Despite the Polish last name and a proclivity for perogies, my nature has always tended towards the English side of my family. My maternal grandfather was carted off to the Canadian colony around the age of 10 when the family fish & chips shop near Sheffield became too difficult to sustain in the years before the First World War.
Grampa never seemed exceedingly English to me growing up, though my grandmother’s Sunday dinner was invariably roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and the clock on their fireplace mantle mimicked Big Ben’s iconic chime.
Nevertheless, from an early age I embraced all things British: soccer (Liverpool); music (Beatles, Stones, Kinks), humour (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies); James Bond; pub culture (I collected pub paraphernalia that still adorns a replica pub in the corner of my basement); and Tolkien. I had a full-size poster of the classic British red phone box on my bedroom door and a Union Jack flag above my bed. I drank tea, Earl Grey.
It was only natural that my first flight from the nest, at age 18, was to London, though I had been there briefly as a kid, remembering it as if in a dream. I signed on to the Student Work Abroad Program (SWAP) offered by Travel CUTS and ended up spending four months in the U.K. that summer of 1981 – when Chuck and Di got married you’ll recall – and worked as a waiter for two months at the Happy Eater restaurant in the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road, a job diminished only by the requirement of having to wear a button proclaiming, “I’m a Happy Eater” with an orange open-mouthed Pacman-like icon.
The other two months were spent travelling the country nearly tip to tail, from Inverness, Scotland, to Land’s End, Cornwall, with a BritRail pass.
During my travels, I visited an elderly cousin in Wales, who pulled the tarpaulin off her rarely-used car, perused the manual in the wee hours of the morning to remember how to operate the thing, and toured us to amazing Conwy Castle on the north coast, instructing my friend and I along the way how to pronounce the unpronounceable Welsh place names we encountered, like Llandudno Wells, which was pronounced Hlandudno, as I recall. We never did manage to nail Llanfairpwll-gwyngyllgogerych-wyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch.
In Devon, I tucked into a real cream pastry that exploded all over the bakery floor (back away, very slowly!) and laughed hilariously over a “Sleeping Policeman Ahead” sign (not realizing it meant a speed bump).
People bought me beers in pubs just because I was Canadian; and I was the first Canuck ever met by staff at a Canadian-owned Seagram’s distillery on the whiskey trail in Scotland, resulting in a red-carpet tour that I’m still surprised I survived. On a Glasgow bus, a simple query prompted an escort directly to the door of the B&B we sought and our hostess there roused her husband at 5 a.m. to take us to the train station when we left.
How could I not love this place?
Sure, Britain has changed over the years. Nobody buys me beers anymore just for being young, cute and Canadian (maybe it’s just me?), but, in some ways it’s changed for the better. On my first go ‘round cities like Liverpool and Glasgow were dingy relics of the industrial age, right down to their soot-stained bones. Now, they’re scrubbed and spiffy and world class. Similarly, Newcastle, which is now confident enough that it will host travel industry buyers and media from around the world in March for the annual Explore GB trade show.
And the industrial revolution has given way to a food revolution.
Yes, Great Britain has suffered more than its fair share of terrorist incidents recently, but, as one Brit recently reminded me, while some places grapple with this new way of the world, Britain has kept calm and carried on amidst such tragedies for decades, going back to when the offending acronym was IRA, not ISIS.
Today, I’m still adding to my list of British interests and indulgences; most of the familiar stuff still stands (I do miss you, Two Fat Ladies), but recent years has brought Harry Potter; Dr. Who/Torchwood, Sherlock, Luther, Coast, Coupling – funniest show ever – and Outlander; Oasis, Radiohead, and Mumford and Sons. Never a particular fan of the monarchy, I’ve even developed a fondness for Prince Harry after his impressive performance onstage at the Invictus Games last fall.
Yet, despite all this, I still defer to a once-upon-a-time customer at the Happy Eater, who seemed to get the sentiment, as the Brits would say, spot on: “I’ve been coming [to London] every year for 40 years,” she remarked. “It gets in your blood!” It’s an observation I have come to innately understand.
An enduring symbol of Britain: the red phone box.