Fear of Pumpkins (Thanksgiving part 2)

My last post wound itself up so nicely that going into procuring Thanksgiving ingredients seemed like a bit of a tangent.  But it was an adventure which I wanted to duly document, especially as this was my first Thanksgiving where I was doing all the cooking.  I’ve helped before of course.  I’ve been helping my mother with the pies for years, including one memorable year where I was rolling out the dough for the mince pie, which we make every year for my uncle.

“Here,” my mother said, handing me a cookie cutter, “use this to cut a hole in the top so the steam can vent.”

I looked at the cookie cutter.  “Mom!  This is a Star of David!”  For the record, we’re not Jewish, so the existence of this cookie cutter in our house is a bit of a mystery.

My mother waved me off.  “Just use it.  No one will notice.”

On Thanksgiving day we put the mince pie in front of my uncle, and he took one look at it and said “Why is there a Star of David in my pie?”

In addition to making pies that welcome all faiths, I was also responsible for arranging the fruit bowls and the hors d’oevres spreads.  But I was never in on the mystery of turkey and stuffing preparation.  The most I did was shout my preferences from the living room.  And, when my father wanted to eschew canned cranberry sauce for the homemade stuff only, raised a protest with my sister.   After all, the log of cranberry sauce with the indentations of the can still in the side and the date stamped on the bottom is the very essence of Thanksgiving.

This year, though, I’m living in England, and no one here does Thanksgiving dinner.  They do roasts of course, and that’s very close, but I needed it to taste the same, and be American.  Thus began the odyssey of finding the exact right ingredients.

The turkey was pretty easy to come by.  I wanted a butcher one, and my mother in law worried it might be hard to get if we had to order it.  But lo and behold, she walked into the shop and there was 6kg of bird in all its glory.  Sweet potatoes don’t come in a can, but I was doing an orange glazed sweet potatoes that could be made with canned or fresh.  Alright, peeling and prepping sweet potatoes would bring me one step too close to living out Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (aka by me as Okonkwo and the Yam), a novel which I was forced to read as a student and teach, and which I have never liked.  But I was willing to make some sacrifices, for Thanksgiving.

Living with an Englishman, I had fortunately perfected a roast and mashed potatoes.  I think he would divorce me if I couldn’t do those things.  He was insistent we roast the turkey with ‘streaky bacon’ on it, which is just regular bacon to any American.  The British use back bacon, which is more meat and less fat, a difference I had learned of long ago.  The secret truth is that I prefer British bacon.

I decided to make the stuffing for myself.  The Brits have dried stuffing–I myself have cooked Paxo on several occasions.  But the bread bits are too small…there’s not enough celery…basically it’s tasty, but it’s just not Thanksgiving stuffing.

All in all, my Thanksgiving plans were coming together with ease.  The cherry pie filling my mother always uses wasn’t available, but as my husband hates cherries anyway I swapped cherry pie for raspberry pie and decided I was beginning my own tradition.  But then I hit some stumbling blocks: cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

I discovered that the Brits do in fact do cranberry sauce, and it’s even Ocean Spray that you find on the shelves.  But the kind that I had seen was whole berry in a tasteful little jar, and that just wouldn’t do.  I needed the jellied, smooth kind, in the can.  Amazon was selling it, but it wouldn’t arrive in time.  So two days before Thanksgiving I wandered the aisles of my local mega-Tesco, trying to hunt down the can.  In the end, I found the smooth stuff, but it was in a jar.  I would miss the round slices of cranberry sauce, but I chalked it up to cultural differences.  At least it was Ocean Spray, and at least it would taste the same.

The hardest thing by far was pumpkin for pumpkin pie.  I had ordered some off Amazon, but they sent me an email saying it wouldn’t arrive until Monday, which left me in a desperate situation.  I had to have pumpkin pie.  It’s that thing only a few people like, but you have to make it anyway because it *is* Thanksgiving.  I went up and down every aisle at Tesco.  Perhaps it would be with the squash in the vegetable aisle.  No.  Perhaps then with canned fruit or veg?  No.  Baking ingredients?  No…  I finally resorted to International foods, and there I found canned breadfruit and lychees, and a selection of Polish baby food, but no pumpkin.

As my husband helped me hunt, he pointed out “Even if you had gotten a pumpkin in October, it wouldn’t have been grown for taste.”  Halloween is sort of kind of making a start over here.  “We don’t really eat pumpkin.”

In that moment, I felt like I was really someone from the New World.  Of *course* you eat pumpkin.  It doesn’t just go into pie, but bread, and soup, and muffins, and even ravioli.

In the end, I prayed that the pumpkin my father-in-law had grown at his allotment was still good, and by a Thanksgiving miracle, it was.  So I made a pumpkin pie from absolute scratch, something I had never done before.  On the internet there was a helpful woman who, despite her use of comic sans, had many useful recommendations for cooking pumpkin pie abroad and had all her measurements in metric.  I was a real pioneer girl, making the food of my homeland in a foreign country.  Thanksgiving in reverse.

I still can’t get over the suspicion of pumpkins, which are so ubiquitous and innocuous to me.  But my sister-in-law, while heartily praising many of the dishes I made, marveling at how the cranberry sauce I cooked (I couldn’t resist trying it, and it’s crazy-easy) went from a mess to cranberry sauce, and praising both stuffings.  But she squinted at the pumpkin pie and said “That wasn’t what I was expecting.”  She thought it would be a two crust pie.  How could someone not know what pumpkin pie looks like?

When I related my epic orange odyssey to my best friend, also British, she said “I’m a bit wary of pumpkin.  It’s just that goop you get out of it when you make lanterns…I can’t imagine how that makes pie that tastes nice.”  That’s not even the bit you use!

Most of the time, living in England is not too terribly different from living in America.  A lot of the time when it comes to food, I can get the exact same brands as i do in America, and if not that, the general type of food is very similar.  There’s no language barrier.  But something as simple as the attitude toward pumpkin makes me realize this is a different country entirely.  One which is suspicious of squash.

On Thanksgiving a couple of family members dared to try the pumpkin pie.  The raspberry was gone within minutes, as were most of the mini mince pies I made.  But I took three quarters of the pumpkin back with me.  I have to say it was a good one though–creamy and rich and nice and spicy.  I’d make it again, but I can’t get any pumpkin.

A Very British Thanksgiving

British people are slightly afraid of pumpkins.

This is the weirdest lesson I’ve learned this Thanksgiving, but there are many others.

Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday if you live far from relatives.  It’s a big day that lots of people celebrate, and the day before Thanksgiving is often known as the biggest travel day of the year.  It comes inconveniently on a Thursday and not everyone has the Friday off.  More to the point, I live across an ocean, and if I’m going to come back I feel like I should choose my week wisely.  Thanksgiving is big and small at the same time–a big feast and a short amount of time.

Although I knew I was going to spend this Thanksgiving in England, I couldn’t not celebrate it.  My family is an eating family, and every year there is a vast spread, from Italian antipasti consisting of pickled vegetables to cheeses to coldcuts, then of course the turkey dinner, to fruit and nuts and four kinds of pie for dessert–and my father always buys a ton of Lindt chocolates.  It’s insane, but I couldn’t go without doing anything, so I set about making plans to host a Thanksgiving dinner.  MR and I have bought a house, but we’re still waiting for the paperwork to process, and at the moment we only live in a tiny apartment which can in a pinch, squeeze four people.  So my mother in law volunteered her kitchen, very generously.

Then it came time to procure the ingredients.  Most of it wasn’t too hard, because the British still often do a roast dinner on Sundays, and many of the components are the same: meat, gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables, etc.  The only thing was that I had to stand my ground regarding a turkey.  MR suggested we just get a turkey crown, which consists of the breasts only.  I was horrified–you can’t skimp on the *turkey.*  That’s the *point* of Thanksgiving!  After explaining this to him, we charged his mother with getting a turkey from the butcher in town.  As soon as she heard the mission, she asked “But wouldn’t you rather have a turkey crown?”

But that’s the thing about the British.  They don’t do excess, especially not with food, and yet Thanksgiving is all about excess.  As I described our meal, I noticed that everyone looked apprehensive at the idea of four kinds of pie and two kinds of stuffing and both mashed and sweet potatoes.  Meanwhile I was thinking that I wasn’t even cooking green bean casserole, or cornbread, because that’s just not what my family do.

This is something I’m learning about the British.  They are not a food culture.  I always kind of knew this, and of course there are tired stereotypes about British food being horrible.  When I traveled to England, before I knew any British people, I was surprised that the food was actually very good.  Not very fancy, but then my father’s family was German, and the Germans do the same kind of simple, hearty, tasty food.  Except they are much more enthusiastic about it.

In her book Watching the English, anthropologist Kate Fox devotes an entire chapter to the nation’s attitude towards food.  To sum it up, it’s basically this: if an English person cares too much about food, they are affected and snooty.  That seems to be a crime among the everyday English (which is worth a whole other post when I finally half figure out what the attitudes toward class are in this country.  It is very complex.).  So they adopt a very laissez-faire attitude towards food.  The easiest, cheapest way is the best, and anyone who goes to lengths to source ingredients or pays extra to get the nicer oils or vinegars, is regarded with a bit of suspicion.  I found this hard to believe.  I come from a rather gastronomic city, and in New York there are not only tons of world class restaurants, even the street food is quality.  People will argue for hours where to get the best bagels, and the best pizza.  When people find the ideal neighborhood place, they will travel to it for said pizzas or bagels, even if that means sitting in traffic on the BQE.   I know both an Italian and a German bakery in Queens (Joe’s Sicilian and Stork’s respecitvely) that both get lines around the block around any holiday–and deservedly so.  I will happily pay $15 for a plate of cookies from Stork’s because they are fabulous.  I have seen my father drop more than $100 in delis on a regular basis.

Which is the other thing–not only do I come from a food city, I come from a food family.  Culturally, both my ethnic backgrounds have a strong food backbone.  Italians are famous for being a food culture, and Germans have a healthy love for food themselves, especially when it comes to pastry.  And meat.  At least the Germans I’ve met, anyway.  My mother trained me to bake and cook from when I was small, and bake and cook in volume.  My father is actually obsessed with food, and spends hours driving to farm stands on the end of Long Island, or German butchers half an hour away just to get the meat he wants.  He spends an ungodly amount on food–in a week, he’ll easily spend what my husband and I have budgeted for food for a month.  Nevertheless, some of this has seeped into me.  I know that butcher meat is better than supermarket meat.  I know good food is sometimes worth the trouble and expense.  My friends get really excited about food even if they can’t cook.  When one of my friends was first starting out in her early twenties, she called me one night to ask how she should cook a can of corn (though to her credit, she has figured out how to cook in the intervening years).  But this same friend would talk enthusiastically about pizza, or remind me of pancakes my father made when she slept over in high school.  Another friend, a Texas transplant, will eat a bowl of microwaved vegetables for dinner when her husband is out of town, but ask her about getting Tex-Mex food in New York City, and she will report to you on the sad state of that cuisine in the northeast.  She will, however, tell you that it is possible to get real barbecue at Hill Country Barbecue, although she herself makes a mean brisket.  But she doesn’t like to cook.

That to me was being laissez fair about food–enjoying it still, but not being bothered for its preparation.  However, if good stuff was available, everyone I knew thought it worth the money.

Not so with the English. The first time MR and I had a real disagreement, it was over wedding cake.  I had thought my sister might make the wedding cake, being a baker, but she was also maid of honor and, more importantly, had no access to any of the tools she would need.  So I was telling this to him, and he turned very stubborn and vociferous.  “We are not spending hundreds of pounds on a wedding cake.  It’s a waste of money.  Nobody even eats it.”

“They will eat it, if it’s good.  I want people to remember our wedding cake as being delicious.”

“There’s no point!  We could just get a wedding cake from Marks & Spencer.”

A supermarket wedding cake?!  I was aghast.  Thus we started debating, and the debate was only solved by my mother stepping in and declaring “You have to have a real wedding cake.  I’ll pay for it.”

When it came to Thanksgiving and debates over turkey crowns and and suspicions about whether four kinds of pie was really necessary, I remembered the cake discussion.  I wasn’t surprised, but it was an attitude which still flummoxed me.  Why not have regular coffee instead of instant, for example?  Why be so blase about food?

The answer comes from World War II, I think.  There was rationing in the US, indeed all over, but the Brits took it to an extreme, and the rationing lasted for a long time after the war–due to post war recovery, strikes, and bad weather, rationing didn’t stop completely until 1954–nearly ten years after the end of the war.  During that time, the Brits did what they do best–make do and mend, soldier on.  Between governmental campaigns and the tenacity for survival that the British have in abundance, food stopped being a luxury and became something you ate to live.  As we’re only a handful of generations after that time, it’s not to hard to see why indulging in food is still seen as needless waste.

But I was hosting Thanksgiving, and the very definition of the holiday was about bounty, loading the table with as many goods of the harvest as are in reach.  Before the Hunger Games ironically used the cornucopia, the horn of plenty was a symbol of Thanksgiving, the idea of having an overabundance of food.  I seemed to be at a cultural impasse.

There was nothing for it but to soldier on and prepare the dinner as I would have done in the States, in the American way–be American no matter what, whether it fits in or not.  So on Thursday I sat down with my in-laws at an American Thanksgiving table, and explained about the pilgrims and Squanto, and we all dug in.  Everyone gamefully loaded their plates and stuffed themselves to the point of complaining about feeling sick afterwards.  There was a bit of family bickering and people trying to help but just getting in the way.

In short, it was a proper Thanksgiving.

Nine months was nothing, they said

I’ve just learned that the NYC Dept of Education, in all their wisdom, decided to cut February break short this year in order to make up for lost instruction time due to Hurricane Sandy.

My first thought is that this is abysmally stupid.  Firstly, in high schools, it just throws things off.  High schools run on semesters, and teachers plan accordingly.  Getting days in February will not help cover material needed for the January regents.  In my own classroom, this would have given the kids three more days on Things Fall Apart, but we still would have lost major time in the heroes unit that I do in November as a prequel to the Odyssey.  Also, I’m sure those days could have been found elsewhere.  Plus, I’ve missed at least two days out of the schoolyear several times before, and no one’s had to make up the days.  I’m mad on behalf of all my fellow teachers and all my students that they’re being punished for something they couldn’t control.

I’m mad because I know if it had been me, I would have been gutted.  I almost always used that February break to visit friends in England.  Over this past year, I used it to visit my fiance.

This takes me back to the time when I was embroiled in trying to make the decision of what to do.  When MR and I got engaged, we blithely assumed that it would be no problem to live together in either country, so long as we were married.  Arguably, it’s one of the reasons we moved so fast, although we can never know what might have happened if I was an English girl.  It turns out that we were only half right.  The UK would let us stay together, but the US was much more complicated.  If we wanted to live there together, we had to get married there.  To get married there, we needed to apply for a fiance visa, which would be given at an indeterminate date, taking up to seven months to process.  Once issued, we would have had to get married within 90 days.  Try planning a big wedding under those parameters.  It’s impossible.

Several people suggested the City Hall option, but that wasn’t an option for me.  I know a couple who were in our position–he’s Irish, she’s American, and that’s what they did.  She described her sudden City Hall wedding as an adventure, and I can absolutely see the appeal.  But it wasn’t for me.  I was one of those girls who had planned her wedding from when she was small, and I wasn’t about to give up on that once I had finally found the guy.  Plus, by the time we found this out we had already paid deposits and started planning our wedding in England.  I already had the big white dress with a train that was begging for a church aisle.  And I’m admittedly religious.  Not crazy evangelical or anything, but having a church wedding was really important to me.  And to MR–although he’s not religious, the pomp and circumstance appealed to him, much moreso than a clandestine city hall celebration.

We went to a lawyer, and she told us that if we got married in the UK, he would have to apply from there for entry, and that process could take nine months.  Nine months.  First, it would take four to five months to approve our marriage and decide that we actually did want to be together, and then it would take an additional four to five months to get his green card.  To add to that, during that time he might not be able to visit me.  UK visitors enter the US on a visa waiver program, but of course MR would be trying to waive his need for a visa while simultaneously applying for a visa.  In a post 9/11 world, such information comes up on the border control’s computers, and depending on which border guard he got and what mood they were in (95% chance of surly bordering on scary–nobody ever smiles at me at US customs), he could either be let through or put on the next flight back to the UK.

When we found this out we tried every possible permutation of how to get around this.  We asked every question.  People were constantly suggesting things to me–what if he got a student visa? (No, you can’t have dual intent with a student visa.)  What if he came in through Canada?  All of these were complex and none of them were really helpful. I myself tried to get a leave from the Department of Education for a semester to shorten the length of time we were apart and was given a resounding no.  Thanks, Dept. of Ed.  I can see you appreciate my years of loyal service.

After a couple of months of hemming and hawing, it became apparent that we had only two choices: either I give up my job, my car (I had a gorgeous BMW which I got by luck and some very nice friends), my apartment, my life, and move to England, or we spend the first nine months of our marriage apart, that I get married and go on honeymoon, and then fly back alone.

People were shocked that I might even consider the second option.  While the school secretaries were very kindly helping me with paperwork and scheduling meetings, I remember them saying “You have to think about this, honey.  Nine months is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to a lifetime.  You don’t want to give up a good job.”

It was true.  My job was pretty fabulous–I was teaching some of the brightest, nicest, funniest kids in the city.  I had great colleagues.  I even advised a program called TDF Open Doors which took kids to Broadway shows for free, because according to playwright Wendy Wasserstein, theater is every New Yorker’s birthright.  As the advisor, I got to go along.  For free.  To see Broadway shows which I would have shelled out hundreds for, and happily.  I was teaching creative writing, which was enormously fulfilling.

But we had already done eight months apart and it felt like an eternity.  Yes, I loved my job, but it didn’t compensate for how much I missed him.  That was a pang that was with me daily.  People said to me at least I had Skype, but I knew that.  We were already using every app available to us–Skype, email, What’sApp, gchat.  I will tell you this–nothing electronic can ever compensate for being with someone.  I didn’t know how much longer I could carry on.  Nine months didn’t seem like nothing.  In fact, the time frame seemed particularly significant when it came to being with my husband.  In nine months, I could gestate a baby.  And that started me thinking–I’m in my 30’s and just getting married.  What about having kids?  I knew I wanted them.  Three in an ideal world.  Would those nine months be crucial to the planning of my family?  Then I thought of getting pregnant during one of the few chances we’d have to see each other and doing it all on my own.  Not having anyone there for the baby’s first kick.  Not having anyone there to put together a crib or choose a carseat.  Not having anyone, and yet knowing there was someone who should be there, who would be, were it not for some really stupid immigration laws.

Well.  If you’ve been reading this blog, you know what we decided.  I’m sitting on a couch in Birmingham, typing away.  I won’t pretend it’s been an easy decision.  I miss New York a lot.  I miss my family.  I really want to go out for dinner and drinks with my friends.  I miss my students–the kids I saw enter as freshmen when I started teaching at THHS are graduating this year, and I would give anything to be there.

But when I see this news, that one of my few chances to see my husband would have been snatched from me, I feel the echo of the helpless ache I would have if I had stayed.  When even the thought of something that’s never going to happen causes me that much pain, I know I made the right choice.  Marius Pontmercy, indeed all of Victor Hugo’s characters, taught me well.  I have always been prepared to make big sacrifices for love.  I was so ready that when I was younger I left a world behind to go and live in North Carolina.  When that relationship failed, I thought it meant that I had been stupid to do that.  Indeed, when I got into this relationship at first, I vowed I wouldn’t move for him, that he would have to move for me.  My friend said, “It doesn’t work like that.  You have to be willing to do for him what he would do for you,” and I realized he was right.

Now I see that failed relationship wasn’t proof of my idiocy.  It was training wheels, to show me what such a sacrifice meant.  And it’s made this leap a lot easier.  This time, I have a real partnership, someone who loves me as much as I love him, and we are happy.  I miss home, but I’m building a new life here and making another home.  Now I know this for certain: I miss New York terribly, but not half as much as I would miss him if I were still there.

Tis the season

The holidays are fast approaching, and I am getting very excited.  Many people are not, as evidenced by these tv ads:

Basically the gist is, Christmas is a pain in the ass, but in the end you get the warm fuzzies.

My husband got upset at the Asda ad (the first one) because the tagline is “Behind every great Christmas, there’s Mum.”  He tends to get up and arms very quickly when he gets a whiff of reverse sexism (something that doesn’t exist so much).  Here, though, I have to agree with him–good holidays should be a team effort from both partners, and he’s definitely going to be the one putting kids’ bikes together, and we’ll do the dinner together…

Holy crap.  I just realized I have a date for all holidays for the rest of my life.  I also have a reason to host holidays.  I think this is a watershed moment, where I realize that I’m actually an adult.  Before this, I was always at my parents’ for holidays, helping out perhaps, but never in charge.  Now I realize that things could start to be very different.

They already are.  This year I’m hosting Thanksgiving, because I can’t just not celebrate it.  I love Thanksgiving!  I love all holidays, but I’m getting to that.  Obviously British people don’t celebrate Thanksgiving at all, but for me it is a lovely meal, the start of the holiday season.  It’s about fall colors and turkeys, and, in my family, a meal that goes on for literally six hours with lots of wine.  I can’t just let it pass by and shove a Tesco curry in the oven.

So I’m cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my in laws.  This will be a massive undertaking, since obviously I have to do it exactly like my parents do.  That means ordering pumpkin pie filling from Amazon.  But cherry pie filling can’t be obtained, and cans of jellied cranberry sauce (you know, with the rings permanently impressed into the semi-solid state of the cranberry sauce) is exhorbitantly priced.  Stuffing is also weird here, with smaller bits.  I’m used to the big cruton style stuffing.  But there will be three kinds of pie at least (apple, pumpkin, and mince), and my father’s sausage stuffing, and the turkey of course, and my mother’s orange yams, and mashed potatoes…as you can see, it’s quite the undertaking.  And yet I can’t wait.  I sit and plan in my head what I’m going to need and what I have to buy.

The same is true for Christmas.  Those ads make decorating and shopping seem a chore, but the truth is I love that stuff.  All of it.  I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for presents, because to me they’re very significant.  Someone goes out with you in mind and brings something back for you because they think you’ll like it–this is such a generous and thoughtful thing to do.  I realize that not all gifts are so personal, but I’d like to think they are.  I certainly take pride in carefully selecting presents for the people on my list, because I truly want them to get enjoyment out of these things.  When I see them doing so, it makes me happier than I can express.

But it’s not just the buying.  It’s the wrapping too.  When one of my friends moved to Germany, she gave me a wrapping station that holds all the tubes of wrapping paper, plus ribbon, plus scissors.  It was one of the best things I ever got in my life.  I couldn’t take it with me, and I was sad, but at least I know it found a good home with my sister.  Clearly I shall have to build a new wrapping empire here in England, and affordable and ubiquitous wrapping paper will make that a cinch.  The weird thing though is that the English don’t do present boxes.  Any American is familiar with the scramble to secure wrapping boxes, and the resulting stack of postcard perfect presents in perfectly square shapes.  I asked my husband about this and he was astonished to find that Americans use boxes.  He muttered about it for a good while, mostly along the lines of “Well, that just seems a bit of a waste of time.”  Nevertheless, I shall persevere and still have gorgeously wrapped presents.

I love it all, from the tree trimming to the baking to the Christmas carols in church.  Holidays fill me with cheer, and I love the idea of not only being happy myself, but also spreading that happiness to others.  What would otherwise be a very dark and cold part of the year is alight and warm with a festive spirit.  What’s not to love?

My husband, however, is not a particularly festive person when it comes to Christmas.  Gift giving to him is much more of a chore.  This year we’re treating each other to a weekend in London–he’ll get to see Professor Brian Cox and I’ll get to see Les Mis.  I’m not complaining about this arrangement in the slightest, as I get to see Les Mis and London, two things I especially enjoy.  But presents mean very little to him, and he professes to being ‘holiday-ed out’ at a certain point.  I, on the other hand, can sit for marathon sessions with my family on holidays.  It helps that as my father gets older, he gets slightly less crazy.

So now that I’m a grownup, and in charge of my holidays, I have to work on getting him more into the holiday spirit.  This is not so much for his sake as for our future children’s.  I want them to think of holidays fondly, as a good time for my family.  This is even more possible since I’m married to a man who does not tend towards semi schizophrenic rages.  But still, he does need some get up and go when it comes to holidays to make it something truly merry.  The question is, how do you get someone into the holiday spirit when they’ve never really had it?  That is the real puzzle.  Meanwhile, I will be happily purchasing Christmas bows to coordinate my wrapping paper.

A bit of nationalism

Today is election day.  Yesterday was Guy Fawkes day.  My husband has been playing Assassin’s Creed III for nearly a week straight.  I am surrounded by patriotism and revolution.

Guy Fawkes Day is something I cannot comprehend.  It all has to do with the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate James I.  It was that whole Catholic/ Protestant thing that seems to ire people for no apparent reason.  The plot failed, and Fawkes was one of the conspirators.  The wikipedia article is some pretty scary reading because it tells you what exactly they did to Fawkes, and what his public execution was comprised of.  So basically, as far as I can gather, people in England light bonfires and set off fireworks because of the victory of the status quo. Also, it is very cold in England in November, and what is the point of having fireworks if no one wants to go outside to see them?

Nobody seems to pay lots of attention to Guy Fawkes Day, though.  There’s a lot more attention paid to the poppies for Remembrance Day.  When I was at my in-laws for Sunday dinner, my father-in-law was wearing a poppy and the whole family talked about the parade and other ceremonies.  No one mentioned Bonfire Night at all until yesterday, when my husband and I were filling out mortgage forms at the bank and he had to sign and date something.  The mortgage adviser saw the date and quoted “Remember, remember, the 5th of November.”  Which is a poem about the plot, I think.  (Wikipedia says yes.)  And there were a lot of fireworks in our neighborhood, but it was freezing cold so we weren’t interested.

I’m trying to figure out the place of Guy Fawkes Day in modern Britain.  Why is it centered on a dark spot in British history?  Is it to get people to celebrate the fact that you will *not* win if you go up against the Crown?  Is it about the stability and tradition of the British monarchy?  Does it mean anything to people in England now?  I honestly do not know.  I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the Brits and their ways, and I’ve come to some understanding in places (like the tea thing.  I get that).

The American celebration which comes closest is 4th of July, mostly because of the fireworks and celebrating of national culture.  But the similarities end there–the country stops for 4th of July.  It is about the freedom of summer as much as it is about the freedom of the Colonies.  Which is the biggest difference–Guy Fawkes Day seems to celebrate the enduring power of the government, and July 4th is Independence Day, the date the Declaration of Independence was signed and the United States started a government from scratch, which, when you think about it, is a pretty rare feat.  And also if you have never read the Declaration of Independence, it is awesome, in both the colloquial and literal sense of the word.  And very hard to argue with.

According to my husband and the Assassin’s Creed games themselves (which I gather when he’s actually playing the plot of the game instead of messing around on his homestead), the Assassins’ enemies are the Templars, whose goal is to uphold order and structure, because humanity has a propensity toward chaos and needs to be protected from itself.  Obviously the American Revolution is the perfect backdrop for this, because that’s a prime example of throwing off the shackles of the old order.  Also, my tea-loving husband’s reaction when he had to participate in the Boston Tea Party was fantastically hilarious.

All of this coincides with election day, which is the very heart of the United States.  After all, one of the early slogans was “No taxation without representation.”  It still surprises me that British people don’t directly vote for their Prime Minister–they vote for the Member of Parliament who then votes for the Prime Minister.

But then…do Americans really vote for their President?  I made a point of sending in an absentee ballot because I wanted to vote in this election, which I feel is pretty high stakes.  But I know my state (New York) is going to Obama, and because everyone knows that, I get the feeling that the candidates feel my vote is worth a lot less than that of someone in Ohio, or Pennsylvania.  That does make me feel like less of a citizen in some ways.  I see the point of the electoral college, but since American politics has become more and more polarized, it’s made less and less sense.

Do the Templars have a point?  Is modern day America better off democratically than we would have been if we stayed British subjects?  That’s a weighty question, which I can even start to answer.  The UK and the US today are both a long way from the government of the Gunpowder Plot, where the punishment for revolution is torture.  All I can say is America has a tradition of change, and moving on to the new guard which we often forget about.  Fifty years ago, segregation was still in full swing–now we have a Black President.  When I was a kid, no one even talked about gay rights, now it’s everywhere, and more and more states have legalized gay marriage, with four putting the issue on the ballot today.  I’m not saying America is incapable of cruelty–that would be an atrocious lie.  But there is a capability in this young country to change, perhaps moreso than other countries steeped in centuries of tradition.  The question of whether this is America’s saving grace or damnation leads to which candidate you’re voting for.

4th of July is America’s national holiday, but today is the most patriotic day of all.  It’s about putting your money where your mouth is–whether people believe in their government enough to add their voices to it.

I think I’m turning British

The British pretty much embody those “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters which have become oddly ubiquitous.  Oddly, because the Nazis never invaded England, and the poster is otherwise a superfluous statement to the English.  The slogan isn’t a command, but a succinct summary of a way of life.  English people never make a fuss.  This is extremely important, because if you make a fuss, then other people might get bothered and then things would get Awkward.  Things must never, ever get awkward.

Americans are obviously different.  We like to give ’em hell, and ’em could really mean anyone.  People fly off the handle all the time, and it’s almost a badge of honor because you get what you want.  I’m not saying it’s right, but Americans are not half as concerned as being awkward.  Take reality tv as the extreme example.  No one in England would ever, ever flip a table over and scream that someone was a prostitution whore, but that very act vaulted Teresa Giudice to D List celebrity in America.  Lest you say that we stared in horror, I counter with the fact that I don’t think British people would even appreciate it for Teresa’s lack of knowledge regarding synonyms.  Their skin would crawl.  Sidenote: one could theorize this is why their scripted comedies are full of cringe-inducing embarrassment (see: the Office, UK version).  We laugh at those who we feel superior to, and in British comedy, the average watcher feels vastly superior to those who make scenes.

I’m quite an emotional person.  I don’t really give ’em hell, as it were, but there have definitely been times when I have let my emotions show in public.  Like when I sobbed on the subway unreservedly.  I did think that as I matured, though, I was getting better at not making scenes.  That is until I got to England.  MR has a couple of times accused me of being very American.  He had really bad tooth problems, and we went to the dentist, but they basically told him to say ‘aaah’ and then gave him some antibiotics.  I was livid, because he was in such pain and they weren’t doing anything to help him, and I expressed this as we were making our way to reception, and he promptly shushed me.  Later he told me that’s just not what British people do.

To underscore this, my mother-in-law told me a story of when she was in Vegas, and she and my father-in-law went to the Hard Rock Cafe.  His meal was apparently unpalatable, and when the waitress came round to ask how the food was, he told her so.  If you say this nicely, in America no one thinks twice.  Even if you say it rudely, it’s not a breach of etiquette except that everyone thinks you’re kind of a dick to wait staff.  But as my mother-in-law told me this story she said “I just wanted to sink through the floor.  I was willing him not to make a scene.”  He got the result he wanted–the food was carried back to the kitchen and the item taken off his bill.  But by forcing the waitress to carry it back in, to explain to the chef and the manager…to a British person, this is just all too awkward for words, and goes on the top 5 embarrassing moments list.

Which brings me to last Wednesday.

My husband and I, in an effort to do everything in a relationship as quickly as possible, are buying a house.  A year ago we had barely started dating, which is very weird to think.

In order to affect the purchase of this house, we went down to the bank to get a mortgage.  Because I am as yet unemployed due to visa reasons, the mortgage was only going to be in his name.  Nevertheless, I didn’t worry about this because he already has a mortgage, so it really seemed like a formality than anything else.

Until my husband recounted his job history.  He’s had three positions in the past two years, but each has been for a good reason.  He as gone to a better paying job, and then from a contract job to a permanent job (with an amazing boss).  All good reasons to switch, yet upon hearing this, the mortgage adviser got nervous.  Which in turn made me nervous.

Anyone who has failed a credit check ever will understand why I hate credit checks.  That disapproval of your whole life, the reduction of you to a number–a *bad* number.  And the pity in people’s faces when they tell you you’re declined.  It is heart stoppingly awful, and I didn’t think for one second my husband, with his no debt and his mortgage and his good paying job would ever be in that position.

And then I started thinking–what would I do if we were declined?  What if we couldn’t get a mortgage?  I was panicking inwardly, or not so inwardly as my husband said aloud “You’re nervous about the credit check, aren’t you?”

While we waited for all the data entry, his observation got me thinking.  A couple of days before we were talking about what we would do if I was still in NY during Hurricane Sandy and he was here in England.  He teased me that I would be panicking and falling apart, and I thought–no, I would hold it together.  But then I realized that I hadn’t shown him the more resilient side of me.  I do tend to fall to pieces around him because he picks them up, and I like the novelty of feeling so protected, as well as the protection itself.

I thought then that I needed to show him I would not be American in all things, and I wasn’t going to fall apart at the first hint of trouble.  This was happening to both of us, dammit, and I wasn’t going to hog the spotlight with my histrionics and make him feel worse, and like he had a partner he couldn’t rely on.  I was going to be a good wife, and I was going to do it by being as British as I could in this situation, and I would keep calm and carry on and keep the side up and all of that.  Tally-ho!

Before the answer came back, I had already determined that we would still try to find a mortgage, and if not, well then we would have to rent.  And while owning would certainly be preferable, we could still have a nice house if we rented, and we were going to make the best of it.  So when the mortgage adviser turned the screen around and CASE DECLINED was on the screen in big red letters, I was prepared.  I did not cry, or get upset.  When my husband expressed some of his frustration, I let some of mine go, but only *some.*  All in all, I was very proud of myself.

Apparently I still have some way to go–once we got that, and the adviser said it was an irreversible decision, I wanted to cut off the conversation with “Okay.  Thank you for your help.”  But apparently that’s not the done thing either.  And of course, my face was all too expressive–I feel like I have a wide range of facial expressions of which I am largely unaware.

Still, the important thing here is that I did not make a huge scene, and I did not make it because I knew that wouldn’t be the done thing.  That is acclimating.

But the moment I really knew this culture was seeping into my bones was when I got home.  I was alone, because MR was back at work for the afternoon.  I could have let loose and had a good cry and gotten in all out, something I’ve often found exceedingly cathartic.  But I didn’t shed a tear.

Instead, I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea.


PS – All’s well that ends well.  The decision was so puzzling that my husband took it to Twitter, saying he’d been with the bank all his life and didn’t see why they would suddenly reject his business.  They responded to his tweet and called him, and after some discussion, the reason came to light: it wasn’t because of the jobs, it was because according to their records he had missed a payment, but their records were incorrect.  He had the information to prove it, and they very reasonably said they were happy to give us a mortgage.  Which is a huge relief, although it does make the adviser kind of an idiot.  We have to meet with him again to process the paperwork, unfortunately.  My husband has ordered me to be nothing but polite.  Because we don’t want things to get Awkward.  I suppose the change isn’t that apparent.