There’s a scene in the old European Family Vacation movie where Chevy Chase rams into a car while driving through England on the wrong side of the road and an old British man gets out and, instead of being furious and cursing him, jovially says he was done a favor because the car was old anyway, and he thanks Chevy Chase for destroying it to the point that he will be able to buy a new one. Until my visit to the UK, I never realized why this was funny, but it’s true, the British are unfailingly polite. Even the announcements on the train are polite, “Mind the gap,” one will say so you don’t step into the eight inch space between the train and the platform. “Last stop, Cockfosters,” politely, with nary a snicker. And when my husband, in a rare fit of indecision, got hung up in the door while trying to decide if we were at the right station, the kindest, most non-judgmental voice said mildly, “Someone is interfering with the closing of the door.” The train door itself was not so kind and left rubber track marks on the side of Kevin’s face and ear, but the announcement was polite.
My daughter Megan has immersed herself in this kinder, gentler culture. Before I place something in the recycling bag, to be picked up outside her door, I am to rinse it or shake out the crumbs. In other words, make sure the garbage is clean so as not to offend the handlers. (There are no trash cans on the street due to bombings that occurred here in the past.) Megan’s flat, in the heart of a busy Chelsea neighborhood, is noisy with traffic, but absent of horns and shouts from the drivers. Even emergency sirens are only used in bursts to get through traffic, then politely turned off. On the street are painted reminders to “Look Left” or “Look Right,” as it would not be proper to step in front of an unexpected vehicle. If you happen to be in a museum at closing time, there is no obnoxious loud speaker announcement, no “five minutes to closing,” just a guard who waits patiently at the door until people move on.
Restaurant service is quite different from home. Wait staff are paid normal wages and do not rely on tips. Though restaurants will suggest a 12% service charge which is printed on the bill, it isn’t mandatory, and you are not expected to leave anything more than that. One waitress asked me to pay up front or at least hand over my credit card until the meal came, but she said it so politely that I paid without question. In London, you will not be hovered over. No “Hi, I’m Bambi, and I will be your server today!” No fake intimacy with the Brits. One day last week, I finished the book I was reading, an advanced reader’s copy of the new Mitford book by Jan Karon, while
eating lunch at a café. I asked my waitress if she would like it, and she enthusiastically accepted, thanked me several times and said she would read it straightaway. She was fair-skinned with auburn hair, a pretty girl in her twenties, and she didn’t tell me her name. I wished I’d had a FoxTale bookmark to put inside, but then decided that might have been considered too forward. The American tendency to act with the expectation of return is diminished here, and it’s refreshing.
Yesterday I visited John Sandoe (Books) Ltd, a pleasant walk from Megan’s flat down King’s Road. It was a beautiful little store on three levels with creaky wood floors and narrow staircases. Once again, there was no immediate interaction when I came in, but my request for information about how the store was laid out was answered in full, and the clerk went so far as to put a book in my hands when he saw me looking over the titles of Haruki Murakami. While I browsed, an older gentleman came in seeking a recommendation for a gift, and the clerk—a young man in his twenties—was once again polite and helpful. The older Brit was clearly a regular customer, as there was conversation about putting the purchase on his account and talk of ordering another book. “Can you ring me up when it comes in,” he asked. But of course. Like in the states, booksellers in London order from wholesalers to meet special orders, and the turnaround time was just a matter of days. After a couple hours of leisurely browsing, I purchased The Hunting of The Snark, An Agony in Eight Fits, by Lewis Carroll, a beautiful little hardcover book for my new Brit Lit Shelf and Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (the British version.)
Because we have tickets for The Comedy of Errors at the Globe, l wanted a small version to refresh my knowledge, but John Sandoe was out of it. So was the next bookstore I tried (perhaps all the ticketholders had the same idea,) so I reluctantly tried Waterstone Books, the London equivalent to a Barnes and Noble. In fact, it was laid out exactly like a chain store in the U.S. with “Buy One, Get One Half Off” books for many popular titles. Among them was our friend Tom Franklin again, but this time A Tilted World was categorized as New Crime. Jamie Mason’s Three Graves Full was there too. Still, no copy of The Comedy of Errors was to be found, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything else at a chain store.
Along the way I discovered a wonderful place, Rococo Chocolates where I sampled passion fruit crème chocolate, a salted caramel and—my favorite—rose crème chocolate. To die for, and shop was so European and wonderful
. Just down the road, I stopped into an old fashioned stationery shop which had all manner of paper and journals and cards and things to write on. I also found a rubber stamp shop with Stampington magazines and thousands
of stamps and ink pads of everything imaginable, perfect for art journaling. But my favorite place yesterday (non-bookstore retail) was Green and Stone, an old world art shop with paints and inks and art desks and ephemera, enough to make Karen Schwettman weep with passion.
With all my travels, I didn’t make it to Victoria and Albert Museum, so off I go again today. The charm of London is what you find on the way to where you thought you were going.