Want to meet locals? Pull pints for a while

Published October 15, 2006

For three weeks I've smelled like stale beer and cigarettes, and I've scored the e-mail addresses of seven middle-aged English men.

No, I haven't resorted to the world's oldest profession to make money as we travel, but I have been working in a pub called the Office in Tunbridge Wells, England.

One of England's many cozy nooks where anyone over 18 can enjoy a lukewarm jug of Harvey's Bitter, the Office has a trendier and more youthful ambience than a "traditional" pub in Britain.

Even so, the pub culture remains the same, as far as I know. Political debates, hardy-har-hars from boisterous, red-cheeked men and inane drunken drivel thrive at the Office.

I've jumped ahead of myself. Allow me to start closer to the beginning.

My boyfriend and traveling companion, Jason, and I had been scraping the bottom of the barrel financially for several weeks. Time to activate our emergency plan. We left Austria for England, where we could legally work with the permits we had arranged before we left home in Florida.

Not only is being granted a permit to work in Britain much easier than most other countries, but the British pound is so strong that whatever we make in England, we know will be worth more wherever we head next.

So we went job-hunting in Tunbridge Wells, prepared to grab any job we could find. We even stuffed mailboxes in our neighborhood with flyers advertising our services as house cleaners, lawn mowers or babysitters. We had no luck with that, but by our second day, I had a job at the Office, and Jason was making about 10 pounds an hour (about $18.50) playing his guitar and singing on the street.

I offered to come with him to dance while he played, but he didn't think that would bring in more money.

A word of advice: Sometimes you have to tell a teensy-weensy fib to get a job while you're traveling. Nobody ever would have hired me knowing that I was only intending to work for two or three weeks, so I told them I was going to be there for several months.

I know, I know. Bad girl.

That's how I wound up behind the bar, making lots of buddies who would come in for a routine noontime pint, or an after-work cocktail. There were definite regulars, and within days I knew what time they would arrive, what they were having, where they'd sit and how long they would be drinking.

I witnessed hours of amateur philosophy, heard uninvited opinions about America and offered a few suggestions to men struggling in love. And as I said, I made a few friends along the way.

We've fattened our wallets a little and now it's time to start a new adventure.

Much to our happiness, we're staying with our generous friends in Antwerp, Belgium, again. After three weeks in England, jumping back to the non-English speaking side of Europe feels exciting and new all over.

During the first half of our travels, we waited until the last minute to make arrangements for transportation. This half, we've already booked all the RyanAir flights we'll take for the rest of our time here. By booking far enough ahead, we've gotten unbelievable rates.

Although it's somehow a relief to know where we're going, when we're going and that we've already paid, I wouldn't have wanted to have everything preplanned and booked throughout the entire trip.

In a week, we'll head to the southern coast of Spain, where we'll be working at a guest house for two weeks in exchange for three meals a day and a comfy place to sleep.

I'm looking forward to a little humidity and the kind of sun that you can feel as it soaks deep into your skin. You know, Florida-style sun.

Kate Wilson of St. Petersburg is writing periodically about her European travels during her five months abroad. Read more on her blog, www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Jason-and-Kate.