See ya Halloween
Well, that’s it. Halloween is over. Next up: Thanksgiving. It feels like from Halloween to New Year it’s just a bunch of partying and eating in America-land!
I have decided that everyone should really dress up as they wish every day. Americans seem to relish this dressing up malarkey and go for it much more so that us Brits. I think our British reserve kicks in somewhat. I don’t even know what I’m dressed up as in this picture, but it’s something kind of hippy/cowgirl/Native American. Kinda. 🙂
I will be interested for next year’s Halloween, back in Blighty. I have a feeling it will be somewhat tamer and some of those spotty youths will be round asking for a quid, or else they’ll lob an egg at the windows….
Reflections on the UK, part 4
Here is the final installment of American blog reader Rebecca’s visit to the UK.
You can catch up on the previous posts here if you missed out!
The next day I take another day trip, this time to the historic town of Arundel (though I nearly miss getting off the train as I don’t realize you have to press a button to get the door to open). It’s a beautiful, quaint town which has apparently had a town crier since 369 AD, and parts of its castle date to 1068. The castle is absolutely amazing, both outside and in (where a guard cheerfully tells me that “If you don’t have a ticket, we chop your head off”). What’s even more amazing is the Duke of Norfolk still lives here, and the tour takes us through elaborate guest rooms where he still entertains. Outside, the gardens are some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, and make you feel like you’re wandering through some sort of medieval fantasy world. How awesome to have preserved such an amazing place.
I spend the train ride back to London reading about the Scottish independence referendum, which is taking place today. I have mixed feelings about it. Since my country was born out of seeking independence from Britain, I can hardly begrudge the Scots from wanting to do the same. But I love Britain and don’t want it to break up. (And it would kinda feel like my parents were getting a divorce.) Either way, though, it will be a democratic and pretty peaceful process. The Scots won’t have to fight a war or go on hunger strikes to win their independence, but merely ask for it. And that’s something Britain should be proud of.
When I get back to my friend’s London apartment that night, I am eager to watch the news about the referendum. However, they’re both out, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how to turn on their TV. I press pretty much every button combination on the remote without success. Finally, in desperation, I swallow my pride and text her husband for help, who responds that he’ll be home in ten minutes, at which point he somehow gets it to work in a matter of seconds. We stay up late to watch the news. The results will be announced around 6:00 am the next morning. I wonder what it’s like to go to bed not knowing if your country will still be together the next morning. I hope it will be.
The next morning when I wake up, he’s taken pity on me and left the news on before leaving for work. Scotland has voted to stay in the UK! Yea! I text the few Brits I know in England to say congratulations. I think I am more excited than they are. I feel like we should all be wearing Union Jack clothing and singing the national anthem in celebration. But the Brits don’t generally go in for that sort of showy display of patriotism; they play it cool. So I sing what I can remember of “God Save the Queen” in my head as my own private celebration and tribute.
Today my British friend from DC, who arrived last night in London to visit family for a few weeks, and I are a meeting up to travel together for a few days. We’d planned to go south, but can’t find an affordable place to stay in any of the cities or towns we look into. Eventually we find a place in Liverpool, and so we head north instead.
It will take us a few hours to get there by train, so we become intimately acquainted with several train stations along the way. “Well, we sure haven’t seen anywhere beautiful yet,” my friend remarks. “Everywhere in England is beautiful,” I say fondly, staring out the window. He looks at me pityingly. “You really are an Anglophile, aren’t you? Usually that can be cured if you stay in the country long enough . . .”
We subsequently get into a debate about disposing of garbage—sorry, rubbish—on the train. Unable to find a rubbish bin, I want to carry it out into the station with me and dispose of it there. He tells me to leave it on the train. I look at him aghast. This would be very bad form in America (not that some people wouldn’t still do it). Surely in Britain, where things seem so ‘proper’, it would be an even bigger taboo? “There are people who are paid to pick it up,” he says. “But why make their job harder?” I counter. “Besides, the next customer will probably sit here before they clean it. It’s inconsiderate to that person.” “You do worry about unimportant things, don’t you?” he responds.
When we get out of the train station, we set off on foot for our hotel. Seeing us standing on the sidewalk with a map out, looking like obvious tourists, two different people stop by and ask if we need help. One guy actually walks us most of the way to our hotel, at least a 15-minute walk. So nice.
That night, while my friend rests at the hotel, I go out and try the Liverpool Wire, 115-ft high zipline inspired by the one in Las Vegas that lets you fly over downtown Liverpool. It is awesome. I then join “Shiverpool”, a ghost tour that takes you around various supposedly-haunted parts of Liverpool — from dark alleys to the graveyard of the city’s Gothic-style cathedral — and not only tells you the local ghost stories, but acts them out (sometimes in rather unexpected ways). What a cool way to get to know the city a bit better.
Walking back to the hotel, I am surprised to see various pubs with signs advising patrons to book their space for Christmas soon. First of all, it’s only September. Secondly, do people really spend Christmas in pubs? Like, not relatives’ homes or church, but…pubs? Will have to ask someone more knowledgeable than me about that.
When I found out I was going to suddenly be in Liverpool, I sent a spur-of-the-moment email to another person I’d been corresponding with who happens to run a different AWI re-enactment group there. I didn’t know if he’d be interested or free to meet on such short notice, but he invites me for coffee the next morning, and we chat for a few hours. (Like the other re-enactor, he insists on buying my drink. So nice of these Redcoats to be so kind to a Rebel sympathizer.) Interestingly, he actually serves with the modern-day British army as well. He tells me he became interested in the Revolutionary War after some American re-enactment groups came over to England about 25 years ago. Most Brits don’t learn anything about the Revolutionary War, he says, and some even celebrate 4th of July without really knowing what it means. (This is a major surprise to me. Apparently a good party can trump history.) He sees re-enactment as being about immersion and education, and hopes it can be a means of stimulating greater interest and awareness of the American War of Independence in Britain. (Which I find really cool, despite that he has a decidedly pro-British view of the war:).) In fact, next year a major AWI commemoration—a training exercise to coordinate and integrate the major AWI British re-enactment groups—is being planned for the July 4th weekend at the ancestral home of George Washington’s family in Britain. We also discuss how historical re-enactment can be a mechanism to promote integration, collaboration, and friendship among ethnic/national groups today whose countries were allies in historical conflicts—for example, among Britons and Middle Eastern immigrants whose countries fought alongside Britain in WW1.
Since his group also portrays both Redcoats and Rebels, I ask him why a Brit would want to portray an American Rebel. “Well,” he says with a sly grin, “you’ve got to have someone to shoot at.” Despite the eventual American victory, “We won a lot of battles,” he says. “You ran from us.” I concede we Yanks have often been quite good at running from Redcoats. In fact, this year in DC on the 200th anniversary of the British burning of Washington during the War of 1812, the Historic Congressional Cemetery held a “Flee the British 5K”, where runners competing in the race were chased by Redcoat re-enactors. (What could be more American than turning your national failures and humiliations into a patriotic way to celebrate your love of country?) The British Embassy, for their part, held a “White House BBQ”. Both were held in the spirit of celebrating the rebuilding of the American-British relationship and 200 years of peace and friendship between our countries. It is nice that we can both share a somewhat twisted sense of humor about our intertwined histories.:)
Before we part ways, he cannot resist teasing me a bit about how Americans have butchered the English language. (This really does seem to be the national pastime here.) “And,” he says, “you Americans don’t know how to make tea.” In my case at least, this may be true. My traditional way of making tea is to fill a mug with tap water, put a tea bag into it, microwave the mug for one minute, let it cool for about 5 minutes, and then drink it, leaving the bag in so that I can reuse it several times during the day. Apparently they have some other way of doing it here.
Because I confess to having a terrible sense of direction, he kindly walks me back to my hotel. “Even back home in DC, I get lost a lot,” I lament. “They actually say Pierre L’Enfant designed the city of Washington to be confusing on purpose so the British wouldn’t be able to successfully invade.” “Well,” he points out with a grin, “it didn’t work.”
At the hotel I collect my bags and get a taxi to the train station where I’ll meet my friend. The driver asks where I’m from and then tells me he used to live in America. “I consider myself part American,” he says, which is nice to hear. He tells me that when his family moved back to England, his 12-year-old daughter experienced some trouble from people at her school because she’d developed an American accent. “But the nice thing about having a British accent in America,” he says, “is that you can insult someone and it will take them a few moments to understand what you said, and by that time you’re already far away down the street.” Wow, yet another superpower of the British accent in America that I hadn’t even realized.
I meet my friend at the station and we board a train for Lancaster, which we’ve decided to visit next. I will confess some staggering ignorance here. I grew up in Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, a state where there is a town called Lancaster. Until this trip, I did not realize that there was a Lancaster in England as well (nor that Somerset, Lincoln, or Cleveland — all of which I knew as American towns or cities — were also the names of areas in England). Interesting to think that the British colonial legacy has probably shaped our country in many more ways than we even realize.
To pass the time on the train, I try to see how the weather back home compares to the pleasant weather we’ve been having in England. (From what I hear, many people would not use “pleasant weather” and “England” in the same sentence. But it really has been very comfortable so far.) I pull up my phone’s weather app, but for some reason DC no longer shows up in my list of saved cities. “That’s odd,” I muse. “Washington is gone.” My friend, who rarely misses an opportunity to give me a hard time about British-American history, looks over with a grin and says, “What, did we burn it again?” I roll my eyes. “Come on. What would you do if the Brits actually burned Washington again?” He thinks for a moment. “Join ‘em?”
Before I can defend my city’s honor, we arrive in Lancaster, which is a really pretty, very “historical”-looking town, with lovely streets and buildings. After wandering for a bit, we have dinner in a restaurant built in the 1600s (wow!), where my friend turns me on to the awesomeness of ginger beer. I choose the non-alcoholic variety, since I generally don’t care for alcohol, and am instantly hooked. How have I gone my whole life thus far without experiencing this gingery goodness?
It’s pretty late by the time we finish, and my friend is tired and goes back to his hotel room, but I set off on a quest to find a pub that’s still open and is serving dessert. This journey takes me up and down various winding roads, where I pass many interesting places which seem either too loud or too crowded. Eventually I come to a place called Revolution. Though it has nothing to do with ours, still having history a bit on the brain after the past day, I can’t resist checking it out.
Unfortunately they are no longer serving food, but as I’m about to go, I see they have ginger beer, so I decide to stay for a drink. As I’m standing alone at the bar, a guy next to me asks me a question, and on hearing my accent, asks where I’m from and where I’ve been visiting in the UK. “A lot of nice places,” I say. “Liverpool, Arundel, London, Leicester…” He nearly spits out his drink. “Leicester?! Why would you visit Leicester?” Really, what do Brits have against Leicester? “I liked it,” I protest. “It was very beautiful and had nice historical places and-”. But he’s already turned to his two friends and is telling them, “She came all the way from Washington DC and she visited LEICESTER!” They respond with dumbfounded laughter, agreeing that Leicester is a really terrible place to visit.
I guess meeting a Yank who actually liked Leicester has piqued their interest (or maybe they just feel sorry for me in my incredible naivety), because they invite me to have a drink with them. “So, why were you in Leicester anyway?” one of them asks in amusement. I explain that I was invited there to meet a Revolutionary War re-enactor. “Why are you interested in the Revolutionary War?” the second guy asks. “Well, it led to the birth of our country, so to speak, so it’s really important for our history and identity, and I was interested in how it’s viewed here.” He pinches his fingers together and grins: “We had a little part in that, didn’t we?”
We end up hanging out for the next three hours until about 1:00 AM. I learn that they are all British army veterans, two of whom now work helping disabled vets. They now live scattered between southern England, Scotland, and Wales, and so have met in the ‘centrally’-located Lancaster for their once-a-year one-night reunion. They plan to meet once a year for a special weekend, to each resolve to achieve something on their bucket list for next year, and also to each year donate one item of special personal significance to a box which will someday be passed on to the last one of them alive in their old age. What a cool idea. I am touched by their friendship, and amazed that they are spending their one night a year together talking to a foreign stranger.
One of the guys asks me about the US-UK relationship. “I find it a bit strange, to be honest,” he says. “Britain just tends to go along with America, but America doesn’t really need Britain and yet the two countries are so close.” I tell him my impression is that many Americans still see Britain as family in some way. Maybe this factors even into government relations. We begin talking about British and American cultural differences. “I think the sense of humor is different,” he says. “Americans seem more reserved and super careful not to offend someone. Brits don’t worry about this.” I have my own theory on this, actually. “I think the difference is not so much in the humor itself but in the delivery,” I say. “We both appreciate irony and sarcasm and I think we find a lot of the same things funny. But when Americans are sarcastic, we generally deliver our sarcasm with a smile, or say ‘just kidding’ if the person doesn’t immediately get that we’re joking, so that we can be sure we’re not really offending them. Brits tend to deliver sarcasm deadpan with a perfectly straight face, and sometimes we don’t realize they’re joking.:)”
He tells me about some of his visits to the States. “The first time I visited, I didn’t really like it,” he says. “I didn’t like how people in stores and stuff just say ‘Have a nice day’ to everyone; it seemed fake. But then after I went back a few times, I started to like it because I realized it was actually genuine.” This is interesting to me. Wishing someone a nice day could actually annoy them? “Well, most of the time it’s genuine,” I say. “It’s not just people in stores; if I got into a conversation with a stranger on the street or on an elevator or something I would wish them a nice day when we said goodbye. It’s just meant to be nice.” I tell him I was warned about irritating strangers by talking to them in Britain, but that I’ve found Brits to be very friendly and not at all standoffish. “Like you guys, you talked to me even though you didn’t know me.” “Well, you’re an American!” he says. “If we talked to a UK girl in a bar she’d probably think we were tapping off.” I stare at him, confused. “You know, like bagging off.” Huh? “Oh, you mean like hooking up or picking someone up?” “I guess.” Hmmm, maybe Americans and Brits really do speak two different languages. “This is the first year we’ve had an American in our group. Or a woman,” he adds. “Of course, this is the first year we’ve done this.:)” I am really grateful to them for making me feel so welcome. Before we say goodbye for the night, they invite me to come back to the UK sometime and visit somewhere besides Leicester.
The next day, my friend and I visit Lancaster Castle, a historic castle which served as a prison all the way until 2011, and still serves as a court. We take a guided tour, which culminates in those of us who choose to being locked in one of the old cells, completely cut off from light or sound, to experience what the prisoners experienced hundreds of years ago. (After the guide lets us out, my friend, who didn’t go in, tells me the two of them had discussed heading off to a pub and leaving us there for a bit.) Afterwards we head to the café adjoining the castle for cream tea (which, by the way, is tea served with a scone and cream, and not tea with cream in it like milk tea or bubble tea, which is what I used to think until a British acquaintance in the States explained it to me, while visibly trying not to laugh).
Afterwards, my friend goes back to the hotel and I decide to go to Williamson Park to see the Ashton Memorial, which looks pretty in the picture on the guide map. On the way, I get sidetracked by an incredibly beautiful building which looks like a cathedral, but has the word ‘House’ on the outside. This intrigues me because I can’t imagine such a beautiful place actually being someone’s home, so I decide to investigate. I walk up the stairs to the covered ‘patio’ in the front, where two little old ladies are sitting, and ask them what this building is. Turns out it’s a sort of retirement or nursing home, and they actually do live there. “Wow, what a lovely place to live!” I exclaim. “Oh no, it’s terrible,” they both say almost instantaneously. “Eleven years ago it used to be nice,” one of the women says. “But now it’s just full of gossipy women…There are a few men who are okay though…”
The other lady asks me if I’m Canadian or American. “American? Oh, how lovely. Why don’t you sit down and talk with us for a bit?” They seem both sweet and lonely, so I sit down with them, and the one lady, who has lived in Lancaster for 80 or 90 years, begins telling me about the town. “Yes, over there across the way is the Town Hall…Then there’s the Victoria Memorial in the square right across from it…Then right up the street there, there was this very nice young doctor I used to go to see when I was a little girl…He had a table with a big bowl on it and he used to give us fruit and candy…He murdered his wife…She was having an affair…The maid walked in so he had to kill her too…He cut their bodies into little pieces and wrapped them in newspaper, and took them to Scotland, and threw them into a stream, but the newspaper was from Lancaster so they traced him here, and there was an exhibit about him in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London, and when I went there I saw the same table from his house and the same bowl that I used to eat the fruit from…” By this point I am speechless; I’m not sure what the proper response is to a ‘the nice young murderer who was my doctor lived just up the street’ story. (By the way, I later look up the name she gave me and it turns out the story is true — Dr. Buck Ruxton apparently committed the murders there in the 1930s and was later executed.)
Luckily I am saved from having to think of an intelligent response by the other lady, who turns to me and says, “We think very highly of America. If it wasn’t for your sending food and soldiers during the war…” I’m surprised people still remember that, and though I wasn’t around at the time, I’m happy that my country could do something to help Britain. “Do you like President Obama?” the other lady asks. “Yeah, I like him. I don’t agree with him on everything, but in general I think he’s trying to do some good things.” “We like him too,” she says. “And Clinton. And Kennedy — do you remember him?” “Um, well, he was a bit before my time, but he seemed like a pretty good guy.” “Yes, and I really like Elvis”, she continues, “and Marilyn Monroe…” Since they seem so interested in American stuff, I show them some postcards from Washington DC that I have in my bag and ask if they’d like to have one. “Oh, how lovely. Thank you. Why don’t you write your name on them dear, and your address too, and maybe we’ll write to you at Christmas.” How incredibly sweet! So I do, and write them each a little note saying how nice it was to meet them as well.
At that moment a little old guy comes in and sits down beside us. The one lady turns to him and says, “Have you ever been to America?” “No, I don’t fancy America,” he says. “They’re very backward there.”
We sit and talk for a few minutes more, and then the guy starts talking about 9/11 conspiracy theories, which I take as my cue to leave as I don’t want to get into an argument in front of these sweet ladies. So I bid them farewell, and hope that they include their address if they send me a Christmas card so that I can send them one as well.
I set off again toward where I think the park is, but get sidetracked again, this time by a path going off into the woods. I love to walk on paths through the woods. I promise myself I’ll just stick to this one path, just for a few minutes, and not turn off anywhere, as I want to get to the park before dark. About six turns and six paths later, I find myself on top of a very steep, almost cliff-like hill, with a gorgeous view of the memorial right in front of me, but no way to walk up to it. I decide to see if I can climb down the other side of the hill. I make it about halfway down before I slip and end up falling the rest of the way down. At the bottom I pick myself up, covered with dirt but uninjured, and gaze up at the memorial which is much, much, much bigger and more impressive than it looked from a distance. I can’t remember who Lord Ashton was, but he sure has an awesome memorial. I climb to the top of its massive steps, and can see through the window that there’s a wedding reception or something going on there. So I wander around for a bit outside, and watch the sun begin to set over the beautiful valley below.
I decide to try to find the traditional exit instead of trying to climb back up the hill and back into the woods. When I find my way out of the park, I remember one of the ladies had recommended me to visit Lancaster University and decide to give it a try, but I realize I have no idea where it is. I stop two people walking their dog to ask for directions. The man frowns. “It’s a bit far,” he says. “Three miles at least. It’d probably take you more than an hour to walk there.” I ask them how hard it would be to get a cab around here, and the woman says, “Well, this is our house across the street. Let me just put my dog inside and then I can drive you in my car.” “Oh, that’s so kind of you, but I couldn’t possibly”, I start, but she insists it’s no trouble. So we get in her car and she actually drives me to and all around the campus, pointing out the different buildings and places of interest, as she used to study there.
I can’t believe she’s going so out of her way to do something so nice for a complete stranger, and thank her profusely. “People sure are friendly here.” “Well, there’s a bit of a North-South divide,” she says. “People in the South think we up North are a bit silly…Am I driving on the right side of the road?” She is driving on the right side of the road, and it looks right to me, but I’m an American, and this is Britain, and I’m pretty sure they drive on the left here, so probably she should be on the left, unless this is a one-way street, only I can’t tell for sure because they have these funny things called roundabouts instead of stop signs and it’s confusing. “Um, well, maybe you want to be on the left side.” “Yes,” she agrees, and changes lanes. “I just got back from visiting France and I got used to driving on the right there.” I can empathize, as the first time I drove in the States after returning from living in Japan, I drove on the left side of the road because that’s how the Japanese do it, causing no small amount of distress to my passenger. I make sure my seat belt is fashioned extra tightly, but we make it through without a problem, and she insists on driving me all the way back to my hotel. What an incredibly nice woman. I wish I could do something in return, so I give her my card and tell her to please look me up if she’s ever in DC.
The next day, unfortunately, is my last in the UK. It takes us about six hours to get back to London from Lancaster. During a layover at Liverpool station, I console myself by getting a pasty. When I’m done, I hunt for a rubbish bin, but can’t find one. “Just leave it on the table,” a group of guys who appear to work for some company in the station tell me. However, after taking one look at the consternation on my face, they actually produce a garbage bag from their supplies and tell me I can put it in there. As I gratefully do so, one of the guys says, “You could have just left it on the table like that other person did,” pointing to some garbage left on the next table. So I throw that into the garbage bag too, and they look at me with great amusement.
Back in London, before we part ways, my friend takes me to see the Royal Courts of Justice. Very impressive architecture and beautiful gardens. Almost makes one want to get arrested for something in order to get to spend more time here, but I decide against that. Still, how amazing to just walk through the middle of downtown and see such beautiful and historical places.
What a truly wonderful trip. Before I came I loved Britain as family, despite not having spent a whole lot of time here. But now I love it on its own merits as well. It is a lovely country, with beautiful towns and cities (including Leicester-just accept that, Brits!), amazing and well-preserved history, a highly convenient train system and a prevalence of visitor centers and tourist maps that even a directionally-challenged Yank like me can understand, and wonderfully kind and interesting people. And it is a country I think my own will always be linked to in a special way. America’s and Britain’s histories, present, and future seem destined to remain intertwined. In some ways both countries are who they are in part because of the other, and in engaging with each other we learn more about both who we are and who we are not. In some way I feel like some small part of me belongs here, even though my home will always be across the pond. And I feel like on some level Britain has accepted me, and that’s perhaps the nicest thing of all.
It’s starting to get late, but I have about an hour to kill before heading back to my friend’s flat for our final dinner together. Buckingham Palace, which I haven’t seen in years, is within walking distance from her place. But I’d rather spend my last moments here among the “real” Brits, so I wander around the neighborhood for a while. I end up by the Chelsea Bridge and Battersea Park. By this time tomorrow I will be home. It’s always nice to be back in my beloved America. But I will miss Britain terribly too. I look out on the water, the night lights of London dazzling in its reflection. “I love you, Britain,” I say silently. “And I’ll be back. I promise.”