“I’ll have a water,” I told my server at a London restaurant. He stared at me as if I were speaking a dialect of Baboon. “Wa-ter,” I repeated. He shook his head, sorry to be dealing with someone so incredibly stupid.
Two more tries, both of us 100% certain the other was a bleeding idiot. Then, he got it. “Oh, woh-tuh!”
If there is one experience so far that sums up the difference between England and the U.S., that almost-fail of a drink order is it. You see, I’ve found most things are similar to back home, but all experiences contain a slight tweak.
There’s the language, which is the “same,” yet totally different. Speed bumps are “humped crossings” (giggle) or “sleeping policeman,” as a speeding taxi driver told us. Pants are underwear, and trousers are pants. (I still haven’t figured out which to wear as an exterior layer.) Courgette is zucchini, aubergine is eggplant, and “the dog’s bollocks” means “that is the shit.” Pudding is dessert, as in “pudding wine” for a sweet finish to a meal. And while we’re talking about food, all lodging features hot water boilers for tea, but never coffee makers.
As you may know, everyone drives on the left side of the road in England. Easy enough, right? Well, this is terrifying on a bike and makes me feel hunted at traffic intersections. I carefully look both ways, but fully expect a vehicle to drop out of the sky and crush me nonetheless. Roundabouts replace stop sign intersections and act as slingshots for the vehicles that gun through them like rocket ships trying to escape a planet’s pull.
Away from cities, bike lanes and the national cycling network make for quiet, scenic riding. Compared to touring in the U.S., equivalent mileage takes much longer here. In the States, we might follow one or two quiet highways all day, which allowed for consistent pedaling. Route finding is tougher here, with dozens of tricky turns to navigate. Beyond that, the riding is slower through gated fields, bumpy canal walkways with ancient bridges, and gravel paths in the middle of nowhere. It’s a shift in mentality to ride fewer miles, but we’re handling it nicely so far.
Slightly random, but I am impressed by the ADA accessibility. Most toilets (as bathrooms are called) are designed to accommodate wheelchairs, with low sinks and plentiful grab handles. Hand dryers also replace paper towels. It’s as if the country is designed for the least physically capable. Perhaps I’m reading into it, but to me that’s a representation of England’s willingness to take care of society’s fringes, whether through welfare, medical care, or something as simple as a handle to assist getting off the can.
Tipping is also different. It’s rarely done, and then only at nice restaurants of the type we aren’t allowed to patronize in full spandex cycling garb. I think the lack of tips explains why bartenders will kick people out at exactly closing time. A British woman told us that servers and salespeople in the U.S. felt overly saccharine and helpful; to us, the distant, pre-occupied employees seem almost rude. I should also point out that tipping is unrelated to, “no fly tipping,” which means “don’t dump your junky furniture in this field.” (In the U.S., the sign would say “no illegal dumping.”)
People still live in houses. Except here in England, many residences are OLD. Like, built-800-years-ago old. People who visit the U.S. marvel at the shiny, big, and new; we are struck by the quaint and ancient. Pedaling along country lanes past stone fences laid centuries ago, bouncing over cobblestones in a tiny village, or enjoying a chai in a market square (every city we’ve seen has a walking-only central shopping district), we are struck by how present history is here versus covered by “progress.” Back home on the west coast, old is 120 years. Here, that’s scarcely a blip on time’s fickle radar. When a gravestone laments the death of someone who died from The Black Plague, that is old.
It feels good to be bike touring! Assembling the trip and traveling abroad was exhausting, but jet lag’s gloomy mist has cleared and our brain’s are working again. I am quite relaxed compared to last year when we pushed hard on the bikes and threw down mileage every day. We smile and laugh at town names like “Leighton Buzzard” or “Heath and Reach” and take each day as a fresh adventure. Less mileage means the slower going is fine, a nice treat.
In fact, we decided to kick back for an impromptu birthday stop today at That Amazing Place, a 1000 year-old monastery turned B&B. I could wax poetic about this divine location for a full paragraph, but suffice to say it features both a custom-built obstacle course AND complimentary wine refills while relaxing in the hot tub with a view of the English countryside. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my 33rd birthday! (Unfortunately, I missed the obstacle course record by a bit. I must be getting old.)
In two days, we’ll roll the bikes aboard a night ferry on England’s east coast. The next morning, we’ll wake up in Holland and wheel south toward Belgium. And that’s what makes Europe the dog’s bollocks: each country is a short hop (or pedal) away, yet represents a new language, fresh customs, and a totally different experience. I may continue to have issues ordering drinks, but at least we’ll be back on the right (excuse me, correct) side of road soon.