Writing about a new destination is easy when you are visiting a place that is truly foreign in language, custom, and culture. Los Angeles may have its Watts Tower, but it is a completely different experience from seeing the mysterious and magical temples of Bagan. So what is there to say about visiting our mother country, from which so much of America's history and attitudes was born? Well, you have to look carefully for any differences along the way, no matter how subtle they may be, and carefully collect them so that, at the end of your trip, you will have memories of actually having left home.
First, and literally as a matter of survival, is noticing the different side of the street on which one is supposed to drive. Of course, the first thing you must learn is to look to the right when stepping off the curb. This is simple in concept, however we have over 120 years of combined habit that reflexively makes us look to the left. To compensate for this, we look to the right, then the left out of habit, then to the right again since we have just been looking to the left and it's to the right where the real danger is, then to the left again because we just don't trust this whole looking to the right thing, then back again to the right. . . . We eventually make it half-way across the street looking like bobbleheads when we have another habit to avoid, which is looking to the right when halfway across the street. Finally we arrive on the opposite side of the street with only mild whiplash and PTSD, but still wary of future crossings, knowing that all bets are off when one-way streets are involved or when you are crossing at roundabouts which the English sometimes call "circuses". And, "circus" is indeed an apt term for these scary traffic rotaries which you find at almost every crossroads instead of what we consider the safer option of intersections with traffic lights. In fact, the United Kingdom has more of these roundabouts as a proportion of the road than any other country in the world.
Another difference, but one that is becoming less so everyday, is kamikaze bicyclists who think there should be no reason to slow down when entering areas heavily congested with traffic and pedestrians. We watch as cyclists pump their pedals furiously as if they were practicing for the Tour de France, sailing through pedestrian walkways frightening small children and even hitting an aging tourist who had neglected to look to the right (Bill). Hopefully, this is not a harbinger of future bicycling etiquette in our country, though it seems to be trending that way.
Then there is the matter of toilets. Unlike much of the US, it seems to be assumed here that people will want to relieve themselves, and that it might be a good idea to provide places where they can do so. Public toilets? Yes! And on top of that, they are well marked and usually cleaner than our gas station toilets. Two weeks into our trip, the only time we have been lacking adequate facilities has been while shopping on Portobello Road, and even there it was little challenge, with store owners willing to oblige, and one public automated toilet that Bill used, although it went into a self-cleaning mode while he was using it, spraying him with water in the process.
Then there are the cows. Within the city limits of Cambridge, cows graze freely on bucolic green fields around the town. However, it isn't like India where they freely mingle with people on the sidewalks. Like most English citizens, the cows are very well mannered and seem to be placed there solely with the intention of creating a scenic and idyllic peaceful setting. At any rate, these are city cows, keeping to themselves, something that we do not have in Los Angeles!
Prosecco. People here seem to have unusually great enthusiasm for this sparkling beverage, with it being highlighted on menus and featured on happy hour chalk boards everywhere throughout the country. We haven't been tempted to try it since Bill enjoys sampling the draft ales available in the pubs and Ellen has discovered that she likes the draft hard ciders. At some pubs, they seem to have almost as many kinds of cider on tap as they do beers, and they come in a wide variety of flavors, as we discovered after a cider taste-testing one night at a Thai pub. (Yes, an English pub in the Cotswolds that only served Thai food, and good Thai food at that, was another interesting discovery.) Midway through our trip, Bill switches to draft hard cider as his beverage of choice since many of the ales go overboard on hops and house wine is generally not a reliable option in the UK.
Social media. Sure, everyone is aware of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram in the UK, but for some (refreshing) reason, it doesn't seem to be the all-consuming preoccupation of people here. In fact, we even met some under the age of 40 who don't even have a Facebook account! Yet, we don't feel like we are living among some backwards tribe in the remotest jungles of the Amazon. Instead, a lot of people seem to get their social interaction in the local pubs. Though we peeked in the windows of a few pubs where there appeared to be only a few lost souls hunched over their drinks and muttering to themselves, those pubs that we did venture into were warmly welcoming, friendly, and lively. We can't think of anything comparable in the US except for perhaps the mythical bar in the TV show Cheers. The reality of most bars in the US is that they do not offer the kind of social intercourse nor the welcoming and cosy atmosphere that the pubs do, and generally the beers are far less drinkable.
Fruit trees. It is almost heartbreaking to see so many apple and pear trees so heavily laden with ripe fruit and nobody bothering to pick them. Perhaps they are just too overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of it all. The same goes for the ripe blackberries, which we can envision going into pies and scones, but that sit untouched in ripe clumps alongside every road and trail in England. Hardly a day goes by that we don't forage for these delicious berries even on our city walks. Meanwhile, the sight of apples falling everywhere along the roadside makes us turn to the pubs for more cider as we do our part to consume as much of the crop as we can in our limited amount of time here.
Rules. Though the bicyclists in London appeared to be unruly, it is really the situation that determines the choice between blind obedience and anarchistic behavior. One time, very late at night as we walked to our B&B from the Cambridge city center, we came to an intersection with a no-crossing light on. As we approached it from about 100 feet away, we observed three bicyclists waiting at the intersection with no cars in sight in any direction for as far as the eye could see. When we got to the intersection, we waited with them for about half a minute, wondering what was supposed to happen next, before we crossed the road while they continued to wait. No cars. No pedestrians. There were just the five of us, waiting all alone in silence at this crosswalk in the middle of the night. When the light changed, they finally moved on. Apparently, that was all that they were waiting for. It seems the English do not consider bending the rules occasionally, not even on a dark quiet night.
Ditto, queues. The English are amazingly great at queueing up when the situation calls for waiting in a line. No one, we mean absolutely no one, would even think of cutting into a line or crowding or pushing each other while waiting. America could sure use some tutoring in this polite etiquette!
Gardens. At an arboretum shop, we wander through aisles of seeds, bulbs, plants, wellington boots, and hoes in what seems like a Costco of home gardening supplies. Everywhere we visit, there are gorgeous gardens in every yard, filled with every color of bloom imaginable as well as a wide variety of plants we have never seen before. Though we never actually see anyone out there weeding, these home gardens all seem as tidy as can be. We would be jealous, but on the other hand, to maintain gardens like these would not only require a lot of hard work but probably a water bill triple of what we are currently paying in arid Los Angeles. At night, we gripe about the frigid wind-blown rain, but in the morning when the sun shines on those spectacular blooms, we readily appreciate the wet climate.
Dogs. Is there a law in England that each household must come with a dog? Sometimes it seems that way. One thing that is certain is that the Brits dote on their canine pets. Cats seem to be around as well, but clearly they take second place to the dog here.
Weather forecast terminology. Sunny with scattered clouds means overcast and rainy. Occasional showers means icy downpours all day. It rains almost daily for at least several hours each day during our 5 week trip around the UK and Ireland, even when no precipitation is in the forecast. No wonder the Hydrangea thrive here.