Philip and Suzanne are my favorite hosts in the world.
11.03.2011 - 13.03.2011 3 °C
Ever since I read the story of Heidi, I longed to have a bed made of straws, tucked under the roof of a barn. There would be a window that looks out into the night sky, strewn with bright stars. That was my childhood dream. Then came along Anne of Green Gables, who frolics in tremulous flower fields and wanders through picturesque lanes. The countryside draws me with a magic allure. I try not to romanticize the life of rural people, but all the paintings and movies I have seen point me to one direction only.
This past weekend, I was lucky to spend two days in a traditional English countryside home, the home of Suzanne and Philip. My visit was arranged through a volunteer-based organization called HOST, and for my preference, I had put down "the country." I arrived on Friday evening and stayed till Sunday evening. Here I was, in a village one hour South of London by train, named Hurstpierpoint. My travel companion and fellow visitor, Tracy, was here with me participating in her second host visit.
Our bathroom on the third floor
the flower-adorned windowsill and beautiful view from the bathroom window
Shells from around the world - Philip and Suzanne have traveled to many places
Fresh flowers on the dining table
Our first reaction upon entering such a lovely house was irrepressible joy. The bed linens with floral print, the flowers found throughout the house, the aged wooden furniture, and the crackling fireplace, resonated with my innermost desire. I felt slightly like a stranger who has walked into her own dream, discovering everything was in fact reality.
My favorite room in the house, the small living room on second floor
The dining room
The front door
The kitchen table
The notice board made of corks - I had wondered if they all come from Suzanne and Philip's celler - some of which were given to them as gifts
That first evening, we talked by the fireplace, when Philip and Suzanne shared their life and travel stories in exchange for ours.
Thirty years ago, they adopted a son (2 years old) and a daughter (4 years old) from Thailand. Since then, they have hosted over 100 students from around the world, where the majority come from Southeast Asia. They wished their children to grow up with exposure to their indigenous cultures. I could vividly conjure the image of their living room, with the fire licking the logs, and Philip sitting in the sofa, Suzanne sitting in a chair, opposite us - listening intently to our stories.
They had a particular interest in geography, asking Tracy to show them where in Taiwan she came from, and many miscellaneous questions related to our hometowns. I lost count of the number of times they walked out of the room to fetch an atlas, a travel book, a brochure, or other pieces of printed materials pertinent to our discussion. They have a wide collection of books, mainly on architecture, travel, and cooking. They
Philip was an engineer for an international oil company, which led him to travel and work in places like Saudi Arabia, Columbia, and Venezuela.
Suzanne was a nurse, her brisk clever speech reflects on a youthful spirit that is still young and vivacious inside her.
The kind couple, over the course of two days, has completely won me over with their hospitality and everlasting energy. I wish I could find someone and grow old with him like Philip and Suzanne. Sharing every step of this hard yet rewarding life, conquering new heights with each other's support, their lives are brimming with love - their house felt so warm, though there was no electric heating (the fireplace and the stove served as the sole sources of heat).
The greenery that shimmers at the touch of sunlight
The blossoming daffordils that smile at visitors all around the village
The peaceful bucolic scenery
The red brick houses that are very common in the village
The meals that we enjoyed over the weekend were all traditional homemade English food. I have a funny episode of hunger before dinner on Saturday, because I refrained from asking for a second serving of toasts at lunch, out of modesty and decorum - a very big mistake. Our day was packed with fun activities that exhausted me and left me famished. I stood by the stove, warming up my hands and legs by its heat, while tending to the boiling rice. There I felt for the first time, the double threats of hunger and cold, which occupied every corner of my mind for the entire one and a half hour waiting for food to be ready to be served. I was humbled by my humanly vulnerability and needs. I was thankful for each spoonful of food that I sent to my mouth. Because of this short experience of starvation, I overstuffed myself at the Sunday Church potluck. I had a full plate of Cottage Pie (like Shepherd's Pie, except made with beef instead of lamb), stewed chicken, boiled peas, salad, and two small plates of pudding, cheesecake, and summer pie. My stomach was bloated for the next two hours.
The berry pie made by Suzanne for us on Friday night
Tea with traditional biscuit offered to us after our walk around the fields with Philip
Pancakes made by Philip - drizzled with lemon juice and powered sugar - so divine
Homemade jam; Suzanne taught me to spread butter and then jam on toasts, which were simply delicious
Tomato soup and toast, our lunch on Saturday (not filling enough for me - leading to the later reflection on survival and subsistence as mentioned above)
The garden was one of Suzanne and Philip's greatest prides. They are both members of the horticultural club, which would be hosting a contest soon. One characteristic exhibited by my hosts is their exuberant health. They are involved in many local activities, including the hiking club, which is led by Philip, and goes on monthly excursions within a radius of 200 miles. I love the diversity of engagements in their retired years, something that I aspire to emulate when I reach their age. In the meantime, I picked up on a distinct discrepancy between English elders and Chinese elders like my grandparents - the grannies and grandpas that I talked are all world travelers. One grandpa worked in Libya and has recently finished an engineering project in Taiping Lake, in the vicinity of Beijing. Another granny's oldest daughter is working in Botswana. I am in awe with the mobility of these English folks, who talk so friendly and walk so blithely at four times of my age. It almost reminds me of the British Empire one century ago, how the British sailors would have traveled all over the five oceans, compared to relatively localized people in other regions.
Suzanne has a lovely garden in the back of her house
She showed us around
There were many berry trees and vegetables, most of which waiting for their turn to bloom in the coming months
A funnel to measure the rain
The loveliest flower I've seen
thick vines covering the wooden posts
Saturday's Busy and Fun Schedule
Coffee Morning - Coffee and Biscuits, and sales of small trinkets for charity
Jumble Sale - like a garage sale, with great deals of everything for 10 pence!
The sundry items that we bought from the Jumble Sale. I bought: two toy cars, a pack of cards with country scene paintings, a scarf, a sweater, a jar of plum jam, a porcelain doll, two handbags, and a small lavender-print bag. Everything was under 5 pounds.
Polo Game - It was the first time for all of us to watch a polo game.
Walk - In the mist, on the damp grasses, we set our spirits free.
Suzanne and Philip took Tracy and I to Sunday church service. This unique experience inspired me to imaginations of a villager child, growing up surrounded by God-loving neighbors and learning to love neighbors as he loves himself at a tender age.
Philip leading us to lunch
Suzanne serving desserts. She made two enormous bowls of pudding with fruits and jelly.
My plate of Cottage pie, potatoes and chicken.
The Summer Pie and Suzanne's first bowl of pudding
Second Serving with cheesecake and Suzanne's second pudding
Tea, for the 100th time, desirably
Tracy, Suzanne, and Philip
Now it's time to go. I miss them so bad, my heart was sore. Philip's ruddy face with its perennial kind smile, Suzanne's quick wits with her loving touch, and the village's peacefulness - my feet dragged on the floor as we walked away from the village.
Suzanne said "That's what you didn't see" pointing at the rolling hills which were previously hidden in thick fogs. Suddenly, I felt like I had a revelation. Sometimes life is not about what we see, what we learn, those new things. Instead, it is about seeing for the first time things that were previously neglected. On this trip, I learned the virtues of frugality, sincerity, and loving one's neighbor as one loves one's self.
Let me remember this journey forever.