In the spirit of the New Year, I have a confession: I’ve never read The Canterbury Tales. Yes, I realize that I should hang my head in shame. I am an English literature major living in Canterbury, so trust me I understand the depth of my illiteracy. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Chaucer – I’ve heard nothing but praise. It’s not that I don’t have access to it – I’m looking at a copy sitting dejectedly on my bookshelf. I simply did not and do not want to. Very millennial of me, I know. It’s this same reason that has kept me from posting on this blog for nearly a month: I did not want to. To ring in the New Year, I’ve decided to give Chaucer a go and to finally sit down and tell you about the last four weeks of my life.
Thanksgiving and Christmas have come and gone, but for the sake of this post I’d like for you to temporarily ignore this fact. Hopefully your holidays were everything you needed and wanted them to be, I’d hope for nothing less, but if this holiday season has taught me anything it’s that the unexpected is what makes a holiday unforgettable.
Let’s start with Thanksgiving.
Everything’s Better in Threes: Thanksgiving 2013
November 27th: The Americans at the University of Kent banded together for our first holiday away from home. The University played its part – hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for all of its international students the day before the big day. They hit all of the high notes with a menu featuring turkey, stuffing, green beans, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, pumpkin pie, and a seemingly endless supply of wine. Homesick Americans and Canadians (and a few displaced Britons) spent hours talking about the food we were missing back home, our vacation plans, and our stream of unending schoolwork. We only remembered our homesickness when a coldhearted DJ decided to play ‘Take me Home Country Roads” after the Vice-President’s speech. Low blow, Mr. DJ.
November 28th: My American housemate Laura and I introduced our deprived European housemates Leo and Pepe to Thanksgiving. We also came to realize that Thanksgiving divides the European Christmas experience in half for all Americans. Roll Thanksgiving and Christmas together and you have a European Christmas. It’s intimidating. We made a very college-like Thanksgiving dinner – only doing the bare minimum to classify our meal as celebratory. What we ended up calling Thanksgiving dinner is undoubtedly just another Tuesday night dinner for 97 percent of the world. It’s the thought that counts.
Even then, with two Thanksgivings under my belt, I was not ready to let the holiday die – reminiscent of the torture tactics used on Native Americans in the years following this day of celebration.
That Friday, I flew to Madrid to celebrate with my very good friend and former roommate, Sarah. After an interesting flight with RyanAir I safely landed in Madrid – a point the pilot felt the need to celebrate with a big “We made it!” upon landing. Sarah and I were headed off to León early the next morning for a weekend with her former host family, but instead of sensibly calling it a night we decided to walk aimlessly around the city until two in the morning. Four hours later, we were up and on our way north.
León is fantastic. It’s a smaller city in Northern Spain that is very much what you would think of when you picture quintessential Spain. I met the Garcías who generously let us stay in their home, eat their food, and let me brokenly speak to them in Spanish. For the first time in my life, I was forced to use the Spanish I’ve spent fourteen years ‘learning.’ By the end of day one, however, I was comfortably blundering my way through conjugates and pluperfect verbs.
Our first night in León, Sarah, Emi (the Garcías’ fabulously kind exchange student from Japan), and I went into town. It was there that I was introduced to a beautiful thing called tapas. A good portion of my progress in Spanish that weekend was because of my overwhelming need to express to everyone around me just how much I loved this Spanish tradition. Tapas are essentially a wide variety of Spanish appetizers, but in practice much more exciting. To a starved college student at least. We meandered in and out of bars conveniently located a few seconds walk away from one another. At each establishment, when we ordered a beer, we were offered one of usually three appetizers. For someone who had spent two months living off of bland English food and discount bread, this was a revelatory experience. We dined (and by dined I mean stood in an overly crowded bar) on patatas bravas and tortillas españolas.
Later, we met Emi’s friends for a drink at a local bar. As the night went on, drinks flowed and so did my Spanish. Correlation? Causation? Who’s to say.
A Spanish Thanksgiving
Sunday, our last day in León, we spent cooking the Thanksgiving meal to end all Thanksgiving meals. I say ‘we’, but that is not exactly accurate. I sat in the kitchen and performed menial tasks while Emi, Flor (Señora García), and Sarah cooked. That is, until the onions.
An onion was cut in a kitchen twenty-four hours ago? I cry.
A day-old, sliced onion is sitting in your trashcan? I cry.
Mention the word onion? I cry.
Nevertheless, after every chemically induced breakdown I believe that I have achieved a superpower that keeps my eyes dry. I’m always sorely disappointed. This Sunday I fell under this misconception once again. With an inflated sense of self, I defied my stinging eyes and with a focus only a stubborn, obsessive-compulsive person can understand chopped a red onion. My eyes began to burn and leak like the faucet my father said he would fix and never did, but I kept chopping. Then they began to burn like I had mistaken hot sauce for eye drops. It was at this point that I declared defeat.
I blindly stumbled out of the kitchen. It would make sense that I then sat in another room: namely the living room or guest bedroom. I didn’t. I wanted to be alone to revel in my suffering. Or, less poetically put, I am anti-social and was going to avoid explaining myself in Spanish to relative strangers at all costs. Long story short, I shut myself in the unheated pantry. Which was a perfectly reasonable decision. At least it seemed perfectly reasonable to me, until Flor opened the pantry door. I can only imagine what was going through her head when she saw her American houseguest crying alone, in the dark, in her pantry. The word ‘unstable’ comes to mind.
After awkwardly laughing that off, there was nothing in the way of our Thanksgiving dinner. Well, two hours of preparation, but regardless. Two hours later, the six of us: the Garcías, Emi, Sarah, and I sat down to enjoy the meal we’d put our blood, sweat, and tears into. The food was fabulous, as was the conversation. I found myself laughing at jokes in Spanish, telling stories in Spanglish, and quietly enjoying being there, in León, with such incredible people. It was a meal in a million.
Later that night, after touring the city with the Garcías and watching Real Madrid’s match in a nearby café, Sarah and I video chatted with our good friend, Gabriel. Gabe was finishing his term abroad in Barcelona, and had originally planned on spending Thanksgiving with us in Leon, but his crazy schedule hadn’t allowed. In our two-hour conversation, though, the fact that he was six hours away didn’t seem to matter. We shared our experiences living abroad, agreeing that it’s harder than it seems and also so much more than we imagined. We talked nonsense, and yawned as we began to fall asleep on screen. That night when we said goodbye to Gabe, and to León early the next morning, I realized that I couldn’t have asked for a better Thanksgiving or better company – cyber or otherwise.
Our train ride to Madrid was early, but beautiful. The three hours flew by, and I was able to really see Spain. As much as you can ‘really see Spain’ from the window of a high-speed train, anyway.
Our first stop in Madrid? El Parque del Buen Retiro.
We began what quickly turned into the most romantic day of our lives rowing a boat. Like any adventure involving two uncoordinated people, we proved incapable in a matter of minutes. More specifically, we were unable to coordinate our movements and therefore unable to leave the dock. For two minutes that stretched into eternity we blocked anyone from docking or disembarking. Eventually, the man in charge told me to let Sarah take charge. I happily agreed, and Sarah steered us away from the scene of our shame.
Despite the messy beginning, I enjoyed our row boating. As we drifted (paddling became difficult), listening to a violinist play the theme to The Godfather, we talked about…us. We talked about our time spent abroad and how it seemed to have already changed us. We talked about our fears that we were right in thinking this, and our fears that we were wrong. We talked about our plans and we talked about the F word: the most dreaded of all words to the college student: the Future.
We wandered through Madrid’s streets, squares, and markets. Eventually, we made our way to a restaurant known for their paella, only to be told that they did not have a vegetarian option. The owner, or maître de, or waiter, or someone was kind enough to walk us to a nearby restaurant that did cater to us non-meat eaters.
We had a sense that the restaurant was a bit higher up the totem pole than our reach allowed, but our hunger won out over our wallets. We were the youngest by nearly forty years. We were also the poorest by thousands of euros. We sat down at our dimly lit, white tablecloth clad table with unease. Our uneasiness grew when we took a good look at the prices. Just as the server placed a bottle of water, bread basket, and hors d’oeuvres on our table, Sarah had the presence of mind to realize that in Spain they have a propensity to charge you for everything.
We sat staring at the water, bread, and strange Spanish hors d’oeuvres with equal parts suspicion and hunger. After five minutes of internal struggle, we did what any millennial would do: we Googled it. Funny thing, though, googling “do you have to pay for hors d’oeuvres, water, and bread in Spain?” gets a variety of answers. We drank the water. And ate the bread. And the hors d’oeuvres.
They charged us.
The paella was fantastic, though.
Later that evening, we headed to the Galileo Galilei – a local music club – for a flamenco show. The show was derailed, however, when the flamenco woman fell ill and was unable to make the performance. The flamenco man used his god given flare for the dramatic to entertain us for fifteen minutes alone on stage, but he seemed to realize that he couldn’t flamenco alone. Fifteen minutes in, he began pulling ‘random’ women up on stage to sing with him, and guitarists appeared out of thin air to accompany his dramatic vocals. Flamenco-wise, the venture was probably a failure. Experience-wise, I’d say it was a success.
I rounded out my time in Madrid eating chocolate con churros at Madrid’s famous Chocolatería, and then falling asleep watching Love Actually.
Twelve hours later, I was on a flight back to England. My carry-on weighed a bit more, but more importantly I came back with the energy to finish out the term. Or more accurately, write two terribly long critical essays.
If This Were a Movie There Would be a Montage Here
Two weeks later, and I was saying goodbye again. This time to my first term in Canterbury. The time flew by. It’s terrifying to think that soon I’ll be saying goodbye again, much more permanently. It’s even more terrifying to think of the decisions to be made when I do.
One week later, and I was saying hello. An unexpected, though not unwelcome hello I traveled four thousand miles to deliver.
Originally, I planned to stay in Israel for the holidays, but the region’s unpredictability made me pause. In that pause, I calculated how expensive it would be to travel to Israel. This made me pause again, indefinitely. While in Copenhagen, I offhandedly mentioned to my friend Emily that it was almost as expensive to fly home as it would be to stay in Israel. And thus the idea was born. That weekend, I bought a flight, and for two months I silently plotted to overthrow Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, I caught a bus to London for a matinee performance of Les Misérables on the West End. A few tears later, I settled in for a night’s rest in one of Heathrow’s few armchairs in an effort to save myself some hassle and money. With the help of my Aunt Landry, twenty hours and no sleep later I had made it from London to Paris to Chicago to my front door.
My mother bawled, my father stared, my sister screamed. It was only when I saw their faces that it began to feel like Christmas to me.
Now that I’m here, I have to say that I struggled choosing to come home. I know that this was my one chance to save money by going somewhere new and exciting for the holidays. But I’ve realized that I wanted to be here. And that is some kind of revelation for someone who has always been trying to escape the 46220 zip code.
Since being home, I’ve slept in my own bed and eaten home cooked meals. I’ve uncomfortably seen Wolf of Wall Street with an aghast and talkative ninety-year-old woman sitting behind me. I’ve had friends and family over for dinner, and listened to a blue grass band in Broad Ripple’s Wine Cellar. I’ve seen snow. Lots of snow.
So, two weeks late that is my extraordinary holiday in ordinary Indiana.
Happy belated New Year; I hope 2014 is everything you wish it will be. More than that, I hope it’s unforgettable, unexpected, and more than you ever wished it could be.