Notes from a large island
Having just returned from my first ever trip to the UK, I wanted to share a few interesting observations about life that we noticed as visitors from abroad. This isn’t mean to be a catalog of all the well-known difference between America and the UK, more just a series of random observations (many certainly well-known to frequent travellers but new to me as a first-timer).
Sit-down service seems a bit slower then it is in the USA. We only dined at casual restaurants (no fine dining), but the length of time between when you get seated, asked for drink order, etc is longer then in the USA.
After the meal is over often the wait for the check is very long, such that you may even need to affirmatively ask for it, unlike the USA where the check is presented to you without asking. When you pay with credit card, the waiter or waitress will bring a handheld machine to the table to run the card; this is because normally all the cards in the UK are chip and pin, and you need to enter the PIN, or sign if you don’t have a pin). Generally you never tip, although some places add a 10% service charge automatically to the bill.
Additionally in restaurants, we did not get served tap water without asking for it, and many places charge, even for tap water. Food-wise, we noticed a lot of places serve a leafy green very similar in appearance and taste to arugula that is called “rocket” – it was quite good, has a nice spicy flavor. We didn’t get tripped up with any food terms except one, we had no idea what “courgettes” were – it’s zucchini. Bacon in the UK is not like American bacon (crispy and narrow pieces). Rather it is very similar if not identical to Canadian bacon. Pancakes likewise are smaller and thicker/fluffier then US ones, more like squished muffins.
While dining, we noticed a lot of people held their knife and fork differently then they do in America; generally if they needed to use a knife, they kept it held the entire meal rather then cut and put it down like we do in the USA.
Many (most?) pubs we went to only served beers from one specific brewery, i.e. Fullers or Brains or whatnot (the breweries apparently own many pubs or at least have exclusive contracts with them). In order to find a pub that served beers from many breweries, you need to locate what is called a “free house”
Almost every pub will have a beer engine, which is basically a pump system for drawing beers (as opposed to the traditional American-style tabs which use CO2 to dispense beer from kegs). This results in an exceptionally smooth pour; traditional english styles, such as bitters, golden ales and such are very popular. Heavily-hopped beers like we have in America are not nearly as popular. There also are not as many stouts and porters as we had expected. One surprise we discovered is that England has a massive small brewery movement; there are hundreds of small breweries that produce different bottled beers, but it is very difficult to find much variety at pubs.
Pubs close very early – at 11 PM. If you want to drink later, you have to go to a “club” (which we never did). During the day, there’s a much more relaxed attitude towards public drinking in the UK then we have in the USA. Several beers over a work lunch are common, and many pubs are very relaxed about allowing drinkers to spill into the public areas with open containers. It was quite awesome. Oh, and like with restaurants, tipping is almost never done.
Store generally do not stay open very late. Most retail shops seem to close at 6 or 7 in the evening, with just a few outliers. One very nice thing about shopping is you know exactly what everything will cost, since all taxes (VAT) are included in the sticker price. One of the (surprisingly few) terminology issues that we ran into is that the cash register is called the “till” in the UK. Another difference is that although we went everywhere with a backpack, we never got asked to check it; we figured that since CCTV is ubiquitous, that there’s no need for an anti-theft bag check at UK retailers. Many credit card terminals are contactless, and even the ones that are not are all chip-and-pin units.
Relieving One’s Self
It’s universally called the “toilet” not the “restroom” or “bathroom.” Most toilets have push-button flushers not handles like in the USA. Trough-style urinals are a lot more common then in America. Thankfully toilet paper is the same as here, although a few places had annoying “individual tissue” style toilet paper dispensers.
Street signs are almost always posted on the sides of buildings near the corners, they are not on poles or over the road like in the USA. If you don’t know where to look you will not have any idea what street you are on. Looking in the correct direction when crossing a street takes some getting used to since it is the opposite of the USA, but almost every major intersection has a “look left” or “look right” painted in the crosswalk which is helpful. When in a building, floor numbering starts at zero (making computer engineers everywhere smile), so the first floor is what the USA would consider the second floor. This was confusing for all of a day or so. One interesting thing we noticed is that there are no stop signs that we could see; stops are the “uncontrolled” type, not explicit.
The Tube is ridiculously easy to use, and goes everywhere; it is truly a distributed system so it is easy to navigate to almost any place in the city as opposed to many other transit systems where the lines only intersect at a few transfer hubs.
Cellular coverage (on the EE network) was solid through everywhere we went on the trip, and Wi-Fi networks are at ubiquitous as they are in the USA.
At the airport (Heathrow) the gating system for departures is very different then in America. There’s a large central area of the airport to wait – with seats and restaurants and shops, but the actual gate for your flight isn’t announced until about an hour before takeoff. At that point you enter a secured, set off gate waiting room where you wait to board. These rooms are very tiny and spartan (no shops, no toilets) and you can’t leave; your boarding pass and passport are checked before you enter this departure lounge.
Airport security is very similar to the TSA except that when you check luggage they still ask those questions about if you had control of your luggage at all times and if you packed it yourself (like they used to ask in the USA).
There’s no British accent, there’s more like a bunch of kind of similar accents, some easier to understand then others. People as a whole are polite and are quieter then in the USA; this is especially noticeable on public transportation. People dress the same as they do in the USA, they are not any more formal then we are. “Cheers” is used as the generic “have a nice day” or “thank you” substitute for ending conversations. One interesting demographic we noticed is that there is a very heavy Middle Eastern population in London specifically, a large number of women wearing Islamic style dress along with their male companions. London feels like a true world city, more so then even New York, there’s an impression that you are in an hub of world commerce and culture, everywhere you go you hear a ton of different languages being spoken.
A lot more people smoke – it seems like the UK is where the USA was maybe 20 years ago when it comes to smoking; that is, a lot more people do it, and it is a bit harder to avoid the aroma of cigarettes even in areas that are ostensibly smoke-free