Seventeen years ago, I got a call from a friend of mine who I'd known since we were about 16 years old and working at the Boise Public Library. Jan and I kept in touch when we both left Boise to go to college. In November of 1989 she called me and told me she was engaged to a fellow graduate student who was from England. The were getting married the day after Christmas in the small village of Talaton in Northern England. She invited me to the wedding.
I had never been to Europe. I didn't even have a passport. I jumped at the chance, applied for a passport and booked my airfare to London. My friend's fiance Simon met be at Heathrow and we took a train into the where we stopped at his flat in Brixton to pick up Jan and headed to Victoria Station to catch a train to Talaton. After a minor misunderstanding with a ticket salesperson (due to the language barrier...I must have spelled my name to him five times) I was issued a British Rail Pass.
Talaton is located in Devon. The nearest city is Exeter. It is a farming community that dates back to the 1500s. Simon's parents owned a 16th century farmhouse called the Old Manor that they operated as a bed and breakfast.The wedding party and many of the out of town guests were staying there. Simon's father picked us up at the train station and drove us to the Old Manor.
We were met at the front door by Corky the cat, one of the most British looking cats I've ever seen.
Behind Corky was Simon's mother, an equally British looking and very gracious woman who welcomed us warmly and herded us into the dining room for a quick supper of bangers and eggs. Then I went to my bedroom and collapsed in a jetlagged coma until 1 p.m. the next day.
We went Christmas shopping the next day in Honiton, a small town in Devon known for its lace and antique shops. The only thing I could afford was an old top hat from the 1800s that was a few sizes too small.
But at tea time that day I experienced my first "cream" tea. When I'd first heard the phrase "cream" team, I thought it implied some flavored tea. What it really referred to was teas served with scones, jam and plenty of Devonshire heavy cream to spread on the scones. Fortunately I was a skinny young man at the time and learned the art of piling on the cream and jam. The result of a cream tea was a sense of euphoric immobility and peace unlike any I've ever achieved since.
On Christmas Eve, we ended up at the local pub listening to the locals converse in a Devonshire accent that was thicker than their cream. I'm convinced I was perceived as a deaf mute or an idiot because all I could was nod and grin because I didn't understand a word that was being said to me.
We returned to the Old Manor and opened presents and toasted with some Christmas cheer. And although I was far from home and away from my family, I will always remember that Christmas as one of the most peaceful and warm I had experienced as an adult (until I met my wife of course).