Posts Tagged With: Homesickness

34×34 #21: Host a Dinner Party – Expat Thanksgiving Edition

You would think by now I would stop writing the repetitively themed blog, “I had this perfect vision…but reality did not live up to my expectations. (But then it was perfect anyway).”

It’s like, so basic and self-evident, and yet I must learn my lesson over and over and over.

Sisyphus and me, the universe’s bitches.

This past November was the third Thanksgiving in a row I was missing at home, and I didn’t like it. Year one was spent on the boat, eating crummy buffet food, albeit with forty of my nearest and dearest entertainment department family. Last year Thanksgiving was in Manchester, where a deceptive online grocery store misdelivered several crucial elements at the last minute, giving my fellow expat friend and I a unique, if somewhat frustrating, meal. With that friend re-expatriated to France, I didn’t know what I was going to do for Turkey Day this year.

I wanted to host Thanksgiving for the few other Americans I know in London, but I live in a vegetarian flat. As in, I am not allowed to bring meat into the house. Not deli meat, not on takeaway, nothing. But none of my friends has a space to accommodate a group of six or more.

I do. I have an enormous kitchen. And then I found an American grocery store called Partridge’s near Sloane Square. They had French’s Fried Onions and I knew I had to do this.

American foodses in London

American foodses in London

I don’t know if it’s the delicious food or the concept of family and gratitude, but Thanksgiving is a big deal to me, and while none of my fellow Americans seemed overly concerned about the day, I was determined. I negotiated my stubborn landlord/flatmate into allowing me to have people over, as long as the turkey was cooked elsewhere, and none of his kitchenware touched it.

One American friend took charge of the turkey, gravy, and stuffing, another decided to make mashed potatoes, and our Australian friend promised cranberry sauce. That left me to make pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, and butternut squash lasagna.

In my 34×34 vision of hosting a dinner party, I cooked the full multi-course meal – an appetizer, a meat-centered main course, a dessert. Part of the point of this self-challenge was to face my strange distaste – almost fear – of touching raw meat. The reason I can live in a vegetarian house despite not being a vegetarian is that I don’t ever cook meat: I don’t like to touch it, and I don’t really know how to prepare it properly.

So was I cheating by delegating this pivotal portion of the meal to someone else? I mean, quite frankly, it’s the quintessential element – people could live without the butternut squash lasagna, but nobody wanted to do a turkey-less Thanksgiving. Also, because of the kitchenware stipulation, I had to buy paper plates and plastic cutlery to serve the meal. This did not fit into my elegant vision of hosting a dinner party either.

You know what? I’m counting it. Judge me as you must. And just for full disclosure, I cut up some cheese and dumped some crackers on a platter for my appetizer. Sue me.

At the last minute, one of my friends realized she couldn’t make the mashed potatoes because her refrigerator was broken and she had to work all day preceding dinner. Potatoes are as necessary as turkey, so I added them to my schedule. One of my goals with attempting this dinner was to learn how chefs/cooks/my sainted mother time their preparations to set all the food out piping hot at the same moment. There is a real art to cooking a whole meal, and I’ve never mastered it. Things get cold or burn, but nothing is ever ready simultaneously.

Getting down and dirty

Getting down and dirty

My day started at 9am, baking bread, two loaves of pumpkin made separately because I wasn’t sure if I could just double the ingredients and then halve the mixture into two pans – and it was 4am in New Jersey, too early to call my mother.

Pumpkin bread!

Pumpkin bread!

My mother played a prominent role in my day – I called/skyped her at least once an hour, freaking out about what order I should do things in, what ingredients I might be forgetting as I went to the supermarket one last time, how to bake the squash and mash the potatoes and what was the recipe for chocolate chip cookie pie? Really, I know nothing about cooking. My mother must be disappointed in her three children, none of whom took up her great culinary skill and enjoyment. She LIKES spending all day in the kitchen preparing a groaning table’s worth of food for her family.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Anyway, I got through it. Breads were followed by pies, which cooled all day on the counter, teasing me. I prebaked the squash and mashed it, then boiled the potatoes and mashed them – all by hand, because we don’t have a mixer or blender or anything fancy in my house (we only barely have a microwave, after much whining on my part). Everything was going well until one friend apologetically texted that she and her boyfriend would be an hour late – totally throwing off my calculations for getting everything ready simultaneously.

At that point I started drinking wine and eating cheese cubes.

Classy spread

Classy spread

But that’s as dramatic as it gets; everyone eventually arrived, loaded with food and alcohol, all of which was delicious. Everything I made came out perfectly and reasonably hot. No one even touched the chocolate chip cookie pie, so stuffed were they from the meal.

I am my mother’s daughter, wanting to be absolutely sure everyone was gastrointestinally protesting too much food.

Eight of us ate and drank together: 3 Americans, an Aussie, a Lithuanian, a Frenchman, a Brit, and an Italian. Just like the Pilgrims would have wanted.

Mmmm. Food.

Mmmm. Food.

My contribution

My contribution

After my funny little hodgepodge family left and the dishes were washed, I Skyped with my other family in New Jersey. I realized I had done all that work mainly for myself – no one else was nearly as fussed about it, no one was desperate for pumpkin bread and green bean casserole the way I was. But that’s okay. It was worth it for the leftovers alone.

I’m so grateful to my mother for all her help, even from thousands of miles away. We stood in kitchens on opposite sides of the Atlantic, cooking together, and if my meal came out even a fraction as well as hers, I have reason to be proud.

So I accomplished my goal: I brought people together, we broke bread, we laughed, we were thankful. So fuck the turkey. Maybe next year I’ll tackle “cooking meat.”

Fat now.

Fat now.

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Wilds of London

The first time I saw a fox in London, I was waiting for a bus on a side street in Islington. It shot past, low to the ground and tail streaming, racing toward the Angel Tube station across the street, as if it were desperate to catch a train. It was running toward a highly congested (even at 9pm on a Tuesday night) area of London’s Zone 1. “Was that a fox?” I said out loud to the woman also waiting at the bus stop, who laughed along with me in strange delight.

I have since discovered urban foxes are a “thing;” Mary Poppins wasn’t a scam. I’ve seen them several times in my own neighborhood, and I love it: “View Halloooooo!” I like to think they appear just for me, a good luck charm, a symbol that things are peculiar and wonderful here in London.

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I haven’t seen a fox in a while. Maybe they’re hibernating for the winter. What I am becoming acquainted with in these early-darkening, ceaselessly gray days are the well-known, much-feared poisonous spiders here in the wild jungles of the London metropolis.

Haven’t heard of them? Oh, right that’s because they don’t exist…well, they only exist for me. They are a bit of a bad luck charm, a symbol of something. I just don’t know what.

Since moving into my flat near Stoke Newington, I have been bitten in my sleep four times, presumably by spiders, though I have never seen one in my bedroom. The first three were spread out over three week intervals. Then I got bitten two nights in a row: once on my arm, once on my face. I am not someone prone to allergies; I have never had a bad reaction to food or animals or insect bites. Yet here I sit with a ballooning left arm and a goitery face.

I have friends in actual exotic places like Australia and South Africa and Japan who aren’t experiencing this kind of wildlife.

Right now my arm is swollen and red from my wrist to my bicep. It’s sore and I’m experiencing waves of intense itching.  The texture of my skin has changed to sandpaper, oddly tacky and firm. It’s like my arm isn’t my arm. When I touch it I can’t believe it’s part of me.

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Last time I went to the hospital, when I was bitten on my right wrist, smack dab in the middle of my cherry blossom tattoo. They gave me antibiotics, but I don’t think they sped up the recovery. I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

But in my current state of my mind, these bites are a perfect metaphor for how I feel about London: like it is rejecting me, attacking me, needling me to give up and leave. What if somehow I’m allergic to London, a city I have longed to live in?

I know this is homesickness talking. I’ve arrived at that point where the adrenalin and novelty of figuring out a new place have worn off, the bleakness of winter has settled in, and I have learned that even more than New York, London is a distant city. It’s not a great big friendly invitation to a “cuppa” tea. It is a jungle, a space overcrowded but hidden. It’s hard to meet people and make connections.

I suppose it’s a byproduct of that polite British aloofness. No one will be rude to you here…they just won’t talk to you at all.  I’ve done an informal study of pub culture compared to American bar culture. English people go to pubs, with their friends, to drink. Heavily. Period. There aren’t men leering at women, trying to chat you up. They are too immersed in their mates and cups.

I almost miss the unwanted attention. It was nice to at least feel visible. The grass is always greener, right?

These, my friends, are first world problems, though who has ever classified a poisonous spider bite that way. I’m trying to look at my life patterns, the time of year, and recognize that I’m just in that wistful slump after the initial romantic has mellowed. I’ve only been here four months. Is it surprising that I don’t feel completely settled, that this isn’t quite “home” yet? I’m at a low point that aligns with the winter solstice. As the days slowly (so slowly) get longer again, so too will my desire to get out and explore come out of dormancy.

As with these treacherous spider bites: I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

I look forward to seeing another fox, though. Those are pretty cool.

Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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