Good day to all. It’s 12:01 pm on a lovely Monday here in Myton-on-Swale. I interrupt the posts about the Hebrides to share some thoughts about travel in general. Then I’ll get back to it.
Traveling in the UK is distinctly odd because you don’t always remember you’re in a foreign country. Sure, you have to drive on the opposite side of the road. The people talk with unfamiliar accents. (I was going to say funny accents, but that seems judgemental, don’t you think? I constantly wonder what we sound like to them. “Nasal” I was told.) All the signs are in English. And everywhere you look, you see people who look, dress, carry shopping bags, yell to their friends, wave a paper in front of their face when hot, ride bikes and motorcycles in gear you recognize — all just like at home. So from time to time, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a different country. You’re going along, just doing what you need to do for the day and BOOM! you mess up in a major way because you took for granted that whatever it was should be done how you always do it. Case in point: yesterday I parked my car at the train station for the day. When I returned to it and prepared to drive home, I retrieved the parking stub and drove to the exit. There was no one there. I put the stub into the slot. It told me I hadn’t paid for parking. I looked around thinking “Well, there’s no one to pay!”. I put the stub in again. It repeated the same message. I was flummoxed. How was I supposed to pay for parking if there was no one to pay? And I couldn’t get the barrier to go up.
I was VERY lucky that no one was behind me, trying to get out. I put the car in reverse and backed out of the exit lane. I looked for the nearest place to pull over and think. I found a parking spot. I was just about to try to find a complete stranger to query when I saw the sign. “Pay for parking on Platform 1”. Ah! Okay. You pay for parking here BEFORE you get in your car and leave. Never would have occurred to me. So I went up to the train station and wandered around looking for a place to pay. There were a million people going home from York at the end of the weekend. I couldn’t see a sign for parking anywhere. Finally I stood in line at the information kiosk until I was able to ask a human where to pay for parking. She said “Right behind you, love, alright?” I went into the “travel centre” and found about a dozen machines, none of them saying anything except how to purchase train tickets. I went to the counter. A very nice lady told me I could pay for parking at any of the machines, but she would take care of it for me there. She was very nice about it. But apparently everyone knows that you pay for parking at the ticketing machines.
Assumptions. They can get you in a lot of trouble.
I went to the gas station. I tried to pay for gas with a credit card. It wouldn’t take the card. I tried another. It wouldn’t take that one either. I left the car and went inside. The woman at the counter asked me if my cards had a certain type of technology (can’t remember the name) and they don’t. So, I said I would pay her at the cash register. Then I stood there, waiting for her to ask how much gas I would want. Because… in the US, you have to pay for gas before pumping, and if you don’t use all the money you’ve paid, you go to the cashier for your change afterwords. She just looked at me. And I jumped “Oh! I’m supposed to just pump the gas before paying?” She very patiently said “Yes, love, then come back here and we’ll take care of it.”
So I go out to the car, open the gas tank, get ready to put gas in the tank and look for the little switch we use to set the gas to stop when your tank is full. No switch. Um…. I walk to a lady at another car and ask her where that switch might be on the fuel distributor. No such thing. So I’m thinking to myself “Wait, I just pump gas until I think it’s full? I have no idea how many gallons this tank can hold. What if it just runs down the side of the car and splashes everywhere?” Thoroughly stressed out, I put in about 30 pounds worth of gas and stop there. I have no idea how much I’ve filled the tank. But whatever — at least I have gas now. I can check how big my gas tank is when I get home for the night. I go inside to pay. My card works just fine at the register. There’s another woman working at the gas station store and I stop to ask her “How do you know when to stop pumping in the UK?” She said “Oh dear, the pump will stop by itself when your gas tank is full. ”
Looks like a gas station. Has a little store like a gas station. People are driving in and out of there and lining up on either side of the gas pumps like a gas station. I assume I’ll know how to do the whole getting gas thing, no worries.
Nope! Everything is just a little bit different here. Just different enough to remind you that you ARE in a foreign country.
The reason I write about this is that it’s a layer of experience that doesn’t get included in my posts. I tell you about what I’ve seen, heard, done. I share pictures. But there are other aspects of travel that are such an integral part of what happens for me every day — and I want you to know about them because they are part and parcel of traveling. They always start as stressful. I encounter something that I have no idea how to navigate. I don’t have anyone with me sharing the confusion or offering answers. I have to either figure it out for myself or approach a complete stranger, prepare to feel stupid, and hope I get an answer I can understand (both literally, as sometimes there’s a thick accent going on, and figuratively, as many explanations come with an entire set of assumptions underneath them that prevent my understanding). Did Anthony Bourdain ever talk about this phenomenon? No? He wanted you to think travel was a breeze. It’s not. You have to be brave. You have to think quickly. And you learn to be humble. Very humble.
However, there is a flip side. Once you figure something out, you feel incredibly empowered. On my last trip to the UK, I struggled with and conquered making my way around the country using public transportation. On this trip, much of the experience has to do with driving. I’ve learned to deal with traffic circles (aka rotary or roundabout). I understand how to deal with oncoming cars when on a single track road. I’ve learned to use a GPS. (Thank you, Heather. Seriously, without it I’d have been screwed.) I understand the whole Park ‘n’ Ride system in and around historic towns. Every time I drive myself somewhere I need to go and then get myself home safely by the end of the day, I feel triumphant!
Slowly figuring things out. I’m getting there. I really am.
The one thing I really can’t get though is UK coins. Again, they look so much like ours that I assume the size of each will correspond to one of ours. “It’s big! It must be a quarter!” Wrong. In the interest of time, I’ve learned to hold out my hand to the cashier and say “I’m American. To save us both time could you please just pick out the right ones?” They always laugh and do so. Unfailingly polite, the Brits.
More thoughts about travel another time. I have promised myself a day of desk work. However, I just met my neighbors and am going over there to visit a bit later today. Yes, I’m supposed to be doing deskwork. But you have to take advantage of the opportunities that arise. Finally, someone to tell me about this village and why it looks the way it does and who lives at that fantastic Myton Hall just down the way and who is running these beautiful farms all around me and….. I’ll have a hundred questions for them. Thank goodness for neighbors. Deskwork this evening, then.