October 17, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: The Wrap-Up

Final Impressions

Sometimes it's funny how things work out.  I always intended to write up a list of final observations about my trip when all the other posts were finished and I was back home.  Instead I fell behind on posting during the trip because I was either too busy or too tired at the time, then after returning home I was simply too preoccupied by other things.  Thus, while I was actively procrastinating and/or goofing off, someone got the jump on me.  An American tourist named Scott Waters decided to detail the differences he observed between American and English culture while on his 4th visit overseas.  His extremely accurate list has since gone viral; you can (and should) read it here.  I'd like to say Mr. Waters' post will teach me to rest on my laurels and to finish my writing when I should, but you and I both know that's not likely to happen any time soon.  My expertise is in smartassery, not punctuality.

So what are some of my final impressions of the United Kingdom, then?  First of all, I agree with many of Mr. Waters' observations:  shops do close entirely too early, dogs are everywhere (something I loved seeing) and are well-behaved, and the staircases are indeed exceptionally narrow--as in too narrow to navigate with a suitcase beside you; you have to drag it behind or walk sideways to allow adequate room.  Either way it's a hassle.  I also agree with Mr. Waters that facecloths/washcloths seem to be non-existent for some inexplicable reason and that the shower controls are often illogical or confusing (and not standard from hotel to hotel).

I do have some observations of my own, however.  For example, I don't entirely understand the death-defying step-down tubs everywhere.  You climb in and are showering essentially two feet off the ground.  That's a little weird and disconcerting at first, but you get used to it.  The real problem occurs when you then have to climb back out of these raised tubs while still wet and slippery.  I don't understand how there aren't elderly hips breaking all across the country every few minutes as older people attempt to navigate these hygienic death traps and arrive safely on the ground.  Are the British just way the hell more coordinated than I am??  (Those of you who know me well can stop laughing at any time.)

Foreign Tall Bathtub of Death

Continuing with the bathroom theme, I was likewise fascinated by the apparent preponderance of removable sprayers in lieu of fixed shower heads.  This seemed infinitely practical and I wish this were as standard practice here in the states.  The only problem is that when holstered they then tend to spray straight down rather than outwards, so you don't always get very good coverage when standing under them.  Still, this seems a small price to pay for their added flexibility.

Meanwhile, I'm convinced the only reason the British try to keep a "stiff upper lip" is because that's the only way they can cope with the stiff lower ends which must surely result from using loo (toilet) rolls with the overall softness of 36 grit sandpaper.  You'd think this rather indelicate tissue would turn everyone there into (literal) hard asses, though if anything the opposite is true.  But then I suppose even sandpapery loo rolls are preferable to the minuscule squares of paper one gets in a public restroom, which are about as effective as trying to wipe with Post-Its (and only slightly less comfortable).

On the other hand, while British toilet tissue leaves much to be desired, their bath towels are a vast improvement over ours--at least in hotels.  It's not that the towels are appreciably softer, necessarily, but rather that they are simply larger.  I find it ironic that the British people, who are on average notably smaller than the typical American, have bath towels more than ample enough to swathe even the largest person while we usually have to settle for hotel towels the size of Barbie's dish rags.  Go figure.  The abundance of oversized towels was wonderful.  Plus how can you not love a country with a towel-warming rack in nearly every bathroom??  Pure decadence right there.

While we're in the vicinity, another thing I really loved on my trip was the bedding--not to be all lurid, or anything.  Most beds I encountered had nothing but a bottom sheet and a big, fluffy comforter or duvet.  There were no top sheets to mess about with or get tangled up in while you slept.  I actually slept the best I have in months while there.  I'm sure part of that was due to the simple exhaustion of constantly walking everywhere, but just the same there was something truly glorious about sliding in under a thick, cozy coverlet every night and burrowing in for a nice, deep sleep.  Small wonder I found it so difficult to pry myself out of such a warm, pleasant nest every morning.

Another thing I really enjoyed in Britain was using the railway system for all my travels.  The trains rocked.  Even with the assorted stops on each trip, I could get almost anywhere in the country in 2-5 hours by train, with the added bonus of being able to enjoy the scenery instead of stressing out over whether or not I was on the correct road.  Most of the time I was able to snag a table and spread out with my laptop or my puzzle books and whatever snack I'd grabbed along the way.  Even when I couldn't get a table, the regular seats had pull-down trays like on airplanes which served almost as well.  The seats were comfortable and often had nearby outlets I could use for recharging my phone.  Each carriage had a luggage rack for larger bags and an overhead rack for backpacks and such.  Several even had storage for the bicycles people use to travel in town.  Most trains also had random signs exhorting passengers to "always carry water when traveling" as though Britrail thought everyone was going to suddenly disintegrate into a puff of dust if not sufficiently hydrated.  Needless to say, I found those signs pretty humorous.

I thoroughly enjoyed riding the trains during my trip.  Admittedly, I originally thought paying nearly $600 for a 2-week rail pass was a bit steep (never mind my largest expenditure by far), but it was worth every penny.  I'm pretty sure I came out around $100 ahead when all was said and done, but even if I hadn't it would still have been totally worth it just for the convenience and travel flexibility alone, something which came in handy more than once.  I highly recommend rail passes when traveling in Europe.

In addition to the rail pass, I also managed the paper money and £1 coins reasonably well, though I found the other coins to be pretty much pointless unless I needed to use a public bathroom where "spending a penny" now costs more like 30p-50p.  I'm not sure when peeing became such an expensive proposition, but there you go (or not, as the case may be).  I will confess that the newest-minted coins are pretty cool, though, because they can be assembled to show the royal heraldry displayed on the back of the £1 coins.

Thanks for showing me this, Dean!

By the time I headed back to Heathrow, I felt like I could almost pass for a native...in my imaginary world, at any rate.  Aside from the dead giveaway accent, I had my little black rucksack and was able to pack away tea and English breakfasts with the best of them.  Heck, I even mastered the coinage, even if it was just before I had to leave.  The only thing I figured I had left to do to become native would be to invest in a gross of black leggings because I saw those freaking things everywhere.  Skirts, boots, and black leggings:  the British woman's uniform, apparently.

I'm sure I could think of other interesting differences between England and the US, but why bother, really?  Intriguing as many of those differences are, they won't be what sticks with me.  What I'll remember most isn't the differences or even the big touristy sites I saw like Stonehenge or the Globe or the assorted castles I visited--amazing though each was in its own right--but rather getting to know the heartbeat of every town by wandering through the streets and the everyday places one doesn't normally see on tours.

I'll remember how much I loved Aberystwyth; I'll remember the gorgeous flowers everywhere, the sound of the waves lapping the shore of the bay, and the melodious lilt of native Welsh speakers.  I'll remember how even though I enjoyed the bustling streets of London and Edinburgh and all those cities had to offer, it was the peaceful serenity of Wales that made me feel as if I'd finally come home at last, as if I truly belonged there.

Welsh beauty.

I'll remember all the people I met, whether Crrrrrrrrrrraig from the Hard Rock Cafe or Stacey with an E or the lovely couple making their first trip to Edinburgh for an anniversary holiday or Sari the Australian from Perth.  Docents and tour guides can be very informative, but you learn far more about a country by listening to its people and learning from their experiences.

Lastly, I'll remember how the best part of my whole trip was the time I got to spend hanging out with new friends, whether I was being escorted to an event or whether we were simply chatting and laughing together.  No matter how epic or breathtaking a given building is, the human connections we make are far more important and enduring than any structure could ever be.  Besides, memories are always better when you have someone with whom to share them, and so I am especially grateful for every moment I was able to enjoy with friends.

As for final impressions, the only thing really left to say is:  Best. Birthday. Trip. EVER!!!

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