I arrived in England on a grey, brisk (they called it) morning in May.
‘Brisk’ in the UK, of course, really means ‘freezing cold’ for a Queenslander and it was still 6am when I emerged from terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport. There was a force 9 gale roaring through the undercover area where the hapless traveller is made to stand shivering while waiting for an afore-promised bus to arrive. (I know, I know. Well you’ve used the word afore-mentioned haven’t you? Well then – extrapolate. I do all the time.)
After walking miles (well it seemed like miles when loaded to the gunnelswith luggage) to try to establish that my bus would arrive at bus stop 26, and knowing I had an hour to wait, I dragged my weary self and ridiculously large amount of luggage back inside the terminal and back to the coffee shop. With great relief I plonked the lot of it in a big pile next to a table near the counter.
 ‘Gunnels’ is a modern spelling of ‘gunwales’ which refers to the top edge of the side of a boat. Hence ‘loaded to the gunnels’ means loaded to capacity. ‘Gunnels ‘ indicates how ‘gunwales’ is pronounced.
Even I was savvy enough to know what happens to unguarded luggage at an ‘overseas’ airport so I ensured that I could keep an eye on it while waiting to be served. I’d been warned before leaving Oz not to leave any belongings unattended once I was abroad, especially anywhere as far afield as England. Not that there was much evidence as yet that the country in which I found myself was, in fact, England.
Things have changed a lot since I was last in the UK 21 years ago and it has become much more multi-cultural… or is it simply that people from ‘foreign’ backgrounds are now allowed to work in ordinary jobs? Take the man at the immigration desk for instance. In the old days we used to be met by a stiff-upper-lip type looking down his nose at us…..at the colonial hicks he was forced to let into the country – no doubt against his better judgement.
So I was pleasantly surprised to be handing over my passport to a be-turbanned dark-skinned chap for his stamp of approval. Quite a change and – more remarkably – he spoke English without any hint of another accent. It gave me quite a jolt to realize that he was far more British than I was even though I was an Aussie!
Yes, I know. It does sound like a very old-fashioned outlook….but what can I say….I’m old. BUT I am trying to update my thinking…..honestly……. I am.
Now, at the coffee shop, I was confronted by three women behind the counter jabbering away in some European tongue. When I asked for a decaf coffee I received a rather cold, blank stare of disbelief – or was it incomprehension? I decided it was probably a bit of both after I heard the reply of the stern looking girl behind the counter. Then it was my turn to give HER a blank stare back – I hadn’t understood a single word she’d said in her thick accent.
She turned from me with disdain and carried on an animated discussion in her native tongue with a couple of colleagues…. maybe making fun of my peculiar accent! Not much chance of being understood then, I thought with a sinking feeling – none of them had been in the country very long by the sound of it.
I glanced from one to the other while pathetically mewing about what I wanted, hoping that one of them would take pity on me and make some effort to understand what I was saying. Eventually I had to settle for the type of coffee they obviously forced everyone to buy because it was the only one they could pronounce half -properly.
As for a discussion about a freshly toasted sandwich?
I gave up on that one very early in the piece and pointed dejectedly at a stale old muffin that looked as tired as I did.
Mind you, I felt that I, at least, had a very good excuse for looking so tired. The 26-hour flight from Australia during which I’d had little sleep had left me feeling too tired to care – too tired to put up much of a fight. Looking on the bright side I HAD managed to get the word ‘cappuccino’ across – after all it was a coffee shop – and I soon found myself forcing down a few dried out muffin crumbs and washing them down with some watery brown sludge with a smidgen of froth on top.
Now, I can put up with a lot, you know, but the only reason I drink coffee is to savour the froth and the yummy chocolate sprinkly stuff on the top of a cappuccino. I don’t drink any other sort of coffee – I can’t cope.
A full strength coffee would keep me awake for a fortnight and I don’t even like the taste of the stuff. Just the merest hint of coffee aroma and a big dollop of firm yet moist milk froth plus sprinkle is all I ask. I am fortunate insofar as in Australia we do make a good coffee. Even as a non-connoisseur of coffee it was quite evident to me that the English and some of their continental employees are hopeless at it.
I can imagine a training session for the, er…..wait-persons??…. wait-people?? No, wait, I’ve got it. Wait-staff.
“Okay then darlin’. ‘ave you got some of the brown stuff in the cup? Right then. ‘eat up some milk and chuck it in on top. Don’t muck about doin’ that frothin’ sh*t – time is money ‘ere, right? None of ‘em won’t know the difference anyway.” (Well he’s got that bit right, little does he know!)
Let’s just say I was less than impressed by my first taste of English coffee.
But wait – I hear you cry – that was at Heathrow! It’s very different in London itself – world-class restaurants, Italian cafes etc etc. Sorry to disappoint you but from the point of view of your average visitor – and let’s face it I’m depressingly average – London, and I’d go so far as to say, England, cannot produce a good cappuccino at a reasonable price. At least, not the way I like it.
And the reason?
Nobody cares enough to make a good froth. Simple as that.
So who cares, you ask?
It doesn’t matter how many shrivelled up bits of cake, tart, muffin, friand (friand??), wrap or sandwich you have in your glass cabinet, if your staff can’t produce good, firm, moist froth then you shouldn’t have Cappuccino on your menu board.
As you can see from the above I was feeling exhausted, picky and perhaps somewhat unreasonable that morning but I mean what I say about the froth.
Now where was I? Oh yes – back to Heathrow. Mind you I HAD been mightily impressed by the speed with which I’d been spat out into the vicinity of the coffee shop after leaving the plane.
PS…I like the idea of the explanatory note about gunnels being at the end of the paragraph …. any thoughts?