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Battling With Directions and the Muvver Tongue

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section

November 01, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a nationally known travel writer who resides in Canoga Park

A lot of the fun of travel, at least for my wife and me, has been based on misunderstanding and misdirection. The best examples of this involve some of our journeys to the United Kingdom.

In the British Isles my wife and I have managed to get some of the worst directions, occasionally no understanding at all and, consequently, some of the most memorable little adventures.

I believe it stems mostly from the fact that the average citizen of Great Britain thinks he, or she, speaks English. We, with our tourist feet very consciously planted on the soil where that language was invented, tend to believe they are right.


The English people do not speak English; they speak about two dozen varieties of English, almost none of which approximates American English. A good part of the time they don't even understand each other. Why should we think we can go to their country from our provincial little communities such as Canoga Park or Chicago, Ontario or Manhattan and immediately understand? I don't know why, but we do.

Beware Little Old Ladies

On our first trip abroad we were walking on London's Oxford Street. It was 10:30 in the morning and we wanted to get to Buckingham Palace in time for the changing of the guard. I had my map unfolded and we were attempting, with little success, to reason together, when we were approached by a little old lady in a blue smock and with very chapped, pink cheeks. She asked if she could 'elp us.

My wife immediately began telling the English lady about our need to reach the palace and why. The lady smiled so broadly that I thought both of her cheeks would crack.

She switched her shopping bag to her left hand and began pointing with her right while explaining, " 'ere, naw, tis sumat a walk ye duel to hrap hup, tyke the paff a way sumat by the harch 'bout free squares. H'anyroad, whore va green. Loverly, loverly an keep a watch boy va paff, ya see. . . ."

Both Joyce and I bent a little closer and listened very carefully but understood not three consecutive words. Encouraged by our attention the lady went on until we convinced her we understood. Then, with a final cheek-cracking smile, assured by us that we would do fine, she went on her way.

Taking cues from her arm signals more than her words, we did not find Buckingham Palace, but on the strength of her directions found the Thames and a little later the Tate Gallery. It was a wonderful day. We made it to Buckingham Palace the next day.

Another year and another vacation we were back in London and going to the Ritz for High Tea. We were going ostensibly to stop the nagging of an English friend who rated it one of "life's great experiences." The only trouble was that we simply couldn't find the Ritz.

Finally, after 20 minutes of wondering around Piccadilly, we saw a meter-maid.

"The Ritz?" she said, "Jist thah," and she waved her hand vaguely in a northeasterly direction. "Jist thah. Cahnt miss it."

Well, we could and did miss it. But during the hour we spent trying to follow the directions we saw parts of Central London I don't think Dickens knew about. We finally took a cab.

The Ritz was half a mile down and across the street from where we'd received directions from the meter-maid.

Beware the Pink Tea

Our nagging English friend had been right. High Tea at the Ritz was a fun experience, but you've got to like pink tea and not mind cucumber sandwiches.

If you try it, though, and ask directions, just remember in one of those two dozen varieties of English, "Jist thah" means "half a mile down and across the street."

One year we took a driving tour of the United Kingdom. We had a rental car and were driving north toward Inverness on a beautiful rainy day when we entered a little Scottish town. Thinking we'd just zip on through and come out the other side, I stayed on the main road, or so I thought.

We saw a pub with a sign on the side saying "Take Courage."

"What's that all about, you suppose?" my wife asked.

"Probably something left over from the war," I answered. About 15 minutes later we saw another pub that looked remarkably like the first and bearing the same sign.

"Must be a franchise," I ventured. Joyce nodded but I could see she had doubts. It was raining harder when we saw what I strongly suspected was not the third pub in a set.

"We're going in circles. We'll just have to stop and ask someone the way out of town," she said.

"Swell, but who?"

The rain was a steady downpour and there was no one on the streets and apparently no open businesses. After 10 minutes we saw a woman walking next to the road. My wife offered her a ride but she smiled and shook her head, "No." Then we asked her directions on how to get out of the city.

Beware the Direction Giver

The "No" was about the last thing she said that we really understood. She leaned on the windowsill of the passenger side, seemingly filled with the joy of being asked to help, and explained and explained.

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