Yesterday I returned from an enlightening, albeit freezing, 11 day European adventure. Before I provide more details about the experience, I must relate a phenomenon I am sure many native Miamians who travel to colder climates feel. I was in the cab returning to my house and for a moment had absolutely no idea what time of year it was. Despite appearances to the contrary, this was not the result of jet lag despite having just finished a ten plus hour flight with next to no in-flight entertainment or decent food. Using an SAT term, context clues told me nothing.
At first I thought it was October, then April. Sadly I am not joking here. We passed the International Links Golf Course where most of the holes were being played, then the Marlins stadium (sorry the Jeffrey Loria Bamboozle the City Center), and with the roof closed, I was pretty sure it was still April if not May. Eventually the mental fog lifted and I decided to check my phone which reminded that it was February 6th.
As if dates matter in Miami. Frankly I don’t think we even need the Gregorian calendar here in Florida. We might as well just have one full month, March, give that month 363 days and add Dec. 25th and New Years for obvious reasons.
Perhaps the jet lag is kicking in now as I drifted several leagues from my intended topic. It’s just that returning to Miami, actually living here provides an amazing contrast to how the rest of the world (the real world that people talk about so often) operates. Since I just returned from Europe, specifically England and France, I will use those countries as my points of comparison.
My trip began in London. I love the city and had been there just 18 months ago to enjoy Wimbledon with my twin cousins, but following a tennis tournament and fully experiencing a historic city are incompatible for me. The main reason I wanted to go to London was to share the delights of the city with my girlfriend who had never been there, but was sure to enjoy the wonderful architecture, museums and many reminders of her favorite show, Downton Abbey, to which I thank her for introducing me.
Aside from being the source of some of the greatest rock music of the 20th century, London remains a city that is characterized by politeness, kindness (I make a distinction between the two) and greatness. Let me start with the politeness, which is not the obsequious kind we find here at places like the Ritz or Four Seasons where they suck up to you first before ripping you off. Londoners are just really nice. The servers are attentive to your every need, don’t grimace when you ask for more bread or honey and go out of their way to make one feel welcome. The cabbies, porters, desk clerks and bus drivers do the same thing. Everyone seems to just enjoy doing their work regardless of where along the status scale it falls.
Plus London is so green and clean. Even during the rotten cold month of January, they maintain the verdant landscape and welcoming sense of propriety. I would ironically add that every building and garden was either in tip top shape or well-advertised with banners apologizing for reconstruction, except for Buckingham Palace. Apparently the queen is too preoccupied by still practicing her Olympic ceremony aerobatics.
Then there is the greatness part. Just the tube stations alone evoke a regal, medieval and triumphant sense. There is Knightsbridge, Marble Arch, Victoria, Kings Cross, Monument and Jubilee. Oh and just to keep everyone’s humor in tact, a stop called Cockfosters. Even the way they tell us to watch ourselves when stepping on or off the tube is polite with the catchy phrase of “Mind the Gap”.
I could go on for pages about London. All overpriced food, cold weather and Spice Girls aside, London is a Yankee delight.
It took us two hours and change to cross the English channel via the chunnel but London and France might as well have been a continent away. I am not going to launch into an anti-France or Parisian rant as I am a fan of both, particularly now having visited France for the 10th time. But let’s just say the Parisians and the French don’t exactly treat tourists or for that matter, present themselves the same way.
Let’s start with the service part. Twice my girlfriend and I waited at least 15 minutes for a waiter to consider taking our order. The first time we were hardly acknowledged and no “garcon” even thought of stopping to greet us. We eventually walked out and I’m pretty sure the waiter who saw us leave thought to himself “Well that’s two less Americans I have to pretend to like”. The next day after visiting Versailles, our waiter got into a French panty twist because we asked him if we could sit at a table that was not next to the dessert display. That and we wanted leg room. We were then ignored for what seemed like a week and only because of our level of starvation did we wait it out. Needless to say, the waiter was about as friendly as a flying brick. Even the cook at the Lebanese restaurant where I got gyros to go gave me a glare because I had the audacity to ask him for a fork.
Thank God Paris is beautiful because the Parisians sure don’t have a etiquette or politeness fetish. If I were to try to distill the experience of being in Paris (granted it was the heart of winter), it would go something like this – “If you must, come see our beautiful city. There is everything you could want but please, don’t get offended if we don’t say hello, blow smoke in your face, bring your food cold, ignore your questions, or don’t thank you on the way out. Hopefully the many museums, gardens, engineering marvels and storied churches will be enough. And our delicious croissants.”
Now that I have written such a summary, maybe their way is just fine. A great city teeming with the mouth watering aroma of fresh pastries seems to outweigh annoying occupants.
A day after returning to Miami, there is a lot I miss about London and Paris, despite their diverging personalities and lousy weather this time of year. I miss the history, the open access to monuments, the rhythm of being on the subway instead of trapped in a car and seeing so many intermingling cultures, as well as the challenge of trying to get from point A to B. I even miss some of the food, particularly the breakfast in London.
Still there is no place like home, particularly when you can walk your dogs at 7 am in shorts and a t-shirt in April, or whatever month it is :)
P.S.: If you do decide to go to Paris, don’t order the Minestrone soup or the famous Croque Monsieur. Stick to the croissants.