My fiftieth birthday was this last weekend. After years of
rounding up my age, actually becoming fifty for real was no biggie, at least
emotionally. (And for the record, I don’t feel at all compelled to round up to
55, at least not yet. Needless to say, Mark is relieved.)
To celebrate, Mark took me to London. A few years ago, a reporter was
interviewing us for an article for the newspaper, and during the small talk we
exchanged beforehand, he said, “You must go to Europe, but go before you’re
fifty or you never will.”
Of course I couldn’t let that go, so as the big birthday
approached, more than once I brought up the fact that I was going to be half a
century old and STILL hadn’t travel overseas. Mark’s no fool, and he knew that considering he might have to live
with me for the next fifty, he better take me somewhere or never hear the end of
it. Thus the trip to England. I’ve
always wanted to go someplace with an entirely different culture – different
language, customs and attitudes, but with only five days to get away due to
Mark’s work schedule and my yoga training, London seemed as far as we could go
without spending the bulk of the time on a plane. They may speak English over
there, but at least they have a funny accent and the pound and driving on the
left side of the road offers a pinch of curiosity. I was delighted with the
All of Mark’s relatives live in London or nearby cities. We
spent the first night with his cousin, Laurence, and his new, pregnant wife.
We’ve met before in America and instantly hit it off, so this turned out to be
great fun. If you want insight
into a different culture, the quickest path is to visit the home of a lifetime
resident (and to open a bottle of scotch and let honest banter fly). The next
day, before dropping us off at our hotel in London, he took us to an old
country pub for lunch that was built in the fifteenth century. As you might
imagine, stepping into such a real chunk of history was thrilling for me, so I
wandered around to get a good look at the structure, the rock walls and low
ceilings held up with rustic beams.
I ran my hands along the heavy oak bar and marveled at the door hinges,
handmade by a blacksmith hundreds of years ago. I pictured this pub as it must
have been, standing alone on a small village dirt road half a days’ drive by
carriage out of London, visited by travelers hundreds of years ago. Cool.
I ordered a vegetarian Cheshire pie while Mark had the fish
and chips (and ale, of course.) England is definitely a drinking culture and we
were told more than once that Americans couldn’t drink worth a hoot. Since we
hadn’t the inclination or stomach to keep up beyond a day or two, I can’t argue
The food in England is different, but it certainly explains
my mother-in-law’s bland tastes. Every meal is based on meat and potatoes, and
in the five days we were there, we hardly ever saw a vegetable or salad unless
we special ordered it on the side, and then the vegetables came boiled to a
pulp to assure there wasn’t an ounce of nutrient left. Ah well, when in Rome… I
tried to order something English everywhere we went. I had fish and chips,
spotted dick, treacle, and bangers and mash. I almost ordered rabbit in
London’s oldest pub, renowned for game dishes, but I just couldn’t quite work
up the enthusiasm for it as I pictured the Easter bunny getting his head blown
off. It was Easter Sunday, after all.
For breakfast I ordered the traditional English breakfast,
eggs with beans and sautéed mushrooms, always served with a sausage and a
delicate piece of toast sitting upright in a rack (to assure it comes cold and
dry, I guess). But the hardest
food adjustment for me was living for five days without a good cup of coffee.
In England you take your coffee white or black. White means you’re served a
latte. Black means you get black coffee, but rest your soul if you want
anything other than skim milk to put in it. They don’t serve half and half or cream or even whole milk
with coffee in London, so every cup of coffee (always too weak or too strong)
tastes off and there is no hope of repairing it with a dash of something else.
We finally got desperate enough to step into an American franchise – a
Starbucks. I was convinced we could get regular coffee there, but alas, even
this icon of American culture was run differently in London and all they had to
put in the drink was skim milk. I asked if they had anything else for the
coffee, but the fellow working behind the counter tilted his head like I was asking
for breast milk or something. “What else could you want?” he asked.
OK, so in England, one must stick with tea, but even that is
served strangely in my opinion (with milk and clumps of sugar, watering down
the taste, while I am more a lemon and honey sort of tea drinker). You also don’t drink water in London
because the pipes are so old that it tastes metallic. Everyone pays for bottled
water, usually sparkling and nary an ice cube in sight. Odd, I tell you.
The good news is that no one is fat in London, except the
American tourists, of course. I suppose this is because they have no fast food
except a few American standbys, like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken (all
of which serve very poorly made examples of our traditional junk food). Perhaps
the fact that the regional food is so bland and unappetizing helps too. Heck if
I lived there, I’d never eat and thus be thin (I’d be driven to drink too).
The weather was typical for London. Rain. When it wasn’t
raining, it was gray and misty. I suddenly understood the description of “pasty
complexioned lords” in every Victorian romance novel I’ve ever read. Ah yes, to
live in London is to be a mole. The savvy London raincoats are stylish and all,
but to live without the sun would be difficult for me. For five days I didn’t
I did mind that despite being prepared with all sorts of
converters, my American appliances didn’t work in London. The circuitry in
England, like the plumbing and water pressure, is very weak. This led to what Mark called, “The
great global curling iron disaster.”
I couldn’t blow dry my hair or get the wayward ends to curl under in a
controlled fashion. This made me feel like the ugly American, literally. Ah
well. Let the rain come. Wet hair beats wayward frizz any day.
I was disappointed by how Americanized the city is. 80% of
the TV they watch is American shows, so turn on the tube and you get CSI, and
other crime dramas. Most all the movies in theaters are American shows
currently open here, like Marley and Me or Monsters verses Aliens.
Even the London shows are just copies of the Broadway hits. I swear I expected
it to be the other way around. No where did we run into a cockney accent, if
anything, the gentle British accent seems to be fading, replaced by the flat
notes of American mainstream. Be careful what you let in to influence the
younger generations, I wanted to tell them.
Most of the city seemed to me like New York with an accent,
or like another Boston, which makes sense since all our forefathers came from
London and built their new cities in the image of their old, “civilized” hometown.
The cities are even structured the same. Hyde Park is like Central Park, only
smaller. The Thames is like the Hudson River, only muddier. London Bridge is
like the Brooklyn Bridge, (and for the record, it isn’t falling down) the
underground railroad (the Tube) is just like the New York subway. Mark
maneuvered around in it beautifully. I just followed trusting he could figure
it out, and he did.
But there are things our forefathers didn’t try to reproduce
here – like Westminster Abbey, The palace and royal family or Parliament. These
ancient structures, so ornate and daunting are truly remarkable and give a
glimpse of the world and it’s power structures from long ago. That was fun to witness, despite
the crush of tourists all determined to spend a few moments with history despite
how “disneyesque” it all seems now. In the end, you can get a better view on a
video documentary than in real life, sad to say.
There were other disappointments, like when we stood for
hours to see the changing of the guard and it turned out to be nothing more
than 30 soldiers in red marching by us, pausing inside the gate so the band
could play a song. What song did they play, you might ask. The British Anthem?
Actually, it was Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I kid you not. Mark is
taller than I, so he could see what was going on. I looked at the statues of lions in the square and said, “Doesn’t anyone notice that that’s an American song?
Please tell me there isn’t a tin man standing on guard, or a
scarecrow tap dancing to amuse the crowd.”
“No, just a guy swinging his arm ridiculously high and I’m
happy to report that they all are marching on the correct foot.” (Once a dance
teacher, always a dance teacher.)
Personally, the highlight of the trip for me was the fact
that Mark’s mobile phone, even though he upgraded to a global unit, didn’t work.
I was able to spend time with him “unplugged” for the first time in ages. I have a cross to bear regarding our
culture’s new reliance on cell phones and Internet communications 24-7. There
is nothing ruder than driving with someone else in the car, or sitting with
them in a restaurant and suddenly your guest is answering the phone or sending
a text. It is as if the person is saying, “Something else is more important
than being in your company, so I think I’ll just ignore you and attend to it. ”
Offends me. I’m old fashion that way.
Next on the London highlight list would be speaker’s corner
in London. This is a corner of Hyde Park where they used to allow prisoners a
chance to have their last say before they were hanged. The rules were they
couldn’t say anything negative about the royal family, and they had to be at
least six inches off the ground, so as not to be on British soil before they
had their say. 16,000 people were hanged in one day at this spot. The youngest
was only 8. Can you imagine? Over
the years, the corner was no longer just a place for the condemned. It became a
place for people to air their true feelings about the issues of the times. Now,
on Sundays, people still gather here and anyone standing on a box can voice
their opinions about whatever they want. Americans take for granted the freedom of speech and we are
used to seeing people exercise that right, but the idea of setting aside one specific place, a controlled
environment, for allowing the free speech concept is interesting (historically).
I had to see the famed speaker’s corner!
There was a crowd there when we arrived around noon and
about 5 different men standing on a box to have their say. Most of the
conversations were about religion, just preachers on a soapbox, but this may
have been because it was Easter Sunday.
Still, the crowd wasn’t of a passive nature, and everyone was standing
around arguing and conversing with those on the boxes, sort of like an
intellectual debate free for all. I love it. I walked up to the crowd around one impassioned speaker and
he suddenly pointed to me and shouted,
“You miss, do YOU believe in evolution?” (He was arguing against it
I said, “Absolutely.”
Then, the entire crowds turned, waiting to see what I had to
say. I stood there dumbfounded. I didn’t know what was expected of me. Ee-gad.
“If you are so
certain that YOU have the answers, tell us all how a fly came into being? How
can a fly exist if we all came from one universal amoeba? We are different because God made the
fly. Do you believe in God? If evolution
is true, tell us then how it is possible the fly came into being. Explain a fly!”
he yelled, still pointing at me.
I shrugged and said, “I just got here. I don’t really even
know what this conversation is about….” And the man turned away and pointed to
someone else, diverting everyone’s attention as quickly as he aimed it at me,
and people began arguing the point, laughing and yelling and talking of flies
and God. Mark pulled my arm towards another speaker. In my mind I was thinking, “Wait! I can explain the fly if
you give me a minute.”
Suddenly a man in the crowd stopped and shouted, “I want to
talk about women and sex!” As you can imagine, many heads whipped around, mine
included. “I think action must be
taken against women who do not cook!” He yelled. He was trying to draw a crowd,
but most people chuckled and ignored him, more interested in tossing around
ideas of evolution or religious beliefs than discussing whether or not women
should be forced into the kitchen.
Personally, I would have loved to hear the man’s argument,
but again, Mark took my arm and led me away saying,” I already have a women who
cooks so this is of no interest to me.”
He hustled us along, thinking we really should go catch the bus
for our city tour, so reluctantly, I followed him, but the truth is, I could
have stood around for an hour or more listening to those people shouting what
was on their minds. I was amused, curious, and damn entertained by the entire
concept – especially that this public venue for opinion, outrageous or not, has
survived to this day and age. We
weren’t there long enough to determine if anyone took it as a serious medium
for discussion or if it was just another tourist amusement. I will always
Of course, since then, I keep thinking about that man
pointing a finger at me and asking me to explain a fly. The fact is, I CAN
EXPLAIN A FLY, and if I’d been there any longer, I would have liked to try. Unfortunately,
I was just caught off-guard. I went to speaker’s corner thinking I’d be a
spectator, and so wasn’t prepared to interact. But given a chance, I believe I
could get that jovial, laughing crowd to agree with my opinion once I started
in about natural selection, reproduction, the gene pool, and Darwin’s theory. Let
an American have at ‘em, I say. An impromptu public debate, all in good fun,
would be great entertainment. I’m a cheap date.
If I lived in London, I’d go to speakers corner often, just
to stretch my intellectual muscles and to laugh with others at the audacity of
some people who not only believe some pretty far fetched ideas, but also are
passionate enough to make a public special of themselves over it. Especially in a country where most people are rather proper and reserved – the contrast alone
makes it an interesting cultural spectacle. Like a steam valve for the
repressed proper Englishman.
Anyway, London was lovely; a novel place to go that gave me
an entirely different perspective on the world. We took plenty of pictures, but you will have to wait for them until I have a day to download.
It is easy to romanticize
foreign travel, but in truth, the world is getting smaller all the time and
tourism robs you of what you are really seeking when you go so far, at least
for me. Good to discover. I left
satisfied, not yearning to see Paris or Italy or Timbuktu (at least for
awhile). We loved the trip, but we both agreed that next time we decide to go
someplace far away, we will choose Glacier park before every glacier has
melted. Nature is a jewel far more precious than those on the Royal family’s
crown, after all. If nothing else,
travel reminds you of how fortunate (and spoiled) Americans are. Our open
spaces, diverse choices, and luxurious accommodations and consumer goods cocoon
us, setting the bar unreasonably high regarding what is a normal standard of service
or living. A reality check is always good for your cultural ethics, like tuning
up your car to keep it running smooth. We Americans must appreciate what we
have, and at the same time, be reminded that we have too much and need to stop
the madness. Perspective is important.
I could say more about London and my big birthday adventure,
but I must go do my yoga homework. Tomorrow I return to round three of my
intensive yoga weekends, and due to all the traveling I’ve been doing, I’m not
as prepared as I should be. Shame on me. Ah well. I love all I’m learning about
the eight limbs of yoga (beyond asana). In fact, the ideology makes many of my
core beliefs suddenly fit together.
Do I believe in evolution? Damn straight
Brit boy. Flies be damned. My ever changing life and shifting view of the world
is proof of it.