Mr. Chatterbox

By staff July 1, 2003

Editor's Note: This is the time for summer vacations, and-not surprisingly-Mr. Chatterbox got an earlier start on his than most of us. That means we're running one of his classic columns, about an earlier vacation, which originally appeared in November 1993.

With so many Europeans coming over here in droves and getting all those headlines, the inevitable question to me is, of course, what do they want to get away from so bad that they'll spend 10 hours on a plane flying over here and then shell out thousands of dollars a week for a condo with shag carpeting and formica furniture with cigarette burns? If that's their idea of "nice," what must Europe be like?

Well, I decided to find out for myself. Actually, I didn't quite go to Europe. I decided I didn't want to jump in "whole hog," so to speak; I just wanted to get my feet wet. So I went to England. Believe me, there's no better place to get your feet wet than England.

Actually, the weather was pretty good. Except for one day. It poured rain and had gale force winds blowing in off the aptly named North Sea. And you want to know the worst part? The English people were out walking around. They were going about their business like it was just another normal day. Many didn't even carry umbrellas; they just pranced on down to the store (or, more likely, the pub) like nothing the least bit unusual was going on.

Anyway, now there's this barrage of publicity in England, telling people what Florida is like, how to protect themselves, tips on firing and ammunition, etc., so I think it's time we did it the other way around. So here's a list of Things You Should Know before visiting England.

1. People Forced To Ride On Public Transportation. You've never seen so many subways and buses and trains. What at first appears as convenience and efficiency masks a painful truth, however. The fact is they do this because they don't have enough garages. Practically all the buildings are pre-code. They date back to the times when people didn't have horses, much less automobiles, and the net result is public transportation.

2. Death Lurks On Every Tube.

The subway is really very neat and comfortable; it's the security that makes it so nerve-wracking. If you see a "suspicious parcel" you're supposed to report it. Well, after you hear something like that, every parcel becomes suspicious. You can't imagine the amount of time I spent thinking, should I report that parcel?

I had a nervous moment in the British Museum when an alarm went off. Then they told us to hold perfectly still while they closed every door in the museum, shutting us all off into separate rooms. Everybody stood like statues for five minutes, then they told us we could move. I certainly did-right out of there. And at the airport before your flight takes off, you are forced to undergo one-on-one rap sessions with a uniformed person I can only describe as a "security counselor." This person asks you all sorts of highly personal questions about your luggage, things like, Who packed your bags? Who's been carrying your bags? Did anybody give you any presents? Have any foreigners befriended you for no apparent reason? Under normal circumstances I would invent a few friends and presents, just to make me sound more popular; but this time, thank God, I had the sense to keep my big mouth shut.

3. Little In Europe Can't Be Found In Sarasota, Only Bigger And Better.

A perfect example: One day we went to a town called Cambridge, a pleasant little place with a small but well-known liberal arts college, rather like New College. We had some friends there and they gave us the "50-cent tour" during which I was astonished to see cows eating the grass. Right behind the classrooms and dorms they had cows grazing! That's England for you-Land of the Strange Zoning Laws. Anyway, we then went to see an old church-I think it was Episcopalian-that was famous for its-are you sitting down?-Rubens. One Rubens. I didn't have the heart to tell these poor English people that back in Sarasota we had six or seven Rubens, and that we don't go around bragging about them. In fact, we practically ignore them. And frankly, our Rubens are bigger and much, much brighter than theirs. Why, you'd hardly even know they were by the same person.

4. Quaint Village Names Stretch Credulity.

Here's a little test. In the following list of quaint English villages, only one is real. Try and guess which.

a. Whursfore-le-Wear.

b Chipping-On-Toaste.

c. Barff View.

d. Teasford Tew.

e. Fillbin Regis.

Answer: If you guessed c (Barff View) you are absolutely correct. We drove through it. But somehow I was not compelled to seek out the view.

5. Land of Famous Firsts.

One thing in England's favor is that it has started many famous fads, some of which have caught on and spread to our own country. Some of these things are good and some are not so good. Probably the best is the couch. Yes, England invented the couch. Typically, they still have the first one and it hasn't been re-covered. I actually saw it. It's in a very old house called Knole that belongs to some lord and it's known, rather euphemistically, as "the Knole settee." It was a thrill to turn a corner, and-there it was! To me, this was history.

Another famous first I stumbled across was the very first "shambles." I have always been curious about the origin of this particular word, as it is so often applied to my own writing. Well, it turns out that in York, an ancient walled city right near the nuclear power plant, they have the original shambles. It turned out to be an old street, an alleyway, really, twisting and turning in torturous ways, with the buildings pressing in and looking like they're about to fall on top of you. Hmmm. Food for thought.

6. Laws Full Of Loopholes-For the Right People.

Do you realize the Queen doesn't have to wear a seatbelt? It musses her clothes, she says. I say, tough luck, Liz. Buckle up. To me this epitomizes everything that's wrong with England. Over here she'd wear it as an example to the masses. Over there they place a higher priority on not having creases in the Queen's clothing. Believe me, people would understand the creases.

And besides, after having driven in England I can state that something really might happen. Like she might get broadsided by an American tourist driving on the wrong side of the road. Just because she's famous doesn't mean she's immune. Remember when President Ford was hit by that guy delivering pizza? Even Queens and Presidents have accidents.

7. Lack of Violent Crimes Ill-Prepares Visitors To Florida.

British crime is so different from ours they're hard to compare, bu I did notice two rather telling things. First, they had had some sort of prison riot while I was there. As prison riots go it sounded pretty low-key; a mattress was burned and a soda pop machine was overturned, but the media gave it a big play. And you know what they discovered in their investigations and reported as news? That there was "bullying" in prison. I just sat there staring at the TV, thinking what planet are these people from?

And then guess what came on? England's Most Wanted. In format it's just like America's Most Wanted, but that's where the similarity ends. You should have seen these crimes. One guy tried to cash a traveler's check he stole. Another guy robbed a jewelry store and badly frightened an 80-year-old woman. And one guy spied on a girl in the ladies room at the health club and then tried to shove her into a hedge. And these are the most wanted. Yes, I think we can truthfully state that crimes in the two places don't really compare.

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