Monday, June 19, 2006


Some stories and observations of the week I just spent with my family on vacation in England:

We may share a common language, but that doesn't mean our words and phrases are always similar. For instance, an elevator is called a lift, a truck is called a lorry, and there seems to be no word in the UK for air conditioning.

Like their French neighbors, the English stubbornly resist investing in air conditioning, regardless of how hot it gets. The decision was probably made by the same people who refused to serve cold beer or put ice in a glass of soda. They live at room temperature, regardless of whether that temperature rises into the 90s, as it did last week.

The Brits are either completely immune to the heat, or have given up complaining about it. One English guy explained that it only gets really warm for a few months, so why bother? Being a Carrier dealer there must a lonelier job than being the Maytag repairman. The good news is that they don't have nearly as much humidity as we do. The bad news is that, from the hotel room to the tube (subway) to virtually every other place we went, it was sauna time.

Speaking of the tube, we were surprised not to see a lot more security at the stations and on the trains, since it has been less than a year since last summer's terrorist bombings. Apparently, Londoners moved on with their lives very quickly, as we noticed no additional police presence or any security measures that slowed down the flow of people using one of the best mass transit systems in the world.

Like many older cities -- the ones where subways were built and used long before the passenger car became the most common form of transportation -- London is easy to get around by tube and bus. There's no class warfare at play, as everyone of every stature uses them to get around. If not, there are the ubiquitous and not overly pricey black cabs (which have more leg room than some stretch limos), whose drivers can find any destination in London.

But on the street, there's an even bigger difference -- smaller vehicles. In the entire time we were there, I didn't see a single SUV, nor a pickup truck of any kind, even in the English countryside. This was very odd, coming from a nation where the SUV became the suburban gold standard, and the Ford F-150 remains one of the most popular vehicles of all. The reason may be simple -- the price of gas, which hovers around $7.50/gallon.

We took our turn on the road in a rental car, which meant driving on the wrong side of the road. That takes a little getting used to. At first, you're concentrating as hard as you can, giving the task 100% of your attention -- no cell phones, no talking to passengers, just keeping your eye on where you're supposed to be and remembering that the left lane is the slow lane. Then, after 15-20 minutes, you just go with the flow of traffic, thankful that you got a car with an automatic transmission so you don't have to shift gears with your left hand.

I was amazed to see that the British do not use the metric system on their highways. When the speed limit sign said "50," I thought that was 50 kilometers per hour, which I knew equals 30 miles per hour. But that couldn't be the highway speed limit! Then we saw a sign telling us that the next exit was coming up in "1m" and knew that couldn't mean one meter! So for all that fussing we did in the 1970s about refusing to convert to the metric system, here are the Brits using our system or measurement (for distance, at least -- you still buy gas by the liter).

The one thing that truly flaps those unflappable Brits is the World Cup. While we were there, England played its first two games of the tournament, and the entire nation went into a spasm. We were in Liverpool when they played their second game, against Trinidad & Tobago, and were shocked to see the streets literally empty. Everyone was either watching the game at home, or at the pub, or on one of the huge outdoor screens the BBC had set up in some downtown locations. Everything else looked like a ghost town.

We don't have anything that approaches that on a national level. Sure, St. Louisans all paid attention when the Cardinals were in the World Series, but that didn't shut down other parts of the country. Nor did all of America rally behind any of our Olympic teams (the 1980 Miracle On Ice was a bigger deal in the past tense than in the present tense). But for the countries that care about the World Cup, there is nothing more important. Nothing.

I watched some of the end of that second game on TV and saw England score its first goal, breaking a scoreless tie some 84 minutes into the game. From our hotel room, we could hearing the roars and cheers of the England fans in a pub a block away. They went berserk for quite awhile.

What I found most interesting was the reaction of the Trinidad & Tobago players. They looked like the game was over, as if they were thinking, "With the score 1-0, they've amassed such an insurmountable lead, we can never come back and win this thing now, so why bother trying?" They looked more defeated than Michael Dukakis on Election Night 1988.

Or maybe it was the heat.

I'll have more on our trip to Britain over the next day or two, including lots of Beatles stories from London and Liverpool, and the story of my night in a London casino's poker room.