I woke early this morning to get ready for a talk I delivered to the AUC Foreign Students’ Association today. (Only one person showed up for the talk; no surprise given the number of people I know who were staying up all night to watch the election results.) Shortly after getting up I flipped the TV on to see what the election results were.
We don’t get CNN or NBC or BBC or any of the channels people normally get when they have sattelite TV here in Egypt. Instead we get, among other things, the Romanian Channel, Bloomberg English, and a channel called PRESS which is a sort of international news channel in English. This is what we had on. Reporting live from Tehran they told us that Obama had won the election in the States. We cheered and ate some donuts which I had thoughtfully picked up the night before from the House of Donuts in Mohandiseen.
Later in the day I got the chance to glance at the news online and read Obama’s acceptance speech. Tears really came to my eyes. Today I am truly proud to be an American.
Now let me tell you what I’d be doing this evening if I were in England tonight. Today is Guy Fawkes Day back in Britain, which commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 where Guy Fawkes and others attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament and King James I.
To celebrate the fact that Fawkes et. al. failed, British people get together and burn things. Principally this involves burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a giant bonfire (hence the other name for the revels, Bonfire Night), but they also like to set off fireworks and whatnot.
But nevermind all that. If I were in England now I would be going to an event in the little town of Ottery St Mary, about ten miles from my university town, Exeter. Each year on the night of November the 5th the people of Ottery get together and have a relay race through the town and throngs of crowds that come from all over the world to see it. Men, women and children all participate in different races throughout the afternoon and evening. And what do the racers relay? FLAMING BARRELS OF TAR.
No, really. The first time I went to see this I’d been in England for about a month, and people tried to explain to me the barrel rolling tradition at Ottery without much success. Mostly my friends would get very excited, start trying to say one sentence, then start on another one without finishing the first, and finally finish up by describing it as a “mad West Country thing.” What they didn’t explain was that there aren’t any barriers between the crowd and the barrel racers. They can and will run straight at you, something I learned the hard way!
In actual fact the tar barrels were an excellent introduction to life in Britain. I’d met a lot of very polite, erudite, gracious individuals in my first month. Then I went to this evening of drunken mobs and unshielded flame where the people in the relay race were actually fighting to keep the flaming barrel on their backs and not give it up to the next person, and I understood in a sudden blinding flash of insight that British people are in fact all completely mad. They just keep this very well insulated under layers of reserve and dry humo(u)r. I think that’s why I fit in so well there.
The tradition of the tar barrels is apparently far older than Guy Fawkes Day and nobody really knows how it started. I rather suspect it involved some drink, a long winter’s night and some very bored village occupants. In its modern form the festival also incorporates lots of greasy foods sold from stalls, some mulled wine if you chance across the right little shop in the right little street, and a large midway down by the Guy Fawkes bonfire in a field near the river (the River Otter, that is.)
This year there was a chance that the event wouldn’t happen because of a flash flood that required much of the town to be evacuated just a few days ago. I was cheered to read that the town pulled together and they’re going ahead with it though I am very sad that I won’t be there this evening, scrambling to stay out of the way of the barrels and taking lots of blurry, flamey photos.