Last night I attended my first Thanksgiving feast of the season (tonight is the second). You would expect, of course, that an American abroad wouldn't celebrate Thanksgiving at all, but Brits are very happy to share this tradition with us. Last night's meal was hosted by an American friend and her British husband, and the guests included her visiting friend from D.C., me and 7 Brits. Tonight I'm eating with a British family who adopted the tradition after spending two years in Seattle.
Before last night's meal, we three Americans were quizzed at great length about Thanksgiving traditions. Here is a sampling of questions:
"Why do you eat cranberries with the turkey?"
"What time do you eat the meal?"
"What do you eat for breakfast?"
"What do you do after the meal?"
"Which teams are playing American football today?" (to which the three American ladies--2 of them expats--all shrugged their shoulders. We sure didn't know.)
Finally one of the Brits turned to his friend, who was doing most of the questioning and said, "Didn't you learn anything from watching 'Friends'?"
If I haven't mentioned it yet, the Brits love the television show "Friends." Now I am just the right demographic to have grown up with "Friends," as it started when I was in high school and continued through my early 20s, but back home, it seems, the only people who know "Friends" so well as me are other women in their 20s and 30s. But here in England, everyone knows "Friends"..moms, dads, grandparents, little kids. That's because it is always on. I quickly discovered how fun and easy it is to nattily toss in offhanded references to "Friends" episodes here in England. It's great that we have this cultural touchstone. However, I must admit to airily doing the same when I was home in Chicago at a party last August, and that instead of the room breaking out into a congenial snicker at the shared memory of the episode, I was met by a roomful of blank stares.
But back to Thanksgiving. A few other amusing cultural jokes have arisen in the past few days, namely that of the post-Thanksgiving Christmas cheese.
Yesterday morning I was chatting about the holiday with my friend Jida, who is from Israel.
"And afterwards you put up the trees, right?" she asked, from across the noisy room.
"The cheese?" I asked, confused. I hadn't heard right at all.
"No, no!" Jida exclaimed. "The Christmas trees."
"Ah, that makes more sense," I said, relieved and laughing as my imagination took off. "You weren't asking me about that grand old tradiiton of hanging Christmas cheeses on the wall after all, then, were you?"
We chuckled a bit, but we laughed much harder when, a few minutes later, someone from the other side of the room asked in genuine curiosity, "So what is this you were saying about the American tradition of hanging Christmas cheese after Thanksgiving?"
As I type this I am looking not at my fingers on the keyboard but out a set of tall French windows, down a hill and over the rooftops of village houses to the sea. A stretch of beach and wide expanse of ocean is clearly visible from the living room of this cozy holiday house near Padstow, Cornwall, and so is a wide canvas of sky. At the moment the sea is grey and roiling, not to mention occasionally obscured by the gusts of rain and even small hailstones that are blowing periodically against my windows, but the sky has brightened even as I've written this paragraph and now I see sunlight illuminating the tops of clouds and the white breakers down on the beach beginning to settle down a bit.
The sea from Trevone Beach.
That's the thing about the British coast--weather changes so quickly it's hard to keep up with. I thought the day's outlook changed quickly in Nottingham (from sunny to cloudy to rainy to sunny again), but being here on the southwestern tip of the country, juttting out into the Atlantic, reminds me that I really am on just a small island.
I suppose late November isn't exactly the height of tourist season here in Cornwall but that's just how my friends and I like it. Our days consist of relaxing with naps, TV, Internet and books in the cozy, lovely but thoroughly modern house that's been lent to us, and I must confess to having spent hours already rabidly re-reading the entire works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, lifelong favorites that I found on the bookshelf here. Then there are long walks on the beach and coastal hills, visiting the local parish church (a very high church but charming Anglican experience) and coming home figuring out how to cook on the Aga. An Aga is a type of British stove that is always on and fills the house with heat. It's been a bit of adjustment learning how to cook using its various ovens and plates (and we've had some trouble keeping the pilot light lit, which is not normal), but so far we've managed to turn out some delicious soups and stews.
The kitchen--with Aga--of the beautiful home where I'm staying with friends.
Yesterday we drove the treacherous, narrow but ultimately exciting windy roads to Tintagel, a village known as the legendary home of King Arthur.
Imagine waking up to this view every morning. Here's a shot of the view outside a ruined window at Tintagel Castle.
Of course King Arthur as we know him is an amalgamation of myth and folklore with just a thin thread of actual fact, but he's long been associated with Tintagel and the ruins of the medieval castle on the headlands (although actually belonging to a 13th-century duke) are romantic enough to support the legend. After a long exploration of the ruins and surrounding hills, we meandered along the streets of Tintagel which, though crowded with a mishmash of gaudy Camelot-inspired souvenir shops, still offers plenty of Cornish charm. We finally had a cream tea (tea with hot scones, strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream) in a pub called the King Arthur Arms. Alas, it was a square table.
It's hard to believe we've only been here three days, with one more to go before the 5-hour drive back to Nottingham. It'll be wonderful to return home feeling truly rested, for as much as the wind blows outside my window and the waves crash into the beach, I am holed up as snug as a bug in a rug (which, surprisingly, is a saying in England as well as in America).
There are many photos on this post and, believe me, it took a lot of work to choose my favorites from the many I took.
I peer over a bridge leading to the island where Tintagel Castle once stood.
At last I've had a chance to get out of Nottingham and explore the lovely English countryside once more. My days lately have been very interesting and very busy, but have centered around work for the church. However, last Saturday I escaped the city to drive about an hour away with friends to Clumber Park, a magnificent former estate that's now a National Trust property boasting miles of wilderness walking and cycling trails. It was also a chance to try out the truly wonderful new waterproof hiking boots that my father bought for me after I described to him the muddy, boggy English fields.
The day was gloomy to start with and then rainy, but by the time we arrived at the park the sun was beginning to break through. By that time it was already 3:30 p.m., however, and the sun was beginning to set, but the falling, filtered light made for some beautiful and ethereal photos.
This weekend I'm heading down to Cornwall (the county on England's southern tip) for a short holiday and in three weeks' time I'm off to Istanbul for a week, so expect more travel photos soon!
The landscape really was this magical.
It's a small country with very tall trees.
The river and lake made everything more beautiful.
1. President-elect Barack Obama. I've already received a few notes from British friends who stayed up all night to watch the elections, and I anticipate many excited comments throughout the day. I must admit I am longing to be in Chicago during this historic time...but it'll be fun to see the delight of my British and international community. I'll be happy with them--but I will also continue to promote the character and good name of John McCain, whom I also greatly respect and admire, as McCain receives little press over here. He's generally seen as a wan inheritor to the Bush legacy, which I feel is very unjust.
2. It is Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night, when Brits celebrate the just-in-time discovery 400 years ago of piles of gunpowder piled under Parliament. Guy Fawkes, a minor conspirator in the Catholic plot to blow up Protestant Parliament and the Royal Family, was guarding the stockpile, hence the creation of a day of remembrance that was once used to fuel anti-Catholic prejudices. These days, however, Guy Fawkes Day has increasingly become a time to party with backyard bonfire parties and citywide fireworks displays.
3. And speaking of change, I can't let this day go by without mentioning that it is also my 30th birthday. I'll be celebrating with a giant bonfire birthday party here in Nottingham (complete with garden fireworks) and I feel rather astounded to be entering a new decade in my life at the very same time that America enters its next significant chapter.
Congratulations, President-Elect Obama. And well done, Senator McCain.
Thanks to the wonder of absentee ballots, I received mine several weeks ago. I carried it around proudly, showing it to many English friends who all lamented, "I want to vote in the American election!" After much careful thought and deliberation, I filled it in and mailed it back to Chicago.
Today I've been hearing all sorts of comments like:
"I can't wait to find out who wins!"
"I'm going to stay up all night to watch the returns."
"Your elections are so much more interesting than ours."
"You Americans better vote! I'd vote if I could."
Four years ago today I attended the election night party of newly elected Senator Obama. I was hosting a visiting English journalist friend and we decided the Obama party was the place where she'd experience the most quintessentially American election party. We called ahead to see if we could get in with our press credentials, but the woman who answered said, "Everybody's welcome! Just come on down." (A bit of a contrast to tonight's high-security election party in Grant Park, where some tickets are going on Craig's List for $1,000).
So we made our way to the ballroom of a Chicago hotel and wandered in. The place was packed with a buzzing, delighted multi-racial crowd. Women we'd never met gave us hugs exclaiming, "Isn't this wonderful!" and everyone else smiled happily (except when the giant television screens showed Bush climbing in the presidential election count...at that the Democratic crowd booed). We milled around for a few hours as the crowd got bigger and happier, especially as it realized Obama had clinched the race. The ice sculptures melted, the snacks set out on buffet tables disappeared and finally Barack Obama came onstage to declare victory. He was accompanied by Michelle and his older daughter Malia, and he was holding his younger daughter Sasha, who was curled up on his shoulder, half-asleep, as he thanked the crowd.
After that Obama circulated among the ballroom, shaking hands and giving hugs to his supporters. He shook my hand, in fact, and I marveled at his charisma, which I can only compare to that I noticed when meeting former President Clinton in 1996. In fact, I went home that night and wrote on a Web site blog, "I think I may have just shaken the hand of the future president of the united States."
When I wrote that offhand comment, I expected Obama would run for President in 16 to 20 years, not 4, and my comment sparked a lively debate on the Web site about his experience and readiness for a national role. After tonight, I'll know just how prescient my comment was...or wasn't.
The English care A LOT about the U.S. presidential election! And, for that matter, so do my fellow expat Australian and Canadian friends.
In case you thought the rest of the world wasn't interested in our politics, I'm here to set you straight. For the past 13 months I have been constantly questioned about the American presidential race, about my personal views on the candidates, and even about the complicated intricacies of the electoral college system. This has only increased in frequency during the past few weeks, to the point that I am asked every day if I've voted and who I'm voting for.
I give honest and weighted answers to these questions. Brits find it particularly astounding that I've met both McCain and Obama (comes with the journalistic territory) and have long familiarity with the policies of each candidate, since I lived for years in both Arizona and Illinois. I must be honest, though, and admit that when one friend sat me in a corner at a party and questioned me at length about exactly how the electoral college works and how the popular vote factors in, I didn't have all of the answers. It was a little embarrassing--I thought I was well versed in government, but his questions drove me to do some research.
I was amazed to discover that the actual votes for president aren't cast by the electoral college until the Wednesday following the second Monday in December. I suppose that was because of the vote-gathering/travel difficulty considerations in early America, but I didn't know that. Did you? Learn more about the electoral college in this handy little article here.
It's probably worth mentioning that pretty much all the Nottinghamites I know--and the afore-mentioned Australians, Canadians and other Europeans I've come in contact with--are desperate to see a President Obama.