For a number of reasons I decided not to go home to Washington for the Christmas holidays. But the prospect of staying in a dorm all Christmas didn’t exactly excite me either, so I decided to go somewhere much closer and cheaper instead: England.
I spent Christmas in Nottingham with my dear friend Edwin and his family. I had met his mum before the first time I visited England almost a year and a half ago and she kindly allowed me to stay in their home and treated me like a member of the family for the duration of my stay. It was absolutely lovely.
Wasted in Wales
Since he left Berlin, Edwin has been working on a Ph.D in environmental science in Bangor, Wales. He knew a small town in north Wales would be no Berlin, but Bangor turned out to be even worse than he expected. To hear him talk about it, I was expecting it to be a hole in the ground with a bunch of hairy Neanderthals swinging clubs at each other and grunting in Welsh. For this reason I had been loathe to visit him there, but when his mum told me she was going to drive over to pick him up and asked if I wanted to come with, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
Of course Bangor wasn’t a hole in the ground, but it was a very small town of 17,500, over half of whom are students. There were a few beautiful old buildings and a lot of ugly ones, and a very small downtown with a few cafes and shops and tattoo parlors. I scoffed at Edwin for talking so badly about the place, because while it was small and a bit boring, it certainly didn’t seem horrible. (Then again, I was also never the victim of drive-by rock throwing or harassment involving homophobic slurs, both of which had happened to Edwin during his time there.) We wandered around town, did a bit of Christmas shopping, hung out in a nice vegan-friendly cafe, and drank hard cider at a cozy student pub with his colleagues.
Then night fell, and the vampires came out. Just kidding. But seriously, it was the Friday night before Christmas and the town turned into a madhouse. Police officers strolled the streets to discourage drunken brawls. I think they were successful because I didn’t see any, but Edwin tells me bar fights and street fights are a common occurrence. We went out to dinner with Edwin’s mum and a few of her friends who live in the area at the nicest restaurant in Bangor, a ramen house. That’s when things started getting weird.
We were waiting for our food and I was a bit tipsy from the pints of cider and not paying much attention to the other patrons, when I suddenly noticed a bunch of people on their phones and one woman laying on the floor. Since so many people were with her I decided not to get involved but observed from a distance. It appeared a woman had gotten too drunk and had passed out on the floor of the restaurant. I couldn’t see her very well because that part of the floor was blocked by a nearby table, but at one point a waiter went over to where she lay with a mop, and as the fake lemon scent of cleaning solution wafted through the air, I realized what had happened. On the floor. In a restaurant. Wow.
It was a half hour from the time when I noticed her to when an EMT finally arrived, and a full hour before an ambulance arrived to take her away, because the emergency services were stretched so thin that night. I’m told this is not a common occurrence in Wales, but it still colored my impression of the place.
After dinner, Edwin and I went out for a night on the town. He’d told me the nightlife was absolutely horrible and I didn’t believe him, especially not after the nice student pub. Well, let me tell you what happened.
The first thing I noticed as we entered a bar was that I was horribly underdressed. All of the girls were wearing skimpy cocktail dresses and miniskirts and six-inch heels, despite the cold. I, in my jeans and tennis shoes, was the one who looked out of place.
A girl in a bright red dress that barely covered her butt cheeks was pressed up against the bouncer, who looked very uncomfortable, and was giggling something into his ear. Edwin and I sat down in a corner and ordered drinks. Edwin recommended a Fat Frog, some sort of bright green bitch beer that tasted like flavored syrup and turned your mouth green and is supposed to encourage underage drinking or something.
Red Dress sat down next to us and insisted on taking a selfie with her “new best friend” (that would be me). Her sober-looking friend in a sparkly black dress had the grace to look embarrassed for her.
Red Dress followed some lads outside for a cigarette. Edwin and I sipped our drinks and exchanged glances. Some loud drunk Welsh people sat down with us at our table. One seemed to recognize Red Dress outside and started tapping on the window to get her attention. She ran over and pressed her face against the glass, and the two shared a sloppy “kiss” through the glass. In other words, they were both licking the window.
Red Dress bounded back inside and threw herself at the guy. I excused myself to go to the toilet. When I returned, Red Dress was straddling the guy on a bench. The guy looked slightly bemused and slightly pleased. He placed his hands on her butt as she began grinding on him. “It’s like a frat boy’s dream,” I remarked to Edwin as we walked out the door.
We decided to go back to the student pub we’d been at earlier with the good cider. This required walking up a huge hill, which wasn’t fun in the daylight and had grown quite treacherous at night. Drunk hooligans had tipped over several trash cans, which spewed their contents out onto the road and set some items free to blow around in the wind. There was trash – fast food wrappers, broken glass and empty bottles – strewn all over. And in the ten minutes’ time it took to climb the hill, I counted no fewer than six puddles of vomit.
After a few more pints, we wandered in the city and found a nice feaux-Greek bar with a lot of people. There was even a DJ spinning vinyl and a few people dancing! I was surprised to hear reasonably good electronic music in Bangor when I’d had such a hard time finding it in Denmark. There was a good mix of men and women at the bar, but they all seemed much more reasonably dressed and well-behaved. I enjoyed myself dancing and chatting to people and sipping Strongbow. But it was getting late, the bar was closing, and several of the people in the bar seemed to be going to this guy named Richie’s place afterwards. It was determined that Richie was a Welsh guy with long brown dreadlocks. I sort of invited Edwin and myself to tag along.
We wound up walking a good twenty minutes across town to a total hippie house. Psychedelic tapestries hung on the walls, electronic keyboards and bits of furniture were shoved into corners, and the kitchen counter was barely visible under all the clutter. I talked to a number of interesting people, including many students and English expats. One of them told me adventures of shroom picking in the woods of north Wales. We listened to an impromptu jam session between two guitars and a fiddle, which at one point also included a girl rapping in Welsh. We hung around until the wee hours of the morning, spent nearly an hour walking back to Edwin’s place, and got two whole hours of sleep before having to get up and pack up his room so Edwin could move out.
Though I’d stayed at their house once before, I hadn’t met Edwin’s siblings before since both of them had been gone at the time. His brother, Henry, is 21 and works for their dad trading stocks. His sister, Mathilda, is 17, still in school and likes wearing red lipstick and going to parties. In addition, their cousin-once-removed Katie (22) was visiting for four months from Australia for a semester abroad at Nottingham Trent University. Plus me and Edwin, it was quite a busy house! Henry and Mathilda were also always going places or having friends over, too, so you never knew who you’d find when you came down to the living room.
They live in a beautiful old brick house that’s at least 300 years old in a really nice neighborhood of Nottingham called The Park. Although many parts had been renovated over the years, it still had many original old-fashioned features like fireplaces in every room and a big cast-iron range used for cooking in the days before gas ovens.
An English Christmas
Edwin had told me English Christmases usually feature copious amounts of alcohol, a concept that was foreign to me. In my book, Christmas was a holiday for spending time with family, going to church together, listening to silly seasonal music and reflecting on Jesus’s birth and capital consumerism alike. There are other holidays for going out gettng smashed with your friends, and while Christmas is a time for gluttony in terms of food, it is a time for restraint in other indulgences. So when Edwin told me that in his family, everyone started drinking around 10 a.m. and was usually passed out from all the food and booze by 3, I was shocked.
As it turns out, this was Edwin’s personal tradition which didn’t actually apply to his whole family. I was prepared for the worst, politely turning down cocktails before noon for fear of passing out early or worse, getting sloshed and saying something inappropriate in front of Edwin’s mother. As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered. The delicious summer cocktail Edwin’s mum’s boyfriend had brought were quite weak and I sort of kept pace with everyone else who just had a glass or two of wine with dinner around 3 p.m. Edwin started off drinking gin and tonic around noon, and if you’ll recall, he mixes them with about a 1:1 ratio of gin and tonic water, so he was quite jolly by the time the meal started, and snoring on the couch not long after it was over.
Edwin’s mum and Auntie Rachael had slaved away in the kitchen all week preparing the various dishes for Christmas dinner. Some things had been prepared even longer in advance, including the Christmas cake (a really rich fruitcake) which had been baked months prior and left to soak in alcohol. So I was a bit surprised when the entire meal took only about 30 minutes. All of that hard work, and all the food gone so fast!
I was exposed to several traditional British foods, including bread sauce (soggy bread in milk that’s taken on a pasty consistency), roasted parsnips, potatoes, stuffing, summer pudding (fruit and bread), and a Christmas pudding that was soaked in alcohol and lit on fire before being served.
One of Edwin’s relatives had prepared Christmas crackers, which was very new and exciting for me. Two people grab the cracker on either end and pull it apart. It breaks with a little bang, as there’s a bit of gunpowder to make them pop. Inside were tissue paper hats, an exceptionally bad joke written by Edwin’s aunt, and a little gift like body wash or chocolate. Mathilda also lead a game of charades at one point after the meal, but everyone was in such a food coma, we didn’t do very well.
I talked briefly to Edwin’s mum’s friend Jo on the phone, who lives in Ashland, Oregon and who Edwin and I stayed with a few days last summer. She mentioned the Christmas lights in town. I was stunned. I hadn’t even realized that there were no Christmas lights on houses in England until she mentioned them to me. So I started paying attention, and I realized that other than a little tree near the front door, there were literally no Christmas decorations in the whole house. My parents, by contrast, have got boxes and boxes of Christmas things they get down from the attic every year – wreaths, candle holders, window clings, lights, plastic Santas, stuffed animals, a beautiful clock that plays Christmas carols on the hour, and enough ornaments to fill three trees. And while my parents have never been big on decorating their yard (or garden, as the Brits call it) for Christmas, it’s not unusual to see giant inflatable Santas or life-sized nativity scenes or huge blow-up snowglobes on people’s lawns in America.
The Brits, like the Americans, take Christmas shopping very seriously, and everyone in the family gave each other gifts. Edwin and I got each other clothes and books. Edwin’s mum got all of the kids and even me new underwear (or pants, as they call them – and they call pants trousers) and really nice panda slipper socks. And just about everyone exchanged chocolate and alcohol and beauty products, and most of the “kids” gave and received books as well. I’ve got enough chocolate and body wash to last me months now! Henry also gave me a box of Turkish Delight, which I was very excited to try because I’d read about it in the Narnia books but had never had it before.
Ye Olde Trip to Nottingham
Nottingham is a mid-sized city in the middle of England. I don’t know what the population is – different people have told me different things ranging from 300,000 to almost a million. I suspect it depends on what you count as Nottingham – Wikipedia tells me there are indeed 300K in the city center, about 800K if you include suburbs, and 1.5 million in the greater metropolitan area. At any rate, it’s much bigger than Aarhus so I was thrilled by all the possibilities. There’s a university, but it’s not just a student city – lots of families live there too. There’s a castle on a big sandstone rock that’s riddled with tunnels allegedly used by Robin Hood when he was hiding, a couple of different ancient and elegant cemeteries, a couple of shopping centers as well as dozens of little independent boutiques, secondhand shops, cafes, restaurants, and pubs. There are lots of elegant brick houses, such as The Park, a couple of different old, beautiful cemeteries, and separate schools for boys and girls that were founded more than 500 years ago. There’s a beautiful park called the Arboretum with a duck pond, exotic plants, and cockatoos.
The city has a darker side as well, though. Unlike in the U.S., when mid-sized and small cities tend to contain a relatively narrow range of socioeconomic classes, the wealth inequality in Nottingham is apparent. Unlike many cities where the inner cities are relatively low-income and the suburbs tend to be wealthier, the wealthy neighborhood The Park sits just a short walk from the center of town, and in just over a half hour you can walk to the city’s unofficial red light district. Streetwalkers strategically haunt the areas around the boys’ school and regularly use the cemetery for “nefarious purposes.” And the arboretum is infamous for hosting drug deals and brawls. Edwin and I walked through it one day because after hearing so much about it, I insisted on checking it out. I was sorely disappointed. It was a peaceful park covered in snow. Parents were there with their kids. Only once did I catch a faint whiff of marijuana smoke, and I didn’t see a single prostitute. Edwin assured me it was too cold for prostitutes and that nobody wanted to be outside in the snow, and that it was much worse when the weather was warmer. Uh-huh. Right.
The first day Edwin and I returned to Nottingham, I got invited out to see a show. Edwin’s brother’s friend was playing a gig at a local venue called The Maze. I love things like that and despite still being on only two hours of sleep from the house party in Wales I couldn’t turn it down. Henry drove us to the “bad” side of town, where the place was. Although he warned me it was a bit of a dive, I didn’t think it was bad. I had fun dancing to some pretty okay rock music and chatting up guys at the bar.
One charming fellow introduced himself to me as James Taylor, age 25, convicted football hooligan. I stuck around long enough for him to tell me about his budding career as a fighter before making a beeline back to my friends. Edwin’s sister swears she saw the same guy snort what “must have been an entire gram” of coke in front her her later in the night. The whole situation was slightly hilarious.
Gazebo’d, Lashed, and Caned
I’ve learned some lovely British slang since I’ve been over here. Aside from things like calling pants trousers and their front yards gardens, they also have some lovely slang for inebriation. Apparently you can take any noun, turn it into a verb, and have it mean “extremely drunk.” Hence we have words like “gazebo’d” and “trolleyed,” which I find hilarious. As in, “let’s get gazebo’d tonight!” Words that have actually come out of my mouth. “Lashed” is another synonym, and “caned” means to be out of your mind high on drugs, usually marijuana. They also have a whole slew of sexual slang which was completely foreign to me, which I will not relate here but you can see for yourself in this hilarious Oatmeal comic if you are so inclined. Apparently all the words in the top panel of the comic are real words and basically mean the same things as the ones in the bottom panel.
New Year’s Eve
For New Year’s Eve Edwin and I are going to London to meet up with Dan and go to a big party the same hippie friends we partied with last time are throwing. I’m not sure there will be much to write about other than “we spent a bunch of money and got really plastered,” but if we make it to any museums or cabarets while we’re there I’ll be sure to post photos!