Tag Archives: Travel

That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

In the last post in this series I wrote about the kinds of opportunities on offer at an American campus. When I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire my semester coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was awesome to have Vice President Joe Biden come to campus and to attend his campaign speech for free. As the semester went on, the weather got more and more bitter and so too did the election.

On October 31st Bill Clinton was visiting Eau Claire to campaign for Barack Obama. How could I turn down the opportunity to see such an iconic figure? It was a Wednesday, and on every Wednesday I had my senior class- a 3 hour creative writing workshop. It was my favorite class with my favorite professor. As I walked down the hill to lower campus, I started to wonder if I could really be arsed to see Clinton. Back then I was extremely anxious about going to places and trying things without someone to do it with me, which sounds crazy when I had already come all the way to another country by myself and was doing just fine. Not only was I anxious, but I was a lazy son-of-a-gun to boot. I wondered if I would be able to motivate myself to walk downtown and see this speech all on my own. I didn’t like the idea that laziness and anxiety would get in the way of a chance to see a former President, and I continued this warring dialogue in my head as I approached Hibbard. It would be so easy to just say “ah, heck with it” and walk back to the warmth and comfort of the dorms, and resume binging Breaking Bad and eating pizza with Aaron. I wished he were here so we could go together.

I got into class, sat myself down, and a thought occurred to me. In my Making More Friends in the USA post I introduced my friend Calvin, who sat near me in that creative writing class. Only two days prior, he had asked if I wanted to get coffee on my birthday. I was busy chillin’ with Aaron, Zeke and Jimmy in Towers North at the time, but had promised him we would hang out. Calvin had a friend, a girl that sat with us, called…let’s call her Briony. As we unpacked our notepads and pens, she said, “Hey, isn’t Bill Clinton in town today?”

Class commenced as per usual, and when it ended it was late in the afternoon. Calvin looked at me and said, “So, how about that coffee? You busy?”

I said I was interested in going to see Clinton, and perhaps we could go together. He smiled and looked back at Briony and asked if she was interested. Swell!

We left the campus and headed toward Briony’s house where we planned to leave our bags. I remember being interested to see what a given student house looked like. We walked through big sylvan streets with little traffic. The houses all had large lawns. They were often made of white-painted wood and all had spacious porches which contained locked bicycles, inflated donuts for tubing the Chippewa River, hookah pipes, and the evidence of many a party; beer bottles and red solo cups strewn about the front steps and lining the porch railing. There were also dogs and families in some of the houses. A thick canopy covered every street, and everything was shadowed and sleepy. The front yards were adorned with whirligigs, flower patches, American flags, abandoned couches, empty lawn chairs, tricycles, and discarded stacks of cardboard.

We arrived at the house where Briony lived and it fascinated me. Briony and her roommate rented the upper half of the house, and so there was a stairway on the exterior of the building that took them up to their front door. I remember Briony apologizing for how messy her apartment was and it struck me as representing the carefree existence of student living. We found her roommate sitting cross-legged on the floor and the girl smiled up at us and said hi, promising to look after our bags.

“Just throw them on the floor anywhere you like,” she said, as Briony went into another room to fetch her jacket.

We started then towards downtown Eau Claire and the light was starting to leave the sky. It was at that point in the day when the streetlights are coming on and glow faintly amber against a sky the dullest shade of white. The speech was taking place at the Ramada Convention Center. By the time we arrived, the line was so big that it stretched around the whole block. We instantly grew apprehensive about whether we would make it.

I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes and one thing I’m not good at is simply standing still. I’ve always hated waiting in line, especially at airports and the like. As the day grew later and the line (“queue” in British English) trudged forward at the pace of a spilt flow of porridge, I began to realize just how naïve I was to the weather in Wisconsin. I’ve always had this tendency to put on less layers than I need out of a fear of being too hot. I hate being out and about with too many layers on and feeling sweaty, and back then I figured it was better to be too cold rather than too hot. Almost as soon as we got in line, I started complaining I was cold. I knew right away I had made a grave error. I was dressed in a thin, white vintage cabana shirt with black, office pants. I looked like I ought to be drinking Cubanitos in Havana or smoking outside a café in Sidi Bou Said. Aside from being about forty years out of date, I attracted all kinds of bemused stares at my lack of preparedness. With the kind of shirt I was wearing I was practically topless for all the protection it offered. To quote Joey from Friends: my nipples could cut glass.

Unable to control myself, I started shivering like crazy. Wisconsinites are polite and yet direct. They’re too polite to criticize my choice of clothing but nonetheless direct enough to ask where my jacket was. A woman in front of us couldn’t stand to hear my teeth chattering any longer, and said that while she didn’t have a spare sweater for me, she could offer me these little things that might warm my hands. Out of her handbag she produced these two things that looked like teabags.

“Rub them together in your hands. It’ll warm you up,” she said. “But whatever ya do, don’t open or tear them. That would be painful.”

The line snaked around these two massive buildings and we were stood there for an hour or more, with me cursing my stupidity the whole time. It was nice to hang out with Calvin and Briony some more, but I was starting to think I should have taken them up on their initial suggestion of coffee. I imagined we would have gone to a place in the campus student center Davies called The Cabin. I never actually went to The Cabin during my exchange, but I remember thinking of it as a nest of hipsters in flannel shirts and beanies, discussing Bon Iver over their Caribou Coffee. I was super-paranoid about being associated with hipsters back then. I’m not sure what my fear was exactly, but I avoided them like they were linked to Spanish Flu. But all my insecurities about being a closeted hipster went out the window when I was on the sidewalk that day feeling my crown jewels shrivel up into my body in a desperate attempt to preserve heat. At that moment The Cabin looked like the warmest, coziest place in the world.

This better be worth it, I thought to myself. We were so close to the convention center now. As we edged closer, coming off of the street and under the massive concrete parking garage attached to the side of the building, we began to talk excitedly about the comfy chairs and central heating ahead of us. It was fully dark by now. The stars were out and the hardy Wisconsinites breathed clouds of condensed water vapor. Then all of a sudden the line came to a stop and didn’t start moving again. A crowd began to form outside the hotel and a woman came along and announced that the seats were all full and that she was very sorry but could we kindly piss off.

An audible groan rang out and the crowd didn’t move. A barricade was erected to keep us from getting any closer and to make room for Clinton’s motorcade. We waited for the shiny black cars to arrive so that we might catch a glimpse of him. At worst we could brag at having seen one of his secret service agents. The only thing I remember from this part of the story is a crushing sense of disappointment. Finally, however, as if knowing that I had come all this way from Bristol, England, the woman returned and announced to the sizable crowd that Bill Clinton was going to come out and give a mini-speech to us, so that we didn’t go home with nothing. What an amazing fellow, I thought.

Then, sure enough, Bill Clinton’s motorcade turned up and he got out of the car. He looked exactly as he did on TV. His hair was brilliantly white though- whiter and thicker than Biden’s. He had a really distinctive look to him, I thought. Someone handed him a megaphone and he addressed the shivering crowd of Wisconsinites clad in green and yellow coats. It was quite a scene, I thought. Even though we didn’t get to see the actual campaign speech, this little spontaneous moment in the parking garage felt somehow more special. Everyone seemed to be wearing some form of Green Bay Packer attire, and we all felt touched by Clinton’s coming out to us in the cold.

The fact that I didn’t bring my camera felt like an even bigger mistake than my choice of clothes. Sometimes in today’s world of social media, it feels like if you don’t have a picture to mark an event, then it didn’t happen. So I don’t have a photo of my own to accompany this post. However, I did find this image online of Clinton speaking to us in the parking garage-if you look really hard you can even see half of my face, at the back of the crowd on the right of the image.

000

Photo credit: Jeff McCabe, click here to see original image

When the speech was over everyone cheered and we hurried back to Briony’s house as quickly as we could. And so ends the memory and today’s blog post. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this study abroad series, then consider giving me a Like or let me know what you think in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to keep yourself up to date, because I have plenty of stories left from that fall semester in 2012.

Advertisements

That Time I Saw Joe Biden Speak On Campus

During my student exchange at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire it seemed to me that an American campus offered no end of opportunities. Everything was more. We had more food (free food!) than we could possibly eat, we had more recreational facilities than we could possibly know what to do with, and every week there was an event of some kind going on. I could only imagine what opportunities were on offer at institutions such as John Hopkins or NYU. UW-Eau Claire is a small college in a small city, but like everything else in America it’s rich with possibilities. I wish I had done more, but two things that stand out as being especially memorable are the campaign trail speeches I got to see. I’m going to detail the first one in this post today.

In my Making More Friends in the USA post I highlighted three friends I made during my semester abroad and in my Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election post I described the atmosphere of the campus during the 2012 presidential election. It is in this post that we bring those two pieces together, now that the appropriate context has been established.

I got to see Vice President Joe Biden on September 13th, 2012. The campaign was just starting to heat up at this point, with the vote about 2 months away. Even though I didn’t know Biden that well, I knew I couldn’t turn down the chance to see a sitting Vice President. I went with Jimmy and Zeke and I remember standing in line for ages outside the Zorn Arena. It was a bright day, and although the punishing Midwestern summer heat had dropped off quite suddenly, there was a residual, pleasant kind of warmth that ushered in the Indian Summer of fall. Jimmy and Zeke, being freshmen, shared the same sense of excitement that I did as an exchange student. We were similarly new to the campus and in awe of the fresh sights and sounds before us. We were hungry for experiences. As we waited in line we joked around and pointed out the Secret Service agents taking up various positions around the perimeter of the arena.

“Look, a sniper!” we said, pointing at a guy in shades standing on the roof.

DSC05098

As we got closer to the entrance I got my first glimpse of the UW-Eau Claire marching band, who paraded down the street in a phalanx of blue and gold. They were very impressive and I enjoyed the booming music of drums and brass instruments.

The marching band’s reputation preceded them and I was glad to see them in action. One girl told me “The marching band are legit awesome. It’s like, super-nerdy, but they’re so good.”

DSC05103

The running joke on campus was that the marching band was better than the Blugold football team it supported, and that people attended the games as much to see them as they did the sports.

When we got in we were seated in this gallery overlooking the main stage. People were still flooding into the arena, and our attention focused on the secret service agent guarding the exit near to where we sat. The guy was built like a vending machine but had this serene look to his face that reminded me of a teaching assistant or music tutor with unlimited patience. Zeke said that he was going to go shake the agent’s hand, and asked if I could take a photo of him to prove he did it. I was swept up in the adventure of the moment and as he left our row of seats, Jimmy laughed and said “Dude, he’s legit going to do it.”

Unfortunately my camera at the time was not very good. I did my best to get the highest quality picture I could for him, and the result was pretty blurry. However it was not so blurry that you couldn’t tell what was going on. You can see the handshake, but the agent’s got two heads, so it looks like his spirit is leaving his physical body and watching the event over his shoulder. At the time I was worried that not getting a good photo was a missed chance to improve my new friendship with Zeke, but really it just serves as an example of how I used to fret over every little thing back then, that the slightest imperfection in my social endeavors would have far-reaching consequences. But as I have stated, Wisconsinites are a super-friendly bunch, and throughout the semester both Jimmy and Zeke were absolutely wonderful towards me. I apologized to Zeke but he just laughed and said “Good enough. Thanks man, this is badass.”

The event started with a bunch of guest speakers I can’t remember. A quartet of blonde German-American girls gave a lovely rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and my friends reminded me to put my hand over my heart and face the flag. I wasn’t sure what to do, as a foreigner, but I decided to go along with it. It was a strange sensation and a thought came over me at the time: “So this is my life now. How the hell did I get here? Here I am in the USA doing the pledge of allegiance I’ve seen so many times in the movies…”

It was a far cry from the life I’d known just a few short months ago, hiding in my room getting all my knowledge of the outside world through media instead of direct exposure. It was weird. For so long I’d felt that I was somehow “outside life”, existing only as an observer of the stories of others. Now I felt like I was living. I was in the stories I read and the movies I watched. This was a recurring emotion during my student exchange, one in which my perception of reality was changing. This might sound completely insane, but it was like all of a sudden I felt real.

Joe Biden sauntered onto the stage with his trademark swagger and ear-to-ear grin. He was old, thin, with a head of hair so white as to shame a Stranger Things antagonist. He looked like the American “good ol’ boy” archetype and I could imagine him playing a sheriff or saloonkeeper in an old-school Hollywood Western. His natural charisma and quintessential “American-ness” reminded me of Harrison Ford. Despite his age and his thinness, he was a man fit to bursting with excited energy. He seemed so vibrant and lively. He strutted about the stage shaking hands, slapping shoulders and snapping his fingers. His reputation as such a colorful personality turned out to be true, and it made for an entertaining speech. Biden resonated with the youth and knew how to galvanize them. He joked around, he was goofy, and he had this innocent, trustworthy twinkle in his eyes like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He spoke about foreign policy and then went on to paint a picture of the America he and Obama envisioned; a place of diversity, tolerance and progressivism.

I wasn’t too big on politics at the time, but I remember enjoying his speech and leaving Zorn with a sense of hope and optimism. There were people in power working to make the world a better place.

Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election

One of the things I haven’t covered yet- a detail that made my semester abroad that much more colorful- was that I was in the USA during election year. Tensions were high and the campus was highly politicized. Both the Dems and the GOP had official organizations at the grass-roots level- veritable legions of fired-up, partisan students that scoured the campus for recruits during the day and drank toasts to the bloody demise of their counterparts come night. There was a real sense of vitriol between the two sides. It was as though every four years the country braced itself for a civil war, which is an apt choice of words because the ideological divisions in this country can be traced right back to the fricking Gatling Gun. I’ve always thought that America is really two countries- like two warring spirits vying for control of a host body. One thing I picked up on as soon as I arrived was the tangible sense of dread people had towards the 2012 general election. Now I’m not saying people back in the Old World of Yurrup enjoy elections, but I’ve certainly never seen the same sense of fear. In the UK some people go about hardly noticing there’s an election at all. But in the US- boy do you know it’s game time.

The US is about as polarized as a nation can get. When I was making my road trip across the country before moving into the dorms, I met up with my assigned roommate Brad and a bunch of his high school chums in the parking lot of a Best Western hotel in Madison, WI. After grudgingly obliging their demands I say “bloody hell” several times in my normal voice, I was able to pick up a few pointers on the Do’s and Don’ts of living in the Land of the Free.

“Whatever you do, do NOT mention politics, religion, or race,” one girl told me.

There was this sense that to do so was to light a cigarette in a room already doused with gasoline. Any moment things could explode. It was an interesting climate to witness, and any American will tell you that when things kick off, it’s ugly as all hell. And it’s true; in the UK there simply isn’t the same level of hatred that exists between both factions. People just kind of get on with it, and few folks can really be bothered to make a scene.

The memory of that semester that sticks out most to me was the time my bestest of mates Aaron got back from casting his vote.

“Shit’s hit the fan,” he said, lying back on the rug across from where I sat. Aaron told me how an argument about abortion exploded on lower campus outside the voting booths. I’m not sure who started it, but basically what happened is two girls got into a screaming match and one of them called the other a “cunt”. You know the hatred is genuine when Americans use that word. In the USA it definitely carries more weight than anywhere else. Over there it’s strictly a gender-specific word. It’s a word used against women to demean women. In the UK, it’s still bad, but it’s applied more or less equally to both genders (think of it as an upgrade of “jerk”). And in Australia, I hear it’s actually a term of endearment. But no, in the US whenever that word is used it’s like all air is sucked out of the room. Back home, if I were to say it I’d get a slap on the wrist for being vulgar, but if I were to utter it in the USA, there would be a sense of “Did you really just do that?”

As a foreigner, I was pretty much insulated from it all. Come election-day a girl knocked on my door and asked if I had voted yet. I told her I wasn’t eligible, and for some reason I got a real sense of satisfaction in doing so. But a part of me did feel like I was missing out on the party. I wasn’t politically-inclined at all in those days, but I still felt swept up in all the excitement. There was a real sense of hope that came with Obama’s crushing victory, and the dorm rooms were warmed by the glow of progressivism. No offence to Mitt Romney, but he displayed about as much charisma and political insight as a pilchard. I’ll never forget staying up with Aaron all night to watch the live coverage of the votes being counted, and I have such a vivid memory of Obama’s rousing victory speech in the wind and rain of Chicago. It was probably one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, and one of the few I’ve really been affected by with a surge of emotion. Our reaction was tantamount to that of seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo performing a slam dunk over someone. “Holy shit,” Aaron said. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you had to give it to Barack Obama; the man is undoubtedly one of the greatest orators in American history.

Making More Friends in the USA

I’ve written in previous episodes of this series how I made friends with an Aaron Rodgers lookalike and his Malaysian roommate, and having finally found a friendship group of my own, latched onto them like a lamprey eel. But that’s not the whole story. It’s true that I spent almost all of my time with them, but I was also blessed with some other friendships during my 2012 student exchange. After years of loneliness in Bristol and Winchester back in the UK- where I’d sit on benches eating alone, staring at a group of friends walking past, telling myself that would never happen for me, that any form of companionship was denied me- the few friends I made in the USA seemed like a lot. For the first few weeks, it seemed as though friends were falling into my lap, and I wasn’t even doing anything proactively social. As I’ve stated before, just being British made me an exotic novelty- no matter how boring and pathetic I thought I was. One of my British friends asked me recently if I thought he could make friends if he went to the USA. And the answer is of course. If I can, any of you can- no matter how low your self-esteem is.

Midwesterners- Wisconsinites and Minnesotans especially- are renowned for their cheerful, kindly demeanor and affability. By and large their culture celebrates openness and politeness. Around the same time I was practically becoming adopted by Akbar and Aaron, I was making friends with two other lads who lived a few doors down the hall from us. For the purposes of this blog we’ll call them Jimmy and Zeke. Both of them were freshmen with a wild thirst for adventures. I met Jimmy first. He took it upon himself to befriend me, approaching me several times during my first week to make me feel welcome. My initial impressions of him were as someone who hung out with jocks but was extremely nice. I thought he looked like what I imagined a baseball player looked like, and I categorized him as someone who hung out with the cool kids in high school, but was universally liked- someone with a sense of schoolyard honor. Jimmy was also from Minnesota, and I feel like my entire impression of The Gopher State was grafted from his personality. Because Jimmy was such an easygoing type, I figured that all Minnesotans are similarly laidback. Whether there’s any truth to that, I’m not sure, but I haven’t had an experience that’s disproven my “chilled-out” image of the Minnesotans.

The first thing Jimmy taught me was that Midwesterners can be forward without seeming rude. Jimmy asked me if he could watch the Vikings’ season opener in my room because he had nowhere else to watch it. I was delighted to host him, although the TV wasn’t really mine. It was my roommate Brad’s, but he was out and hadn’t previously given me any indication I couldn’t use it. Jimmy figured out how to work the TV and we watched the Vikings. It was the first time I had sat down and watched American football. Jimmy explained the rules to me and my initiation into the sport I would soon come to love came from him. For some reason I was nervous about Brad walking in, even though I knew logically that he wouldn’t have a problem with what we were doing. Back then I wasn’t ruled by logic, but baseless fear born out of a lack of social exposure. I had already agreed to meet Aaron on lower campus and got ready to leave. Jimmy seemed cool with this and asked if he could stay in my room and watch. I trusted him and I was eager to please, so I said yes and left. As I walked down the hill to lower campus I kept thinking about what would happen if Brad came back and found some guy sat on the futon watching sports. It was an interesting little moment for me, as I wondered if such a thing would be awkward in the USA. My takeaway was that Americans feared social awkwardness less.

I first met Zeke a few days later when Jimmy and I grabbed lunch at Hilltop. Zeke was different to Jimmy, but the two of them made an interesting pair as roommates. I clicked with both of them instantly. Zeke was harder to categorize into a stereotype like everyone else. Jimmy was the kid in the movie that offered help to the bullied runt, teaching him how to throw a ball and swing a bat. Aaron was the guy that got the girl in the end and took her to prom. I even categorized myself- think of me as the Neville Longbottom type. But as for Zeke, I wasn’t sure where I had seen his face before. Out of everyone I met he had the most fervent zeal for collegiate adventures. He was intellectually-curious and more or less seemed to want to try everything. He grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin in a town of about three houses, that for some reason I always pictured looking like an Amish hamlet, complete with a working gristmill. As we ate lunch that day he eagerly engaged me on my religious and philosophical views. I wasn’t offended by the interest, but I felt I had to choose my words carefully. These fellas were still new to me, and I didn’t want to alienate potential friends by making myself look like the Antichrist. I just said I wasn’t sure about all that stuff, and they said that “most campuses are pretty liberal”. From that moment forward we became comfortable exchanging ideas throughout the semester, and both seemed very interested in what I had to say. They made my thoughts feel legitimate and they made me feel like I was not only smart, but interesting.

The last significant interaction I want to discuss is a friend I made in my Creative Writing Workshop class. We’ll go ahead and call him Calvin. My friendship with him follows the pattern of people finding me intriguing and going out of their way to make friends with me. Calvin had blonde hair and looked kind of like a young, Scandinavian Stephen King. He was a senior, and a fellow writer, so that made him different to the other friends I made. I remember him sitting near me, and seeing that I was shy, going out of his way to include me. Just like Zeke and Jimmy, he made me feel interesting. He often encouraged me to share my work and complimented my writing on several occasions. We agreed to meet up to see a visiting writer give a talk on campus one evening. That writer was actually Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar (See American Dervish & Disgraced). After watching Akhtar speak about the writing process and Sufism for an hour, we exchanged numbers. Later, when my 20th birthday came around, Calvin gave me a call and asked if he could treat me to a coffee or something. Unfortunately I was busy at the time, but I promised him we could hang out in the near future. The interaction is significant because it’s another example of how forward Americans can be, and how the experience of having people proactively seek out my friendship contributed to my development as a person and my overall impression of the Midwest. It was little moments like these that really made my exchange.

My idea behind this post was not only to highlight what my behavior therapist roommate would call “social initiations”, but to establish these three personalities for further posts going forward. In many ways, this piece is a necessary foundation for the next few posts in my student exchange series that I have planned. Be sure to catch the next episode tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

American Home Cooking Part 2

In part one I discussed how, in American households, there is a much greater tendency to arrange a meal into bowls and trays, and have the family serve themselves. This of course results in a lot of leftovers. And no treatise on American eating would be complete without discussing leftovers. It’s such a big part of life here in the US of A. I can safely say that back home, we’ve never once had leftovers for dinner. Each meal is made and consumed within the same day. During my stays in the U.S I’ve found that leftovers often constitute at least two or three meals per week, sometimes more. My roommates and I will plan our meals at the beginning of the week, and note which ones will serve as supper for two nights, or which can be reused as something else- sandwich or taco filling for instance. We would make big meals- and as always in America, generously and lovingly seasoned- that would often be served into bowls. If we wanted a second helping, we’d go back to the counter and serve up some more.

Salads are also big in America. Most restaurants will have a salad that accompanies your meal, and the question invariably is not “Would you like salad?”, it’s “What kind of salad do you want?”. Salad is often paired with things it wouldn’t necessarily be seen with in the U.K, and many times we prepared a salad to go with our meals; bowls of fresh green Spring Mix, sprinkled with garlic croutons, sliced red onion, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and a healthy addition of Italian Dressing, that sat beside our main plates. In the USA there’s no such thing as a salad without dressing. It would be considered as utterly vestigial as a truck without wheels.

I should point out quickly that I’m not saying every house adheres to a strict, uniform mode of eating- be it in the U.K or the U.S. What I’m saying is there are aggregate truths to the way a nation eats- ingredients and customs and tastes entirely their own. But of course, each household will explore these national tendencies in different ways. And that’s something I find very interesting- the rituals of a given family. When I first started living with Aaron and Anne-Marie in Wisconsin they weren’t yet engaged, but I had the feeling of stepping into the kitchen of a long-married couple. There was an aroma of love. They seemed to have the goofy humor of a husband and wife, teasing each other, but knowing exactly the other’s movements and skill, knowing each of their responsibilities without discussing them, moving unconsciously in a system entirely their own, as though they had been cooking together a lifetime. I remember Anne-Marie leaning on the counter with a beer in her hand, watching Aaron stir cut-up Italian sausage in a skillet.

“We like to drink beers when we cook,” she told me with a homely smile, and offered me one. I accepted a Spotted Cow, Aaron taking a break from stirring to have a hearty swig of his own. Already I was being immersed into ongoing traditions, the subtle rituals of domestic life. Music is another one. Whenever I cook with the two of them, soft music plays in the background. Nothing like the punk rock or rap we’d listen to in the Panther; the kitchen always filled with light and soothing indie or “coffee shop” music. First Aid Kit. Lord Huron. Best of all, Zella Day.

This was the environment in which I learned to cook. I had made basic meals before when I lived in Winchester, but it wasn’t until I lived with my American roommates that I learned what might be called the craft of cooking. Technique. How to properly hold a knife, which knife to use for each item of food, the fundamentals of cooking raw meat, as well as the hygienic maintenance of a kitchen, and the French philosophy of Mise en place. But what did we make?

One thing I have noticed about the American culinary landscape is how much it adores sandwiches. Sandwiches here are nothing like the sandwiches back home. They’re massive for one thing. Some are impossible to eat as a whole. What I love best about sandwiches in the USA is that they are treated like an art form. American cooks are constantly trying to innovate and push the concept of a sandwich to maximum extravagance. Sandwiches also serve as the creative expressions of different regions within the USA, and often are a combination of tastes from the settlers of a particular place. This summer we made French Dip (of Los Angeles origin) and a shrimp Po’Boy (New Orleans).

What’s interesting is that sandwiches can be considered a main meal in their own right in the USA, whereas at home they tend to be more of a lunch time thing. I don’t remember us ever having sandwiches for dinner back home, nor at restaurants. The French Dip, Philly Cheesesteak, and Po’Boy are favorites of my roommates and I, and the ones we made were delicious.

Of course, there are some practices that are adopted nationwide- for instance Americans hold their forks in their right hand, they drink milk out of glasses and plastic cups instead of mugs. Mugs in the USA are reserved for coffee (which they drink a lot of) and tea. Contrary to popular belief, Americans do drink tea, but mostly it will be iced tea or herbal and green teas.

Our meals this summer also saw an incorporation of Mexican cuisine, and we frequently made quesadillas and tacos for both lunch and dinner. I spoke before about household traditions, and a specialty of Aaron and Anne-Marie is their crab-dip in a bread bowl. I’ve been lucky enough to experience it twice now. The first time was in Wisconsin, where we were living in Eau Claire and joined by Aaron’s sister Elizabeth. With so much leftover crab dip, Anne-Marie decided to use the rest the following day to make crab dip quesadillas. The experiment worked, and Aaron hailed her genius. In America the surest way to someone’s heart is to cook them good food. We remade the crab dip this year for our NBA Draft Party, and once again we used the leftovers for quesadillas.

The other big dip we made that day was Buffalo Chicken, which is a staple of Super Bowl parties and sporting events. We made this twice this summer, the second time coming in the form of a sandwich.

Other successful recipes included our Greek gyros chicken, Shrimp Fajitas, Chicken Primavera, Stromboli, Lemon Chicken with Asparagus, Bacon & Barbeque Sauce Beef Burgers, Pasta with Sweet Italian Sausage, and so on and so on. Enjoy the pictures, and be sure to share with me the meals your family & friends hold dear!

American Home Cooking Part 1

I’ve written about my favorite restaurants in Houston and how they made my time there special, but what really made my summer this year were the meals my roommates and I cooked together in our apartment. What’s that saying? Teamwork makes the dreamwork. Perhaps it’s this, and not our experiences dining out, that have changed my taste buds so drastically in the last few years.

In this post I’d like to discuss American home cooking and the way Americans eat, all through the lens of my personal experiences. Of course, every household has its own traditions and I’d like to explore some of ours, and how I used my friends and their families as case studies to form an image of American domestic life. In some ways, as I write this, I’m imagining myself as a historian from the future, reporting on the habits of a few, freedom-lovin’ natives.

Back in the U.K my family incorporates a lot of Moroccan and Greek influences into our meals. At least once or twice a week at the Vowles household you’ll find dishes that use couscous instead of rice and orzo instead of more traditional, Italian pasta. We like olives and feta, and it’s something of a staple here to make a lemon-chicken or lamb dish every week. That’s not to say that the food is in any way Mediterranean; it can’t be unless you get all your produce from a Greek delicatessen or something. Every country has its own agriculture and its own ingredients, so think of it more as British food with a somewhat Byzantine accent. We’ve also been known to make more traditionally British fare in the way of casseroles and stews, or meat accompanied by a wide range of vegetables- the classic British favorites of broccoli, carrots, peas, sweetcorn, green beans, cabbage, kale et cetera. Once in a blue moon some cod in a creamy sauce, and every now and then an Indian meal- though not bearing any resemblance to the curries of New Dehli.

When I came to the USA five years ago, one of the first differences I noticed was that there was less of an enthusiasm for stews and casseroles in American kitchens. A lot- almost all- of the meals my mother made were in some kind of sauce. Very seldom if at all did we sit down to a dry piece of meat. And almost every day in the cafeteria of the University of Winchester there would be something resembling a stroganoff or a curry. Perhaps it’s because this is a bitter isle and down the centuries food has been typically prepared to warm us up, much in the same way beer in the U.K is traditionally room temperature and bitter, not like the cold, refreshing lagers that dominate the American heartland.

Another thing I noticed was that meals were arranged in different ways. Back home we were each given a plate of food, a casserole or something accompanied with rice or vegetables, and that was that. The table runner only held the candles that lit our dinner. In the USA, I saw a lot more of what you might call a mini potluck, the plates empty and the table adorned with options. This allowed me to control my portions and I’d find myself in less situations where I was desperately trying to reach the finish line. In America families like to mix and match, passing between them plastic bowls of salad or potatoes and all kinds of condiments. Dinner felt a lot more freeform. One thing I vividly remember is eating dinner with my host family in 2012, and my host dad saying “I fancy mine with some buttered bread” and so a loaf of bread and a tub of butter sat alongside the other options on the table. I just couldn’t imagine them ever sitting on the dinner table back home.

In the USA, particularly the Midwest, beef reigns supreme. Back home we’ve made brisket in wine sauce, or roast beef on Sundays, but I can’t ever remember my mom making steak. One time I visited my roommate Aaron’s parents during my years in Wisconsin, and his mom made beef steaks. There is a casual, hospitable feel to an American dining room that always seems ready to entertain. There always seems more room for riders in the night to come in and sup. I thought to myself If we hadn’t come, or had come very late, what was she going to do with all these steaks? It’s very much a grab-yourself-a-plate-and-join-in scenario. So we grabbed our plates, joined the family, and helped ourselves to the options in the bowls and trays laid out along the table. I’m always thinking how relaxed Americans seem, and I thought about the idea of bringing a guest over to dinner at my parents’ house in the U.K, say, a half hour or so before dishing. They’d go off the deep end. There’s not enough food! You should have told us this morning! Goodness, what will we do?

I thought then to a meal I had with Aaron’s family in 2014. In fact it was the first day I met them, and in order to make me feel welcome they asked what American favorites I liked. I told them I liked Philly Cheesesteaks and Green Bean Casserole. A strange combination, Aaron told me with a chuckle, but his dear family went about and made it as though it were a perfectly sane request. If anything they seemed to relish the idea, and there seemed to be this great sense of energy about them. After all, every American is descended from a pioneer of some kind, so perhaps that’s why they always seem to have a thirst for adventure and a lack of fear for the unknown. Why not? seems to be the American mantra. That day I played basketball in the driveway with Aaron, his younger brother Joseph, and Anne-Marie’s younger brother Brock. Afterward we all gathered in the dining room and Aaron’s father said to Brock “We’re having Philly Cheesesteaks and Green Bean Casserole. You staying for dinner?”

Even a pre-planned dinner had the flexibility, perhaps the expectation, of last-minute guests. This to me was a quintessentially American interaction. In the U.K, the question would go “Would you like to join us for dinner?” and if we’re talking my family it would be asked about a week in advance.

“Sure,” Brock said, sitting down. In America there is a lack of the formality that I’m used to. Everything is very casual. Aaron and Anne-Marie’s families both seemed like one big family, as though this sort of thing would happen every week. In the U.K, someone (like me for instance) in Brock’s position would have answered “Oh I couldn’t possibly!”

I’ve long since learned that in the USA, when someone offers you something or invites you somewhere, you absolutely should not respond “Are you sure?”

I wouldn’t have asked you otherwise, an American would tell you. Don’t second-guess them; they want you to take them up on their generosity.

I wish I had a picture of that meal for this blog, but back then I was far too shy to whip out my camera at the dinner table, having just met all these people I had imagined one day meeting for two years. But rest assured that it was quite delicious, and my anxiety was spared the guilt of suggesting something truly crazy.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this piece- if so, be sure to Subscribe so you don’t miss the next part. Before the end of the week I will release episode 2, and continue to cover my observations of home cooking through to the present day, and the meals we made this summer!

Studying in the USA vs Studying in the UK Episode 3: Classes

Since I started this memoir series way back in June, I’ve only really covered the social aspects of my student exchange. Today I’d like to discuss the academic differences between studying in the USA and the UK, of which there are many. It’s super-interesting and I’ve been meaning to do a post on this for a while, so let’s begin!

 

  1. In the U.K most arts degrees have a set length of 3 years. You either make it in those years, or you don’t. I think if you fall short of a passing grade they give you some work to do over the summer, but that’s about it- you don’t retake the assignment.
  2. In the U.S, an average degree typically runs 4 years, but really there’s no set length. In the U.K each year is different, as we progress through a predetermined program of tasks and content. You can’t jump ahead to third year stuff; you have to reach that level. There’s an order to things. In the U.S however, everything is measured in classes and the credits they give you. Every degree has its own criteria about what is required to graduate, and so you can stay for 5 or 6 years if you want. Finishing in less than 4 is rare, but my genius roommate Anne-Marie finished hers in 3 and a half years, which was considered exemplary.
  3. In the U.S they have classes, and in the U.K they have modules. There’s a difference. A class is its own self-contained subject that might be filled up with all sorts of people at different stages of their study, all pursuing different degrees. In the U.K, we had modules, which were each necessary components needed to pass the year and in which we were all on the same journey at the same stage.
  4. In the UK, your degree has a singular, very specialized focus. I studied Creative Writing, which meant that every seminar, lecture and workshop I attended worked toward that goal, and what I needed to achieve that goal was laid out strictly from the start. This meant a deeper exploration of the given subject. Within Creative Writing we had modules that explored different subcategories, of which we had some limited choice, depending on if we wanted to become, say, a screenwriter or a poet. We had classes devoted to science fiction, children’s books, songwriting, modern poetry and scriptwriting for TV.
  5. In the U.S on the other hand, there’s an altogether different approach. Students have an emphasis, known as a “major”, but they are free to take whatever class they like, whether it builds towards their major or not. You can major in women’s studies but take classes in Portuguese and Limnology if you so choose.
  6. A lot of American students go to college without even knowing what degree they want to get from it. These kids are known as “undeclared” and can decide later what major they want. They are free to try out what classes work for them. In that way, college in the U.S seems like an extension of school, and in America people even refer to college as “school”.
  7. In the U.K you have to make your decision at the age of 17 and hope you’ll be happy with it. I know people who have done a year of one degree, hated it, and started a new one, accruing themselves a fine debt.
  8. In the U.S, this wouldn’t happen. You can change majors along the way, and I know people who have studied for 2 years towards one major and decided they would rather switch to something else, and it doesn’t affect their time spent there or their debt. Some people discover in their third year or fourth year that they are close to graduating in an altogether different subject, based on the classes they took, and will jump ship.
  9. Another option Americans have is collecting majors like the skulls of slain enemies. My close friend Elizabeth realized in her third year that she was close to graduating with an archeology degree, and ended up finishing her fourth year as a triple-major!
  10. In the U.S everything counts towards your grade. Every exam, essay, even the weekly quizzes.
  11. Homework is taken seriously in the U.S. Yeah, homework counts towards your grade too. In the U.K we would sometimes get given homework, but it was more prep for the next seminar. It was embarrassing when you turned up and hadn’t done it, but it wouldn’t cost you. One time I flat out told the professor I hadn’t bothered to do the reading, and she gave me this icy expression before ignoring me for the rest of class. I felt bad, because I liked her a lot. In the U.S, it’s in your interest to get that extra work done.
  12. Participation ALSO counts towards your grade in the U.S. In the U.K I mostly hid at the back of the classroom, thinking about sleep. In the U.S I was on my toes, because your public speaking forms a part of your grade.
  13. In the U.K the only thing you have to worry about are the assignments at the end of semester. We never had exams in Creative Writing, so each semester followed the pattern of having two assignments which made up your entire score. Usually a short story and a reflective essay. The classes were basically there to help you gain the knowledge to get a good grade, but nothing really mattered if you did well on those two assignments.
  14. The biggest difference I noted was that in the U.S there was a greater volume of work, whereas in the U.K I felt that the work was a little harder. I was getting pretty good grades in the U.S, but I was let down by the sheer amount of it. In the U.S the diligent, hard-working and organized student reigns supreme. I’m a lazy sonuvabitch, so I found it hard to complete every assignment to the best of my ability. There was literally a deadline for every day of the week for the whole semester.
  15. In the U.S they grade things as A, B, C etc, and for the most part it’s mathematical. It’s most often made by numbers, although I had one professor that told me she graded us on how she “felt” our work deserved to be graded. In the U.K, the grades have strange names like “Distinction” and “First” and “Second”.

 

What I’ve listed here are what I believe to be the fundamental differences between the education system in the USA and the U.K. This will serve as our groundwork moving forward. I’m going to follow this up with a post tomorrow in which I discuss how I reacted to these changes and how I feel about them. Be sure to Subscribe so you don’t miss out! Thank you once again for reading.