The summer after I graduated from college, I went to England for the first time.
Well—I say “for the first time,” but really, I had already been there, many times, in my mind and heart (if not in my actual physical body). As the daughter of ardently Anglophilic parents (who reared me on a steady diet of bitterly caustic British sitcoms and dizzily pretty British costume dramas) and as a long-time Charlotte Brontë fan-girl (like so many other shy, plain girls, I read Jane Eyre when I was twelve, and was lost ever thereafter), I felt as though I knew England before I ever actually saw England.
But mercy if seeing it in the flesh wasn’t a revelation, nonetheless. As Kelly has written elsewhere on this blog, your first foreign country is something like your first love—it slides into your blood, embeds itself within your nerves, imprints itself on your brain, never to be entirely removed or forgotten. (My first love, for the record, proved to be something of a disappointment—I was nine, and he never even knew that I existed—see my reflections on why I love Jane Eyre, above.) But England—England was not a disappointment, at all.
For the seemingly endless month that I was there, I roamed about wherever my inexpert grasp of the baffling British railway time tables, and my own distinctly rickety sense of direction, would take me. I went to restaurants with weird names like “Toad in the Hole,” and ate things with weird names like… toad in the hole. I paid multiple visits (sometimes, over the course of the same day) to the fish-and-chips cart perpetually parked outside of my hotel. I ate steak and kidney pie at the very pub where Branwell Brontë drank himself to death. I wonder if I have ever been as happy since. I very much doubt it.
After my enchanted (if also distinctly culinarily unwholesome—and perhaps unwholesome in some other ways which we need not discuss in detail here) post-college summer, I (in no particular order) a) vowed that I would go back to England as soon as I possibly could, to enjoy the dazzlingly old buildings, the ludicrously beautiful town squares, and the bizarrely mundane soap operas to which I had become addicted, b) betook myself off to grad school to begin my long, arduous trek towards professor-ship and historian-hood, and c) (most importantly, for the purposes of this post) became a vegetarian.
Now, it is a tricky thing to at once love England, and not to love meat. And yes, I know that in any English city worth its salt, you can find untold numbers of amazing vegetarian (and even vegan! Somewhere, Queen Victoria is spinning in her grave…) restaurants. And yes, I know that dotted all over the English countryside are truly remarkable Indian and Pakistani restaurants, boasting an impressive array of vegetarian goodies (the plus side of Britain’s incredibly ugly colonial history. Well, that, and A Passage to India, I suppose.)
But the fact remains: The backbone—the basis—the heart—the center of most English food is still meat. Meat, meat, meat, and more meat. And when I romped about that small island as a fresh-faced, flesh-consuming twenty-one-year old, I gave this not a single, solitary thought. Sausage with breakfast? Why not! Blood pudding? Heck, you only live once! Roast beef for dinner again? Sounds delicious!
When I returned to the land of the Union Jack as a hollow-eyed (from grad school, dear reader, not from vegetarianism), green-salad-loving, mid-twenties-year-old, however, things were somewhat different. I had the dickens of a time finding a pub where I could safely have lunch (the plus side of which was that I was sometimes “forced” to have lager for lunch, instead. Just in case you still thought that vegetarians have consistently good eating habits. We do not.) I had to read every menu outside of every restaurant that I wanted to eat in, before daring to go inside. When I went to conferences, I inevitably had to create my own space on the registration forms, stressing my need for vegetarian fare. (I ended up eating a lot of weird cheese sandwiches at said conferences as a result. Who puts mayonnaise on a cheese sandwich? Oh that’s right. The English do.)
I branched out a bit in my traveling adventures, after my (questionably triumphal) vegetarian return to the United Kingdom, and felt distinct trepidation about doing so—about heading overseas as a member of the Non-Meat-Eating Tribe. But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
I went to Sweden and had no problems whatsoever (this, in the land that gave us reindeer kebabs, Swedish meatballs, and herring-laced everything.) I went to Spain and ate something splendid, amazing, and entirely meat-free at every darned meal. This may be because 1) I was in the wondrous, cosmopolitan city of Sevilla, and 2) every day, I either had Kelly circling restaurants which I had to go to, and dishes which I could safely try, on maps and menus, or Kelly actually by my side, ordering safely vegetarian fare on my behalf. I went to Australia and found vegan fish and chips on my very first day there (which, nota bene, horrendous as it sounds, is the best darned thing I’ve ever had in my life. Should the opportunity to try it arise… I would strongly suggest that you do so.)
It was only England… dear, bonnie old England which inevitably frustrated and baffled me. Not that I didn’t keep coming back, because, of course, I did. Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress is there, as are Maltesers, British Vogue, and all the old churches you could ever want to gape at. I will never stop going back.
But how much I did wish, on those initial return visits, that things were just a little bit easier for me. That I could stop into Marks and Spencer, and know that I could reliably find myself a sandwich. That I could go to the Cornish pasty shop on the corner, and not have to make them do a special order for me. That I wasn’t forever picking bacon bits out of my “vegetarian” salad, and encountering (authentic) gristle in my (ersatz) vegan sausages. I adored England, but found eating there a total headache—a constant test of my patience, ingenuity, and persistence.
And perhaps there’s something in that. Perhaps in travel, as in life, the universe forces us to learn the lessons that we need to learn, when we need to learn them. (However much we may kick and scream in our efforts to avoid learning them, at the time.) Throughout grad school, I kept returning to England, and learned to read every label. To ask lots of questions. To not stand for going to a pub which had one lousy vegetarian option when, around the corner, there might be a pub which had two, slightly less lousy ones. To ask for things. (Could the pie be made without pigeon? No? Well, then, could the bacon be taken out of the bacon and cheese sandwich? And could I get extra chips on the side, to balance out the all-important Unhealthiness Scales? Many thanks.)
When I came to England as a girl of twenty-one, I wanted to disappear—to fade into the woodwork—to slip into and out of every place that I went to unnoticed, and unseen. I dreaded, above all things, being conspicuous—I just wanted to be a fly on the wall—to come, see the sights, and then go—leaving nothing behind me but an illegible signature in the guestbook—the faintest trace of an American accent in the air.
But when I go back to England now, as a woman of thirty, I have no choice—I can’t disappear. I have to be conspicuous. I have to talk to people, to ask questions, to make noise. Unless I want untold globs of undesired meat to slide down my gullet during my stay, I have to make my presence felt—have to articulate, out loud, to other people, what it is that I want. And I guess that that’s not such a bad thing, to know how to do. I reckon that England’s meat-obsession has taught me that if I don’t like things the way that they are, that I have to try to change them—that when I want something, I have to strive for it—to fight to get it—rather than wait for the universe to simply float it down to me, as if by magic, from out of the sky.
Also, I live in the Midwest now. And if navigating the Meat Minefield that is the United Kingdom isn’t the best possible practice for that—then I don’t know what is.
Holly Kent is an extremely newly minted History professor in the gorgeous Midwest. She is pleased to report that her new town has an amazing local health food store, positively crammed with vegetarian goodies. (Midwestern Myth #435—officially exploded.) She writes about her experiences re-watching Sex and the City from a feminist perspective on her blog, Back on Carrie’s Stoop (backoncarriesstoop.blogspot.com).