November greeted me like a cardboard cut-out of Alan Rickman as Snape wearing a lei in someone’s window. I thought he was a living entity, and sinister, and watching me, and that the imposition of his presence was a direct affront to me. In reality he was just a left over Halloween decoration, the only one in the neighborhood. His coldness and indifference affected all who saw him equally.
I saw this as I was walking a mile and a half to Aldi one night. That was a wasted walk. Aldi is just as, if not more, depressing in the UK than it is in the US. And they didn’t take my American debit card so I had to use my laundry change to pay for my crappy off-brand groceries.
Here are some things to know about England: Their debit cards have a chip and pin instead of a bar that you swipe. A lot of places will not be able to take an American debit card. There aren’t any toilets anywhere that could deal with you flushing a tampon down them, so don’t ever do it. The good thing about English toilets is that if you’re at a restaurant, the toilets are usually as far away from the kitchens as possible, which I can’t say for America. The water pressure usually sucks and you’ll feel like a gross failure for not being able to get the toilet to flush but I SWEAR IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU ONLY PEED FOR GOD’S SAKES. People leave their fucking trash on tables all the time because it is the wait staff’s job at pretty much every restaurant to clear the table for you, so don’t try to bring your plates back to the counter at a cafe or they’ll think you’re a needy weirdo, looking for validation for being so “helpful”.
I’m helping. I’m helping. Look at me, I’m American and I’m helping. I’m helping.
A very nice young man (VNYM) took me to the Guy Fawkes Night celebration at my school, which didn’t happen on the actual night, just like fireworks never happen on the actual 4th of July. Especially not in England. They sit and sip tea resentfully, mourning the loss of a whole harbor’s worth of tea many a year ago, making the assumption that the Boston Teaparty was also on the 4th of July but they are so wrong! Someone correct them.
Guy Fawkes Night is a night of earnest cheering about the defeat of a potential catholic monarchy. People are like, “Damn, I’m so glad we don’t have a Catholic monarch because that would make a huge difference to how our country is currently run. What ho tinkerty tonk.” I do love that they burn a giant effigy of him. Effigy-burning is some pagan barbarism shit, and totally counter to the above Bertie Wooster-style posh stereotype that is actually completely accurate to every single English person I met regardless of what part of the country and socioeconomic situation they were from.
VNYM and I went on the Gravitron and it played funky disco music. I am a wuss and never try to actually go upside down on them. I usually just stand still and let reality and nightmares merge and think about the inevitability of death but this Gravitron had an observation deck and the one weird child watching all of us be be-gravitied was very distracting. I’M TRYING TO THINK ABOUT NOTHINGNESS, SMALL PERSON. I hadn’t been to a carnival in a long while and I was hoping a carnival in England would be more like a Ren Faire and that there’d be an elephant and a Maypole and people would yell “WHY ‘ELLO ME LADY”, but the only particularly English thing was that there was a truck selling hog roast. Delicious, delicious hog roast.
The actual effigy burning involved all of us standing in a freezing pitch dark field while “Firework” by Katy Perry and “Domino” by Jessie J played. Are you tired of this ongoing joke yet? I really wanted there to be lutes and lyres and recorders playing pavanes for us all to…pavane…to…but no. They didn’t even play an alternate version of “Firework” so I’ll write one now:
Do you ever feel like a wooden guy
Waiting to be burned on a giant pyre
Makes a lotta sense to say don’t blow things up
and to demonstrate, you set a guy on fire
‘Cause Guy Fawkes you’re an effigy
you wanted to keep the monarchy
Instead of Pro-test-ant
I clearly spent more than a whole minute on that. I budged in front of a lot of children because I deserved to be close to the fire and warm. English children are used to cold nights. They’re like, “Please guvnah can you spare a heating pad?” and “FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD!” So I needed to be near the fire.
Then we stood in an even colder field and watched some fireworks. I think there is a version of that Katy Perry song that actually concerns fireworks so I won’t write it for you. I didn’t see anyone in Guy Fawkes masks, maybe because people in the UK actually understand that Guy Fawkes wasn’t some anarchist, anti-fascist, pro-free will revolutionary. Americans have carnivals in the summer because we don’t like to suffer. I found it ironically very Catholic to have this celebration in the dead of fall because standing in a field letting the icy autumn creep up your legs and into the unfeeling caverns of your soul or other caverns you may have seems like it must be some ancient act of penance.
Two days later I booted up and explored the path behind my flat for the first time.
I didn’t find autumn in Norwich particularly spectacular. Autumn is my favorite season, and in Pennsylvania the earth smells so fresh after all of summer’s humidity has dissipated, and the reds, golds, and oranges that scatter the ground are bright and crisp. I thought it was the same way everywhere.
What it lacked in foliage, Norfolk made up for in sunsets over marshland. You could wander paths where cows and horses grazed, which I think in super litigious America would be impossible. I encountered a horse somberly standing alone in the middle of the path. I knew he was somber because he was thinking horse thoughts about not having apples or carrots or an entire bale of hay and a single tear was rolling down his horse cheek.
He started walking towards me and I thought we would have a moment together, a moment of understanding where two beings who felt alone in the world and kind of hungry could create a safe space of empathy.
But he just walked right past me. Don’t talk to me about this fucking horse. He’s dead to me.
I had to resort to humans again, even though humans are not cool and don’t have hooves and cool manes. M, a human without a cool mane, had found me on Facebook because we had gone to the same Halloween event at the Waterfront, and he had started messaging me about how he was also new to Norwich and was having trouble making friends. We decided to meet each other for a drink.
I thought if he was finding rando girls on Facebook that he must be some kind of desperate weirdman but he wasn’t, initially. We went to the Fat Cat Pub (as opposed to the Fat Cat and Canary) on Dereham Road and had a couple of pints.
M was sweet and goodnatured and gave me a really delicious cupcake he made, so I thought, “Oh good! I’m making friend!” I thought it was a friend thing because I am super naive and assume that everyone thinks I’m gross and have visible stink lines radiating out from me unless they prove me wrong by sticking their tongues down my throat. All of their tongues. Walking home from the pub to my flat was so strange. It was only 2 or 3 miles but many of the roads I took were pitch black, and I had that moment all travelers have where they see that the stars above them are the same stars that their loved ones they left behind can see, but instead of making you feel closer it makes you feel like you’ll never be near to them again. It didn’t occur to me until I was about 20 years old and someone pointed it out to me that there are stars below us, as well, and I thought about that. I thought about how quickly time passes and I thought about how alone I’d be in my bed when I finally reached it, and how alone I would be when I went to class the next day and watched everyone talk with their friends, and how I’d see those same stars again the next night and still be alone.
But then this little buddy popped out the shadows and started following me, and I was like, “Alright, a kitty!!!!!”
It’s always good to meet people when you are consumed by fear and existential nausea, so shortly after that I had my first date with Pepper. Pepper had messaged me on OkCupid when I had all but given up on finding a friend or date or whatever from it. He claimed to be inexperienced with dating but he had pretty much the best first message I had ever gotten on a dating site. It had:
-A non-creepy compliment
-A mention of something we had in common
-And an invitation to go out
It was also extremely succinct and didn’t prompt the 1000 message game that allows dudes to get validation but never actually meet in person. We had an immediate rapport over text message and facebook, enjoyed the same comedy shows, and I like to think we made each other laugh. He knew who my grandparents were and what the ENIAC was, which impressed me. He stayed up messaging me while I fretted over the election. I could have gone to the pub with other American students to watch the coverage but I stayed in my bed refreshing electoral college results and wondering who in the UK I could coerce into marrying me if Mitt Romney won.
Pepper and I got along so well over the internet that I thought he’d disappear on me or be someone just fucking with me. But I met him in real life at the Plough for a drink, and he bought a round and I bought a round, as he had suggested in his internet dating message. He also did another smart thing, which was that as soon as he met me he gave me a hug and assured me I looked gorgeous and had nothing to be worried about. I rambled on for about an hour over cocktails about god-knows-what, and then we went bowling, because even though I am terrible at it, it never fails to amuse me. The setting engenders a friendly competitive spirit about something no one is particularly great at, it doesn’t take much actual athleticism, and they serve drinks while you play. I ended up getting very tipsy and in the spirit of COMPETITION, I put my hands all over his face so he couldn’t see while bowling. I am so very good at flirting.
He then discovered what became a favorite pasttime of his, which was bringing up a subject he knew I had strong feelings about and then playing detached devil’s advocate while I got extremely angry and uncomfortable. I almost got up and left at one point and I wonder how different my life would have been in England if I had done it. I stayed, though, and that was the beginning of Pepper and me.
More important than dating was the procurement. Procural. Procurerarity. Procurement! More important than dating was the procurement of haggis, which, since my previous two trips to the UK had been Edinburgh-based, I was led to believe was readily available at your Sainsbury’s or your Waitrose’s's’s's. H and I asked around everywhere but they said it was more likely we’d find it closer to Burn’s Night. Haggisists. Here’s a guide to UK supermarkets:
Tesco: I guess the closest analog is Target, though it’s also a lot like Wal-Mart. There are ‘Metro’ and ‘Express’ versions that are more like convenience stores. They are effing everywhere, mang. Colloquially “Tesco’s”, like a Mr. Tesco owns it.
Asda: This is owned by Wal-Mart so it’s basically Wal-Mart. Don’t say “Asda’s”. No one does that.
Sainsbury’s: Correctly pronounced “Zainzzzzburiez”, because you are David Bowie. Basically your run of the mill, middle-to-upper middle class grocery chain. I think the closest analog is Publix, because Publix is super nice but not TOO nice.
Morrison’s: Same deal basically. I don’t think they have as deep a selection of own-brand stuff as Sainsbury’s. So it’s kind of like a FOOD LION. Just kidding, Food Lion sucks. I just like to say Food Lion.
Waitrose: FANCY. I think it’s most like a Wegman’s or a Whole Foods, but still not quite either of those. It doesn’t have as sharp a focus on organic and vegan products, and I’m pretty sure a Waitrose manager would rather die than employ someone with tattoos or whose armpits are dreadlocked. They do a nice hummus. And a nice gala pork pie. And a nice everything.
BUT NONE OF THESE PLACES HAD HAGGIS.
My one feeble attempt at getting involved in English politics was my brief attendance at the counter protest of the English Defence League’s march through Norwich. The English Defence League are a bunch of dicks who weren’t actually anymore racist than many of the non-EDL casually racist English people I met but I guess it’s worse if you join a specific organization for it. They claim that their focus is just on countering Islamic extremism and that they were in Norwich to protest censorship because Norwich City Council shut down a Christian bookstall that was distributing anti-Muslim leaflets. There were maybe 10 counterprotesters to every one protestor so the whole thing seemed overblown.
I was with H, who was maybe the only person of actual South Asian and Muslim extraction in attendance or living in Norwich at all, and he got bored, so we went to John Lewis. I didn’t feel like a very good leftist for giving up, but I didn’t see any actual marching happening. Also, a pretty good illustration of the spirit of this counter-protest was that I overheard a guy yelling “BOLLOCKS TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH. FASCIST BASTARDS.” I would have been taking a much bigger stand against racism if I had gone up to all the white people with dreadlocks on the anti-EDL side and told them they were culturally appropriative dickholes. H and I decided instead to check out a couple butcher shops and we finally found a butcher who carried MacSween’s haggises, so I got three.
When I got back to my flat, there was a rainbow. Because god loves when you march against marching.
As things developed between Pepper and me, he invited me to a party at the house he shared with 5 housemates. Parties are not different in England. I am still bad at them. There is maybe more drinking than there is at American parties. There is just as much Jaeger. Why is Jaeger a thing? God forbid these people discover Long Island Iced Teas. At least there’d be some type of iced tea in England, because right now they just don’t DO that. There was a little too much being danced up on by Pepper’s ex-fiancee, but I don’t think that is a particularly English thing. I wanted to prove I was good enough for him by pretending to be a person who could be at a party, but it wasn’t working. Are there people who can be thrown into a room full of people they don’t know but who all know each other and can come out victorious and with many new friends? Teach me your tricks, you.
November, like me, was content to soldier on winning no friends. It was the perfect time for a seaside stroll. My friend Bonnie and I decided to go to Great Yarmouth.
I don’t remember what the thought process was, though when I told H and Pepper that we were taking this trip, they both said, “Why would you do that?” Great Yarmouth is a seaside resort town in North Norfolk. Before it became so easy to go to Nice or Ibiza or Majorca for vacation, it was THE summer vacation spot.
But these days it’s sort of like announcing that you’re going to Jersey City for a fun day trip. Don’t expect anything besides arched eyebrows and actual question marks rising from the forehead of the person you’re addressing. Bonnie and I took the bus, looking out the window and seeing sheep and pigs grazing and lots and lots of little windmills on marshes. When we got to Great Yarmouth we saw that the town is divided in two, with one side being the more tourist-driven gift shop and hotels side and the other being a regular high street. The first thing I did was buy four pounds of fudge and just shove it all into my mouth as if the world was about to end, because Great Yarmouth truly looked like the site of the apocalypse (in fact, ‘apocalypse’ is Greek for Great Yarmouth. IT’S TRUE, LOOK IT UP, I AM NOT CURRENTLY EDITING WIKIPEDIA SO IT’LL SAY THAT) and I wanted to eat all of the fudge before I died. Bonnie and I ambled along, enjoying our last hours on earth, when we approached this banner:
“Is that… Elvis?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure. I don’t know. Wait… maybe?” We carried on like this for a few minutes but we realized we were wasting precious time. I had to go in and ask.
The proprietor greeted us and I asked if it was Elvis on the banner outside. He assured me that it was, but that he also had some flags without Elvis on them.
“Are you aware that the confederate flag is extremely offensive?” I asked the goodly shopkeeper. He became defensive, and said that people liked to buy it, and that on previous occasions others had informed him that it was an unsavory (if not downright absurd) image but that if people liked to buy it, he was happy to sell it. If you like Elvis maybe don’t buy a banner that endorses the antebellum nostalgia in which all of Elvis’s songwriters would still have been enslaved? I don’t know. I was tickled by this strange fetishized Americana in the middle of Norfolk. I thought everyone hated my people but some people loved us so much they turned us into ridiculous caricatures. Thanks, guys. I have already and will continue to return the favor. It was time to move on.
Bonnie and I moved ever closer to the North Sea. I don’t know about her but I was ready to be engulfed by its unforgiving and unrelenting chill to avoid the grey death that hovered over us with calm inevitability. Then we were all, “Nah, we’ll just dip our feet in to see what it’s like!”
It was fucking cold is what it was like.
I wondered if Great Yarmouth felt any different during the summer, if perhaps maybe it came alive with beachgoers and people looking to play the slots. I wonder if at this very moment the sun is shining and it’s not overcast and people are playing in the ocean, and I think the answer is ‘probably not’. Bonnie and I both felt depressed, and we didn’t know how to qualify it. It wasn’t because Yarmouth represented a simpler time because it is just as much a product of crass consumerism as anything developed in this age. It’s a whole town built for the purposes of revelry that no one has any interest in.
I felt less depressed when I saw this. I felt uplifted. I got on the bus with Bonnie with my soul truly soaring. I pursued truth, and I found it.
After the all-time life highlight of meeting Michael Palin, I faced the prospect of spending my second ever Thanksgiving in England. The first time was a few years back when I was dating an artist, HJ, based in Edinburgh, whose sister lived in London. HJ, his sister, my dear friend Pear, and I went to a diner, creatively named Diner, for a meal that had a couple of slices of turkey, a few odd little discs of stuffing, and some ‘traditional’ cocktails made with cranberry juice. It was really lovely and comforting to be with people I cared about while celebrating a family-based holiday away from home. Since I knew that was possible, I hoped I could do something similar in Norwich. I contacted a few American-style restaurants in Norwich, but none of them did anything for Thanksgiving.
I had only just begun seeing Pepper and I still didn’t have many friends. It happened to come together that I wasn’t really able to spend Thanksgiving with a group of people, nor was I able to have a meal that was anything like a Thanksgiving meal. I really feel like I asked a lot of people if there was anywhere I could have turkey and mash and carrots and cranberry sauce, and that a lot of people told me they didn’t have anything like that. BUT. UH. For future reference, if you want to have Thanksgiving any time of year and you live in England, you just go to anywhere that calls itself a carvery and for like 10 pounds you can have everything that’s in a Thanksgiving dinner except pumpkin pie. Whenever you want. I ended up doing that with Pepper several times to compensate for not actually doing it on Thanksgiving.
Ragini came to visit from York and we went vintage shopping at Prim Vintage and Goldfinches and Antidote Vintage in the Norwich Lanes. I took her to the Plantation Gardens so we could take some pictures and chat, and then we had dinner at the Library. The Library is an actual Library where they kept the fixtures and the books but now serves filet steaks and hamburgers instead of knowledge. The service was really slow and they gave us knives and forks with hamburgers, so I hate it there.
I saw Pepper later on that evening, and knowing that I was upset about not getting to have a proper Thanksgiving, he went ahead and made me Two. Pumpkin. Pies. He had never even eaten a pumpkin pie before, but he found a recipe online and put his faith in the internet, as one does. They turned out beautifully and I was extremely touched. I tried to offer my flatmates some but English people do not believe that pumpkin pie is a thing that sounds good. Sweet pies are not really a known quantity in the UK in the first place and savory pies are much more common. SO I ATE TWO WHOLE PIES BY MYSELF AND IT WAS MAGICAL. Pepper used the gift of pie to make me cleave to him unyieldingly (ok, I yielded, but it took FIVE WHOLE MONTHS) and then he was like totally my boyfriend.
With new romance in my heart I took off to London on my own to visit my friend Pear. I had met Pear on the EGL community several years prior. We had the same sense of humor and liked to make fun of people who did Japanese baby clothes wrong. As we got to know each other better, I learned what a sensationally generous, talented, interesting, and amazing person Pear was, and I finally met them when I visited HJ in London in 2009. I was ashamed that it took me two months to finally get to London and visit them. Pear and Mr. Pear greeted me at London Liverpool Station and kindly welcomed me into their flat.
The first night I was there, Pear and I embarked on a journey into the deepest realms of bakery: Making a double rainbow trifle from madeira cake mix. Pear has documented the process here. It was the most fun I had had yet in England, partly because I was finally with someone who knew me so well I could be completely myself. I was also almost immediately at ease with Mr. Pear because he knows and sings quite a bit of Beatles and Scott Walker. Mr. Pear had a barrister party to attend so after constructing our rainbow monstrosity, the three of us took the tube to Goodge St and walked past the bar we were supposed to be going in three times. The Reverend J W Simpson is a hidden little basement with amazing cocktails and some very suspect crucifix-shaped marks on the walls.
Pear and I are both very shy and although the barristers at the barrister party were very social and welcoming, I wasn’t able to get quite comfortable. Pear and I nuzzled up to each other while the barristers talked about grown up things and I wondered if I’d ever be able to function at a cocktail party.
The next day was the Loy Krathong festival at the Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon. This festival is adapted from Brahmanic traditions to accommodate Thai Buddhist beliefs, and the construction of the krathongs is representative of asking forgiveness and following Buddha’s footsteps. The three of us bought pre-made krathongs to float on the water. We also watched the beauty pageant, where a string of extremely beautiful contestants displayed gorgeous headdresses, each more ornate than the last, and answered what I think were pretty common beauty pageant questions, with a particular focus on representing Thai culture in England. I also got to try a lot of delicious Thai festival food and I was very lucky that I had Pear to explain to me what each dish was.
Actually getting to see the krathong that Pear’s father constructed was my favorite part of the event. His krathong stood out as the most beautiful, the most technically brilliant, and the most lovingly created of all the krathong there, though they were all magnificent.
I felt so incredibly thrilled and privileged that Pear shared this with me and I finally got to meet the lovely and amazing Pearents.
When I got back to Norwich, Pepper insisted we go on a proper nice date and took me out for fancy cocktails at the St. Giles Hotel. Because of my tendency to not eat all day, I was immediately tipsy. By my first glass of wine at the Thai restaurant we went to for dinner, I was full on drunk. Too drunk to be conscious of the living stereotype I was being. Pepper started in on his favorite activity, which was Winding Me Up About Shit That Makes Me Angry, and I got angry. Anger led to volume control problems. The woman behind me interrupted me to say, “Excuse me, but could you please keep it down? I’m trying to have a quiet night out.”
A what now
“Quiet night out”?
That’s not a thing! “Quiet night out” is not a thing that exists! You’re thinking of “in”! I know prepositions are tough, especially ones with so many letters, but “quiet night in” is an extant concept maybe worthy of appreciation. “Quiet night out” is you being a right ol’ ninny.
So add “quiet night out” to the list of things that wind me up. I was mortified for weeks. I am still mortified. I disturbed someone’s quiet night out, which is apparently a thing, by being an abrasive, stereotypical American. I cannot escape my identity or form my own. I am just a lonely monster shouting into the ether, and apparently the ether is listening and getting kind of annoyed.
I ended November by attempting to laser tag with M. Laser tag is not that engaging with two people, and I was wearing vintage leggings that I kept having to hoist up. ELASTIC DIES, LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE. Why did that elastic have to remind me of my mortality and also make me even worse than I would naturally be at laser tag?
I will leave you with the criticism attached to my first piece of marked coursework. Keep in mind that this was attached to a paper that I got the equivalent of an ‘A’ on. I didn’t deserve that ‘A’ because I had to look up both “brio” and “apercus”.