Let’s get this out of the way from the very start, the following is intended to be practical advice for holiday makers from the United States to the less than sunny shores of the UK. As such it is, as far as possible, a reflection of the racial mix and the prejudices that exist in the real world, making references to these is not intended to condone them, only to recognise and take them into consideration .
Congratulations, you have decided to spend some time in the United Kingdom, steeped in history and culture, a fellow nation, an ally sharing a common mother tongue and a distant happy neighbour?
You have probably done some research on places you would like to visit, must do’s and it’s perfectly possible that you have also made the effort to do a little practical research on what to expect, how to conduct yourself, let’s face it how not to make a public fool of yourself. Well done, although we (almost) share a language, you’ve recognised a vital fact - for you this will be very much a foreign country.
It’s quite likely that you will be flying in to Heathrow or Gatwick, if you have never visited the UK before then London will probably be very high on the “must do” list.
Like so many other things preparation is the key. So a little word of advice before you set off, about dressing appropriately: We have a climate that can cram three seasons into a single day. You may have sunshine in June, and snow in December, it’s not unheard of for us to have a beautiful sunny day interspersed with violent hail storms and biting winds.
There’s another very good reason to think about what you would like to arrive in. Let’s imagine that you’ve arrived safe and sound, with a numb bum but in fairly good shape. On a tangent here, please try not to be the first to disembark, there really is no point, and if you are the first to make it into the rabbit warren of corridors beyond the gate there will be no indication of where the baggage hall is , and no-one to ask. You’re also going to be spending 2 hours waiting for your bags to arrive, whilst our handlers take a well earned tea-break to get over the exertion of the coffee-break they had 5 minutes ago. You will have plenty of time to ruminate over why there was such a wild rush to get of the ‘plane. But I digress, the real reason that you need to consider dress sense is that, once you clear the passport control queues and collect what remains of your luggage, you will pass through customs, and behind that pane of one way glass lurks Betty.
Betty has been trained specifically to bring horror into the lives of unwitting, inappropriately or gaily dressed travellers. Betty has absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever, she can not smile, all of the nerves necessary to smile have been cauterized. She is waiting like a moribund spider for the signals that mark a deviant, a drug smuggler or the fool with an extra carton of cigarettes –the signs that will vibrate her web and cause her to strike. Her triggers are simple, anything remotely ‘hippy’, scuffed sandals, bandana’s, braided hair. An overabundance of tattoo’s (just wear a long sleeved shirt), or even a particularly vibrant jacket can cause her to pounce.
If you should find yourself confronted by her malignant gaze, concentrate, try not to panic and above all else do exactly what you are told. Betty will not take kindly to any chatter, attempts at humour are to her like the angry chatter of screeching nails on a classroom black board. Listen carefully to what she tells you to do, nod your acquiescence and do no more or less than she asks. These simple rules should mean that you have to spend just a few embarrassing minutes publicly repacking your his and hers thongs, industrial sized vibrator and pile cream
If you don’t well then Betty might decide to make a more thorough examination, and she has rubber gloves, and soaks them in bleach between uses.
Let’s say that you have managed to successfully deploy an air of innocuous invisibility and made it through the gate and into the world outside. Huzzah, welcome to London where the streets are paved with litter and cardboard boxes with people in them!!
You are going to have to force your way through the crowd of gormless idiots who are trying to make some other passengers life easier by holding aloft their name scribbled on a piece of corrugated cardboard: Smith, Green, Narangwe-ne-Kalalanegarwath. Hit them in the shins with your trolley, they’re idiots, they’re in the way and they deserve it.
If you are lucky you will be staying in a hotel of sufficient stature to have it’s own shuttle service. It will take you some time to find it, because the only visible member of airport staff, much as he would like to help you, is actually a Croatian dentist who only arrived in Luton airport this morning.
If not then you will have to make a choice, you are caught between scyla and cheribdis, a rock and a hard place – a taxi or the tube.
The Tube is by far the quickest and least expensive way to get around London. However it’s not necessarily the easiest or most convenient, especially with heavy bags and no knowledge of where your hotel is in relation to your destination station. The tube is full of perils and pitfalls and is a chapter unto itself.
For simple convenience I think I would be tempted to opt for a taxi, it may well cost an arm and a leg, but it will get you in relative safety, conveniently from A to B.
Let’s just take a moment to define taxi here. A legitimate taxi is a black cab, they are very easy to spot resembling a hearse that’s been foreshortened by being reversed into a brick wall. There are unlicensed cabs operating in the airport, they are illegal, but somehow a few still slip through the net. Black cab drivers do not leave their cab. Unlicensed cab drivers skulk around the doorway whispering “taxi?” to would be punters. Don’t do it.
If pressed a very useful phrase is “naff off” (naff orf) – meaning go away. Failing that “Fuck off” is a perfectly acceptable rejoinder (try practicing fack orf, make the r roll). In fact “off” with a flick of the thumb is usually perfectly adequate. This is important, because it is likely that he’s driving a rust bucket that may not survive the journey…..it’s also perfectly possible that he is the Serbian brother in law of the Croatian Dentist who was politely of no bloody use to you a few minutes earlier. He has been in London for 3 days, he has a degree in Organic Chemistry but no earthly idea of the geography of London and will attempt to navigate you to your hotel by using the relative position of the sun, and by asking strangers for directions, who will tell him to “naff orf”.
Pay the money and get in a black cab. Sit back, relax and enjoy the peculiar sensation of being driven around in a biscuit tin with windows. Oh, and be prepared to be assaulted by an hour or more of conversation so excruciatingly tedious and one sided that Samaritan’s have been known to hurl themselves out of the windows of moving cabs into oncoming traffic.
Cabbie’s do the “knowledge”. It’s a life’s work and in all honesty it is something to be enormously proud of. Imagine, a city of 12 million people, intricate patterns of streets and avenues, of crescents and bizarre names (“crutched friars”! really, it’s a tiny little wynde near Tower Bridge) and cabbie’s are supposed to know ALL of them. They are expected to take you unerringly from any point in London to any other, by an economical and expeditious route. They spend literally years pottering around London on mopeds, learning it area by area, street by street.
In order to memorize such an incredible amount of detail cabbies have paid a terrible penalty in terms of every other mental function. Conversational skills are the main victim. Your average cabbie's conversation consists of completely random evidentiary snippets of his daily reading, he doesn’t have the equipment to form an opinion of his own so he’ll simply rattle out a fragment from the sports pages of the daily red top newspaper that he reads, or part of one of the “Dear Deirdre” letters from the problem page. He will happily rattle on about his grandmother’s psoriasis, or his dogs bowel movements, and remember half way through the anecdote that it’s actually the dog that has the skin condition and his grandmother who has sloppy stools.
He has the most arbitrary array of conversational openers, “that pope, he’s a funny geezer ain’t he, they reckon he drinks pints of crème de menthe, no wonder they carry him round in a fackin chair, eh, eh?” By dint of his incredible memory he has read and memorised every Christmas cracker joke known to Christendom, and he thinks they are funny.
Don’t attempt to encourage him, he doesn’t need it and won’t appreciate any help, he is the emperor of tedium and what he says quite literally goes. If you feel that you just can’t take it any more, try holding your breath for a little while, until it hurts actually – don’t, whatever you do, be tempted to practice your new found language skills by telling hime to “naff orf”, or you’ll find yourself standing on the hard shoulder of the M4 in the pissing rain with your luggage.
When you arrive, tip him, around 10% should do, as he is quite adept at accidentally attaching suitcases to his rear bumper and doing a u-turn with them in the street.
To be continued..