FICTION: The Book Tour by Ashley Elizabeth Savard

This is what I’ve been up to lately!

‘When I write something,’ Peggy said, uncrossing her legs and leaning forward in the leather chair for dramatic effect, ‘I never read it again. Once I’ve written it I consider it dead.’

‘Why do you consider it dead?’ The woman asking the questions looked excited. Peggy had said the word ‘dead’, not finished, done, over – dead. It was morbid and the woman was hooked. She leaned in, too.

‘Because it’s embarrassing to pretend that the dead are living, isn’t it? Isn’t it awkward to stand in the cemetery next to other people crying over their lost mother or husband or son? Grieving in public is unpleasant. There’s something morbid in it’.

The woman across from Peggy looked bemused, unable to decide how exactly to make sense of Peggy. She must not have interviewed many writers before, Peggy thought. The pen the woman was holding, a blue and silver one…

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Falling into Autumn

I attended a thoroughly English wedding (despite the bride being Dutch) in Hereford over the weekend and, in the space of just a few hours, said goodbye to summer. The ceremony was a beautifully country affair with wildflowers, wooden benches, a stone farmhouse, and sheep baaing in the background. But the weather was grappling with the fact that it was the end of August. The sun would shine down spectacularly onto dewy, just damp grass, warming our skin and the tops of ours heads poking out from our fascinators. But if we dared to look behind us vast rain clouds were pushing their way onto our sunny field. Every twenty minutes or so a light shower would have us all tensely sitting on our benches, nervously placing programs and suit jackets over our heads and looking down at the fresh goosebumps on our arms. The sun would come out again. We made it through most of the ceremony before the torrential downpour began, thankfully.

When I returned to the North it made perfect sense. The seasons were having it out for domination of the weather. But summer is, both fortunately and unfortunately coming to an end and it has me reflecting upon the American season I miss the most. During our meal at the wedding I got into a discussion with another guest that had spent a year in the United States. He, of course, brought up a distinctly American activity that seems to baffle all other cultures. Why do Americans pay to go somewhere and see leaves? I’m not sure they ‘pay’ in the sense that he meant but it is certainly an activity that Americans engage in. Those who do are called ‘Leafers’ and typically flock to New England where the changing of the leaves is the most dramatic and spectacular.

It got me thinking about Fall, my favorite of American seasons. I call it American because the English Autumn is just not the same. I also call it fall because that is the more common term in the U.S.A., where ‘autumn’ comes across somehow pretentious or formal. I read recently that, despite the number of times I’ve been called out for saying ‘fall’, the term actually did originate in England quite a long time ago and that it is not simply another Americanism. But I will stick to my usage of it as the American version of Autumn because it seems distinctly American. After all, it brings to mind the falling of brightly colored leaves, a phenomenon that does not exist here, at least in my neck of the English woods, in the same capacity.

There are some absolutely lovely things about the onset of autumn in the U.K. Most of them make me think of a buildup to winter. Steaming cups of tea from behind foggy glass windows. Properly cool nights that make you dream of hot mulled wine and the warmth of the pub. But the magic of fall in the United States is something that I have grown to miss with greater intensity every year.

The obsession with the changing of the leaves isn’t just something for tourists. I’ve conducted my own mini-leafing voyages around the hills of my hometown on more than one occasion. And nothing beats the crispness of Upstate New York air in October when you’re hiking through a forest of changing leaves of different intensities and colors and stages. Or driving around a lake and watching red, orange, yellow, and finally brown, leaves fall gently and silently onto the still fall water.

Fall still has me craving tall glasses of apple cider (yes, there is a non-alcoholic and delicious version), freshly dipped apple cider donuts, ideally from a roadside stand somewhere in New Hampshire or Vermont. Real, gooey, warm, fresh maple syrup. Pumpkins the size of our over-sized cars. Enthusiastically American Halloweens. A cornucopia of different types of squash and gourds. Baskets of beautiful cranberries. Thanksgiving (that perfect divider between summer and Christmas). Sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Hot cider. Pumpkin pie. A distinct fall wardrobe. The unmatched smell of a burning woodstove. Farm stiles against a backdrop of color. Smoke billowing out of chimneys in the countryside. Candied apples. The pumpkin farm. Kicking up a pile of browned leaves. Covered bridges. Hay rides. The distinct laughing of children jumping into great raked piles of leaves. White wooden churches surrounded by red. The weirdly American phenomenon of an entire village of people raking leaves in general in a kind of odd preparation of shoveling snow. These are the things that get you through the pain of putting away shorts and swimsuits and water skis and donning scarves and boots and light jackets.

I’m ready for Autumn. I’m ready to start teaching again. I’m ready for the onset of cold weather and the prospect of mulled wine. But New York, I’ll be looking over that giant ocean at you in envy of Fall.

The Great American Food Tour, Part 2

Diners are perhaps one of my favorite things about the United States. They are these nostalgic thresholds of Americana in which time somehow stands still. Whether they’re of the shiny stainless steal city-Diner variety or the comfy booth country-Diner variety which seems to draw the same crowd every day they are a haven of American food fantasies.

4.) Tom Wahl’s. If you didn’t grow up in Upstate New York then you probably haven’t been here. It’s a small chain of diners started in the 50’s retaining that neon drive-in feel. You can get your Root Beer in a frosted mug and the burgers are delicious. As a kid we would beg to go there because the children’s meals came in little cardboard pink convertibles. This place is a throwback in the best possible way. Meiko and I stopped at the Canandaigua location for burgers on our way back from Niagara Falls. I knew he would love it because the feel of the place is so heartily American. I went for the Bleu Cheeseburger (a gooey and delicious mess) and Meiko went for the classic Wahl Burger, a ground steak burger with melted Swiss cheese, grilled ham and Tom Wahl’s sauce. The burger was as delicious as I remembered it. So delicious, in fact, that I had to go back a week later after a family day trip.

Root Beer anyone?

Root Beer anyone?

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5.) Gramma’s Butterflyed Potatoes. I am assuming these exist elsewhere in the United States. But I’ve never seen them anywhere but at the Windmill (a farm and craft market in Upstate New York). These giant potato crisps are everything that is good about America. Carved, supposedly, from a single potato, the purveyors of the shop refuse to give away how they make them. But they sell them with a host of fantastic toppings: sour cream and chive, nacho cheese with bacon, ranch, BBQ, and a Mexican style ‘inferno’. And, in a charming small town American fashion, the potatoes are fried in soybean oil (“good for you!” the website boasts). It doesn’t matter how bad these potatoes actually are for you because never have so few ingredients come together in so magical a capacity.

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We went for sour cream and chive. But the nacho cheese and bacon is a close second favorite of mine!

If you’re into something a bit healthier and a little less greasy you can also enjoy the benefits of the vast countryside by exploring the many fresh produce stalls. Photo 27-06-2015 16 29 30

My runner-up choice for Windmill treats is a new addition. On July 4 as we listened to the country music playing from the bandstand and tried to decide what snacks to try my friend Erin disappeared at a respectable clip. We found her in line for a snack that is supremely American in flavor and design. Tater tots. You can’t get them here in the U.K. (as far as I’m aware) which is a real shame because they are versatile little potato treats! These ones came with nacho cheese and bacon bits (sensing a theme?!).

6.) Ok, so maybe I’m a little obsessed with diners. But I think there are few things that Americans do better than breakfast. And for that we went to a traditional diner car. Hard to find these days but there just so happens to be one close by to my hometown. It’s called The Diner and was (I think) built in the 30’s. It is an absolutely fabulous stop and with only a few seats it is worth waiting and fighting for a place to have your breakfast at any time of day. The pancakes fall off the edges of the plates (as they should). The maple syrup comes in a plastic, squeezable container. The prices are low, the portions are huge, and the coffee is refilled before you hit the halfway point. God bless America. I have a slight obsession with French Toast and I have to admit that it is my absolute hands down favorite choice for breakfast when I’m home in the U.S. It’s a love I’ve had since childhood and I just can’t get enough of this eggy bread. And, the icing on the cake is the scoop of whipped butter that comes on the side of every syrup needing meal in this fine country. Is there anything better than whipped butter plopped on top of french toast with an ice cream scoop?

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7.) Homemade Ice Cream. There’s a place just ‘down the road a pace’ that has the greatest American ice cream I think I’ve ever had. The hard ice cream flavors are all homemade and the atmosphere is distinctly of the American Ice Cream Parlor flavor. I think while I was home we probably went four or five times (in addition to some closer ice cream locations). Needless to say we are not alone. Americans love their ice cream. A word to the wise. If you’ve lived outside of the U.S. for any period of time you will be shocked by the size of ice cream cones in this country. If you want anything resembling a normal portion make sure you order a ‘kiddie’. It will still be larger than anything I’ve gotten in England. But manageable. If you really want a typical American experience, order a small. You’ll be shocked by how large it turns out to be! This ice cream shop even boasts a drive-thru. Be careful to weigh efficiency with choice, though. Choice can be overwhelming!

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I could probably go on and on forever in listing my favorite American foods. BBQ (or Jalapeno) potato chips, chicken spiedies (thanks Pat for that one!), salt potatoes (another Upstate New York classic!), hot dogs, s’mores (ideally around a fire), apple pie (and Key Lime for that matter!), beef jerky (a favorite of Meiko’s), cornbread, barbecue pulled pork, buttered popcorn, New England clam chowder, lobster and drawn butter, Buffalo wings, Reuben sandwiches, bbq baked beans, steak in the summer time, the other kind of biscuit, pumpkin pie, anything served at Thanksgiving or Christmas, fried chicken, cobbler, fried dough, and that ever elusive state fair fried butter that I’m still waiting to sample.

Meiko and I made sweet potato fries for dinner the other night and I introduced him to the wonder of dipping them into maple syrup. American food might not be the healthiest but we sure know how to pair things!

The Great American Food Tour, Part 1

I grew up in a restaurant. I don’t mean I grew up working in restaurants (which, of course, I also did). I mean I grew up in a restaurant. I stood on a bucket to wash dishes when I was too short to reach. I knew how the bread maker worked before I was twelve. I knew just what time the donuts would come out in the morning so that the glaze was still warm and gooey. I know what croutons smell like before they’re baked. And the heavenly smell of raisins in fresh bread. And if I came in to eat with my friend Erin and her grandmother and didn’t tell anyone the order on my ticket would immediately give me away. You might say I like food. And I’ve certainly mentioned once, twice, and a hundred times that one of the things I miss the most about America (apart from my family) is the food. Nothing captures a memory quite like food. And, although I love trying new things, when you grow accustomed to foreign foods you begin to realize that it doesn’t bring you back to childhood quite like your native food does. You develop new memories but, of course, it’s never quite the same.

When I began planning mine and Meiko’s week-long American holiday I discovered I was planning our food stops just as much as the actual sights. Yes, yes, we’re going to New York City…but what are we going to eat? Bagels and pizza of course.

1.) BAGELS. Sometimes if I’m desperate I’ll buy the “New York” style bagels you can get in the U.K. But just to clarify…these are not bagels. Bagels should be homemade. But don’t worry. New Yorkers would say the same about all other bagels found in the U.S., too. There’s just something in the water. Really. Apparently something about the proportions of calcium and magnesium in New York water makes bagel making an unreachable feat by all other nations and states, creating that heavenly difference between the outside and inside texture.

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There it is in all its glory! A New York City Bagel!

I think I had my bagel allowance for an entire year in our two days in the City. We made the five minute walk from my friend Erin’s apartment everyday. When we left the City for Upstate New York we did so with a bagel in hand and a half dozen bag by our feet.

2.) Pizza. Yes, I’ve been to Italy and I’ve had phenomenal pizza. But just like ice cream it is an entirely different concept. There’s nothing refined about American pizza. And that’s what makes it so good. As most things in the United States it must be GIANT. You don’t order a pizza to eat by yourself. If you do you’re at Pizza Hut (please don’t be) or you’re in one of these classically American ‘Man v. Food’ situations. And the best thing is that you never eat it with a fork and knife. This would be absolutely criminal. You grab a slice the size of your face. The cheese stretches and pulls away and you grab it and wrap the excess cheese around the pizza before going in for a bite.

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Meiko poses with an appropriately sized box of pizza. Was I in the U.S. for too long or does that not look that giant?

3.) Donuts. I think I’ve already mentioned my love of donuts. Homemade, store bought, fresh, a day old, they’re all delicious. Recently the Krispy Kreme phenomenon has caught on here. Don’t get me wrong, these donuts are delicious. But it hasn’t been done quite right because donuts are all about driving. You don’t walk up to a donut store. They simply taste better if you’re sitting in a car with a donut in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. And, of course, as a kid the best thing about Krispy Kremes was seeing the giant sign from the roadside. Even better, if the sign was glowing it meant the donuts were so fresh they were still warm. That’s what’s missing about donut eating here. The mad rush, the road trip, the box sitting on your lap from the back seat of a pick up truck. That being said, having spent a vast amount of time in Massachusetts growing up I am, in the United States at least, entirely loyal to Dunkin Donuts.

An emergency Dunkin Donut stop on our detour through Pennsylvania

An emergency Dunkin Donut stop on our detour through Pennsylvania

Sure, America has some spectacular sights. But we all know that those who visit are at least partially motivated by the prospect of delicacies like ‘fried butter’, right? While that most scrumptious sounding State Fair food has so far eluded me (to my regret) come back soon to see my other top picks for American foods to try in Upstate New York.

2 Days in the Big Apple: Home, Part 1

I was just told by a friend in England that I sound more American than usual. Why? If you’ve read my previous posts on ‘being a tourist at home’ you’ll know that I just spent three weeks in the great U.S. of A. That also meant that I just took the longest vacation from blogging since I started the project. I’ve been back in the U.K. for about a week now and it’s taken quite a lot of decompression (and catching up on work) before I felt ready to blog about my American adventures. So let’s start with New York City.

Meiko and I arrived eagerly into JFK exactly a month ago, Meiko anxious to see that famous skyline, and me, anxious to see my best friend of over twenty years. I should have known from entering the U.K. border how heartbreaking the line for non-citizens is at the airport. Our excitement at entering NY deflated for almost an hour as we sat in the queue at what would have two in the morning for those on English time while my friend Erin texted everyone in my family in a panic to make sure we’d arrived. We finally made it through border control (I was surprised to find I was the greater hold up when they couldn’t find me on the flight I’d just exited) and eagerly rushed to the taxi rank where there was, surprise, another queue. But we made it, $60 or so later, to the Upper East Side and to an apartment that was like home because of our wonderful host. Erin had graciously readied her own room for us, towels were laid out, along with tooth paste, hair bands, make-up remover, and a whole host of other essentials you don’t get at hotels. I’m still wondering if it says more about Erin’s obsessive organizational habits or my forgetfulness that such a spread awaited us when we arrived.

Day 1:

Anyone who has lived in, been to, or even heard of New York, knows that it is impossible to see and do everything in just two days. But we gave it our best shot. And, thanks to a newly local guide, were able to get the best out of our short time there. Our Saturday morning began with a feast of New York bagels as I momentarily questioned all of my life choices (why do I live in a place where these don’t exist? why do I eat yogurt every morning? why do I care about the effects of munching down a bagel every morning for the rest of my life? can I import these for future consumption?). We then ventured out onto a walking tour of Central Park, where, much to my delight, we encountered some sort of Lumberjack Festival where men were competing on stage at chopping wood. And I thought, what a wonderful place that in the middle of one of the most international and cosmopolitan places on earth we would encounter this bit of Americana. After all, the United States is still a place enthralled with the rural. We moved on down 5th Avenue and Museum Mile, waving at all the museums we sadly did not have time to enter (Meiko has been known to spend entire days in one museum and would never have been completely satisfied with a highlights tour of the Met, for instance).

Eventually we landed in front of that pillar of New York icons, the Plaza. We cheekily entered the lobby and I marveled at the grandeur, imaging all the glitzy people who’d entered its doors – or didn’t as most of the ones I was gushing over were fictional (Gatsby and Daisy). I wanted to hole up and stay there forever, but we moved on to encounter the district of American designer gluttony, with a quick pit-stop at F.A.O. Schwarz to cuddle some giant teddy bears. From there we made our way toward Rockefeller Center where we had hoped to go up the ‘Top of the Rock’ but were thwarted by stormy skies and low visibility. We comforted ourselves with Champagne truffles from Teuscher while we took in Radio City Music Hall and some of the other famous sites around the area before heading back to the flat for a quick feast of New York Pizza before getting ready for dinner and Les Miserables.

I was just mildly afraid that I had talked up the superiority and perfection of Broadway plays before we sat down for Les Mis. But I think we were both stunned and awed by the magnitude of the performance. It was the best money I’ve spent on theater in a very long time and I have to recommend it to anyone visiting New York in the future for as long as it runs. After, Meiko and I walked confidently through Times Square toward the subway station, marching into its depths without worry, thinking we’d both had enough experience with the London Underground to navigate any system in the world. Until New York. But we made it home and were eager to start our second and last day in the City.

Freedom Tower

Freedom Tower

Day two began with a long and enthusiastic (by some) tour of the financial district which I spent mostly in an effort trying to convince Meiko that Wall Street was not a romantic place. I don’t think I succeeded. From there we went to One World Trade Center, the stop that I was most excited about seeing. We’d gotten our tickets ahead of time (which I absolutely recommend doing to avoid excessive queuing). Once our time slot was called we entered and joined the line for security and the top. The organization was phenomenal, and even though we still waited quite a while it was incredibly streamlined and efficient. When we finally boarded the elevators and I tried my hardest to look around and not get sick. There were screens in the elevators that showed landscapes and moved while you whizzed to the 102 floor. Once you arrive you enter a little theater area where a big screen shows you views of the different boroughs of NY and, if you’re American, and even more so a New Yorker, you start to feel strangely patriotic. And then, in the most magical moment since I witnessed the same bit of theater at the Harry Potter Studios Tour, the screen lifts and in front of you New York stretches as far as the eye can see. A collective gasp. And cheering. And it was completely authentic. We spent a good half hour or more at the top, wandering around taking in the different views, taking thousands of pictures, and just marveling at where we were standing. Erin, Meiko, and I talked about the old twin towers and our memories of the day. Erin and I discussed being in school when it happened and the different attitudes of teachers, some that defied school’s orders by allowing us to watch it on the news that day. We visited the 9/11 Memorial, so close to the new tower that you could barely see it from the top and Erin and I got a little emotional at the surrealness of it all.

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9/11 Memorial

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Survivors’ Tree

After that we closed our day in NY with a trip on the Staten Island Ferry so we could have a few last views of the Statue of Liberty and the great new skyline in the background. It was a whirlwind two days where we fit as much in as possible, thanks to Erin and her organizational spreadsheets. The next morning we feasted for a third day on NYC bagels in our rented car, finally, after six months and two days in the city on our way home…with only a two hour accidental detour in Pennsylvania in our way.

Musings on Weather

I’ve often described the weather in the North East of England to my family as ‘bland’. I sometimes lovingly, sometimes painfully, joke about the very real and unfortunate circumstance of there only being two distinct seasons here. There’s winter, where it very occasionally snows and more frequently the sky unleashes a worrying amount of cold water. And there’s the rainy season which makes up the other three quarters of the year.

When I was living in Oxford my friends and family back home in the U.S. would always poke fun at the horrendous weather they assumed I must be experiencing. I would roll my eyes, look outside the window at the sunshine, and shout downstairs (as in all student housing, the walls were very thin) about going to Tesco for Pimm’s. Then I moved North and I discovered that all these stereotypes are more than true…it just depends on which bit of the country you’re in. And, like a native, I’ve been complaining about the weather ever since. It’s too cold. The rain is horizontal and the wind makes the use of an umbrella redundant. The sun is too bright. The air is too damp.

The building I work in is recently refurbished but lovely on the outside in its picturesque stonework. But the last few weeks, every time it rains I have the distinct pleasure of using an umbrella while inside. If I want to make a cup of tea in the kitchen I have to descend what has become a slow trickling waterfall instead of a staircase. One of my officemates put her raincoat on yesterday before walking downstairs to the loo. The rain inside was almost indistinguishable from the pattering on the skylight. It dropped into puddles on the carpet, ran down the walls, and splashed as you walked quickly over the bins that were placed to stay the steady flow. I angrily left the office and sat in a cafe, clutching a hot chocolate in an attempt to warm up from the cool temperatures and now inescapable rain. Once again I complained about the weather.

I found myself longing for the feeling of sweating while sitting still in New York summers. Screened porches. Breakfast outside. The cool feeling of air conditioning as you walked by an open restaurant door. Bars without windows. Reliable heat. Swimming out of necessity. Condensation on soda cans. Warm breezes. All of the best things about summer in New York that I’d never appreciated until discovering how painful it is to pull on a sweater and jacket in June.

And I also thought about thunderstorms and how I’d never witnessed one here. Yesterday a tornado crushed by my town in the US. The sky blackened and trees were ripped from the ground. Tornadoes are not common where I grew up and usually do not touch down or create significant damage, unlike some parts of the US. But they do still occur and are frightening in their indiscriminate ability to destroy and remind us of nature’s power. Although I do miss many things about my homeland, weather occasionally among them, this morning I looked almost lovingly out at the blandness of the weather in the North East of England. Sure, if L. Frank Baum had lived here there might never have been a Dorothy Gale. Toto, I’ve MORE than a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. And there are no tornadoes in sight. The skies are refreshingly blue and the sun is shining. Even if I do still need a jacket in June.

Home is where…

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the ambiguous nature of belonging when you live in a place that is not your own by the simple fact that you were not born there. I recently spent a long weekend in the Lake District, arguably one of my favorite spots in the country. I realized suddenly how embarrassingly un-American I had become when about twenty minutes into a two and a half hour drive I became desperate to find a rest stop. The drive began to look endless and I knew that I’d never make it to the Lakes without stopping. Somewhere on the edges of Cumbria we finally pulled into a little village where there was a tearoom and thankfully some bathrooms. It was a long ride. We packed snacks. Did I really used to drive 7 hours to get to university? What would my country think of me that I couldn’t spend two uninterrupted hours on a beautiful expanse of road?

We arrived in the Lakes and took a walk around the lovely little village of Coniston. We pointed naively at what we thought was the Old Man of Coniston, the hike on our agenda for the next day (Boy were we mistaken – the Old Man was covered by clouds and the hills we’d mistaken it for would be dwarfed by the old guy in the next morning’s sun. When we sat down for a cup of tea Meiko asked me a question that most people living outside of their homeland probably consider at one point or another. Where do you consider home?

It was a funny question and I was giving a very wishy washy answer. Well, of course, home is where I grew up. America. Upstate New York. But then, this is home, too. When we made the drive back from the Lakes I would be ‘going home’ and I would define it that way. But in just over a month when I board a flight to NY I’ll also be ‘going home’. Is it possible to have two?

Meiko rephrased the question a bit. Where do you feel most comfortable? Or, one could even say, where do you feel most at home? It’s a good question. But a difficult one. After all, I’ve written several times about how I often feel out of place wherever I am. It’s clear from the moment I open my mouth that I’m not English…maybe even before that. I still get frustrated by the fact that I can’t buy graham crackers or proper peanut butter here. Or that my “24 Hour Tesco” closes at midnight on Saturday and is only open from 11 to 4 on Sunday. Yet when I go home to the US I feel just as confused. Already sitting on the plane to NY surrounded by Americans I think, why are you talking in such volume?! Wait…why are you talking to me at all? Shouldn’t we just politely ignore each other?

I answered the question by saying that, of course, the little village in Upstate New York that I grew up in will always be home. Even now that it has ceased to house a single family member. But in a unique way that doesn’t preclude me from applying the term elsewhere. I feel at home here. And I’m allowed to have two homes in a way that is entirely different from what my concept of home would be if I lived within driving distance to the street I grew up on. And while I still find myself feeling culture shock on both sides of the pond I feel incredibly privileged that I am able to call these two wonderful places ‘home’. And for now I won’t give that up.