Friday, 6 December 2013

A very British Thanksgiving

Take an American national holiday, transport it half way across the world to my Aunt and Uncle's house in the English Lake District, add 17 family members, 8 from the States and 9 from the UK, cook a traditional fare of Roast turkey followed by Pumpkin pie, get tipsy, play silly games, and you have all the makings of a very British Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World, in 1621. The feast lasted three days and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. Basically, us Brits went over on the Mayflower, landed on the East coast and thought, “Ooh this place looks nice, shall we stay?”, but we hadn't really thought it through because our crops failed, we couldn't feed ourselves and nearly died. If it hadn’t been for the lovely local Indians helping us out, none of our American friends would be here. Phew. When the nice Pilgrims finally had their first decent harvest, they thought, “Oh crap, did anyone remember to invite the neighbours?” and begrudgingly had some of the natives round. Of course, it all went horribly wrong after that... a little bit of land stealing and a teensy bit of row... but hey, let's not worry our little heads about history and just enjoy the holiday. For most people nowadays, Thanksgiving has become a time to celebrate the family and give thanks for what we have, and that is exactly what we did.

As there were so many of us, we couldn't all fit in the family house, so we spread ourselves across the tiny village. Aunts, Uncles and cousins were in the local pub, my parents were in a self-catering cottage, and my friend and I were in a rented attic flat overlooking the lake... in fact, there probably wasn't 50 feet without one of us in it. Of course, all our social stuff and meals happened up at the house, we just used these other accommodations as places to escape for a bit of peace and quiet... I mean sleep. Haha, well you can just imagine what 17 people round a dinner table sound like?

In fact, we never quite managed 17 people round the dinner table, I lied. Every mealtime had one or two people missing, and the reason for their absence, was not getting stuck up a mountain or lying sozzled in a cosy Inn after one too many local brews... what prevented a complete gathering was the onset of the great British cold. It spread through our group like the Black Death imparting its symptoms in various degrees of disgusting. When my friend and I arrived, there were already bottles of cough medicine and cold remedies dotted through the house. Sniffs and coughs could be heard from various rooms as you grabbed handfuls of toilet paper and hacked your way through conversations. My friend and I had arrived with full on chest infections and revolting phlegmmy coughs, and would wheeze ourselves up the hill every day to the house, thinking our lungs would explode. In fact my Doctor, just the day before, had said that the worst thing I could do was stay in a cold damp place and go for long walks. Um

Nights were worse, of course, lying down immediately brought on coughing fits and chest rattles. Thanks God, my friends' room and mine were either ends of the little flat we'd rented because the noise was something else. But as well as all the ailments, for me, being in a strange bed is never conducive to a good nights sleep, unless I'm drunk or in a posh hotel. This bed was absolutely enormous, bigger than a deluxe luxury Kingsize and quite off-putting because I didn't know where to sleep in it. I began by opting for the side nearest the bathroom, so I had immediate access to the loo and in easy reach of my tissues, inhaler, throat lozenges, painkillers and water on the bedside table. But this was obviously the side that most people decided to sleep on as well, and it therefore had a weird incline that was very uncomfortable. There was also too much space behind me... it felt as if someone could sneak in, lie down behind me and I would never even know, which started to give me the creeps a little, so I then tried the middle. I wedged all the pillows either side of me so I was cocooned but because of the fairly frequent peeing and the coughing, I had to excavate myself from this nest and heave myself over to the side of the bed each time I needed something. It was exhausting! Exhausting and painful because by now, I had been coughing so violently and for such a long time that my cousin was sure I had pulled an intercostal chest muscle, and every time I moved in bed I would let out a loud groan. What the owners downstairs must have thought, God only knows!

My cousin had made her diagnosis earlier that evening. We had all been playing this particularly hilarious game of what can only be described as Chinese Whispers with acting (more on this later), when I felt as if I was having a heart attack. My friend had noticed earlier, that whenever I coughed violently I would grab my left breast, not something that's easily ignored. He asked what the hell I was doing and I said, “Oh I occasionally get this thing where it feels like I've trapped my lung in my diaphragm”. I thought this was quite a good description of the sharp pain I was getting but from the look on his face, this was not so. When the pain kept happening, my cousin deduced it was probably a pulled muscle caused by coughing, and she would help fix it. She is a yoga teacher and trained masseur by the way, so I was in good hands. However, when she began massaging my actual breast, digging her fingers deep into the tissue, I realised it might look a bit odd to anyone coming into the kitchen. I apologise now for possibly scarring my two 17 year old male cousins for life, at the vision they saw when they entered the room. Their hasty retreat and eyes on stalks said it all really.

The game I mentioned in the earlier paragraph, was one that was created many years ago at a large family party, when we all lived in America. We have quite a few thespian 'luvvies' among us and a simple game of charades wasn't really challenging enough, so Chinese Whispers with acting was born. Take your group and divide into two teams. One team goes in one room, and the other in another (make sure the rooms are comfortable because the game goes on for some time, in our case 4 hours). One team thinks of a scenario that can be easily acted out, say for instance, changing a babies' nappy. A member of the opposing team is called in to your room and the scenario is acted out to them, silently. Hopefully the acting is of a sufficient standard that the opposing team member understands what it is you're doing, because it is then their job to act out the same thing to the second person in their team, and so on, until the last member of their team has to guess what the scenario is. Hence, Chinese Whispers with acting. Genius. There are only a few things that can go wrong. One – the first team member has no idea what you are acting and simply repeats the movements they have seen with no comprehension, making for a very odd outcome. Or, two – the first team member misunderstands what you are doing but acts it out to their next team mate, fully confident they know what they are doing. When this happens several times in one Chinese Whisper, you can only imagine how funny it is for the original group watching. Such a thing happened with us. The original scenario was someone shearing a sheep, but as it got acted out, each of us thought we were doing different things. The sheep suddenly metamorphosed into a young calf being lassoed by a cowboy. I then interpreted that as a hunter chasing down a wild boar, rolling around the floor and so on, until my aunt came in the room and threw herself across the carpet thinking she had let some wild grouse escape. Madness. But seriously, open some wine and try this game... it is one of the funniest things you will ever do.

The next night was Thanksgiving. 16 of us round the table, one partially alive cousin in a sick bed somewhere, and two dogs. The pub had cooked the main part of the meal for us and as we went to pick it up, we wondered why everything was in army quantities. Maybe the kitchen staff really believed all Americans ate twice their body weight in food every mealtime, because the turkey alone was the size of a large sheep. We had a vat of gravy and an industrial size tray of stuffing. I can honestly say that after serving up the meal, we ventured back into the kitchen and it looked like we hadn't served up yet… the food hadn't reduced in quantity and the prospect of eating turkey for a week didn't fill us with joy especially as it wasn't even Christmas. We had that to come! Thankgiving is a weird holiday, because you eat pretty much the same as you do on Christmas Day, only 3 weeks before! My cousin and I did make a very traditional Pumpkin pie though, but as we weren't entirely confident it would be palatable, we also had back up puddings of Treacle Tart and Mince pies. We realised one of our younger American cousins didn't know what these were and as we began to describe them, we got the giggles, because they sound utterly disgusting. Mince pies… um, sweet mince meat and suet in pastry cases. Treacle Tart… um, stale white breadcrumbs in thick syrup in a pastry case. Then we told him about Bread Sauce… um, stale white breadcrumbs in thickened milk. Bread and Butter pudding… um, stale white bread and butter with hot milk, eggs and raisins. Summer pudding… um, stale white bread filled with fruit. Our cousin looked horrified and he shouted, "Oh my God, all you guys eat is bread and minced meat!". Fair point. 

Apart from the silly games and amazing meals, there were long walks (which unfortunately I couldn't do because I would die), lots of time spent in the kitchen, cooking and chatting and catching up with various new and old family members, and long afternoons dozing, reading and hanging out in front of the fire. And on our last night together, we all trooped down to the pub. Now our family is quite infamous with the villagers. We have been coming up here our whole lives in various sized groups for holidays and celebrations and I guess we have made quite an impression over the years. The get-togethers are always full of interesting and varied characters, and no matter how much we think we're being quiet and laying low, the locals think differently. Some years ago I had about 8 friends up from London, and as we casually walked into the pub in our slightly non-country clothes, the landlord shouted, “Watch out, it's the cast of Big Brother”. Another time I went in with some girlfriends, grinned at the landlord, and he shouted, “Lock up your husbands!” We've had lock-ins, where we've drunk the bar dry and had to go and replace the stock the next morning, and darts matches that have almost come to blows. I've also been propositioned several times by an 90 year old rascal that lives down the road, so you never know where the evening will take you. On this visit, the only slightly unusual things were my cousins boyfriends' rather fine 'Afghany-style' beard and my other male cousins splendid felt poncho. Nothing odd at all. It was simply the perfect place to be, with great food and great company.

The five days spent with the family has been amazing, and gathering in the house that we have all known and loved for years has been very special. The house has changed very little over the years but it's seen new faces and watched the family shift and grow, coming together and going home again. I sit here on my last night, as the house is buffeted by 80 mph winds and the power flickers on and off, and listen as it creaks and groans with the movement. The poor house sounds like it's caught our dreadful cold, it definitely seems to breathe easier when it's full of life and laughter. 


Anonymous said...

Loved this blog. Especially at the end with the house getting a cold. Merry Christmas my friend. Be well.

Gary Broadbent said...

Wonderful Jules. That house is such a magical place. When I emigrated to the Australia it was one of the few places I really missed - especially fishing on the lake with a beer in hand and spending time with you, our friends and partners there. Lots of great memories!! X