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Village Life

Langtoft, our home in the shires

Stone cottages with thatched roofs, soaring church spires, snug pubs, lively street markets, twisty roads with splendid views, and sheep dotting the lush green pastures like clotted cream! Driving through England’s countryside is absolutely magical. It’s like the enchanting pages of a fairytale that has come to life. Here, I am a wide-eyed child again. Each day is a constant marvel and no stone of adventure is left unturned.

Charming stone cottage in the shires
My husband Dan, who works for Caterpillar, accepted an assignment in Lincolnshire County, England in 2001. We found a home in Langtoft, a little haven in the shires where the steeple of St. Michaels and All Angels dominates the skyline. The village is filled with friendly people who are quick with a bit of cheer. They’ve opened their hearts and invited us in for a nice, long visit.

It seems we’ve been wearing Langtoft like a comfortable shoe since our arrival, but we were surprised to find such culture differences and language barriers. In those first few months, we often felt attached and detached at the same time. Dan reminded me more than once, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Learning a new language

The “English” language, with its numerous regional accents and peculiar vocabulary, has been one of our greatest challenges. The villagers must think we’re deaf at times because we constantly ask them to repeat themselves. Actually, they talk so fast that sounds like a foreign language. Of course the English have an incredible sense of humor and let us know straightaway that we are the ones with the accent and odd vocabulary!

Sign pointing home
Trying to fit in, we’ve learned to call cookies “biscuits,” desserts “puddings,” potato chips “crisps,” French fries “chips,” tennis shoes “trainers,” and long lines “queues.”  Early on, I realized that “free” doesn’t always mean “no money required.” One day while driving through the countryside, I noticed a sign that read “Free Range Eggs” and followed the arrow down a long, narrow lane. I wasn’t sure what range eggs were, but if they were free I was willing to try some. Come to find out, they were eggs laid by “free range” hens who spend their days nesting, foraging, and dust bathing in the garden. A bit embarrassed, I paid the 89 pence and headed home with a dozen of these laid-in-elation eggs. That’s just one of many incidents that gave Dan and I (and the villagers) a good laugh in the end.

The dark days of driving

Another great challenge came as we transferred our driving skills to the “wrong” side of the road which we were told was actually the “correct” side. In a “roundabout” way, we learned that driving in England can be a maze of confusion. So we took driving lessons. While Dan embraced the challenge and did well from the start, I still refer to the entire learning process as “the dark days.” And so do the villagers who had to listened to my teary-eyed complaints after each traumatic day behind the wheel. 

Typical roundabout sign
Imagine sitting on the right side of the car, driving on the left side of the road, and maneuvering through death-defying traffic circles (called roundabouts) with exits in all directions – week after week! One day, not knowing which exit to take, I just got out of the car, threw my hands in the air and shouted “whatever!” right in the middle of a roundabout.

Eventually, I realized that these roundabouts are actually a pretty efficient way to control traffic, if the driver knows which exit to take—which I didn’t most of the time. After ending up in places like Biggleswade, Wetwang and Wigtwizzle (I’m not making this up), Dan mentioned that once I’m in the roundabout I have the right of way. What a stress-buster it was for me to learn that all I had to do was keep driving around and around until I figured out my exit. Meanwhile, I found that the English are the most courteous and forgiving drivers I’ve ever seen. Not once did I notice any road rage. Confused looks maybe, but no rage.

Crossing sign for the elderly
During my weekly driving lessons, I learned that “elderly people” crossings are just that. But zebra crossings have nothing to do with zebras, and pelican, puffin and toucan crossings have nothing to do with birds -- they’re all designed for pedestrians. I have no idea why they’re called that, and to ask would be futile. Toad crossings, however, are actual warnings to yield for the safe passage of migratory toads. I once signed up to be a volunteer Toad Patroller but was never called to help toads cross the road. Hmm, wonder why.

No more instant gratification

As Americans, hailing from a fast-paced society, where impatience sometimes seems to be a national disease, Dan and I often find the English staying power and lack of complaint quite charming. Instant gratification simply doesn’t exist here in England. We haven’t yet figured out whether patience is a virtue or a survival technique. Either way, we're working on it!

Nearly 60 million people are squeezed onto this little island, so everybody waits their turn—and the queues are quite long, whether at the grocers, train station, on a motorway or taking care of business on the telephone. There’s absolutely no sense of urgency. The first time we visited a DIY (Do It Yourself) hardware store, the queues stretched the entire length of the store. People were chatting about the weather, and cooing at each other’s babies, as if they relished a friendly break from the projects waiting at home.

Opening our hearts

Although we’ve faced a few challenges, Dan and I never wanted to simply reside in Langtoft. We wanted to live here, to become part of the village. That has meant exposing ourselves to the vulnerabilities of village life, opening our hearts to the sorrows as well as the joys. It has meant making commitments, like giving up a day now and then to clean our medieval church instead of driving to the lavender fields or out to the sea. All the while, we’ve grown to love the charms and idiosyncrasies of the locals. They take great pride in their country’s history, though much of it has been turbulent, and are easily moved to sharing bits with our thirsting ears.

Old takes on new meaning

Until living in England, “old” to us was a steam engines chugging through the park during the annual Threshermen Reunion in Pontiac, IL. Here, “old” has taken on new meaning. Many things were built before our country was even discovered. On a recent trip to York Minster, we saw portions of the Roman headquarters in the crypt and stepped on stones that were laid less than a century after Jesus walked the earth. At Lincoln Castle, we saw one of the original copies of the Magna Carta sealed by King John in 1215.

FotheringhayWhen we’re out for a Sunday drive, it’s overwhelming to go past Fotheringhay Castle where Mary Queen of Scots, mother of King James I (of Biblical fame), was beheaded in 1587. A tiny portion of the castle ruins remains in a peaceful setting where sheep graze along the River Nene. It’s hard to imagine it was once the site of such brutality.

Missing home

The greatest downfall of living in this wonderful country is missing our loved ones back home. Holidays are the hardest, especially Christmas. But a quiet Sunday afternoon or the scent of lilacs in spring can also trigger a bone-deep homesickness. I must admit that at times we also miss the American luxuries, but we’ve embraced this new way of life, which is delightfully simple. Here in the shires, whether purchasing food, shampoo or shoes, there aren’t many choices, so we don’t agonize over brands and prices. We simply settle for what’s on the shelves. It’s made us realize how much we take for granted, like the availability of a kitchen broom, refrigerators bigger than a microwave, or the convenience of laundromats when the dryer gives out and there's a five-month wait for repairs. (We're still working on the patience.)

The double-decker bus makes 27 daily stops in Langtoft.
Most everything we really need, though, is a stone’s throw from our garden – the village shop, post office, church and pub. It’s easy to catch a bus across the street that can take us anywhere in the world via the train stations and airports. Several market towns are within a short drive where vendors hawk their wares from colorful tents--fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and flowers, fabric, paper goods and other bits and bobs.  In nearby Market Deeping, a thriving market has been running every Wednesday since King Henry III granted its charter in 1220.
Bustling market day in Stamford
When asked what we like most about England, it’s the gentle people and their incredible sense of humor and quick wit that top the list. Also, we enjoy exploring the countryside which is filled with endless glories, historical relics and surprises at ever turn. We’re spellbound each time we see the blazing yellow rapeseed that looks psychedelic in the spring and the blood-red poppy fields in the summer. We love coming home as the sun goes down and seeing the church steeple silhouetted against the sky, then popping over to the pub for a pint with friends.

We’re captivated by the magnificent gardens, the way the village glistens on misty mornings and drizzly afternoons, and the remarkable skyscapes with brooding blue-gray clouds tinged in soft pink. During the week, I take great pleasure in friends popping in for cream tea and biscuits.

Does it really rain all the time in England? Yes, it seems that way -- sometimes for weeks on end. But we’ve learned to look beyond the sky for sunshine, and it’s easy to find it here in our lovely little Langtoft.  If it’s true that home is where the heart is, we’ve definitely taken up dual residency. And like Dorothy once said, "There's no place like home."

This article first appeared in The Daily Journal, Accent on Travel, Kankakee, IL 

Coming to our website soon -- "... we're not in Kansas anymore," Dan's 110-page account of our life in England.



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