Christmas Eve

I think I found the UK equivalent to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s the Nativity play, performed at churches on Christmas Eve. The whole thing was befitting of the story–very low budget, very DIY. The shepherds were great, with costumes made from cheap scarves and scraps of furry fabric. The angels shuffled up and down the steps of the “stage,” sort of drowning in their white sheets, tinsel halos cocked at weird angles like makeshift TV antennae. One of the shepherds was about three, accompanied by another toddler angel, who didn’t really understand that the whole thing wasn’t improv. She added some interpretive dance and antagonized the older angels between acts. A donkey on wheels rolled in and out, and the kids sang an ominous song about King Herod, who was “not nice to meet.” (Gotta love that understatement.)

Even though the play didn’t take itself too seriously, the organizers clearly put a lot of work into the production. The way I saw it, they were saying that it’s an important story, a hopeful story, but no one seemed to take it as sacred with a capital S. Of course this is just my interpretation, but it was refreshing to be without the Puritan heaviness that still hangs in the US air. Instead, I felt happy and cheered.

After the play the minister spoke over the sound system in the small room. I couldn’t see him and wasn’t sure if anyone else could, which was different than the minister delivering a message from The Pulpit. He added a simple, and humble, comment on the children’s sense of wonder, that it’s something everyone should try to maintain. A mention of the Christingle service, around midnight, with candles and carols, which sounded very pretty. Will try to catch it next year.

For some reason, maybe it was just being in a church and being reminded of all the times I’d attended services growing up, I started thinking about the States and what’s happening there right now. I’m almost guilty sometimes about how good it feels to be out from under the oppressive net of fundamentalism and the sentimental ignorance that seems to have all but taken over significant portions of the country.

Here, from what I’ve experienced, there’s a complete absence of a Christian presence. The presence of history is actually much stronger. One can feel the enormity of the Roman Empire, and we live near Anglo Saxon Way. After living in the Baptist South for the last nine years, I kind of feel like I’ve moved to the moon. There are certainly things I miss about the South–the lush beauty, the grandiose quality of the buildings and parks, and the friendliness and quirk with some folks–but I don’t miss the assumption that I must share a certain belief system.

I sometimes wondered if I’d been branded in a way that everyone witnessed but me–some sort of scarlet E, or F–and it’s nice to get away from that. However, here I feel I’m wearing a giant A, for American, and I need to disprove every misconception about Americans every time I meet someone new. Maybe I could make up a pamphlet–“No, I’m not rich, No, I never voted for Bush, No, I don’t think that Americans have the right to bomb whomever we choose, No, I don’t think that rampant greed and gluttony is acceptable….”

At some point in the near future, I’m going to just have to quit worrying about what people think. If they want to think I’m a greedy jerk who can’t find Australia on a map, there’s not much I can do about it. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the play so much. No need to explain myself to the young thespians. Some don’t even know what an American is. Ahhh, anonymity….

Charlie Brown Christmas in the UK

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After five months in the UK, my crowning achievement is that I usually know where I am when I wake up. If not, it doesn’t take quite as long to fill in the blanks as it did this fall. My unconscious doesn’t seem to have caught up though, as my new-ish husband doesn’t yet appear in my dreams, nor does England.

Instead, I dream about the school where I used to work, the English/Literary Arts department and shades of my days there. Maybe snippets of those I left behind in Virginia. My decision to leave and to marry C. happened so quickly that once it was decided, there was nothing but a very long list of things to do in only a few short months. Realizing what the bleep had just happened would have to come later.

So, the little home I’d slowly made for myself back in the States is gone, but I do get to see my husband every day. Much less pining and adolescent rushing home for a Skype call. Very simple things like being able to sit next to him while we watch the news, or a visit to the gym together, can be pretty spectacular after subsisting on phone calls for months at a time.

Still, day to day life is a constant challenge. I am forever figuring out train schedules, train stops, and which way to go once I get to my destination. I call C. about five times a week for directions, which I’m sure is precisely the reason he married me. Who doesn’t want to be a live, on-call GPS system? He loves it when I tell him that I’m “near a Vodafone shop, a Boots, and a CafĂ© Nero.”

In-between bouts of mad self-promotion in cover letters that I imagine are all going to the Island of Lost Job Applications, I sometimes indulge in a serious helping of self-pity, sitting alone in the house on a dreary day. (And most days are dreary.) This time of year, no one says it better than Charlie Brown: “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

Oh, Mr. Brown. You’re the Charlie Browniest.

Speaking of Peanuts characters, last year I’d all but insisted that C. watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, as he’d never seen it. I was curious to see his reaction, as well as to The Grinch. Of course, as a fellow curmudgeon, I was hoping that he would be delighted with the Grinch’s meagre little heart enlarging and breaking the frame, and that he’d appreciate the whimsy of the Peanuts dancers.

Two Sizes Too Small.

Peace, love, and happiness.

But when he didn’t react at all (nada!), my own fairly Grinchy heart sank, and I wondered if the non-love of the Peanuts dancers would come between us. In the end it didn’t, but for many Americans, it’s a consistent point of connection. Add a little “You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch….” and you can bond with even the most Scroogey American stranger. C. didn’t get Charlie Brown’s introspection, and Lucy’s faux analyst role. What he loved was Sally’s “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” Ah, entitlement. Schulz really manages to cover quite a bit in a 23 minute piece of animation–existential malaise and dread, unrequited love, stages of child development, religion, materialism, psychoanalysis, individual alienation, and peer relations. I’m sure I’m missing something. With such a wide range of issues, why wouldn’t any of them ring true to a Brit? Is it just because we watched the show first as kids? Maybe if I’d only seen it as an adult, I’d be straight-faced too, but I don’t think so.

I love the dry British sense of humor, and also feel like there must be something bright in my local landscape, despite the infinite shades of gray, and rows and rows of terraced houses surrounded by drifting garbage. I just have to keep looking. I also haven’t quite figured out what joy looks like in reserved England. A few weeks ago, while in the city for a visit on my birthday, C. and I happened on some carolers in Trafalgar Square. I was beside myself, as I’d been wanting to hear the Christmas classics–“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” all that, but we kept missing the local services. Some of the singers looked pretty into it, and one even bordered on animation during a few notes, but all in all folks caroled in a very sensible manner. Of course I was waiting for the one unbridled number where everyone went for it, belted it out, gushed, got jiggy, whatever. I guess this sort of sums up my experience of being in England–I always feel like I need to take it down a notch, especially in comparison to the reserved Brits. What would George Costanza or Elaine Benes look like in England? Probably pretty uncomfortable, as they would definitely stand out and I can’t imagine people commiserating with them about anything. Strangely, one of the things I love about C. is that he never complains, but I will never be so stalwart. Having perfected the art of complaining in the last thirty-some years, I do miss a solid complaint session with another skilled devotee of This Horrible/and or Embarrassing Thing That Happened to Me. C. never got Seinfeld at all, so sometimes I catch myself when I start to make a reference to an inspired holiday like Festivus.

In another Peanuts-related episode, while checking out a possible relocation neighborhood last week, I played the snowflake/ice-skating song on the Peanuts Christmas soundtrack, hoping to conjure that whole magical wonder thing. Instead of winter la-la land, though, I had to stop and consider the blocky renovated council flats of this not-so-inexpensive commuter spot. A few strands of lights blinked on and off at random intervals in scattered windows, and a few Santa outlines, slapped onto dark brick, cluttered with reindeer and a sleigh, offered a gas station/convenience store sort of cheer. Spotty Happy Holidays lights in muted yellow glowed like ads for cheap beer at a roadside bar. I turned the music off. It didn’t go.

I knew I was spoiled in Richmond (VA), as it’s a gorgeous town with incredible architecture, and one can live a reasonably decent life there on a humble wage. The general consensus about Medway is that it’s pretty bleak, and bleak places tend to look more bleak when lit by a few random strands of lights. C. calls our town the Hell’s Kitchen of the UK, and I think he’s right.

Can Santa fit a new place to live down our chimney? C’mon, Santa. We’ve been extra good this year. Just in case, I’d better get going on some cookies, and make sure to leave out some seriously spiked Nog.

UK Blizzard, 2010

Last week it snowed–the most snow here since 1965. It started on Monday and by mid-week, the post had stopped coming and a lot of roads were shut down.

I was at home all week, and almost no one was on the road. The trains came to a screeching halt due to ice on the rains on Thursday, and folks had to get out and walk. C. walked five miles back to our place. He worked at home Friday, and we took a long walk around dusk.

There really wasn’t that much snow, but the UK simply isn’t equipped to salt and plow like some townships do whenever it snows.

The kids in the neighborhood seemed thrilled about the snow, and some started making little snowmen. One must be careful not to become too attached, however:


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