Wow.

There are so many people speaking English.

There are so many people that look like me.

There is order to the traffic.

The shops aren’t filthy and there are no flies.

It’s cold.

*     *     *

My ability to form complex thoughts was temporarily debilitated as I arrived in London Heathrow airport wearing pink flipflops, a tank top, and capri pants and couldn’t decide if I was on the right planet or not.

I had the most spectacular 12-hour plane ride that anyone could hope for, with the discovery that wine on international flights is free.

“More, ma’am?” the Sri Lankan flight attendant asked skeptically as he reached for the bottle of Cabernet.

“Don’t mind if I do,” I smiled.

It was such a great flight.  I met a musician at the gate right before boarding, who let me in on the secret of free booze.  I was lamenting about the fact that I hardly ever sleep on long flights.  He suggested whiskey.  I implied budget constraints.  He told me the ways of the wise.

We arranged to sit next to each other, and it was a marvelous decision   I persuaded him to get out his guitar and play, and we ended up having a mini concert of sorts.  A man came by and enthusiastically shook our hands, saying it was some of the best music he’s ever heard.

Jamie, the musician, is really talented.  He has a band, East Road, that is currently dominating my “most played” list.  By the end of the flight, we were old chums and s I crossed over into UK immigration, I waved a forlorn goodbye to my friend who would travel on to his home country, Canada.

Speaking of English immigration, this was my first major culture shock.  Not only did the immigration officer speak English, but he had an eyebrow piercing, and a smile!  Imagine that! A smile!  I could hardly believe it.  And to top it off, he possessed something that is very difficult to find in the US when it comes to people in any kind of position of power: a sense of humor.

“Hey, when you stamp it, could you put it on page 12 please?” I asked.  I only have 3 pages left empty in my passport, and page 12 is in the middle and has been missed time and time again.

“Who says I’m going to stamp your passport?” he retorted.

“Um..”  I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, “I mean, if, you stamp my passport?”

“Ahh, that’s better,” he said with a wink and a smile.  ”Now, give me one good reason I should let you into the UK.”

“Mmm, because… I want to visit?”  I said, like an idiot.

“Hah.  Because you want to.  I guess that’s as good a reason as any.  Here you go,” he said as he thumped down the stamp.

I grabbed my pink passport and started off with a sincere thankyou.  His humor had disarmed me.  I wasn’t sure if I should be nervous or laughing.  If this was the US, there would be no smiles involved.

“Bollocks!” he said, in such a stereotypical English accent that it almost made me giggle, “I don’t know if I stamped page 12 or not.  I was taken by your eyes, and I can’t remember.”

“It’s fine,” I said, and walked off towards customs with a wee grin.

I found that the professionals I met in England had a more chipper spirit and less serious approach to their job than people in the US.  I was surprised by this.  I expected our cultures to be quite similar, like conjoined twins separated years ago, with the same genetically determining characteristics.  But it’s clear the time and space between the US and England have made the two very different, post-surgical separation; England seems like a proper country, with intellectual humor at it’s core.

I loved it.

London is clean and the public  transportation system seems incredible, especially in comparison to Southeast Asian rail systems.  I was amazed by the double-decker red buses, and all the people wearing winter coats and boots and makeup.  I met up with my friend Scott, who is a dear friend I met 5 years ago when he came to surf on my couch in Washington DC.  We became more than just surfer and host; a real friendship developed.  I stayed with Scott for a couple of days in Hackney, London, and he showed me around the city.  This is Scott:

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First, of course, we went to “charity shops,” known in the US as thrift stores, to outfit me for the bitter cold.  But in the coming days, we went to  museums, ate Fish and Chips, and explored an old cemetery that I thought was just lovely.

After London, I headed South to visit another friend in Kent.  See, the only reason I went to England was to see these two friends.  It was so close to my true destination (France) that I couldn’t resist just popping in to say hello.  So I met my friend Sian in London, and she and her boyfriend Ross drove me down to Sheerness, a little island in the Southwest of England.

This is Sian and I:

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Sian’s family took me in and treated me like a princess.  Her mom is one of the most lovely people I’ve ever met.  She cooked an English Roast, which is a typical dinner that is made in English households every Sunday.  She even outfitted me with some warm winter clothing so I would survive the next couple of days and my upcoming trip to Paris.

It was lovely.

I had such a fantastic time in England, although the visit was too short.  The cold was almost unbearable, though, so when it was time to move on to France, I was ready; they say it is much warmer over there.  I’ll be the judge of that.

Waiting for the train to Dover, where I'll catch the ferry to France

Waiting for the train to Dover, where I’ll catch the ferry to France