The stories of a couchsurfer

A Review: The United Kingdom

Westminster Palace at sunset

It was 5 AM when I woke up in my last day in Oxford. I didn’t even bother taking a shower – perhaps a sign that I was slowly becoming an unwilling local Brit during my travels through the United Kingdom.

More likely it was simply because I didn’t have the time. I needed to catch a bus out of Oxford central in around an hours time so that I could only just get to St. Pancras in time to catch the train back to France.

One would think having a small backpack is time economical – and in many ways it is – but you end up having to pack so tightly and the only way to fit everything in is with a special combination of item placement and taking the extra time to squeeze out every pocket of air possible. This itself takes time and the entire operation can become a bit stressful.

By now I had collected quite a few items along my journey. Not as many as the typical backpacker may and the ones that I did choose to keep were small in size. Their logistical impact would always be the largest when attempting to cram everything into the backpack with one eye on the clock.

It’s times like these that I’ll typically empty my wallet of all non-necessities. Couchsurfer hosts of mine will quite often wake up to a “gift” of whatever loose change was in my possession before moving onwards.

As I walked towards Oxford centre in the dawn of day, I didn’t really get a lot of opportunities to stop and smell the roses. The town was dead quiet during these hours and the dawn, combined with the artificial lights, made the university buildings quite spectacular.

More important to me, however, was getting to the bus on time, as it was becoming clear to me that there was a realistic chance that I may miss it. As a result, the last ten minutes of my journey was an awkward run, hurling myself down the street in an unfashionable gallop.

In reality I could afford a miss here at this moment. I would miss my train, but I could wait one hour for the next bus, return to London, stay a day or two longer and catch a similarly priced flight or train back to France.

The truth of the matter is it wasn’t a financially or time driven concern – I just didn’t want to be in this bloody country any longer than I had to be.

Where did it go so wrong?

I didn’t have grand expectations before arriving in the United Kingdom. It was a bit of a trip on a whim, in all honesty. I thought it might be nice to surround myself with my native tongue for a bit, particularly after the Spanish leg of my journeys, and if there was any time to do it, I should do it during the summer when the climate might at least be bearable.

Bearable turned out to be a fitting description of the weather. It didn’t cause too many issues, but that’s not to say that I enjoyed it. Besides the torrential downpour on my very first day in London and a day in Belfast and Birmingham, I got quite lucky with the lack of rain.

But rarely did I see the sun.

It really shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but for me weather is an important part of life. My moods rise and fall with the seasons and growing up in Australia your body learns to expect it’s fair share of brightness, sunshine and vitamin D every year.

In the United Kingdom one is deprived of that. Clouds hover above this island in an almost permanent state – unbudging from day to day. When I first arrived, I would wake up with the hope of opening the curtains to find a splash of sunlight beaming onto my face, but after about ten days of disappointment I learned to stop preparing myself for heartbreak.

Like the gates of hell, St. Pancras should greet visitors with Dante’s ‘Abandon Hope‘.

I’m not sure how people keep high spirits in this place. The scenery is too bland and too grey.

This means that it’s very hard to have fun here. Most of the activities are required to take place indoors, and the ones that do take place outdoors are typically famed for requiring guests to wear rain boots.

This, I believe, is one of the reasons that the United Kingdom has developed such a large pub culture. What else is a Brit to do on the weekends when it’s pissing down with rain outside than to go to the bar and down a bit of piss themselves?

The thing is that the pubs are about the only place darker than the streets. Sure, there are loads of pubs here, but it’s not like the kind they have in Australia. Gone are the spacious bars, gone are the many large windows that fill the interior with natural light and gone are the open beer gardens where one can escape for some fresh air and a touch of greenery.

No, here the pubs have about two windows in it’s entirety, letting in about a fifth of whatever little natural light exists to begin with from the outside. In it’s place are three of four low powered, dim, yellow bulbs that barely provide adequate light levels for reading.

More light emanates from the few televisions hanging around the pub walls that attract more men than is suitable for fire safety in the name of watching a sport where a team scores once or twice in ninety minutes.

It’s absolutely dreadful, and it only contributes to the glum mood of the country.

Yet, just when it seems all hope is lost for this doomed island of mud, right out of the fires of hell blossoms an incredible flower.

For this dreadful concoction of gloom and darkness forces them to do something.

Talk.

And socialise. The United Kingdom, for all it’s flaws, surprisingly has some of the friendliest, talkative people in the world. It was so much easier meeting random people here than it was in any other place in Europe so far. Much of that would surely have to do with the lack of a language barrier, but there was more to it than simply that.

The Brits are social people and they like to meet people and discover new things. And, given that their home country is remarkably dull, they are incredibly interesting people themselves.

Not to mention hilarious. I’ve always admired the British for their sense of humour, much different than the humour displayed in American cultures, but it was still surprising to me just how many of them had the gift. Their wit is second to none and they would beat me in a game of wits hands down the majority of the time.

The locals here haven’t been given the greatest environmental conditions to play with. They lack any great natural wonders or landscapes, their agriculture is limited forcing the cuisine to be plain terrible and they’ve long lost any real sporting prowess on the world stage. So instead they have to make their own fun by talking to one another.

Sure, they have their fair share of idiots here too, and walking through the streets one gets a pretty glum opinion of the people. But once in the pubs, all of that changes.

Perhaps this is also why the United Kingdom has been consistently churning out incredible music for decades upon decades. And literature.

Visiting this place and experiencing it for myself just makes it all the more incredible. I would be so brought down by the lack of inspiration here that I would never find the ambition and drive to produce the kind of music or art that is and has been produced here.

Add to this their respect of education, that so much exceeds that of which I saw in the latin countries. All (or at least most) of the museums are free in the United Kingdom, and it works. Each time I visited a museum it was full of people of all ages wanting to quench their thirst for knowledge.

The people here are smart. They always seem to know something about everything. And their knowledge is fact driven too, not just opinionated reasoning. They frequently keep up with the latest news and always keep an open and critical mind to whatever the media may be feeding them.

This is the great advantage of the United Kingdom, and it was one of the few things I thoroughly enjoyed as I traveled around.

But at the end of the day it was just too boring. There was no magic here like what I had witnessed earlier in France, Spain and Portugal. It wasn’t necessarily that things were bad here, just that they also weren’t necessarily good.

I needed to get out. I wanted to get back to France, badly. But this was not the same as when I had longed for a French return while in Spain.

There, Spain was too alien to me that I couldn’t put up with being uncomfortable any longer. My patience had run out. France presented itself as a home away from home during my time in Spain.

Here, in the United Kingdom, was perhaps the opposite. The United Kingdom wasn’t exotic to me, neither naturally nor culturally. It was all too similar to Australia, the only great difference being the downside of the poor weather here.

Now, the thought of getting on that train and passing back through the English Channel to France was one of escaping the shackles of normality and returning to a state of real discovery. France was still a home away from home, just this time a more exotic one.

Perhaps the single greatest thing about my journey around the United Kingdom was that it allowed me to appreciate what the rest of Europe had to offer for me again. After only a few months there I had began to take it for granted, but the relative normalcy of the United Kingdom had reinvigorated my desire for discovery and culture.

Lumbering down the street with my backpack I turned the corner to the bus station in Oxford. I had a few minutes to spare as I hopped on the bus. A great sense of relief washed over me and, already without a shower and now slightly sweaty due to my impromptu jog, although I was dirty and uncomfortable on the outside, all was well inside of me and I was soon to return to France.

I looked out the window during the bus ride back into London. As the morning grew older the sun rose and a clear blue sky and gorgeous weather presented itself for my last day here.

Typical British cheek.

3 Responses to “A Review: The United Kingdom”

  1. Samia

    Nice one!
    You should finish the contrat à durée indéterminée one. I’m waiting to know what happened next.

    Reply

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