I'm a typical white American girl who, typically, is descended from a mix of Western European immigrants and feisty all-American pioneers.
I went to mostly white Arizona schools, a mostly white private college in Minnesota, and, as an adult in Chicago, worked primarily on the mostly white North Shore. So I don't know much about being a minority. Sure, there have been a few occasions here and there--mostly when attending multi-ethnic churches or working at places like McDonalds--when I've been a racial minority or had a different background from my peers, but I never knew what it was like to be marked by any distinguishing socioeconomic characteristic.
Until, of course, I moved to England. After a year being introduced as "Steph The American"; of smiling through endless, familiar conversations with new acquaintances about the differences between America and Britain; and of having all of my silly actions and comments explained away by friends with the slightly infuriating blanket comment, "Well, she's American, you know," I now have a tiny glimpse into life as a member of a minority group.
Please don't send the race police after me. I'm not complaining, and I know my experiences haven't exactly been a hardship. In fact, I enjoy most of them because I like connecting with people for whatever reason (even if I sometimes get tired of having the same conversation over and over and over again).
However, I now have a small understanding of what it is like to go through life with a marker, one that carries all sorts of associations and baggage over which I have no control. Is this what it's like to be black, I wonder? Or in a wheelchair? Or obese? Deaf? It is true that, despite their best intentions, many people will see the characteristic first, and this impression will inevitably color their perception of the person who bears it.
I was at a barbecue in May when I met a friend's fiance. My friends Laura and Tim, who were on the Discipleship Year program with me, were sitting across from us, and as Carl asked the familiar questions about America, I happily discoursed about the differences in our speech, language and culture. Then Tim turned to Laura and I heard him say,
"Is it wrong that I'm getting tired of hearing Steph talk about this?" he asked. "I've heard her have this conversation four or five times this year."
Laura just patted him on the shoulder.
"If you think you're tired of it, just think how Stephanie feels," she said. "She must have it all of the time, even when we're not around."
"Amen!" I said, and we all laughed.
The worst that's happened to me is that I've once in awhile been frustrated or slightly insulted by the way people here make blanket assumptions about the United States and then ask me to defend my country. For an extreme example I need look no further than one day a few weeks ago. I was chatting to a politically liberal friend from Continental Europe and said I was really looking forward to visiting the States next month.
"I won't go there until George Bush is out of power and has finished destroying the country," he responded.
Today is the fifth day of blessed sun and warmth! I've spent most of the preceding four days out in the garden (which is so large it's like having a private park), working, dozing, eating, reading and entertaining. Whenever I've been at home, I've wanted to share this bounty of green heaven, so I've had three different groups of friends over. We've lounged on the lawn under the cherry tree eating sausages and ice cream; we've lolled about checking our email before heading inside to watch BBC costume dramas ("A Room with a View" and "Pride and Prejudice"); and we've sat at the little table under the ripening apples chatting far into the night, cups of tea firmly in hand (of course).
I love talking about weather. Some people may think I can't think of anything more interesting when I talk about the weather, but it fascinates me. This must be the inescapable legacy of being from Minnesota, for though I grew up in Arizona, I lived until the age of 9 in St. Paul-Minneapolis and also returned there for college. You may notice that native Minnesotan Garrison Keillor introduces every episode of his Lake Wobegon stories on "A Prairie Home Companion" with a weather update, and I realize that my dad (born way up north in International Falls, MN) does exactly the same thing. And now so do I.
And so the weather in Nottingham the last few days has been lovely, even quite hot at times, although I was surprised to read it hasn't gotten much above 80 degrees so far! It's all relative. I'll be spending the first week of August at New Wine, a Christian conference/camp my church helps run in Somerset, and then the following week renting a holiday cottage with friends in Wales' Gower Peninsula, and this weather has really been encouraging me. However, current forecasts show that the showers and cool temperatures return tomorrow, lasting through my Wales holiday. Rats!
With this in mind, I've just rearranged my schedule for the day. If today is the "last day" of summer, then I want to enjoy it, so I'm pushing my considerable pile of work back for a few hours and have persuaded my housemate Julia to go with me to a nearby lake. While there we'll swim and lay out in the sun and, no doubt, ponder the burning questions of life.
One of these burning questions concerns English society. Why do the Brits leave the soapy water on dishes after they've washed them? I was so surprised my first weekend here, nearly a year ago, when I was helping someone wash up and she handed me a plate covered with soapy water.
"You forgot to rinse," I said, handing it back. She looked at me puzzled and just turned away, so I rinsed the plate and then dried.
But I soon learned that is the norm around here in Nottingham. Is it like this all over England? My casual observation is that 19 out of 20 people do not rinse their dishes of soap after washing them. They say that, when you dry the dishes, the soap gets rubbed off by the tea towel. But what about when the tea towel is covered in soap, or if dishes are left to air dry? As someone who likes to eat organic whenever possible, I find the prospect of consuming more chemical traces than necessary rather disturbing, but I try not to argue about this or press the point. I'm friends with an international married couple (he is Austrian-British and she is Israeli-Arab) and they don't understand, either. In fact, they don't let anyone English wash the dishes at their flat because they don't want soap left on them.
When washing up by myself I rinse my dishes, of course, but when helping others I try to just suck it up and not insult people by insisting dishes be rinsed. I meekly wipe them off, soap and all, with a tea towel. After all, you can't change a whole culture, even if it is a bizarre practice. But the I do rinse all of of my own dishes before using them. Just in case.
I just passed the reputable American magazine Smithsonian over to my English teacher friend Simon to get an opinion about an article by novelist Richard Ford. Simon liked the article, but what he found most interesting was a sentence bearing the phrase: "who're said to have perfected the home concept."
"I've never seen the phrase 'who're' before," Simon said. "I'm not sure it's a legal contraction."
He handed the magazine to his girlfriend Julia, who peered at "who're" skeptically. Julia is also a teacher, although she teaches Year 3 (our second grade).
"I teach contractions in Year 3," she said, "and I'd mark that off. It's not a contraction."
"Yes, it is!" I protested. "I see it all of the time, and use it, as well."
"Well, then," announced Miss Julia, "it's a cultural contraction."
"You are allowed to use it," she continued, in her best shrill, schoolteacher voice, "but among the English, saying 'who're' would be like eating everything with tomato ketchup and holding forks in the right hand."
She gave a melodramatic gasp.
"No, no, that would never do," she finished.
I protested this statement, for while I do hold my fork in my right hand and only pick up my knife to cut something (as do all Americans with proper etiquette, unlike those European Continenal diners who eat with both hands, forks firmly in left and knives firmly in right), I do not eat everything with ketchup poured on top.
Except for my chips (French fries). But at least I don't eat them with mayonnaise.
My dear friend Emma and I have been meeting nearly every week since September for tennis, tea and a chat with prayer and, on one memorable day last January, decided to take our exercise outdoors, in nearby Derbyshire. We enjoyed a vigorous day-long hike (here they call it a "walk") along Froggat Edge, and since Emma and her husband are about to move to New Zealand, we thought we'd explore the Peak District one more time. We also thought it'd be a refreshing experience to visit in the summer this time!
It was a lovely day and even bordered on hot (I'd wager temperatures reached somewhere near 80 degrees) and it got very warm when the sun was out as we climbed steep hills. This time, Em and I drove to the Upper Derwent Valley, in the northern part of the Peak District, among what's known as the Dark Peak. No, it's not the home of the Dark Lord (my first guess) and is, in fact, not even one peak, but a series of rolling moorlands with cliff edges. With help from a friendly National Peak District park officer at Fairholmes Visitor Centre (where we parked, north of Bamford and the A57), we crafted an 8-mile hike with plenty of ups, downs, sweeping views and even a stroll through meadows and along the reservoir. It took us four hours with two short breaks for lunch and tea.
I'll let these photos with captions tell the rest of the story.
We set off from the Visitor Centre by crossing a field and arriving at the Derwent Dam wall. After climbing a set of stone stairs, we were level with the dam's top and had this view.
We didn't have a well-marked path (a detailed map is a must while walking on England's public footpaths) and managed to get a bit turned around during the early climb up these hills. But as the ranger instructed, we just kept on going up.
After wandering about the tamer hills a bit, we finally found our way onto the main path leading along the moor. Emma and I discovered that the moor in July looks pretty much like the moor in January (with the exception of a few wildflowers).
Call me a cynic, but I don't exactly understand how this "historic agreement" between Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe and members of the opposition party (including Morgan Tsvangirai, who stepped down from the presidential race after Mugabe's political party went on a rampage of murder, torture and rape) is going to make much of a difference.
Hyperinflation is currently at more than 2 million percent (after Mugabe's government "paid" its own outstanding bills by simply printing more money), food has disappeared from grocery store shelves and Zimbabweans are fleeing into other countries. About a month ago, a couple at my church shared about a phone conversation they had with a friend in Zimbabwe who runs an orphanage. She was telling them how it costs more than $30 U.S. dollars to buy basics like a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. And that was a month ago. I can't even imagine how much worse the situation is now, because the cost was rising day by day when she told us about that.
Obviously we cannot lay all of the blame at Mugabe, although he bears the lion's share for piloting Zimbabwe into a land of extreme poverty and financial crisis. The political climate is clearly ripe with corruption, and Mugabe simply leaving office wouldn't change everything.
I suppose this agreement to work with members of the opposition party to turn things around is a step in the right direction. But as the BBC story I linked to above makes clear, recovery is going to be a very long, very hard journey--if indeed it comes.
At last I'm enjoying a gorgeous summer's day in England. The temperature is somewhere around 70 degrees--quite warm by recent standards--and the sun is shining. It was another day to hang out the washing on the line and be grateful for the warmth. I remember with disgust the day two weeks ago when I hung out my laundry only to watch it get soaked...three times...by sudden, inexplicably heavy showers. It took a full two days for everything to dry inside the house.
In the longer essays I posted last month, Laundry Lessons I and Laundry Lessons II, I used this anecdote hanging out my washing instead of throwing it in an electric dryer to explore some of the themes of this year in England. It seems apt, now that Discipleship Year has ended and I look ahead to another year of service here in Nottingham, that I now conclude these thoughts with Laundry Lesson III.
I wrote in the last essay about my grandmother Patricia Young Smith, who did all of the washing by hand while raising three toddlers as a single mother and getting a university degree in small-town Minnesota during the 1950s. Grandma's emphasis on education and self-realization has been a steadfast theme in my life, often taking the form of useful gifts: from the children's version of an Edmund Spenser tale I received at 7 and my first Jane Austen novel at 13, to when Grandma took me on college tours and even sent me a check to cover college application fees. Even now her influence continues. Grandma recently sent me a list of novels she recommends from her book club (a formidable, brilliant group of retired professors) and when last month that same group of academics read an Austen-inspired play I wrote several years ago, she flooded me with emails passing on their comments and urging me to keep writing.
It is because of Grandma--and the encouraging messages I've long received from my mother's parents, parents, and bevy of aunts and uncles--that I am here in England at all, actually. Nobody in my family has had a very easy life, yet all of these adults who've shaped me have a passion for learning and, more importantly, temper that drive with wisdom and compassion. Grandma and the others have taught me to take the challenging road, the one I know I'm meant to follow, even when it flies in the face of common sense.
There were a few raised eyebrows when I left a teaching job in Phoenix back in 2002 to get a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern, but they all supported me. They rejoiced with me when I got a great job as a features writer at Pioneer Press in 2004, and, amazingly, gave me their blessing when I left that job three and a half years later to move to England in September. Those who I thought would most protest were the most supportive.
"It'll be a great adventure," one aunt told me. "Do it now, while you still can."
I wasn't sure of the reception, however, when I announced to them a few months ago that I would not be returning to full-time journalism, at least not anytime soon. As a Christian, my sense of personal calling is always inextricably entwined with where I feel God is leading me, and this year of service at the active, vibrant church that is Nottingham's Trent Vineyard has shown me that my place for the near future is within a church setting, learning to serve and help lead members--and the greater community--into the transformation I see possible through Jesus Christ.
I will keep writing for both profit and personal satisfaction, of course, as I've done this year as a freelancer, but I have committed my next year to more work with the church in Nottingham. I am planning to spend one more year serving at Trent Vineyard here before discerning the next step and so, after I spend a month in Chicago and Phoenix, I then return to England in mid-September.
Discipleship Year, the service program I began in Sept. with 14 other young adults (and the reason I came to Nottingham) has now ended. We had our final community day yesterday although, in true Discipleship Year fashion, we still have some cleaning and serving commitments to complete in the next few weeks.
it was a sad day in many ways, since serving and being stretched has been a transforming experience, and since the 15 of us have experienced this process together, and since it's been, in many ways, a raw process that's exposed who we really are, we've bonded together in an amazing way. Of course every season must end, and it's better for us to finish the program and our structured time together on a high note, before we're all sick of it, but I am surprised by the depth of regret I feel that it's over. This program hasn't always been easy, and being the American in a crowd of Brits (plus one Austrian and one Israeli Arab) has had its challenging moments, but I feel that these folks are true friends.
Here we all are, 15 "disciples" with the two pastors who led us, on our last day together.
No, it's not the end of all things, of course. In fact, I am planning to spend one more year continuing to serve the church here in Nottingham, so I don't have to say goodbye to this new land and this community yet. And, in fact, yesterday had some new experiences.
One of them was trying a Pimm's cup for the first time. You may know about Pimm's because of Wimbledon...it's the "posh drink of choice," as one friend described it, quite suitable for enjoying with your strawberries and double cream. I'd tried it once before in Chicago (when my expat Brit friend Alison served it to me) but never with an entire salad inside the glass! The cucumbers were especially surprising. But it was delicious. What is Pimm's? I think it's a fruity, light liqueur that you mix with Sprite or 7-up (what they call lemonade here in England) and serve with fruit. And cucumbers, apparently.
It's been awhile since I've shared any garden photos. I was, to be honest, a little embarrassed, as I'm such an amateur and I've never tried to grow anything in a wet, cool climate before. I hadn't realized how much I counted on the hot Chicago summers to plump up the tomatoes and spread the basil leaves wide. It's been a cold and rainy summer so far and therefore my plants are progressing slowly, but they are still growing.
However, the 80 or so tomato and herb seeds I sowed in early April have made steady progress. The only flat failures were the melons and sweet marjoram (both started out well but died within the first few weeks of being repotted). I was able to give away dozens of herb and tomato seedlings, and as my parsley and coriander continue to flourish I've been dividing those up and sharing them, as well. The mint suddenly developed some sort of leaf disease, but I repotted it, cut off the sickly leaves and it seems to be making a recovery.
The sweet marjoram died, but at least one of my other herb plants have survived and are doing well. Here we have two sage plants (front left), a parsley plant (under shelf), coriander (top of shelf) and a mint plant (large pot). The tall plant in the front and center is a verbena variety that a friend gave me in exchange for some tomato and basil plants I shared with her.
Then there are my beloved tomato plants. I planted 40 tomato seeds in a seed tray (of four different varieties) ... or so I thought. I somehow ended up with 41 tomato seedlings, 17 of which are now in this back garden corner. The others are being grown in gardens throughout Nottingham, as I gave many away.
True or false: The Brits are a reserved people not prone to public displays of affection.
If you answered True, then you are WRONG!
My first good English friend is a fellow journalist I'll call Nikki, whom I met when she did a short internship at Pioneer Press in 2004. A few weeks after she'd gone home, we at the newsroom received a lovely letter and package, and her card was signed with all manner of "love you"s, "miss you"s and kisses (xxx) and hugs (ooo). Nikki is a fantastic girl and wonderful friend, so, though we were a bit puzzled, we felt all warm and fuzzy and chalked the extremely affectionate messages up to her spirited and loving personality.
Then I decided to come to England to undergo the Discipleship Year service internship, and I started receiving emails from others in the program. I sat back home in my Chicago apartment last July and puzzled over an email that started out, "Hi everyone, I know we haven't all met yet but we've got a room for rent in our house" and ended with "Love, Rachel x". What was up with the loves and the symbolic kisses?
Then came an email from Pippa, who signed hers "Pippax." I tried to figure out what kind of a nickname Pippax was for Pippa (which is, in itself, a nickname for Philippa) until I figured out that the "x" was a kiss. She'd just forgotten the space.
I consider myself a rather exuberant, affectionate person, and I'm sure my friends would agree. Actually, probably just about anyone I know would agree that I'm a very outgoing extrovert. But letters or emails only get signed "love" if I'm writing to a family member (a CLOSE family member) or a very good friend. And xs for kisses? I don't think so.
I find myself becoming more and more British. When I first arrived last fall, I made an apple pie using apples from the backyard tree. The pie was delicious and I proudly served it to my English "family" but then they asked for the cream or custard.
"Cream or custard?" I asked, perplexed. "Don't you just eat the pie?"
I worked for two years as a server at Baker's Square, so I know how to serve pie. I am a pie-cutting expert, and I can serve it warm, cold and even a la mode. What on earth could be missing from my apple pie masterpiece?
But then David explained that dessert will--almost always--come with custard or cream to pour on top or alongside.
Yesterday we had a gala feast at my house to celebrate David's successful completion of phase I (basic training) in the Royal Navy, my successful completion of the Discipleship Year program at Trent Vineyard and three new jobs in the family.
We gather for drinks, nuts, olives and cheese sticks in the garden before heading indoors for a full roast dinner, pudding and a fruit and cheese course. After this soporific feast, we managed to wake up again by playing croquet out in the garden. So very English. Here my former housemate David and I grin proudly over our joint achievements.
"Don't we have any cream?" asked "English sister" Julia as she piled her plate high with desserts. I suddenly remembered that yes, indeed, we had cream (left over from a fruit salad the previous week) and, by golly, I agreed that a nice serving of double cream would make these desserts taste even better.
I poured the cream over my tarts and chocolate roulade without batting an eye, just as I poured the cream over the West Country strawberries I'd enjoyed the previous week. And, I've learned, an apple tart enjoyed in the winter is ever so much nicer when accompanied by hot custard.
Now that it's summer (well, sort of...it's been so cold I had to turn the gas fire on while watching a movie last Saturday night), the British dessert is, of course, strawberries and cream, most famously enjoyed at Wimbledon, though eating them at home is pretty tasty, too, especially when they come from a neighborhood garden. Much as I adore strawberries, however, fresh raspberries have always been my favorite summer fruit (cherries and blueberries are also high on the list), so I loved this article comparing the merits of the fruit in today's Daily Mail newspaper.
...would a "barbecue" consist of 30 people happily crammed into a sitting room watching Wimbledon with bated breath (and remarking intelligently on all strokes) as the rain poured down outside;
...would afore-mentioned barbecue-goers happily venture outdoors during brief breaks of sun to throw around a Frisbee, soccer ball and rugby ball, thus creating the aptly named "Think Fast" game;
...would players be forced to climb 10-feet back through overgrown ivy bushes (this is not an exaggeration) to reclaim said rugby ball;
...and, finally, only in England would I find myself standing in the back garden during yet another sun break with a cup of hot tea clenched firmly in my left hand as I throw and catch the Frisbee with my right. And I am not alone in performing this act of great coordination. I am playing Frisbee with three others, all of them young men, who have cups of tea clenched firmly in THEIR left hands (except for leftie Ben, who has his tea in his right hand), and throwing the Frisbee about with their other hands, until someone calls, "The match is back on!" and we all troop inside.
I love England. Here I am adding to my lectionary of fun.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover just how many of my English friends remembered that July 4th was the American Independence Day. I received several congratulatory texts on my mobile phone and lots of messages from friends. It's all just more proof that American culture has permeated English culture. I did dress in the colors of the American flag that day (also the colors of the British flag) and, just for fun, wore as a headband a Stars and Stripes themed bandana I'd received as a farewell gift from my former editor.
One friend, Steve, even insisted on throwing an American Independence Day party which, due to his schedule, was held on Saturday. I wasn't sure what to expect when he picked me up to go shopping for food that evening. I'd invited a few people and thought we'd have a casual evening watching the film "Independence Day," as he'd first suggested. When I asked him, therefore, what he'd done that day, I was shocked when he replied, "I've spent the whole day getting ready for this party."
Indeed, Steve and his flatmate Phil spent Saturday driving around the city searching for American-themed items. They borrowed an American-flag inspired blanket from a friend, somewhere found one of those silly Uncle Sam hats, they'd bought a bag of balloons and blown up all of the red, white and blue ones, and they'd created an iPod playlist of American songs.
The evening's activities included a recitation of "The Pledge of Allegiance" and the singing of the National Anthem. I was impressed that Carmen knew most of the words and that everyone knew the last two lines, although the others just sang nonsense words loudly during the rest of the song as I shouted the lyrics above the din. It wasn't disrespectful, just very lively. When we finished the song the group erupted in cheers and loud chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A.!" It was all quite heartwarming, really, though one or two of them were heard to quip, "We're celebrating the 4th of July because it's the day we got rid of the Americans."
"But Steph," Steve said as we drove to buy food just an hour before the party began, "there's one place where we failed. Nowhere in the entire city of Nottingham can you find an American flag."
However, the ever-resourceful friends decided to craft one out of construction paper, and when my friend Carmen arrived early they set her to work cutting out 50 tiny white stars. The result was stupendous, and about 15 people partied the night away in a truly American-themed flat.
On Sunday I hosted Barbecue #2. I'd invited the eight other women who are doing the Discipleship Year service program with me at Trent Vineyard church to come over for a girly afternoon, but a few days beforehand I suddenly realized that I'd been to a lot of barbecues lately (not to mention hosting one just a few days earlier) and decided I could do with a change of menu. So I asked my friends for permission to make it a Mexican-themed event instead.
On Sunday, therefore, instead of grilling the ubiquitous burgers and sausages, I served slow-cooked machaca, or Mexican shredded beef, along with homemade guacamole, salsa, sauteed onions and peppers and all of the other trimmings. I adore Mexican food and sometimes have to remind myself that it's not at all normal for Brits, who are much more used to curries than tacos. Finding the ingredients can be tricky, as I learned when hosting a similar gathering at Christmas. Back then I had to use kidney beans instead of black beans, as they weren't available at local grocery stores (though Sainsbury's has now started carrying black beans, hooray!) but I did serve delicious homemade margaritas. The funniest thing about serving margaritas, though, was that 18 of the 20 guests had never before tried one. Most people liked them all right, although every single person except me thought it was "minging" (gross) to serve them with salt on the rim of the glass. Once I dipped the glasses in sugar instead of salt, they were happy. But the incident made me realize just how different the food culture of the Americas is from the food culture of Europe.
On Sunday when I arranged all of the burrito fillings on the table and told my friends to dig in, they just stared at me uncertainly. Pippa turned to me and said, "You need to show us the procedure," and so, laughing, I demonstrated how to fill a burrito. "Does the rice go inside the burrito?" Kristen asked. "Well, it can," I said. "That's what they do at Chipotle, and I made the rice with lime and cilantro, just like at Chipotle," but of course they had no idea what I was talking about (especially as cilantro is called coriander here). But we all managed to get our burritos made and everyone went back for seconds and it was all a great success.
The weather wasn't quite so compliant. What had been a sunny morning turned into an afternoon of rainforest-worthy showers, so instead of sitting outside we headed to the lounge where we started the gas fire as the rain slammed against the windows. After we giggled at one another's attempts to keep all of the burrito stuffing inside the burrito (and more than a few black beans had gone rolling across the carpet), I showed my friends a few photos from the Arizona desert and mountains where I grew up. They oohed and aahed at them, then did the same when I showed some Chicago photos.
"Oh, Steph, why on earth did you come here?" Rachel asked. "Here, to boring old Nottingham?"
Last Wednesday I rolled the gas grill around the corner of the house to the main garden and set up a table with drinks, crisps, cheese, tomato and all of the other barbecue trimmings. It was time for Summer Barbecue #5, but this one I hosted. It was a farewell party for members of our small group (a sort of family unit I belong to within the church) who are moving to Cardiff next month to help start a new church in Wales.
As I mentioned in a previous post, summer barbecues seem to be all the rage in England, and I'm loving it. My barbecue last Wednesday was a quiet, pleasant, dry, warm-ish evening here in Nottingham and just perfect for an outdoors event. I felt like we were cocooned in a peaceful greenish haze...the green of the lawn, the holly hedges, the ivy covering the house, the shrubbery and the fruit trees grew ever darker and more enveloping as the twilight deepened and we feasted.
Thanks to commenter Jill, who asked after an earlier post just what the Brits eat at their barbecues. Do they have the same burgers, hot dogs and potato salad that we trot out, she wanted to know? Well, yes and no. It looks the same, but it doesn't always taste the same!