When traveling to a distant land, a local connection can help you ten times more than a travel agent back home. Think of the benefits: a place to stay, a few free meals, and best of all, an eager guide to show you all the best (and often, the most unusual) places. Sometimes, this can lead to an adventure even your local friend didn’t expect.
Once, we spent a few days in a farmhouse in rural Surrey, England—the kind of place that had a name for an address, not a number. The owners were friends of friends, and staying at the complex of thatch-roofed houses felt like stepping into a Thomas Kinkade painting, except without the angelic phoniness. Theirs was a working farm, after all, so you had to watch where you stepped. (Try finding that in a Kinkade.)
One evening, we decided to check out the local pub. Pubs have been in England since England was old enough to drink. The local establishment, we discovered, waited a couple kilometers away. As dusk was approaching and our host had duties to perform, he handed us a torch (a flashlight) and pointed us in the general direction with a subtle hint: “You can’t miss it.”
We followed a narrow country lane, flanked on both sides by the ditches famously used to “sleep one off.” The landscape rolled and pitched like a drunken cow, and darkness descended rapidly. Using the torch, we proceeded with all speed toward our destination, our thirst mounting with every step.
Then a strange noise caused us all to stop. We were from the city; we knew as much about the animals that prowled the English backwoods as we did about shearing sheep. The noise could have gurgled out of the throat of an enthusiastic eating machine a la Monty Python.
The sound grew louder, and we realized it came from behind us. When we turned, we saw a wavering light bouncing toward the crest of the previous hill. We laughed at ourselves, afraid of an automobile. But when the large truck approached, it headed straight for us! We had to jump down into the ditch to avoid being run over. The driver even had the nerve to blast his horn as he sped by.
Then we realized our mistake. We’d been walking along the left side of the road, expecting oncoming traffic to approach from that side, but they drive on the left in England, mainly because Napoleon never conquered them (you can look it up). After brushing ourselves off, we crossed the road and continued our journey.
We made it safely to the pub, a small cabin at a crossroads. Even from outside, we could hear the chatter and unmistakable laughter of the British; the decisive thud of a dart landing in cork; and the clink of heavy pint glasses. The moment we stepped inside, however, all conversation stopped. Pints froze in mid-heft. Even the dart game paused. After an uncomfortable moment, we sidled up to the bar and ordered a round of the local finest. Conversations resumed, as if we’d passed a test: “It’s OK; they’re drinking.”
By the end of the evening, we’d met a few of the local characters. Some actually rounded on us like we were prized collectables or low-priced hookers. We learned that the local brew was nicknamed “Fuzzy Tongue” for its effect on the drinker after a couple pints. We immediately put the claim to the test.
While we drank, we swapped tales. We told the story of how our native state back home (the uptight Commonwealth of Massachusetts) had made Happy Hour illegal in an unsubtle attempt to reduce the number of drunk drivers. Our new British friends were appalled. “That’s Communism!” they cried. Their stories were full of local humor—like the one about the blighter who opened a competing pub. “The fool refrigerated his ale,” one of the regulars laughed into his room-temperature mug. “No one in his right mind would drink there.”
As we left, our new friends toasted the President, the Vice-President, and Homer Simpson. “All great actors,” they shouted. We didn’t take the bait. We left peacefully, smiling like idiots. We had no choice, not because they outnumbered us (although they did), but because we discovered we could barely speak. Fuzzy Tongue, indeed.
Lessons Learned: When you venture into a foreign culture, heed the native warnings. They’re not trying to scare you; they’re trying to prepare you. And if you imbibe, designate someone to be the Designated Walker, to steer you in the right direction and do all the thinking. We had trekked halfway home (uphill all the way) before any of us remembered that our hosts invited us to call for a ride.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: London Heathrow Airport
Native Population: 18,000
Normal Attractions: Small villages in the English countryside have their own charms, but unless you know someone there, you’re likely just passing through.
Final Point of Interest: We helped our hosts corral a truckload of sheep one morning, but when we returned to the States, we had to explain that bit of “stuff” on the bottom of our shoes to a Customs Agent. He almost didn’t let us back in.