Category Archives: American Traditions

The First Day of Christmas

Apparently, America has set an official date for the advent of the Christmas season and made sure to inform all relevant parties, including the weather. I woke up this morning to find my dear husband trundling back and forth carrying large boxes and trailing tinsel, while snowflakes flurried from his beard and festive songs blared from the television. Apparently, it is now Yule.

In England, we’re not really sure when Christmas begins. If you ask the supermarkets, they’ll tell you it’s somewhere around May, when there’s empty space on the shelves where the Easter eggs used to be. If you ask the tellybox advertisers, it’s approximately September, when the first twig of holly sneaks into an ad break. If you ask my family, it’s a vague date in mid-December when the panic shopping begins and someone remembers the tree. If you ask me, it’s about December 19, when I suddenly discover I have once again missed the last day of post and won’t be sending any cards. Again.

Consequently, I’ve always found it quite a challenge to get into the Christmas spirit. There’s a tipping point between ‘far too early’ and ‘too late to do things properly’, a single moment when it feels right to have festive feelings. The rest of the time, I’m not entirely sure if it’s Christmas or not – although I do suffer a vague knot of worry throughout December regarding wrapping paper.

In America, on the other hand, Christmas begins as Thanksgiving ends, making the latter holiday a handy indicator for the former. As soon as you’re done shovelling turkey into your mouth, it’s time to send someone out to the garage to fetch the tree and start checking Amazon for gift-giving bargains, while the snow begins to dutifully fall.

This is a regimen I wholeheartedly approve of: I can now schedule my season, confident in the knowledge I haven’t got it wrong. Although I will inevitably still fail to send out Christmas cards in time.

It also gives the cat a full month to steal all the baubles, a challenge she accepted less than a minute after the tree was finished.

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The Day I Was Nearly Murdered (and then definitely wasn’t)

I’m not generally prone to panic. On the other hand, I am English and should not be placed in the vicinity of firearms without a very good reason. Because, this:

Englishwoman with a gun

In case it isn’t immediately obvious from the ineptitude of every Englishman ever depicted on film with his pistol pointed in the wrong direction (which is all of them), we’re not very good with guns. We haven’t got any, you see. To the English, a gun is a mythological weapon used in times of national emergency, such as when faced with terrorism or aliens. These are the only conceivable situations in which you should place a working firearm in the hands of a Brit, unless you want someone’s foot to be shot off.

Nope, the state of being best described as “Being Near Me With A Gun” is not one to be undertaken lightly. As far as I’m concerned, an unknown man prowling through the trees in one’s back yard while carrying a rifle does not count as a good reason to Be Near Me With A Gun and will do nothing but provoke anguish, distress and overreaction.

One cannot simply wander outside and demand an explanation under these circumstances, because the answer to, “What are you hunting?” will almost certainly be, “You”. Hopping from foot to foot while staring through each window in turn proved equally unhelpful, so I decided to gather photographic evidence of my murderer to help out the police in the wake of my inevitable demise (because our Police Chief is lovely and I wouldn’t want to cause him too much extra work).

Unknown man's truck

I immediately hit an unforeseen problem: no zoom on my camera phone and absolutely no possibility of being stupid enough to go outside. I think you’ll agree it’s a pretty ominous partly-hidden truck, though.

Next idea: call the husband. Scuppered by recorded message with no interest in predicament. Stage three panic imminent, I sent Mom-in-Law a nonchalant text, casually enquiring as to whether she knew of a reasonable explanation for there being a prowly man with a rifle outside the window. “Nope,” came the reply. “I’m on my way.”

There is one thing in this world more terrifying than a gun: a mother defending her own. I continued to hide bravely until her car appeared on the horizon, an angry dust cloud in its wake, ready and prepared to cut off the murderer’s path of escape. My heart swelled with relief to see the ominous green truck chased away, its proverbial tail between its legs. The day was saved, the damsel rescued, the murderer full of regret.

Anti-climactic addendum: it wasn’t a murderer, just a game warden. He was apparently searching for an injured deer by utilising his years of training in being unnecessarily frightening. And so, the moral to today’s tale of Almost Murder is as follows: when dealing with your easily spooked English guests, please be sure to leave your shotgun in the car. You really don’t want the rescue team alerted.


Extraordinary Generosity

I have never questioned the assertion that small-town Americans are among the most generous and community spirited people in the world. I’ve seen their kindness in everything from the unanimous warm welcome I received two years ago to the sheer number of hours people pour into making things comfortable for one another. Whether helping a family member at the weekend or serving on every board of trustees there is, the residents of this county are there for one another before the hat has chance to drop.

I wrote an article this morning that pushed my idea of Wyoming generosity to its limits, which was quite an achievement in itself. It has to do with the recent Oil Creek Fire that, unless you are a resident of the Midwest, you have almost certainly heard nothing about. The Oil Creek Fire consumed 62,000 acres, a swathe of land only slightly smaller than the entirety of inner London.

Inner London: estimated population, 3 million (from WikiTravel)

The fire is still burning, albeit under control, only a dozen or so miles away from where I sit and was fought by all manner of fire crews, many of them voluntary.

Incidentally, those firefighters must work in 100-degree weather, wearing heavy protective suits while warming their cockles further on the giant flames ahead of them. They are meanwhile performing the sort of heavy lifting I probably couldn’t manage for more than five minutes were I stood in an ice bath wearing a bikini. (Apologies for that dreadful mental image.)

One of our local firefighters at work; image courtesy of the rather wonderful Katie Allen of Crook County Fire & Emergency

My father-in-law has been one of those firefighters for as long as anyone can remember and to this day jumps to adrenaline-pumped attention each time the call goes out – a little more sneakily these days, because he’s supposed to have retired from the heatstroke.

It was a miracle of human ingenuity that a fire I would be tempted to label “impossibly huge” was brought under control so quickly. It was also testament to the sheer faith locals have in their firefighters that nobody in town seemed to have noticed it was burning. To newcomer me, it was an incredible and terrifying fluke of nature; to the community at large, it was the way of things.

As an example, the residents of a small town the fire threatened to completely consume were evacuated to a nearby city. They promptly wandered home again, serene in the conviction it would never be allowed to reach their doors. They were right.

The firefighters of New York City received the well-deserved status of heroes after the events of 9/11. What I hadn’t before considered is that the same level of heroism can be witnessed on a daily basis, all across America. These men and women don’t fight fires for a living; indeed, I’ve been told that sometimes a sandwich and a cup of coffee is the only reward they get. They do this to serve their communities, often by putting themselves in harm’s way.

Firefighter returning to the line

My favourite depiction of resilience: an unidentified local firefighter shown returning to the line.

Not everyone escaped unscathed from the Oil Creek Fire. This area is comprised largely of huge areas of privately owned ranch land, which meant that some local ranchers lost what must have been devastating portions of their livelihood.

Yesterday, a rancher sent $10,000 dollar cheques to both volunteer services that helped to fight the fire. He wanted to personally thank them for the hard work they did to preserve the wildlife and natural resources in the area and hoped his donation might help them in the future.

I see similarly heartwarming generosity regularly, but this donation stood out to me: the rancher in question lost hundreds of acres of land and a hundred heads of cattle; the firefighters were only able to save his house.

One can barely imagine what a loss it must have been to his family, and yet he felt compelled to make a gesture of thanks to the firefighters who worked tirelessly on his behalf. To me, that speaks of generosity on two levels: that of the man who felt appreciation when he so easily could have felt bitterness, and that of the men and women who stood in the path of a fire to protect their community. The kind of heroism and generosity you read about in the greatest of tales, in a tiny town in Wyoming.


Not Enough Love In My Heart

The shops around here are packed with Valentine’s cards – massive piles of them, some taller than my head. This is wonderful, as there’s, obviously, never too much love in the world, but the one thing I don’t understand is this: why are they being sold in bulk?

Are they for slutty people?

Are we meant to buy a pack now to keep us going for the next 25 years, and hope our significant other isn’t very observant?

Is it in case I keep buggering up the signature?

I’m told it’s largely for schoolkids, who like to give cards to their whole class, which is a new one on me. Where I’m from, you pick a Valentine, based on such criteria as “nice eyes” and “unusually patient” and run with it, and eyebrows are raised meaningfully should you be purchasing two cards. Clinton’s Cards have a policy whereby three or more Valentine cards hit the counter at once and it triggers the alarm button.

There is a certain sweetness in the befuddlement of it all, but don’t get me started on the Twilight-themed packs I saw. The horror.

On an even sweeter note, this picture is doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, and is especially heartstring-pulling if the associated story – that he told the photographer his wife died of cancer three years ago but he still buys her a card and roses to remind her she’s his only one – is true. Now there’s, for me, the true meaning of Valentine.

Two years ago yesterday, I got engaged to Hubby. At a keyboard, 5000 miles apart, after a frank and practical discussion of whether it was the best option for our (then) long-distance relationship. The proper proposal came a couple of months later, when he was in England, but it will still be a very difficult Valentine to top.

 


Grill-iant Weekend

I am no longer able to deny my status as one half of an Old Married Couple. The highlight of my weekend was not watching Transformers in 3D, nor my crosspatch viewing of Legend of the Seeker (for which my sister-in-law is to blame, as she has coaxed me into an addiction to the books and the televisual equivalent is not really an equivalent at all).

Nope, the memory I shall carry forward from this particular summer’s Sunday is the maiden voyage of our brand new outdoor grill. It’s pint-sized and inexpensive, but already my favourite cooking implement – and not something one could call an everyday device in old Blighty.

My waistline has not adapted well to the change in diet, largely because it is slave to my brain, which seems convinced that devouring everything I come across is a good idea. It is not. The grill was bought as part of our attempt to curb the gluttony; after all, you can be as greedy as you like with salad and vegetables, yes?

And so we were; our first grill-fest featured steak and barbecue sauce with buttered mushrooms, corn, grilled potatoes and salad. Accompanied by a hot dog, just because we could.

Our second attempt was no less enthusiastic: chicken marinaded in a lemon pepper dressing on a bed of couscous, accompanied by large amounts of kebab-grilled pepper, onion, cherry tomato and mushroom and a salad. Also accompanied by corn, just because it needed using up.

Hubby tells me that such fare has seen him through most summers – an alien concept for someone who is not only used to living in a city (in an apartment with a broken patio door), but is from a nation that regards barbecue as a luxury (because announcing one’s intention to cook outside immediately causes the sky to cloud over).

This side of the ocean, the luxury seems to be in filling the fridge with healthy leftovers that – unlike the limp, depressed salads I’ve always relied on – are actually more tempting than the candy. If I was still intent on my pizza-sheet tent idea, I’d consider using the kebab sticks as tent poles.

 

 


Independent Eating

 

The Fourth of July weekend is about to begin, and I am excited to be joining in as a sort-of-American. It seems somehow fitting that my first holiday as an honorary citizen will be the one that celebrates breaking away from England. Fitting in a melancholy way.

As an outsider, Independence Day is not yet ingrained in my brain as a holiday. It did, however, get my full attention when I came across this display in the grocery store.

Never mind the trays of mini-muffins and the frankly amazing cakes (you can’t see from the picture, but there’s an eagle made of icing on the other side). What caught my eye was the cookie. Yes, that tray in the foreground is one giant cookie. With chocolate chips. And icing. And twinkly bits. It’s the size of a dinner plate, and then some.

I’m sure it’s intended for sharing, but frankly I’m not that generous. I am much more inclined to add it to my Perfect Morning Wishlist: I should very much like, one day, to wake up in a tent made of pizza sheets, with a giant cookie pillow, and have ABSOLUTELY NO CHOICE but to eat my way out.

That is my American Dream.


Sinister Snacks

In celebration of my dear husband’s scholarly achievements, the family gathered on Saturday afternoon for food, beer and general mischief. These occasions are always cause for excitement, partly because it’s impossible not to have a fantastic time, and partly because I spend the week beforehand salivating at the thought of the food. Burgers, hot dogs, Mum-in-law’s amazing potato salad, Uncle-in-law’s addictive cream cheese jalapenos, baked beans – everything you need to make yourself well and truly sick.

Even I got in on the action, spreading my sweet-toothed joy by providing the desserts. I’ve never been good at cake-making because I’m a bit gung-ho when it comes to presentation, but I was happy enough with  the results: I made raspberry cheesecake, mandarin cake with a whipped pineapple topping, rocky road brownies with cookie mix dollops and a marshmallow and chocolate chip topping and popcorn balls with cherries and almonds. Some of the brownies and the second mandarin cake that “fell apart” may have failed to make it to the table.

There was, however, one sinister contribution to the spread. You can see it in the picture below – it looks lovely, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you be tempted to grab one? Don’t they just look melt-in-your-mouth yummy? Would you still be inclined to munch on one if I told you they were Mountain Oysters?

Most people from this side of the pond will now be making a face like a cat’s bum, just as I did when the plate came my way. Mountain oysters, you see, are… not oysters. They are calf testicles.

Yes, you heard me correctly: in this region, the delicacy enjoyed during branding season is cow bollocks. In breadcrumbs. Seasoned. With a delicious dip. But still, despite the dressings, a bovine dangly bit. I believe Grandma Grace, who under normal circumstances is a very elegant, proper lady, summed it up perfectly when she waved one in the air by its toothpick and declared, “I’ve been around too many of these in my life to feel the need to put one in my mouth”.

(Incidentally, Grandma Grace made my day for a second time when she was handed her baby grandson, who had finally calmed down after half an hour of crying. Two minutes later he was testing the top of his lungs again, at which she held him up to his mother and said, “Fixed him”. I felt compelled to share this anecdote with you largely so you could leave this post with a more pleasant mental image than a calf bollock.)