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We in North America are used to dependable, efficient heating that works — be it natural gas, coal, or electric. Not so in the UK. Gill has had, in her various flats, every imaginable kind of heating known to mankind — none of them reliable, efficient, and certainly not safe. When she saw her new flat, she held out great hope that the tide had turned and she might actually be in possession of something from the 20th century. (We never expect the 21st…that would be asking too much of the formerly Great Empire.) It’s a lovely country, but values antiquity where it shouldn’t — in plumbing, heating, administrative red tape  and, dare I say, the Queen’s hairstyle. Gill is tired of it. Surely HRH must be as well. I keep hearing rumors that The Queen (or more likely her husband) is spending money to upgrade heating in all those cold, drafty castles. Poor thing. When she’s done with that, she probably doesn’t have the energy left to redo her hairstyle.

I had occasion to spend six weeks in the UK years ago while visiting relatives. They lived in a flat that was, upon first glance, lovely. It was only when you wanted to bathe or be warm that problems arose. It was there that I came to understand the term ‘rising damp’. By the end of our stay, our suitcases were moldy and our clothes had a funny smell. Of course, since we spent a lot of our time visiting churches and museums that were centuries old and had a certain funk about them, we didn’t realize that WE also stank until we returned to Canada. The damp smell was pervasive. I know things have improved somewhat, but according to Gill, not in any flat she’s lived in.

The primitive heating in the relatives’ flat years ago was called a ‘paraffin heater’. We turned it on in the front room (aka our bedroom) when we retired for the night. About two hours in, I awoke with a blinding headache. The heater was sucking all the oxygen out of the air and replacing it with toxic fumes. The choice we had when we discovered this was simple: death by asphyxiation or hypothermia. Or leave the country…which we did. Off to the warm climes of France and Italy with a cold that lasted for months. So my memories of Europe were of which medical condition I had where. England, a relentless cold. France and Italy, sunstroke. Germany and Denmark, cold, and a bladder infection that required antibiotics upon our return home. And Gill wonders why I haven’t come to visit her in the land of cold, damp and poor heating!

The hot water heating system for baths in this same flat was an electric box just outside the bathroom that required, half an hour before your bath, a bag of coins to be inserted. It was such a production to get a full tub of hot water that it WAS the evening’s entertainment. And, in true British fashion, the finer points of plumbing were lacking. The tub overflow drain emptied directly onto the stoop of the downstairs flat. Every time you jostled in the tub, the tenants were deluged. Not quite the ‘grand tour’ of Europe I had hoped for.

The new system of ‘magic bricks’ that Gill has in her present flat works on the hot water bottle principle — and I have always loved hot water bottles. They provide a gentle, comforting heat. This love has, however, led me astray. Once while camping in Northern California, I drew on my Girl Guide days and suggested to our group that we  warm up some rocks in the campfire and use them to keep our feet toasty during the night — just like a hot water bottle. As is often true with me, the details didn’t much matter. We wrapped the rocks in the burlap tent pole bag and retired to our sleeping bags. It was lovely and toasty. Until the smoke woke us…the rocks had smoldered through the burlap and  were about to burst into real flames. My Girl Guide creds also went up in smoke.

Trying to relate to Gill’s current ‘heating of yore’ I related this embarrassing piece of history to Gill and she retorted, “Ma, my magic bricks never get hot enough to do much of anything. They start at warm and go through tepid to room temperature to Arctic. The landlord was kind enough to give me a small electric heater to augment the magic brick heating, but I feel like I’ve got R2D2 attached to me when I pull it around from room to room to stay warm. Not a good look!”

“Not to worry. When you come home for Christmas, I’m sure The Pig could be called upon to sleep on your bed . . . she loves to spoon people. And she’s a hot little hound!”

“Yes, but she’s not R2D2, is she?”