Unfortunately, I did my grocery shopping too late, so I missed a chance to utilize these helpful suggestions on how to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night according to one of my local grocery stores.
Hey, it turns out that Guy Fawkes lead the conspiracy and not Robert Catesby. Who knew? And Guy Fawkes also did some time travel too because the Kingdom of Britain did not exist until 1707. I thought it was still the the Kingdom of England and Wales in 1605. He must have used the TARDIS. The Doctor never seems to go anywhere apart from London, as far as I have seen.
Regardless, so what are Americans supposed to do, since there are no fireworks, bonfires, nor parades around these parts (although there used to be in early colonial days in New England)? Well, it looks like we are supposed to drink Irish tea with chocolate covered digestive “crackers”. Perhaps we can snack on baked beans on top of Irish beer-flavored potato chips. Sounds pretty lame. Is that all?
The grocery store also gave an idea for a meal to fix along with some more specials.
Ah! It’s Cinco de Noviembre!
Considering we have some of the best Mexican food in the Chicagoland area, this could work. Instead of the bonfires, we can make Guy Fawkes into a piñata, fill him with a lot of that leftover Halloween candy, and have the kids hit him with sticks. And we are always looking for reasons to set off fireworks and explosives. This is America.
Audio media is still a critical part of British culture, and being an island nation, the BBC provides a valuable service by broadcasting the weather report at sea. Produced by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Shipping Forecast has become a staple on the British communication since the telegraph days.
But that does not mean I understood a word of it when I heard it on Radio 4. Stephen Fry created an accurate representation of what most outsiders hear when encountering this mystical broadcast.
Was this part of the citizenship test? Was this code left over from the war, and the powers that be just kept it around for tradition’s sake? Was this an elaborate game of Mornington Crescent that the U.K. was in on just to baffle foreigners?
But I developed a certain affection for the Shipping Forecast even though I had no clue about it. It was very hypnotic and soothing. It started with its theme “Sailing By” by The Perry-Gardner Orchestra, and the mood is set. Then you had the reader say these cryptic words with a rhythm that was almost nautical and definitely soporific. Insomnia was never an issue after the Shipping Forecast.
I ended up looking it up in a book in the Newmarket library because I was too embarrassed to ask anyone. I shouldn’t have been. After all, how is an American supposed to know how to decode the Shipping Forecast?
I am going to try to give a general summary of how it works. When broken down, it isn’t that bad. As you can see by the Stephen Fry graphic above, the water regions are divided and named. There are also inshore waters that are named and coastal weather stations that are numbered, and they are mentioned in the broadcast too.
Then the readers give the wind direction (south, southeast, etc.) and whether it is veering (changing clockwise) or backing (changing counterclockwise). You will hear a number from zero to 12 in there. That’s from the Beaufort scale and that measures wind speed with zero being calm to 12 being hurricane force. The announcers usually give the weather forecast and then the visibility (good, moderate, poor, fog). Under winter conditions, they will also grade the icing (light, moderate, severe). Oh, one more thing, they also keep track of pressure areas in millibars, so you will hear things like “Low Humber, 960, deepening rapidly.”
Back in 1993, the BBC aired the Shipping Forecast on TV and radio, and somebody was kind enough to post it on YouTube. For some, this could be meditative. For others, this could be pencil-in-the-throat boredom. If you are awake after this video, you are one very strong soul.
Everyone has heard the phrase, “It’s the little things.” Sometimes, the clichés are the most appropriate words to use to sum up the feelings a person has, and I do have some conventional and oddball things that I miss about the U.K.
Easy Access to Cadbury chocolate – We are talking some good stuff, and I can opine about this, but I need to explain something else. Hershey’s, being that they have license to the Cadbury name in the U.S., has blocked the import of U.K. Cadbury chocolate into the United States. Now, British expats and emigrants, who are normally mild-mannered about not having everything from Old Blighty at their fingertips, were ready to reignite 250-year-old grievances over this outrage. I will do a whole blog post about the divide between American v. British chocolate, and it is not as simple and one may think.
Shopping in Cambridge – Heffers Bookshop (before Blackwell’s bought it) was a place where I could lose hours of my life. Wax Lyrical, a candle shop, that had these wonderful floating ones in all these unusual shapes, e.g. cute little frogs and intricate roses. Woolworth’s for a little bag of pic’n’mix sweets (heavy on the fizzy cola bottles). I know what I had doesn’t exist anymore, and I don’t want to recreate it. But I can’t help but be wistful sometimes.
Towel Warmers – Dammit, these need to be standard issue over here too! There is nothing better than a warm towel upon leaving a shower or bath.
Pubs – Proper pubs with carveries. Getting a nice Sunday lunch with the roast of the day and a pint along with good conversation with the ones you love. Sticky carpet from the 1970s. Decor of random locally themed bits and bobs in a poltergeist style. Being ignored for 10 minutes until someone fills your drink order. Creeky wooden tables and chairs that miraculously do not collapse. (Must be held up by the same spirits that did the decorating.) It’s all part of the atmosphere and charm.
Tesco’s Cheese and Onion Rolls – The 6-pack of wonder. I looked at the label and did not read “crack” on the ingredient list, but they spoke to me. They said, “We want to live in your belly!” It was the “I’m tired. I don’t want to cook, and my ex-husband was at doing his overnighter at the fire station shift.” dinner. I still end up picking up a pack and chowing down whenever I go back. Every so often, I still check the website to make sure they are still available just so I can sleep soundly.
Weird Advertisements in British Newspapers – Since I subscribe to the Private Eye, I only receive a small sample of what I was accustomed to getting.
Because one would be racked with shame and regret over one’s swimming pool decisions at the baggage carousel, of course. And this guy is so preoccupied over not using Jolly Gel, his jacket will be caught in the teeth of the carousel when it turns on, and he will be clobbered by some family of Texan’s 50-lb Samonsites while he is struggling to break free.
Not Knowing How People Would React to My Accent – I know this sounds really weird, but hear me out. In the U.K., most people did not make small talk. But those who did were genuinely kind and curious about where I was from and wanted to ask questions or talk about the fantastic holiday they had. So many tales were told of fun times in Orlando, New York, and D.C. If I were talking to people around my age, I gained bonus points by saying I grew up sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia, which somehow seemed exotic compared to East Anglia, I guess. On the other hand, quite a few Britons mistook me for being Canadian considering my penchant for wearing my Philadelphia Flyers apparel. I would also be lying if I said all my interactions with the Britons were positive regarding my nationality. But given the good far outweighed the bad, I had no reason to be gun-shy.
The world is getting smaller through technology and imports, so I can get a good chunk of Britain shipped over in some way as treats, but some things have to remain over the ocean or in my memory. It only leaves me room for new experiences.
When I was a teenager, I had your standard romanticized view of what the U.K. was about. I lapped up anything and everything that I could get my hands on. It never got to the point to where I wished I were British, but I wanted a chance to live over there because I imagined this world full of witty, intelligent people with cool music and fascinating history. I bought Dream U.K. lock, stock and barrel.
Of course, what we are sold over here isn’t Dream U.K. It’s Dream England. It has nothing to do with Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. It’s a place where Received Pronunciation (the Queen’s English) is spoken. It’s a place of castles, the BBC, and white people putting on airs. Or, if you are a teenager, it’s that Boy Band world where all those sweet words of undying devotion sound extra romantic with an English accent.
Well, the Britons are probably having a good chuckle at my expense right now. Rightly so. Have a good belly laugh. Go on.
OK, so I did meet witty, intelligent people. I did hear cool music, and I learned more about its fascinating history. But the U.K. is a real country with real people and complexities and deserves the same amount of celebration and scrutiny as the United States. Even at age 19, I should have known better, although the Boffin says I should cut myself some slack on this. I have to say I am really embarrassed with how shallow I was with the knowledge and misconceptions I had when I first arrived in 1992. (“What do you mean you don’t go trick-or-treating here? It’s Halloween!”) But what I had in naïveté, I made up for in enthusiasm and a desire to learn where I was going wrong.
And learn I did. I made friends, read the newspapers, asked questions, and traveled. I tried to make the most of the limited time I had there and bumbled all along the way. I knew I couldn’t learn everything, but I just wanted to understand better what eluded me.
And what did I learn? Well, I learned about the diversity of Britain thanks to the city of Cambridge being so close. My discovery was still at the time of ethnic minorities being 8% of the population as opposed to the 13% now, but it was still eye-opening to see how Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Chinese people, and a host of others gathered to study and live in one spot that was not London. It also showed me how they made the place so much brighter and dynamic just by their culinary contributions, let alone their societal ones. It made for a refreshing change from the Italian/Slavic/Hispanic/German backgrounds that the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania population had.
My journeys did take me into Scotland and briefly into Wales. (I married into a Welsh family. I think that counts for something.) I never did get to Northern Ireland because of the tumult at the time, but that does not mean it won’t be on the docket when we get back to the country. It only showed me how different those nations are to England and to just lump everything together is like lumping Canada in with the United States. I learned to take each one and enjoy them as their own entities.
I was still able to enjoy the BBC shows, food, and all the stuff I did when I was in my romantic phase. But, you know what? It was even better because I understand the context in which they were created better.
However, I also learned the U.K. was also a country with its own problems. I remember the beloved National Health Service being in need of funding back then. The Real IRA decided to restart its bombing campaign in various locations around the U.K., including, I later discovered, some perilously close to where the Boffin was going to university. The country was in a recession when I arrived in 1992 with unemployment reaching as high as 10%. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD, the human form of Mad Cow Disease) reared its head during my time there, and I still am not allowed to give blood over here because of the inability to screen. Being a romantic meant ignoring what was happening on a human level and only led me to make the Britons into characters in my mental play. That was demeaning and wrong. I am so glad I now see them as the people they are, and I appreciate those who helped me open my eyes.
Little did I know that my experience would do more than personally enrich me. Fast forward to 1999, a young American divorcée meets a young English widower. Several things were in my favor when I met the Boffin.
1) I was immune to his accent, so I was listening to what he was saying and not gushing over the fact that he was English. Admittedly, he wishes I listened to him a little less. (“Yes, you did say that! You were wearing your hunter green polo shirt and standing by the bow window. It was on Tuesday last week, and you just got home from work!”)
2) He didn’t have to explain every little thing about himself to bridge the cultural gap.
3) I didn’t have doe eyes when it came to his country of origin and was more understanding about why he was making his home in the States.
And while I missed my time across the Pond, I managed to get the good parts back in a way through the Boffin. Meanwhile, he was left with the mixed feelings with being an immigrant and very complex reasons why he left the U.K. behind. (It’s not my story to tell, but I can say that part of the reason is that the country knows how to educate its STEM stars, but it doesn’t know how to employ them.) It only goes to show just how complicated, once again, the country truly is and how I just cannot hold the “tea and crumpets” version that so many Americans carry.
I guess you can say the process of my love of the U.K. has been like a marriage. I went through my honeymoon stage with Anglophilia, but it developed into that nice settled bit. There are bits of the U.K. that I absolutely adore. There are bits that make me apoplectic. In the end, the U.K. and I have been through a lot together, and I see it for what it is and still love it, faults and all.