_4902562814346299244_n

Meanwhile, in the present day, Yorkshire is getting her glad rags on for the spotlight.  It’s quite exciting being on stage.  I do love a spotlight and a stage.  The Yorkshire decorating committee has been hard at work for some time dressing up our already beautiful county. In November 2013 the call went out to knitters of all ages and persuasions to deck the streets with boughs of jerseys.  Tiny little knitted t-shirts in colours representing the various winning Tour jerseys have been draped from the lamp posts of every city, town and village in the county. So many tiny knitted t-shirts in fact that local councillors were concerned about the structural soundness of iron posts groaning under the weight of adorably rampant woollyness.  Worry not though, dear readers. No lamp posts have been harmed and the bunting is cute as hell! 10514603_10152554124568659_8960884357956830103_n

On a purely selfish note, I am thrilled that Le Grand Depart is happening the day after American Independence Day.   I never get to celebrate The Fourth of July.  This year not only do I get the day off but I get to ride the Pre-Depart celebratory wave.  Of course, I realise the bunting, streamers are not for my silly little national holiday but If I tilt my head and squint a bit, all the little GB flags look almost like the stars and stripes.  Almost. 10406391_10152556847863659_3159653235933347244_n

Flags, ickle knitty jumpers and bunting draped around anything that holds still long enough are just the beginning of the party atmosphere in Yorkshire.  Yellow bicycles have been appearing in the most amazing places and in some truly creative ways.  Businesses in particular have been going all out for the customers they expect to pour into our area.  A Harrogate restaurant even customized its wine labels to celebrate “a summer of cycling.”

Madder things are happening as well.  In the town of Ripley, just off the  aforementioned Nidderdale Greenway, a man is working night and day to complete a stone sculpture of a cyclist biking atop what looks for all the world like a pyramid.  10492303_10152556846068659_3554964477559972465_nArt is happening.  Music is happening.  Drama.  Film.  Food.  And lots and lots and lots of bikes.

Pride.  That is what’s happening in Le Nord.  Folk here take for granted that Yorkshire is the best county in England.  This is not news.  I think these hard northerners are really looking forward to showing off for the rest of the world. 10455316_10152554106893659_8826107814946882365_n

Of course, Brits being Brits, there are many who would make a face at my grandiose claims.  “Oh, dear,” I’ve heard them say when conversations shift to Tour Talk.  “It’ll be awful.  I may have to hide/leave town/immigrate.”  I take these protests with a block of salt.  They said the same thing about the Olympics and we all know how that turned out.  Granted, Le Tour will not garner the same level of attention as the Olympics but now that England is out of the World Cup, I reckon the country is ready to get behind a sporting event we stand a good chance of winning.

Even if Wiggo is awol.

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You Can Get It on a Stick

fairYesterday I introduced my dear English husband to a beloved American institution: The State Fair.  And not just any State Fair, folks…the biggest, the greatest, the bestest State Fair in the land.  Yes, I am talking about the one, the only IOWA STATE FAIR! Cue brass band as the audience goes wild.

He wasn’t terribly impressed.

‘Well, it’s just like the Great Yorkshire Show isn’t it?’

‘NO!’ I protested, horrified.  ‘The Iowa State Fair is much bigger.’

‘I doubt it,’ scoffed he.

In fact, the Iowa State Fair is twice as big covering a space of 445 acres to the Yorkshire Show’s 250.  In 2011 1,080,959 people attended the Iowa State Fair as opposed to the Great Yorkshire Show’s near record attendance in the same year of 135,086.  The comparison is not fair however (pardon the pun) as the State Fair goes for two weeks and the Yorkshire Show lasts three days.

‘And there’s a Goosey Fair near where I grew up,’ he continued dismissively.

‘Sorry?  Goosey Fair?’

6217744545_5335979a08_zSo named because it began as a festive trade event for geese, the Nottingham Goose Fair is now known for its amusement rides and games.  It has been running nearly continuously for over seven-hundred years, cancelled only due to Bubonic Plague and two World Wars.  The Iowa State Fair has been operating since 1854—the oldest State Fair in America.  Unsurprisingly, The Great Yorkshire Show is older, but only by seventeen years.  Both also closed during World War Two.  Sadly, the famous Scarborough Fair no longer exists.

dragon riderWhat The Iowa State Fair lacks in sixteenth century plague anecdotes, it makes up for in sheer size, scope and variety.  The Midway alone covers ten acres—ten dizzying acres of puke-inducing rides and cash-gobbling carnival games.  Several stages host everything from historical recreation performances, a National Anthem singing competition a strong woman demonstration, circus acts, both traditional and contemporary music.  We just missed a women’s rubber chicken throwing contest.  I was devastated.

2013 Butter Cow and CalfWhat we did not miss, what no one should miss is the world famous Butter Cow.  It’s a cow…made of butter!  First sculpted in 1911 to promote the dairy industry, the Butter Cow is an Iowa State Fair institution.  Over the years the Butter Cow has been joined by various butter farm scenes, a butter replica of American Gothic and (my personal favourite) a Butter Last Supper.

‘But, but…how?’ sputter folk when I attempt to spread the word.

Simple: refrigerated display case.

corndog sign‘OK fine,’ I admit to my Englishman, ‘You have things like a State Fair.  But they will not—definitely not—have corndogs on a stick.’

‘No,’ he smirks.  ‘We have no corndogs on sticks.  You’re far more likely to find Real Pie Company stands made with fresh, local ingredients,’ he boasts, trying to take the high road in a sea of deep-fried wonderment.

I found evidence to the contrary.  The Great Yorkshire Show may celebrate the joys of Wensleydale and fifty different ways to stuff a sausage casing, but fair grub pretty much means hot dogs and burgers on both sides of the Atlantic.  So there, ha!

heartattackalley

It is impossible to escape Fair Food at the Iowa State Fair.  It’s everywhere.  It’s invariably deep fried and you can get it on a stick.  Fried chicken on a stick, deep-fried cake on a stick, deep-fried pickle on a stick—all with an added bacon option.  Apparently you can get salad on a stick at the fair, but I’ve never seen it.  I suspect it might be rumour.

dipdog

Nothing says Iowa State Fair like a hand-dipped, deep-fried corndog.

For my British readers, corndogs require explanation.  Cornbread is a staple Yankee dish made of cornmeal (which is a bit like polenta), milk and eggs.  Southern recipes add sugar to the cornbread, but this Yankee prefers a more savoury taste.  Cornbread can be baked but traditionally should be fried in a cast iron skillet.

dunk dog

To make a corndog, the hot dog is skewered, dipped in cornbread batter then deep fried to golden perfection.

iowa-state-fair-corn-dog-from-iowastatefair-orgI like to drizzle ketchup on one side and mustard on the other.  My daughter thinks they are the greatest invention since bacon.  Wait a minute…bacon corn dog?  There’s a bacon corn dog stand!  And you can get it on a stick!

Serve generously with Lemon Shake-Up on a stick followed closely by antacid on a stick.

Tour de Aye-Up!

cropped-image_update_476b47dfa3f545fd_1358454353_9j-4aaqsk.jpegThis week Yorkshire has been celebrating our successful bid to host the Grand Depart of the 2014 Tour de France.  The Tour de France!  Starting in little old Yorkshire!  Best of all: it will be practically coming down my street in Harrogate.

Rock hard northern sports fans lined the square in front of Leeds Town Hall in near blizzard (for Yorkshire) conditions to show their support and excitement.  Neville Longbottom himself, aka local lad Matthew Lewis, lent his sparkling (though slightly incongruous given the occasion) celebrity presence to the event.  City leaders cracked open the fireworks and every Bed and Breakfast owner in the county cracked open the champagne.  Everyone is just so proud and excited.

Except me.  I am frankly confused.  It’s the Tour de France.  FRANCE, people!  Yorkshire is a long way from France, especially if you’re going by bicycle.  Even my lousy American education knows that is not geographically sensible.  From the multiple eye rolls I get from my cycle-loving Brit family members I can tell I have revealed my Euro-Ignorance again.  In my defense I don’t know much about American Bicycling Sports Events either.  Or any American sports events really–aside from ones no one can avoid like the World Series or the Some Bowl or Other.  But it’s amazing how quickly you can educate yourself about a topic you normally wouldn’t care about when said topic shows up on your doorstep.

Sky Procycling rider and leader's yellow jersey Wiggins of Britain celebrates on the Champs Elysees after winning the 99th Tour de France cycling race in ParisThis has been a stellar year for British cycling.  Bradley Wiggans won the 2012 Tour de France.  Team GB cyclists ruled the Olympics in several categories.  Cycling appears to be Britain’s thing at the moment–all capped off nicely by a winning bid to host 2014’s most prestigious cycling event.  But how is possible that the Tour de France is coming to Yorkshire?  Isn’t it…you know…in FRANCE?

I had always been under the impression that the Tour de France was a big bike race around France.  I base this on my extensive sporting knowledge which  comes exclusively  from the film Bellville Rendevous or The Triplets of Belleville.  Considering this is an animated film with no dialogue it’s probably not surprising that I learned virtually nothing about the actual sporting event at the heart of it.

Fortunately for me, I car pool with and am related to a pair of enthusiastic amateur cyclists who were only too happy to educate me a few basic facts of the Tour de France.

  • Fact One: The Tour de France is not just a single race.   The tour takes place in 20 different stages.  Each stage differs in terms of length and type of course.  The first, called the Prologue, is a timed heat which takes place in France along a flat course.  The proper race begins elsewhere.  This is known as The Grand Depart.
  • Fact Two: The Tour de France does not take place exclusively in France.  The Tour de France Grand Depart usually takes place in one of the surrounding countries.  In 2012 it began in Liege, Belgium.  This year it will begin on the island of Corsica.  In 2014 it begins in Yorkshire (which is a long way off being a “surrounding country” but hey–we won so suck it up).  In fact, the first three stages of the twenty stage race take place in the UK before moving on to France, finishing in Paris.
  • Fact Three: One does not simply “win” the Tour de France.  In fact, there are several different ways to win the Tour and the winners can change from day to day, from stage to stage.  Obviously the most prestigious honour is to end the race with shortest over-all time.  This is calculated for each day.  On the following day of the race, the competitor with the shortest time gets to wear the coveted but frankly unattractive Yellow Jersey.  At the end of The Tour, the cyclist with the shortest accumulated time wins.  In 2012 that honour went to British superhero and side-burn god Bradley Wiggans who was the first British cyclist ever to win the Tour de France.  However, you can also win by crossing the finish line first at the end of the last day of the race.  In 2012 this went to another Brit and half-Yorkshire lad Mark Cavendish.  (Told you British cycling was on a high.)  For the best time on hills there is  the King of the Mountain title which earns you an even less attractive polka dot jersey, making the biker look a bit like Minnie Mouse.  The Green jersey goes to the best sprinter, the White to the best under 25  and my personal favourite the Red Jersey goes to the most aggressive cyclist as judged by commissaires (referees).

Thus concludes my knowledge of the Tour de France.  I now know more about this event than I have ever known about any other sporting competition anywhere ever.  Despite my general ignorance I am excited for my adopted county.  For the revenue it will generate for tourism and the attention which will be lavished on the beautiful countryside I love.  Although if those idiotic southern journalists refer to our moors as “bleak” one more time, I might have to get all Yankee on their Home County asses.  And we all know how terrifying that can be.

The Emo Olympics

BBC Commentators this morning referred to London 2012 as “The Crying Games”.  And it truly is!  The crying, cheering, laughing, gasping, hugging, jumping, leaping about, crowing like Peter Pan games here in the UK.  Emotions are all over the place because Team GB is achieving such heights of athletic greatness.  Yorkshire, especially, is doing so well  we could compete as our own country!

I have never seen the British get so excited about their own success.  I have never seen them so patriotic.  The Jubilee didn’t do it.  The Royal Wedding didn’t do it.  The Olympics did.  It’s not an “In Your Face, World!” kind of pride.  It’s bone deep.  It’s real, true, forever love–the kind many of them perhaps thought might have been lost.  Every medal, every waving flag, every play of the national anthem has them on physically on their feet and emotionally on their knees.

To Americans this may not seem a monumental event.  We have a sense of national pride in our blood that has never faded.  Even as an ex-pat I have it.  I can’t make it past a phrase of America the Beautiful or This Land is Your Land without choking up.  I  cheered my voice hoarse over Gabby Douglass and punched the air for the revival of American Women’s Gymnastics.  

But for this British this is fresh.  This is first love  with all its giddy, restless wonder.  In previous posts I have mentioned the British aversion to patriotism.  I even feared the Olympics might be a painful experience for Britain.  Perhaps history will cite London 2012 as a contributing factor to Britain rediscovering it’s sense of self and self-love.

Isles of “Utterly Mahvelous” and “Umm…huh?”

Across the globe opinions have been mixed over Isles of Wonder, Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremonies extravaganza—or snoraganza depending on who you ask. From my limited investigations it seems the closer the nations are to the UK the more they enjoyed the spectacle. Aussies and Canadians mostly responded positively, Americans were rather divided. But then, when are we not divided these days?

Part of the interference with American enjoyment may have been the way in which it was televised. Huge sections  were cut in the States due to commercial breaks. Many Yankees missed the pogo dancing bobble-headed punks. An even more disappointing omission was the dance memorial to the victims and survivors of 7/7. According to my sources American television chose this moment to interview Michael Phelps.

Friday evening’s tribute to the victims of the July 7th terrorist attack, which occurred days after London won their Olympic bid, was an evocative piece of dance drama that resonated emotionally on this side of the Atlantic. Honouring the horrors surrounding the genesis of London 2012 was a daring move on Boyle’s part, but highly appropriate and moving. The hymn Abide with Me provided the music for the dance.  Traditionally Abide with Me is sung at British sporting events.  No rugby match can start without it.  The omission of this performance for American audiences is criminal. Those responsible should be prosecuted under Offenses to the Arts legislation. That exists right?

Despite television edits, about half the Americans I communicated with responded positively to Boyle’s vision. Some argued it was a little slow and even British viewers admitted  it might be difficult for non-Brits to appreciate  references to Eastenders (long running British soap opera) or the significance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (winner of British Historical Idol and engineer in the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution). Perhaps it was a bit too…well, British. Fair enough. Boyle’s artistic aim was to represent the best of British: historical heritage, contributions to children’s literature and musical legacy.

There were many highlights of the performance for me. The lovely rendition of Jerusalem, sung by a charming choir of English moppets started the well of emotion. Jerusalem is the English (not British) equivalent of America the Beautiful. It’s the song that probably should be the national anthem but never will be because it is English-centric. I have seen even the most stiffened upper lips tremble under the influence of this song. If you have ever heard the term “green and pleasant land” in reference to England, it comes from this song. Since Britain is a four-way nation, we were also treated to traditional tunes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sung by similarly adorable children. The Welsh showed off their choral skills by using lovely harmonies. I swear they practise triad scales in the womb.

Of course….of course Shakespeare would  feature. The first words of the performance are Prospero’s speech from The Tempest spoken by Isambard Kingeth Branagh. Happy my hero had been given his moment (Shakespeare not Branagh or Brunel), I then gaped in awe as a whole host of industrialists transformed the green and pleasant land into a factory hell. I loved this bit, bowled over by the scale and military efficient set transition.

The Bond-Queen film seemed to go down well on both sides of the pond. Up until the final moment I expected HRH to turn around and reveal Judi Dench in Majesty Drag. But no, it was the genuine Queenly article “parachuting” into the Games. Irreverently funny like only the Brits can do! Continuing the funny, Rowan Atkinson’s piano solo had everyone in our sitting room struggling for breath.

The sequence which seemed most confusing to Americans was my personal favourite: Boyle’s tribute to Great British children’s literature, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the NHS. Not an obvious link unless you know the relationship between JM Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and GOSH. I loved the nightmarish moments as a giant Queen of Heart erupts from a child’s hospital bed followed quickly by a towering Lord Voldemort. I clutched the sofa hoping Dan Radcliffe might swoop in on a broomstick but the Mary Poppins Nanny Army was even better.

Apart from the visual beauty and fun of this sequence, Boyle’s political message resonated loud and clear: save our NHS! Even if Boyle had walked up to Number 10 Downing Street and stuck two fingers up David Cameron’s nose the message could not have been clearer: threaten our health service and sack our nurses at your peril, Mr Cameron! I cheered. It’s a cheer that should have echoed on the other side of the Atlantic as well, but I suspect the message and its meaning were lost in translation…or in televisation.

One moment united all watchers I spoke to: the final lighting of the torch.  At last the mysterious petals carried throughout the procession of nations were explained.  Though I was hoping the whole thing might turn out to be a massive trebuchet which flung  flames into the middle, having the arms rise up and come together was probably better art and safety.  If they are going to keep that massive flame going for two weeks, however, I do not envy the Olympic Committee’s gas bill.

Well played, Danny Boyle.  Well played indeed.  Will we soon be calling you Sir Danny?