Should I learn to knit or crochet first?

The eternal question for the would-be yarn-crafter.  I daresay there’s more than one point of view (there always is), but as someone who’s learned to do both, I have to come down unequivocally on the side of crochet: learn to crochet first!

First, crochet is much easier to do. You have one implement, a single hook, as opposed to two needles. The hook will pretty reliably pull yarn through even for a beginner, while pulling a loop through another loop with the tip of a knitting needle takes practice.  (Images borrowed from Heart Hook Home and Pom Pom Quarterly.)

Secondly, crochet is more difficult to screw up.  At any given time, the only open stitch you have to worry about is the one you’re currently working; all the other stitches are closed off.  This means that in crochet, it’s impossible to “drop a stitch,” which can happen to the most experienced knitter.  In knitting, all your active stitches (the whole row you’re working on) are held on the needles while you work, and if you drop one (if it literally falls off the end of your needle), it can start to unravel, all the way down to the first row.  In crochet, it’s also much easier to unravel and do part of the work over; you just pull on the yarn, and your most recent stitches will unravel leaving the earlier ones untouched and unimperiled, whereas in knitting, if you want to backtrack, you have to either painstakingly undo each stitch while keeping the loop from the previous row on one of the needles, or be very bold and PULL THE NEEDLES OUT, unravel the work back to the point before your mistake, and then very carefully thread the stitches back onto the needles.  (Without dropping any.)  (I usually do this if I need to unravel more than one row, but I’m known for being crazy in this respect.)

Third, crochet will give you an excellent grounding in what to do with your left hand (or right, if you’re a leftie), which is exactly the same for knitting as it is for crochet.  With your non-dominant hand, you hold the working yarn twisted around a couple of your fingers to maintain the all-important tension.  You can’t just knit or crochet from loose yarn without holding onto it somehow to make it taut, and to hold the working yarn in place where your hook or needle can reach it.  If you could, your work would be loose and sloppy, which is a look, but not what you want for most things.  So it’s important, when learning either knitting or crochet, to learn how to hold an even tension, not too loose, not too tight, and always pretty much the same, so that your stitches will be the same as each other.  You can learn this just as well with crochet, which is easy, and then learn the two-needle mechanics of knitting later.

Fourth, crochet is considerably easier to learn, and not just because, as I mentioned before, it’s easier to do.  I learned to knit about six or eight times before it actually took.  I started going to a knitting group, learned to cast on and knit and purl, went home, didn’t practice, and came back the next week only to find I’d completely forgotten it.

Repeat for three weeks.

I’m not the only person who’s had this experience.  Every person I’ve taught to knit has done the same.  Ask anyone who’s learned to knit as an adult: if you don’t practice EVERY DAY until it’s solidly engrained in your muscle memory, it will completely fall out of your head inside a week.  Why?  My theory is that knitting is just deeply counter-intuitive.  It’s not like anything else you have ever learned to do: making a fabric by pulling loop after loop through another loop, row by row, back and forth and having to turn your work, and going right to left?

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, taught me to crochet in half an hour, and I was off like a rocket.

You might be wondering at this point whether you should even bother learning to knit.  If knitting is so difficult, and weird, why try it?

Knitting is difficult to learn, but deeply logical in its own weird way.  There are only two stitches (which can be combined in many ways to create divers effects), and knitting behaves very predictably.  Just keep going back and forth, you make a rectangle.  Make four increases at the right places, you make a triangle.  Knit round and around a circular needle, you make a tube!  Not to mention, knitting is quite soothing to do once you’re in practice.  You can learn a basic pattern, like seed stitch or ribbing, and do that mindlessly in front of the television, just to keep your hands busy, and still do it right.  (I thought I would find the repetition maddening, but it’s really therapeutic.)

Also, knitting and crochet are good for different things.  Crochet creates a more rigid, solid fabric, with very little stretch, while knitting creates a pliable, drapey, stretchy fabric, even if the yarn you’re using is not stretchy at all.  This makes crochet excellent for anything you want to be stiff and hold its shape, like amigurumi (crochet animals and mini models and so on), or a bag, or certain kinds of hats.  Knitting is better for anything you want to be soft and draping, like shawls and other garments, or stretchy for hats and gloves.  Crochet is also better for making round things or anything with fine details, like a flower for a hat, or a Christmas ornament, or stuffed animals, while knitting is great for making things with straight lines and big geometric panels.  And cables.  Knitting is infinitely better for making anything with cables.  (I finally came to terms with knitting by making a cabled tea-cozy.  I ♥ cables.)

One last note if you’re planning to take up either one: get someone to teach you.  Once you’re comfortable with knitting or crochet, it’s really easy to pick up new tricks from YouTube tutorials (or even books!), but when you’re getting started, you really need someone sitting there to show you exactly how to hold the yarn, and tell you what you’re doing wrong as you make your first few stitches.  Invest in an hour or two with someone who really knows their stuff, and you’ll save yourself weeks of aggravation.

I hope this has helped to clear up some of the differences between knitting and crochet.  Any questions are welcome in the comments!

Landscapes in Space!

It’s winter in Cambridge.  The days are still mostly sunny and crisp, interspersed with some fogginess and cold, cold rain.  The trees have turned gold and apple-yellow, a few pumpkin orange and rarest red, and they’ve lost almost all their leaves now.  When the clocks turned back a few weeks ago, we were suddenly plunged into a new and darker world, where the sun set at 4:30.  Now it sets before four; the sun never rises beyond the southern quarter of the sky, so the shadows are always long and stretching to the north, and there’s less than eight hours of sunlight every day.

My new guild, the Cambridge Quilters, issue an annual challenge.  This year, they asked members to make a landscape quilt, A3 size (about 11″x17″), with no binding, so the picture goes all the way to the edge, and every landscape should have a point that could connect to another, like a path or a river or a horizon line, at 4″ and 11″ up its two vertical sides.

I wasn’t planning to make one, because I was going to wait to start sewing again until we moved into our house.  What with one thing and another (don’t get me started), we still don’t know when that will be.  A few weeks ago, desperately needing to do something that used more of my brain than housework and our stalled house-buying process (don’t even get me started), I said the hell with it, and started sketching ideas for a landscape.  (Bear in mind, in almost fifteen years of quilting, I have never tried to make a quilt that looked like anything.  (Well, I guess there’s that one tree, but that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten.))  How the next step happened I really can’t tell you, but I was doing a perfectly respectable doodle of the beach bluffs at Santa Barbara, and suddenly I started thinking: “Landscape on Mars.  Landscape on Venus…”

And, well, as sometimes happens, the concept just exploded from there.


So, now I have a plan for NINE quilts, and am learning more about the solar system than I had any idea that we knew.  I immediately ran into trouble when my research reminded me that Jupiter is a gas giant; it has no solid surface.  No land, therefore, no landscape.  Ditto Saturn, and the ice giants Uranus and Neptune.  I suppose I could have fudged it, but my brilliant husband reminded me that all those planets have moons!  So I’ve chosen a moon for each one (respectively, Europa, Titan, Titania, and Triton), and will show the planet hanging in the sky.  (Titan has an opaque yellow atmosphere.  Europa is covered with ice that may have a liquid ocean underneath.  Triton has volcanoes and geysers!  (See?  More than I thought anyone knew.))

Of course, now we get to the problem of construction.  I mean, after fifteen years of quilting I’ve got some skills, but come on: how’s a person supposed to piece a crater?  In perspective?  With shading?  Nuh-uh.  I started out with some vague ideas about overlapping sheer fabrics and fusing them together with Mistyfuse (which I’ve used before; it’s extremely fine and completely invisible once it’s melted), and my beloved and supportive husband took me to Goldhawk Road in London for my birthday, which turned out to be the garment district!  Fifteen or twenty shops in one street, each packed to the gills with bolts of fabric leaning agains the walls, stacked on racks, everything from fireproof muslin to burned velvet to lavishly beaded net.  We had the baby along and only made it to two shops; plenty left to explore! IMG_20191130_103522

I brought home a pile of fabrics: poly silks and shimmery gold stuff, black waxed cotton, silk and polyester chiffon, organza in four colors, cotton chambray, and one glorious dupioni silk, just because it was my birthday.

But the shading problem still bothered me.  How was I going to create texture, shade the sides of craters and of mountains, create the fine bands on Jupiter’s atmosphere and Saturn’s rings?  I considered embroidery, raw-edge appliqué with the new sheer fabrics, even painting on shadows with brush pens.

After several days of reflection and weighing all the options, I concluded that the best thing would be if I could learn to needle felt.

Yes, that’s right.  Faced with a huge new artistic project, in a two-bedroom rental house, with most of my stash and tools in storage, a baby, and a month-long trip to the States coming up, I decided that the best thing I could do was learn an entirely new craft.

And buy the stuff for it, of course.

Fortunately I’ve been following Dani Ives on Instagram for months now.  She’s a fantastic fiber artist, who uses wool like paint, which is exactly what I wanted to do.  (You can see her website here.)  I ordered a “taster pack” from an Etsy seller, paid for Dani Ives’ video course on needle felting, watched a couple lessons, made a first attempt… and got some quite encouraging results!


Admittedly, my “planet surface” looks more like a cloud than like rock, but, I think I can learn to do better.  Today, while the baby napped, I worked on some more detailed sketches and did some tests with my fabrics.   There’s a lot of information available about the various planetary and lunar surfaces, but you have to be careful you’re not taken in by some beautiful artist’s rendering; no knowing how authentic that is.  I’d had an idea about Europa’s icy surface.  The organza has very fine fibers; the barbed needle used for needle felting would doubtless make them catch and snag and produce an awful mess.  But if I did that on purpose, might not the snagged shiny organza fibers crumple and pucker and look very much like crusty ice?

Yes they do!


I also tried touching up a couple fabrics with the brush pens.  It was good; no bleeding, no spreading.  I think there are some great possibilities to explore.  It’s important to create a unity between all these pieces, but each one should also be distinct.  Balancing those two priorities is the essence of the challenge for this project.  This is probably the most purely artistic thing I’ve tried to do since college.

I’ll keep you posted!


Ten things an American should know before moving to the UK

This is just what I’ve learned after six months of living here.  But it’s all stuff I DIDN’T know before I moved and wish I had.  Here’s the list; further details for each are below.

  1. UK banks will not let you open an account without proof of address.
  2. Tumble dryers are rare, but available.
  3. You can’t go grocery shopping just once a week.
  4. Do talk about the weather, but don’t make fun of it.
  5. Stores are organized differently in the UK, sometimes in odd and subtle ways.
  6. Cheap things will almost always be low-quality. If you want quality, you have to pay for it.
  7. You will have a hard time getting certain things just because you don’t know what they’re called.
  8. Check the voltage on any American electronics you bring BEFORE you plug them in.
  9. Europeans don’t believe in closets.
  10. It takes a week to get a prescription refilled.


And now the details…

  1. UK banks will not let you open an account without proof of address.
    • Yes, that’s right.  UK banks expect not only to know where you live, but to see proof that you actually do live there.  The people at the banks will say, “Oh, you can bring in a utility bill,” like that’s easy when you’ve just moved to the country and have to get a UK bank account before anyone will sell you a phone plan.  (Yes, that’s also right; a UK cell phone provider will require you to have a UK bank card.  This is not an immigrant-friendly system.)
    • Fortunately the banks will accept several different kinds of proof of address.  One thing you can do is get your American bank or credit card company to change your address on file to your new UK address, and then you can show the UK bank a statement with your name and UK address on it.  (Our bank didn’t even require us to bring in a printed statement, just log in on their computer and show them.)
    • The point is, whichever British bank you decide you want to open an account with, check their website first to see what they require for opening an account and what kind of proofs they will accept.  It’s not going to work to just walk in with your passport and a twenty-pound bill.
  2. Tumble dryers are rare, but available.
    • Far more common than the American washer & dryer combo is the British washer/dryer.  This is one machine that is supposed to wash and then dry your clothes.  We have a fairly expensive one in our rental house, and don’t even get me started on this thing.  It takes almost two hours to wash a medium-size load of clothes, and then more than two hours to get the same load not-quite dry.  Add in the fact that you can only wash one load of clothes at a time, and it now takes four-to-five hours to wash one load of clothes, plus time on the drying rack for whatever the machine didn’t quite dry.
      • I eventually learned that the machine had a 7kg wash capacity (as in, can wash 7kg of clothes) but only a 3kg dry capacity.  Which means it can dry less than half as much laundry as it can wash.  ???
    • British people, I kid you not, will defend these things as more economical and eco-friendly, while admitting that they don’t work, and say, “Oh, you just hang everything up,” like it’s totally fine to have your home perennially draped with half-dry laundry in the dampest country in the world.  (I’ve had this conversation seven or eight times; only the repair man we called in when the machine broke down was willing to admit that they’re just badly designed.)
    • The good news is, you can get a tumble dryer.  If you have room and you can afford it (we got a really good one for a couple hundred pounds), you can absolutely have a tumble dryer and only need three hours to wash and dry a load of clothes.  They even have a kind of dryer here that doesn’t need to be connected to an outside vent; instead it condenses the water that it extracts from the clothes, and you pull out a drawer-shaped tank and empty it down the drain after every load.  Slightly more trouble, but it means all you need to hook this thing up is an open outlet.
      • Designed for precisely my situation, where you decide you cannot live without a tumble dryer but aren’t allowed to cut holes through a rented wall.
  3. You can’t go grocery shopping just once a week.
    • Not unless you’re a really good planner with excellent follow-through. (I have a nine-month-old baby at home, so, struggling on both counts.)  Fridges are smaller in the UK (even a full-sized one will be two-thirds the size you’re used to), and few foods have preservatives.  It’s really very challenging to plan your menu, shop for it, and then cook everything before it goes bad.
    • There is some good news.  England, for example, is the glorious land of Ready Meals.  The Co-op, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Asda, all have excellent ready-made meals that only require heating and are actually tasty; lots of them are even nutritious.  This category includes everything from packets of microwaveable mixed vegetables to a whole prepared chicken that you can just shove in the oven for an hour.  One thing to bear in mind, though, is that portion sizes will probably be half the size you’re used to, so you may want to double up if you want to feed two people.
    • The other good news is that pretty much every grocery store in Britain delivers now.  I prefer going to the store myself usually (I like browsing and making impulse purchases), but with a baby, no car, and now living in a new temp house farther from the stores, I’m ordering a Tesco delivery twice a week.  It’s pretty great.
  4. Do talk about the weather, but don’t make fun of it.
    • I owe this one to anthropologist Kate Fox, whose excellent book “Watching the English” has given me endless entertaining information.  The weather is a common but important topic of conversation in England.  Not because the weather is unpredictable and can change at the drop of a hat (although that’s certainly true), but because the weather is something that absolutely any two people can talk about.  As a result, the weather has acquired the social status of an all-purpose conversation opener.  Starting a conversation with a remark about the weather is a request to open communications, a disclosure about how the person’s feeling, an invitation to agree about something and therefore bond.  It’s almost everything BUT talking about the weather.
    • One thing to be aware of here, according to Kate Fox, is that there’s an unspoken expectation that any remark about the weather will be agreed with.  If someone says to you, “Terribly cold today, isn’t it?” don’t just contradict them; “No, I don’t think so,” would be rude, because, as previously stated, the person is not actually, or not only, offering commentary on the weather.  What you’ve actually said “no” to is their attempt to open the conversation and bond over a shared inconvenience.  Instead, say “Yes, but I prefer cool weather.”  This is fine because you’ve started by agreeing, and then phrased your contrary point of view as a personal quirk.
    • And definitely don’t say, “Oh, this is nothing!  It gets way colder than this in Wisconsin!”  Apparently English people feel rather proprietary about their local weather, and don’t care to hear foreigners run it down for being mild, and free from such extremes as tornados and sub-zero temperatures.  (I’m glad I read about this before I got an opportunity to do my usual bragging about winters in Chicago and summers in Texas.)
  5. Stores are organized differently in the UK, sometimes in odd and subtle ways.
    • I don’t mean how the stores are laid out, I mean that ASDA, which is a Walmart equivalent, doesn’t carry all the things you’d expect Walmart to carry.  Twenty kinds of toilet brushes, but not a single plunger.  Groceries and clothes, but fairly little in the way of dishes or hardware.
    • CurrysPC is one half Best Buy and one half the appliance section from Sears: toasters, laundry machines, electric kettles, the works. John Lewis (which is a lot like Macy’s, or an upscale Target, only bigger) has a haberdashery section (read “craft supplies”) with sewing machines, beginner-level knitting kits, and a good variety of mending supplies.
    • Neither MachineMart (hardware) nor any local grocery chain seems to consider it their job to carry superglue.
    • While I’ve been sorting these things out (and raising a baby, without a car), I’ve been doing a ton of online ordering, primarily Amazon, and I can really recommend that for getting over your first adjustment period (or your second or third…).  I know where to get what I want a lot better than I used to do, but  there’s no way I’m carrying a sixteen-pack of paper towels all the way home from Asda.
    • And I’ve still never figured out where to buy a plunger.
  6. Cheap things will almost always be low-quality. If you want quality, you have to pay for it.
    • This really requires no further explanation.  In England you pretty much do get what you pay for.  Some exceptions, but not nearly as many as you might be accustomed to if you’re a big-time Amazon user in America.
  7. You will have a hard time getting certain things just because you don’t know what they’re called.
    • Paper towels are “kitchen towels,” plastic wrap is “cling film,” underwear are “pants,” bok choy has multiple alternate spellings, eggplants are “aubergines,” sneakers are “trainers,” and no one seemed to know what I was talking about when I wanted laundry bleach or manilla folders.
    • Persevere.  Ask people.  Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot in the grocery, the stationer’s, or the haberdashery.  Particularly if you happen to move to a place where they’re used to foreigners, store attendants are not going to be as surprised by this as you might expect.
  8. Check the voltage on any American electronics you bring BEFORE you plug them in.
    • If it can’t take 220 volt current, your beloved sewing machine could die a quick and ignoble death just from being recklessly plugged in with only a plug adapter. (Sigh…)
  9. Europeans don’t believe in closets.
    • English houses are only just beginning to believe in closets.  If the place you’re moving into was not built in the last thirty years, odds are it will not have any closets, or maybe just one that the boiler sits in.
    • Also, English houses/apartments are smaller on average than American ones.  Yes, they are smaller AND often don’t have closets.
    • Check the storage possibilities of any place you’re considering moving into very carefully.  Do not assume there will be closets; find out.  If there aren’t, and the place isn’t already furnished, you’re going to have to find room for a wardrobe or a chest of drawers or a rack of shelves or SOMETHING to put your clothes in.  (Even furnished places often seem to assume that all you need is one little chest of drawers.)
  10. It takes a week to get a prescription refilled.
    • No, I’m not kidding.
    • Why?  Because every time you want your prescription refilled, the pharmacy has to check with your GP.
    • Yeah.  Every.  Single.  Time.
    • Not just for narcotics or steroids.  No.  Any tame little medication like, for instance, a thyroid hormone replacement, that no one would ever pick to get high or overdose on… they still have to check with your GP.
    • (Because they couldn’t have some sort of in-house system that keeps track of how many refills you’re entitled to before you have to get tested again…)
    • And apparently this takes a week to process.  You can’t just show up at the pharmacy, ask for your refill, wait ten minutes while they check the records, and walk out with your meds.  Nuh-uh.  Order it, wait a week, never hear from the pharmacy, call after another two or three days, wait on hold, finally find out they do have your medication, go in and get it.  (I’m going to be writing a whole separate post about British pharmacies.)
    • They will tell you that you can sign up to have the medication automatically refilled or mailed to you, and it looks like that’s the only way to go.  It’s certainly what I’ll be doing once I have my permanent address.  But until then…


This got a little long, but I wanted to provide enough detail to be actually useful.  I hope this helps you as you prepare for, or consider, your move to the UK, and for my friends, gives you some idea of what I’ve been adjusting to over here.

Coming soon: what you can expect from a British pharmacy; getting started in the UK as an immigrant; and my own method for joining quilt-as-you-go blocks, entirely by machine.

The Weather of Cambridge

We’re not actually in England at the moment, which makes this the perfect time to write about English weather, while the English weather gods are not looming overhead, ready to strike me down with fatal irony.

The main thing about English weather (well, in all the British Isles, really) is its variability.  It rarely keeps to one note for an entire day, sometimes not even for ten minutes.  About ten days ago I was out with the baby, knowing that rain was expected.  When it started, I got us under cover, put on my raincoat, put the waterproof cover on the stroller and another on the diaper bag, and by the time we were back on the sidewalk, the rain had stopped.  It didn’t start again for hours.

Another day Aron and I had gone out to climb Castle Hill, with the baby in the baby carrier.  (It’s where the Normans built a castle in the eleventh century, overlooking the tiny town of Cambridge and its strategically important river crossing.  The castle isn’t there anymore, but you can still climb the mott and see the view.)  It was cool, sunny, and windy, and I had read in the forecast that there was a chance of hail, but it was nowhere near cold enough for that, and a bright sunny day.  We climbed the hill, with my sweater wrapped around the baby as well as myself, enjoyed the view, and on our way back home, the wind picked up, the sky darkened, the temperature dropped ten degrees, and we got under cover to hide from the rain just as hail began to fall.

You know that huge wind at the beginning of Mary Poppins that blows away all the other nannies?  Yeah, we get those too.  Once in a while the wind whips through with more than enough strength to pick up Piglet and blow him into Derbyshire.  The clouds scud past overhead, and it’s bright and sunny for ten minutes and then gloomy and glowering before you turn around.

Of course the big challenge in all this is figuring out how one can possibly dress for it.  I find the BBC forecast to be fairly accurate, but only for what’s coming up in the next hour.  Do I bundle the baby up for a cool day?  But it might be so sunny that it feels ten degrees warmer than the forecast.  Dress us both in layers?  I can’t put him in and out of his jacket every five minutes while he’s buckled in the stroller.

Of course I’m not the only one who has this problem.  You see all levels of weather-preparedness among the people of Cambridge.  On a very warm day, some will be out in sundresses or shorts, others in slacks and jackets, still others in heavy sweaters.  In heavy rain, there will be everything from a full-on macintosh, to shirt collars and bare heads, wet hair and a resigned expression.  Umbrellas enjoy only middling popularity, as do raincoats.  You’d think this would be a country where everyone would have waterproof everything, but no; between the locals, the students, and the tourists, you can see all manner of totally impractical gear parading past just by stepping onto the sidewalk: straw hats, flip flops, lace camisoles, drawstring backpacks.  Sometimes I think I’m the only one who reads the forecast.

But surprisingly, Cambridge has been much sunnier so far than we’d expected.  When we visited last year, the people we met at my husband’s future department told us that Cambridge gets more sun than most anywhere else in Britain.  Aron and I just looked at each other.  Given our previous experience of England, at the time we assumed that this was either blatant propaganda, or at best, desperate self-deception on the part of the locals.  And Aron, a Californian born and bred, is essentially solar-powered, so we were justifiably concerned that we would move to England and it would be overcast and rainy most of the time.  But actually, there have been weeks at a time when it’s mostly sunny, and few days of actual torrential downpour.  There’s been lots of good weather, mixed in with intermittent showers, and on the whole, I think what they told us was actually true.  Cambridge does have better weather than the rest of England.

But if you don’t like it, just wait fifteen minutes.


How Do You Like Cambridge?

This is another question I get asked a lot, much more often than “What’s been hardest?”  It’s a logical next question when two people have just met and one of them admits to having moved here recently, wherever “here” happens to be.  I usually answer it by saying that Cambridge is great, I’ve met a lot of really nice people, but there are a lot of things to adjust to in a new country.

There are a LOT of things to adjust to in a new country.  There’s the new vocabulary (bins, boot, bonnet, babygrow); there seems to be a general uncertainty about whether it’s appropriate to shake hands on first introduction; there’s having to make a whole new group of friends because all of mine are on the other side of the Atlantic; and this is all not to mention cars being on the other side of the road and not being able to buy real cranberry juice.  (And then there’s the shops, for which see my previous post, “What’s been hardest?”)

But it’s also true that I’ve met A LOT of really nice people here.  Once a week Aron watches the baby by himself for an evening so that I can go to a knitting group that meets at local pubs, The Cambridge Drunken Knitwits.  (I swear this is their real name, but I have to admit that I have yet to see any of them in a state of either inebriation or dire stupidity.  The punning, though, that’s definitely been ongoing.)  I’m also now a member of the Cambridge Quilters.  Both groups welcomed me as a fellow crafter, and their meetings have become my regular time out by myself, hugely important to a new mother’s sanity.

And then we’ve been trying out different churches around town.  There are a great many churches in Cambridge, not counting the chapels that belong to the individual colleges, and we’ve been greeted warmly in the six or seven that we’ve been to in the last four months.  There have even been a few very kind people who’ve offered to babysit for free!

But how do I like Cambridge?

I’m falling head over heels with Cambridge itself.  It’s hard not to love literally-named Bridge Street, where it arches over the Cam, and the punts make their way sedately up and down the river, under the willow trees and the windows of the colleges.  You can go to evensong at St. Bene’t’s (short for “Benedict’s”; that first apostrophe is not a typo), the oldest church in town, which was built during the reign of King Canute, before the Normans invaded in 1066.  Tudor manors rub shoulders with Victorian townhouses and mid-century concrete oblongs; the streets have names like “Adam & Eve Street,” “Maid’s Causeway,” and “Senate House Passage,” and there are all sorts of back ways and walled gardens and passages that cut through and big streets that don’t.  We’re renting a house in a neighborhood named Castle Hill, where the Normans built a mound and on top of that a castle, overlooking the town the Romans built.  The castle isn’t there anymore, but you can still climb the mott and see the view.

There’s no boundary line between the university and the town.  Or rather, there are a hundred; each college has its own little “campus,” with a wall around it and a gate or two, and then several of the departments have grounds of their own.  The university and the town have grown together over the last eight hundred years, so the colleges are all mixed in with churches and shops and restaurants, and one minute you’re surrounded by gothic arches and cobbled streets, and then you turn a corner and you’re in a 21st-century mall with gleaming surfaces and an Apple store.

‘Course there’s also a passive-aggressive element to this relationship.  I’ve never seen anyplace that was so unfriendly to strollers.  (Or maybe I have, and I just didn’t notice because I didn’t have the stroller yet.)  Stone-block sidewalks, cobbled streets, stairs up, stairs down, shops where you have to climb three stairs just to get in the door.  Cobbles are the absolute worst for strollers, just like they are for dragging wheeled suitcases.  Not that the baby seems to mind, but bouncing his stroller over a long stretch of cobbled streets, I sometimes worry about his little brains rattling around in his head like dice.  (Not really.  But kinda.)  And then there are the stairs inside.  I don’t know how many restaurants and churches I’ve been to where the bathrooms were up or down one or two storey’s-worth of stairs.  Sometimes you have to go down and then up, or vice versa.  (I shudder to think what it must be like for people in wheelchairs to live here.)  You want to know why Europeans are thinner?  It’s because of all the goddamn stairs.

But then there’s choral evensong at King’s College Chapel, and the Haunted Bookshop, and the Corpus Clock where the Chronophage devours time, and the Mathematical Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs, and the tiny courts and pedestrian-only side streets that make you feel like you’ve stumbled on a secret place, and all the parks.  I had no idea before we moved here that Cambridge had so many wide green spaces: Jesus Green, Midsomer Common, Christ’s Pieces, the Botanical Garden…

So how do I like Cambridge?  Well, we’ve been on a few good dates, and there are definitely some issues to work out… but I think we’re in it for the long haul.

What’s Been Hardest?

Sometimes people ask me, “What’s been the hardest thing to adjust to in England?” Well, indisputably the thing that has caused me the most struggle and anguish has been the sudden loss of my child’s grandparents. Nobody DIED, it’s just that after my in-laws kindly let us live with them for a year and a half, including the first two months with the baby, and then flew over with us to help us move, and then my mom came for a couple weeks, well… there came a point when everybody had to go home. And I was, for the first time, left alone with the baby.

And a head cold.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about. That would have happened no matter where we moved to, even if we’d been staying within driving distance of my in-laws and just getting our own place. The part about moving to England that has been most difficult to adjust to, is, without question… the shops.

Yes, because first of all there are not “stores” in this country, there are “shops.” “Going to the grocery store” is “doing the shopping.” But that isn’t difficult or confusing. It’s the shops themselves and how they’re organized.

I’m not talking about where they put the refrigerated section and whether it’s next to the bread or not. It’s that you can’t get all the same things in one store that you can in the States. One reluctantly accepts doing without familiar stores, like Target and Jo-Ann’s, but it never occurred to me until I was actually trying to find a plunger in ASDA (a Walmart equivalent that is actually owned by Walmart) that the English might make fundamentally different assumptions about what you should be able to get in a particular kind of store.

Excuse me. Shop.

A couple weeks after we moved here I heard that there was a haberdashery section (craft and sewing supplies) in John Lewis. Having no idea what John Lewis was, I attached no significance to this information. Imagine my surprise when I was directed to John Lewis to buy a phone and found it to be a giant upscale department store like Macy’s or Nordstrom’s, but equipped with both an electronics department and the aforementioned haberdashery, which, in addition to high-end sewing machines and designer fabrics, offered an extensive range of beginner craft kits and mending supplies.

Macy’s wouldn’t admit that mending exists, let alone sell you stuff to do it with. Why prevent the customer from buying another $200 jacket by helping them sew the button back on the old one?

A few weeks ago I was asking around for suggestions on where to buy a dryer, and was told “Curry’s.” (Which is actually Curry’sPC.) I duly went, to find a place that was half Best Buy and half the appliance section from Sears: one side covered with laptops and printers, the other full of toasters and laundry machines.

But none of this has been the problem.

It’s been not knowing where to go for affordable shoes. It’s been living in a street with four different grocery stores, and having to learn each one’s wildly divergent strengths and weaknesses. (Iceland for frozen stuff, the Co-op for ready-made, the Indian grocery for spices and eighteen different kinds of dried dates…) It’s been learning that none of them stock laundry bleach or the kind of tissues my husband likes, and that neither the Co-op (the one most like an American grocery store) nor Machine-Mart seems to think that super glue, packing tape, or Swiffers fall within their purview. It’s been discovering that Superdrug is actually a cosmetics store with no off-the-shelf medicine at all, just a pharmacy counter, that the only pharmacy in my street closes for lunch every day between one and two, and that Amazon is my best friend, but with a lot less variety and a lot less certainty that they’ll have the brand I want or call a thing by the same name I do. Did I mention there are no Manila folders in this country? Socks seem to all cost four times as much as they should. And Scotch sponges are £10 for six.

I met a volunteer at a local church last week while trying to attend a mom-and-baby group that it turned out had been shut down for the summer. He was an Englishman, lived in Cambridge for years. He asked me how I was settling in, and I told him some of what I’ve just told you, including the fact that I still haven’t figured out where to buy a plunger.

He said he wasn’t sure that he knew either. “I’d probably order it from Amazon.”

The Hottest Day in English History

I went out this morning at about ten to bring in the trash can from the curb, and it was already hot as Hades out there.  The day was just getting started.  It was about 85 when I went outside; around 1:30, the temperature in Cambridge hit 98 degrees Fahrenheit.  It’s probable that before the day is over, some parts of the UK will reach 102, or 39 Celsius, breaking all previous records since the Central England Temperature Record’s earliest data, from 1659.

By doing everything I could think of, we’re managing to keep the temp in our house down to about 79.  Windows closed, blinds closed, a portable air conditioner upstairs that my husband got us during the last hot spell, and two industrial fans, one at the top of the stairs, one at the bottom, all three appliances running full-blast all day.  It’s not exactly comfortable in here, even wearing next to nothing, but we’re in no danger of heat stroke.

My Plan B was to pack up myself and the baby and head to the Grand Arcade (read, “Cambridge Mall”) for the day, where some of the stores have central AC.  Why did I have a Plan B, you might ask?  Because I lived in Houston for ten years, where every summer there are a few days that edge above a hundred degrees, and every single year there are news stories about high school football players dying of heat stroke on the practice field because they didn’t drink enough water, and elderly people doing the same in their homes because they have no air conditioning.

But really, I was never that worried about me and the baby.  I know what to do.  But I worry a little about everybody else.

Aron and I were in Brussels during their record heat wave a few years ago.  Nobody had air conditioning, the hotel would only give us one electric fan, and it was 94 degrees outside.  It never gets that hot in Brussels.  Not even close.  When weather conditions arise that your climate just never sees, people get caught off-guard.  I worry about people shutting all their windows with no way to keep the air circulating, people fainting on the street because they’re drinking beer instead of water with lunch, kids being left in cars that quickly become ovens.  Especially the last one.

And, on my own personal level, I’m trying to talk to as many people as I can on the phone today, because the weather means I will not get out at all, or see anyone today except the baby, which is normally something I guard against because it makes me nuts.  But it’s 98 degrees out there.  We’re not going anywhere.

Please pray for me, for us, for everyone who’s unprepared for the weather today.  I will do the same.