An American in London
This article belongs to Travelling the world theme.
Gatwick airport was bare and institutional. Long lines formed up behind distant desks where sat the officials of the Empire who would view my papers and baggage. Some passengers moved quickly through areas marked, U.K. and E.C. I decided with horror that I was now a Foreign National since, if I were a U.K. or and E.C. I would probably know that. I reasoned that U.K. must stand for Ukrainian/¬Kurdish. E.C. must refer to European Communist, but why would they get special treatment? Urban Kowboy? Oh, no, U.K. stands for United Kingdom, of course.
"What if they didn't let me enter the country? Would I be able to use a rest room before being deported?
What if they didn't let me enter the country? Would I be able to use a rest room before being deported? Did they even have public rest rooms? Would I go to a prison and never be able to call the United States Consulate?
"How long will you be in England? Where will you be staying? Enjoy your visit"
Expecting a full body search, I was amazed when casual, unarmed guards waved me by with hardly at glance on my suitcase, just a brief glimpse at my passport.
At once I began to experience problems with the English language. I stared at the Way Out sign for almost a minute before I realized that it was not touting some marvelous tourist attraction (as in Far Out), only that they were using two words to describe an exit. Masters of the English Language as the transporta¬tion authorities must have been, they seemed to be trying to make a sentence with no verb. Our American Exit signs say it all and are grammatically correct. Score one for the USA.
Anxious to fit in well, I found a money changing both and, when it came to be my turn, I shoved a one hundred dollar bill at the clerk. "How do you want it?" she asked. Many answers flooded my mind, but finally I mumbled something like, "English money, please." She sniffed and shoved a handful of bills and coins toward me.
More Way Out signs directed me to the train to Victoria Station. Dragging my raincoat, suitcase on rollers, brief case and tote bag I struggled onto the train hoping it would not pull out until I got settled. Signs on the train directed me to place my baggage on overhead racks that were too narrow to hold a shaving kit, so I and the refugees on the seat facing me placed our legs on the pile of luggage and stared at each other.
Furtively, I pulled out my English money. How nice for blind people, I thought. The five, ten and twenty pound notes were in graded sizes and one could easily tell the difference in the dark. Then the coins destroyed my optimistic thoughts about English mint masters. My hand held a bizarre collec¬tion of coins of all sizes, shapes, and thicknesses. Among the largest were some of what I would soon learn were the most worthless. One particularly evil looking slug turned out to be a one pound coin. They apparently did not make a one pound note.
After 20 minutes I was hoping the train would move out before the end of the week. Grim looking authorities collected our tickets. A man came though selling beer and whiskey. Every five minutes the overhead speakers announced that this would be a direct, non stop train to London's Victoria Station with no boarding or dismounting between here and there. The speed, efficiency, and punctuality of the train were praised repeatedly in these self-congratulatory announce¬ments.
At last, 35 minutes and several crippling attacks of numb feet later, we lurched forward and stopped. Altogether the train stopped for long minutes of silent meditation five times before we sighted the Themes. The overhead was still praising the speed of this non stop marvel as I left it. The English, among other nationalities, have a wonderful gift for lying with a happy and optimistic face. If a machine tells lies, it is really lying? Perhaps when the overhead message was first recorded in the time of George IV it might have been accurate.
Dingy factory buildings and row houses lined the train's route into London. It would seem that the thing to do if you buy a row house is to paint it some different color from all its neighbors. If that doesn't do it, then you plant more green stuff in your tiny yard than anyone else could possibly squeeze in. The rank and thorny bushes that grew wild along the tracks appeared to be blackberry bushes. Are blackberry bushes native to North America, or are they a curse imported from England?
A slick looking man across the isle, a small nervous person who babbled in Transilvanian and was obviously a spy entering England to serve the purposes of the Evil Empire let his just purchased alcohol slop onto the floor as the train lurched and swayed. He smiled in my direction and said, "Slvoski smardschkodis¬k, froskolish!" I returned my attentions to my coins learning a first lesson in overseas conduct for Americans, "Don't ever stare at another person." It's viewed as impolite, aggressive, or sexually seductive.
To my amazement, I noticed that one of my one pound slugs had a message for me on its edge. Not at its edge, on its edge. "Decus et tutamen" I read hold¬ing the ugly thing flat away from my eye. What could this mean? If it were an advertisement, why Latin? I remembered enough Latin to realize that there was no verb, it was not a sentence. I time warped six week into the future and saw myself reading the appropriate volume of the Oxford English Dictionary back home in my facility library. As I expected, this fitful literary product further clouded the issue. It spoke of a decus et tutamen as being a crown piece. A crown was once an English coin, now no longer in use. But OED was talking about headwear, about a jewel in a royal crown placed on the edge of the crown. OED also mentioned an episode in which one noble, referring to another laid out in a coffin, spoke of the dead as on the edge, as it were, between life and death. As usual, the extended passage in OED hit all around the mark without ever translating the simple phrase into Ameri-Speak.
I was n the edge between the Themes and Victoria Station.
Why would a coin have a message about being on the edge, on its edge? Was the whole thing a vast, obscure pun? Was there anyone to ask here in England?
I did ask in the next few days as I attempted to communicate with the natives of the island. All I got were blank stares and, "Bloody ask me! I don't know."
"You Yanks have all kinds of sayings on your coins now, don't you?"
I admitted to one fellow that, yes, our bills do say things such as, "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private." Mostly, our money uses familiar AmeriSpeak, not Latin.
Returning on the train to future warp, my faithful paperback Latin dictionary back home gave the following rough translation of the decus thing: "beauty and power." One must keep in mind, however, that the words decus and tutamen have very many possible translations and depend for precise meaning on the use of each in a particular context. The edge of a coin is no context at all, in my humble opinion. However, thus placed on coinage, I must assume the words refer to the Commonwealth and to its people collectively. Strength, but not beauty, seemed to apply to the slug itself. The California Taskforce on Self-esteem should study English technique for national morale building. Trains never run late and the friendly, handsome people weald much power.
Sarah Fitzpatrick, our facility librarian, was a dedicated collector, keeper and retriever of the written truth; she later reminded me that when, long ago, coins contained metal that was worth something, the edges were milled or serrated so that one could tell if some miscreant had shaved away a bit of the precious metal. She did her best to rationalize the English practice of writing on inhospitable surfaces such as the edges of coins suggesting that it was a way of protecting the coin from shaving. My strongest suspicion, however, is that the current English one pound slug is made of nothing more valuable than recycled railroad tracks. They did not rust as long as I was there, but then it was a dry summer.
I hailed the first cab I saw when I emerged from the station and directed the driver to take me to Nevern Square, the site of my bed and breakfast hotel.
Bed and Breakfast is YuppieSpeak for small, cheap hotel.
"Where's that by?" he wanted to know. I had been told that English cab drivers received intensive training, that they knew every foot of London.
"West London, Kensington, west of Earl's Court, off Brompton." I replied.
"Yo, Dude." and off we went driving on the wrong side of the street with fearful, darting imprecision.
As we rode out, I slipped back in time warp. The carriage swayed violently as the driver screamed at the filthy boys who tried to run along side begging for coins. The elegant, hand painted carriages of the rich competed with the tramps, food sellers, wine merchants and whores for passage in the narrow, filthy streets. The air was heavy with coal smoke and the foul stench of the gutters. A four man press gang complete with snare drummer marched passed as we stopped to allow some pigs to be driven out of the path, and I saw that the gang had collected three lads not one of whom could be older that 15.
The Frenchies must be at it again, I thought.
The smoke from a thousand chimney pots gradually cleared as we rushed past the south end of Hyde Park, and then I was climbing the steps of Mr. Tablac's little hotel, bags in hand.
(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development: ISBN 978-1-60145-647-2)