My summer vacation: a few observations from across the pond

LONDON

I have been in England on vacation, and I don't want to be one of those bores who feels compelled to tell you every detail about every one of his or her trips. But the way I look at it, foreign travel has to generate more interesting material than my usual journeys back and forth to the Hernando County Commission chambers. So here goes:

London is a livelier, more cosmopolitan city than when I visited 30 years ago, at least partly because of its membership in the European Union. There are more tall, modern buildings, more restaurants offering a greater variety of ethnic food, more people of color.

Of course, not everyone likes this, and it seems to me that prejudice, as long as it's framed as defending British culture, is more accepted here than in the United States. I can't tell you how many times I heard the following, clearly untrue statement about London: "You won't hear much English spoken there anymore."

I bet that little of this hostility is expressed directly because British people are polite. I was skeptical about this standard generalization, partly because it is so standard, but I came to believe it really is true.

On our flight to London, the failure of my seat to properly recline drew a huddle of British Airways flight attendants who apologized as though this was a potential international incident and then quickly upgraded my wife and me to business class. Over the next three weeks, I didn't receive even the slightest bump on the street without hearing a sincere "sorry." Every driver on the narrow roads seemed determined to let us pass before we let them. Of course, the roads are very narrow, which, in part, explains these fine manners. It's a crowded place, and it takes some doing to get along.

This also may explain the importance placed on the social tradition of gathering in a pub and sipping amber-colored, cool-but-not-cold "real ale." On earlier visits, it seemed to me that drinking didn't get any better than this. But now — and this is a stunning turnabout — our beer is better. Or at least it tastes better to me. Call me a provincial American, but I missed the hoppy zing of a good microbrew as much I missed free coffee refills.

Our soft drinks are worse, at least worse than their best soft drink, Ribena, a black currant syrup meant to be mixed with water. My kids quickly learned to stick to this and avoid the corrosively acidic British "lemonade." And I found that as an accompaniment to British people's favorite summer pastime — sitting and chatting in immaculately tended, fragrant gardens — a Ribena-and-water almost beats a gin-and-tonic.

One reason people here love sitting outside on sunny days is that there are so few of them, which also means Brits are extreme wimps about hot weather. The arrival of a warm front was a top national news story in our first week here, with bold headlines about the "searing" heat "gripping" the country and ominous warnings about the dangers of dehydration broadcast over loudspeakers in London's subway system. Seemed pretty odd to we Floridians enjoying mild breezes on the balcony of our rented apartment.

Maybe people in the United Kingdom treated this warm spell as the coming of a global warming apocalypse because they actually seem to believe in global warming. You see giant blades of wind turbines slowly rotating on hilltops and in estuaries all over Great Britain. To help stabilize the production of such erratic sources of energy, a power station in Wales pumps water into a massive artificial lake when demand for energy is low and lets it flow back down over turbines when use is at its peak. Brits hang out laundry not because they don't have dryers, but because they regard it as pointless to use them if they don't have to. And they drive sensible, fuel-efficient cars. I saw precisely one pickup truck in three weeks here, a tiny Volkswagen parked in a barnyard. People here presumably need to haul stuff once in a while. They apparently don't feel the need to hog the road and more than their share of fossil fuels by tooling around in Ford F-250s.

Or maybe they just can't afford to because this place is expensive. Even when getting around London on public transportation, avoiding the most overpriced sights and consuming nothing more than prepackaged sandwiches and bottled water, pounds notes vanished from my wallet as if they'd evaporated.

And the price of fuel is downright crippling, about three times as high as in the United States. In fact, people here pay about as much in fuel tax as we pay for fuel. Considering the conservation this encourages, I don't think this is such a bad thing. If the County Commission wants to take up this issue when I get back to Brooksville, I'll really have something interesting to write about.

My summer vacation: a few observations from across the pond 08/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 7:22pm]

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