We all watched the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and wished we were there – didn’t we? Well, I sure did! It looked so exciting, gleaming, and, well, royal. It’s taken me nearly two years, but I made it to London recently. I used my daughter’s spring break as an excuse to go. Just before traveling, a dear friend gave me a book about London. It contained a quote from Bette Midler, “When it’s 3:00 in New York, it’s still 1938 in London.” I didn’t understand that until I visited. Despite London being an international capital and Europe’s largest city, things are just a bit less up-to-date, shall we say, from the way things are in America, and that’s part of its charm. In case you’re planning a visit there, this guide should prove helpful.
1) Public Restrooms – Be prepared to hike up many flights of stairs anytime you find yourself in need. They will either be located at the tippy top of the building you are occupying, or in the basement, which is accessed by a narrow, twisting, spiral staircase that doesn’t accommodate the length and breadth of most pairs of American-worn shoes. Afterwards, when you’re ready to wash your hands, be forewarned that there will be just a mere trickle of water issuing from the faucet that is either so hot it scalds (we actually saw signs warning of this in some bathrooms), or so cold you’ll wish you’d never left the comfort of the wet and cold outside. And, the faucets may be installed to issue cold water on the left and warm on the right, which caused me to brush my teeth with a really warm toothbrush most nights. There are very few paper towel dispensers, so you must dry your hands with an electric hand dryer, which exerts no more force than an octogenarian blowing on them. Jeans are fine for finishing the job.
2) Hotel rooms – Tiny, the Brits must not vacation more than two at a time, as no (affordable) room has anything larger than a double or two twins, which is why we rented an apartment for our family. This was quite comfy and acceptable, except when it came to…Electricity. The bathroom lights were operated with a pull cord, a fact I didn’t understand at first. I saw the cord, but as it was in the middle of the ceiling I was afraid to pull it. I thought it was one of those emergency cords you see in hospital bathrooms; just pull down hard and voila, a nurse will come running to assist! After some time fumbling around in the dark, I took a chance, pulled it, and discovered the miracle of light. In the rest of the house,we pushed a small golden knob on the wall where a light switch should be and got a little bit of light. We couldn’t plug any appliances into the bathroom outlets as these were only for electric razors. Really. I blow-dried my hair every morning in the kitchen, which worked out just fine as I could see my reflection in the microwave. My daughter tried this with her hair straightener and even with an appropriate adapter, the straightening device’s hot plates melted right off within minutes of plugging it in. There was no such thing as central heat or air conditioning in the apartment, and I’ve heard that most London hotels don’t have a.c. The five nights I spent at 18 Redcliffe Square were the coldest of my life. It wasn’t until the final night that I discovered the purpose of that metal hot plate on the wall…a furnace! There was one luxurious touch in the bathroom, that I believe is standard in most British banos, a towel warmer. Sheer heaven to exit the shower and wrap up in a warm, fluffy towel!
3) Television – Prepare to be unamazed. For many hours of the night, an announcement flashes across the screen, “BBC 1 will resume at 6:00 in the morning.” There aren’t nearly as many channels as there are in America, or there weren’t in our apartment, anyway. Some of the programmes we caught were “Heir Hunters,” which, as the name implies, is a riveting show about searching for the offspring of dead people, and “Get Your Jollies Off,” which, as the name also implies, is a crude, crass comedy involving young people using foul language in silly situations. Amazingly, you can catch an episode of “Nashville,” while you’re on vacation in London. There are early morning newscasts, which I watched daily for the weather forecast. I found it a bit confusing as the weathercaster spoke about the entire U.K., rather than just London, or even England.When they said, “Rainy and cold in the north,” I wasn’t sure if they were talking about Northern Ireland, northern England, or Scotland. Most mornings the forecast was the same, “The weather today will be a little rainy, chilly, windy, yet sunny and pleasant, with rain and cold ahead.” Or, “Today, London will reach a high of 19;” I always forgot about Celsius.
4) Other peculiarities – Although we speak the same language, the Brits have different names for things. Potato chips are “crisps,” french fries are “chips,” cookies are “biscuits,” and elevators are “lifts.” The subway is called “the tube,” and, if you take it you will hear such charming phrases as, “Mind the Gap,” and “Alight here for museums.” I’m sure you’re aware that the British drive from the passenger seat, and on the left side of the road, but you should know that’s how they walk, too. So, if you’re in a crowded tube station, be sure to head down the left hand side of the hallway, rather than the right, or you’ll be swimming upstream against traffic. Wherever you are, listen closely to the people speaking around you. You will undoubtedly hear the languages of the world, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and many, many more.
5) Finally, expect old-fashioned manners and civility by most you encounter. The British are so polite that when we were in their way, they scooted past, apologizing, with a quick, “Sorry,” and a small smile. For the most civil of all experiences, be sure to “take tea” some afternoon. You will travel back in time, enjoying silver teapots filled with hot, aromatic tea, a three-tiered plate overflowing with finger sandwiches, small cakes, and biscuits with jam and clotted cream. Enjoy it leisurely and appreciate this brief encounter with the 1930’s. It will end soon enough and you’ll return to all the hustle and bustle of 21st century America.