We haven’t been in London, except to pass through Heathrow Airport, since 1976. Angela spent quite a bit of time there in 1974-75 and I visited several times in 1972, when I was fresh out of high school and ready to see the world. Some things seemed different when we spent several days in a bed and breakfast on Great Titchfield Street, but most seemed unchanged.
I agree with Thomas Wolfe, who wrote, “You can’t go home again.” But London never was home and I was once again experiencing it as a visitor.
We were wandering in the bright sunshine, coming back from a look at the London Eye and a disappointing visit to the Tate Modern gallery (perhaps the first major art gallery I have ever disliked — building and collection included) and stopped into a pub near Trafalgar Square to rest our weary legs. I bellied up to the bar to order a pint of English stout for me and a half of lighter beer for Angela (she once preferred “medium” sherry and if the publican couldn’t accommodate the order, I would ask him to simply mix dry and sweet sherry together), and we sat in a snug, watching the activity around us.
Suddenly, I was back in a pub near St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was 1972 and, with my two travelling companions from high school, I sat savouring the first of many pints to be consumed in the weeks we travelled around England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland before venturing over to the mainland. Like most Canadian kids travelling then, we had sewn small Canadian flags onto our jackets. Better to never be mistaken for Americans, we were told by those who had gone ahead of us. Canadians were much better liked by most Europeans.
So we sat, maybe a tad nervously, sipping our beer and taking in the atmosphere. Eventually, we were drawn into a conversation by three fellows in those frumpy and frayed suits that were favoured by British working men. They were probably about 50 and they pumped us about Canadian life — Indians and the Rocky Mountains being oh-so-exotic to them. They stood us for a round or two and we thoroughly enjoyed their company and the sense that we were being initiated into genuine English pub life.
When it was time to head back to our nearby youth hostel, one, perhaps a bit into his cups, insisted on driving us. He was a chauffeur for executives of a light and electric company, and soon we were piling, grins a mile wide, into a limo. A couple of minutes later we pulled up to the door of the hostel, where our new friend insisted we wait until he could open the limo doors for us. It was a great introduction to how the friendliness of others that can make lifelong memories.
That memorable evening was a wonderful introduction to London and pub life and the travel we were about to experience. And it was hardly a one-off experience. Angela and I have been favoured by the kindness of strangers wherever we have travelled. I’ve always attributed that to our insistence that we don’t impose our own values or expectations on others. We take things as they come, smile and make an effort to respect the people we come across.
In Nova Scotia, we were among the first guests of the year to stay at an inn connected to the Glen Breton whisky distillery. When we arrived in the restaurant expecting dinner, we learned it wouldn’t open for the season for another day or two. A few minutes later we were offered dinner by the chef, who was busy organizing his kitchen. “We aren’t fussy,” we told the server (who was running the pub). Two hours later we walked out, having enjoyed one of the best meals of our lives. “The chef isn’t sure what to charge,” our server said. “Is $20 OK?” I made sure I got into the kitchen to thank him personally.
Once, in Venice, baffled by the instructions we had been given on the telephone to get to our rental apartment, we stood on a bridge, trying to make sense of a map. “Can I help you?” came the American voice of a woman. I told her that we were trying to find our apartment and then gaped in amazement when she said, “Oh, I’ve been staying there for the last week. I’ll show you.” She walked us right to our door.
Then, last week, we arrived without incident at our apartment for a week in Paris. The owner gave us a rushed explanation of the facility and he was gone. We wandered around Montmartre for a few hours to get a feel for the neighborhood, then arrived back at the building’s main door, only to find neither of our keys would fit any of the four possible locks. And a five-digit keypad code that was on our booking form didn’t produce any results either. Suddenly a young woman walked up and asked if she could help. When I told her of our predicament she asked, “Have you been in there before?” Yes, this was definitely the place, but the keys don’t fit. “Do you have the owner’s phone number?” Yes, it is in the apartment. “You need the code.” I have one but it doesn’t work. She tried punching in the numbers, to no avail. Then she stuck her head in the tiny dress shop next door and asked the proprietor, in French, if she knew the code for the keypad. Ten seconds later, the door popped open. Once again we had been rewarded by the kindness of strangers.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.