Sunday, April 4, 2010
Newcastle Girls Do England (BritFrance Part 1)
My first trip outside the United States happened when I was 25 years old and therefore still able to avail myself of the youth discount on the BritFrance Railpass. My brother was an airline employee and my roommate Julie worked for Holiday Inn, so with discounts on trains, air, and hotels, Julie and I were able to spend two weeks in England and France despite our modest salaries. We hit London, Stratford-on-Avon, Paris, and Nice.
What always bugs me about trips to Europe is that it seems most flights depart around 7pm and arrive around 7am, dumping you into a congested major airport during its busiest time of day, where everything is foreign and weird, after you’ve had virtually no sleep and can’t possibly be expected to do the type of math in your head that is required for currency exchange. It is way too early to check into your hotel, so a nap and a shower are hours away. You’re lucky if you can drop your luggage somewhere while you take in a few sights. Then, you’re so excited to be there that you take a bazillion pictures that eventually you will throw away because you looked so awful in them with your greasy hair and puffy eyes.
Such was the case for us at the Changing of the Guard, which I could barely see because of the crowd, and any time I managed to get up close, a cop would come by on a horse and nearly crush me. But once we got settled in to the Holiday Inn London Mayfair, we ended up having a smashing time, doing most of the things we wanted to do: visiting the Tower of London and Crown Jewels, the British Museum, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus; riding a double-decker bus; taking high tea; and buying Cuban cigars from Harrod’s. (We thought we were so clever hiding them amongst tampons in our suitcases upon returning to the U.S.)
After a few days in London, we took a train to Leamington Spa, where my friend Alex put us up and entertained us for a couple of days. Alex is Scottish; I met him in high school. I LOVE to visit natives of foreign lands! It is so much more relaxing when you don’t have to research everything and worry about how you’re going to get from Point A to Point B. He was kind enough to drive us to nearby Stratford-on-Avon and Oxford, deftly dodging wayward sheep as I freaked out in the passenger (left) side of the car.
Alex lived in a house with four other guys: two English, one Welsh, and a Glaswegian. I was in accent heaven. They took us out for a “Balti” one night, which we were told was Pakistani food. (Basically, you point to an item on the menu, they bring you out a bucket full of goop and a bowl full of rice, you mix the two together, and it’s damn good, whatever the heck it is.)
Then they took us out to a pub and I think were surprised that two chicks – two American chicks – drank dark beer. We ordered Guinness, and they started telling us that there is good Guinness and not so good Guinness, depending on the drinking establishment. A good Guinness, they said, takes forever to settle in the glass. Its head should be thick enough that you could carve your initials into it. Or if you dab the top very lightly with your finger, little peaks should stick up – kind of like meringue.
Guinness wasn’t really Julie’s and my favorite beer, though. At home in Raleigh, we were known as “Newcastle Girls.” That’s what the staff used to call us at the Five-O, the bar where we spent almost every Friday and Saturday night drinking Newcastle Brown Ale. In England, it is sometimes called “the Dog” because blokes will tell their wives they’re going out to walk the dog when they’re really headed down to the pub.
So, Julie and I were dying to have a Newcastle while in England, and our dream came true soon enough. Alex had a girlfriend named Jody, and we met up with her one evening. A relative of hers was celebrating a 50th birthday, so there was a big family gathering in a large rented hall, and there was Newcastle on hand.
Julie and I would have been happy to enjoy our Newkie Browns knowing that we were anywhere at all in England, but we were treated to an extra cultural experience. Jody was English but had a lot of Irish relatives. Pretty soon a band began to play Irish music, and then some ladies started doing traditional dancing. Julie and I just drank it all in along with our ales. I think we were grokking – being acutely aware of the situation and our surroundings, thoroughly enjoying it, having a “Great” British experience.
Unfortunately, as often happens while traveling, I got knackered a bit early. (“Knackered” means tired, not drunk; I learned that on my second trip to England.) Julie was having a pleasant conversation with a guy at our table, while I was practically dozing off. Alex came around and asked if we were ready to go, so we started making motions to leave.
Julie stood up from the table, and the pleasant fellow she’d been chatting with said to her, so matter-of-factly, in that polite British way, “Well, it was nice talkin’ t’ya. I’d luve t’make luve te ya sometime.”
I could hardly believe my ears – didn’t trust them, I was so tired. But Julie replied, “Uh, well, that’ll be kind of difficult, as we’re leaving the country tomorrow.”
We had such a laugh over it in the taxi on the way home. Then we learned from Jody that the guy was Catholic, married, and had recently celebrated his second wedding anniversary!
I thought this vacation could not possibly get any better and almost dreaded our Channel crossing the next day. (Little did I know what adventures awaited us in the City of Love.)