Nina Lerner on Life Across the Pond
Working at summer camp a few years ago, I met some lovely Englishmen and Scotts, and ever since I take every opportunity I can to hang out with them again. I recently spent 10 days catching up with them in England. I’ve been to the UK before, but during this trip it dawned on me how unbelievably friendly everyone is there.
I began my vacation by seeking out my friend Ben after a work meeting he had in Welwyn Garden City, a small place outside London. The journey from Heathrow Airport to Welwyn Garden had several different legs. Each required that I ask about 10 different people for directions. Some were railroad employees, some were innocent passersby. Every last one was patient, kind and helpful. They all helped to lead me seamlessly through Paddington Station and King’s Cross. Perhaps it was my adorable, sarcastic, Jewish-American charm, but probably not.
Speaking of which, I was many of my British friends’ first Jew ever. They were so surprised when I told them I was Jewish that one of them even said, “But you’re so normal-looking!” What, like I should have horns? Now, admittedly this particular anecdote does not paint the Brits in the best light, but I think they were just fascinated. In my experience, they are much more open in general than Americans,.
When I arrived in Welwyn Garden City, I sat outside the train station/mall in the brisk English sun for a few hours and read my book. (The Beautiful and The Damned — please read it and weep so I’m not alone.) Here, waiting for Ben, is where I encountered England’s worst citizens: ADOLESCENT CHILDREN. God, these kids were next-level annoying. All of them incredibly loud, all of them with the harshest and crudest Eliza Doolittle accents, all of them running around and getting in normal patrons’ way, all of them playing the classic middle school I’m-mean-to-you-because-I-have-a-crush-on-you games with each other. It was quite unpleasant. Children in America can certainly get just as annoying, to be clear, but these kids stuck out to me as everyone else in the UK had been so nice and charming. So go to England, but stay away from large groups of children aged 12-16.
I can’t speak to the amount of xenophobia in the UK, but at least upon hearing my American accent, the lovely strangers I met were always eager to help out a tourist. Almost everyone I engaged with for more than a few minutes would ask me where I was from, and then the inevitable follow-up question would be, “What the hell is happening over there?” Meaning of course, Donald Trump. As I really have no logical explanation for the success of our proud, orange buffoon, I instead informed them that America is a big place with a wide range of opinions. Ultimately, I stopped talking about it — I found it sad and frightening that Trump is the main way others see America right now. But then my friend’s smart and cool British lawyer dad said there’s no way Trump is getting elected, so I decided not to worry.
So, what did I actually do while I was there?
At the end of the trip, I went to watch my friends compete at a wakeboarding competition. It’s like snowboarding, but on the water. I know—these guys are SO athletic! While I didn’t participate, I placed well in the “Best Heckling” and “Most Pounds Spent At Food Stand” categories. Unsurprisingly, once again everyone at this competition was super nice despite the fact that they were very cold from frolicking in a freezing lake.
Right before the actual contest, this guy named Pete showed up and got ready to compete in the top category, despite not having practiced at all (everyone else had been at it the whole previous day).
Pete was truly amazing at wakeboarding. He did front flips, black flips, 360s, 720s, all of it, coming off of every trick they had in the water. He was a total badass and clearly the best wakeboarder there. After he got out of the water, he came and hung with our group as he knew one of my friends. He fit right in, though he knew almost no one. When he learned I was visiting, he asked me where I was from, what it’s like there, what do I think of England, I’ve always wanted to go to New York, etc. We probably chatted for ten minutes. He was the epitome of a British wakeboarder: polite, engaged and honestly pretty suave. I would probably marry him, to be clear.
Here’s Pete in the air:
My final anecdote is not about the people per say — it’s about the traffic signs. I took several long drives up and down the country and learned a lot about British driving life. First of all, they drive on the left side of the road, so the right lane becomes the “fast lane” on highways. Also, if you’re in the fastest lane and someone is coming up behind you, you’re meant to move over a lane so they can pass you — and it’s not just recommended, it’s what is done. How polite is that? The jerk going 90 MPH gets a tip of the hat!
They’ve also got some fantastic road signs. My personal favorite was “Queues Likely” with a little drawing of some cars lined up. It’s so quaint; it’s like saying, “Just so you know, there might be some traffic here soon, so be on the look out for it. Sorry to bother you!” They’ve made thousands of these polite signs and put them up everywhere and I simply adore it. Really sums up the warmth and helpfulness of this country.
I landed back in America at my layover in Detroit on a Sunday afternoon, already melancholy about my trip but excited to return home to Baltimore. Going through security before I took off for BWI, I encountered the worst type of American: ENTITLED DOUCHEBAGS. The group of adolescent boys behind me in line were not only dressed like Justin Bieber circa 2009, but were loud, ungrateful, saying some pretty sexist stuff, and constantly checking themselves out/fixing their hair in the window reflections (and people say teenage girls are vein). I won’t go into the details of their rudeness, but I felt very suddenly that I wasn’t in England anymore. At least the Brits keep their inappropriate comments to a whisper and not in the earshot of children!
As I sat waiting for my plane in gate D31 (my home for six hours), men and women walked by glued to their phones. None of them looked ready to help out a confused tourist by any means. Anyone who was jolted from their screen was incensed and grumpy. It bummed me out to know we likely don’t provide the same comfort to our visitors. I certainly will be going out of my way to watch for lost-looking people and try to help them on their way.
Nina Lerner is a writer, filmmaker, New Yorker, dog lover and chronic disappointment to her parents. She writes for the JHU-based comedy newspaper The Black and Blue Jay and once had a glamorous, unpaid summer internship for a talent agency in NYC. She loves the theater, horrible sports teams and Paul McCartney. Her parents are actually very proud of her.