Being an academic is great if you don’t mind holes in your sweaters, a monthly budget that is roughly what your wealthier friends spend on hair appointments, and awkward conversations. (We’re not known for our social graces.) One truly excellent perk of academia, though, is the travel. Because of my field, I get to go to England on occasion and poke through some old bits of parchment. It’s glorious.
And whenever I do, I find I have to recalibrate my cultural expectations. London is full of surprises, and even when I can see them coming, sometimes I am not quite ready. These are the five things that I always have to adjust to whenever I land at Heathrow again after a long overseas flight.
- Jet lag. It cannot be conquered, at least, not by me. International, overnight flights invariably place you in Heathrow in the morning, and it’s usually afternoon before you can check into a hotel. If you’ve got a short-term let waiting for you, the process of signing documents and counting out deposits can be more irritating than usual when you’re only an hour out of baggage claim. Tea helps. And no one does tea better than Bea’s of Bloomsbury. Plenty of places offer it, of course, but Bea’s is affordable. She has locations throughout London (including by St. Paul’s Cathedral), but Bloomsbury is my favorite.
- London does actually close at a certain hour. Americans, especially New Yorkers, will struggle with this. New York is always open for business. Want pizza at four in the morning? You got it. Philadelphia (my home base for many years) isn’t exactly a 24/7 city, but it’s not far off. Sushi at 5 a.m. may be hard to come by, but you can probably find it at 3. London is a different story. It observes a clock and the motions of the sun. Coffee shops aren’t open all hours of the day, or even much after dark (which, one summer, meant wifi wasn’t available for me after dark either).
- The Tube makes me ill. This isn’t a judgment about its price or efficacy. I adore the Tube. It’s a moving reading room. No one has ever preached to me or propositioned me on the Tube, two things that happened to me on American public transportation with alarming regularity. But when you’re used to the confidently straight lines of the New York and Philadelphia underground transit systems, the subterranean vacillations of the Tube feel like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I never could figure out why, after riding from Angel Station to Earl’s Court, I was practically as green as the District Line despite a few minutes’ break courtesy of a line change at Bank, but the answer is in the Tube’s history. It is the oldest underground transportation system in the world, and tube lines wind and twirl around each other. Early tube maps more or less reflected this reality, but they were so confusing that a new map was made. To be understandable at all, it had to simplify the tube trajectories by changing them all into rectilinear patterns, even though, in reality they whirl all over the place. This is the map we know today. It’s pretty and easier to read, but it lies to you. You’re not really going in a straight line.
- I did not pack a warm enough sweater.
- I never pack the right footwear. I am not coordinated enough to walk in London in the rain, which means that, of the shoes I brought with me, one pair will not make the trip back to the States. How is it that Londoners never seem to step in the puddles that pepper the sidewalks after a steady rain? I can straighten myself up enough to brush off those spitting, not-really-raining rains that don’t warrant opening your umbrella or even turning up the collar of your coat. (My first instinct, on my first summer in London, was to whip out the umbrella at the first sign of rain. In America – at least, during Southern summers – a drop of rain means five minutes to an impending downpour. In England, though, it could just be a polite tap on the shoulder from a passing cloud.) But Londoners have a sixth sense for puddles. They dodge them with Olympic agility, umbrella in hand, in very expensive shoes, without missing a step. It’s a veritable ballet on Oxford Street. Unless you’re me, bumbling around and soaking your favorite flats in street sludge. I found that (a) wedge heels are useless in London, (b) all other heels are useless in London, and (c) TK Maxx and H&M are go-to stops for a cheap pair to get you through the trip.