Cambridge2Cambridge: Is Americana better in England?


Londoners show their love for President-elect Obama ’91

Celebrating indigenous holidays and festivals for the first time is one of the great moments of living abroad. When you’re in England, however, you’re not likely to find memorable events such as people camped out in cemeteries like Day of the Dead in Mexico, nor street parades where they cover you in paint like in India. The holidays here are pretty standard fare, and none of it seems particularly novel, the strange premise of Guy Fawkes Day aside.

When there is nothing to distract me, my mind turns back to the American holidays that I miss, especially the ridiculous ones where there is nothing to do but get dressed up and eat candy, i.e. Halloween. And while Election Day isn’t exactly a holiday, I’ve become more agitated in anticipation of the outcome due to the fervent interest of foreigners than I was even when I lived in Washington, DC during the last two elections. Given that Halloween and the election fell within the first two months of my LL.M. at Cambridge, my extreme enjoyment of these events, the wont of new distracting holidays, and the culture shock graph which tells me I should be entering a down point right about now, I was sure I was going to feel nostalgic and homesick having to view them from England. Like beer and sweaters with elbow patches, however, it seems that even these holidays are something that the Brits might just do better.

Enter Halloween. It was all anyone could talk about since the first week of term at the beginning of October. Massive consultations regarding outfit choice ensued, at which point I learned that Brits disdain the American tradition of dressing as anything we please, and have added the extra requirement that all costumes must be scary. Fine, I can do that, I said. What’s the difference anyway? It’s just going to be me and my friends in some white face makeup with fake blood. Woohoo. Best party ever. I had low expectations, although everyone else seemed to have excessively high ones.

Halloween was to be celebrated, to begin with at least, with a formal hall. Cambridge and Oxford are Universities based on the college system and each college hosts multiple “formal halls,” where you sign up ahead of time, pay more than a cafeteria meal typically costs, wear your black academic robe (yes, the Harry Potter-like gowns that everyone loves to make reference to when discussing Oxbridge), be served pre-dinner drinks and a multiple course meal, have your meal ended and commenced by gongs and sayings in Latin, endure lengthy speeches, close the evening by attempting to empty the bottles of port and dessert wine, and then move on to your college pub. Doesn’t sound like much of a party, but is a great dinner.

However, Halloween formal hall, was, without a doubt, the best Halloween party I have ever been to.

Completely out of normal character, the Brits chose to throw the rules of formal hall to the wind and act like they were free human beings unfettered by tradition and hierarchy. You can’t take flash photos at formal hall; rule broken. Big deal you say; that’s what I said, too. You can’t get up and walk around at formal hall; the room was absolutely swarming with people. Mostly, they came over to “penny” you, which means they plunked pennies into your alcoholic drinks and made you down the entire drink at once. After someone pennied my red wine onto my white dress, I retaliatorily ignored this rule, but it had the desired effect on my friends, who conveniently chose to obey this one if none of the others.

People were indecorously laying all over one another to take silly photos, getting their face and body paint onto everyone else until we were all just one big smear of messy colors. Then, there was underwear girl: the girl who wore nothing but underwear to formal hall, which professors and administrators attended, and who spent almost all of the evening walking around the hall or standing on the chairs so that we could admire her underwear. I wasn’t quite sure if underwear girl lived up to the requirement that costumes be scary or not; when I thought about having to sit on the seat after her at lunch time, I decided yes. Standing on chairs: you can imagine that if standing up isn’t allowed, standing on the chairs was revolutionary. In the end, after the BYOB aspect of this formal hall-a Halloween only convention, and obviously for good reason-combined with the pennying, the only thing left to do was a food fight. I’m happy to say that it didn’t happen at my table, and that none of us were casualties.

It was a night that ended in a huge party downstairs in our pub with the dance floor commencement of so many Halloween romances that I swear Halloween is England’s, or at least Cambridge’s, new Valentines Day. For those who couldn’t remember the Friday night, they were reminded with a terse but effective email from our Senior Tutor on Monday morning, which helpfully prescribed a list of dos and don’ts:

1. Members of College staff should be treated with respect and consideration at all times.

2. ‘Food-fighting’ at a public meal is completely unacceptable.

3. Running around hall when food is being served is completely unacceptable.

4. Diners should limit their alcohol consumption to a level consistent with normal standards of self-control.

Thank you, Cambridge, for making American binge drinking on Halloween look innocuous.

Election night was also a night that I had been anticipating. Non-Americans, and Canadians in particular, were completely confident that Obama was going to win, but because my only two previous presidential elections as a voter were Bush/Gore and Bush/Kerry, I had practically no faith remaining in our electoral system. On top of that, I couldn’t imagine that an election party at Cambridge could ever match the fervor of the election parties held back in DC. I was proved wrong regarding both my doubts, and I have to say that the election party at the Cambridge Union was one of the best nights of my life.

England is five hours ahead, so the party started at 11pm our time and was an all night affair. The Union was packed to the brim, radio blaring election news in the bar, giant screen TV hanging in the theater nearby. American flags were draped everywhere. They had even attempted red white and blue balloons, and I only half minded that the blue balloons were a light turquoise. They tried! I thought. Look at that! What effort!

While the energy was high in the beginning, I was both anxious to see the results of the night and doubtful that the dense numbers and high spirits could be maintained. However, I can attest that, even at 4am, I have never seen more foreign interest in the state of Ohio in my life.

The cheering in the crowd was loud and frequent, as was the booing. Every single result that came in had every single person biting his or her nails, and then erupting into some sort of noise afterwards. I even sang our national anthem with a Swedish man. How does he know our national anthem? I have no idea; it seems like everyone in that room knew more about the States than perhaps a good deal of Americans do.

As the night passed quickly, suddenly they had called the election. It was the result 99% of the room had been waiting for. Everyone leapt out of their seats to stand on their chairs, grabbing each other’s arms to keep from falling over. The jumping and dancing and crying that the TV cameras showed in the US was exactly what was taking place at the Cambridge Union. It was incredibly moving to be sharing the feeling of victory with a room full of people most of whom could not and would never vote in a US election. Riding our bikes home at 6 in the morning, I was actually happy to have spent election night here instead of back home. The exchange that took place, and the energy I witnessed concerning the place of the US in global politics, and the optimism and joy that filled the room at the result of the election was an unforgettable feeling.

No ex
otic holidays loom on the horizon, but the track record for celebrating American holidays abroad so far bodes well for Thanksgiving next week. That is, as long as we don’t let any English people do the cooking.

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