Saturday, May 22, 2010

The American Society and Thanksgiving Dinner

The American Society is a strange thing. See, I come from an area that talks about Europe as if they are a ravenous horde of America-hating philanderers and hedonists. I never believed it because, hey, the South has some very strange beliefs. That said, the last thing I expected to see when I arrived was four people standing behind a fold-up table draped in the American flag in the middle of campus.
I stopped in my tracks and said, “Are you kidding me?”
One of the girls, a redhead who seemed to grin all of the time, said, “Oh, you’re American.”
One of the other people, a short man with short hair, who also seemed to grin all of the time, came over. (I thought, for a moment, that I had stumbled upon a cult bent on making everyone in the world disgustingly happy.) Right then, I had no idea he was a fan of both the South and Jon Bon Jovi. Once I found this out, though, I thought of him as Dixie.
At any rate, I started talking to the group—the other two people consisted of a man slightly taller than me with a beard and a penchant for saying things that could have been ripped from Family Guy and a very nice blonde girl from Essex—and learned that, the society was, essentially, an offshoot of the American Studies program—a degree that, focused on American history and politics.
So, nothing else to do that day, I joined the society. They introduced me to the Hell of playing first-person-shooters with people who made it their mission to be good at them, reintroduced me to the disturbing excesses of undergrad drinking, and hosted a Superbowl party—but we’ll get to that later.
The thing with having an American Society that attempts to emulate American students is that, at their heart, they’ll remain Brits. For example: beer pong. American students know that beer pong has the potential to be more complicated than criminal law or theology. Different house rules clash with one another with the ferocity of Viking berserkers. This generally leads to complex rituals—often involving games on Madden or rock, paper, scissors—to determine which set of house rules to use. And, God bless em, the Brits don’t quite have that absurdity down.
Now, for Thanksgiving dinner. Every American views Thanksgiving in two different, contradictory lights. On the one hand, it is a holiday where families and friends converge together, to count their blessings, discuss the events of the year, gorge themselves on a variety of food, and consume vast amounts of alcohol—a secular Christmas. On the other hand, it is a holiday where families and friends converge together, to count their blessings, discuss the events of the year, gorge themselves on a variety of food, and consume vast amounts of alcohol—a secular Christmas. Family feuds that should have been long forgotten are brought up with a vengeance. Remember that time when you told Aunt Rachel that you’d go to lunch with her, then never called because you had to work, and she called Uncle Howie who called you and told you that you were a horrible person—then the whole thing blew over? That gets brought back up, the wounds reopened, and chlorine poured right the fuck in. It is a time when anything can be used as a weapon: “Oh,” Cousin Jake says, “good mashed potatoes this year; too bad Grandma couldn’t make hers, they were much better.” And, of course, in the presence of alcohol, everything is blown up to Tolkien-esque proportions. When you missed seeing Aunt Dawn on the street, that’s not just a mistake, it’s a rejection of the entire family on par with changing your name and converting to another religion.
In short, Thanksgiving has just as much of a chance to make you wince and tear out your hair in agony as it does to make everyone happy. It’s an important aspect of the holiday that will never be transfered across the Pond. I knew before going in to the dinner that some things would be different: For example, I was willing to bet that they wouldn’t have an old, disgusting couch set up in front of a television that was blaring football. And because of this, no one would be sitting on the couch, drunk, and throwing cans of Budweiser at the screen whenever a referree appeared. A good chunk of the ambience would be lost.
Still, I thought, Dixie had been in the States a few times and had spent a Thanksgiving with an American family, so he’d know the traditions enough to help The Drunkard and I turn this into a proper Thanksgiving.
The dinner was set up to be in one of the college’s banquet halls. For my American readers: Imagine a dining hall in a dormitory. Now, take away all the cockroaches, peeling paint on the walls, flickering yellow flourescent lights, and drunk/high cafeteria workers. In fact, it might be easier simply to imagine a large dining room at a Holiday Inn or an upscale hotel. That is the sort of set-up the Brits have. (Oh, oh! And get this! Communal baths? Unheard of over here. I told a friend about that and a cloud passed over her face, as if I had told her of some unspeakable genocide.) It was set to be at eight, so The Drunkard—who eschewed his usual mode of dress and wore dark blue jeans, dress shoes, and a black button-up—and I rolled in at five past.
We were greeted by Dixie at the doors to the place. “You brought booze, right?”
The Drunkard laughed. “I’m sorry,” he said, “do you think I’m a Mormon or something?” He pulled a bottle of vodka from his pocket.
“I,” I said, “er. Well, no.”
“You miserable wretch,” said The Drunkard, shaking his head.
“I like this man,” Dixie said. “Well come on, mate. Let’s go up to Origins and buy some wine. I didn’t buy any booze, myself.”
“Fuck it,” said The Drunkard, “I’ll get some too.”
We walked up the stairs to Origins and I pitched my idea to Dixie. Basically, we agreed that we would attempt to make the dinner as uncomfortable for everyone as possible. The Drunkard would instigate an argument with Dixie, I’d try to calm it down by changing the subject to something neutral, which would, in turn, light the fires for some other argument. We thought of it as an exercise in improvizational comedy, fueled by cheap wine and fried turkey.
We returned to the dining hall, went through the doors and sat at a table. The dining hall, as I mentioned before, was like a banquet hall at a nice hotel. On one end, there were the doors to the kitchen. An entire wall was made up of windows looking out towards campus—but right now, they were covered by large red curtains. The Society had draped American flag-themed streamers along the other two walls, and had red, white, and blue balloons on each of the large, eight-person-seating tables. A couple tables had a few small American flags placed in the middle, and these were stolen within ten minutes. The tables were set up for a fancy dinner—with a startling array of silverware and folded napkins. Wine glasses and smaller wine glasses perched above the silverware, waiting to be used. A couple of pitchers of water sat on each table. Off towards the kitchen, some servers in white shirts, black pants, and bow ties stood with their arms folded behind them.
As we walked in, I turned to Dixie and said, “Man, you guys are aware that Thanksgiving is usually spent in sweaters and jeans, right?.”
Dixie nodded. “I told them that, but the president refused to have anything less than this. She wanted a dress code, but we talked her out of it.”
We took seats at the table nearest the door, and, slowly, confused-looking English people started walking in. I was very, very glad that there was no dress code, because a man walked in wearing what I assumed marked him as a Texan: He wore a button up shirt patterned like an American flag, a giant belt buckle shaped like the state of Texas, blue jeans, and a cowboy hat. I laughed, The Drunkard stared with his mouth agape, and Dixie waved.
“Are you from a movie?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “Just thought I’d look the part. Got all of this on a road trip.” Indeed, the man was very, very British. Aside from a nose that made my Jewdar give a jump, he looked like he belonged on a cricket pitch. His accent was supremely posh, and I assumed this meant he treated Thanksgiving as a fancy dress party.
More people sat at our table. The servers rung the bell, we got up, were served, and returned with plates full of turkey (I expected the fried turkey to be lackluster, but it was really quite good), mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and stuffing. Out of the food, the only item I had a problem with was the stuffing. We’re used to seeing stuffing in this kind of lump—either formless, as if it were a meal unto itself, or actually inside the bird where the name ‘stuffing’ makes sense. Here, though, the norm was to form stuffing into spheres.
Well, about halfway through our bottles of wine and after all-too-pleasant chatter, The Drunkard leaned back, belched, and gave Dixie a condescending glare. “So,” he said, “my friend here tells me you’re engaged.”
“Yessir,” Dixie said. “Known her six ye—”
“You’re making a terrible mistake.”
The table fell silent.
“How old are you?” asked the Drunkard.
“Twenty-two,” Dixie said.
“Yeah, terrible. Atrocious idea. You should be out there, a free man. No chick’s worth this much time man.”
Dixie’s face fell. The only time I’d ever seen the guy less than happy was in our Risk games. Now, I’d like to think that I’m a decent judge of acting—that I could tell when someone’s putting on a show of being one thing or another, and when they’re actually angry, sad, whatever. But, right then, I thought that Dixie had forgotten our conversation walking up the stairs.
I looked at The Drunkard. He was leaning forward. He had rolled up the sleeves on his shirt, and his hairy arms let everyone knew he meant business. I’d seen the look in his eyes before—that glare when he tilted his head slightly downward and seemed to try to look at someone through his eyebrows—and it was usually when he was in an argument with The Writer. Just as I thought Dixie had forgotten that this was supposed to be in jest, I was now certain that the half-bottle of wine had clouded The Drunkard’s mind.
“Seriously,” said The Drunkard. “She rich, or something?”
“No,” said Dixie. His voice dropped down low, and his right hand trembled slightly on the table.
“Then why are you doing it?” The Drunkard pointed to a girl with brown hair to Dixie’s left. She had been typing something out on her mobile, but dropped it on the table as soon as Dixie’s engagement was brought up. (Turns out that her name was Kaitlan, she was from Texas, and, in the spring term, she made some fantastic Southern biscuits—but I’m getting ahead of myself.) “You, you single?”
“Er,” she said.
“We’re taking that as a yes. Dixie, work your magic on her.”
“I’m engaged,” he said.
“Pfft,” said The Drunkard. He turned to me. “Can you believe this? This guy doesn’t want to chat up this perfectly lovely girl.”
“Er,” I said. I looked at Dixie. He was now matching The Drunkard’s glare and was drumming his fingers on the table. “Maybe you should stop,” I said.
“I can’t believe this,” laughed The Drunkard. He leaned back and shook his head. “You know, the only thing worse than getting married to some bimbo is death.”
Dixie sprang up and the English-Texan held him back. Dixie fired out a string of obscenities so raucous that he must have picked them up from the States, because the only people on this continent who could swear that well were the Irish—and we were a long way from Dublin.
“Oh, the ladykiller’s getting riled up,” said The Drunkard. “You gonna come at me like a spider-monkey there, fuckface?”
At that point, both Dixie and The Drunkard burst into laughter. Dixie shook his head, his face red from both forced anger and laughter, and said, “Spider-monkey? We could’ve kept going if you hadn’t said that.”
The Drunkard wiped a tear from his eye and gestured my way with his thumb. “Did you see The Narrator over here? The guy looked like he was going to plotz himself.”
I stiffened. “No I wasn’t.”
“Get outta here,” responded The Drunkard. “I looked over and there you are, sweating and your eyes darting between us. Yeah you were about to freak out. Only time you say ‘er’ is when you’re trying to think of a way out of an uncomfortable situation.”
He had me there. I couldn’t really dig myself out of a hole in this case, so I said, “All right, you got me. Drunkard, you sure you don’t want to go for Fiddler instead of me?”
The Drunkard snorted. “Nah, last time I was on stage I got into a fistfight with my director because of—well, let’s call it differing interpretations of the work we were performing.”
“What play?” asked a man in a white track suit and braided, nappy, black hair.
“Eighth grade production of Glengary Glenn Ross.”
I tilted my head to the side. “You did Glengary Glenn Ross in eighth grade?”
The Drunkard drank from his wine glass and nodded. “Yeah. It was the most progressive school in the country. I played Roma.”
“Who was your director?” asked Dixie, taking a sip from his own glass. “Some visionary who threw caution to the wind?”
“Nope. Our teacher. Bastard wanted to cut the speech where Roma has his spiel about narcissitic and hedonistic living, so I kicked him in the balls and told him that’s what I thought about his directorial changes.”
“Good to see your history of clashing with authority started at an early age,” I said.
“Some called me a delinquent,” The Drunkard said. “I prefered to think of myself as the Voice of the Creator and the Actor.”
The rest of the dinner was spent in the almost mandatory cross-cultural discussion that—essentially—boils down to “AMURIKA! FUCK YEAH!” on one side and “Rule Britannia!” on the other. By and large, it’s an old argument—one of those that has no way to win out over the other. Cricket vs. baseball. American football vs. world football. French fries vs. chips. I think that within two weeks of being in the country, I learned that the only way this sort of argument was going to be solved was by a nuclear war obliterating one country, leaving the other intact. At which point, the surviving country would sip some Budweiser or Pimm’s (depending on which survived, of course) and calmly, resolutely, take their finger off of the button and declare themselves the victor.
“So why does The Narrator call you Dixie?” asked The Drunkard.
“Yeah, Goose,” said Kaitlan, “why is that?”
“Because,” he said, “if you take the impartial view of history—as I do—then you clearly see that the Confederacy were the heroes in that war, and they were fighting for the United States to stop their irrevocable slide into a centralized power.”
The Drunkard’s face fell. The rest of the people at the table started checking their phones, and I slid down in my chair, waiting for The Drunkard to sputter, or leap over the table and throttle Dixie, or to just call him a racist and leave him at that. However, much to my surprise, The Drunkard did none of those things. He simply sighed, shook his head, and said, “Whatever.”
I did a double-take. “Whuh?”
The Drunkard shrugged noncommitally, drank the last of the wine in front of him, and said, “Whatever.”
The rest of the night passed smoothly, we got up, left, and when we were walking back to Woolf, I turned to The Drunkard and said, “You’re kidding me. You didn’t flip out on Dixie for saying he supported the Confederacy.”
“Look,” said The Drunkard. “When you spend four years in a town like Eldritch, you learn a few things. Primarily, you start to understand that—generally speaking—the people who are Southern apologists are that way because everyone in their family were Southern apologists. It takes a long, long time to convince them that, just maybe, the South weren’t full of saints who were simply upholding the rights of states to act independently from the Federal government. You bring up a moral issue, they say no one in the South really wanted slavery, and you ask why they didn’t abolish it, and they say that slavery wasn’t really the issue at stake.” The Drunkard sighed and shook his head. “It’s like talking to The Writer about genre fiction.”
We now stood outside of his block. “I guess I see where you’re coming from.”
“Trust me on it. They’re beyond stubborn. Hey, good luck on the audition if I don’t see you before then.”
He walked inside, I stood outside, my face frozen—I’d completely forgot about the audition. Granted, I knew the song, but oh shit, I forgot about the audition!

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