Saturday, July 11, 2009

First Day in England: Getting Oriented

Monday, June 29

A full English breakfast! That was the first thing we thought about when we woke up. We’ve been eating bread and tea or coffee, with milk and juice, every morning for three months, and now the prospect awaited us of bacon and eggs, sausage, grilled tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms…such luxury!

Over my tea, I said to Demetrios, “Please don’t take this as a slam against the Greeks, but there’s something about England that makes one feel one has returned to civilization. Not that the Greeks are savages or barbarians or uncivilized, it’s just…”

“Well, you’re correct,” said Demetrios.

“So what makes it feel that way?”

“It’s the disorder of Greek life.”

Yes, that’s it. Or the way I’d put it is, Greeks improvise everything: their own personal lives, their society, their whole culture. With the conspicuous exception of their religion, they just make up everything as they go along. That’s why they never know what they’re going to do until they do it. That’s the great charm of Greek life, free and easy, no schedule, just wing it. That’s also my biggest frustration about Greece and Greeks. Having grown up in a military family, and an Anglo-Saxon one at that, I’m used to schedules, punctuality, and sticking to plan.

It was a bright, hot day, although the breeze was cool, so we set out by mid-morning to solve our monetary predicament.

That’s when we discovered our hotel was literally ocean-front. How delightful! Here’s a map of it; you can zoom in or out to see the rest of Southport. Better still, click on the link below the map to make it more interactive; then you can read the place marker lables. These placemarkers show out hotel, the pier, and MacDonald's.

View Southport, Merseyside, England in a larger map

(That's the beach, occupying the top left corner of the map.)

We crossed the Marine Bridge, over a lake filled with ducks and gulls and swans. One flock of ducks seemed to think the lone swan in their area was their mother; they all followed her wherever she went. So did three gulls, bobbing on the water, as if they thought they were ducks. Quite a family that swan had!

At the end of the bridge we came to an outdoor carousel that advertised itself as Built in the Reign of Queen Victoria.

Right behind it, in a large building, was Silcock’s Funland, a lot of kiddie rides indoors. (Silcock must be a millionaire, because there are also Silcock’s Amusements and Silcock’s Pleasureland and so forth.)

You pass a statue of Queen Victoria and a bath house advertising Turkish, Russian, and various other kinds of baths. And pretty soon you come to Lord Street, the town’s main street.

Southport is a pretty town, full of sometimes quaint and often impressive public buildings. There are shopping arcades, half-timbered buildings, numerous Victorian era buildings.

There is a marble war memorial in the middle of town, and opposite Sainsbury’s (grocery supermarket) is a mermaid fountain. The mermaid looks quintessentially English in a way we couldn’t explain. If you’ve ever wondered how mermaids reproduce, when the entire lower half of their body consists of a scaly tail, this fountain will set you straight. This mermaid’s fishiness doesn’t begin until just above mid-thigh.

Our first objective, however, was not sightseeing, but money, specifically, Pounds Sterling. We stopping in the first bank we saw, the HSBC Bank. It’s in a great hall with very high walls and an arched glass ceiling. The edges of the ceiling aren’t just glass, but stained glass. There are Corinthian columns with carved wood capitals. It’s truly magnificent.

Outside of HSBC Building

However, our credit cards wouldn’t work there, either.

Finally we found our own bank, Barclay's, just two or three doors down, into which Demetrios had previously deposited enough money to cover our expenses for this trip. We simply withdrew some, and our money problem was solved. We now know where we could come to get more cash, should we need it.

Now the purpose of this trip is specifically to see whether we’d like to live here and to look for a flat or apartment to buy. And the idea, for nostalgic reasons, was to find a place not here in Southport, but in Ormskirk. So the next thing we did was to catch the bus to Ormskirk.

Ormskirk is also a pretty place, more on the quaint side perhaps than Southport is. Southport is a tourist attraction, a seaside holiday resort, while Ormskirk is just a quiet little place tucked away in the countryside where tourists find little to draw them. It’s the kind of a village an illustrator might use as his model when drawing the pictures for a children’s storybook. There’s a clocktower in the center of town, and a church sporting both a spire (an Anglo-Saxon feature) and a square tower (a Norman feature). I think that probably makes it unique.

Ormskirk Clock Tower

Ormskirk Clock Tower on Market Day (Thursdays)

You can find the offices of four or five estate agents in the center of town without even knowing where to start. We walked into them one at a time and found nothing in our price range. Nothing as in zero, zip. One agent, with a contemptuous sniff, told us we’d have to check out nearby Skelmersdale to find anything that low. We took some literature anyway, on flats a little above our price range, on the theory we might be able to negotiate, as the housing situation in the UK is as stagnant as in the US.

Estate agents in the UK do not work the same way as real estate agents in America. In the first place, they almost never have multiple listing. That means for each property that interests you, you must go around to whichever agency has listed it. A dozen properties could mean six or seven different estate agents.

In the second place, the estate agents do not take you around to view the properties. All they do is make a telephone call to the vendor/seller and set up an appointment for you. This was a bit of a blow to us, as we have no car here and must go by foot or taxi. Cabs aren’t as cheap here as they are in Greece.

They also won’t even make the appointment, at least these agents wouldn’t, until you’d had a look at the outside first, which for us would mean two separate trips, on foot.

Nevertheless, we walked around to one of them, tucked away in a side street off of a side street, and we liked the looks of it very much. It had pretty gardens, well-maintained, and everything was tidy and in excellent repair. Too bad it was out of our price range.

We took a bus to neighboring Burscough to look at one that was in our range, but Netherby House was in poor repair and depressing.

In Greece, when looking for housing, the thing you want to avoid is disorderliness, a trashy look. Around here, what you want to avoid is grimness. Ormskirk isn’t grim, but many places are; they are relics of the Industrial Revolution and they bring Charles Dickens to mind.

We also visited the churchyard, where unfortunately, Demetrios located the first two of the friends he was seeking. Olive had died in 2002, and Elizabeth was buried nearby.

Exhausted but only slightly discouraged, we returned to Southport for supper.

After supper, we walked out onto the beach. It's huge; you can't even get to the water when the tide is out. Well, unless you want to walk more than a mile over sand, then over deep mud, through weedy places, and finally to a bit of water just over your ankles. It's not a good place to swim.

It's perfect, however, for teenagers learning to drive. We met one of them, and his father, Alan.

Please pray for Alan and his wife, Tracy, because they have recently lost a son and the mother is attending a spiritualist "church" on Sundays, deriving comfort from the alleged contact the medium there makes with her deceased son.

Our conversation with Alan lasted half an hour.

The tide was out and the sun was setting, but behind clouds so we couldn’t actually see it. But the walk over the wet sand was refreshing to the feet. So we walked through the twilight, holding hands, collecting shells, and because it was the Irish Sea we were standing on the edge of, we sang, ”Sweet Molly Malone.”

Back at the hotel, Jacqui the receptionist told us those were cuttlefish shells and gave us a small plastic bag to keep them in, as souvenirs.

I’m going to write her manager and tell him what she did for us last night and how kind she continues to be.


DebD said...

what a wonderful adventure. Happy house hunting.

elizabeth said...

Yes, that is really lovely. I appreciate how much of the culture you understand instinctivly. Like avoiding grimmness in an England housing. I have yet to go to England, but read a lot of English mystery books (I love well written ones) and recognize the 'feel' of England through them. Your writing of England protrays the same.