Staying at England’s Historic White Hart Coaching Inn

Staying at the historic White Hart in Ampthill, once one of England’s 18th century coaching inns, made me feel like I slipped back in time to the Wild West days à la European.

Before train systems developed, coaching inns served as a key part of the travel infrastructure in Europe. On overnight stops, stagecoaches stopped there to “refuel.” Weary travelers rested and ate and drank at the pub, while their horses were fed and watered in the stables.

On the square across from the clock tower, the Queen Anne style White Hart, built on a Tudor foundation, remains the soul of the Georgian market town dating back to the 11th century. The hotel’s name, Hart, a term for stag used in medieval times, represented the most prestigious form of hunting. Royalty from London tracked these animals in the woods around Ampthill, a day’s carriage ride from the city.

The hotel, which over time withstood raids, conflicts and fires, has been restored in the style of an old coaching inn. The front door opens to the bar where cozy tables fill nooks like in a traditional pub, while the back rooms serve as dining areas. The former stables, now a dining hall, accommodate groups for banquets and receptions.

On the three floors above the bar, 8 refurbished rooms host overnight guests in modern comfort. To add to the charm each guest room bears a name representing someone from every century from the 16th to 20th.

Room No 3, the New York Chamber, honors Ampthill’s famous son Richard Nicolls, who was appointed by Charles II to reclaim Dutch settlements in North America for England. When New Amsterdam surrendered, Nicoll renamed the city and state New York in honor of the King’s brother, James Duke of York.

We stayed in room 7, the Inner Chamber, where wood beams added old world charm and the floor, which slanted toward the hallway, gave authenticity. I felt like I was on a ship as I stumbled to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

In the breakfast room, served in the Great Oak Parlor, once the former kitchen, you could savor a hearty English breakfast off the menu including the Full Monty.

No matter what time of day or night I walked downstairs to the ground floor, the place buzzed. Locals and visitors enjoyed their morning coffee, afternoon tea, an evening meal and favorite ales, which were once brewed on site. On a Saturday night, I could barely squeeze through the crowd at the bar to return to my room.

Being a guest at the White Hart Inn made me feel like I was living in another century. Stepping outside each morning, I almost expected to see a horse and buggy waiting on the square to squire me around the lovely English countryside.

French Mamie’s House in Trouville’s Historic Fishermen District

Mamie’s house overlooks the quay of Trouville, France, a fishing village where inhabitants exist in rhythm with the tides and the ebb and flow of tourists flooding her Normandy beach.

Mamie lives in the historic fishermen quarters on the Rue des Ecores, which dates from the mid 17th century when the quay was built. The houses once chiseled out of the cliff to accommodate fishermen reflected the maritime hierarchy. The sailors’ flats had one window and one floor, while the prosperous captains’ homes had windows on either side of the front door, and several floors.

The lower level of the building, filled with cafes, boutiques, and gift shops, opens to the bustling boulevard across from the open market on the Touques River. On the rue des Ecores up above, time froze; fishermen flats look the same as when they were first built. Wooden doors open to pencil-thin homes where rooms are stacked 6 stories high like building blocks.

On the narrow lane under number 55, the door opens into Mamie’s ground floor, which is actually the 3rd level of the building. On the left is her kitchen. Straight through the hallway to the dining/living area, French windows open to a balcony above the quay.

The windows on one side of the apartment face the colorful, lively, bright main street alongside the Touques River; the other side’s windows look onto the darker Rue des Ecores.

In the living room, a wooden dining table, the focus of any French home, consumes most of the space. A love seat, wedged next to the oak, Normand cupboard filled with Mamie’s old wedding china, faces the TV, perched in a corner. Though compact, the 10 x 14 foot room expanded to squeeze another chair around Mamie’s table where family and friends were always welcome to dine on Normandy’s finest fare from land and sea.

In between the two rooms, a steep, winding staircase, coils like a snake, from one floor to the next. The stairway is so tight that furniture had to be brought up by crane and passed through the windows.

On her second floor landing, there is a water closet and 2 bedrooms. In Mamie’s room stands a wardrobe of fine Normand craftsmanship passed down from ancestors. On the floor above that, are a bath and two more small bedrooms where we always stayed. Each morning I threw open the shutters savoring a birds eye view of the river, fish market, and casino. The very top floor under the mansard roof once held Papie’s old workbench and hanging tools.

Every nook and cranny remained filled with mementos triggering happy memories from Mamie’s giant dinner bell, to her French cartoon collection, to her lumpy, duvet covered beds. Artwork and photographs, showing the chronology of marriages, birthdays, baptisms, and graduations, covers every inch of wall space.

Whenever we left, driving away down Main Street, Mamie and Papie stood on the wrought iron balcony waving goodbye and blowing kisses.

The historic landmark, Rue des Ecores, endures as the center of the fishermen district, just as Mamie’s place remains forever as the heart of our French family.

Appreciate the Pat-Down: Airport Security Personnel Deserve Thanks

My Frenchmen gets grilled at customs on arrival in the USA, but with my American passport I usually glide through security with a warm, welcome home greeting. Oddly enough, I have more trouble getting out of the country.

On one return trip to Switzerland, I was halted for bringing a tube of nutritional gel in my carry on luggage. Another time, Delta airline personnel stopped me at the boarding gate after checking my passport.

« M’am I’m sorry, you are not authorized to leave the country. »

And so I learned you cannot fly internationally on an US passport if it is within 90 days of expiration.

Everyone knows that firearms, liquids, or scissors are forbidden aboard, but did you know that you may carry on antlers, artificial skeletal bones and air mattresses with built-in pumps? (see rules here)

I would also suggest do not wear dark glasses no matter how light-sensitive you are. Do not wear layers. The more you put on the more has to come off. Do not carry anything in pockets.

After waiting my turn at security, I stepped into the full body scanner and the TSA official insisted, “Empty your pockets.”

I pulled out my prescription sunglasses and Swiss residency papers. When she told me to raise my arms, a Swiss bill fell from the papers and I instinctively tried to grab it. Big no no.

“Do not move arms in the scanner,” she explained as she goosed me. “On the scan, it looks like you are trying to hide something.”

After the pat-down, the agent swabbed my fingertips with a blue tissue to detect explosives. An alarm went off again.

“Security check female passenger, “ she radioed backup into her armpit.

“Please step aside. Come with me. Bring your belongings.”

So as trays flew by on the conveyor belt, I scrambled to collect carry on possessions – Kindle, computer, tennis shoes, jacket, mittens, back brace, neck pillow, eye mask, and an ounce of toothpaste, body lotion, and lip balm in a quart sized plastic bag.

“Do you wear any medical devices?” another TSA official asked.

“Do toe inserts count?”

Apparently so. Off with socks. Out with my individually designed silicone toe separators.

While impatient passengers stared, I stood with my arms out at the sides, as another official felt me up again.

Some folks would be offended by such a rigorous investigation, but I commend the TSA and US Department of Homeland Security for doing their job well.

In the past, as an international traveler, I waited 6 hours with a team for a connecting flight in the Brussels airport, a week before the bombing. On the tarmac in Athens, I evacuated a plane due to a suspicious package and in a terminal in Paris I saw a bomb squad detonate an abandoned piece of luggage.

I am grateful for our security officials. Throughout my interrogation, the St. Paul/Minneapolis Airport officials remained polite, professional and patient.

I will gladly strip down to my skivvies and stand spread eagle if it helps keep our skies safe. Some consider it a violation of rights; I see it as assurance to travel freely in a society where so much has gone wrong.

Kudos to our TSA workers.

How many of us would be dedicated enough to frisk, irate strangers in overcrowded holiday airports without pay during a government shut down?

Wild Ride Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

Though Americans may share the same language as the British, we differ in many ways especially when it comes to cars/driving. In the UK and Commonwealth countries such as Australia, the car’s steering wheel is on the passenger side. The driver sits on the right, yet drives on the left side of road.

In England, I fear going anywhere near traffic even as a passenger. On recent trip there, my son sat on the right side to drive on the “wrong” side, the left. I rode shotgun- a hair raising experience – I kept thinking we would crash in a head on collision.

As we wound through villages on pencil thin roads through a maze of round-abouts, I felt like I was on Mr. Toad’s wild ride in Disneyland.

In England, I start stimming every time I get into a vehicle. Granted my anxiety may be greater because I am directionally challenged. I am one of the 20% percent of the population that has trouble orientating themselves in space and distinguishing right and left.

Left-right discrimination involves higher neurological functions integrating sensory and visual information, language function and memory. This problem, more common among the left-handed, women and people with a high IQ, offers no consolation.

I blame my older brother for my directional disability. Born with a map in his brain, he hogged our family’s spatial orientation gene.

The only thing scarier than driving in England is walking in England. As a pedestrian, I am afraid to cross the street; I can’t figure out which way to look for oncoming traffic. Like a deer in headlights, I freeze on the corner too terrified to set foot off the curb.

The roadways through villages are so narrow that even while walking on the sidewalks, I hug the brick facades fearful of being sideswiped by those wrong way drivers.

Driving on the wrong side will never be on my bucket list, but if you do dare to drive in the UK here are few tips.

  1. Hang a ‘think left’ poster on your dashboard. Remember to look first to the right when crossing the road. Take care when pulling out of junctions, one-way streets and at roundabouts.
  2. Beware that unlike the rest of the continent, which gives priority to the right, there’s no priority to the right or left on UK roads.
  3. An octagonal stop sign with a solid white line on road or a triangular give way sign (dotted white line on road), where a secondary road meets a major road.
  4. At all crossroads and junctions, ‘Stop’ or ‘give way’ may also be painted on the road surface. But in England’s typical rain and fog, I doubt you will ever see that.
  5. Traffic flows clockwise round round­abouts and not anti-clockwise as in countries where traffic drives on the right.
  6. UK drivers set a lively pace, which is often way above the prevailing speed limit.

Lastly, if you do drive in England, be sure to slow down and wave when you see me still standing on the corner, waiting to cross the street.

Grand Teton National Park One of America’s Jewels

If you listen to the pundits, a lot of US citizens are understandably upset with the political climate and frustrated by present lack of leadership. There is a lot to criticize about my birth land right now, and it makes me sad for my people, but there is one thing that America got right. The National Park system is something to boast about.

With clean facilities, well marked trails, interesting museums and well-trained, friendly rangers, any trip to a national park is well worth your time. Our visit to the Grand Tetons was no exception.

America’s National Parks fill with visitors not only from every state, but from around the world. We met one French couple that came back every vacation to hike in the Grand Teton.

My words fall short when it comes to describing the majesty of America’s national parks, so I will let the pictures do the talking.

American Struggles to Understand English in England

You would think that after living in non English speaking European countries for so long, I would feel at home in England, but I felt more foreign there than anywhere. Though technically Americans speak the same language, I had no clue what the Brits were saying. Times are tough when you resort to asking your Frenchman to interpret your native tongue.

“Pot, this is ridiculous!” Gerald said. “They are speaking your language not mine.”

True but in my language potatoes don’t wear jackets, children don’t wear jumpers and no one wears Wellies.

American Struggles to Understand English in EnglandTo clarify the vocabulary, English waiters will ask if you want a jacket (skin) on your potato. Seriously, do say yes because no one does jacket potatoes better than the English. Mine was stuffed with melted Brie, British bacon and cranberry sauce.

Sweaters are what British refer to as jumpers. Sweatshirts are hoodies. Uniforms are kits. And everyone owns a pair of Wellies.

Popularized by British aristocracy for hunting in the early 19th century the Wellington boot, fashioned after the Hessian boot and made of leather, was named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. With the advent of Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization process for natural rubber in the mid 1800s, waterproof rubber Wellies became standard even for the common class and replaced the farmers’ wooden American Struggles to Understand English in Englandclogs.

Ah, Wellies, those ill-fitting, formless, round-toed galoshes you hated wearing in grade school. I would give my right arm for a pair now. In England, it rains cats and dogs and puddles proliferate like rabbits. To be prepared like the English who carry Wellies in the boot of their cars, tourists should pack a pair of Wellies and a brellie (umbrella)on any visit to the UK.

I used to think my British colleagues in Switzerland were dumbing down their language with baby talk to help me understand. Apparently another idiosyncrasy is their tendency to chop off words by ending in ie.

Fortunately, my dear friend now living in Australia explained, “Pressie, (present) brekkie, (breakfast) and ciggie (cigarette) are all just lazy British ways of shortening words.”

It could be worse.

“The Aussies use the same abbreviations, and more besides!” she said. “My fave one is ‘arvo’ for afternoon. I use it all the time now, but with a British accent, which amuses the locals.”

American Struggles to Understand English in EnglandNo one does humor better than the British. The language is full of expressions that make me laugh out loud.

Who else says things like “have a nosy” for a look around or “don’t get your knickers in a knot” when someone is upset?

And can’t you picture a group of gossipy old women having a “chin wag”or a bunch of teens throwing their “knees up” (to party) on the weekend.

But my all time favorite is “fall arse over tit” meaning to tumble head over heels.

Now you understand why an American might need a French interpreter. Visiting England leaves me feeling totally discombobulated and stuck in one giant kerfuffle.

I am so disorientated I may never get home to Switzerland. With all those cars whizzing by on the “wrong” side of the road, I am afraid to cross the street.