December 17, 2010 is my last official day in the office.  I don’t think I really believe it yet.  I’m still going to be there during the “transition period” for four to six weeks when I return, but my time as ships counselor, hirer of  people and office woobie is coming to a close.  It’s been an incredible five-year run, but all good things must come to an end in order to make way for new good things.  Early Friday evening I fly off to England to spend Christmas in the land of quaint villages, cottage pies and shortbread biscuits. I love London no matter how many times I’ve been there, I always get excited before a trip to the seat of the once great British Empire.  I’ve always liked the phrase “The sun never sets on the British Empire” it’s just romantic and cool. Others might think it more imperialistic than cool, but I say bah humbug to them. 

As that phrase entered into my head, it made me start thinking about the U.S’s dominance in the world and where it’s heading. Is our time as the world’s defacto leader coming to an end? Is the sun setting on our empire, are we the next great civilization to be marginalized in order to make room for the new kid on the block?   The Mongols, The Greeks, The Romans, The Dutch, The French, The British, all had their turn as the dominant empire of their day and then it ended.  I would wager that they never saw it coming until it was too late. Is our tenure about to expire?  Will China become our successor?’

I’ve always loved wandering along the Thames, looking at the gray water and watching the barges float effortlessly down river.  There’s a spot where you can actually still find pieces of old Victorian pipes on the riverbank, which I find utterly amazing, there’s nothing nearly that interesting floating in the Hudson. As you walk further along, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben appear.  I never care that I’ve seen them dozens of times before–the sight of them always thrills me.T hey’re like the White House,  The Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building,  cool every time.  I love to wander through the National Portrait Galley looking at  the faces of British history and imagining what life in London was like a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand years ago. It’s a shame really that we only get to live in one time period.  How amazing would it be to see what life was like in England under the Tudors or the Stuarts, under Genghis Kahn in Mongolia, the roaring 20’s in America, Tsarist Russia? 

Last Christmas I got as close as I can imagine to  being transported back in time.  I  stayed in a house in Kent about an hour outside of London. The foundations of said house dated back to the 1400’s!  We all gathered to enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, the main course being fish pie– I still have nightmares about that hideous concoction. It was a big fleshy mass buried in a white creamy sauce. I’m not very good at masking my feelings which display themselves quite obviously on my face, I just hoped no one was looking at me as they set the dish down on the table.  I’m sure my face was saying ” uuccchhh no way I’m eating that horrid looking thing and by the way what the hell is it, since I had no idea at that point” Fortunately  my mouth engaged and said “Mmmm that looks good”  A bigger lie was never told.   Luckily for me I had the foresight to make a turkey sandwich and hide it in my room earlier in the day for just such a culinary emergency–we bonded later that evening.  Also, very fortunately there were  two dogs who apparently did not share the same revulsion of  fish pie that I did.  Here, puppy, puppy, puppy. I did manage to choke down a few bites and then remove the taste from my mouth with other things on the table.  My sage advice is to keep the roast potatoes near by when eating Christmas dinner where an unknown entrée is served.

 The overall evening improved tremendously after the unfortunate entrée choice.  We set off for the thousand-year old stone church to attend Midnight Mass.  The whole scene was something out of a Dickens novel.  The entire church was illuminated by candlelight, not an electronic bulb in sight. Candles in the chandlers, on the walls and held in everyone’s hands. The faithfuls hands were protected by perfectly rounded cardboard holders to catch the dripping wax, very clever those Victorian Englanders were. I’m assuming they invented them–go with it.  It was absolutely magical singing traditional Christmas songs in this tiny village church surrounded by cheerful, red-cheeked, good-natured, festive English folk.  After the service concluded, everyone spilled out onto the street to partake of some holiday mulled wine. It looked like the set of a Merchant Ivory film.  I’m such a goober for authentic travel moments, I get all weepy and nostalgic–I suppose one of my favorite Brit expressions would be appropriate to describe it–I act a little bit like a “big girls blouse”.   I don’t know exactly how to explain it or what the American equivalent is but, it makes me laugh every time.

If Christmas Eve wasn’t authentic enough, Boxing Day arrived two days later and  we set off to the local Lord’s Estate for the fox hunt, seriously we went to a fox hunt!.  Riders on horseback in their official fox-hunting outfits and excited villagers by the hundreds milling about ready for the event to begin. Fox hunting hounds everywhere, the thrill of the chase in the air.  Of course officially fox-hunting has been outlawed in England– by some boring old governmental kill joys.  However, being that this particular hunt was on private land, not really much anyone could do about it, or for that matter really cared to do anything about it. The oddest part about the hunt, is that it’s not really spoken about whether there’s an actual fox of not, you just assume there is, or isn’t depending on how you feel about the whole thing.  The trumpet is sounded and off everyone goes, hounds, riders, horses, children running after everything until their little legs no matter how enthusiastic give up the pursuit. The crowd cheers them on as they disappear over the horizon in search of their prize. Once out of sight,  all remaining eyes turn to the beer tent and the drinking begins for the rest of the day and probably well into the night. It was an authentic travel moment for sure as this New York city dweller, looked around with a big goofy grin, thinking how many people get to see this and how lucky I was to be there.  We proceeded to  gather up friends, parents, children etc and headed in the opposite direction of the beer tent to go back home and bake some cookies, play with presents and watch holiday family dysfunction in full bloom.

It’s always more enjoyable and amusing when it’s not your actual family creating the drama–but every family has it. Luckily it was all kept to a minimum. There was a bizarre “discussion” around a childhood memory of a drowning lamb that either did or didn’t actually happen depending on which family member was telling their version of the story. I later amused myself by tormenting the sibling who insisted it did happen by following her around, sneaking up behind her and whispering “Can you here the lambs Clarice” in her ear.   But all that gave way to children’s laughter and the smell of delicious quality baked goods wafting from the Aga (a cast iron stove of great importance) .  All in all it was a holiday weekend that everyone surely enjoyed, well except maybe for  the fox who did or didn’t actually exist.  Ho Ho Ho.