Let me preface this essay by stating that I absolutely adore British people and all things British. I am the world’s most fervent Anglophile. This is not meant to poke fun in any way and the very last thing I would want to do is offend any of the great friends we’ve made in the U.K. on our trips. This is simply a commentary on the cultural differences we have noticed on our trips to the U.K. – and some of these differences we occasionally find amusing. I truly wish we hadn’t won the Revolutionary War, then perhaps I could spend more than two weeks a year in the place I love most in the world!
The most obvious difference – driving on the opposite side of the road, which makes crossing streets very difficult since we Americans are programmed to look left before crossing and in Britain it is positively crucial to look right. On our first trip to the U.K. Allan and I were constantly grabbing Holly's coat and yanking her out the path of oncoming red double decker buses. I once actually waited for a bus on the wrong side of the road for at least ten minutes before I realized what I was doing. I must have still had jet lag.
On the subject of buses – Don't assume that when a bus stops that it's time to get off. I once hopped off on Oxford Street before the actual stop and was almost separated from my distressed family (easy to do, as buses are open in the back – no doors). I can still hear Holly’s anguished little voice yelling “Mmmooomm” from the back of the retreating bus. Something else to note about buses - people DO very politely queue for them. No pushing and shoving to the front of the line as is the norm here in the U.S. If you see that happening, you can rest assured that the people doing the queue crashing are tourists.
Tubes. Make a plan for if you are separated from your party. It's easy to get separated in the crunch of getting on or off a crowded tube train. The tube is the tube. The tube is not a subway. A subway is a pedestrian, subterranean crossing where the homeless sometimes sleep and buskers busk.
Bobbies are friendly and helpful. If you should get lost, ask a Bobby for directions (but call him Constable).
The second most obvious difference is the language itself. You know that everyone is speaking English, but it is very, very different from the American English to which our ears are accustomed. This difference becomes even more pronounced if you should happen to visit Scotland or Wales. You might believe you are hearing an entirely foreign language (in Wales, you sometimes are). I've actually had to have Allan translate for me a few times in Scotland. Very embarrassing!
As Holly recently pointed out, even the air smells different in the UK (mostly like diesel fumes and/or wet pavement if you happen to be in London).
The water tastes different. Not better, not worse, just different. But you don't have to be afraid to drink it.
The green of the parks and lawns and trees is a different shade of green from what you are used to seeing in the U.S. Really different – a vivid green that almost hurts your eyes.
The taps in the bathrooms. Holly observed once that it was hard to believe that a civilization that was building magnificent castles and cathedrals hundreds of years before our country existed, had still not figured out how to get the hot and cold water to come out of a single tap. Consequently, in most (although not entirely all) English bathrooms, you will either scald your hands or be forced to wash them in icy cold water (not a pleasant experience on a cold day in a train station ladies room). In hotels, I sometimes wash my hands in the bathtub, which for some odd reason usually DOES have a blended hot and cold tap. Go figure……
Still on bathrooms…….toilet seat covers simply do not exist in the UK. Carry your own, or be forced to use strips of toilet tissue (or loo rolls, as they are known there). That is, unless you are unfortunate enough to be in a WC that still has the tiny squares of tissue which simply float away when placed on the toilet seat.
More on bathrooms……some still put out a single bar of soap for the masses to share although this has improved over the past few years and most places do now have liquid soap dispensers. And some bathrooms now have an ingenious new "all in one" facility which is inset into the wall. You put your hands in, and a stream of water comes out, followed by a squirt of soap, then another stream of water. After that, you leave your hands in this contraption and warm air starts to blow to dry your hands! I have NEVER seen one of these in the U.S.
A bit more on bathrooms – toilets flush UP. NEVER remain seated while flushing. Don't ask for the "ladies room" or "rest room". It is the WC or the toilet.
Napkin disposal in the WC is not for what you think it's for. It is for DIAPERS.
ALWAYS carry a 20pence piece for WC emergencies. There can be nothing more uncomfortable than sitting in cross-legged misery at the bottom of the stairway to a WC and having to dig through your purse looking for the proper coin for the turnstile.
You must never get hungry between the hours of 2:00 and 5:00 (or 14:00 and 17:00 - see below). This isn't so important in London, because you can always find someplace to eat there. However, if you are in a small town or village and want to eat between 2:00 and 5:00 you might as well be searching for the Holy Grail. Particularly if you want a pub meal. Food is not served midday! Stock up on crisps (potato chips) and AERO bars or Crunchies for midday food emergencies.
About time. Army time must be used to read train and bus schedules. Subtract 12 hours after noon.
You do not ask for the bill or the check in restaurants. You need a "table settlement".
Tipping is strange. Observe where others leave their tips. A tip is not always just left on the table and waiters/waitresses can become very cranky if tip is not left in proper place. Occasionally there is a tip jar at the cash register.
Sandwiches. These are not what you would expect. An English sandwich is two slices of bread, with a razor-thin slice of whatever the filling is – turkey, gammon (??? – a type of ham), etc. and a smear of butter or mayo. Do not expect a Dagwood sandwich anywhere in the U.K.
Sandwich fillings can be very unusual as well. Corn (known throughout England as Sweetcorn) is a standard sandwich filling, as is pickle (but not what we know as a pickle). English pickle is a brownish relish that looks incredibly disgusting. It's common on cheese sandwiches. Prawn sandwiches are also common everywhere. Giant prawns. In fact, giant prawns are served on almost every menu in every restaurant in some manner. The English must really love prawns. You can even get prawns as a topping for a baked potato, which in England is called a "Jacket Potato". Other common toppings for jacket potatoes are baked beans and coleslaw. Not coleslaw next to the potato, but heaped in a giant pile on top of the potato. But don't ask for butter for a jacket potato. Holly found out that butter is not a formally recognized potato topping in Britain.
Tea and coffee are both fantastic in the UK. However, coffee is a cup of coffee without a refill. If you want a second cup, you will pay for it, unless you've ordered a caffetiere of coffee for yourself (which you can do in most nicer places). Tea on the other hand is very frequently served with a flourish – a cup and saucer on a tray, a teapot full of hot water and the tea bag, a second teapot of hot water to replenish the first, and the hot milk or cream and demerrara (raw) sugar.
Starbucks is the same as here in the U.S. (same fittings, fixtures, color scheme, etc.) except sometimes they are located 300 or 400 year old buildings which can be disconcerting. Same drinks but named differently. A non-fat latte is a "skinny latte" and you will have to put a lid on the cup yourself. Regular milk is called "full fat", 2% is "half fat" or "semi-skimmed". The dairy section at the supermarket is called "FATS and OILS" (appetizing!).
Bread is almost as wonderful in England as it is in France. Wholemeal bread is fabulous. So you CAN make your own good sandwiches if you purchase bread and fillings in supermarkets.
Salads are small but have steadily improved the past few years. It used to be a U.K. salad consisted of three or four small pieces of iceberg lettuce, topped with one cherry tomato, a pinch of spouts, one slice of cucumber and a paper thimbleful of Heinz salad cream. You can now get a meal-sized salad but it may have ingredients/toppings that you would not expect.
Ploughman's lunches are delicious! They are mostly ordered in pubs, but some restaurants have them on the menu, too. A great big hunk of the most wonderful cheese in the world (your choice of several varieties – and believe me, the English do cheese better than anyone), a side of something – coleslaw for instance – an apple, a few pickled onions and usually a freshly baked wholegrain roll. This is usually an inexpensive meal choice and very filling. Cheese in Britain is delicious. Try Neals Yard in Covent Garden. You can get Neals Yard Cheese in the U.S., but you will pay dearly for it.
Sizes of food items are different. Canned sodas are smaller as are candy bars. Crisps (potato chips) come in very unique flavors, like Prawn Cocktail, Worcestershire Sauce, Roast Chicken Dinner and Curry. You will not find “supersizes” in the U.K. Consequently, I don’t think Britain has the same level of obesity problems we have here in the U.S. Normal sized people eat normal sized portions. As it should be.
The dairy products are so rich in England they are yellow instead of white. Cream is thick and yellow and custardy. Clotted cream is a cross between thick whipped cream and butter.
Restaurants in general can seem very different from ours. You can actually be having lunch or dinner in a 600 year old building, but the waiter/waitress might be using the latest in computer technology to send your order directly to the kitchen from your table. We saw this in the UK eight or ten years ago – ages before we ever saw this kind of technology in the U.S.
Desserts are called puddings. A pudding is any kind of dessert item, not just pudding as we know it.
The money – It 's not so different as it was a few years ago – at least now you don't have to deal with shillings and tuppence.
Train stations are wonderful places to people watch. One thing I really miss is the old clacking timetable changes on the concourses in the main stations. Computer technology has made this easier for train personnel, I'm sure, but I still miss those old clacking strips rotating and falling into place to announce your train platforms.
"on offer" means "reduced", or "on sale"
Courgettes are zucchini.....rocket is arugula....capsicums are peppers..... mange tout is snow peas....swedes are like a rutabaga.....and aubergines are eggplant.