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Everybody Has a Story: A very British Independence Day celebration

Thirty years ago, I spent a year as a visiting scientist at Harwell Laboratory in England, during which my wife and I lived in Oxford. We bought a used car and learned to sit on the right while driving on the left in Oxford’s congested traffic, which included the 15,000 bicycles of Oxford University students.

But this story is about how we observed American holidays during our year in England.

We invited some of our English friends to share a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner with us. They knew about turkey and cranberry sauce but were put off by the idea of pumpkin pie, because the English consider pumpkin to be a vegetable like squash. In fact, English stores had no such thing as canned pumpkin. My wife had to buy fresh pumpkin and convert it to a form suitable for pies. However, once our guests overcame their reluctance to even try pumpkin pie, they found it was as tasty as we had described.

We had a special treat when our English neighbors took us to a Christmas concert in a centuries-old building at Oxford University. The atmosphere, the acoustics, the choral music were a truly memorable experience.

The English have a great sense of humor, which I chose to tweak on several occasions. On February 22 I told several of my English colleagues that it was a day when Americans celebrated the birthday of a famous Englishman. This got their attention and they asked whose, but their interest faded quickly when they learned it was the birthday of former colonist George Washington.

But my best story involves July 4, just a regular day at the laboratory where I was working. Each month, the chemistry group I worked in had an hour-long technical talk by one of its members and by an interesting coincidence, I was scheduled to discuss my research at 9 a.m. July 4. As I entered the lab building that morning, I saw signs advising everyone that safety alarms and evacuation sirens would get their monthly test at 10 a.m. that same day. I quickly decided to modify my introduction to have some fun with this.

I began my talk saying that July 4 was an important holiday in the United States — but since I was the only American in a room full of Englishmen, it might be best if I didn’t go into detail about what we were celebrating. However, I said, we typically celebrate July 4 in the United States with fireworks, ringing church bells and marching bands. But my own attempts to obtain fireworks and arrange for the church bells and marching bands had all failed.

The best I could do, I said, was to arrange to have the laboratory alarms and sirens sound at the end of my talk. I managed to conclude my talk right at 10 a.m., when the scheduled tests were loudly conducted. I then saluted, gave a little bow and sat down.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes true, first-person tales by Columbian readers, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.


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