Do I Need a We?

anglo-american-flagA student recently criticised my grammar.

“I resent your use of the collective pronoun, miss,” said the precocious lass, her hand raised high as Hermione.

At first I was quite impressed with her vocabulary and accurate application of grammatical terminology.  But my pride as both teacher and person was short lived once her meaning sank in.  She didn’t like that I said “we.”

We (the class) had been chatting amiably about the World Cup versus the Tour de France.  I (me) expressed mild frustration that sports shops were still festooned with World Cup football paraphernalia even though we (and by “we” I meant England) were out of the competition.  They (the shops), I argued, should be stocking cycling accessories since we (Britain) actually have a fighting chance of winning the Tour de France.  Where upon my student exploded in a tirade of grammatical indignation.

‘You’re not we!’ she protested.  ‘It drives me crazy when you say that.  You aren’t English, you know!’

I didn’t get mad or tell her off.  Maybe I should have.  What she said didn’t make me angry exactly.  She had a valid point.  But I can’t say her valid point didn’t sting.

‘You’re right,’ I said, my voice uncharacteristically soft.  ‘I probably don’t have the right to “we”.  Trouble is,’ I explained to my student, ‘I’m not sure who my “we” is anymore.’

She snorted at me a bit and rolled her eyes which did make me angry though I didn’t press it.  I was thrown too off-guard to be thinking like a teacher.  As far as she was concerned my “we” is totally obvious.  I’m American.  I sound American.  I act American (whatever that means).  America is my “we” not Britain.

Except I don’t feel American.  I haven’t lived there for 15 years.  In fact, I’ve been a resident of Britain for longer than my student has thank you very much, missy.  Not that time spent matters because I don’t feel British either.

So, who is my we?

Geographically speaking, we is Britain.  I’m here in Yorkshire.  I have no plans to live anywhere else.  If World War III breaks out, I’m on this side of the Atlantic.  Eventually I would be buried with the English dead.  You think they’d check my passport first?  Would alien invaders eject me over a cornfield just to maintain accurate categorisation?  Probably not.

Politically speaking, my we is probably American.  I’m not a British citizen.  I can’t vote in this country.  This does not stop me being subject to British laws and policies—a fact that is brought sharply into focus today as I join my union in a nationwide strike over salaries, pensions and working conditions.

Financially, my we is British.  I work for North Yorkshire County Council.  I pay taxes to the crown.  I have no American bank account or income at all.

Historically, my we is American.  When someone mentions “The Civil War” in passing, I automatically think Yankees and Confederates not Roundheads and Royalists.  Although even this is starting to change.  Both concepts camp side by side in my head until I sort through the context.  But I cannot share memories of Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures and I did not grow up with grandparents who could show me their ration cards or tell me where they were when Elizabeth was crowned.  My grandparents remember The Great Depression.  My dad remembers when his Missouri school was de-segregated.  I remember where I was when The Challenger exploded.  When Clinton was elected I appreciated what it meant.  I knew exactly why America freaked out so badly on the 11th of September.  Because we, unlike the British, can count with one hand the number of foreign attacks on American soil—with two fingers really.

Socially and culturally are a bit tricky.  My vocabulary is mostly British.  My accent is odd.  Very few people identify me as American straightaway these days.  But I speak more loudly and with more expression.  Ain’t nothing stiff bout my upper lip (this is totally a true stereotype by the way; the English have a very limited variety of facial expressions compared to Americans).  I code switch quite a bit, making myself sound more Yankee or more Yorkshire depending on circumstance or simply for effect.  My friends on this side of the Atlantic are all British.  The only Americans I’ve met recently have been part of the local military base and (with a few exceptions) I had nothing in common with them except being American and even they didn’t believe me when I told them I was a born Yankee.

Basically, I have no idea who my we is.  America has changed so much in the past fifteen years.  When I go “home” I feel like a tourist.  But I’m not a we here either.

Do I really need a we though?  I mean, really.  Maybe I just need to be content with I.  Can I be a solitary me?

As an only child this is probably easier for me than most people but I think I’m a pack animal.  All humans are.  We gravitate to the tribal.  I had hoped that Tribe Yorkshire might pull me into its fleecy embrace and mostly it has.  But I’ll never be a true member of the tribe and I don’t think I want to be.  I cherish my otherness.  It’s one of the reasons why New York City didn’t suit me.  Too many tribes—so many that if you try and carve yourself some individuality, you’ll find someone else got there first and made a support group for it.  I thought I would like that.  I thought I was tired of feeling like an outsider and that if I could just find the right tribe, I would be happy.  I would belong.

But New York City taught me how wrong I was.  I wasn’t happy but I learned something.  NYC taught me I like being the odd gal out.

As a kid, I used to play D&D in the back room of a comic shop with a tribe of wild boys who let me in their clubhouse.  They mistrusted me at first, but soon accepted me as one of their own.  I joined a Methodist Church for a while in high school so I could sing in their choir.  They baptised me and everything.  In college, I was briefly adopted by a pack of lesbians.  They didn’t really know what to make of me, but they let me come to their Coffee Houses on a regular basis. None of these tribes lasted.  I was a girl and as puberty came along that became more of an issue.  I wasn’t sure about the whole God thing, so church didn’t work out.  I wasn’t a lesbian and, even though they were kind and welcoming, it felt wrong for me to be part of their world.  If I had been them, I would have resented my use of “we”.  I had no right to a lesbian we for complicated political and emotional reasons.

I don’t have a right to a Yorkshire we either really.  But it’s hard to retrain your brain overnight.  Wes come automatically and I think my student is just going to have to be patient with me while I sort out which collective pronouns I can claim. 

Advertisements

The Founding Fathers versus Henry VIII

393413_10150521073198659_1104260466_nEvery year my daughter’s North Yorkshire primary school performs a Nativity Play. Shepherds with towels on their heads herding cotton-wool-costumed sheep; Wise Kings bearing gold tissue paper gifts; flocks of tinsel-draped angels; Mary picking her nose because she has been sat too long by a painted cardboard manger: proper old-school Nativity Play.  This happens annually at schools all over Britain.  I never questioned it nor gave it a second thought—save the disappointment that my child, a drama teacher’s daughter, couldn’t cope with a bit of donkey choreography.

My mother questioned it.

‘What if there’s a Jewish child?’

‘Err…’  I struggled.

Do we have Jews in England?  I haven’t met any.  This struck me as odd considering how many I know in America.  But Rabbi Lionel Blue has a regular spot on Thought for the Day and there’s a good bagel deli in North Leeds which never opens on Saturday.  Britain must have at least a few Jews.

‘Hindus, Muslims, Atheists?’ persisted my mother.

‘Oh, we have plenty of those,’ I replied brightly, pleased I could show some cultural awareness of my adopted nation.

‘Don’t they complain?’

‘About what?’ I asked.

‘The Nativity Play!’ exclaimed Mom.

‘Why?’

‘Because,’ my mother sighed in frustration, ‘the play is Christian.  It’s religious.’

‘It is?’  I gave my mother a puzzled look.  ‘But no one here seems to think a Nativity Play is religious,’ I protested.

I didn’t need my mother’s raised eyebrow to realise how ridiculous this sounded.  Of course—of course a Nativity Play is religious. Nativity Plays date back to the ninth century, a time-honoured religious tradition.   Of course the birth of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith.  And of course any self-respecting, First Amendment loving American should recoil in horror from the very idea of a public school hosting such an obviously Christian event.

Oh my God!  My daughter’s school has been breaking the law every year.  And no one has ever turned them in.  Was the whole community in on the secret?  Have there been underground meetings?  Have pacts been made?  Signed in blood?  Where does the conspiracy end?

My mind raced.  What about Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day?  The BBC is state funded.  Good Friday and Easter Monday are recognised Bank Holidays.  Religious Education is part of the National Curriculum.  My students have been led in prayer by our Assistant Head teacher.  He hands out Bibles.  In school!

Holy Mary!  Why has no one sued Britain for Religious Persecution or Human Rights violations?  Someone call the ACLU!

Of course they don’t have the ACLU in England.  More importantly, England has no separation of church and state.  Thanks to Henry VIII, the Church of England and the English Nation are one—inextricably linked.   This was the whole point of America—to escape the persecution of a national church unwilling to embrace diverse faiths.

The impact of a State Church does not end with school Nativity Plays.  Aside from the reigning sovereign being head of The Church of England, Parliament includes church leaders.  The House of Lords, vaguely equitable to America’s Senate, is made up of two unelected branches.  The Lords Temporal consists of the aristocracy, those with inherited or sometimes earned titles.  The Lords Spiritual is a body of religious leaders: the Bishops of Durham, Winchester, London and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury.  Church leadership plays a direct role in the government.  Astounding!  Like all true American souls mine is certain—absolutely certain—that church and state should be separate.  In England they are joined at the highest legal, judicial and executive levels.

Yet American currency declares “In God We Trust”.  The Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation Under God.”  Presidents end every sentence with “God Bless America.”  Clearly we’re kidding ourselves with this whole separation thing.

But that’s not the punchline.  England, with her state religion, head of the church monarch and primary school Nativities, is a far more secular nation than America could ever hope to be.  While America clings to God, England keeps God at a respectful and perhaps mistrustful arm’s length.

In 2011 the UK census reported 25% as “Having No Religion”.  In the same year only 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  72% of Americans identified as Christian while in the UK the number was only 59%.  Church attendance numbers are far lower than that.  It’s a bizarre reversal—though perhaps not that bizarre considering our histories.

America was founded by Puritans (religious zealots England cheerfully transported in their version of events).  Our churches have been centre stage of many great accomplishments: the Anti-Slavery movement, Labour Reform, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights.  England has been battered by its history with religion: Crusades, Catholic versus Protestant, The Hundred Years’ War, Irish Troubles, more Witch hunts than Salem could shake a stake at.  This is, naturally, a sweeping generalisation.  Of course it is.  It’s a thousand year trend.  But my point is valid.

970814_10151670015783659_876120044_nEngland has assimilated religion to the point where Nativity plays, Christening ceremonies, church holidays and even the buildings themselves—so many beautiful and ancient hymns of architecture— have been all but drained of spiritual meaning.  59% of the British identify Christian, but almost every parent I know Christens their child.  They might need Sat Nav to find the church, but they get there.  At the same time, a part of England’s racial memory recoils from religious fervour.  Like an alcoholic whose past traumas prevent her from drinking too deeply.

On the opposite shore, America tries to keep religion out of politics.  But we can’t help ourselves.  We fight to embrace it, we fight to reject it.

I wonder if America will grow ambivalent over time as Britain has?  If the differences between faiths continually rip apart the fabric of our country, we will someday look back at our Bible-bashing past and cringe?  Will Britain swing back the other direction?  Perhaps the current recession, the need for meaning and community support will draw her people back to the pulpits?  God knows.

The 4th of July Blues

Newsflash, America: the British do not celebrate Independence Day.

FatGirl-coverThis should be a no-brainer, yet my Yankee friends and family cannot conceive of a world in which the 4th of July does not include a day off, a barbeque and a fireworks display.  My own parents should be accustomed to this since, for most of my childhood, July 4th fell in the middle of Summer Rep season and there was usually a 6:45pm stage call.  Sometimes we might see distant fireworks during intermission.

Today I went to work at the usual time.  I did have a New York Deli sandwich and three Reeces’s Peanut Butter cups from the Co-op for lunch though.  This evening, after school and work, my family and I barbequed some burgers.  And that’s all she wrote.  Maybe I could have snuck over to the American military base outside of town to watch fireworks from across the road but I find the idea frankly depressing.  Like watching a circus through a window.  I have hosted barbeques at our house before.  I make far too much food and put Bruce Springsteen on the stereo.  But that doesn’t really fill the void either.

There are only two days on the calendar which make me feel truly homesick: Thanksgiving and Independence Day.  The British do not celebrate Thanksgiving either.  Another no-brainer that baffles those back home. I have tried to convince North Yorkshire County Council that American is a religion, making the 4th of July and the third Thursday in November High Holy Days which I should, by rights, have off work to celebrate in the manner of my people.  It hasn’t worked.  Yet.macxal-b781003076z.120120914133311000gse18stav.2

As compensation, I get Bonfire Night, aka 5th of November aka Guy Fawkes Night.  It’s a reasonably patriotic occasion, as patriotic as it gets in Britain.  Though it feels strange to celebrate a guy who tried to blow up parliament and over-throw the King.  Yes, I know we are celebrating the fact that he failed, but sometimes that little nuance gets lost in the rebellious North.

There are fireworks.  But it’s in November.  A fireworks display where no one plays God Bless America and during which I dance about to keep warm feels wrong.  Instead you inevitably get the Star Wars theme and sometimes Ride of the Valkyries.  Hot dog and burger barbeques are replaced by sausages and toffee apples around a bonfire.

46___SelectedOh, yes.  There is an enormous bonfire on which we get to burn an effigy.  Traditionally it’s a straw representation of Guy Fawkes, but it could be anyone really.  George Bush was a favourite a few years back and there is even one community in the south which every year petitions Rome for permission to burn an effigy of the pope.  It’s always granted.

Earlier today my brother-in-law asked if we burn effigies of the King on Independence Day.  I think we should definitely start doing this.  I can see it now.  Sunburnt folks gathered in their tank-topped masses and baseball hats as a straw man strapped to a wooden cross gets paraded through the cheering crowd to be ritually incinerated.

On second thought, we should probably stick with hotdogs.

A Tale of Two Teas

piccsP2Y61It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British love their tea.  It is their comfort, their panacea, their obligatory social activity. Tea is the answer to every question.  When planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the first thing my neighbour did was brew me a cup of tea.  After a challenging, exhausting day of mountain climbing in Wales, my sister-in-law spied a café in the distance and fervently declared her intention to “make love to that tea shop.”  In our household, the ultimate passive aggressive act is to make a cup of tea for yourself alone.  Such selfishness is unforgivable.

Tea can cause great controversy in other ways.  Serving it with a splash or two of milk is fairly standard in the UK, but by no means obligatory.  Some prefer tea with a slice of lemon.  Never try to serve it with both as lemon makes milk curdle.  Sugar is completely optional.  I am not sure if there is a regional pattern related to the addition of sugar in tea as there is in the US.  South of the American Mason-Dixon line, sweet tea is the norm while Northern Yankees like myself mostly drink it unsweetened.

Few issues cause greater debate amongst English tea drinkers than the timing of the milk.  It is an issue which divides families, drives wedges in otherwise happy marriages and brings friendships to an end.  I am definitely a Milk-Lastist while my friend Corrie is a Milk-Firstian.  And yet we will speak to each other.  Amazing.  Allow me to explain.

When Milk-Lastists such as myself make a cup of tea, we put the bag in the cup, pour over the boiling (BOILING, mind you!) water and then, only after the tea has steeped to a rich dark russet, do we remove the bag and add a bit of milk.  The rationale here is that once cold milk is added, the temperature of the water is compromised thus ruining the steep.  This philosophy enjoys the support of many great scientific leaders (namely my husband and his entire family).

On the other hand, Milk-Firstians like Corrie place the bag and the milk in the cup first and then add the boiling water.  Whilst I sneer at Milk-Firstians and all they stand for, I believe the theory behind their method is that if the milk is already in they do not have to calculate the space left in the cup for the adding of milk.  Some of them do not even bother to rationalise their ways and simply claim this is the “proper way to make a cup of tea”.  Again, I sneer.

Another, more charitable view, of the Milk-Firstian way is to claim that it is an evolutionary throw back to the days when tea was always made in a pot with loose leaf.  In cases such as this, adding milk to the cup as the tea steeps away happily in a separate container makes sense.  Primitive but understandable.  I still love my friend Corrie…despite her deviant ways.

One tea-related issue unites Britain as a nation under leaf: iced tea is a myth.Kitchen-Talks-Iced-Tea-2

Iced tea baffles them more than a poodle smoking a pipe.  They just don’t get it.  You can explain how refreshing it is.  You can draw them a picture of it.  You can hand them a dewy glass of it on a hot summer day.  They might take a polite sip, but I guarantee you it will only be out of well-bred politeness.  Then they will fire up the kettle faster than you can say “What the—

During one of my mother’s early summer visits, she dared to hope.  At the Magpie Café in Whitby she ordered: “Iced tea?”  The waitress beamed back: “Of course.”  One can only imagine the panicked conversation which took place amongst the Magpie wait staff when faced with an order for iced tea.  If my mother had asked for yak’s milk fermented with monkey piss they would have been less put off than by her request for iced tea.  But, to the eternal credit of their service and manners, the nice young lady served my mother iced tea.  That is to say, she brought out a small boiling pot of tea and a glass containing a single ice cube.

Honestly, that’s about the best you can hope for.

I am training my family to be more open-minded about iced tea.  Whilst my husband is a lost cause, my eldest daughter Freya is a devoted fan of both iced tea and English tea (though she shocks her father often by asking for it black with lemon).  During summer visits to America she loves making Sun Tea.  This traditional Yankee method is achieved by placing tea bags and cold water in a sealed glass container then leaving it out in the sunshine to brew naturally with solar heat.  Sun being a rare and precious thing here, Freya and I have devised our own method of making iced tea to enjoy in the summer months.  Try it if you dare…

 Yankee Iced Tea

In a glass jug, pour one pint of boiling water over three black tea bags and two peppermint tea bags.  Allow the brew to cool completely before removing all bags.  In a large pitcher, dilute the pint of concentrated tea with three more pints of cold water.  Top up with a generous amount of ice.  Serve cold.  You could also try experimenting with lemon, chamomile or jasmine tea instead of peppermint.  Enjoy.  Or at least try.

Is British Food Really That Bad Part Two: The Sampling

Why do so many traditional British dishes sound like euphemisms for sex?  “Oh aye, I gave her a right serving of me Ploughman’s Lunch.”  “Going home for a bit of the old Yorkshire Pudding (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  “She’s a lovely bit of Crumpet.”  Bangers and Mash doesn’t even require much imagination to make it sound naughty. Cream Tea anyone?

I ask you?  These people are so rude!  What do you mean it’s just me…

But wherever you are you gotta eat (words of wisdom from some mother no doubt).  This can be quite a worrying fact of human life when one is in a foreign country.  There are, of course, inevitable universals—like the McDonald’s sign indelibly fixed to part of the wall around the Tower of London pointing tourists in the right direction for the nearest heart attack.  More recently, Subway has firmly transplanted itself in the UK.  I remember vividly when the first beloved sandwich shop opened in Harrogate.  I did a little dance.  Literally.

Outside of fast food options, it seems anywhere you go in the Western World, you can find a version of a grilled cheese sandwich (in the UK, ask for a cheese toastie or simply “cheese on toast”) and apple pie (here they call it “apple pie” but you get it smothered in warm custard rather than with a scoop of ice cream).  Hot cheese on bread and apples in crust aside, there are aspects of English cuisine that seem exotic–or at least strange–right up until the time you actually eat it.

For those of you new to Britain, contemplating a trip to Britain or simply curious about what all this weird sounding food is really all about, let me offer the following anecdotes from my own explorations into British Food.

250px-Bangers_and_mash_1Bangers and Mash.  This is a rather risque name for a frankly vanilla sort of meal.  The “mash” is mashed potato and “bangers” are sausages.  (The term is also used by some as a slang term for breasts, but if you are ordering in a pub you will not get a bodacious waitress inviting you to eat potato from her cleavage.  Sorry to spoil the fantasy.)  English sausages can vary wildly in quality—from the utterly marvelous to the barely digestible.  If you are purchasing from a grocery store, the varieties of sausage will amaze you.  Like many food products, the varieties are given regional names: Lincolnshire, Cumberland, Aberdeen Angus etc.  Should be served with a rich, onion gravy or a tin of beans.

images (1)Crumpets.  Crumpets are very difficult to describe to an American because we really have no equivalent.  They are generally served in similar ways and under similar eating conditions as American biscuits (which the English have no concept of) or English Muffins (only here they are just called “muffins”).  Visually they are approximately the same size as a muffin and smothered with butter/butter-like product and either jam, honey or marmite.  (Marmite is a controversial topic deserving a separate post of its own).  But the texture of a crumpet is completely different.  They are chewy for starters, not flaky or crispy at all.  Though if toasted properly, they can get a slight crispy edge to the top.  They have a subtle sourdough flavour.  Serve warm with a hot cup of tea.

ploughmansPloughman’s Lunch.  This is another one of those English dishes that sounds far more terrifying than it actually is.  At most cafes in this country, including those at major and minor tourist destinations, you will see a Ploughman’s Lunch advertised, but mostly likely will avoid it out of sheer terror and/or confusion. A Ploughman’s Lunch could not be more Yankee friendly if it tried.  It’s basically a just a cold plate of cheeses, meats, salad and a roll generally served with some kind of relish, pickle or chutney.  I convinced my Dad to try it a few years ago and it has become his lunch of choice in the UK.

black-gold-stick-with-slices_350Black Pudding.  Also known as blood sausage, Black Pudding often takes a starring role in people’s nightmares about English food.  My sadistic brother-in-law, well-known fan of Black Pudding, could not wait to force it on me.  Interestingly, England is not the only country which has black/blood pudding on its menu.  Most European as well as many Asian countries produce a sausage whose primary ingredient is congealed animal (usually pig) blood and grain fillers such as oatmeal.  In the UK, Black Pudding commonly comes in a log and is sliced and fried as part of a cooked breakfast.  But what does blood sausage actually taste like?  Have I dared to eat it?  Could I even look at it without fainting?  Sorry to disappoint you, but Black Pudding tastes pretty much like a rich, meaty textured sausage.  Nothing scary at all.

spotted-dickSpotted Dick.  Even the Brits admit this one sounds like some kind of sexually transmitted disease.  It is, in fact, one of the many delicious varieties of steamed sponge pudding.  Imagine taking something that is essentially cake batter, but instead of baking it, you steam it in a sealed, buttered bowl.  I have no idea where the “dick” part comes into it, but the “spots” are raisins.  Drench it in warm custard and enjoy.

Single Yorkshire Pudding for cut out Keywords: Baking Batter source: FOODPIXYorkshire Pudding.  Contrary to logic, Yorkshire Pudding is not a dessert—though its basic recipe is similar to unsweetened pancake batter.  Yorkshire pudding is essentially a side dish for a savoury meal, usually roast beef or sausage, served with liberal amounts of gravy.  Perhaps the nearest example America has to it is the way biscuits are sometimes served with fried chicken or sausage gravy.  The flavour, texture and cooking method are like nothing else I have experienced.  It’s a crispy, chewy, slightly fluffy, sort of fried pancake.  My husband, eldest daughter and mother are utterly devoted to this dish.  Personally, I can take it or leave it but I usually keep my ambivalence quiet because folk in my neck of the moors get very passionate about their Yorkshires.

Is British Food Really That Bad? Part One: Adventures in Produce

It is a known fact on a nutritional level that we are what we eat.  There is a great deal of truth in that statement on a wider scale as well.  By microscoping what a nation puts on its table, you see into its very soul.  Many people sneer at British cooking—even the British in that self-deprecating way they have.  The duelling adjectives: bland and boring are frequently batted around in ignorant conversation, and I use “ignorant” here in the true meaning of the word: without direct experience. While preparing for my immigration back in America, I heard sinisterly whispered stories about blood pudding, crumpets, bangers and mash—food that sounded like it belonged in a horror film rather than on a plate.  What does all this say about Britain’s soul I wondered?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATherefore, one of my first acts as a foreigner planning on settling down for a good long stay, was to visit popular grocery store chain Sainsburys.  Here I might be able to satisfy my curiosity over these fear-mongering rumours.  In Sainsburys I was greeted by an entire aisle of Indian cooking ingredients, a wondrous pickle section of jars labelled Ploughman’s and Piccalilli (which I thought was a circus); a dizzying array of cheeses boasting local names like Lancashire and Wensleydale and only one kind of cheese was orange!  Imagine.

organic-sausages-english-meatSausages were made with pork, sage and apple, and the produce was the freshest and most varied I had ever seen outside of a farmer’s market.  To be fair, there was also a nauseating array of potted meat products–some actually having the nerve to simply call themselves “potted meat”.  Honestly, do these people have no imagination or sense of marketing?  Another label sporting Old Glory art work read: “American Style Hot Dogs”, subscript: “in brine” on a large glass jar containing what looked like floating…um…things that look a bit like hot dogs but aren’t. So far the scariest thing I had seen was an attempt at American food.

In typical English fashion, there were many things familiar to me, though they were called by different names.  Courgette instead of zucchini, eggplants were labelled aubergine, and when I asked if they carried Butternut squash, the confused assistant led me to an aisle full of what looked like Kool Aid in large plastic bottles.  Squash, I learned later that day, is a concentrated fruity liquid you mix with water to make a drink, which—funnily enough—tastes like Kool Aid.

I spent two and a half hours just walking around, ogling the differences.  It was better than a museum, and far more informative to a Yankee transplant yearning to blend in.  I filled my shopping basket with a wedge of Wensleydale with Cranberries, Cumberland sausages, Cox apples (I could go on for hours about the glory of English apples), Crumpets, a jar of something called Lemon Curd and a copy of BBC’s Good Food magazine—another valuable contributor to my culinary enculturation.

What struck me most deeply about my grocery experience was the variety.  In America we have a kind of variety.  We go the grocery store and get to choose from twenty different brands and types of peanut butter—Skippy or Jiff, smooth, crunchy, extra crunchy.  But in the grocery stores I have visited here, I find a real cornucopia of ingredients and products.  At least thirty different varieties of potted meat.

British-Cheeses_520The produce was something else which stood out to me.  No Florida oranges here—they all come from Spain.  And the strawberries…gods above the strawberries!  A longer growing season and shorter distances mean that regional fruits and vegetables are easily available and fresh when they are in season.  Hundreds of traditional cheeses with local variations are a highlight, though British cheese is often over-looked in favour of its flashier French neighbour’s.  The influence of the nation’s growing plurality is having a very positive impact as well on the culinary variety in the British diet—Indian food in particular now widely recognised as being the country’s favourite meal.  More recently, Mexican food has also become common place.  When I first moved here, there might have been half a shelf featuring a few Old El Paso items.  Now there is a quarter aisle devoted to Tex-Mex ingredients.

What is best about British cooking is the use of fresh, local, if possible seasonal ingredients and a real sense of national identity and pride in food.  Unlike other aspects of British culture, affection for their own cuisine is something Brits can get behind.  If you want to see a Yorkshire man cry, ask about his mother’s Yorkshire Pudding.  If you want to get told off by a Yorkshire granny, suggest that cheese is a really stupid thing to serve with fruitcake.  And if you really want to get your ass kicked, bring up the superiority of French cuisine.

Love them or hate them, the likes of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsey have made English food sexy.  The British seem to have a real sense of pride and love in their traditional dishes and products.  From their mouths…to their hearts, to misquote the old Jewish saying.  Because food is not just about eating.  Food is family, it is politics, it is history, it is narrative and, no matter what your therapist says, food is love.

In the next blog post, I sample some of those scary British dishes and tell you what exactly what Blood Pudding, Crumpets and Haggis are really like.

Ex-Pat Yankee Dreams of Home

Rootbeer, pickle relish, tacos. The sound of a front porch screen door slapping on its sprung hinges. Choruses of June bugs accompanying firefly acolytes in a sanctuary of summer twilight. Thunderstorms. National parks. Distances. Corn.

Rivers of a proper size and people who use their car horns and raiding mulberry trees. Singing Battle Hymn of the Republic as part of a large, harmonious choir. Sundays that mean something.

A decent doughnut with a bottomless cup of coffee. Diners, truck stops, service. Taking a Greyhound bus across endless miles of straight road. The sound of the letter R. Submarine sandwiches of architectural size and shameless self-belief.

The people who have known me and loved me since birth. Closets. Skunks. Flags.

Ducks made of calico at shopping mall craft shows. The county fair. My mother’s cheesecake and my father’s houseplants. The friends who grew up with me. “God bless you.”

Mark Twain one man shows, country music radio, roadmaps based on geometry. Saturday garage sale expeditions planned with military precision. The rapid-fire voices of auctioneers. Serious heat and serious cold and a history that is my own.

The feeling I belong, even as a discontented outsider, to a world that had no choice but to welcome me.

old house
Also corn dogs.

The Lost Patriot’s Department

I never considered myself an American. My birth certificate clearly identifies me as one, even if my accent doesn’t these days. But I never identified as American. Americans wave flags. I burned one at my seventeenth birthday party. Americans cheer their favourite football teams. I invented rude alternatives to our high school chants (not difficult when your mascot is a Trojan) and ran in terror from the cultish fans mobbing the holy ground of Nebraska Cornhusker Stadium. Americans actively attend church. I actually joined a church in high school, largely as an act of rebellion against my agnostic parents and an excuse to join another choir.

American? No. I was never an American.

Never an American until I moved out of America. The moment I landed in Britain, “American” became the most important part of my identity—indeed the only identity I possessed. To many people it still is. To my husband’s family I was “the American internet girlfriend”. Now I am “My brother/son/cousin’s American wife”. To my students I am “Mrs Elmer, she’s American.” My close friends almost invariably introduce me to others as “This is Kate, she’s American.”

Fair enough. I am an Other here, after-all. But when I first moved to the UK I got so fed up with the repetitive, half-hour conversations concerning my Otherness I conducted shopping exchanges in mute silence. This got easier as my accent mellowed a bit. Natives never mistake me for British, but I get Irish occasionally and Canadian often. Brits do not seem to find the Irish or Canadians particularly interesting, so they are welcome to mis-categorise me all they like.

But the obligatory “You’re American? I’ve been to Florida” dialogue is not as difficult to deal with as “The Questions” or “The Look”.

“The Questions” usually only happen the first time I meet someone new or if something dramatic is going on in America. They go something like this:
“Where did you live in the States?”
“Why are you here?”
“When did you move here?”
“How do you like our weather?” (The British way of gauging my national preference: Britain or America.)
“Who’s this insert current controversial American person?”
“What do you think of insert current American political issue?”

The last two questions are naturally the trickiest and the most irritating. I cannot blame the askers. They are taking advantage of an opportunity to get a native perspective on topics which often dominate global politics. On the one hand I am eager to share my views and shatter some of the preconceptions Brits have about Americans. On the other hand, being held to account for a country I have never truly claimed as my own leaves me feeling conflicted.

I don’t know why America voted George W Bush into office twice, but I can guess.

Yes, I know more people died from the years of terrorist violence with Northern Ireland than on that one day in September but we don’t have that kind of history on American soil.

No, I have never owned a gun but I can talk you through the Second Amendment of our Constitution.

And then there is “The Look”. “The Look” happens anytime an eruption of volcanic Yankee stupidity shoots toxic lava across the headlines. Sometimes “The Look” is nothing more than a sub-conscious, side-long glace my direction. Sometimes it is a challenging moment of lingering eye-contact. “The Look” means: “What do you have to say for yourself, Yankee?” I have spent many long evenings with “The Look” trying to explain Sarah Palin, resistance to socialised medicine and always, always gun control.

I spent more time talking and thinking about America in my first year living in Britain than I had in twenty-eight years living in America. The nation I tried so hard to ignore or reject became the only thing anyone ever wanted to talk about with me. Britain forced me to become American—a reluctant political spokesperson/historian/cultural expert.

Eventually I decided I was ready for it. Years of defending, explaining and justifying my country finally triggered my defensive weaponry. It brought out the patriot in me.

My country is just as old as yours, it just took you guys ages to find it.

No…of course we don’t do sarcasm—just ask Woody Allen, Groucho Marx and Mark Twain.

That’s right we like our guns. They came in pretty handy when we kicked your asses out of our colonies!

America is my country, dammit. If anyone is going to criticise it, it’s going to be me. I am Kate the Yankee in Yorkshire. Bring it freaking on, Limey Dudes!

Then two years ago a mutual friend introduced me to Kelly, a military wife from the nearby Army Base with a rich Southern accent my homesick ears could not get enough of. Kelly invited me to a night of card games and rootbeer with other American women from the base. It was nice to hear a noisy roomful of hard consonants and taste familiar foods. I was admiring an enormous tray of Mexican Seven-Layer Dip when one of the base ladies struck up polite conversation with me.

I grinned stupidly, enjoying the sound of her voice. She indicated the tray of melted cheese and beans: “You won’t have had this before. It’s Mexican Dip with…”

My smile fell. Not have had this before? Is the kidding?  I’ve made this before.  I practically freaking invented it!

“I’ve had it before,” I assured her.

“Oh, really? When did you visit America?”  Oh my god! This woman thought I was British.

“Umm… I am American.”

“You are?” Of course I am, you moron! Can’t you tell?

“Born in Iowa,” I giggled politely. But I could tell she didn’t believe me.

“You don’t sound American,” she persisted.

Kelly intervened. “She’s American,” insisted my friend. “Even if she doesn’t always sound like it.”

I scooped up some Mexican Seven-Layer Dip and hid in a corner to process what had just happened. She didn’t recognise me. She refused to claim me as a fellow American. How ridiculous! I shook off my feelings of rejection and struck up a conversation with the nearest military wife.

“Hi, I’m Katie Jo,” she greeted cheerfully. “I’m from Idaho. You won’t have heard of that.”

Oh, shit! Not again! Seriously? I spent my entire life eating your bloody potatoes, woman! Of course I’ve heard of Idaho.

And that is how my night went. Over and over again I had to prove my American-ness to other Americans. I am an outsider here and now, apparently, I am an outsider to my own people.

A few weeks later, I experienced another culture shock. My sister-law’s father-in-law (keep up, people) started in on “The Questions”. Being a political man disinterested in small talk, he skipped straight to the last two.

“Where did this Michelle Bachmann come from?”

“Ummm…who?”

“What do Americans think of Barak Obama? Will he get re-elected?”

“Errr…not really sure. I’ll ask some of my American friends.”

Whereupon my sister-in-law’s father-in-law gave me a long, hard “Look”. Only “The Look” was not “What do you have to say for yourself, Yankee?” The Look was “Who the hell are you, then Yankee?”

Good question, father-in-law-law. America has changed dramatically since I immigrated in 1999. I hardly know the place. Conversations with my American friends and family involve a lot of: Sorry, never heard of that show/band/actor/film. Who are you talking about? What’s that?

Orphaned Woman found in Yorkshire! Used but still in Working Order. Please claim or she will be consigned to The Lost Patriots Department.

I am sure every ex-pat experiences this moment. The moment when you realise you have been too long away from home to call it that anymore. The question is what do you call yourself? I haven’t got an answer. I’m not Yankee enough for the Americans and I am far too Yankee for the Brits. For now, I suppose my identity remains in limbo: a Yankee in Yorkshire.

The Emo Olympics

BBC Commentators this morning referred to London 2012 as “The Crying Games”.  And it truly is!  The crying, cheering, laughing, gasping, hugging, jumping, leaping about, crowing like Peter Pan games here in the UK.  Emotions are all over the place because Team GB is achieving such heights of athletic greatness.  Yorkshire, especially, is doing so well  we could compete as our own country!

I have never seen the British get so excited about their own success.  I have never seen them so patriotic.  The Jubilee didn’t do it.  The Royal Wedding didn’t do it.  The Olympics did.  It’s not an “In Your Face, World!” kind of pride.  It’s bone deep.  It’s real, true, forever love–the kind many of them perhaps thought might have been lost.  Every medal, every waving flag, every play of the national anthem has them on physically on their feet and emotionally on their knees.

To Americans this may not seem a monumental event.  We have a sense of national pride in our blood that has never faded.  Even as an ex-pat I have it.  I can’t make it past a phrase of America the Beautiful or This Land is Your Land without choking up.  I  cheered my voice hoarse over Gabby Douglass and punched the air for the revival of American Women’s Gymnastics.  

But for this British this is fresh.  This is first love  with all its giddy, restless wonder.  In previous posts I have mentioned the British aversion to patriotism.  I even feared the Olympics might be a painful experience for Britain.  Perhaps history will cite London 2012 as a contributing factor to Britain rediscovering it’s sense of self and self-love.

Tea Time?

“Since we are not all ladies of leisure, the idea of taking a cream tea as part of a day out is very important as this really shows that we are having a day off and being hedonistic.”

My first introduction to English Teatime was in—of all places—Lincoln, Nebraska.  In the city’s historic Haymarket District, there was (and still is as far as I know) a charming little store run by a charming little woman: Victoria’s Cousin.  The shop mostly seemed to sell Crabtree & Evelyn, but also offered Afternoon Tea.  About twice a year, the women of University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Graduate Theatre Program would itch for a Gwendolyn and Cecily moment.  We would rummage through our wardrobes looking for the clothes we generally reserved for interviews, steal a pair of gloves from costume stock, top it all off with the only corsage any of us had worn since high school prom and haul our fabulously rose-lotion-scented butts down to Victoria’s Cousin for finger sandwiches, scones and Earl Grey.  In most respects, Victoria’s Cousin was not too far off the mark in terms of authenticity.  Though I have discovered since moving to England that Teatime is relative…and quite confusing.

Raised as I was by BBC imports on PBS, I thought Teatime meant raised pinkies and cakes on doilies.  Imagine my expression when my at-the-time-boyfriend-now-husband suggested at six o’clock at night that we order pizza for tea.  Pizza for tea?  Isn’t this the wrong time for tea?  Where’s my doily?  Where’s my jam pot?  What are you talking about, man?  It was difficult enough living in the Midwest where the dinner versus lunch divide caused me no end of dizziness, now I had to juggle definitions of Lunch, Dinner, Supper and Tea that seemed to be almost random in their usage.  It soon became my linguistic, cultural and culinary mission to figure out what British people mean when they say “Teatime”.

When you move to a completely new country, even one where you allegedly speak the language, you have to accept that you will ask stupid questions and feel like an idiot for at least two years.  It was in this spirit of child-like discovery that I entered into my Quest to Define Teatime.  I was aware of the Victorian model of meal times (also adopted by Hobbits everywhere): Breakfast, Elevenses, Luncheon, Tea, Dinner, Supper; but I set out to investigate what Tea means to Brits in the Twenty-First Century.

At first, I assumed that the variations would be geographically based, as I believe they are in America.  To a certain extent, geography does play a part.  The people I spoke to from the Southern areas of England largely echoed my stereotype of teatime—a light meal served around four o’clock involving some kind of little sandwiches, cake and hot steeped beverage.  The closer these people lived to London, the more consistent this understanding of the word became.  These same people, again, mostly from the South East, defined Lunch as a light mid-day meal and Dinner as the main meal in the evening.

However,  those from the Midlands and the North all divided the eating day in the following manner: Breakfast in the morning (thank goodness something remains fairly universal), Dinner at midday, Tea in the evening and Supper just before bed.  And the differences do not end there: meal size and the level of formality play a big part in how one labels one’s food (or libels one’s food I hear my father jibe).

My friend Dave offered this helpful commentary on the subject:

Dinner is the main hot meal of the day, usually at about 6pm. Lunch is a lighter meal in the middle of the day. Tea is a lighter meal in the early evening if you’ve had your main hot meal in the middle of the day. Supper is a hot drink and a biscuit at 9pm.  “Lunch” is always a midday meal, “Supper” an evening one, and “Tea” either evening or late afternoon.  “Dinner” is usually the evening meal, but it always means a big meal; so if, on a particular day, you have a big midday meal and only a very light meal in the evening, then the big midday meal is “Dinner”. So usually, your big meal is in the evening and you only have a light meal midday, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner.  Sometimes, on a day when you have got plenty of time midday, you have a great big meal then, and only a light meal (usually heavy on the salad, but with cake as well) in the evening, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner, Tea or Supper.

And, at this point, I pray for death wondering why I ever thought it was a good idea to ask my friends to explain the intricacies of English custom.  Others, including London-based Yorkshire-born Tony, felt that where you ate your meal was just as important as when or what you ate.  “Tea is just your evening meal eaten at home. If you go out it becomes Dinner.  At home, Dinner is eaten around midday, but if you go out it becomes Lunch.”  It is true that I never hear anyone say they are “going out for Tea”, unless they mean tea and scones Tea.  So not only do I now have to take into consideration the size and formality, but also the location.

Claire is an anthropologist—which means talking about things like What is Teatime is pretty much her raison d’etre.  It was Claire who first really opened my eyes to the fact that the definitions of meal times have far more to do with class than they do with what’s on your plate, where you are or what time of day it is.

Whether you have lunch dinner or tea is still seen by some to be a definite indicator of class.  I invited some colleagues around for Tea a few weeks ago.  One of them absolutely assumed that I meant cakes and scones at five when we finished work.  This is ridiculous, as anyone at work cannot take afternoon tea properly, so most people would assume that I meant Dinner, and not Tea.  To all intents and purposes it looked as if she was making the point that the meal is properly called Dinner.  This then made her look a bit like a snob for pointing out, albeit sideways that I was using the wrong term.  The majority use the terms interchangeably, and to make a stand looks silly these days.

Presumably, Claire’s work colleague, if she was not raised by a lady of leisure, was at least raised by someone who wanted to give the appearance of someone who could be a lady of leisure if give the proper opportunity.  And it is that very issue of status or perceived status that is at the heart of what Teatime means. Claire, though she spent most of her young and adult life in the Northern areas of the country, now lives in Kent, which is near enough to be within commuting distance of London.

With all this in mind, it now makes sense that people from the traditionally “working class” North would classify Tea as a meal in the evening and not an afternoon affair.  Someone who can take tea and cake at four o’clock is not someone who has to bring in the sheep, work the mines or live by the factory time clock.  Similarly, the more affluent and status-conscious Southerners are used to thinking of Teatime as the afternoon break before the proper evening Dinner they dress up for—or, at least they do in Downton Abbey.

This brought my attention to the lunch-dinner divide I encountered so often in the Midwest.  Almost invariably, it was people from a rural background who referred to the mid-day meal as Dinner, meaning that the meal was quite substantial and not just the sandwich and bag of chips/crisps, which has come to define lunch in our busy modern world.  Similarly, everyone I interviewed agreed that, regardless of time of day, Dinner is a large meal, while Lunch is a smaller but snobbier way of labelling the midday meal.  Not exactly a strict class division, but still a parallel was drawn in my mind I had not seen before.

So where does this leave me?  How do I negotiate these politically and socially charged definitions of Teatime?  After careful consideration and reviewing my research of interviews, I decided that the common connection was that Tea is a light meal—not something heavy with many courses resulting in a loosening of trousers and a recuperating nap (stay tuned for future posts on the beauty that is Sunday Lunch).  It can be formal or it can be casual, depending on who you are, where you are and how you are, but it is always light.

And if you chance to visit Harrogate in North Yorkshire, Teatime is Betty’s!