We just wrapped up 4.5 days in London and are currently on the Eurostar train from London’s St. Pancras station to Gare De Nord in Paris. There were a few travel tidbits that I wanted to document so I thought I’d make a short post. If you’ve never travelled to Europe before, these could be useful observations. If London is old hat for you, you can see what you might take for granted by now.
The first thing I noticed about London was the sheer amount of people moving about. I live in Chicago and figured I was accustomed to bustling crowds, but the streets, buses, and train stations of London are really something else. There are 10 million people there! I found out quickly that if you’re in a crowd, it’s best to just keep moving. If you need to stop for any reason, move away to the side and find a corner to look at your Google map or whatever.
Another thing I found surprising is that it’s hard to find a regular cup of coffee in the U.K. All the coffeeshops have espresso variants, so most of the time I got an americano or just straight espresso which was a fun change. Another popular coffee drink is the ‘flat white’ which (I think) is close to a cafe au lait? There were plenty of Starbucks everywhere- which may have had what Americans think of as ‘regular coffee’, but, alas, I refused to set foot in one. I’m in Europe. I don’t need to go to Starbucks.
We had a really wonderful 4 and a half days in London.I did an open mic at Old Street Records on Sunday. We strolled along the Thames, and stopped into the Tate Modern museum. Maureen bought a first edition Penguin paperback at one of the kiosks on the side of the river. We had a cider and a lager next to the National Theater. Most days we’d have an activity with a time anchor: going out to dinner, or meeting up with Maureen’s sister Martina for lunch near her work. The rest of the time was spent busing and taking Tube rides to the appropriate area a few hours early, then just wandering the streets. I’ll mention here that that London is not based on a grid system like we have in Chicago or New York. There are slanted alleys, and nooks and crannies everywhere ripe for exploration.
Being a Morrissey / Smiths fan, it was also pretty cool to be on streets and buroughs referenced in the songs. Vauxhall, Sloan Square, etc. On that tip, I also found myself on the Bakerloo Line train late one night, which is mentioned in a Thomas Dolby song I like a lot called Silk Pajamas.
As far as language differences, there were only a couple instances that were potentially embarrassing. In UK English (as well as in French) you just ask where the ‘toilet’ is. If you ask for a ‘bathroom’ like you might in the US, it sounds like you want to take a bath. I was in Waterloo station and asked an employee where I could find a washroom, then said ‘water closet’, and finally he asked “are you looking for the toilet?” It was funny, I guess, because we both ended up laughing. So I finally find the thing, and then remember that in public places you often have to pay to use the toilet. It was only 30 pence, and there was a change machine right outside to make things easy.
Last night, I found out we were meeting up at a more posh restaurant in Chelsea, and didn’t have time to go back to the flat where we were staying to put on my dress pants. So Maureen and I hit up a couple thrift shops. Here’s where the second idiomatic laugh comes in. In the UK they use the word ‘trousers’, and when they say ‘pants’ it’s what we call ‘underwear’. I knew this going in, but when we were in the thrift shop and Maureen and I were talking about different pairs of pants on the rack, we made sure to use the word ‘trousers’ so we didn’t sound like complete loons in front of the natives.
Our train just exited the tunnel underneath the English Channel and we are now in the north of France. It’s an hour later than London, and it’s getting dark now at 5:30pm local time (which I gather is about the time you start saying ‘bon soir’ in lieu of ‘bonjour’.) I’m going to wrap up for now. I imagine I’ll have some more comments and stories coming to you soon from Paris! Thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you soon.