Category Archives: culture

Top and bottom fives

A fellow American expat recently asked me a question that, he said, he poses to all transplants that he encounters abroad: What are the best and worst things about living where you live, rather than in the US? It is a query not dissimilar to the “Do you like living in England?” that I am frequently asked, but more specific. As always happens when I am asked the latter question, I did not have a quick answer on hand; it is just not something I think about on a regular basis.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t make comparisons–especially when I first moved here–but I have long since switched to a mindset of simply getting on with the process of daily life. That’s not necessarily a good thing, since it means that I tend to overlook not only the Britishisms that annoyed me when I first relocated, but also those that I found (and still find) quite pleasant. I think we all probably do this to some extent, no matter where we live or how long we’ve been there; the things you encounter every day can easily become mundane to you even if they would be deemed wonderful by someone–or even everyone–else. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I was surprised when the Sunday Times recently named Falmouth as the fourth best place to live in the UK–it’s not that I don’t like Falmouth, but it does seem rather ordinary to me because I see it on a daily basis.

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Obviously, something is wrong with me if I can think of even this view as “ordinary.”

In any case, the best/worst question stuck with me, and I found myself pondering it in the days that followed, as I went about my expat existence. It made me look at my Falmouth life through two sets of eyes–those I had when I first moved here nearly five years ago, before I adjusted to the new conditions, and those I have now that I have come to see the Falmouth/British way of life as normal and expected.

Strangely, my lists of pros and cons could be both longer and shorter than the “top and bottom fives” I have compiled below. For both categories, there are things that emerged quickly, and others that I only realized after considerable thought; some affect me only periodically, and others once seemed important but have faded in significance as I’ve settled in. Still, they are all relevant to some degree or another, and you may recognize some as topics that I have addressed in previous posts.

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Me, with my importer

The lows of life in Britain (because it’s better to start with the bad and finish with the good…)

Honorable mention: Use of the word “trousers” instead of “pants”.

5. The smell of dampness. The smells of mold and mildew are not unique to Britain, but they are far more pervasive here than pretty much anywhere else I have ever been. I think this is caused by a combination of factors. First, you’re never far from water (see point #2 in the next section) and rain is incredibly common; it is not hard for things to become waterlogged. Second, in addition to the moisture, there is also a tendency to have mild temperatures; these are the perfect conditions for cultivating a nice collection of “aromatic” microbes. Third, there are many old buildings here that have had centuries over which to absorb the damp. Fourth, many of these structures are built in such a way as to facilitate a certain closeness of air–they’re made of stone, for instance, or have only very small windows. Cumulatively, all these factors contribute to an odor of wetness that can be smelled in even the cleanest and tidiest of homes. Often it can be combated, and potentially even defeated, only with the most prodigious of efforts and at great expense.

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On the up side, lots of water droplets = lots of rainbows

4. The wind. I know that everyone complains about Britain’s precipitation, but actually I don’t mind rain. In fact, I like it; I always have. What I don’t like is the seemingly incessant wind, and the combination of wind and rain. It ensures that you get wet no matter what you are wearing, and that your hair never looks good. It gives me headaches. It causes my windows to bang shut and my apartment to creak loudly in the nighttime, thus keeping me awake. It blows dust in through every crack it can find, and knocks wads of moss off roofs and onto your head. It makes the seas choppy, which renders boat journeys miserable. It finds you wherever you are, inland or by the sea, and just generally makes a real pest of itself.

 
The wind is so strong that it even shapes the trees
The wind is so strong that it shapes the trees as they grow

3. Things are tiny. For someone living in Cornwall, Britain seems pretty big; it can take an hour to get somewhere else in the county, let alone from one county to the next, or from England to Wales or Scotland. But this is deceptive; in reality, the UK is not very large, and yet it is home to quite a few people. To make this possible–and, in particular, to make this possible atop infrastructure dating back centuries and, in some cases, all the way to Roman times–it is necessary to make everything tiny so that it can all be crammed in to what little space there is. Because roads are small, cars are small. Houses and apartments are small, which means that rooms are, too; kitchens are diminutive, thus necessitating tiny fridges and freezers that barely hold a few days’ worth of food. Stores are often quite narrow, making it difficult to squeeze between rows and racks of items on display; God forbid if you need to fit past another person as you navigate these narrow corridors. And don’t even talk to me about storage space; I have almost none.

Not bad, as far as woods go. Notice the size of the trees--this is a very young stand.
Not bad, as far as woods go. Notice the size of the trees–this is a very young stand.

2. No trees. Obviously, there are some trees in Britain, but there aren’t nearly enough for my taste–and they don’t occur in large enough patches. This is particularly noticeable in Cornwall, and throughout the west country in general, where you are much more likely to encounter a field of sheep or cows than a stand of trees. What is amazing about this is that Britain used to be covered in forest; here in Falmouth, excavators once unearthed the petrified remnants of an ancient forest that was swallowed up by the estuary as melting glaciers advanced the shoreline by several meters thousands of years ago. I grew up among trees and frequently feel the need to walk under them, far away from the sounds of traffic and the sight of human constructs. That is not an easy thing to accomplish around here.

1. Distance to family. As I was growing up, I always knew I would end up leaving my hometown and going somewhere else. I deliberately chose places that were not Ohio when selecting where to go for my higher education and my summer employment. However, I never imagined that I would end up in a whole other country–at least, not for a period longer than your average vacation. I’ve always been pretty independent, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually felt homesick, but I still find it difficult to be so far from my family. In an emergency, I could get to them within a day, but I would probably need all 24 hours of that day, and it wouldn’t be an easy thing to pull off. It would be nice if it took less time and energy (and, of course, money) to get back to see my parents and grandparents. But, whenever I think about how difficult it is, I do have to console myself with the thought that at least I live in an era when technology makes it easier to stay in touch, both in terms of electronic communications and physical visits; a couple hundred years ago, I would have been much more cut off than I am today, and both letters and visits would have been fewer and farther between.

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Family selfie in the Columbus airport. We were doing group selfies before it was cool.

 

The highs of life in Britain (because, no matter what I said in the last section, I do actually love my new home…)

Honorable mention: So. much. tea.

5. Cultural history. I first came to England as a teenager, on what I have since referred to as a “literary tour of England.” The Bronte parsonage, “Thomas Hardy country” (i.e., Dorset), the Globe Theater, and Tintagel were some of the many places that my parents and I visited during our tour of the country. My mother, an English teacher, was responsible for the bulk of the itinerary, so of course there was a bit of a theme. However, what I have learned since moving here is that it would be hard to go anywhere in Britain without stumbling across something of historical significance–if not literature, then music or architecture or science or whatever else you can think of. It is full of fascinating remnants, artifacts, and stories left behind by the humans that have lived here for thousands–if not tens of thousands–of years. Britain was hugely influential in shaping my own country, in particular the bits where I have lived: Appalachia, Philadelphia, Williamsburg. Melting pot though it may be, the US can trace its modern origins (please note I am not ignoring the importance of the original inhabitants of North America!) to England. In many ways, visiting England is like visiting home, albeit a very ancestral one. Another way to think of it is as a giant living museum, though I’m not sure the Brits would enjoy that view of their country.

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Roman mosaic unearthed in St. Albans, as viewed by me in 2006

4. Robins (and other British wildlife). Britain may no longer have wolves or bears or other dramatic large wildlife comparable to that found in the US, but it does still have some spectacular species–and they are easy to see no matter where you are. From the water’s edge, you can see seals, sharks, whales, dolphins, porpoises, otters and even, if you find yourself in a particular portion of Devon, beavers; in the air there are peregrines, kites, buzzards, and any number of brightly colored, sweetly singing passerines. On land, you can find badgers, foxes, impossibly cute hedgehogs, stoats, and a myriad of other small mammals. Wherever they can find a crack to root in or a ledge to cling to, there are lichens, mosses, wildflowers, and, in larger patches, shrubs, trees, and berry bushes with fruit available to anybody who cares to pick it. Springtime in the US is remarkable, but it is even sweeter in the UK, where winter brings longer periods of dark and less snow to make the cold worthwhile. Those first few slightly warmer days nearly make your heart burst with relief, as does the sight of almost painfully bright primroses and daffodils and, above all, the insistently cheerful trill of the plucky little robin. Even in the most urban of areas, the Brits do an amazing job of leaving space for greenery and giving you an opportunity to interact with wildlife wherever you are.

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European robin in the old cemetery on St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly

3. Proximity. Although the Brits tend not to think of themselves as inherently “European,” the British Isles are, undeniably, both geologically and geographically linked with the rest of the continent. One impact of this is an astonishing ease of travel from Britain to pretty much anywhere else you might want to go–not just in Europe, but beyond, via Paris, Amsterdam, and other continental hubs of airplane travel. This facilitates more than simply ticking another country off your list; it also enables you to experience new languages, cuisines, music, fashion, ecosystems, and whatever else you might be interested in. Since moving here, I have been to Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, India, Australia, Kenya, and the Czech Republic; this autumn I will be adding another country to my list when I go to Greece. Even more impressive is the fact that I don’t always have to go all the way to London to embark on this travel; regional airports (not to mention ferry terminals and train stations) right here in the Southwest act as gateways to many of these destinations, making it as easy to travel between countries as it is to travel between states–or even cities–in the US.

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Boats moored at Custom Quay, Falmouth

2. The ocean. When I was studying for the UK citizenship exam, I learned that there is nowhere in Britain that is more than 70 miles from the ocean, and that fact has always stuck with me. The sea is such an important part of British life, both past and present, but I think that the ocean is such a standard part of British existence that it tends to be taken for granted. For someone who comes from a landlocked state (no offense to Lake Erie, but it is still just a lake even if it is a great one), the perpetual proximity of the ocean is an amazing thing. It is a symbol of freedom, a conduit to possibility, and, extending as it does all the way westward to the shores of North America, it is also, perversely, a bridge that connects me to home. I may have lived the bulk of my life inland, but after only a few years on the coast, I would have a very hard time moving away.

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Wildflowers along the shorefront walk between Pendennis Castle and Gylly Beach, Falmouth

1. Transportation. You may think I’m a very boring person for choosing transportation as my favorite part of life in Britain, but public transport is pretty darn amazing here, and it affects me every single day of my life. My driving license does not permit me to drive independently in a car, and yet I can get pretty much anywhere in the country whenever I like, without that much of a hassle–not to mention in a fairly eco-friendly way, since I’m sharing my ride with a bunch of other travelers. For a mere £0.80, I catch a bus to school every morning and can then walk home every evening–combining exercise with transportation and killing two birds with one stone. The University of Exeter is not the only thing within walking distance. I can also go shopping for groceries, clothes, home furnishings, books, and pretty much whatever else you can think of; I can go to a restaurant, or a movie, or to the doctor, or even just head out into the countryside to see a bit of nature. Rarely do I ever need something that I cannot easily access on foot–a thing that is true in very few American towns and cities. The lack of this facility is immediately obvious to me when I visit the US, and I very much miss the feeling of independence that you have when you live in a place that does not cater so heavily to cars.

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Train pulling in at Colesloggett Halt, near Bodmin, Cornwall

I suppose I am lucky to have moved somewhere that I like so well; after all, Sasha could have whisked me off to Siberia or South Korea or somewhere else that is so truly beyond my range of experience that I could never learn to feel at home. I do wonder about that, though: Was it luck, or is that just the way I am?

I love to travel because I love to see, do, think, and feel new things; I have never been anywhere that I didn’t find interesting, even when my destination was the sort of place that makes other people raise their eyebrows when you say where you’ve been (Droitwich Spa, I’m looking at you!). Obviously I wouldn’t have been happy in a country with an oppressive religious and/or political regime, but beyond that…it’s quite possible that I could have settled in anywhere. It might have taken more time to adjust to, say, unreliable electricity or cockroaches the size of salad plates (I’m thinking here of horror stories I’ve heard from my own family members), but in exchange for these things I might have reveled in something else that made it all worthwhile.

Who knows? Maybe one day we will move again and I will have a chance to explore this theory–or maybe we’ll live out our days being serenaded by herring gulls as we listen to the wind whistling through the rigging of the ships in the harbor. Either way, I’m up for it.

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How can I not love Cornwall, given its steady supply of cream teas?

 

Valentine’s Day failure

Now that I’m no longer working for myself, I don’t have the sort of flexible schedule that allows me to accompany Sasha every time he goes abroad to engage in academic shenanigans. It’s sad. Last autumn he toured around Vienna without me, and in February month he headed to Mainz, on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Despite my inability to travel with him to the continent on this latest trip, I was, at least, able to arrange to meet him after his flight deposited him at the Bristol airport. The beauty of this plan was that it gave Sasha an excuse to not drive straight home after a long day of travel, while also giving me an opportunity to make reservations at Jamie’s Italian, which I’ve been longing to visit.

Sadly, the reality of the excursion was nothing like the vision I’d had in mind when planning it. To start with, the massive storms we’ve been experiencing have both washed away and flooded various portions of the tracks between Plymouth and Bristol, requiring passengers to hop shuttle buses between train stations.

Image courtesy of Express & Echo

Because train travel has been so highly disrupted, First Great Western has been extremely lenient about tickets; they’ve been letting pretty much anyone ride at any time regardless of what reservations had previously been made, because it’s either that or lose all their customers to alternative modes of transportation. This turned out to be extremely good for me, because I somehow managed to book tickets for March 14th rather than February 14th–a fact I did not discover until I reached the Penryn station, ready to depart on the first leg of my trip. I thought I was going to have to shell out an additional £60 for my journey–especially galling because of how incredibly inconvenient and time-consuming I knew it was going to be: the normally 3-hour trip had morphed into something at least twice that long because of all the bus transfers.

Mid-journey selfie

The exact procedure turned out to be even more complicated than I’d anticipated. I first rode a train from Penryn to Truro, where I then waited for 45 minutes for a train from Truro to Plymouth. At Plymouth, I hopped on a bus to Tiverton Parkway, where I transferred to a northeast-bound train. I had thought this would take me all the way to Bristol, but, no, I only got as far as Taunton, where I had to disembark and hop yet another bus for the final leg of the journey into Bristol Temple Meads. Once there, I had to walk in bone-chillingly windy and rainy conditions another mile or so to my hotel. I really was earning my king-sized bed and Jamie Oliver feast.

Entrance to the hotel, the Thistle Grand

I must admit that, all along, I had a deep-seated feeling that something would go wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but I could just feel it coming. When the train ticket thing didn’t cause any problems, I thought maybe it would be the journey itself; when I was successful at arriving, at long last, in Bristol, I suspected the issue would arise with Sasha‘s journey rather than mine…and this time I was right. First his flight was delayed; then it was canceled–and not even because of the horrendously blustery weather we were having, but because of a technical glitch with both the first plane he was supposed to take and then the one sent to replace it. The airline sent him and all the other passengers to a nearby hotel, with a promise to contact them later with a plan of action. I, meanwhile, was left to order room service and sleep alone in the middle of my ridiculously spacious bed.

Even so, all was still well. Our culinary adventure was scheduled for 1:30 PM on Saturday, giving Sasha plenty of time–or so I thought–to make it back to the UK. On top of this, I’d scheduled myself a massage for 10:30 on Saturday morning, so I knew I had plenty of ways to amuse myself until his arrival.

Artwork in the passageway running under St. John’s

As per usual, I woke up at the crack of dawn, which left me with plenty of time to see some sights before heading to the hotel’s spa. Within just a few steps of the hotel’s front door, I was already finding photogenic buildings and decorations: The Grand is located right on the outskirts of Old Town, so there are all sorts of antique structures and facades to admire up and down the road.

Facade of the building opposite my hotel

When I left the Grand, the weather was merely overcast, but soon it became drizzly and then, eventually, downright miserable. My delight at finally having the opportunity to see more of Bristol than just the train station and airport soon turned to dismay that I was stuck outside in sleety conditions at a time of day when there were no businesses open, and therefore no shops or restaurants for me to take refuge in. There was, however, a cathedral.

Bristol Cathedral, beautiful even on the dreariest of days
College Green, the last thing I managed to photograph outside before the weather drove me into the cathedral

When I set out from my hotel, I had no idea where I was going, and no final destination in mind; I was just following my instincts and wandering wherever I liked. That haphazard process happened to lead me to the cathedral, and I happened to arrive there just as the skies opened up and dumped down a flood of icy rain. I don’t believe in fate or destiny, but if I had been a character you were watching in a movie, you definitely would have recognized that the screenwriter had used the weather as a tool to facilitate a desired scenario. I was left feeling as though something important was going to occur, and that it was going to happen inside that church.

Whenever I see ornate altars like this, I always expect a ray of light to come shining down, and a heavenly choir to start singing. Never happens.

For better or worse, however, life is not a movie, and nothing exciting did happen. Sorry to disappoint. Still, the cathedral really was quite lovely, and I was the only person in there for most of my visit, which was strangely awesome–it’s not often you get to have a building that large all to yourself.

One unexpected bonus of the tour was being able to see a display of artwork contributed by local high school-aged students. There were some really incredible pieces that I would have offered to buy had I been in a gallery. I was really impressed at both the originality and the execution of the work. I took photos and would show them here except that I’m a little worried about copyright issues and whatnot, so instead I’ll show you this:

Jesus: the original superhero. If modern churches had decorations this cool, there would be a lot more people in attendance every Sunday.

This is the oldest object in the entire cathedral; it was carved in the 11th century and shows Jesus restoring Adam and Eve to virtue after conquering Satan and standing on his head. Just around the corner, there was also a nice brass plaque showing a very serene-looking St. John the Baptist:

Is it just me, or is this strangely reminiscent of Buddha?

As I walked through the choir, I encountered a pulpit with a huge open Bible. I happened to glance at the words as I passed, and I felt compelled to stop and read the whole passage:

It may contain a lot of ridiculous proclamations about women and gays, but the Bible does also have some nice parts.

I have to say, I like that bit about hope. Also the part about family. I wish people spent more time reading Romans and less time reading the outdated stuff in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Bristol Cathedral nave

I eventually finished my tour of the building and emerged to discover that, conveniently, it had finally stopped raining outside. It was, however, still so overcast that it was actually darker than it had been when I’d awakened that morning.

Shoes dangling from a tree on the edge of College Green. Don’t ask me for an explanation.

I headed back to the hotel spa for my much-anticipated (and much-needed) massage. It was worth every penny, particularly because the masseuse was able to work out a painful knot I’d had in my neck for weeks. I was feeling very limp and blissful by the end, but I think we all know that there was no way my Zen state could last for long. When I emerged from the subterranean spa facility, my phone regained signal and picked up a message from Sasha saying that he still hadn’t heard from his airline and that the earliest he could conceivably return to Bristol would be 4:30 PM–three hours past our lunch date at Jamie Oliver’s.

That left me to amuse myself for another five hours, and I already had a few ideas about how I might do that. I put my luggage in storage at the hotel, reluctantly canceled the lunch reservation (it seemed a bit excessive to have such an extravagant meal all by myself), and headed back out into the city. This time I put my wellies on so that I would be prepared if it rained again. Naturally, it was sunny for the rest of the afternoon.

Another unexplained Bristol phenomenon: Why was this ship on the exterior of a building near my hotel?

My main destination was the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which, because of its proximity to Jamie’s Italian, I had previously identified as a potential place where Sasha and I might amuse ourselves if we had some time to spare before or after lunch. I went there by way of Park Street, which features a variety of shops–not least of which is Hobgoblin Music, a specialist in folk and acoustic instruments. My favorite whistle was purchased from Hobgoblin via Amazon, and I wanted to stop by the store in person to see what other treasures I might find. A mere fifteen minutes and four new whistles later, I was ready to go absorb some culture at the museum.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

I’d hoped to see an exhibit of award-winning nature photography that I’d seen advertised on the gallery’s website, but I never could figure out where it was on display–or if it was still on display at all. However, I found something even better:

Mummies!

…and:

Mummified cats! (just as aloof in death as they are in life)

…and also:

Horus!

In fact, there was a whole wing devoted to Egyptian artifacts. I was in heaven. When I was young, I wanted to be an Egyptologist; I eventually abandoned that dream because I thought that maybe all the good stuff would have been uncovered by the time I grew up (probably not a bad idea, to be honest, though frighteningly practical for someone that age). I still love to learn about ancient Egypt, though, and it’s always a pleasure to see “material culture” (as my Geography colleagues would call it) in person.

The museum had many other interesting items on display, including dinosaur bones, stuffed animal specimens, a collection of antique pianos, a variety of Roman artifacts unearthed in western England, a room full of dragon-themed Chinese artifacts, and several galleries’ worth of paintings.

Irish elk, a.k.a. “giant deer,” an extinct species that was one of the largest deer ever to have lived (which it did during the Late Pleistocene)
Animal-themed Delft tiles

I’ve never really thought of myself as much of an art-lover, but every time I visit an art gallery in person, I seem to find a painting that really captivates me. My all-time favorite is The Watersplash, which I stumbled across in Bath. The Bristol version isn’t quite as wonderful, but I’m still rather fond of it:

Les Adieux

The painting, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, is full of all sorts of imagery to which we might not immediately be able to assign meaning today, but which would have resonated with viewers during Tissot’s era (the painting was produced in 1871). For example, the scissors represent the imminent separation of the two lovers, but the ivy and holly along the fence indicate that the pair will eventually be reunited. Lovely–and what an appropriate find for Valentine’s Day weekend.

When I’d had my fill at the museum, I headed back down the hill to find a nice cafe in which I could have some tea and maybe do a bit of reading. Little did I expect to encounter even more artwork out on the street:

My third Banksy in four months!
Brightly colored birds basking in the sun
Prayerful angel

I found the last of these along an alleyway leading into the St. Nicholas Market, which both smelled and looked delicious–there was a huge variety of internationally flavored foods on offer, along with non-edible delights such as jewelry, artwork, and flowers. I kind of wish I’d passed through the market earlier in the day, before I’d eaten lunch and spent a bundle on whistles. Next time Sasha and I visit a city with a market, I do hope we manage to get the timing right–we’ve missed out in both Camden and Bristol, so fingers crossed that the third time’s the charm.

I bet my dad gets jealous when he sees this selection of gourmet coffee

After being on my feet all day, I was quite happy to kick back in the cafe. It was tempting to push myself to keep exploring the city while I had the time, but I needed a bit of a recharge. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my feet that were hurting after all that walking; I was also feeling the first pangs of a migraine that would end up plaguing me for nearly two weeks.

Once I’d drunk up, I headed back to the Grand Hotel to pick up my suitcase and embark on the final leg of my journey. Rather than make Sasha drive from the airport into the center of the city, I opted to catch a shuttle between the train station and airport. This had the added advantage of allowing me to greet Sasha in true Valentine’s-Day-weekend fashion at the gates; we may not have had our luxurious hotel room and decadent lunch together, but at least we were able to manage a quick embrace and then a tedious three-hour drive home together. After five years, romance is still alive in this relationship!

In all seriousness, this was about as spectacular a failure as I’ve ever experienced on a trip, but I think I did a pretty good job salvaging things. Even Sasha didn’t complain that much, despite having been stuck in a boring airport for so many hours. Whatever else you might say about us, you have to admit that we are a couple that can roll with the punches.

Signs of spring despite all the late-winter storms

Giving thanks for food and friends

The year after I moved to the UK, I pulled out all the stops and hosted a massive Thanksgiving feast for my British friends. I cooked my first-ever roast turkey (actually, my first-ever roast bird of any sort), my first pie (pumpkin, of course), my first gravy (of a caliber I have yet to replicate), and all the other dishes you’d expect on the holiday. As I recall, it was all pretty tasty, but, to be honest, I have only a hazy memory of the event; I was exhausted by noon and literally falling asleep sitting up by 6:30 PM.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I haven’t felt inclined to repeat that undertaking in the last couple of years, though I was considering it this year. After all, I’ve got my lovely new antique dining room furniture to show off, not to mention my brand new napkins and place mats. Luckily, before I had a chance to send out invitations to anyone, I found out that my friend and colleague Amie, a fellow Midwestern expat, was planning to take one for the team and host a dinner for all the Americans we know at the University of Exeter. Unlike me, Amie was smart enough to suggest a potluck-style meal, with guests supplying pretty much everything but the turkey, the mashed potatoes, and the green beans.

Is that roast turkey? WE LIKE ROAST TURKEY.
Is that roast turkey? WE LIKE ROAST TURKEY.

Amie and her husband Alistair had a sous-chef named Murphy, who was later assisted in his efforts by Smudge (but somewhat hindered by Pippin, not pictured here). Smudge, obviously, is a chocolate lab, while Murphy is a droolly Newfoundland who took quite a liking to me (unfortunately for my wool sweater). Also in attendance were Jamie Horsley (Assistant College Manager of the College of Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences), Britt Koskella (a Biosciences lecturer), and the other American Caitlin on campus, my partner in crime from last spring’s geography field trip to California. All three ladies brought along their husbands, which meant that our entire party numbered ten.

Table

Unfortunately, our hosts were so focused on serving their guests that they only provided seats for us, and not for themselves. It didn’t take long to rectify that problem, though, and soon we were able to sit down for our feast. In addition to the dishes provided by Amie and Alistair, we also had squash (from Caitlin), creamed corn (from me), and kale salad and applesauce (from Britt).

The Americans couldn’t help but compare and contrast our ideas of what makes Thanksgiving. I expressed surprise that Britt brought applesauce, since I always thought that was something unique to my family. Everyone was perplexed by the heavenly hash and mandarin orange salad that I described from my family’s get-togethers. It didn’t take long for us to get distracted with talk of other American foods we love and miss. I, of course, mentioned Twizzlers; Jamie brought up Junior Mints; and nearly everyone (except me) talked about decadent, colorful, sugary cereals.

My plate

We also noted the abundance of pig products around the table. Alistair had covered the turkey with strips of bacon, which were served alongside the turkey breast. (YUM) He’d also put chunks of bacon (or perhaps pancetta?) in the green beans, as one should always do. Even the kale salad had bacon, thus somewhat negating the healthy effects of the kale. Delightful.

Another topic of conversation was the difference (or not) in the way Brits and Americans refer to the dish that I would call “cranberry sauce.” Some of our party felt that Brits were more likely to simply say “cranberry” (as in, “Can you please pass the cranberry?”), which we did hear during the evening. However, others argued that it was more common for everyone to say “cranberry sauce,” which we also heard. So the jury’s still out on that one.

Clean plate

As every American knows, no matter how much you’ve eaten for Thanksgiving, there is always room for dessert. After giving our stomachs some time to settle, we brought out the final course: cream cheese brownies, apple pie, and, of course, pumpkin pie. The last of these was made by me, even though I knew that the British half of our party was unlikely to partake (the Brits aren’t too fond of squashes prepared in a non-savory fashion). But it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie–plus, I happened to have 3 cans of pumpkin puree on hand, so why not?

Desserts

Pumpkin pie

Not to focus too much on my own dessert, but I have to say that even though it tasted lovely (if I do say so myself), its appearance was a bit lacking. I am something of a pie crust novice; although I am getting to grips with taste and texture, I have yet to achieve the sorts of aesthetics to which I am aspiring. After all, I grew up in the sort of house where this type of thing happened on a regular basis:

Apple pie
Oh well, I guess I can keep practicing with the other two cans of pumpkin puree that I have left.

We ended up chatting (and snacking) until nearly midnight, at which point the last of us reclaimed our dishes and headed out into the crisp, incredibly starry night (I’d even caught a glimpse of the Milky Way when we first arrived!).

The evening was a huge success, and felt remarkably like a “real” Thanksgiving even though we celebrated it two days late and on the wrong continent. That said, the Americans in particular seemed wistful when discussing absent family and distant places. I don’t know about my fellow thanks-givers, but I am looking forward to celebrating the next phase of the winter holiday season in my homeland. Still, as our little gathering showed, familiar foods, a jovial atmosphere, and a little flexibility can help recreate all the comforts of “home”–wherever and whatever that might be.