Back to Normal

I am somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, returning home after ten days in England. It was our first trip overseas since pre-Covid. We spent five nights in London, two in the Cotswolds, one in Oxford, and a final night in London before heading home. Here are a few observations, for whatever interest they might have.

* Everything is back to normal. Flights are normal, restaurants and bars are bustling, and almost no one is wearing a mask. Covid seems like a bad dream from which we have awakened.

* On our first morning in London, we set out from the Carlton Club, where we were staying, to walk through St. James’s Park to Buckingham Palace. As I wrote here, we were stopped by barricades and police officers. We listened to a band play right next to us and watched marching and mounted soldiers go by in both directions, until the official procession began. Royal carriages passed by, carrying King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla, and then Prince William and Princess Kate, along with lesser dignitaries like the President of South Africa. After I did my post, I heard from a Power Line reader who was standing in the crowd just 50 yards away from us. It’s a small world!

* This is a great time of year to be in Europe. If you are gone over Thanksgiving, you don’t miss a lot of time from work. And it is the Christmas season. Christmas is more publicly embraced in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. I took this video from the steps of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, looking out on the Christmas Market there:

You see many references to Christmas, few or none to “holidays.” The streets are decorated, and private businesses join in enthusiastically. Like the Ritz:

Last night we had dinner at Scott’s, a seafood restaurant in Mayfair. This is what the entrance looked like:

* One morning I went down to breakfast at the Carlton Club, traditional home of the
Conservative Party…

…and saw a familiar face at the next table. I thought, is that Mark Steyn? He looked up and said, “John?” I said, “Mark?” Sure enough. He was in town shooting his television show on Great Britain News. He can do the show from his home in the U.S., but sometimes travels to London to film it there. We chatted for a while.

My wife and I had invited two young friends from Minnesota, who happened to be in London at the same time, to join us for dinner at Carlton that evening, after which we repaired to the club’s Harold MacMillan bar. Mark joined us there after filming his show. We stayed in the bar until it closed and then moved to the Margaret Thatcher Lounge, where we stayed up later than we have in a long time.

Steyn is as entertaining a companion as you would expect. I am not sure he would approve of this characterization, but he is a nice guy, gentle and a little shy. I watch virtually no television, but will have to check out Mark’s show, which I am sure is great. How to do that? GB News has an app where you can watch live that works on the iPhone, the iPad and Apple TV. Or you can watch after the fact on YouTube. This is yesterday’s show:

* Driving in the English countryside is mostly fun. Driving on the left isn’t difficult in itself, in part because you are sitting on the right side of the car and thus are in the middle of the road. So driving on the left feels natural. But there are other challenges: ridiculously narrow streets, curbs where the shoulder should be, and so on. I don’t mind the roundabouts, which are proliferating in the U.S. as well. You just have to remember to go left instead of right. But occasionally they have *pretend* roundabouts—a place where roads coming from four or five directions converge on a broad open area, in the midst of which there is a painted roundabout symbol. I have yet to figure out how to navigate those. In one instance on this vacation, I just took a hard left and came back from a different direction, which worked well. There is always a sense of accomplishment, and relief, when I return the rental car, undented.

* The Cotswolds are beautiful and historic. Unfortunately, everyone knows that, and they are crowded even off-season. In towns like Stow-On-the-Wold, where we paid a fun visit, the principal problem is parking:

So it is nice to stay in a smaller village like Lower Slaughter. If you are planning on being in that part of the world, we recommend The Slaughters Manor House.

* Newspapers are full of concern about the coming winter and Britain’s ability to heat itself. I think those concerns are justified, but we never heard a word about the energy crisis. The heat was on wherever we went. As I noted here, the Brits’ main concern was the World Cup, not shivering through the winter.

* The cashless society is upon us. Decades ago, when I first traveled to England, buying American Express Travelers Cheques was part of the ritual. Who was the actor who played policemen and did their TV ads? “If lost or stolen…” In more recent years, even after credit cards became internationally ubiquitous, one of the first things we would do was get some local currency.

Not this time. Every single expense was paid with a Visa card. Everywhere we went, whether a restaurant, a hotel, or a cab, we were presented with a little machine over which I would lay a credit card and, voila! we were done. In ten days, we never spent a penny in cash, with one exception: I did spend the two five-pound notes that I had been carrying in my billfold since our last, pre-Covid visit.

* Tipping has been more or less abolished in the U.K. Hallelujah! Every restaurant or bar bill we paid included a service charge that varied between 12.5% and 14.5%. There seemed to be no expectation, and generally no opportunity, to pay more. The only exception we encountered was in cabs, where the credit card format included an opportunity to add a small tip. I hope this trend comes to the U.S. soon.

* We passed through Oxford coming and going, but didn’t wind up spending much time in the city. There was an exhibit at the Ashmolean Museum that my wife wanted to see, and we spent considerable time there. But that museum, like others, is angst-ridden over the provenance of its collection—a residue of the colonial era. I personally have no problem with colonialism, especially of the British variety. It was a huge net benefit to humanity.

Otherwise, Oxford lacked appeal. It has the drawbacks of a city without the benefits. Political correctness is stifling: Oxford has banned Ubers, so you have to take a cab. But you can’t get a cab. After returning our rental car, we waited at the Enterprise office for over an hour waiting for a cab that was supposed to arrive in ten minutes. And we are told that Oxford is weirdly oppressive in other ways that are more or less reminiscent of Xi’s China. Overall, I found that my opinion of universities has fallen so low in recent years that I no longer enjoy the atmosphere of a university town. Sad.

Not being able to travel abroad in a normal fashion for two years was infuriating—although, compared with the damage we inflicted on our young people, it was a relatively minor effect of covid hysteria. It is great that normal life has now resumed. We must never allow the authoritarians to shut us down again.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.