I first arrived in London at about eight thirty on a winter morning, extremely tired after a frantic day of packing everything I might need for a long journey followed by a subsequent celebration with friends and relatives at one of San Francisco’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants. Hours later, filled with hope and some anxiety, I boarded a jet for parts and people completely unknown to me.
The trip of a lifetime for an impressionable youth started inauspiciously enough. From the airport I phoned a local hotel only to find that the attendant could no more understand me than I could understand her. Two countries separated by a common language indeed. It’s not so much the words as their inflection or their slightly different usage that throws one off and takes some getting used to. Then, when the hotel sent a van for me, I proceeded to climb into driver’s seat much to the chauffeur’s amusement. "Wrong side, mate!"
At the hotel’s restaurant I found that ham and eggs were called gammon and egg, singular. And that’s just what I got. One egg and a piece of ham. I went back for seconds and the waitress gave me a strange look. These Yanks, she must have thought, so spoiled.
After twelve hours of rest, I was eager to explore my new surroundings. I walked from the hotel, which was large and very modern, much like those in the U.S., except that it was staffed mostly by young and pretty, miniskirted women, which caused me to remain there an extra day. But that’s another story. Anyway, I walked down a wooded path, past a rushing creek forded by a mossy old stone bridge, unlike any I’d ever seen in California. Beyond it I came upon my first English Village: A group of ancient cottages with thick, wavy walls, weathered external beams, thatched roofs and deeply recessed windows made of small diamond-shaped panes. They were homes clearly built back around the time of Shakespeare yet so neat and well kept that they looked new and made me wonder if I had traveled back in time. I fully expected to be greeted by a knight in armor atop his favorite steed. This was Disneyland made real and the back lot of ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ rolled into one.
The ensuing two years, during which I often drove out on to the wrong side of the road, would become among the most memorable of my life. They were filled with discovery, adventure and delight if sometimes also tinged with heartache and disappointment. Up until then I had benefitted often from being bilingual and bicultural, which not only enhanced my vocabulary but also my perspective on things, giving me two vantage points from which to consider most matters. It’s very hard to be narrow minded when you are bicultural. On that journey, a third culture and perspective pointed me on the road toward a maturity that adulthood doesn’t automatically provide.
My love affair with England began back then, and even much later when cracks in the facade began to appear, not so much on the architecture as on a society hurtling towards an overrated modernity, I was still moved by the good and the strength and the timelessness of a simpler life and its inhabitants.
The London Bobbies did not carry guns then. They spent most of their time politely giving directions to the tourists. One day, on my way to visit a girlfriend, I stopped at a village to have breakfast. I found the local paper emblazoned with the headlines about a shocking crime spree: Two public telephones had been broken into on the previous week! It was no joke. Just a different time and place.
The racing school’s secretary set me up in a bed-and-breakfast at the nearest village. At the middle landing of that hotel’s creaky stairway was a charcoal drawing of the building’s front as it looked when first built in 1645. I ran out across the street and confirmed my suspicions that it had not changed a bit since then. My second floor room looked out into a church graveyard where most of the headstones were between two and three hundred years old. Things like that fascinated me. The oldest house I’d known in San Francisco was the old Victorian we lived in when we arrived from Mexico. It had been built around 1910.
In time I got to know much of the English countryside, lush green, dotted with tiny villages and criss crossed with winding roads and stone fences. I loved its quaint old trains, (a few still using steam) and the double-decker buses. But most of all I loved meeting and getting to know the inhabitants of a place so different from any I had known. Usually they were just as eager to learn about me and my background.
I experienced joys and disappointments on and off the race tracks, fell in love with a local girl, and traveled throughout that fabled island of King Arthur. Strolling through the hallowed Oxford halls and punting down the lazy Cambridge University canals I connected with a world that Dickens had first alerted me to, long before Harry Potter served as tour guide for a new generation. I’d often wondered how such a relatively small island could have become so influential, even dominant, in the world for so long. Living there I found the answer. It’s the people.
They are quietly resilient, patient and proud. Grounded in tradition and generally very calm, they are competitive and can at times be quite passionate, as during a Parliament debate or a crucial soccer match. They live in a land deeply rooted in the past even as they grapple like the rest of us with the problems of of the present.
On my most recent visit I was disappointed to see that things are changing and modernizing even in the distant villages. The bicycles that housewives used to run errands and do their shopping and which allowed them to stop and chat with friends along the way have been replaced by cars with their attendant traffic jams, pollution and frantic pace. The quaint neighborhood stores and friendly shoop keepers are fast disappearing, overshadowed by impersonal shopping centers and mega-stores. Bobbies now do carry guns. Small farms are struggling against the giant corporations and fast food convenience is taking its toll on the community's health.
London is as high-tech as any place on earth and still a financial powerhouse. Its hotels are more expensive than in Paris. But the heart and the spirit of Old England can still be found. One just has to dig a little deeper.
It is only right that I should have made my decision to become a writer while living in the land of Shakespeare; a land that has influenced us all, whether we know it or not.
Causes Frank Pineiro Supports