Friday 20/02/15 (Why break with British custom now?)
During the 8-1/2 hour flight across the Atlantic, I watch two movies. One of them is a sci-fi action movie starring Tom Cruise, set in alien- and war-ravaged London. Later that night, unable to sleep because of jetlag, I watch yet another sci-fi film—this one set in an apocalyptic, dragon-scorched London. This is my first time visiting the United Kingdom, and I’m not sure what to expect when I land—either Tom Cruise or a fire-breathing lizard. I don’t know which would be worse.
The plane touches down at Heathrow on Friday morning, 8:45am local time. The first thing I notice is a general, though pleasant and subtle, aroma in the air. Too discrete to be cologne, but certainly not Axe body spray, it’s something more tempered, more mature. I notice it everywhere we go: in the airport, in the restroom, on the shuttle ride, at the car rental site. No sign of dragons or scientologists. I approve.
A while back I read a cautionary tale of a musician who was deported from the UK for visa-related hijinks. I’ve been dreading customs ever since. I’m the guy who gets nervous ordering a coffee at Starbucks. But here we are in the queue, and I’m trying my best not to sweat:
Customs Agent: “Why are you here?” Me: “For pleasure.” Agent: “What do you do?” Me: “Um, I have a landscaping business in Nashville, and I buy and sell books.”
Customs Agent: “Why are you here?” AP: “I am an author, and I teach creative writing.” Agent: “To what ages?” AP: “College students.”
Neither of us is lying when we tell the agent our respective professions: landscaping, buying and selling books, teaching creative writing to college students, and authoring books. The agent approves. We are allowed to enter England.
We collect our luggage and take the twenty-minute shuttle ride to the car rental site. Then we wait almost an hour to get the car as Andrew haggles with the agent over some questionable fees on the bill. The Proprietor saves us £200, which is good news indeed since our goal (besides books) is to break even on the trip. No small task in a familiar land, much less in an unfamiliar one.
I have to repeatedly remind Andrew to get in the other lane as he blithely drives down beautiful hedged-in rural roads into oncoming traffic. Assuming polite British form as if I were born into it, I immediately apologize for being a backseat driver, whereupon AP assures me we will remain friends. It doesn’t take long for our default British accents to kick in, and much of what we say for the rest of the trip is uttered in slices of Cockney or Estuary, and cut with sharp doses of dry humor. We share a lot of laughs throughout the tour, and they are a balm to me.
Not realizing that only damn-fool tourists drive through central London on a weekday, we hurtle past Parliament and Big Ben, cross and re-cross the River Thames, gawk at Buckingham Palace, and stare in wonder at some of the oldest buildings I have ever seen.
After paying a mere £26 for parking near Trafalgar Square, we walk around trying our Yankee best to find a store that sells UK SIM cards for our phones. We luck upon a gigantic Apple store, and learn that they sell SIM cards at a reasonable rate. For the next hour, Andrew works with the confused, though helpful, employee (who happens to hate London) to get the new card to work on his phone.
I don’t hang around for long, instead I follow the beckoning of used bookstores from nearby Charing Cross. I try to look European as I walk alone, making my way down the alley-like streets. Nothing is cheap here, and somehow, by a rare miracle of self-restraint, I leave behind a pristine, jacketed first printing of historian David A. Howarth’s 1986 autobiography, Pursued By A Bear. I’d never before seen or held the book in my hands, but at £35 it’s a price too steep for my wallet, especially this early in the trip. When I rejoin Andrew he reminds me that our odyssey has only just begun. I may find a copy for much less elsewhere – Hay-on-Wye, perhaps?
Taken near Cecil Court—an alleyway of overpriced used books.
It’s nearly four-o’clock. We decide it’s time to get on the road and drive the hour or so to our host home. The parking garage gate won’t lift or let us out, and none of the garage attendants are able to tell us why, even though we show our paid receipt. Several cars queue up behind us. It’s here, in my passenger seat, that I first notice the peculiar (and welcome) British trait of quiet patience and imperturbability. If this same garage scene took place in big city USA, horns would honk, drivers would complain, and gestures of the most unfriendly sort would let us know how terribly we had failed at life. But not the Brits, at least not these. They endure the moment of temporal inconvenience with – get this – silence. No horn honking, no shouts, no fingers, no rage. No dragons in sight. I decide right then and there I am among my people.