Central London as seen from the incredible London Eye

Central London as seen from the incredible London Eye

I’m going to further explore the feelings and reactions my wife, mother-in-law and I felt in our recent return to the UK for a 2-week vacation.  To recap, we were all born there, my wife and I moving to the US 30 years ago (originally for a 1-year tour of duty!) and my mother-in-law moving to the US about 20 years ago.  I’ve got back to the UK frequently over the years, but through business travel.  This was the first time in quite a while to see the country up close, and stay with “real Brits” (friends and relatives) all over England, as well as in some fine old country inns and one West End London hotel.

So, what did we find?

  • After 30 years in the US, we were amazed how small England is and how close together places are.  Distances between towns that seemed gigantic in my youth have shrunk significantly (even though the time taken to travel those distances has not improved due to road traffic.)
  • Cars are everywhere – so much more visible in a country that was not built for cars the way most of America has evolved.  Unfortunately, like in Rome, Italy, cars are parked just about everywhere – often on both sides of narrow residential roads, rendering them single lane and hard to travel along.  Even major roads seem to have become parking lots.  This constant chain of parked cars detracts from the beauty of the fine old houses and buildings that characterize much of the UK.
  • Britain has it’s own immigration issues, though this seems to be largely Eastern European.  Most people we saw in the service industries (e.g., hotels, restaurants) were from Eastern Europe – often with heavy accents that were hard to decode.  Even in the excellent Marriott on London’s Grosvenor Square, my wife and I went through the check-in process largely mystified as to what we were being told due to impenetrable accents.  Where are the English, we wondered?
  • People seem much more helpful in shops, restaurants, etc. than we remember.  30 years ago, service in the UK was in a miserable state.  There was little to no sense of entrepreneurship, and service was surly and unhelpful.  I remember how pleased we were with the level and quality of service when we first visited the US.  Unfortunately, the US has lost much of that edge, while the UK has regained it.
  • Traveling through London’s Gatwick Airport within hours of either leaving or arriving at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is a shock to the system.  Gatwick seems to work well, efficiently and with smiling, helpful faces from airline, security and airport personnel.  Atlanta, by contrast, is inefficient, unpleasant, and makes travelers feel like criminals.  As an Atlanta resident for the last 25 years I’m ashamed of the face that the busiest airport in the world presents to travelers.  As an aside, last year I went to Jamaica for a reunion with a dozen of my university friends.  (The university was in the UK, but we meet every few years somewhere in the world where one of us is living, and it was Jamaica’s turn.)  Anyway, many of my alumns traveled through Atlanta’s airport, and all found it to be a horrendous experience!  We are currently planning our next reunion, and, regrettably but understandably, one of the parameters has become picking a location that does not require travel through Atlanta airport!
  • London seems to be much cleaner than we remembered, and certainly more affluent. Despite how expensive everything is, people still seem to be doing OK.  Of course remnants of the National Health and social services are still helping finances a lot.   As an example, I have a cousin who still lives with his mother in a council house (subsidized living).  He is now paid by social services to look after his mom!
  • There are a lot of innovative schemes for managing environmental issues.  We had the good fortune to stay with a university friend who has been in the energy management and environmental consulting business for most of his career, so I got some expert insight into how things work.  This is so interesting, I will make a separate post just on this issue.

I will leave it there for now, and pick up on the environmental management schemes and other impressions in a future post.

My wife Gillian in the London Eye

My wife Gillian in the London Eye