Durham, England

My mom joined me for my last venture out of the Netherlands, and we flew on the day of the Opening Ceremonies to northeast England to visit my dear friend Martha from World at Play. (Going to England the weekend the Olympics began led to constant clarifications at work – “no, I wasn’t in London!”)

Martha met us at the Newcastle airport, and after a joyous reunion with lots of hugs, we headed to Durham, where Martha is a graduate student. It’s a quick trip from Newcastle by train, and although the town is small, it’s absolutely gorgeous, particularly because of the castle and grand cathedral perched on a hill overlooking the river and the rest of the town. We lucked out and had a perfectly clear afternoon when we arrived, so we strolled through the shopping streets, admired the interior of the cathedral (which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, with tremendously impressive stained glass windows among other things), and walked on a path along the river to visit the part of the university where Martha spends most of her time. Durham seems like the perfect place to get a little tranquility while still living in a vibrant town – the paths along the river through the forest provide the perfect way to get away from things for a little while, and I saw a few people kayaking down the river.

We opted to watch the Opening Ceremonies in Martha’s house, so she and I went out in search of some dinner to bring back. The original idea was to get Mexican food at a taco shop we’d seen earlier, but when that turned out to be closed, we popped into the local Tesco and picked up some hors d’oeuvres, wine, Pims, and canned gin and tonics. We planned to get frozen pizza to go with it (at a store selling only frozen food, how novel!), but when we learned that this too was closed, we switched back to the Mexican idea and ended up getting burritos at the English equivalent of Chipotle. It was in every a copy of Chipotle: they had exactly the same options. This was the second time I’d eaten Mexican food with Martha (the first being in Kosovo) and I think the second time Martha had ever eaten Mexican, so we spent a hilarious five minutes of me giving a tutorial about “what exactly is a burrito?” and why Mexican food is never the same outside North America. (These burritos were satisfying but nothing like Chipotle or any of my other favorite Mexican providers in the US.)

Martha, Mom, and I watched all four hours of the Opening Ceremonies. It was very cool to be in the host country (and not my own). One thing I observed throughout my viewing of the London Olympics was the difference between BBC and NBC coverage and commentary. When we watch NBC’s coverage of, say, gymnastics, we can count on the commentators to provide specific and consistent criticism. Americans are well-trained to look for gymnasts to stick the landing when they vault, for instance. British commentary is entirely different: it’s only positive! Whether I was watching swimming or gymnastics, I heard nothing but praise for the routines and races. Part of me appreciated this; after all, it IS impressive enough that these athletes even got themselves to the Games; on the other hand, I had nothing except the scores to guide my appraisal of what I saw!

Much of the remainder of our time in Durham was spent watching the Olympics, walking around, and shopping, but we checked two essential culinary experiences off the list. On Saturday, we had a late lunch of fish and chips at the best place for it in Durham. We also got some mushy peas (mushy may not be the official adjective) with them, which were quite good. I dutifully sprinkled copious amounts of vinegar on mine, and it was DELICIOUS.

We ended our time in Durham with Sunday dinner at a pub down the street from Martha’s house. The beef and various roast vegetables smothered in gravy were the perfect antidote to the chilly rain outside, and the little pub was filled with people enjoying the food – it was a great atmosphere.

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