Walking alone through London I realize that I don’t have to be on the offensive against harassment—it’s ok to admire the scenery, to stop and study my map. I approach euphoria while walking through Hyde Park among the daffodils, roller-bladers, and couples strolling hand-in-hand; I sit and drink coffee next to two little old ladies who use “fancy” as a verb. As I pass Buckingham Palace the sun breaks through the clouds and a double rainbow frames the London Eye. Even the rain in this country is polite.
At Stonehendge Josh, Cory, Robin (Cory’s dad) and I receive a quick introduction to the secret of British tourism—being able to appreciate very, very old things in the freezing wind and rain. I note the incongruous prevalence of ice cream stands at outdoor attractions fated to such weather. At the baths in Bath, Cory and I marvel over a still-working 2000-year-old drain. I drink my first Dr. Pepper in 18 months and enjoy seeing Mini Coopers in their natural environment. Sheffield is a mess of one-way streets that all lead past the same McDonald’s instead of to a hotel.
Josh and Robin take turns driving, as I’m too young and Cory prefers sandwich duty. Robin only drives on the wrong side of the road once, and Josh’s “shortcuts” eventually work out for the best. On our first day in Scotland we drive through sun, rain, sleet, and snow. The car’s thermometer starts blinking at 3°C to indicate a danger of ice.
My first B&B breakfast includes four different types of animal product. I want to hug the cook.
In Aberdeen we discover that Scottish clans have diversified from plaid kilts to plaid scarves, plaid hats, plaid ties, plaid bags, plaid blankets, plaid notebooks, clan crests, clan whiskies, and clan whisky glasses. And toy sheep.
We pass through satisfactorily bleak highlands and into satisfactorily snow-capped mountains. Nessie fails to make an appearance at Loch Ness, but the sheep are capable of grazing on near-vertical slopes. Signs are in both English and Gaelic, and Cory realizes she has at last found her people after we see towns named Croy, Corry, and Coroy. I realize I’ve at last found my people when we pass a bay named Loch Snizort.
Everything up here is extra furry—cows, sheep, even the rocks. The lambs look like Senegalese lambs wearing snowsuits. The hikers we pass should be wearing snowsuits—people seem a bit hard-up for fun in this country.
Lamb & mint flavor crisps list “lamb powder” as an ingredient. Menu options at one castle cafe include “pork faggot” and “clotted cream.” Cans of “mushy peas” are stocked near the baked beans section at Tesco.
On a crowded train to Chester, the woman sitting next to me leans over to say, “I’m going to sit over there, it’s nothing personal” before moving across the aisle to newly-vacated seats. A tiny white dog runs across a field as we pass, chasing the train.
Most Chester museums subscribe to the mannequin and motion activated speakers theory of guided tours, which takes some getting used to. One includes guess-the-smell boxes. The local history museum shows a video that concludes in the year 3000, when Chester will be covered by an “energy dome” and serve as a hub for interstellar tourism.
Prague, despite being overrun with tourists (especially rowdy groups of singing Germans), is everything I had built it up to be in my mind. Winding cobblestone streets lined with stunning architecture, tiny bookstores, and restaurants built in old catacombs—lingering traces of communism on old postage stamps and how meat portions are listed by weight on menus. It’s a city for Jeff Buckley and bottles of red wine.
There are four different languages on TV and a silent Buster Keaton movie with the title cards subtitled in Czech. English is the default for all tourist-related transactions, and restaurants offer English menus, though translations are often just a bit off—”decoffinated coffee,” for example.
Each night we walk across the Charles Bridge, lined with statues of saints and peopled with street musicians and beggars kneeling with their foreheads to the stones, holding their hats out for coins. I pick out my future apartment, overlooking the river.
Back in Britain, we go to see Andrew’s family in Dorset for Easter. The scenery is too perfect: rolling green hills dotted with fluffy white sheep, thatched-roof cottages and stone-wall-lined roads quaint enough to induce seizures. Along the coast we visit an 800-year-old stone chapel whose walls are etched with graffiti from the 17th century.
On my last night, in London, Suzanne and I see a movie, eat Chinese food, and finish with tea and dessert at an ice cream shop. I agree with how Cory described her trip back to the US: reassuring. There still exists a place that is well-ordered and clean, where most things function as they were designed to. The water out of the taps is potable, the sandwiches come pre-wrapped and pre-sliced, and supermarket employees will seem genuinely dismayed that they don’t stock cornmeal when you want to make cornbread.
Best sign alterations:
Use Pub ic Crossing
Work Zone ow
Best real signs:
! Red squirrels
Keep your distance
(Posted after highway work zones) Sorry for the delay
Best town name (beating out a long list of unpronounceable Welsh towns):
Best British term:
(for what Americans call “moonwalks“) Bouncy castles