Being A Foreigner Can Be Hard Or Easy, Part Ii


Last week I explained why Reykjavik, Iceland, was not my favorite overseas city, it being a contender for Icebox Of The Universe, among other things.

But now it’s time to tell you about a couple of other places, ones I will never forget.

One of them is Cropredy, a tiny village three miles north of Banbury in England. Lolly and I and the kids spent four happy years in England, and if the Brits ever decide to select one village in all of England as most typical I’ll bet Cropredy will be a finalist.

Cropredy has everything that puts the Olde in Merrie Olde Englande. Quaint thatched-roof houses. A tiny river you could spit across. A canal, ditto. A high-arched stone bridge crossing each of them. An ancient stone church housing a 15th century ironwork clock with an 11-foot-long wooden pendulum and a cast iron bell that rings out the hour and half-hour.

And, of course, the Brasenose Pub.

All built of Cotswold limestone aged down to a soft ochre.

Entering Cropredy was like walking into the pages of history. Cropredy is mentioned in the Domesday Book, written in 1086. When Charles II fought the Roundheads in 1644, the last battle fought by an English king on English soil, it was called The Battle of Cropredy Bridge. And the very same bridge, built in 1312, arches over the river today, although there’s a new one too.

Cropredy even has its very own “monument of unknown origin.” On the main road as you leave town going north, stands a large marble something-or-other.

Round, shaped more or less like a fountain and supported by a marble base, it sports an added piece that might possibly have been a tall spire of some sort at one time, but is now just a 5-foot-long section of marble lying in the fountain-shaped portion.

What it originally was no one knows. It’s called the “spoon and saucer,” but no one has the slightest idea what its original name was, when it was erected, or why. I asked around the village, but the answer I received was that it was mentioned in some record or other that was 300 years old, and even back then no one knew what it was.

Lolly and I, with our two kids — David, 9, and Francis, 6 — moved into the last house on one side of a close — the English name for a dead end street, pronounced like close, as in “that was close.” Because Cropredy was 12 miles from the base school, we enrolled the kids in an English elementary school.

They rode back and forth to school with the English kids in the village, and they loved it, loved everything about it, including the ride, the kids, and the school, something we were concerned about at first.

Inside of two weeks we knew everyone on our little close, including the Cherrys, who seemed to own everything in town and had a large, well-built place right next to the main road. And you can forget all that stuff about Americans being less than welcome in the old country. Everywhere we went it was like a homecoming. I have never felt more welcome in a new town in my life, not even up here in the Rim Country.

We had screwed up and not shipped our household goods as we should have, and so had to rent or buy furniture. That’s another story, one I’ve already told, and I only mention it to explain why we went antiquing, and why I spent so much time in our very small garage restoring pieces for us to use.

That led me to do a lot of shopping at the lumber yard and hardware store — both owned by the Cherrys, of course. The result of all that was a lot of valuable advice and a lot of willing help from my neighbors.

First thing you know, we were eating out almost as much as we ate at home.

What wonderful, generous, open people! It seemed like every week had some saint’s day in it, or some other crazy English holiday, and try as we might, I don’t think we ever even came close to returning all those dinner invitations.

One day I stopped in a little watchmaker’s in Banbury to buy a key for an antique silver lady’s pocket watch I had bought for Lolly (it wound up with a key), and when the proprietor found I lived in Cropredy and was interested in antique clocks and watches he invited me to help him wind up the town clock each Saturday, which I did each Saturday morning as long as we lived there.

I wish you could have seen the stairway spiraling up to the clock. Built into a corner of the clock tower, it twisted so tightly the only way to negotiate it was on hands and knees. But what fun it was cranking up the huge weights each Saturday. And how much more fun it was for a watch and clock buff like me to sit watching a 500-year-old strap-iron mechanism operate.

The other place in Europe I fell in love with at first sight was one that Lolly missed seeing because I went there on temporary duty and was unable to get her there, though I dearly wanted to.

Aviano, Italy, is a small town built right at the foot of the Julian Alps.

The light is wonderful, perfect for painting. And the people are the same.

Full of light. Full of joy. Always laughing.

Because space was tight on the small base, I had to live in a little hotel about a mile from work. What a lucky break! I’ve stayed in hotels in my time, but never another one like that. I had heard that there was no hospitality like Italian hospitality, but until I saw it for myself, I had no idea how true it was.

Meals were not included with my room, but that meant nothing to the Italian man and woman who owned the place. They took one look at me, pronounced me too thin, and began fattening me up.

Ever taste Parmesan cheese? In Italy? Sliced off the block?

The cheese is on a wooden platter. Also on the platter is a long sharp knife, bolted down at one end but free to swing. Lift the knife. Come down on the cheese. Cut. I tell you Johnny, you have a piece of what looks like piecrust and tastes like heaven.

And the music? The constant, warm attention? The laughter?

Worth a million bucks!

But paid for in smiles, the only thing they would accept as payment for all they did. Wonderful people! Wonderful memories!


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