1. Everyone has a favorite football team (and not the American kind), and some of the affiliations are nearly ancient. Owen, our bus driver to the Falcons’ complex in Watford, is a Chelsea supporter because his father saw his first Chelsea game in 1939.
2. My seatmate on the train ride from Sunningdale to Waterloo Station recalled in great detail the massive upset his team — Swindon Town, then as now a lower-division side — sprang over Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup (not to be confused with the FA Cup) final. The man is now retired, but he volunteers as a tour guide at The County Ground, Swindon Town’s home field. And did you know that the first night English football match was held under floodlights at The Country Ground on April 2, 1951?
3. Trains here move slowly. It took 50 minutes to get from Sunningdale to Waterloo, and we skipped stopping at a few stations. For a time I wondered if we were being pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine.
4. Cab drivers here are the best. You don’t have to repeat your destination so they can plug it into a GPS. They know it by heart. It takes much study to become a taxi driver in one of London’s justly famous black cabs: Aspirants must pass an extremely difficult test — it’s called “The Knowledge” — on locations, routes and whatnot. For someone who once boarded a Boston cab driven by someone wearing a Red Sox cap who didn’t know the way to Fenway Park, this is wonderful.
5. Waitrose is the place for ready-made sandwiches. You can buy such sandwiches at Tesco, which is the rough equivalent of Wal-Mart, and Marks & Spencer, which also sells clothing, but Waitrose is the choice of those in the know. “A little higher-end,” our concierge said.
6. English coins are confusing, mostly because they pretty much look alike. To the foreign eye, there’s not much difference between a 1-pound coin and a 10-pence coin, and perhaps not just to the foreign eye. Megan, our indispensable guide to Lions camp, was helping me sort out the 11 pounds, 10 pence fare to Waterloo, and she had to look twice at my newly acquired collection. “Never ask an English person to recognize English coins,” the station agent said, archly.
7. English folks are arch, which I enjoy immensely.
8. Silly Yank that I am, I expected every London street corner to have a pub on it bearing the name Rose or Crown or Lion or Arms or some combination thereof. Having traversed Edgware Road, which is just north of Hyde Park and south of St. John’s Wood, on a daily basis, I haven’t yet seen such a pub. I have, however, seen every manner of Middle Eastern restaurant, many of which feature hookah-smoking on the sidewalk. From Wikipedia: “The southern part of the road near Marble Arch, noted for its distinct Middle Eastern cuisine and many late-night bars and shisha cafes, is known to Londoners by nicknames such as Little Cairo, Little Beirut and, especially near Camden, Little Cyprus.”
9. The Marble Arch, I’m sorry to say, is nothing special.
10. The English love their music. My fellow train traveler, who’s 65, plays keyboards in a band. Owen plays harp (meaning harmonica) and is planning a trip to the States so he can travel from Chicago to Mississippi and retrace the migration of American bluesmen. As we were driving to Falcons camp, he pointed to a tall building just off the Westway — an elevated part of the A40 — and said, “I used to ride skateboards over there. Chrissie Hynde (the transplant from Akron who founded the Pretenders) and some of The Clash (the only band that mattered circa 1978-1982) lived there.” Owen saw the Sex Pistols in 1977, you should know. You should also know that his favorite show ever was Springsteen at Wembley in 1984.
11. Owen also said he’d met Kylie Minogue. A very nice lady, he reported.
12. The English have thoughts about their government, too. Shaun, our driver to Lions camp, isn’t crazy about the Cameron/Clegg Tory/Lib Dem coalition. He thought John Major was a waste. He liked Margaret Thatcher. It wouldn’t trouble Shaun if England let the rest of Europe fend for itself.
13. You probably knew this already, but the English are unbelievably polite.
14. Twice now, I’ve pushed “1” when headed to the hotel lobby. In England, the first floor is what we’d call the second floor. Just as a pushchair is what we’d call a stroller. Just as a jumper is what we’d call a sweater. Just as chips are what we’d call French fries. Just as crisps are what we’d call chips. Just as 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is 36.8 degrees Celsius, and I know this because …
15. If you have a hurricane-strength cold (and I do), shopping at a pharmacy/chemist can be a challenge. They didn’t carry my brand of Robitussin. The packaging is, duh, different. It’s tougher to read the ingredients. (I won’t take anything with a decongestant or alcohol or codeine because it keeps me awake.) I went four places before finally finding some honey-based thing — that’s quite good, FYI — and being charged 19 pounds, 99 pence. (Roughly $32 U.S.) I asked why so much. “Because it comes from America,” I was told.
16. The reason the English drive on the left, my cab driver from Waterloo informed me, is that the Romans, who as noted previously built many of these roads, always had their armies march on the left. Yay, Knowledge!