The Stinking Bishop and the Shop Girl–A British Romance


Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member winestyr
Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member winestyr

It is a tawdry tale.  A tale of woe.  Of unrequited lust.  Of temptations to be seen but not touched or tasted.

Of cheese.

Of what?

Of cheese.


Sometimes stories don’t travel the trajectory we expect.  Oftentimes, in fact.   In this story, the Stinking Bishop is not a sinister church cleric–although that would be the beginning of a great tale.  No, in this case, the Stinking Bishop is simply a British cheese named after a sinister church cleric.  A singular cheese of considerable stench.

Let me preface this story by saying that I am no fan of stinky cheese. On a visit with us in England, my father-in-law once mused, “How can something that smells so bad taste so good?”  My answer: it can’t!   Nature throws out certain warning signs that we shouldn’t ignore:  the glaring red hourglass on the belly of a Black Widow Spider, the earth-shaking roar of an angry lion. These are nature’s way of telling us to run–run fast and run far– we are in mortal danger!  And then there is the smell of very stinky cheese–same principle, folks.  Why would you want to eat the stuff?  But, I digress.  I did have a story to tell.

My husband likes a stinky cheese.  If it smells rotten and has veins of mold (blue, black, green–he has no prejudice), then he’s in!  My basic policy is that any mouth that eats that stuff will not be allowed near my mouth for 24 hours.  Sometimes this policy keeps him out of trouble, but other times the cheese is too powerful a mistress.

And so, when he heard of Stinking Bishop–the ultimate bombshell, the Marilyn Monroe of stinky cheeses–he was, sight unseen, smitten.  But the stuff turned out to be elusive.  To the point that he nearly believed it was a fable, a mirage, a Fata Morgana.

He had nearly given up his quest for the fabled cheese, when we found ourselves at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, England.  (Read this aloud in a dramatic voice, and channel all the best scenes from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, and you’ll understand the great and rediculous heart swell that overtook my husband as the following events unfolded.)

After a day spent touring the estate and playing with our children in the gardens,  we visited the shop–a sort of European farm market.  And there it was in the case of cheeses, shining as if an aura surrounded it and emitting a sound only perceptible to the true of heart–a siren song to draw in weary travelers.  Stinking Bishop cheese.

STINKING BISHOP CHEESE read the sign before the humble wheel.  You wouldn’t have known you were in the presence of greatness if not for that sign–it was like that scene in Indiana Jones where he has to pick the true Holy Grail from a room full of faux grails.  THE Grail is humble, unassuming.  As was my husband’s beloved cheese.  Or, at least, it looked that way.

As James approached the counter, the shop girl was handing samples of cheeses to prospective buyers.  I think James was drooling a little.  When his time came, he said, “I’d like to sample the Stinking Bishop, please.”   The shop girl recoiled from his advances.  Then she leaned over the counter and half-whispered, “Sir, we don’t open that cheese in the store.”   My husband’s whole countenance dropped.

He looked at me.  “No,” I said.  “But,” he said.  “No,” I said.  Then I leaned, as the shop girl had done a moment earlier, and said “We can’t carry that cheese in the car.”

Katie playing dress up at Castle Howard. AKA, "Someone call the medic, they are opening the cheese!"
“Katie playing dress up at Castle Howard.” Or, as I’ve come to think of it, “Someone call the medic, they are opening the cheese!”

He understood that I was right.  There are some things that are too powerful to be schlepped around in the profane world.  And WAY too powerful to sit, enclosed in the tight space of  a warm car.

The day did come when he was able to possess the object of his desire.  I can’t tell you much about that moment.  I was not in the room at the time.  I was, purposefully, not in the room at the time.  What’s more, we simply don’t speak of it.  It’s his private moment: an obsession that I can’t understand, but a conquest that I would not want to sully.  Some things are just too powerful.





Throwback Thursday: In Alabama, Lovin’ the BBQ, Hatin’ the Spiders

Dreamland BBQ

We will soon  bid a fond farewell to Alabama  and begin  waking up to glorious German mornings.   So before we begin the tales of our travels in Germany, it’s time to collect a few thoughts on what we’ll miss, and what we will not miss, about Bama:

I will NOT miss the Black Widow spiders.  Horrible!  And everywhere!  Terrifying little beasts.  (Can you tell I have spider issues?)  They overtook our patio furniture and moved into our mailbox last year when we left for 3 weeks of summer vacation.  After that,  I took to wearing big, yellow dishwashing gloves each time I’d go to retrieve the mail.  I’m sure the neighbors talked–but I don’t care.  I was doing my best to keep up the eccentric Southerner  image and warding off Black Widow bites at the same time.  Seemed like a win-win situation to me.  All the same, I can happily live without Black Widows.

I can also live without the summers that continue into the holiday season.  No living nativity should include Baby Jesus in a sunhat and swim diapers.  Not that Bethlehem is known for its blizzards… but…let’s save that digression for another day.  I’m just saying,   September really ought to be the outer wall of summer, after which Mother Nature should change out the seasonal scenery for you.  Any less than four seasons, and the climate is veering off toward abhorrent.  (Any more than four seasons, and it gets pretty weird too.)

And, no, I won’t miss all the giant trucks that never sound like they have mufflers.  Which is funny, because they do have mufflers. (Thanks to their monster tires, you can actually  look up and see the mufflers looming overhead when they pass.   Maybe they are just decorative mufflers.  Or maybe they are really extra sound pipes, like a church organ.  Clever… but I still don’t get it.)

I WILL miss the BBQ from Dreamland Barbecue.  And the banana pudding.  Yum!  Some of the best BBQ ever–right up there with Stamey’s BBQ and Chandler’s Beef BBQ in North Carolina.

I will definitely miss the neighbors–some native Alabamians, some not.  All friendly.  All funny.  All standing rabidly on one side or the other of the Alabama/Auburn rivalry.

I’ll also  miss the way store clerks strike up long conversations with you like they’ve known you all their lives.    I’ve a feeling that won’t happen much in Germany. . .and, anyway, it will be a while before my vocabulary isn’t exhausted in a three minute conversation.

Back to things I’m not fond of–I’m not usually a big fan of lists like this:  what I love/what I hate about _____.  There’s a lot to love about any place.  And I’ve never met a place that, no matter how great, didn’t have it’s low points.  But, as Melville said, “There is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast…Nothing exists in itself.”   Life is a study in contrasts, so bring them on!  A little sour in the sweet provides the necessary punch.

And punch line.  Let’s be honest, it’s those “what I don’t like” lists that provide the laughs.   Where  would we be without the horrors, the gaffes, the Stinking Bishop amongst the cheeses?   But that, my friends, is a tale  for the morrow.  See you then!




Update to The Art of Losing

One house we "lost."
One house we “lost.” Ripon, England

Saying goodbye to our home, our family, our continent—it’s been tough.  Right, right, we’ve been really excited about moving to Germany–and it’s great to be here having adventures.  GREAT.   Still, these things are bittersweet:  bitter and sweet, not one or the other.  My daughter’s heart is still breaking because she misses her friends back home.   My son aches for a familiar friend to skateboard with in front of our house.  And  I’m still mourning the hope of having Thanksgiving with family, of playing golf with my gang, of walking back into my classroom for fall semester at AUM.  The list goes on for each of us.

But these lists aren’t ours alone, and they don’t apply only to us itinerant types.   You can live in the same state all your life and still experience moments of overwhelming loss:  when you walk into a room full of laughing relatives and expect to see your uncle, the consummate storyteller, sitting in the center of the laughter (but he passed away last year and his seat is empty); when you step out into a balmy southern evening and hear the cicadas and tree frogs and have an overwhelming sense that you’ve just stepped out of your grandmother’s house, headed to the backyard with a glass of sweet tea in hand (but she passed away 29 years ago);  or even when a Violent Femmes song at high decibel puts you right back into a moshpit of a party with your high school and college friends (but you are driving up I-85 with your kids in the back of a station wagon).  Memory is a sticky substance–thank God.  And I think that, as much as it sticks to us, we stick to  it also.

I’ve been mulling this over all morning after being hit by the sting of a lost “momento” of my life story.  It goes like this:   Yesterday, we picked up our car from a port on the North Sea.  We’d shipped it from the States about two months ago.  (Despite paying a hefty–h-e-f-t-y– sum to send it over the Atlantic and through customs, it seems that the shipper inflated a small raft underneath the chassis and paddled it over the ocean himself.  This is the only explanation I can offer for the insane timeline.  But back to my story–)  I had the car inspected before getting German plates put on this morning, and it passed with the stipulation that I scrape the dealer’s decal, indicating a city in North Carolina, off of the back of the car.  They had their reasons–logical enough, if uninspiring–but my heart sank a little as I scraped away.

I am a Carolina girl.  I may look like a vagabond to you, with a crazy long list of places I’ve called home in recent years: Chicago, DC, Connecticut, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, England, Turkey, Germany.  Each of those places has left an indelible mark.  I wouldn’t want to lose any of them, but especially not my roots in North Carolina.

However,  I lose a little bit of each of them in unexpected moments–like bits of produce that spill from my cart as I bump along a country road, I shed bits here and there–and I hate that.  So this morning, I obediently scraped the North Carolina decal from the back hatch of my wagon, mourning that badge of “who I am” that I’d been carrying around for over a decade.  I am still a Carolina girl, but I’m no longer emblazoned on the highway–that shouldn’t sting much, but it does.  Like everyone I’ve ever known, I like to hold tight to who I am and what (and whom) I’ve loved.  And the artifacts of life are dear to me for that reason.   But like everyone I’ve ever known, I find life prying little bits of this away from me.



As a postscript, I offer up the words of Elizabeth Bishop’s  beautiful poem about loss–in all of its incarnations, big and small.  She said it so much better than I can, so I’ll let her words stand:

One Art


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.


Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.


I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.


—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


My Name is Mud

TandT header travels and tomes
©2014, A. Stephenson

Ich heiβe Schlamm.

And every German person will know it when I open my mouth.

Here’s the thing: the German language makes me nervous.  I’ve traveled in Germany before, and my tourist-German is passable.  Mostly passable.  When I throw in some charades and a German-English dictionary in pocket.  I can do this.  Yes, I can.

But I am, somewhere deep down, terrified of the German language.  It comes from freshman year German classes at Davidson College.  Well, no. . .it comes from my sad and sorry performance in freshman year German classes at Davidson.  Out of nearly a year of German classes, there was only one week when my professor complemented me on my accent and abilities.  And I was on death’s doorstep with the flu.  Strangled by phlegm and fever, but excelling at the guttural language.    (Too bad this week didn’t coincide with the German presentation I had to deliver weeks later where I not only didn’t have the phlegm working for me, but I was uncharacteristically gripped by stage fright and began speaking in French…a language at which I am also no genius.)

I know that I can become a competent communicator in German. After all, I learned to muddle through in Turkish, with no previous background.  Do I anticipate erudite and articulate?  No, I’m being realistic here.  But I want to be good enough.  Respectful of the country, the culture, and able to move freely about and really talk to people.

But this memory of freshman year German is a problem.  Perhaps I’m just not capable of speaking German.  Or perhaps I spent too much time at the fraternity court and not enough time studying.  Maybe my mind just doesn’t process the German language?  Or maybe the way to absorb all of those 1980’s language lab audio tapes wasn’t to sleep through them and trust in the quasi-science of learning by osmosis.  Or maybe. . .

Maybe I just need to crack open some books and study again–but then mostly just throw myself into it.

Here’s what I know about myself now that I didn’t really understand before.  I can’t effectively learn declensions and conjugations from books and lists.  My mind doesn’t function in charts and graphs and conjugations–that section of my brain  left on vacation 40 something years ago and it isn’t coming back.  What I can do is listen.  I like sounds.  I like cadence and intonation.   I can gather up vocabulary like pebbles by a pond, and once I watch and listen for long enough, I can send them out skipping and skittering over the water gloriously.  I will be an eccentric speaker, perhaps–with Frankensteinian grammar–but I will speak readily and joyfully and maybe even, should I be so lucky as to suffer from a cold or the flu, brilliantly.

My name is Franken-mud.


Boxing Up My Life

DSC_0011 - Copy

My material things don’t equate my life–let me just say that up front.

And yet.

I’m a magpie.   I collect threads and scraps as I move along, and they pad my nest.  No, that’s not exactly it.  They become the fabric of my nest.   The baubles I collect as I keep wandering represent my life. And it’s hard to watch them all be packed up, some to load onto a slow boat to Germany and some to sit in storage for a couple of years.  So many of my things feel like old friends, like artifacts of adventurous times, not like run of the mill stuff at all.

And, yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I have too much “stuff” too.  I’m not proud that among the boxes being packed up in my house there are “As Seen on TV” products, old DVD’s and VHS tapes of bad sitcoms, some dog figurines…well, it just gets ugly.  But let’s focus on the beauty here:

There’s the portrait of Teak, the first dog my husband and I owned–so beautiful and so smart.  He was the beginning of a small menagerie of children, dogs, and goldfish who share our life.

There’s the old dollhouse from England, bought at auction.  It’s a Tudor, half-timber design, handmade, and sporting a “Toy Town Antiques” sign over the door  and a little antique shop in the front room, visible through the window.

There’s the 300 year old walnut chest that may or may not house a ghost.  (We call her Emily.)

The church pew from the Ripon Cathedral in our old hometown of Ripon,  England  (legitimately bought, not carried out of the cathedral–thanks for asking).  It is quite beautiful, but impossible to look at without imagining the people who were there before you.  Brides and widows.  Carolers and clerics.  Young, old, rich, poor, inspired, and downtrodden.  A microcosm of life on one short bench.

There’s the  old pocket Bible from WWII that bears King George’s stamp and message to soldiers in the front cover, and is partially  hollowed out in the middle so the owner could hold cigarettes or pass notes.  It came from the estate of a former British soldier; he was a POW in the Pacific theater.

The Turkish carpet we bought from a man affectionately (?) known as “the one-armed bandit” in Kizkalesi, Turkiye.  He lived in a coastal town not too far from where we lived and knew our car the minute we drove into town for the weekend.  He’d flag us down, bring us into his home, close the curtains, and then pull out his stash of carpets, jewelry, and antiquities for sale.   All a little shady, but in a seductively  high intrigue way.  We felt like James Bond in Istanbul, wheeling and dealing.    And, yes, he  had just one arm. (No doubt, there’s an interesting back story there.)

The list goes on.  And on.  And on.

Each item is its own story–some love stories, some comedies, some tragedies, some mysteries.  Inanimate objects?  No way.

Some of it is just stuff.  But so much of it runs deeper than that.  The artifacts of a life lived and loved.  Who could possibly fit that into a box?


*If you have stories to share of “found objects” that have become part of your life, I’d love to hear them–leave a comment.

The boxing has begun.