England through an American’s eyes

My friend Walt asked me if I had any quick impressions of England, now that I’ve lived here only a few months. The idea is that you quickly get used to things that were—at first—weird. Here’s a quick effort at that.

Building Code

Anyone who has ever stayed in a hotel in London probably has experienced the seemingly endless series of small doors you have to pass through to get from the lobby to your room. If you bring an American sized suitcase and you’re lugging it down these Lilliputian corridors, it’s annoying to pass through tiny doors every 20 feet or so.

This same thing happens in houses. Not only do you have doors to bedrooms, as you expect, but you often have doors at the ends of hallways and doors in between inner rooms that, in modern American houses, you wouldn’t have. I thought this would annoy me. It doesn’t. In fact, I find them jolly convenient as I can use them to isolate kids, dogs, or noise. With different doors closed (and sometimes they actually have locks on them), I can really make a small house feel not-so-cramped because I can get some separation from the other inhabitants. Even if they happen to be quite loud. 🙂

Packaging

People complain that things are more expensive here. And they are. I have a handful of reasons that I think that’s true. For one thing, I find the most trivial of foods and small items come in stronger, more durable packaging than they would in the States. There are these fabulous Gü puddings that come in nice glass dishes. I mean really: for two puddings that you’re going to eat, do you really need nice glass dishes in the cardboard box? And the plastic that they use to pack things like power transformers and cables and detritus that comes with electronics: it’s all a few microns thicker than what we get in the States. I wonder if this doesn’t contribute to the higher prices of things.

“Unlimited” Marketing

The fact of life here in the UK is that nothing is truly unlimited. You pay for _everything ****_by the minute, by the megabyte, whatever. They try hard to hide this fact. Any time they can advertise something as “unlimited” or “lifetime” or something else that implies boundlessness, they will.

In the US, we’ve grown accustomed to words like “Natural” being abused in marketing. I mean, what are you differentiating between when you say “natural” cereal, or “natural” wood? Over here, they will say things like “Unlimited downloads (1GB fair use limit).” At first glance you might think it fair. I mean, after all, we do have fair use limits in the US. But over here, you can find a mobile internet provider offering 3 different plans for the same device that all say “Unlimited,” but they have different prices. The difference in the plans is the fair use limit. So “Unlimited” with 3GB fair use is more expensive than “Unlimited” with 1GB fair use. Vauxhall recently started advertising a car with a “lifetime” warranty that is actually just 100,000 miles and is limited to the first owner. Only in the event that the first owner dies before driving 100,000 miles is it a “lifetime” warranty.

Litter

London is dirty. One of the side-effects of the IRA’s bombings and such (they had terrorism long before the US did) is that most public trash cans have been removed. At a really busy train station like Clapham Junction (the busiest in Britain), you’ll find maybe one per platform. In my section of Canary Wharf, they have a few public rubbish bins that are almost always overflowing. There’s simply no place to put that drink bottle, sandwich wrapper, or plastic bag when you’re done with it. I’ve witnessed people walking down the street and  they just chuck a bottle or something behind a bush or leave it behind a lamppost. Like the litter fairy is going to come and clean it up. On the one hand: holy crap—pick up the litter, people! On the other hand: where should they put it?

Housing Density

There are plenty of towns and villages that have American-sized suburbs where you have to drive to get anywhere. But there’s a lot more little towns, like the one we live in, that have much more dense buildings. In the Virginia suburbs, school districts are huge because you have to go quite far from the school itself to get enough households with children that will fill a school. To get to school we’re compelled to drive big fleets of buses and cars because nobody can reasonably walk to school.

In the UK, though, you can have a school where over half the kids come from within a 1-mile radius. My boys go to two schools that are next door to each other, and the start times are staggered by 5 minutes. You take the youngest in, then the oldest, and it works perfectly. It is a short walk. You can do this in a major city in the US, but not the suburbs.

Bathrooms

In very modern (i.e., renovated this year) bathrooms, you might find sinks with separate hot and cold water taps. They’re for sale in your local hardware store, and people still choose them for some reason. I can’t imagine why someone would choose this.

You’ll never find a light switch on the wall or an electric outlet on the wall in a bathroom. The light switch is outside the bathroom, or it’s a pull-chain from the ceiling. You can find shaver outlets from time to time in bathrooms, but never a full-blown electrical socket.

Heated towel racks are quite common in bathrooms. Since most people have radiator heating, they often run a special radiator into the bathroom. You hang your towels on it and they get piping hot. Ahhhhh. It’s wonderful.

Opening times

Shops are pretty universal in opening from 10:00am to 5:00pm. Some will open earlier, others may stay open a bit later. A handful of things are open on Sundays. What I find so mindboggling about this system is the question “who is doing the shopping other than OAPs?” (OAP = Old Age Pensioner, not a derogatory term here in the UK). I mean really: if I have to work 9-6, and the shops are open 9-6, when will I shop? The short answer is Saturday. People shop at lunchtimes and on Saturdays.

A side-effect of this paradox is that, at least in the major London area, virtually anything can be delivered cheaply and quickly. You can order office supplies, groceries, furniture, tools, you name it and it will all be delivered often on the same day. Now to be sure, we have delivery in the US. But it’s usually FedEx or the postal service or something similar. Here, they just have fleets of independent couriers and delivery vans and such. Probably a lot like what a major city like New York, Boston, or Chicago might have. Since none of us own American-sized SUVs or minivans or the like, delivery is a way of life in certain kinds of shopping.

Telephones

Wow do telephones work. Now, they’re complicated and annoying, but the market has been deregulated for some time, and pricing and competition are alive and well. If any American thinks he has seen free market economics at work, he should take a look at the British mobile phone market (and, to a lesser degree, the landline market). You can walk into a store, pay a few quid, and walk out with a phone. Pay as you go (PAYG) is plentiful, cheap, and easy to get. I can go into the fanciest shopping mall and get a 3G dongle for my laptop for £10 (about $16 at the time of this writing) and then pay £15 for a month’s “unlimited” service (about $23). That’s pay as you go, no contract, no nothing. Try that in the States, just try. Can’t be done. Not only that, but I did full motion video conferencing with it back to the US and the quality was good. The telephone infrastructure and payment structure are awesome.

Plumbing

No two sinks, toilets, tubs, showers, dishwashers or washing machines are the same. The hot is not always on the left. To flush a toilet you might push a button, step on a button, pull a chain, turn a knob, or step on a pedal.

Appliances

Most appliances are labeled in hieroglyphics. I guess they figure that they can’t be accused of discriminating against some group of people if everyone finds the instructions impossible to decipher. I’ve seen symbols on microwave ovens that resemble those on a VCR. Goodness knows what it means to press “fast forward” on my microwave. My oven has a symbol that looks like “next track” on a CD player.

Air conditioning

Surely you jest. No, there is no air conditioning (or “air con” as they call it) here. Every house and flat is equipped, however, with windows that open. Only the big, very modern skyscraper office buildings have windows that don’t open. However, they never have screens in the windows or doors. Now, true Brits would tell you that’s because there are no infestations of mosquitoes and such here. That might be true, but they still have bugs, and enough of them that you’d like screens.

What the windows do have are lots of interesting ways to open. Many can be opened in the rain and they cantilever one way or another to prevent rain from pouring in. Pretty necessary in a place like this.

Conclusion

So that’s a few things that are different. I like it over here, generally. But there are definitely a few bits that make me scratch my head and say “huh?”