The other day my teenage daughter told me that I had started "acting like an old person" ever since we moved to England.
What do you mean by that? said I, maternal indulgence blending with indignation.
When pressed to explain this statement, and its condemnatory tone, she started ticking off her evidence: gardens; old houses; making jam; Jane Austen.
However, more than once this week I've had cause to remember this conversation. For instance, I received a letter addressed to "The Anglophile American House Guide" when I was at Jane Austen's House today. Although I don't recall this particular encounter -- oh dear; isn't that a sign of the aging brain? -- apparently I had a lively conversation about literary tourism with a certain gentleman one day. He kindly sent me a variety of brochures, and he encouraged me to visit Shandy Hall, the former home of Laurence Sterne. (Do you suppose he is suggesting a tryst amidst the scenes of Tristram Shandy?) Old houses: tick.
Actually, I don't really think it's the interest in old houses that is aging me; it may be a symptom, but it's certainly not the cause. I suspect that has more to do with the teenage daughter.
For reasons too lengthy to go into here, but having something to do with adapting to the local culture, my oldest daughter is applying to go to boarding school next year. It is sort of like going to college two years early, both emotionally and practically, and requires all sorts of gauntlet-running -- including hours of exams and interviews. On Tuesday, while she was undergoing these mental tortures, I had many hours to explore the small town of Malvern.
By the end of the day, I do believe that I had the measure of the place. Not only had I visited all four bookstores (one independent; one chain; one second-hand; one charity donation shop), but I had also visited the local museum and several other sites of interest. I suppose that I could have gone shopping, or written letters, but I am a perpetual tourist in England. New place? Needs must explore.
For geological reasons that I won't pretend to have grasped, Malvern has two outstanding features: hills and pure water. During the Victorian era, when water cures were all the rage, the rich and famous flocked to the place to be wrapped in wet towels and doused with gallons of cold water. (Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin are two examples which come to mind.) There were some nay-sayers, of course, but there were many true believers, too. The Museum is full of testimonials and descriptions of the hydrotherapy -- which sounded rather like water torture to me.
In the centre of town, this goddess of water keeps an open-tap policy. Apparently, it is not merely decorative; indeed, I saw more than one person fill their water bottle from the source. Don't you think it is a charming twist on a drinking fountain? (My daughter thinks that taking pictures of non-human subjects is another sign of being an old person.)
My best find, though, was a place that no less an authority than The Guinness Book of World Records deemed the world's smallest commercial theatre. Amusingly, The Theatre of Small Convenience is located in a former Victorian Gentleman's Toilet. (I suppose that all of that water had to go somewhere.) This is the funny bit: the theatre seats 1.2 people. Yes, that's what the official Guinness Certificate says.
Showing now: Molly and the Man of Letters. After the brisk summer season, the theatre keeps limited hours. You can catch the show at 12:30 pm on Saturdays . . . so don't be late!
What do you think counts as a person's .2 allowance? A small dog? A large belly? A bulging book bag? I could only wonder.
As I wandered around the beautiful campus of Malvern College, and admired interesting bits of statuary, I did feel a bit old, actually. And I realized it had nothing to do with gardens, or the fact that I enjoy visiting eccentric little museums, or anything of that sort.
Instead, it seemed to be rooted in my deep relief that I was not the one taking all of those tests. All of that academic striving? All of that tiring business of trying to figure out who you are and what you are going to do in this world? I think that I'm too old for that.