Thanksgiving, 1988, and the Yalies who’d gathered that semester in London were feeling a little blue, and not in the school-spirit sort of way. Papers—which we handwrote, since none of us had computers—and tests loomed and the city was gray. So the program determined we should gather in Bloomsbury Square for an English take on a Thanksgiving dinner: cold turkey slices, a cranberry-colored aspic, pumpkin flan—and I contributed a pecan pie, except not even Harrods could provide the proper ingredients and so I wound up presenting a pitch-black walnut-treacle tart that looked (and tasted) like a tray of baked beetles.
Needless to say, the food went uneaten. But someone—memory insists it was Michael Kitson, though surely the rest of the triumvirate (Brian Allen, the miracle worker Kasha Jenkinson) collaborated—produced an entire case of wine, and though my memory is hazier here, I seem to recall that it was very good and we drank most of it.
We must have, because I definitely remember what happened next. We went into the Bloomsbury Square gardens, ostensibly to play some American football, as it was thought that was what the holiday required. But instead we wound up playing a very complicated and noisy game of leapfrog-tag.
I saw many images that semester in London—slides of George Stubbs, JMW Turner, Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds—but the one that will remain with me longest is Michael Kitson, racing across the gardens in a three-piece suit, chasing and being chased, until the warden chased us all out, too soon.
I always joke that I came back from London the way most students who study abroad elsewhere do: fluent. And I suppose I did, in English. The writing I started there—“Letters from London” in the Yale Daily News—has led to a life as an essayist and novelist. But I treasure more that I became, if not fluent in, then a keen appreciator of joy—as seen in a painting, a program, a city, a professor and students running pell mell through a gray afternoon.
I left London in December, 1988. But the truth is that some small part of me—and god knows, that pie—has never left Bloomsbury Square.