People ask how I ended up living in a castle. Like all my important life decisions, it was an accident. When we decided to move to England, I just knew I would live in a cottage with an Aga, and it would be named something like Rosehill Cottage of Upper Long Chipping on Buttsfield.
What became clear as I went from one estate agent to another was that there is no such thing as a Rosehill Cottage. (True, actually. Even the massed might and deep purses of Hollywood location shoppers failed to turn up a single instance of Kate Winslet’s perfect English cottage for the movie The Holiday, so they built their Rosehill Cottage from chicken wire and fiberglass.)
As the realization sank in that we would be cottageless for the foreseeable future, we decided to go for a drive. We turned up a country lane and drove until it ended in front of a lovely house. The owner came running out to see why we were trespassing on his (who has one a half-mile long?) driveway. When he realized we were clueless Americans, he took us to a pub, described the best places to live locally, and finished by writing down the names of some villages for us to check out.
We drove to the first one, turned a corner, and stopped dead in front of massive stone towers, crenellated battlements, the whole honest-to-Ivanhoe nine yards. There’s a great word I’ve learned here in England—gobsmacked. I think it means two Americans staring in shock, whilst (you get to say whilst here) whimpering weak WTF?s .
A lady came through the portcullis. (Portcullis is another great British word that means honking huge stone arch with spiky gates where Robin Hood cuts the rope so it drops down to block the Sheriff’s evil henchmen. I’m pretty sure.) She admitted that it was her family’s castle, and that they occasionally rented parts of it, although nothing was currently available. Out of pity or because she thought it was the only way to get rid of us, she accepted our email address. By an amazing miracle, she contacted us a few days later to say that long-time residents were moving out, so one of the corner towers would be available if we were still interested.
Would Americans be interested in living in a castle? A rhetorical question if I ever heard one.
If you have ever lived in a tiny village, you will not be nearly as surprised as I was at what happened my first day as a castle resident. I emerged to walk the dog, still wearing what I’d worn to bed (basically, almost every item of clothing I owned as explained here). I was immediately identified as fresh blood, captured, and marched over to coffee morning in the victorian-era Village Hall. There may be some places where village coffee morning is a casual event. I just don’t think those places are in England. Certainly not in our village, where the weekly caffeination is the place for the major decisions, changes, and explanations of village life to be enacted over coffee and perhaps a few raffle ticket sales.
Village coffee is also where I’m learning to speak British. For example, on a recent coffee morning, I described my reaction to finding the side of my car bashed in. “I was so pissed,” I confessed. “And as the day went on, I just got more and more pissed off. In fact, by that night, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been that totally pissed.” There was a collective silence you could have cut with a knife. Finally one of my friends asked if I knew that pissed means drunk. All nodded sagely, and the discussion turned to the shame one felt to run out of homemade jam and have to serve (her voice lowered) jam from a shop.
A few weeks after my first coffee morning, I got a phone call from someone who introduced himself as my partner for serving coffee the next day, and did I prefer to bring the biscuits or the scones? (More gobsmackage…) Since my American impression of scones is triangular-shaped pastries with the weight and often the flavor of hockey pucks, I agreed that I’d bring something else. Something charming. Something American. Something I could actually cook.
Public Service Announcement that I totally missed: If you attend Village Coffee more than once, your name will appear in the parish newsletter and you’ll be on the coffee-rota, responsible for serving coffee and scones once a month. For the rest of your natural life. You’ve been warned.
Thus began my coffee morning career of mystifying my neighbors with weird American foods. First up were the cupcakes (“muffins”, I was informed). Next was the blueberry coffeecake, which nobody touched until I explained that it wasn’t really made out of coffee. Most disconcerting of all was the strange foreign food item which I told them was called a bagel. Nobody had ever had one before, although a few admitted hearing of them. They gathered around and stared as I suggested they top their bagels with cream cheese.
“She means Philadelphia,” someone explained. “In America they think it’s called cream cheese.”
Undeterred, I unveiled my pièce de résistance. “Lox!”
“Here in England,” one lady finally told me kindly, “…we call that salmon.”).
Many looked frankly skeptical as I sliced bagels. “Is it an American donut?”
“They eat salmon on their donuts in America?”
“Do you have any homemade jam for that?”
Mostly now, I bring brownies on my assigned coffee morning day.