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Part Two of our Travel Special!
Part One: Flying the Friendly Skies

Next week: Italy for Couples!

London Calling:
Getting to Know the Locals

or, I'm Willing to Think of England, but Do I Have to Close my Eyes?

by Jennifer Bruni and Maggie Rosen

Contrary to what your mother told you, traveling is the perfect excuse to talk to strangers (as long as they're not too strange). So what better place to start your world tour than London, where -- in theory -- they speak English?

Editor's note: Naturally, as representative of the land of the free, you'll want to be at your best. Try hitting the scene right off the plane and you'll be asleep in your Indian food before you can get off a good opening line. So here's some advice from Friend-of-BG Gavin Edwards who knows of what he speaks:

My usual technique is to take the redeye flight (from NYC) and then to stagger through as much of the day as possible. Normally, that's about lunchtime, at which point I nap for two or three hours. You must get woken up from that (by the hotel staff or a very loud alarm), otherwise you'll sleep right through and never get straight. You will be unhappy and groggy for an hour or two after waking up, but then you'll have dinner and go to sleep not too long after that. The next day you'll be pretty much on track.

Also, when you arrive, walk around in the daylight to help your body clock reset as much as possible. This is harder because of lack of sunshine in the UK, but still worth trying.

Got that? Good. Now that you're on Greenwich Mean Time, you're ready to start seeing London properly.

Out of the Flat and Into the Fire

One should catch the classic tourist spots, of course: the British Museums, the theater scene, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, etc. You've read the guidebooks and rented Notting Hill; we don't need to go into the basics here. What we would advise is that you use every opportunity, wherever you go, to talk to as many people as possible.

Meeting people while you travel is great because there's no commitment, you're less inhibited, and after all, you probably won't see these people again. Unless you're lucky and really hit it off, in which case you could have a friend for life, or better yet, you might not even have to stay at a hotel on your next trip.

There are plenty of topics to help you strike up a conversation: the weather, for one. Londoners tend to scurry outside at the slightest hint of sunshine, so feel free to look for a parting of the clouds and mention how lovely it is. It will also be painfully obvious that you're a Yank, so here's you're chance to dispel some of those misconceptions about loud-mouthed, gun-toting Americans.

How should one actually meet these strangers? (Remember, you're the foreigner!) A good bet is to head to your "local" -- the local pub, that is. The pub is the great equalizer in what is still quite a class-conscious society. For good or ill, you don't have to worry about that. As an ex-colony, you're on the lowest rung of the totem pole anyway and there's not really much to be done about it. Besides, you're thirsty.

Local Color

Drinking laws are about to change, but for the time being, you'll notice great bouts of concentrated drinking in the late afternoons and early evenings. Pubs close at 23h00 (don't get excited; that's 11 PM). As an informal rule, try to avoid any place that has a rodent or particularly disgusting critter in its name: The Slug & Lettuce, The Rat & Parrot, and so on. The names sound traditional but inside there's too much blonde wood and fancy food, and not enough authentic pub atmosphere.

The best pubs are ones with a good combination of beers, darts, music, and locals. It's going to be pretty smoky, so be prepared. If the overabundance of second hand smoke starts getting to your brain, sit near an open door or outside if the weather is cooperating. The concept of non-smoking sections, let alone not smoking, hasn't really caught on here yet.

Pick yourself a spot, order up a nice rich pint of Guinness and a packet of crisps -- that's potato chips to you -- and you're on your way. Don't leave a tip, by the way, or you'll be insulting your bartender. And you definitely do not want to do that.

Yes, You Do Actually Sound Like John Wayne

People will notice your accent straight off and, depending on the character of the place you've wandered into, they may feel free to call you a septic tank. This doesn't mean a bar fight is about to break out; it simply means they know you are a Yank. Cockney rhyming slang is enjoying a renaissance, so you may hear a series of very strange sounding phrases whose meaning is fairly obscure.

Just smile sweetly and call them a Barclays Banker (a wanker) and they will roar with laughter and claim they've found the first American with a real sense of humor. [NB: Lovely young ladies, like our contributors, may have more success with this than the gentlemen will; gentlemen may prefer to just smile and take it like a man, keeping in mind how badly we showed them up in the Revolutionary War. - ed.]

Of course, you'll run into a lot of turns of phrase you've never heard of, so you might want to study up. "Cheers" and "Ta" mean both thanks and goodbye; kind of like "ciao" in Italy. "Pulling" means picking somebody up. And since you've all seen Austin Powers, you know what shag means. Snogging, by contrast, is simply making out. You might want to dabble in that before pulling a full Monty and shagging like there's no tomorrow.

Click Here Often?

While travelling, you may be surprised to find that checking your e-mail is a great way to meet people. How else to explain the proliferation of Internet cafes that are as smoky, caffeine-y and sexy as they always have been? Indeed, in many instances, 'Internet' is just the excuse for 'cafe', where alcohol is served and music enhances the atmosphere. The mother of all Internet cafes in London is EasyEverything, and they are everywhere. Otherwise, there are plenty of smaller places, and many cafes have just added computer terminals for your convenience.

Hot Off the Presses

Brits are voracious readers, which means London's new breed of mega-bookstores like Waterstone's and Borders are fertile ground for meeting people. While looking for the next great reading material for train or plane, be sure to strategize your browsing. A good aisle in which to look for a handy Londoner would be "D-I-Y" (do-it-yourself). Likewise, if you're looking for someone sensitive yet adventurous, look in the Gardening or Cooking sections; but check for a ring and make sure it's "Cooking for One" or you may be wasting your time. Travel would be another obvious possibility. Try peering over someone's shoulder and say, "You know, I bet my favorite restaurant in Paris isn't in there." If things work out, you could always hop the London-to-Paris Eurostar train for a quick vacation-within-a-vacation.

Be A Sport

Because the weather in London is so changeable, when the sun shines, people burst outside, and strip down to expose shockingly pasty complexions. You'll be a bronze deity by comparison, no matter how pale you may feel at home. Seattlites rejoice!

You might rent rollerblades in Hyde Park and roll over to Speaker's Corner on Sundays to watch the filibustering fanatics stand on their soapboxes and spout their views. The local bobbies (police) patrol the park now in pop-off blades. If you like men in blue then you might want to have a well-timed fall near one of the many flower beds dotting the paths. Just stay away from the gravel; and whatever you do, keep out of the way of the horses (front and back ends)!

Cheerio... but Come Back Soon

The only problem with romantic travel is the end of the vacation. When it comes to romantic goodbyes, London might not lead the pack (Paris will edge it out in this category). The platform at the Eurostar at Waterloo station is a tad clinical and well lit, but if you look around, you'll probably be surprised at the places you can find to bid a fond farewell.

The Albert Bridge in Chelsea, with its jewel-y lights, is postcard perfect. You can also try almost anywhere along the Thames in Central London. The Bloomsbury area near Russell Square is an oasis of calm near the British Museum. And the top of the Royal Garden Hotel on High Street Kensington has a restaurant with lousy food but beautiful views of the Gardens and the Palace. And last but not least, nearby Holland Park is a nice place to stroll around among the peacocks.

Or, of course, if you want to say your goodbyes in true Londoner style, you could always just head down to your local pub and hoist one last pint before heading off. Cheers!

Jennifer Bruni picked up her husband at a store in New York by asking his advice on mattress firmness. Maggie Rosen is a veteran of the global dating wars.

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