Digestive Biscuits in Their Proper Context

We begin our search in the fetid mire of Victorian England.

Recently, Dear Husband brought home a box of iconic food from Great Britain. He helped some wonderful British clients buy a home in the area, and they were so happy to have his expertise in this competitive real estate market that they were generous enough to share the culinary wealth with us. One package really caught my eye. McVitie’s Digestive, it said. New to me.

I can’t think of a less appealing name for a foodstuff, but then the Brits are well known for their questionable food names. Two words: Spotted Dick. Not good enough for you? How about Rumbledethumps, Eton Mess, Mucky Dripping and Toad in the Hole? I can’t give a qualified review of most of these, having only tried Toad in the Hole (which is actually quite good.) But it’s as if the experts in the culinary arts across the pond have a singular goal of making things sound as unappetizing as humanly possible.

Frankly, British food has a bad reputation in general. Don’t believe me? Google it and a lot of articles will pop up. But having only changed planes in that neck of the woods, I can’t really speak with any authority on the subject. And after writing this post, I probably couldn’t make it through customs. They’d most likely spin me around and send me flying back home to McDonald’s.

But let’s get back to the Digestives. At first glance they reminded me of the dietary wafer that my grandmother used to force my mother to eat on her way to school in the 1940’s. My mother said they were disgusting, so she would throw them into the neighbor’s bushes. I have no idea what they were for, but my mother wasn’t having it.

Surely this couldn’t be a similar product, though. How would it have remained popular since 1892 if no one wanted to eat it? And this particular version sitting before me was coated in my Achilles heel: milk chocolate. As far as I’m concerned, anything covered in milk chocolate has got to have some redeeming qualities.

So I decided to give them a try. I wish they had been bad. I really do. But no. I could have eaten the entire sleeve of 16 in one sitting. This is a disaster. At 83 calories per biscuit, I’d weigh 900 pounds in no time. And now I’ll know these delicious things are out there in the world, calling my name, coaxing me to dash upon the rocks of obesity. Fortunately, they’re not as readily available in America, or I’d be doomed.

But why on earth would you name this ambrosia, this food of the Gods, “Digestive”? I had to get to the bottom of this. My research sent me deep into the fetid mire of Victorian England.

I eased my way into the subject by visiting Wikipedia. There, I learned that these biscuits were first invented in Scotland in1839. McVitie’s took up the torch in 1892 and started mass producing them at a time when mass production was very new. To this day, the chocolate covered ones are ranked as the U.K’s favorite snack by a wide variety of sources.

The commonly told story about the name for this devilish treat goes like this: One of the ingredients is sodium bicarbonate, which has antacid properties. I’d hazard a guess that those properties greatly diminish when you bake them into a cookie, but people in the 1800’s didn’t know that.

And that’s it. That’s all most people have to say on the subject. But the era in which they were created has long fascinated me. And after the hundreds of documentaries I’ve seen, I have developed a rather interesting back story for Digestives.

First of all, I’m amazed that humanity survived the Victorian era. The life expectancy in England in 1892 was 45 years. And it ranged between 40 and 50 years from 1852 to 1907. Talk about slow progress.

Disease was rife in Victorian England. Many died of smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, measles, and influenza. (Three cheers for modern vaccines!)

The first cholera epidemic was in 1831, and it took the Victorians until 1866 to figure out what caused it and successfully combat it. It was cholera that caused them to create boards of health with the goals of regulating clean water supplies, better drainage, and, in the 1870’s, the focus sharpened to combat unsanitary urban living conditions. They were fighting an uphill battle.

The Victorians were rather obsessed with health, probably because it was in short supply in urban slums. They didn’t have cures for any major diseases, and this led to some rather unorthodox treatments. They swore by emetics (which cause vomiting), laxatives, and leeches. There was no such thing as aspirin. They thought arsenic was something you should take for anemia. Asthmatics were instructed to inhale tobacco smoke. In 1899, people were prescribed laxatives for chicken pox. Mind you, this was some 60 years after the industrial revolution. Some sectors of their culture were advancing more quickly than others.

Improper food storage had caused its fair share of illness, or at least it was often blamed for it, right along with “miasmas”. People were streaming into the cities for work, and therefore the need to transport and store food became more urgent. City folk couldn’t eat fresh and local as they used to do on the farm.

The good news is that trains made food much easier to transport, and this was also the era when food with a long shelf life was invented. Thank the Victorians for condensed milk, dried eggs and soups, and bottled sauces. Meat canning started around 1865, causing most middle-class families to obtain can openers, which were first patented in 1855. Refrigerated meat transport started in the 1880’s.

So while people were becoming less worried about obtaining food, they were still worried about their health, and a lot of quack medicine was available. People were willing to try anything.

Snake Oil Linament was actually a thing sold in pharmacies, and it was supposed to cure Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Lame Back, Lumbago, Toothache, Sprains, and Swellings. Obviously it didn’t work. That’s where we get the term “Snake Oil Salesman” for a person who is trying to sell you something bogus.

In a time when cocaine and morphine were often given to children and radium baths were offered in hotels, people really must have dreaded getting sick, so they’d look toward prevention.

From all these bits and pieces, I have a theory about Digestives. You probably wouldn’t want to market your product as a delicious biscuit when bakeries were the place people normally went for such things. So some brilliant marketer probably suggested they should market it, instead, as an aid for digestion. (Who knows? They may have even believed it at the time. But I tend to take a cynical view of marketers.)

Thus, this product was named to target the many people with stomach issues or those wishing to avoid such maladies. Eventually, as life expectancy increased and the need for Digestives decreased, I’m sure that people remembered how delicious these things were. I suspect that’s when this product began a slow transition from being an intestinal cure to being “just” a biscuit as they are viewed today.

So why hasn’t the company changed the name to suit more modern sensibilities? Tradition. Name recognition. Most Brits probably don’t even realize how strange the name is, because strange names quickly become commonplace to our ears. For example, I work with a great guy who goes by the name Skeeter. For about a week and a half, I struggled to call a grown man a cutesy name for a mosquito. But after a while, I became accustomed to it, and now I can’t imagine calling him anything else. If a cookie were delicious enough, I’d buy it even if it were called Skeeter, so why not Digestive?

Now, the challenge becomes finding ways not to order Digestives online. My waistline will thank me if I succeed. But they really are good, so please don’t send me any. I’m serious. Don’t. I would not appreciate the gesture at all. I’m having a hard enough time resisting the urge to dive face first into one of their boxes as it is.


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The Most Dangerous Stretch of Water in the World

Mother Nature has a hungry mouth full of jagged teeth after all.

Knowing my twisted fascination with the macabre, my dear husband sent me a meme recently that discussed the Bolton Strid, a calm, bucolic looking little stream that tends to kill anyone who makes the mistake of falling in. It kind of made me think that perhaps Mother Nature has a hungry mouth full of jagged teeth after all. I had to find out more.

The first thing I came across was an article entitled, “Bolton Strid: The Stream That Swallows Anyone Who Falls In”. It described exactly why this pretty little stream in Yorkshire, England is so deadly. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end.

A number of dangerous elements come together in this accursed place. First of all, north of the strid, the body of water is called the River Wharfe. That river is 30 feet across. There are bridges up there, because no one in their right mind would attempt to walk across this deep, wide river. But then it curves around and enters the rocky area of the strid, and is forced to contort itself in unexpected ways.

Over the centuries, this rocky bottleneck seems to have made the river flow vertically through the rocks. So it looks like a narrow, jumpable, relatively calm stream, but in truth it is a deep, roiling destructive and all but invisible rapids that has managed to undercut the banks so deeply that the smooth, simple, slime-covered, sloping banks actually hide caverns and tunnels that most likely contain a lot of human bones. When you fall in there, you get sucked under, and quite often you never come out again. When you walk this slippery shoreline, you are walking above many an unseen grave.

The Bolton Strid has inspired legends and poems and stories. I’ve read several of them while researching this article. My favorite is the creepy short story, The Striding Place, written by Gertrude Atherton in 1896. It gave me the old fashioned willies, and made me think that Gertrude and I would have been fast friends. You can practically taste the glee with which she wrote this horror story. It was considered so disturbing in her day that she had a hard time getting it published.

This 2 minute video on Youtube will show you just how calm and navigable Bolton Strid seems to be. Heck, I’d try to jump it if I didn’t know what I know. It looks like a simple hop. But what horrifies me about it is that people have been dying here for centuries. If you know that, why are there no warning signs? Why no footbridge if you know people will be tempted to jump across? It boggles the mind.

Of course, I’ve never been there myself, and maybe the signs, at least, are just out of camera range. But it just seems like an extremely irresponsible oversight to me. Go figure.

Bolton Strid

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Two Historic Smogs

We are capable of learning from our horrendous mistakes.

If I ever find myself 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I will make it a point to visit the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with visiting the website and watching the fascinating videos there. The museum educates the public about what Wikipedia describes as one of the worst pollution disasters in America’s history.

On October 27, 1948, the yellow smog started settling upon the town of Donora, which had a population of 14,000 at the time. There was a temperature inversion, which was causing warm air higher up to force cold air to remain down below, and the pollutants from the nearby U.S. Steel Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel & Wire plant, which normally disbursed into the upper atmosphere, were trapped. These pollutants included sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, and fluorine.

The fire department and the town’s medical staff were pushed to their limit during these five days, and an emergency center had to be set up in the town hall by the American Red Cross. Visibility was so limited it was nearly impossible to drive.

This picture was taken in Donora at high noon during the disastrous smog.

By the time the smog disbursed five days later, due to a weather change, 20 people had died, and half the residents had been sickened. An additional 50 people died within the month, and even 10 years later, mortality rates in Donora were a lot higher than in other nearby towns. Research later showed that thousands more would have been killed if the smog had lasted longer than the five days.

U.S. Steel has denied all responsibility for this toxic event, even though the emissions from the zinc plant had killed all the vegetation within a half mile radius of the plant. It made a few paltry settlements of lawsuits, but none of the victims were ever adequately compensated. And to add insult to injury, property values dropped by 10 percent within a year. The current population of Donora is around 6,000.

The one silver lining to the Donora Smog is that it made people start taking pollution seriously, and this resulted, eventually, in the Clean Air act of 1963. It also triggered stricter regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the hopes that such a disaster would never happen again.

But unfortunately, it seems that London did not get the memo, or if they did, they chose to ignore it. A little over 4 years later, on December 5, 1952, the people of London experienced the worst pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom. And it was eerily similar to that of Donora. It, too, was the result of a temperature inversion. It, too, lasted 5 days. But 1952’s Great Smog of London was much more deadly.

For London, the pollution sources seem to have been a combination of the poor quality coal that residents were forced to use for heating after WWII, which produced sulphur dioxide. There were also several coal fired power plants within the city limits. The smog contained hydrochloric acid, fluorine and sulphuric acid, similar to the Donora incident. The city was also full of vehicles, steam trains, and diesel buses. And of course there was industry. Lots and lots of industry

The people of London could barely see three feet in front of them in the daytime. Public transportation was shut down, as was the ambulance service. Public events were cancelled as the acrid smog even got indoors. If people had to go anywhere, they were forced to feel their way, one step at a time.

The Great Smog of London, 1952.

When the weather finally changed, at the time it was estimated that 4,000 people had died and 100,000 were made ill. Current researchers set the number of deaths closer to 12,000, taking into account the many people who continued to die for months afterwards of lung infections and hypoxia.

This smog, too, lead to greater public awareness and increased environmentalism. It, too, led to changes in legislation, including the City of London Act of 1954, and a national Clean Air Act in 1956 and in 1968. At least we are capable of learning from our horrendous mistakes.

Now, if only China and other nations with heavy industry would get the memo and learn from it, too.

Recent photograph of smog in Beijing.

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Edible Bus Stops!

Why didn’t we think of this before?

I stumbled upon the edible bus stop concept completely by accident. It’s brilliant. I love everything about it. Any idea that makes you say, “Why didn’t we think of this before?” is well worth implementing.

Urban gardens are increasingly popular, but they have one little drawback. Most urban settings are already developed and it is therefore very difficult to find land where these gardens can be established. But another common feature of most urban landscapes is the bus stop.

Bus stops are often ugly, dirty, neglected places where people are embarrassed to be seen. People never look happy while waiting at the bus stop. They want to be elsewhere. So what can we do to make these places a little more pleasant, and at the same time enhance the community?

They’re doing it in London. They’re turning bus stops into pocket gardens, run by volunteers. There are so many pluses to this concept that I can only mention a few here:

  • They beautify the bus stop.

  • They teach people about gardening and the importance of local, seasonal food.

  • They increase community pride.

  • The food they produce is freely available to anyone who needs or wants it.

  • The more greenery there is in our urban spaces, the healthier our environment becomes.

  • Each stop is uniquely designed to fit in with the neighborhood, and the community is engaged in the decision making process.

  • The gardens are all inclusive and make the neighborhood feel safer.

  • Entire edible bus routes create green corridors in a city and they connect communities.

  • Bees and birds love edible bus stops!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this idea caught on around the world, one bus stop at a time? Spread the word! Suggest it to your city councils. Let’s go!

Edible Bus Stops!

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Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

Time to get off my fanny and clean my room.

“I want this room shipshape and Bristol fashion!” my mother would say, usually while clapping her hands to show she meant business. I can still hear her voice. As a kid, I never knew what that phrase meant, really, and the fact that we lived in Bristol, Connecticut at the time added to the confusion. The bottom line was that I knew I had better get off my fanny and clean my room.

My mother did tell me it was a nautical term. She probably got it from her father, who was a Merchant Marine during World War II. (In fact, he died when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. My mother never fully recovered.)

That just popped into my head, and I decided to do a lazy Google search of the origin of the phrase. I stumbled upon this fascinating article.

My first surprise was that it referred to the city in Great Britain. So much for the notoriety of my little Connecticut berg. But then it went on to say that their port has about a 30 foot difference in water level from high tide to low, so the ships would often be beached at precarious angles at low tide. So all their cargo had to be efficiently stowed, or it would be a disaster. (Now Bristol has a floating dock, so the ships don’t have to be quite as shipshape as they once did.)

Another theory is that Bristol was known as the most efficient port in the 1800’s, and that’s all it had to do with. Who knows?

Just a little something for your next trivia contest.


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Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Do snails ever get impatient?

As a bridgetender, I get to spend a great deal of time contemplating patience or the lack thereof. It continually astounds me how irritated people become when they’re held up by an opening bridge. The average opening is 4 ½ minutes long, and most commuters are well aware that a drawbridge is on their route, and therefore the possibility of a delay exists, and yet I still have the pleasure of watching their heads explode from sheer frustration several times a day. They curse. They shout. They throw things. They pound their steering wheels and beep their horns. And my drawbridge carries on.

Do snails ever get impatient? Are they resigned to their fate, or do they think they’re moving along at breakneck speed? I wish they could talk. I’d love to learn more about their attitudes about life.

Recently I came home to find a gorgeously striped one sitting on my doorstep. I’m a live and let live kind of person, so I bid him good day and gently stepped past him to get inside. I figured he’d move along eventually, and he did. I know some gardeners take a dim view of snails, but I think they have just as much right to eat as I do.

I’ve always been attracted to the unorthodox, or maybe it’s that I’m easily entertained, but when I found out that there’s a World Snail Racing Championship every July in Congham, England, I thought, “Okay, that goes on my bucket list, for sure.” It sounds like great fun.

As this race, the participating snails are arrayed along the inner circle of a wet cloth, and the first snail to touch the outer circle, about 13 inches away, is declared the winner. My goodness, that must be exciting to watch. The delayed gratification would have me biting my nails down to the quick.

One assumes that no snails are harmed during the course of this event, and that doping is not tolerated by the judges. But you never know. Scandals have been known to crop up in the most unusual places.

Another plus side to this event is it makes an excellent fundraiser. I’m kind of surprised that other communities haven’t adopted this sport. Snails come with their own safety equipment, so start up costs would be minimal.

Maybe you’ll see me at the races someday. My snail will have lightning bolts painted on his shell with orange nail polish, and he’ll answer to the name Scamper. That seems like a recipe for success to me.

Slow Down

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Positively Inspiring

Paige Hunter, I predict great things from you! Thank you!

There is a reason I haven’t given up all hope for the future. It’s that I keep coming across so many amazing young people who identify a problem and then come up with brilliant ideas to try to solve it. One such person is Paige Hunter, of Sunderland, England.

Paige has gone through some hard times herself, so she started to think about those people in despair who choose to jump off bridges. As a bridgetender, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about them, too. But Paige turned her concerns into positive action.

Some of the messages she attached to the Wearmouth Bridge, along with the phone number to a support hotline for people in emotional distress, include:

  • If you end it now, you will be so deeply missed.
  • Even though things are difficult, your life matters. You’re a shining light in a dark world. Just hold on.
  • When things go wrong, don’t go with them.
  • You matter, you are loved, and people would be worse off if you died.
  • Fight with all you have. Tomorrow is always a better day.
  • Hope is enough (even if hope is all you have.)
  • If you’re reading this, I want to tell you how amazing you are.
  • You have the power to say, “This is not how my story will end.”
  • Look how far you have come… and then keep going.
  • Don’t you dare give up on this life. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever.
  • Step back. You’re worth it.
  • Pause. Stop. Breathe. There are better options, and so many people love you.
  • This isn’t how it ENDS.
  • Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start now and make a brand new ending.
  • It will be better. Please hold on.
  • It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you DO NOT STOP

What an amazing young lady. Due to her efforts, she got a commendation from the Northumbria Police Department. And this has created a great deal of media attention.

Due to that attention, she decided to do yet another positive thing, and raise funds for mental health. I’ll say it again: what an amazing young lady! Won’t you join me in contributing to her GoFundMe campaign? It’s in British Pounds, but your credit card will figure it out. Lets keep this positivity going!

Paige Hunter, I predict great things from you! Thank you!


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How Easily We’re Taken In

If you’ve got a website, you must be legit, right? Hmph. Anyone can have a website. What apparently is much harder to acquire is critical thinking.

Case in point, The Shed at Dulwich. For a few weeks, it was London’s number one ranked restaurant, according to TripAdvisor. It was the place to be. Their phones were ringing off the hook, but it was a wasted effort on hungry diners’ parts, because they were so exclusive, they were booked for weeks in advance.

The food on the website looked delicious. Their meals were mood themed. My favorite one is “Comfort”. It consisted of “Yorkshire blue Macaroni and Cheese seasoned with bacon shavings and served in a 600TC Egyptian cotton bowl. Comes with a side of sourdough bread.”

And even that didn’t raise eyebrows? I guess the thread count was high enough to give it authenticity. No pilly-sheeted bowls for their patrons!

Here’s the thing, though. The Shed was, literally, a shed. In someone’s back yard. No address, as it was “by appointment only”. No food to be had, unless you wanted to share the resident’s TV dinner. The food in the pictures was actually made of shaving cream and urinal cakes and even, in one case, the author’s foot. It was a huge hoax. It was all just an experiment to see if he could punk TripAdvisor, and wow, did he ever.

Before you say you’d have never fallen for it, ask yourself how many times you’ve bought something that was completely unnecessary simply because it was popular. Can you deny that you’ve ever regretted an impulse buy? Have you ever stood in line for the latest iPhone when the one you have is perfectly functional? Who among us doesn’t look at pictures of ourselves from 35 years ago and think, “What the devil was I thinking when I bought that shirt?”

Let’s admit what the advertising industry has known all along: Humans will follow trends even if it takes them over the edge of a cliff. Even the Russians know this. It’s why we have a buffoon in the White House.

This destructive tendency is even more acute now that we have the internet. Now we can have our misinformation more quickly and act upon it with even less thought. How lucky are we?

We need to teach ourselves and future generations to ask questions and check sources and listen to that little doubtful voice inside our heads. We need to value education and actually apply that learning to our daily lives. Otherwise we will plunge off that cliff to our urinal-caked doom.

Urinal Cake
Urinal Cake, anyone?

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Hate When That Happens

The other day, construction workers came across an unexploded bomb, as big as a man, which had apparently been sitting there in Northwest London since World War II. Needless to say, it caused quite a panic. Residents and schools had to be evacuated. You can read more about it here.

I’m always astounded when such discoveries are made. People have been living their lives, going about their business, smoking, shooting off fireworks, blasting their radios, you name it, right on top of this thing for decades.

And how do you lose a bomb? I mean, seriously. Yes, it was just one of untold numbers going off at the time, and people had, no doubt, quite a bit on their minds, but still. This thing is huge. You’d think it would be rather hard to overlook.

One can hope that incidents of this kind are relatively rare. More insidious are the 110 million anti-personnel mines in the ground, and another 100 million stockpiled around the world, according to care.org.

Landmines are meant to be hidden. The problem with that is that they stay hidden, even long after wars are over. They kill and maim even in times of peace. They target both sides, in perpetuity. And children, in particular, are at risk, because they tend to play off the beaten path, and like to pick up things that look interesting.

Again, according to care.org, each day over 70 people are killed or injured by these mines. That’s one person every 15 minutes. 300,000 children have been severely disabled because of them.

Once again I’m reminded how lucky I am. I’ve only visited one country with a major landmine problem: Croatia. While there, I planned to visit the gorgeous Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, but was warned that if I did, I shouldn’t stray at all off the established paths because they still find landmines there. In a serene, bucolic national park. Horrifying. (It turned out it was too out of the way to fit into my itinerary, and I have to admit I was equally disappointed and relieved.)

I can’t imagine what it must be like to live every day in the vicinity of live ordinance. It must be terrifying to have to worry about your child getting blown up while walking to school, your wife getting blown up while fetching water, and you yourself having to hesitate to farm your own fields.

There is no justification for landmines. What horrors we visit upon ourselves.


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Walking Between Cultures

One of the things I love most about the virtual world of Second Life is that you get to meet people from all over the world. One friend, C.N., is a young man who is an amazingly talented artist from Vietnam. I met him just as he was finishing his secondary education and applying to universities abroad. I remember how exciting that time is. You have a world of opportunities in front of you. You can go so many different directions. There so many possibilities.

I was even more intrigued because his experience must be all the more heightened as he was going from one cultural extreme to another. What does that feel like? How does it impact you?

He just successfully completed year one and is back home on holiday, so I asked him to talk a little bit about his experiences. What follows is what he was kind enough to share. Thanks C.N.!

My first year in UK has just passed – I feel like it was just one week – with a lot of enjoyable experiences.

Though the university had got seven Vietnamese students before me, many people told me that I was the first Vietnamese they had ever met, after constantly mistaking me for a Chinese. I can say that I have busted a lot of misconceptions – very funny ones – that British people hold about Vietnam. Many of those who are old enough to have lived the period of the two wars in my country thought that we spoke French as the primary language instead of a unique mother tongue. When they learnt that we have our own language, Vietnamese, they asked me if its pronunciation and alphabet are similar to Chinese or Mandarin, and were pretty surprised by the big difference.

Before I left for England, all that I have heard about British people had been their posh manner. My parents – not sure from whom they got the idea – kept warning me about being bullied and discriminated by native students. They were also very worried that I would become tight–fisted and ‘starving in a sense’ as a result of being discouraged by the extremely expensive cost of living, which is also a common misconception in Vietnam and which had almost made my parents reconsider letting me go to England.

All those misconceptions seem to originate from different people’s experience in big cities like London. I myself went to London once, and I must say I didn’t enjoy it. Not only prices are costly; a smile is also something people cannot give for free. The atmosphere of the small city where I stayed is just the opposite. The people there are very friendly and adorable, which immediately made me feel at home. I’ve got to know many local people – here everyone knows everyone! – who very often invited me over for meals. I experienced the same friendliness on campus; one of my loveliest memories is getting yelled at by a professor for addressing him too formally.

After all, there’s no big difference between the lives I had amongst the small communities in UK and in my country, since – you know what they say – the people make the places!


[Image credit: volunteercard.com]