The city of Bath, England is a quiet and small one. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how it constitutes a city; with a population of barely 100,000 and no buildings exceeding ten stories in height, it’s hardly the teeming metropolis of Manhattan that I grew up in. Nevertheless, it is a city that I love and that I have decided to make my home for the foreseeable future.
You might have heard of Bath, either for its famous Roman natural hot spring baths, or – for the more bookish amongst you – as the one-time home of Jane Austen and the setting of her novel Northanger Abbey. But locally, it is most well-known and loved for its yearly Christmas market. For two-and-a-half-weeks every winter, a German-style market engulfs the city centre, with stalls selling everything from mulled wine, to bratwurst, to novelty wooden ties. Carollers serenade shoppers in front of classic Georgian buildings, fake snow gets mixed in with the customary England-in-December drizzle, and you get to go around tasting as many different cheeses, chocolates, and gins as you want without actually having to buy anything. Everyone around here gets jolly excited about it.
After moving to Bath over a year ago, I befriended a woman whose husband had, this year, acquired a stall at the Christmas market for his raw chocolate company. As I live so near to the market itself, I volunteered to lend a hand for a few days.
And so it came to pass that, last Wednesday evening as I was manning the stall and starting to feel so cold that I thought my toes might fall off, I ended up having the most surreal conversation of my life.
I was nearly at the end of my shift when, out of the throng of customers wanting samples, emerged four ridiculously good looking people - two men and two women - of about my age, with the most well-coiffed hair I had seen all day. They were also wearing “Elder” name tags.
I recognized them immediately as missionaries, mainly because of my love for the musical, “The Book of Mormon,” but also because the presence of missionaries dotting the streets and subway walkways of New York City is not uncommon. Before I had the chance to start humming “Hello” (Mormon’s opening number, not the Adele song), one of the men spoke to me.
“So, what makes this chocolate raw?” His accent had a strong southern American twang. Figures.
I gave him the spiel my friend’s husband taught me. It’s cooked below 42 degrees centigrade, it’s made with all-natural plant ingredients, etc, etc.
“Hey! Are you American, too?”
I hesitated for a second. I’ve been on the fence (or should I say “wall”) about affirming my nationality to anyone who has asked since the election. This applies especially to Americans, lest they should ask me for whom I voted in the hopes of having someone to celebrate with and not get the answer they wanted. And the last thing I wanted was to get trapped in a political debate with a religious missionary.
“Yes,” I spat out eventually. “From New York City. Where are you guys from? I assume you’re here on a missionary trip?”
“Yes we are!” His face lit up. Honestly, is it part of their training to be so disarmingly happy and friendly? “We’re from Tennessee, but we’ve spent some time in New York! There’s an LDS temple in Manhattan that we’ve all done some volunteering at. It’s on the Upper West Side. Is that near where you’re from?”
“It is, actually. That’s my neighborhood. I know exactly the one you’re talking about. On 65th and Columbus, right?”
“Yes!” The other male missionary chimed in. “Such a nice part of the city. And there’s a great Jewish bakery a couple of blocks away from the church, too. They make this amazing babka!”
Believe me, now, when I tell you that I have never been so taken aback in my life.
“Do you mean Breads?” I asked with exactly the amount of confusion and surprise in my voice you’re imagining right now. A Mormon from Tennessee whom I had never met before was standing in front of me in Bath - England - telling me he’s wild about my all-time favourite babka from a bakery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“That’s it!” The first male missionary exclaimed. “That stuff is so good! That whole neighbourhood is Jewish, right?”
“Yep, mostly,” I replied. The subject had turned to religion. I was now in dangerous territory.
“So are you from a Jewish family then?”
“Yep,” I spat out quickly. I thought I knew where this was heading. God I am so not in the mood to be converted tonight, I thought.
“Well, happy Hanukkah!” He said with an alarmingly bright smile.
“Merry Christmas!” I replied.
And they walked off to the next stall.
This story "My Incredible Mormon-Jewish Encounter in the Christmas Market" was written by Samantha French.