Bruce Bentzman has landed in Wales...

Bruce in pub

Bruce in the Packet pub, Cardiff. Photo by Barbara Keogh.

Americanwr ym Mhrydain

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 rental cars.

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 carriageway.

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’ about Americanos.

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 underwear here.

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. 

Selected Suburban 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.