Bentzman has landed in Wales...
Bruce in the
Packet pub, Cardiff. Photo by
Following an eight day sea voyage across the Atlantic,
Ms Keogh and I disembarked from the Queen Mary 2 and set
our feet to rest on motionless England. Southampton
greeted us with a typical day of drizzle and sun, but I
was glad to be away from the eye-stabbing sun and the
oppressive heat we left in New York and Pennsylvania. I
told Ms Keogh, “I could be happy here.” But Southampton,
England was not our destination. We needed to get to
Cardiff, Wales with our eight pieces of luggage, which
was more than we could carry, yet all we had for
beginning a new life.
Ms Keogh had arranged for a rental with me the sole
driver. So it came about, I was thrown into the British
method of driving on the left-hand side of the road
without practice or preparation. My new life began with
time spent behind the wheel, a mirror image of my
previous life. It was easy for me, the transition from
left to right. Meanwhile, a mystery for me had been
resolved, a question I had asked others and others have
never been sure; the pattern of the gear box remains the
same, operating from the left to the right as you shift
through the gears. There are few automatics, even among
Still, driving in Wales has been a challenge. Cardiff
streets were born in an age of horse drawn carts and
carriages. The people of that era never anticipated the
width of automobiles nor their speed. The arrival of
modern transport has not altered their priorities, a
preference for walking and keeping streets the way
they’ve always been. The streets are very narrow and it
is often impossible to stay in one’s lane. Tiny cars
prevail. Much could be relieved by making many of the
back streets one way, but then why bother making it
easier for me? I was not used to the close tolerances
with which vehicles slip past each other. I have
acquired a deep respect for the British driver,
especially the bus driver.
I had intended to wean myself of a passion for driving,
so thoroughly exercised in the United States. Living in
the United Kingdom, we expected to save money not owning
a car, thanks to the excellent system of public
transportation and residing where everything we would
need could be easily reached on foot. I write about
driving because it figured into my suburban American
life in a major way. I drove between 30,000 and 45,000
miles a year in the U.S., often for the pleasure.
The roundabouts of Britain were difficult to navigate at
first. Intersections and stop signs are rare. Wherever
streets crossed they built roundabouts. The person
already in the roundabout has the right of way. It is
embarrassing for this foreigner to annoy other drivers
as I slow and pause where others race. Others don’t
understand my confusion. They already know where they
are turning, having commuted through that roundabout a
thousand times. I was still reading the detailed signs
and the routes they paint on the lanes. The signs come
late. I often predict the wrong lane to be in. The
information painted on the road is sometimes covered by
a bus. In reading signs, I’ve yet to know at a glance
what is important information and what can be ignored.
Also, every sign is Cardiff is written in both English
and Welsh. Vital time is mistakenly expended trying to
read correctly and analyze the strange Welsh words. I
feel like I’m suffering dyslexia, embarrassed with how
many times the passenger side wheels have hit the curb
and which Ms Keogh never fails to note.
It must be said, I find the Cardiff drivers to be
generally the best I’ve experienced. They possess a
cooperative nature, helping each other to squeeze
through the narrow streets, making allowances for each
other. Rarely does one honk a horn. There is a lot of
backing up or pulling to the side to wait, even onto the
sidewalks, to allow each other to pass. There is a good
sense of merging, with others making room and queues
alternating fairly. I am, quite frankly, impressed.
The most frightening experience has been in the
countryside beyond the city limits of Cardiff, where one
afternoon we found ourselves driving lanes so narrow one
car could barely fit and you were confined by
twelve-foot hedges on both sides. We were astonished
that Cassandra (the name we gave our rental car’s satnav
[GPS]) credited them as roads. There were no shoulders.
There was fresh horseshit every hundred yards. A lot of
horses, I said. “How do you know it wasn’t just one?”
asked Ms Keogh. I replied, one horse would not relieve
itself every hundred yards for miles.
We were fearful of another car coming from the opposite
direction. It would have been necessary for someone to
back up perhaps half a mile before they encountered
enough room to allow one car to pass the other. It was
alarming, but I couldn’t stop laughing. Ms. Keogh was
white-knuckled and desperate to get back to a dual
Driving on the opposite side is not the only thing
reversed. Light switches in Britain work in the opposite
direction of the U.S. Salt and pepper shakers are also
opposite, with one hole meaning salt, multiple holes
meaning pepper in the U.K.
Then there is the coffee. Coffee doesn’t exactly mean
coffee in Britain. In the United States, all I needed to
do from coast to coast, from the Mexican border to the
Canadian border, 3,119,885 square miles, was ask for
coffee and I received coffee. The same is probably true
in Alaska and Hawaii. Come to think of it, I had no
trouble getting coffee in Canada. It doesn’t unfold that
way in Britain. Whenever I asked for coffee, I was
interrogated until it is established that I don’t want a
fancy latte or cappuccino when I asked for coffee. My
request is politely corrected and I am asked if I mean
an Americano. An Americano is, in Britain, exactly what
it is in the States, that being a shot of espresso, then
hot water added to fill the cup until it resembles a
full cup of coffee. Fortunately for me, I like
Americanos. They taste like the strong coffees I prefer.
But while they taste stronger than coffee, they actually
possess less caffeine. I can be content and continue to
thrive just ordering Americanos and I have found a few
places that will give me brewed, filtered coffee. Still,
I do miss the time-honored tradition reflected in
American film, TV, and literature of coffee before the
invasive espresso machine. I can assure you, they are
drinking coffee and not Americanos in Edward Hopper’s
“Nighthawks”. And when Ella Fitzgerald sings, “Black
coffee, love's a hand me down brew,” she ain’t talkin’
Some further notes to Americans:
|1. In a pub, one does not
order drink from the table, nor food.
In a pub, you place your order at the bar. You
carry your own drinks to the table, but don’t
worry, they will find you and bring the food.
2. No corn syrup! Even Coca-Cola is made with
genuine honest-to-goodness sugar. Fantastic!
3. Popcorn is hard to find, except at the movies.
4. Don’t be confused by the new toilets in
Britain, and in all of Europe I am given to
understand, they are provided with two types of
flushes, a weak flush and a strong flush. A weak
flush is used to conserve water.
5. First floor, street level, often called the
ground floor in the U.S., is floor 0 in the U.K.
6. It is “trousers” and not “pants”. "Pants" means
Most pedestrians do not
walk around with headphones or earbuds listening to
music. Instead, they are engaged in the world. I am
especially glad to be free of rap and hip-hop. In the
States, you can be listening to important news from your
car radio and suddenly you can’t hear it because six
cars back someone else’s vehicle is blasting their
machine-like music. You can be sitting in your living
room enraptured with Chopin when the pounding boom of
industrial strength bass from a passing car comes
crashing against the living room windows threatening
your private space and pulverizing your joyful mood
beyond restoration. That doesn’t happen here.
In Britain, people walking dogs interact with their
pets. Here in Cardiff, dogs are part of society, more of
them are socialized and know how to behave. They do not
act aggressively and aren’t regarded as threats. They
are welcomed into many pubs. Often enough, when the gent
is telling his wife he’s taking the dog out for a walk,
it really means he’s heading to the neighborhood pub,
the dog equally content to be there. I have only been
here a month, but I am happy here. Cardiff suits me to a
T, but that isn’t to say any place can be perfect.
The basic formula of British food, aside from fried fish
and chips, is meat with potatoes and peas. I love it.
The meat products here are tastier than in the U.S. My
only problem is I do not like peas. Peas in the United
Kingdom are traditional. They are ubiquitous. I don’t
hate peas to where I can’t swallow them, as with Brussel
sprouts or Marmite. I love plenty of vegetables, like
steamed asparagus, or broccoli or spinach. I can eat
fresh garden peas without pleasure, but why waste them
on me? “If you don’t like peas, how about the mushy
peas,” asked the waitress. I haven’t tried mushy peas,
yet. Call it instinctual wariness.
Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about
the events and concerns of his life. If you've any
comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.
Soliloquies, the best of
Mr Bentzman's earlier series of
Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an
ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.