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.


I Will Still Never Be a Regular Blogger, But…

I’m back!

We have now lived in the UK for three months.  Our little boy is six months old, and napping in his day-bed as I write this.  I am sitting in a mostly-renovated two-bedroom Victorian terrace house, which is twelve feet wide and three rooms deep, and belongs to a Cambridge professor who is on a research trip and renting it to us until October 1st.  Today the baby and I have been to Water Babies swim class (which is part of why he’s napping so hard this afternoon), and in about ninety minutes my husband will watch him while I go out to my knitting group (who are called, I swear, The Cambridge Drunken Knitwits), which meets at various local pubs.

My life has changed in a great many ways.

The official occasion for this blog post is that I’ve re-opened my Etsy store (who knew I’d get around to it so fast?), but only for the digital items: three patterns of my own devising, and one scan of an antique sewing machine manual and instructions.  I’ve decided to keep making cross-stitch patterns in my little bits of spare time, when I need to do something productive that isn’t about the baby or the house.

The real reason is that I’m feeling the need for some more ways to connect with people.

A lot (and I do mean A LOT) has happened in the months since our son was born.  Many good memories, a truly astonishing amount of hard work to make the move happen, craggy mountains of paperwork that we have climbed, record numbers of Amazon orders for our settling-in, and most recently, we’ve begun buying a house and sleep-training the baby.  (Still taking bets on which one will be harder.)

But the hardest thing about moving to another country, with a baby, is the isolation.  Yes, I am going to mom-and-baby groups (or “mum-and-baby groups,” according to your dialect), and yes, I am making friends at my knitting group and the local quilter’s guild (which I have already managed to join).  And yes, I’m still on Facebook and Instagram.  But I feel a need to cast my stories into the void of the internet and see what voice will answer.  I feel a need to write, even though I can’t find enough brain space to work on my novel unless the baby’s asleep or someone’s watching him and I’m out of the building.  I feel a need to use my own voice, to process my experiences, to find ways to still be the self I took all these years becoming, to know that I still have a life beyond taking care of the baby and the house.  If that’s interesting to anyone else, that’s great.  If not… I still get to write.

To quote Lois McMaster Bujold’s Emperor Gregor: “Let’s see what happens.”

I Will Never Be a Regular Blogger

So, having completely neglected my blog since April, I logged in the other day to check on it, and discovered that one of my posts has gotten more than 1,600 views this year.  What?!  It turns out that my one tutorial, on hanging a quilt with Command Strips, is actually being read, and, one hopes, being useful to people.  How very gratifying!

So the thing I never mentioned in the last eight months (but which all four people who follow me will already know), is that… I’m pregnant!  We’re expecting Wiggly in ten days if he’s on schedule, but as it’s now less than two weeks to his due date, he might turn up any time.

I didn’t feel like I could blog about this, so I didn’t blog at all.  But, facing the reality of my own personality, I doubt I’ll ever post regularly.  Particularly now that I’ve closed my Etsy store…

This partly has to do with expecting our first child any day now.  It also has to do with UK customs laws.  We’re allowed to bring our possessions into the country without paying import duty, but one of the conditions is that we won’t sell them in the UK (or otherwise dispose of them) within twelve months of the move, without getting customs permission.  It seems better all around if I don’t try to start up my Etsy store on British soil until after that, if at all, and anyway, I’ll be pretty busy for the first year after the move.

The good news is, I can keep my shop name and re-open it at any time, should the right circumstances arise.  I might keep the blog going once I get sewing again after the baby’s born, though who knows when that will be.  Much of our future is unforeseeable right now.  Thank you to those who have been reading; I hope I’ll be posting again in a few months.

To say good-bye for now, here are a few pictures from recent crafty adventures.


Microwave bowl-potholders for my brother and his fiancée.


My kimono needlework, finally framed and hung up.


Progress on my angel.  I’m working on the other wing now, and once that’s finished it’s time to add all the beads!  (Where will there be beads?  In a halo around her head, and everywhere on her skirt where there aren’t stitches. This is an angel with a lot of bling.)


Blocks for a quilt for Wiggly, made by the lovely members of my quilt guild.


A big crochet blanket for Wiggly and me, made by my intrepid mother-in-law.


And the final shots of my attempt at a one-year-of-stitches hoop.  I had very little energy for a lot of my pregnancy, and many things slid or fell entirely by the wayside.  I ended up neglecting the hoop for long periods and then “catching up,” so it’s not really a year of stitches. But I got the tree finished in the end, and added a little caterpillar to symbolize Wiggly.  Scroll down for detail shots.



Verna is Complete!

Version 2

These pictures and Verna’s debut on Etsy actually date from a week ago, but I’ve been down with YET ANOTHER COLD, so I’ve had to wait this long for my motivation to recharge.

The obliging quilt-holder in these pictures is my excellent mother-in-law.

This was my first time washing a quilt before passing it on to someone else, and I was more than a little anxious about it, but by the grace of God and a Scott color-catcher sheet, Verna came through like a champ.

This print with the red flowers is vintage.  Almost the first thing that happened when I joined my first quilt guild in Santa Barbara (the Coastal Quilters) was an estate sale for one of their members who had passed away just the month before, with all her stash and supplies and many of her quilts for sale at discount prices.  My husband went with me (he was already so supportive of my crafty endeavors) and we picked out two small quilts and a bag full of fabrics.  We’ve had the two quilts hanging in our various homes for years, and, as you can see, some of the stash is finally seeing the light of day again in new quilts.

IMG_6150 (1)

The design for Verna is taken from Moda’s Modern Building Blocks, which was so big a couple years ago.  I made my own version of their quilt for one of my Christmas quilts, and really liked the blocks, so hopefully Verna will only be the first of a series of them, done up full-size as wall quilts.


I undertook the orange-peel quilting with great trepidation, but it’s actually very forgiving once it’s done.  The only marking I did for it was a grid; wavy lines of quilting go around the lines like a slalom, crossing at the intersections.  I think I’ll try it again sometime!


This was also my first time trying this particular label technique: you fold a square of fabric in half diagonally, and hide the raw edges under the binding.  I can definitely recommend it for being easy and time-saving, but make sure that you sew the diagonal edge down to the quilt back before you wash it.  I didn’t think to do this, and the loose diagonal edge got all stretched out and gappy in the wash.  It looked terrible.  So, a little hand-stitching to the rescue!  Now all you can see is that the corners curve over the binding ever so slightly, but I gave each one a tiny hand-stitch in a quilting thread to hold it down too, so hopefully no one will ever know.  (Except that I just told the entire internet.  Hm.  The perils of blogging…)

Always label your quilts!!


I really like how the back came out.  I wasn’t sure how the white threads would look on this dark vintage print, but the suggestion of the pattern really looks interesting.


Just your standard hanging sleeve…


Verna’s now up for sale in my Etsy store, The Velvet Pincushion.  I’m still deep in the prep stages of my secret project, so I’ll have to dig something else out of the UFO box to work on in the meantime.  I’ll get back to you once I pick something…