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We speak the same language, but it’s like we’re separated by geography, history, and even culture. I told the border officer in the US that I had nothing to declare except a few souvenirs, but maybe that wasn’t true. Here’s what I brought back with me:
- The English are open to keeping their mayo on diners’ tables, next to the ketchup. No freakout about mayonnaise refrigeration. I had a squeeze or two, and I was fine.
- Eggs are sold on the regular store shelves, not refrigerated.
- Packaged meats of all varieties, bread, and dairy products were satisfying and delicious.
- Most pub food was tasty, hearty, and handsomely plated. The only English food I tried that deserved its reputation for blandness was steak and ale pie. Meat pies were just okay.
- Food everywhere is fresh and relatively inexpensive.
- Old pubs–hundreds of years old–were everywhere and could come with history, such as being host to some famous writers. I found them to have a bit of an odor, too. I suppose cooking up fish and chips for so many years will do that to an establishment.
- Pedestrians and Underground riders aren’t always friendly and don’t seem eager to interact with strangers with even a smile. I was accosted by a woman in Oxford who didn’t appreciate that I smiled at her. And when I struggled for several minutes to get my too-wide suitcase down the long aisle of a train, male riders just watched impassively instead of offering to help like they would in the US (until I got to my seat at the end of the car, where a British man kindly stood up and lifted my suitcase onto the rack).
- The population is very diverse, such that most souvenir shops seemed to be run by Middle Easterners. Other populations, including Eastern Europeans who in my limited experience did not speak English, represented a slice of the citizenry. The diversity meant there were interesting restaurants everywhere–Turkish, Greek, Thai, Indian, and a Brazilian/Portuguese/Greek fusion place whose food met with our approval. Everyone seemed to get along and everything ran smoothly. It was a civilized, sophisticated, humane country.
- Many processes are automated, so that when you’re about to get on public transportation, or come into the country, or even go into the bathroom at the train station, automation smooths the way. No long lines in customs, unlike in San Diego–just place your passport on the sensor and the gates open for you to walk into the English side. You might be greeted in the bathroom with a readout that says “These stalls are: 20% full.”
- Enterprise seems to be thriving, especially the restaurant business. But large chains, small groceries, food trucks, tidy flea markets, tour companies, malls–all are booming.
- Restaurant servers aren’t allowed to take your payment card out of your sight. It’s some kind of law. So they bring a little card processing machine to the table, which is convenient and helps with splitting the check.
- It took us some time to realize that “Are you okay?” is said everywhere, and means something like, “Can I help you?” when spoken in a store and “You’re distracting me” when uttered by a tour guide to my sister, who was quietly offering me gloves because we were getting chilly standing in old, dark alleyways.
- Public transportation–buses and the London underground trains–are prompt and frequent, reasonably clean, and inexpensive. The underground, which we took to Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, was fast and fun to ride. The downside was feeling so rushed to get on and off, since our family liked to walk rapidly to and through the station and those automated train doors were indifferent to riders with slower reflexes like my mom and I. Oxford was full of buses trundling up and down the main roads, and they seemed to represent various companies. We realized toward the end of our stay that riding up front on the upper level afforded a great view. We dominated the solemn architecture and crowded sidewalks and were in no danger of getting lost. Yet from up high, it always looked as if the bus was going to clip pedestrians or run them over. With their ease of use, ubiquity, and affordability, buses ended up being my favorite form of transportation, whether for long or short distances.
- London was big, but felt dense. That is, everything seemed crowded together, a contracted version of a US city. Old row houses were everywhere, and there were freeway entrances that looked, not exactly miniature, but scaled-down compared to what I’m used to.
- The city’s economizing on space confirmed my idea of England feeling small, even though there was so much city. But then I was surprised by vast swaths of countryside. You see miles of it from the windows of buses or trains. Then you get on freeways where verdant views continue to separate you from your destination. I started to suspect that England wasn’t that small. The Internet says that its size and population density are comparable to that of New York state.
- The size of the cities border on intimidating. My first impression of Bath was around the train station where we were picked up–there were some charming old buildings and inviting new restaurants. When we visited a few days later, we drove over an Old-Europe-style bridge, with looming antique buildings crowded on a hill across the water. Oxford was not just a compound of old brick institutions for students and a few gawking tourists, as I had imagined. It was huge, dense, mostly very old, and jammed with visitors. We did find a large, bright shopping mall and a decent Thai “street food” restaurant.
- Paper goods were in short supply. Maybe the English don’t believe in generating all this extra waste, or maybe with their population, they just can’t afford to. Or possibly it’s against the law for bathrooms to provide anything other than hand dryers or for restaurant servers to be liberal with their napkins. Whatever it was, I was often in search of something with which to wipe my fingertips. Homes and apartments we rented didn’t offer tissues, and we even had to stock paper towels ourselves in one instance. It made me think about how attached I was to paper plates and other disposable products back home and feel slightly ashamed, even though I tend toward frugality with them.
- There were trash bags along the roads in London, and the refuse made a poor impression, especially when bags were broken open and spilled on the sidewalk. I finally realized that the trash was put out on the walkways for pickup, and refuse collection seemed to present opportunity for even more private enterprise. At one bus stop in the countryside, I saw garbage concentrated all around the bus stop. It looked bad. My guess was that this was another instance of trash bags breaking open, except breakage had happened several times in the area and hadn’t been picked up.
- Ancient artifacts and old architecture abound in England. I was ready to see a few pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries, maybe. But not relics from the 1300s and even before. At Westminster Abbey our first full day in London, I gaped and was overawed. But I didn’t realize my enthusiasm was like that of a visitor who came for Old Faithful in a park pulsing with other natural wonders. n England, evidences of Roman civilization are still around. Medieval-era churches abounded, each with their stained glass windows and respected dead memorialized and buried indoors. Doors everywhere were unique, nothing one could buy at the local building supply store. Doorknobs might be in the middle of the door, and those were newer models.
- I noticed a few homeless people sleeping on the street, but not very many. The parks didn’t seem to draw any homeless. I do seem to remember a panhandler asking me if I could spare change in a very British way.
- There are so many things to see and do, that even with our busy schedule, we only experienced a small fraction of what was out there. We visited Westminster Abbey, went on two London walking tours (Jack the Ripper–I sat that one out–and Dickens/Shakespeare), saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, strolled in the parks near Buckingham Palace, walked around Bath, stayed in an old village in the countryside, toured C.S. Lewis’s home, dined in a dozen pubs, and walked frenetically around Oxford. I appreciated the grassy parks full of trees and bursting with daffodils in every city we visited, and refreshed myself walking in them.
England felt like a rich, deep, old place. If I had to do it again, honestly I would skip the London tour and walk the city looking for plaques. I hope there are plenty commemorating, for instance, the tree that our tour guide said such distinguished fellows as Wordsworth knew and referenced. There certainly was one at the square where William Wallace met his end, and surely the house from the Tudor period indicated by the tour guide had its marker. At the end of our visit, I felt deeper and older, but not so much richer. I was definitely tired, and upon arrival in San Diego, felt like kissing the soil. England had been an adventure, but it was sweet to be back in my home country.