My office is abuzz this morning with the following video of a driver ditching her car as it begins to slide on ice.
In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I don't know where this video originated (although it is the UK, since the driver is on the righthand side of the car) and it is, possibly, a prank. However, it's been great listening to my colleagues debate the merit of these drivers' decision to jump out of the car.
"She needs to use her hand brake," one said.
"Jumping out is stupid because your doors could get ripped off," said another.
A quick search reveals lots of dangerous winter driver videos on YouTube, such as this one, which reminds us all to be very,very careful indeed, especially on snowy, icy, hilly English roads that haven't been gritted!
When I made a business call to Chicago a few hours ago, I was told that the man I was trying to reach wasn't in the office.
"He couldn't get in because of the snow," the receptionist explained.
"Oh, I know, it's awful, isn't it?" I replied sympthatetically. My sympathy wasn't for the Chicagoans, but for my fellow residents in Britain. Yet it was real all the same.
Yes, Chicago, we in Nottingham are experiencing your fate. We've had less snow than you, perhaps (well, OK, much less, at least up here in the East Midlands), but as you've lived through your own travel and school closure nightmare, so have we.
Great Britain is in the grip of one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent history. Check out this photo and article here.
School holidays ostensibly ended a few days ago but most children (and lucky teachers, such as my new British fiance) are getting an extended vacation. Even in Nottinghamshire where we've only had a few inches, head teachers are calling snow day after snow day because the English roads just aren't fit for driving. This is a land without round-the-clock streets and sanitation workers, without many snowplows, and with rapidly dwindling supplies of grit (the English equivalent of salt for gritting down roads and paths).
Simply put, England just isn't used to handling real winter. And, to make matters worse, most Brits have little experience driving in snow. It's not their fault but, as one exasperated American friend living in London put it, "Snow in England seems to be the cue to drive stupid." I do feel the need to point out that many Americans drive stupidly in snow, as well, but they certainly get very little practice here at stopping on ice and driving cautiously down a snowy highway.
I'm not blaming the British government for the way the transportation system has ground to a halt, thereby affecting schools and businesses. It doesn't make sense to invest in heavy winter infrastructure for the occasional tough winter. But it does make winter seem like much more of an imposition, rather than just another season to live through. It's still another reminder that, as much as we humans like to be in control, sometimes we simply aren't.
On Thanksgiving Day, Sun-Times reporter Joe Agrest gave thanks for Titans' running back Chris Johnson, whom he now "owns," thanks to Fantasy Football.
I, too, own some players, including Kurt Warner. It's all thanks to my brother who, this year, begged me to join his online Fantasy Football league.
Not only did Peter beg, but he threw in a heavy does of guilt. "It's Grandpa's idea," he wrote in his email. "It's the one thing Grandpa says will make him happy this year with all of his family members spread around the world."
Now my grandfather does like his football, as do many other members of the family, though I strongly suspect Peter was exagerrating Grandpa's great need for a fantasy league--clearly my bro is the one who really wanted the league! I like football, too. But I have to admit that I've pretty much forgotten about football after two years in England. American football, anyway.
I have a few fanatical English friends who stay up all night to watch the Superbowl on a BBC sports channel, and I have heard rumours of a few American pro football games being played in London for a lark (or in an attempt to increase the fan base?) But the sad and simple truth, I have realized, is that I just don't care enough about it to follow it after a few years in another country.
After my brother's pleadings I joined his Yahoo Fantasy Football league. I had to make several long-distance calls to figure out exactly how it all works, with questions like, "Uh...I kinda forgot what a bye week is. What am I supposed to do now?" I even checked on my team and arranged the roster for the first few weeks.
But then I simply forgot. I know it's embarrassing and unthinkable to those of you who eat, drink and sleep football, but I hear American football mentioned about once every six months. I am not exagerrating (unlike my dear brother). I don't know anything about the players, the teams or even the scandals. Fantasy football dropped completely off my radar.
A few weeks ago I got an email from my uncle. My team was due to play his that Sunday and he pointed out that I had a few players who were off. So I pulled up my page, saw without any surprise at all that I was way way way down at the bottom of the list, far underneath my parents, brothers, cousins, uncles and grandfather. I made the necessary substitutions. I saved the page with the best intentions to turn over a new leaf.
That was several weeks ago and I don't even know who won that match. In fact, I haven't looked at the page since. But I can tell you that, unless England pulls together its various sports politicos, our chance of hosting the 2018 World Cup is doomed.
If you don't want to mess about with dough and filling, then just buy a pumpkin pie.
So says this Centerstage article, listing top Chicago bakeries that can meet your pumpkin pie needs.
But what if you live in a land without pumpkin pie? A land where your friends say, "Pumpkin? In a pie? A sweet pie? Not a savory pie?" And a land where, the first time you make one, someone takes one bite of your prize creation and says, "Ugghhh....this pumpkin pie thingy is minging!"
(*minging-disgusting, gross, nasty, etc...)
Yes, my pal James, bless his honest English heart, did call my pumpkin pie minging when he tried it two years ago. But I wasn't offended. Not that offended, anyway. I know pumpkin pie is an unusual taste, even to many Americans. Heck, I didn't even like it until I became an adult. But, on the whole, most Brits like pumpkin pie when they have it at the Thanksgiving dinners I've been part of the last two years.
One of the problems with making pumpkin pie in England, however, is that you have to think far ahead. Pumpkins are only sold through mid-October in most stores and I neglected this year to buy a few, create a puree and freeze it. Luckily a colleague was going to Chicago for a conference, so one of my trusted Evanston friends bought me two cans of Libby's and sent it back with my colleague on the airplane. Another expat friend, however, didn't know she was cooking a Thanksgiving meal for 16 Brits until last week, so she found herself in a bit of a pickle. After putting out a plea on Facebook, she discovered she could get canned pumpkin at Waitrose luxury food shop--sort of.
"It's only 60 percent pumpkin and 40 percent squash," she wrote on her Facebook page. "Is that OK? Will it work?"
We reassured that yes, sometimes the best Thanksgiving pies have a mixture of several different squashes and that at least she didn't make the mistake of our friend Bethany who, on her long stay in England, couldn't find pumpkin and, in desperation, used mango. "I ended up with kind of a mango tart rather than a pumpkin pie," she later explained. "It was disgusting."
So here it is, Thanksgiving once more. I'm headed to the house of a large British family who spent two years in Seattle and picked up the glorious Thanksgiving tradition. As the token American at this celebration, and armed with my two cans of Libby's, I offered to make the pies. On Sunday night, however, when I reviewed the coming week's schedule, I realized the only time I had free to make the pies was early Thanksgiving morning, before work.
"Thanksgiving is much easier and more relaxing when you have the day off work," I grumbled yesterday in a conversation with my brother.
These whiny thoughts continued as I got up extra early this morning and brushed my teeth. They definitely increased in volume when I discovered I was out of eggs and had to pull on my coat for a chilly early morning walk to the shop.
"Why am I even bothering with Thanksgiving?" I muttered. "I've been here long enough that I don't mind skipping it so much. Nobody else feels the holiday spirit. Listen to me grumble, and I'm not even making the turkey!"
But now I am sitting in my warm kitchen a few minutes before I go to work. The window panes are frosted over and the delicious smell of baking pumpkin custard is wafting from the oven, as well as simmering apple odors. (I had some extra crust, so I used apples from the garden tree to do a small apple pie, as well).
I feel that rosy Thanksgiving glow creeping over me--the contentment of good food, good friends and the joy of being at a good place in life. I am so grateful to my English friends for the way they've embraced this American and this American tradition and how, despite their suspicion, they are willing each year to try some pumpkin pie.
At the end of October I crossed one of the items off my bucket list by finally visiting England's Lake District.
We come across this stunning autumnal tree while taking an afternoon hike across hills, pastures and woods between the towns of Windermere and Ambleside.
The county of Cumbria, nestled in the very northwestern tip of England, is famed for its lakes, mountains and countryside. If you've seen the sweet 2006 Beatrix Potter biopic Miss Potter, then you've seen the Lake District. If you've read Wordsworth, then you've seen the Lake District, at least in word pictures. If you've read "Pride and Prejudice," then you know Elizabeth Bennett's pain at being denied her visit to the Lakes and you know it must be something good (although, let's be honest, Elizabeth gets to go to the equally stunning Derbyshire--the neighboring county to my Nottinghamshire home--and she makes out pretty well there in the end).
At long last, after two years in England, I made it to the Lake District with a friend, and we spent three glorious autumn days exploring the villages and countryside along both sides of the 10-mile Lake Windermere.
The village of Ambleside stretches out along Lake Windermere in Cumbria, the Lake District in England's northwest.
Although the day we wandered around the countryside was grey and misty--in true British holiday form--this view from the top of Orrest Head hill was still arrestingly dramatic.
After two days exploring the sizeable towns of Bowness, Windermere, Ambleisde and Keswick on the eastern side of the lake (although Keswick is actually about a 20-mile drive north of the lake and through some small mountains) we spent our third day by crossing Lake Windermere on the car ferry to visit Hawkshead Village, which was charming not only for its Beatrix Potter gallery displaying her original illustrations, but also had many intriguing shops. We then took a leisurely drive back up along the lake's western side, admiring the gorgeous fall plumage as much as we could on the tiny, twisty, hillside country lanes, before coming back around to Ambleside.
All Chicago architecture fans who visit the Lakes should make a trip to Blackwell Arts & Crafts house, which is a simply breathtaking example of a holiday house built at the height of the movement's popularity during the earliest days of the 20th century. Situated on a hill high above the lake, the house is a jewel box filled with one stunning feature after another, from the simple aesthetic placement of wooden planks on the landing to delicate carving in the corridors. After years of writing about Chicago architecture and design, I was delighted to see an Arts & Crafts house in the place where it all began.
This Cumbrian countryside farm yard is brightened by glorious leaves.
I laughed at Travel Editor Lori Rackl's account of seeing the band The Killers in line at an airport in Mexico, and it made me think of my own recent star encounter here in England.
Joe and Kevin Jonas take fan questions during the "intimate" pre-concert sound check event, attended by a lucky few hundred little ladies.
I have the good fortune (misfortune, some might call it) of being distantly connected to the Jonas Brothers. Now if you are a normal adult here in England, you would scratch your head and say, "Should I know who the Jonas Brothers are?" From what I understand about America, this is not the case, as one cannot escape the squeaky clean teen singing sensations. In England, however, the Jonas Brothers are known only to two groups: pre-teen and teenage girls (namely those who get the Disney Channel on satellite tv); and their parents.
I am well-acquainted with the Jonas Brothers because my very talented cousin Ryan Liestman is their keyboardist and he travels the world with them. Ryan and I lived in the same neighborhood when we were small and spent hours playing together, but now I get to see Ryan when the Jonas Brothers come to the UK. Last week they came to Birmingham, about an hour's drive from Nottingham, and so a couple of us made the trek out to see Ryan. And his band.
When we arrived at the National Exhibition Centre (a large arena), it was three hours before the show and I called Ryan to say we'd arrived. He sent the tour manager out to meet us with backstage passes because, apparently, even he is recognized by those teenage girls here in England. As I walked past the lines of girls waiting to get in, I tried not to catch their eye as they glared at me and my shiny backstage pass.
We had a great time hanging out with Ryan and seeing the backstage action at a major show. The Jonas Brothers are currently on a 6-week world tour and travel with 15 semis of sound, lighting and staging equipment and, we were told, this is their small, pared-down set! Not to mention there was a whole fleet of tour buses. After we spent several hours with Ryan, he headed out into the arena with other band members to the screaming accompaniment of thousands of girls, and we groupies made our way to our seats. The concert was fun, but after only a few minutes I realized it was a very big mistake to forget the ear plugs. I hadn't realized just how earth-shattering a teen girl's scream can be, especially when multiplied by 10,000. No wonder nobody could hear the music at the Beatles concerts.
The Jonas Brothers (including, most importantly, my cousin Ryan Liestman, who is their keyboardist) played the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, UK. It was fun to see them and especially my cousin Ryan (he's the one on keys) but the screams of thousands of teenage girls reverberated in my ears for days to come.
On the drive home we mere mortals discussed how surreal the entire experience had been, and the next day I rushed into work with photos and videos on hand to show my friends.
"Look," I bubbled, showing off the pass and photos to a knot of gathered colleagues. "This is from going backstage at the Jonas Brothers concert last night."
There was no gasp, no shriek, no cry of "Oh, my daughter is going to be so jealous!" I merely looked up into a sea of blank faces.
"Should I know who the Jonas Brothers are?" one of them asked.
The original idea of this blog was to document--for my many friends and former colleagues in Chicago--my experiences during a year spent volunteering for a church in Nottingham, England. Then I'd return to my life as a Chicago journalist, refreshed and reinvigorated after a year's adventure.
That was in the fall of 2007.
It is now late November 2009 and I am (ahem) still in England. Ooops. Here's what happened:
No, I didn't fall in love, marry a British man and settle down to a life of pastoral English bliss, making friends with the local village post man, butcher and tea shop lady while writing from my quaint thatched roof cottage and raising small, accented and thoroughly confused English-American children. Not yet, anyway.
Instead, I fell in love with a new country, a new career and a new way of life.
Despite all of the expected and understandable pain that came from leaving a job, friends and a city that I loved, I discovered when I arrived in Nottingham that I was being called into something new. I spent one year volunteering for Trent Vineyard church doing menial jobs like cleaning toilets, alongside not-so-menial jobs like feeding the homeless, listening to people's stories and teaching children. Meanwhile I continued to work as a freelance journalist for Sun-Times publications in Chicago, as well as developing unpaid reporting opportunities here in Nottingham.
After one year of this ridiculously difficult but immensely fulfilling life, I was asked to stay for a second year and do more of the same. So I did. Then, at the end of my second year, I was offered a full-time job at the church to train as a pastor and--armed with a religious worker visa--I realized that it was time to make a decision. Living with an uncertain future for two years had been surprisingly fun and freeing, but it had also been very trying. I turned 30 at the beginning of my second year here and as much as I loved the adventure, I began to yearn more and more for a settled home and sense of purpose. I felt I'd had one foot on either side of the Atlantic for a long time ... and as it's an awfully wide ocean, I was very tired of trying to keep that up.
And so, after much thought, discussion, prayer, tears and endless lists of pros and cons, I chose to accept the job and make England my home for the forseeable future. That was back in May, and after a six-week "farewell" visit to many of my friends and family all over the United States, I came back to my new home two months ago. I was immediately plunged head first into work, as I started training for the three new roles my new job entails. I've worked hard on making a life for myself here by developing friendships, pursuing hobbies, trying still to pass that blasted British driving test and spending treasured time with my English boyfriend. Yet I've continued to keep up some of my journalism work by writing for Chicago-area publications and also making regular guest appearances on BBC Radio Nottingham as a guest commentator.
I pause during my 3rd Annual Birthday Bonfire Party on Nov. 5, which also happens to be the English holiday of Guy Fawkes Night. For the third year in a row, my English "family" and friends honored me with a massive bonfire/fireworks party on my birthday.
This blog, then, will continue to serve as a travel feature in which I share tidbits from my journeys around Great Britain and other parts of the world. It will continue to be a place where I can share the comedies and tragedies of being American in a country that simultaneously reveres and despises America. But it will also serve as a space, I hope, that links me to my beloved Chicago.
Although I grew up in Arizona, I came to Chicago as a young woman and it was there that not only did my professional career crystallize but did my vision and voice. Look at this blog for links between Chicago and England; for voices from both sides of the pond examining the similarities and differences between our two formidable nations; for travel ideas and for windows into the ongoing story of my life as an expat. I've learned in the two years since I've kept this blog just how interested people are in the endless connection between America and its motherland, and I do hope the conversation continues.
As for me, I'm still known widely in these English parts as "American Steph," the girl whose accent has changed perceptibly over the last two years but who will never, ever shake off the place from where she comes. And that's fine by me. As I've learned again and again over the past couple of years, "home" is a very stretchy word that covers a lot of ground. I know now that I've never really left it.