The following is the start of a new series of guest posts – have you visited Britain for the first time and want to share your journey and experiences? Please do contact Blimey! to see YOUR story here.
Carrie Marshall: I can’t remember when I first became an Anglophile. Maybe it was seeing Colin Firth (wait. I mean, Mr. Darcy) and his beautiful house at Pemberley in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice so many years ago. Maybe it was Shakespeare’s poetry, English gardens or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or Earl Grey tea. All I know is I have had a love affair with all things British for many, many years now.
The only thing was I had never actually been there. I was living vicariously through documentaries and those who are actually from or had stepped foot on British soil and had shared their experiences with me. That is, until one day last October; the very same day the biggest storm in a decade hit London on October 27, 2013. This trip all came about because of a song. It’s a unique story and an explanation will be forthcoming, but for now instead of waxing poetic about the fabulous places to visit in this vibrant, historically and artistically rich, inspiring city, here’s some first impressions of some differences we Americans and Brit’s may take for granted:
1 – Roads in England seem really small and squashy.
It’s a miracle cars can fit. As my husband and fellow first-timer to London said, “There seem to be sections of the road for bikes, dogs, cats, pedestrians and then finally the cars, which all come from every direction.” I personally am a big fan of the commuting bicycles with baskets on them. They look like they belonged on a quaint road in the countryside with a picnic basket and flowers strapped to the back. However, Londoners seem quite adept at maneuvering the streets of the city on them as well. I watched one cyclist in awe as she rode in the center of the street, cutting of other automotive drivers with the ease of a NYC cab driver, traffic be damned. However in NYC, she’d be run over. London drivers seem very patient in sharing the road with these two-wheeled, basket commuters. I didn’t hear one car honk at her.
2 – They drive on the wrong side of the road.
Speaking of roads, it took us all week to finally remember which way to look when crossing the street because, of course, they drive on the wrong side there. Thankfully London is very thoughtful (or got tired of all the emergency assistance needed for visitors struck by a vehicle or basket-clad bicycle) because they paint an arrow on the actual road telling you which way to look for cars. How convenient and thoughtful.
3 – The Food is Fabulous!
I was prepared by some of my American friends to expect bland, boring cuisine because the English only live on fish and chips without any seasoning. I was tempted to pack spices in my suitcase, but thought better of it. Needless to say, my American friends were very wrong. The food in London was fabulous!! There was such an array of ethnic variety (the Indian food was AMAZING) and we ate at a different British pub every night. I could live on pasties and shepherd’s pie. The fish and chips weren’t bad either. 😉
4 – Dairy products are very different.
I never knew there were so many types of cream on the planet: single cream, double cream, soured cream (um…tempting title, but no thanks); the refrigerated aisle at the grocery seemed to wrap around the entire store. I was just looking for half and half, but apparently the endless dairy aisle didn’t have that. I took a risk and bought single cream for my coffee and found that it turns it into a sort of coffee cream dessert, if anyone else wants to try it. I’m sure the fat content is ridiculous, but to this American girl it tasted like heaven. (It should also be noted that milk in your coffee is NOT the same thing as cream and should not be attempted.) While I’m on the subject, cheese and butter and chocolate taste different in England too. Must be because the cows eat greener grass or something. Or they put single cream in it.
5 – Public restrooms are less public.
Restrooms, or toilets as you British call them, are the best I’ve ever, um, experienced (and how appropriate is it for me to bring this up right after talking about dairy?). But I really wish that whomever makes American restroom stalls would take a trip to Britain to see how it’s done. There’s no gap in the stall! No one can peek in or under to see if you’re almost done. No one can barge in because they’re too rude to knock. The locks hold fast. Ingenious. If you ever need to escape the London crowds, just visit a public toilet stall and you have a nice, clean place all to yourself.
6 – Speaking of gaps, why say “Watch your step” when you can say, “Mind the gap”?
Best phrase ever. The Underground, Tube, subway or whatever you’d like to call it, is the best public transportation system I’ve ever experienced. We could get anywhere easily and conveniently. It also saved us from having to drive on the wrong side of the road or be brave enough to ride a basket-clad bike in traffic with the natives. Fabulous.
7 – Tipping isn’t mandatory.
Apparently it’s not the custom to tip 10% to 20% in England for your waiters, cab drivers, and other service providers as is expected in America. We didn’t learn this until the last day of our 8-day stay there. All that time I was surprised at how effusive the waiters we had were after we paid for our meals, what with hearing about British reserve and all. I also think we may have inadvertently paid for our cab driver’s second home. Next trip I plan to be much stingier, so that I fit in with the locals.
8 – Talking to strangers isn’t done.
Apparently this is not typical in England either. I learned this from an elderly British gentleman who sat at the end of our table at a busy outdoor café. This was after I had a lengthy conversation with him. Seats were scarce and people were sharing tables. I figured this must be a British thing, so when this man sat down at ours (it seemed rude not to acknowledge his presence), I introduced myself.
After our meal the waitress thought we were one party and brought one check instead of two. I think he was embarrassed to be caught being so chatty with an American stranger. To save face, he told me that this normally never happens and that I should thank Tony Blair for the fact that he spoke with me at all. It was Tony who first encouraged Brits to try to be friendly to Americans. So thanks, Tony! Because of you, a kindly British gentleman told me all about which floors to shop at Harrods and how to properly tip a waiter without funding their vacation home. I think the cultural divide got a little bit smaller that day.
I would need to write a book to document all my impressions and experiences of my first and cherished trip to London. But I mentioned at the beginning of my ramblings that this trip all came about because of a song. (not for a song, of which there is a big difference.) So I conclude by telling you how I finally managed to get my butt ( I mean, bum) across the pond.
My husband and I stayed at a vacation flat at the top of Tower Hill at 12 Trinity Square. I had written a song with that same title a year earlier. It wasn’t a coincidence; my friend owns this flat. As it happened, we were chatting about London on Facebook one day, when he told me all about his place. As a performing songwriter, I spend way too much time in my head conjuring up lyrics, melodies and stories. Once he told me the address, all I could think of was the only other address in London that I knew of: 221B Baker St.
Visions of being as cool as Sir Conan Doyle danced in my head and I wrote a song that week about 12 Trinity Square. It’s sort of a historical, locational treasure hunt hidden within a lyrical story, featuring places within a five-minute radius of Trinity Square. I’m sure Sherlock Holmes would’ve noticed my clues right away (and not found me clever at all), but I had fun writing it. A year later I found myself visiting all those sites I had written about. My Anglophile dreams came true, but also only further whetted my appetite to go back. I suppose I’ll need to write songs about every address I plan to visit in England. I’d better get cracking. The game is afoot!