It’s back to the train station in the morning. We’re peasant class this time, but those packed lunches our hotel staff promised us last night are waiting at our door when we wake.
Everyone gets an apple. My sister has some standard potato chips, while my mom and I got these fun little crisps that look like onion rings and taste like Fritos. I swap my orange juice for my mom’s apple juice when no one is looking.
We sit in the station for half an hour before our train’s arrival gate is announced on the screens. It’s gate 1. Gate 1, of course, is nowhere to be seen.
So the three of us pull out our magical pieces of 8 to harness the power of Steve Irwin and we manage to find a sign pointing upstairs to gates 0 and 1.
At the top of the stairs is a sketchy rail track with a broken fence around it and no station at which to wait. Our gate screen says,
GATE 0: HOLLYHEAD ARRIVING 7:37 ON TIME
Again, we’re not going to Hollyhead. But by now we’ve learned enough to know that Conwy is on the way to Hollyhead and the station owners are too cheap to buy an extra panel of LEDs.
Yeah, so, don’t wanna braaaaag but we’re basically train experts.
When the train stops we board and seat ourselves at a table in an empty car. My sister has a large backpacking bag which she sets in the seats across from us where no one is sitting. Remember this. Empty car. Empty seats. One bag which we are fully willing to move at such a point when another human walks onto the train.
A variation of last post’s Patsy comes on the intercom to welcome us on the route to Hollyhead. My mother, my sister, and I begin the chronicles of staring out the window pretending we’re in the dramatic music scene mid-way through a movie. Then a 50 year old woman with dark red hair and a park ranger get-up marches down our car isle toward us. “Tickets,” she demands.
My sister drops her earbuds as we all empty our pockets of tickets. She takes the three of them, slides them through her ticket machine, and throws them so that they scatter on the table between us. My sister and I exchange the look and our mom furrows her brow. Then the woman turns a sharp eye on my sister’s bag. “Will you move this bag under the seats so that someone else can sit here?”
“uh—yeah—sure,” I try to smile at her, not really sure what we did to deserve the spiteful tone.
Before I can get up to move the bag she’s already marching off to the next car to rob some other tourist of their morning happiness.
My sister and I glare at each other while I return to my seat and our mom says, “Well she’s a little witchy, don’tcha think?”
I do think. But the day goes on, witch or not.
We ride for a while before the witch comes marching back down our car. I continue to stare out the window because I feel no need to attempt to be friendly. But then… tHEn…
Her elbow smacks into my shoulder and I get a strong whiff of old lady perfume. I jolt sideways in surprise and turn my head to see the briefest smug look on her face before she marches on down the isle.
She hit me. Witch fucking HIT me.
“She just hit me,” I tell my mom and sister. My mom gives me a disgusted look and then imitates the evil cackle of the wicked witch of the west.
I grab my shoulder like a wounded Draco Malfoy, ready to play this up for all I can get. Witch just initiated passive aggressive train-ride warfare and it is now my life’s sole responsibility to make sure she pays for it.
The next time she walks by, I slip my foot out into the isle and stare into the depths of her eyes with a glee only Satan himself could bestow. She steps around it and carries on her way without so much as a flinch.
I give a moment of silence to my failed effort and pull my foot back to await her next passing. I’ll have to be quicker next time. Smile brighter. Glare more intensely.
A cluster of people board at the next stop, including a pale, red-eyed, stubble ridden English man who is more hung over than the laundry out to dry. He rushes in, clutching his phone to his chest and sits—guess where—at the table across from us.
My mom makes a face as it becomes apparent that we are going to listen to his heavy breathing ‘til Conwy do us part. Or death. Heads or tails for a sober driver.
Mr. Hangover puts on noise-cancelling headphones and slinks into the corner to sleep. He sets his bag in the seat next to him, instead of under the seat. Witch alert. I feel bad for the guy but he clearly doesn’t want to be bothered. The seats across from him where we’d tried to store our one bag will remain empty until we reach Conwy.
My mother, my sister, and I commence the usual discussion of “what are we doing today”. Turns out there is nothing planned but our arrival in the Walled City of Conwy. A whole day with no plans to be screwed up by drunk drivers, late trains, and buses that leave without passengers.
We can hear the witch cackling in the background of train chatter. She’s talking to a child in a hideous voice that could have won her a lead role in The Wizard of Oz. “Well aren’t YOU just a CUTIE!!! eeEEEEheeheehee!!!!!””
I shudder as my mom cringes and we all silently wonder if that poor child will be sacrificed tonight to summon a demon.
We reach the next stop and a new set of passengers board. An old man with a newspaper-boy hat holds a toddler at the table in front of us and I find myself feeling sorry for the poor thing. Today is the day a witch curses your first-born grandson, sir.
A few stops go by and witch determinedly ignores all of my attempts at trickery. A wide stretch as she walks by. A last-minute foot in the aisle. A side grin. A prolonged stare. I give up after a while because she’s not reacting.
Yeah, k I’m a troll. #Don’tcare
Pictured here you can see the beautiful train bathrooms…
We’re taking off from the fourth stop when Mr. Hangover finally springs to life. “Dammit!” He exclaims, running to the doors as they close and the train starts moving. “I need to g… I need to. Shit. Shit. SHIT.”
He sits back down. Our train car falls into silence as everyone tenses their shoulders and finds anything to look at besides the man.
“Missed my stop!” He exclaims to no one, ripping off his headphones and throwing them into his bag. He runs a hand through his hair and it sticks where he leaves it—a quick pointer on where he’s at for daily showers.
The far door opens as witch comes in to collect and slide the newcomers’ tickets.
“Ma’am!” Calls Mr. Hangover. He’s jittering in his seat but she ignores him and keeps sliding tickets. “Ma’am!” He gets up and makes his way toward her, only to turn and come back as she takes interest enough to walk toward him.
“They left my stop!” He says as he sits back down.
“Mmm.” Witch doesn’t look at him as she continues to fidget with her ticket slider.
On a scale of Monty-Python-Coconut-Horses to That-Final-Semester-of-College, how many lack of fucks does she give?
“This is bloody ridiculous! The stop was scheduled 8:43. I set an alarm for 8:40 and the train was just leaving the station!”
“Train’s early.” witch squints at the slider then gives a side grin and presses a new button.
There’s a new level of fuck lackery here.. It’s called Bitch-I-Don’t-Get-Tips.
“Fucking ridiculous!”—when a British cuss word just won’t do—“Welsh rubbish, this would never happen on an English train.”
No, the English trains are all late because they’re driven by drunk people. I bite my lip.
“—Well then!? What am I supposed to do? Gonna be late for work. Hafta call them now, and explain why I’m late! This is ridiculous! I set the alarm for 3 minutes early, you’d think it would still be in the station at least—!”
“Just shut up!” Witch snaps, still refusing to meet his eye.
My mom, sister, and I exchange a look of utter shock. A customer service representative just told a customer to shut up.
Where we come from, that gets you fired.
But Mr. Hangover seems unmoved. “Bloody ridiculous—”
“I’m printing you a transfer ticket, next stop wait for the 9:12 and go back to Brecon.”
“Yeah well if the train was as scheduled, I wouldn’t have to be late for work at all.”
Witch throws the ticket as she’s turning around so Mr. Hangover has to catch it before it flies onto the floor of the train, lost in despair and never to be seen again.
He huffs and slouches back into his seat, headphones still packed away in his bag. When he’s glared at the transfer ticket long enough to deem that he is, in fact, going to have to use it, he makes the call to his boss.
I’ll be late, yadda yada, bloody fucking welsh trains. He whips out a little baggie and starts rolling a joint.
By the time the train stops he’s given his boss every word that’s inappropriate for the workplace and then some. I swear, nothing gets these people fired.
He hurries out in a bustle—hair awry, side satchel shoving against his hip with every step.
And once again, all seats at the table across from us are empty.
Onward to Conwy.
When we arrive at Conwy, 90% of the train’s riders stand up. I sigh as I realize it’s going to be one of those my-bag-is-jammed-please-move-excuse-me exits. There’s a dude with a baby stroller and a dude who’s way more important than everyone else and the whole shebang.
When we finally get off the train, we follow the crowd up two flights of stairs, under a stone gate, and into the walled city of Conwy.
Or—like, the walled village of Conwy. The wall can be seen on the other side.
The first building we see is a gift shop, so we stop in to see that the shit here is consistently and significantly cheaper than equivalent shit in London. After obtaining a map from the cashier, we make our way to the town square.
We stop along the way to eat a mediocre lunch at which the only memorable occurrence is when I ask the waitress “can I get some ketchup for the fries” and she motions toward the row of ketchup stashed on a shelf like “yup” and I proceed awkwardly far into employee-only territory to retrieve it.
Customer service in the Great Britain makes about as much sense as a dollar-bill gumball machine.
That was a pun.
“Kenny,” my mom says as we seat ourselves on a stone wall with a great uphill view of the town square. “I’d like a scissors so I can cut my bangs.”
“If we get beer in a shop, can we drink it here in the town square?” I don’t want to walk all the way to a shop just for scissors. I don’t want to pay pub prices for beer. This seems like a win-win.
“It’s not legal to loiter the streets with alcohol like drunkards,” My sister says, relieving her shoulders of the large red bag hosting 90% of our cargo.
“But it’s legal to loiter the crowded streets with scissors?” I counter.
When you come from a country boasting 14.5 million concealed carry permit holders, it’s hard to decide what crosses the line.
Protip #17: It is not, in fact, legal to drink beer in the streets of a Welsh town. It is, in fact, legal to carry scissors. At least, if it isn’t legal, no one cares enough to question it. Maybe we broke the law. I don’t know. Don’t rat me out.
I go to the nearest good-sized shop and walk in to find what looks like a midwestern convenience store. Shelves stocked by hand with shipments akin to some old man’s spoils after a Target run where he threw 50 items into the cart to make his living room look “fun”. One keychain with the Welsh dragon, another with the royal crown. 15 different kinds of toothpaste in 15 different tubes.
You get the point.
I’m rather surprised to find scissors within the first minute of searching. They’re clustered into a box on the top shelf and I dig around a bit to avoid disgusting colors like pink and yellow. There’s a gray pair that has been protected underneath, so I grab it and stop only a moment to check the price—
Maybe I’ve still got London pricing in mind, but that seems a lil cheap.
“Ye findin’ what ye need, then?”
I jump as the cashier calls out. I’ve gotten so used to the wonderful silence that greets you in British shops. No “Hello there!”. No “How are you?”. No “Would you like to hear the specials?”.
In fact it dawns on me that I haven’t been accosted by customer service once the whole time we’ve been here.
Then again, this woman just watched me spend a solid two minutes digging through a box of sharp blades.
“Um, yeah. Just wanted these scissors.” I bring my find to the counter and pull out my trusty VISA.
“Ah, very good then.” She nods like an uptight hippie—curt but relaxed. “We do ‘ave a five pound minimoom on cards actually.”
Protip #18: Card minimum of five. Five dollars in the US. Five pounds in the UK. Five euros in Ireland. Never mind that a unit of five in each of these currencies differs vastly in true amount. I bet if you went to Kuwait they’d have a five dinar minimum for cards, never mind that’s over sixteen dollars.
“Right,” I take the scissors back and then think better of it. She’s been cautious already. “Can I just… leave these here?”
She blinks in surprise but shrugs after a moment.
I nod in return and shuffle away.
Half a pound down. Four and half to go.
While here, we’re collecting candies for my youngest brother. So I find the 1 euro isle and load up on some foreign delicacies. I don’t remember what they’re called but some polar bear mints and gummy fruits in flavors like mango and kiwi, which you can’t get in the US unless you slink down the dead-fish-trodden rows of a sketchy Asian market in Fargo…
Story for another time.
But everything is just so cheap. And we’ve already established that I can’t buy alcohol.
When I finally return to the counter, my arms are full and tired from dragging around so much loot.
“Ye found it all then?”
“I found enough.” I say this while calculating in my head just to make sure that six bags of food, a pair of scissors and a keychain will actually put me over the five pound minimum. I think I’m safe.
“How do ye like Wales then?”
Then, then, then. Then? Thenity then then.
“Better than London.”
The woman pauses ringing up the bags before giving me this grin like I’m suddenly speaking her language.
Ah, yes. Of course.
Protip #19: Quickest way to get a British person to like you is by insulting another British nationality that they’re supposed to hate. But it’s tricky. These countries are small and ancient, so it’s hard to keep track of who hates who. Here’s a quick low-down:
So there’s Great Britain. And Great Britain includes three countries: England, Wales, and Scotland. These “countries” are not sovereign states, but nobody tell them that. Basically they are called Great Britain because they share a land mass and for no other reason. Ireland is an independent nation, except for Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom along with Great Britain, and is officially recognized by the UN and EU as a quote-unquote real country.
Historically England has been an asshole. Now, the English don’t like the Scottish—(for more on that, see the movie Braveheart), the Irish hate the British for religious reasons, the Welsh hate everyone who can’t speak their language, and no one knows the true origins of St. Patrick except they all agree he definitely didn’t come from Ireland. To play it safe, everybody hates the English.
Except Northern Ireland, but they still segregate Protestants and shit so who cares what they think.
I don’t know if I’m only seeing this relative to the horrors of London, but right now Wales feels like Heaven on Earth. My spoils cost me about 5.60 pounds and I return—arms loaded—to my mom and sister in the square.
For a quaint town square in a walled city meant to replicate the middle ages, you’d think they’d have more going on. In reality it’s full of European tourists out for an adventure from city life.
There is no adventure though. It’s basically a glorified shopping district.
So we go down a side street in search of our hotel. Our hotel is called The Bridge Inn and we’ve got two rooms. One is called the Castle Room, for our mother, and the other is named something unmemorable, for my sister and I.
Somewhere down this side street, the three of us split up for no spoken reason or result. I check out a thrift store, where I almost purchased a stringless guitar, (before I realized that I have not the place nor tools to string a guitar). But the idea of traveling Europe with a half-sized guitar strung over one shoulder is too epic to leave unconsidered.
I can’t speak for the adventures of my sister and mom at this point, to this day it remains the one moment we were truly parted and simultaneously exposed to the public. One small half-hour we each have to say—yes, I was alone carrying all my belongings in the cobblestone alleys of a foreign country.
After regrouping, we stop halfway down the street to loiter near this cozy tree.
“Kenny.” My mom swings on her seat atop the garden wall. “why don’t you get us some ice cream?”
There’s an ice cream shop across the road so I take her card because I ain’t gonna say no to free ice cream.
“What kind do you want?” I pretend to listen, but really I’m scoping out every passerby that’s holding a cone. I see chocolate. I see cherries. That one’s got fudge.
“Something with nuts. Pecans. Or walnuts, if they don’t have any.”
I nod and head into the ice cream parlor.
If I had 10% more social anxiety in me, I would have turned around right there and walked back out. This place is packed. The ice cream counter is shaped like an L, conveniently so that you can only read half the flavors while waiting in line. I find one called somethin-or-other-pecan and another called Merry Cherry Delight, so when my time comes I order a cone of each.
The woman hands me both cones—a tricky maneuver around the VISA in my hand—and I make as if to pay until she says, “Er, we don’t have a reader?”
Of course. They need cash. This place is all about convenience.
“Can I—” Someone shoves into my side by accident and I raise my voice over the noise of the crowd. “Go find an ATM!?”
She nods because she’s a minimum wage worker who could not possibly care less about a tourist holding 4.10 pounds worth of ice cream. So I casually leave the premise.
I have the power to steal this ice cream right now. Such power that I finally understand what drew Anakin to the dark side. I feel it, coursing through my veins, a rush of euphoric adrenaline.
So I go to the ATM, withdraw a 20 and go back in to pay for the ice cream.
The ice cream is not ice cream.
Protip #20: I said before and I repeat, there is no ice cream in the British Isles. (Also see: Protip #7)
It is frozen milk. My mom complains that the pecans are candied and, therefore, ruined. I try to suck up the dripping edges of my own cone before it all turns to a puddle of lost hopes at my feet.
By the time we’ve finished eating, my sister has returned from her shop-loitering and the three of us proceed to our hotel.
When we enter the Bridge Inn, we are greeted with a cozy pub setting, the happy woman behind the counter smiles and asks what she can do us fer.
“We’re here to check in,” my mom says, producing the card on which resides our reservation.
The happy cashier—let’s call her Bertha—gets us our keys and we scurry on up the stairs to our rooms.
The rooms are nice, as in they look old and Britishy and have curtains picked in specific colors that match the wall paper.
My mom decides to chill in the new room so my sister and I set out to walk the perimeter of the Great Wall of Conwy.
There’s an entry point near our hotel so we climb the rickety wooden steps and voila! We’re on top of the world—er, wall. It’s beautiful. The sky, the air, the vandalized stones of the wall. We can see like… some of the city. It’s great. The walkway has missing boards and rotting sections and squeaks under our weight but hey—YOLO, right?
In about 5 minutes we reach the end of the wall.
I wasn’t expecting this. I was expecting the wall to loop the city so we could walk it around and around, again and again, for all of eternity.
JK, if I wanted to be stuck in a time loop I’d just move back to small-town Midwest.
When we step down off the wall we find ourselves in a garden. We walk the pathway as a man plays a serenade of “Wild Mountain Thyme” on the violin to the bright red flowers scattered o’r the green green grass of home.
Protip#21: A walled city does not necessarily have a wall that runs its entire perimeter. Take, for instance, the Walled City of Conwy. It has three separate segments of wall, so if you climb up onto the smallest one you will reach the end. And finding the next entry point will leave you stranded in the parking lot of a visitor’s center that is difficult to navigate but would be 10x harder to navigate in an actual car.
I hop onto a curb as another tour bus rolls into the lot. “We can ask in the visitor’s center.”
The question is wtf happened to the rest of the wall. We saw it on the way in from the train station, but it’s impossible to get to now. At some point we went into a tunnel and now we’re outside of the city with no signs directing us to the next wall entry point. I think of the moments before we left our hotel room, when our mother reminded us of the movie Taken as a warning not to get kidnapped.
“K, whatever.” My sister joins me and we climb up the stairs past a cafe to the visitor’s center. 20 foreigners—mostly Australian—watch us enter the gift shop as they’re sipping out of steaming cups.
The gift shop contains a lot of gift-shopy things like overpriced chocolates, overpriced mugs, overpriced Welsh keychains, and large books filled with pictures of the wall we can’t find.
After wandering around for a while, I locate a door which appears to lead to a raised stone platforms that may or may not eventually lead us to the rest of the wall. With a triumphant grin, I motion to my sister on the other end of the shop. She gives me a look like I’m an idiot. In retrospect, I should have probably stopped to think why she was giving me this look because I’m 100% about to trespass.
But instead I assume she’s following as I push open the door and march confidently in the direction of the stone platform. I’ve found the wall, my friends! I am a genius. Just a quick set of stairs and the rest of the wall will be in plain sight.
About 10 minutes and 100 steps later, I start seeing signs akin to “Danger: castle tour contains dangerous hikes and slippery walkways, proceed with caution.” I think it’s cute. I even stop to take a picture.
It doesn’t hit me until a couple signs in that I am not, in fact, part of a castle tour nor have I paid to tour the castle.
I promptly turn around and make my way back to the gift shop. Now, I’m a strong believer in the fake-it-til-you-make-it method and I would say that a few weird looks is a pretty small repercussion for stowing away in a 2,000 year old castle in Wales. So when I shove the door open and march through the gift shop like a high school student running to class 30 seconds before the bell rings, I’m relieved that no one stops me. I burst back out into that confusing parking lot and…
My sister is nowhere to be seen. We have no phones to get in touch and if I go back to the room my Mom is most certainly going to ask where she is.
After a quick breather, I retrace our steps. I go back into the gift shop, check the nearby restaurant, reenter the tunnel which is a lot creepier to treck alone, the garden, the 5-minute wall, all the way back to the Bridge Inn.
I don’t want to say I gave up here… because I didn’t. I searched the streets for hours, determined to relocate my lost sister so the two of us could find the remainder of the wall and finally complete our perimeter mission—
Okay yeah I gave up and went back to the room. I was tired. And possibly wanted by the Conwy City police.
In the room I make a cup of Assam tea from the little basket of delectables they’ve left on a table. When my mom asks the whereabouts of my sister I say that she’s checking out the rest of the wall. It’s probably true.
So we sit and check out some British TV, which is the same as American TV except everyone has British accents.
My sister comes back a couple hours later. She scoffs when I say that I didn’t find the rest of the wall, presumably because she did. She did. She shows me pictures.
I’m not that upset though cuz we’ve got all day tomorrow for her to show me the magical stairway to the rest of the wall and right now it’s time for food.
Back to the streets.
Most businesses on the main street of Conwy are closed but there are lights and voices shining from a gated courtyard across from our hotel so we check it out.
The sign says “French Bistro” and we’re both instantly sold because, you know, French Bistro. The menu is taped to an open gate leading into what appears to be some kind of establishment whereby we will be able to trade this Monopolyesque foreign currency for delectable food. They’re having a deal on butter chicken and coconut curry, buy one get one free. We are instantly sold.
As we walk past the gate, a man steps out of an archway in front of us, both arms locked under a large tray of steaks and stews.
But, as with most such establishments in the area, there is no order of things. There are no signs dictating where to wait, no obvious waiting place, and no one asks us why we are standing around in the way.
My sister and I exchange the look and I enter the archway from which he has just come.
It appears to be the kitchen. As my sister follows me, I turn and shoo her out. We follow the direction of the waiter and find a patio hosting maybe 10 tables, about half of which seat guests.
The place does not look particularly busy.
Another waiter walks away from the table where she’s just taken an order and avoids our desperate eye contact as she goes back to the kitchen.
I look at my sister. She looks at me.
Well, neither of us is gonna initiate conversation.
“Okay, let’s find another place.”
So we hit the streets again, except it’s now 6:45 and everything is closing or closed.
Eventually we give up and return, stomachs empty, hearts heavy, to our hotel.
When we walk into the Bridge Inn, we are greeted with the night life of the City of Conwy. That is to say, there’s a group of middle-aged men drinking Heineken and pretending it has enough alcohol to make them say the stupid things they’ve wanted to say all day but couldn’t because they were—quote-unquote “sober”.
That’s when we remember that our hotel bar has a convenient dinner menu.
We get some Guinness from the blond boy behind the counter and ask if we can have menus. He goes to fetch Bertha, keeper of the menus of Bridge Inn Pub.
She escorts us to a table near the window and gives us one menu, which is a printed reddish paper containing 5 entree selections:
1. Bangers and Mash
2. Nacho Supreme Taco Salad
3. Beef Stew
4. Indian curry
5. Liver and Onions
Obviously, 1, 2, and 5 are out. Thanks to the French Bistro we had our hearts set on curry. Only thing is, there’s no description so we ask Bertha if we can get the deets.
She nods and comes back with the cook.
The cook is a 50 year old white man with blond hair under a stiff hat and bright blue eyes that complement the stripes on his apron. He stands in that classic “le food es perfecto” pose—hands on hips, nose in the air. When he speaks he sounds like Gobber from How to Train Your Dragon. (That’s Hiccup’s dad’s sidekick for those who don’t own both movies and aren’t anxiously awaiting season 4 of the show).
“Ye have a question?”
“Yeah, uh, we were just wondering what’s in the curry.”
He shifts weight—same pose, but with the other foot forward. “Whatever’s in the kitchen.”
I give my sister the look, but she hold’s the cook’s gaze. “What’s in the kitchen?”
“Carrots,” He says.
“Things.” He nods and crosses his arm. He doesn’t know.
Her eyebrows twitch in growing annoyance but finally she slides the menu off the table. “K, we’ll take one.”
“One fer both?”
“Yup.” I nod.
He blatantly judges our decision before he huffs off into the kitchen.
So we observe the locals at their natural watering hole until Bertha brings us a plate with a bowl of orange chunk-sauce over a scoop of standard white rice.
Not that I’m a curry snob. But it doesn’t take a curry snob to know that curry belongs with long-grain basmati or jasmine rice. Standard white rice is for the starving.
So it’s wrong right off the bat.
But we’re hungry so we dig in.
It doesn’t get better.
The curry is not good.
In fact, like everything else we’ve experienced on this continent, it’s completely tasteless. How does one combine the most fragrant and flavorful spices on earth and obtain a result which is tasteless?
On the upside, it does contain broccoli and carrots. We weren’t lied to. That’s one positive I’m gonna count on the British-Food-scale.
We down about half of it and bring the rest upstairs for our mom, then reclaim our barstools to drown the sorrows of our day.
After a few beers and half an hour of awkward silence, the blond boy starts conversing.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh-hoh-hoh,” He mocks sarcastically. My sister and I laugh. Of course our accents give us away. But what else can we say? Wisconsin? No one knows Wisconsin. New York, Cali, Texas. End of states.
“We’re from the middle area.” I try to explain with a hand map.
“Ah.” He nods in understanding. He sounds disappointed. We’re not real Americans—not like they see on TV.
“How old are you?”
My sister and I stop drinking to stare at him. Waiting for that laugh. There is no laugh.
We are being served alcohol by a 16 year old. A high-schooler. And he’s doing a fine job.
“They let you serve alcohol even though you’re under 18?”
He looks confused. “Yeah?”
We explain that if he was American he wouldn’t be able to serve alcohol for 5 more years. He is shocked.
“Yup.” I tell him about the 4 hours I worked in a restaurant when I was 19 and how I was allowed to carry—but never pour—alcohol for the tables.
He nasal-laughs, one hand resting on the Guinness tap pull.
No one has any more to say so he pretends to clean the counter while we read the TripAdvisor sign on the back wall talking about their recent change in management. Apparently they’ve redecorated the rooms.
A while later, the chef pops out to plant himself in our line of vision and asks, “So what did ya think, then? Of the curry?”
My sister and I exchange the look, and I let her do the talking because of the two of us I give precisely 1 shit about hurting people’s feelings and she gives about half of the natural log of that divided by 10.
“Flavorless,” She says, sipping her Guinness as she watches his expression for change.
He flinches and splays one hand on his chest. “Flavorless?”
“Yeah,” I agree.
He flicks his gaze between the two of us, blue eyes blazing with something like disbelief.
Protip #22: Not only is there no ice cream in the British Isles, there is also no flavor. Anywhere. Not in the cabinets, not in the kitchen, certainly not in the retorts. Locals remain in denial. No one alert them, it may cause splayed hands and expressions of disbelief.
Finally the cook huffs and marches back into the kitchen. The blond boy smirks at the Heineken he’s pouring for another old drunk guy.
“You’ve insulted him,” He says after giving the beer to a customer. He’s got a joking tone though. The chef’s not really insulted.
“Well, it’s true,” My sister says.
Insulted or not, the chef returns out of boredom when the crowd filters out and no one else orders food. “I went to the states once,” He says, half to us, half to the bartender. “It was terrible.”
He’s baiting us.
Consider us baited.
“Where’d you go?”
He jumps, like he didn’t realize we were there. “Hmmm.” He taps a foot, thinking, before finally settling on, “Tennessee.”
“Well no wonder,” My sister says. “That’s one of the worst states.”
Now, Tennessee is not—of course—one of the worst states. To explain this conundrum, we must first define Sir Charles’s Theorem.
Sir Charles’s Theorem states that for any given sample size, there exist two categories: “the worst” and “alright”, such that at least 70% of the sample is always contained in “the worst”. Therefore, it can be concluded that—despite the existence of states like Iowa and North Dakota, Sir Charles will dictate Tennessee as one of “the worst” states.
But the chef does not disagree. He looks at the bartender for confirmation and snorts. “Couldn’t even get to the next city o’er without driving… hours.”
The bartender makes a face and tells us about a park he’s wanted to visit his whole life but hasn’t because it’s—get this—two hours away.
The chef nods in condolence. “Tha’s just too much driving.”
My sister and I give each other the look. Then we burst out laughing.
Around the tears in my eyes, I see the chef and bartender staring at us in confusion.
I can finally breathe well enough to say, “I literally drove 14 hours to get to our mother’s house so we could take a 2 hour bus ride to get to the airport and go on this trip.”
The bartender pales and I think he might actually pass out. “14 hours,” he mouths. The chef’s eyes are as round as coins.
I refrain from telling them about the time 4 friends and I drove 28 hours straight to get to California.
We continue talking to the pair because there’s not a lot of business and this is honestly the most fun we’ve had all trip. We learn that the chef is originally from England, and the bartender is from a village over. Apparently Bertha is deaf and has, in fact, been reading our lips this whole time. Personally, I find that significantly more impressive than driving 14 hours. She literally had us all fooled. I never would have known she couldn’t hear.
At the end of the night, the chef has returned to the kitchen to do chef things and my sister asks the bartender if she can leave a tip. He’s confused and asks what we mean.
“A tip? For you and the cook, and Bertha?”
“Oh.” He stares at us for a while, laughs nervously, and goes in the kitchen to consult with his coworkers. We hear the word ’tip’ and some confused murmurs and then he returns with the cook at his side.
“You want to leave a tip?” He says.
My sister sighs as they run away again to fetch Bertha. “Didn’t realize it was gonna be a huge production.”
Eventually Bertha makes up some change for the 20, so the three of them can split it into some semblance of equal. My sister and I finish our beers, collect our phones and jackets.
The chef, the 16 year-old bartender, and the world’s greatest lip-reader stand in a gleeful line and watch us depart up the stairs.
My sister and I stay up for half an hour having one of those room-sharing conversations we used to have all the time growing up. Basically we judge everyone. Everyone.
Then we sleep.