Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A lovely time in the English countryside

We spent Sunday on a day trip an hour's train ride North to the idyllic town of Saffron Waldon, in the East Anglia region on the outskirts of Cambridge. To me, the address (and on Mt. Pleasant Road, no less) sounded almost unbelievably quaint, and I had remarked to Tom before we arrived that the lit nerd in me was half expecting to find either a dystopic paradise à la Stepford wives or the isolated spiritual retreat of Thoreau's Walden. Of course, it turned out to be exactly as Tom had described: nothing more or less than a cute countryside town.

Tom's family entertained and fed us all afternoon. The menu was exquisite--it's easy to see where Tom gets his kitchen expertise--and his parents were warm and welcoming in an adorably British way (which is to say so calm and understated that I might have apprehensively misinterpreted their reaction as kind boredom if I hadn't had several months with Tom and various friends to prepare me). Tom's dad is a former literary nerd and both mum and dad are internationally-minded and well-traveled, so we were never short of conversation topics. On top of that, Tom's house was pretty amazing--an ancient, fairly narrow building that spans four floors and has all the quirks you'd expect from an English country house: a bell system to alert the kitchen help, a dinner gong, a garden with a bridge and pond, sloped-ceiling attic bedrooms, bathrooms with sliding doors hidden in the middle of staircases and multiple sets of stairs leading to a single floor. It's furnished with a mix of objects picked up on various international vacations and the childhood remnants of raising two boys (example: all the doors are propped open by plastic dinosaur toys), all of which makes for a fascinating place to explore. It was also fun, as it always is meeting friends' parents, to see Tom nagged in his "son" role and laugh at the childhood photos on display, and entertaining to watch him stoop to hug his mother in the same way that he has to with me.

Tom took me out for a between-meals walk around the local manor house and through the surrounding forests and sunny fields. The town and its residents seemed cheery but rather sleepy. After a day, I could see how Saffron Walden would have been a pleasant place to grow up (I kept picturing Anne of Green Gables skipping about) but I could also understand why both Tom and his brother feel drawn to urban life as adults. And me too, apparently--I used to fancy myself more of a rural-person, but exposure to Paris has changed my mind. A vacation in the country is definitely relaxing (and part of me will always mourn the absence of pine trees and the ocean when they're not in my life) but there's something to be said for having food, drink, entertainment and people always at your disposal, and after a happy dose of family time I was content to return to London.

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