With fresh eyes, I stepped off the plane and into the London airport. Though I was briskly attempting to get through customs, retrieve my checked luggage, and get to the bus station, I was also trying to soak in the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. Were the signs different? What cultural norms are different from the United States? What were the different names for things? Though I am still learning a lot about the differences between English and American culture, here are the top 8 that I did not expect.
1. The water in sinks is warm!
I know that sounds odd, but in the States, I am used to cool or room temperature water coming from public sinks in bathrooms (oh, excuse me; the loo, as they say in the UK). When I first washed my hands in the restroom at the airport, the water was surprisingly warm! I am unsure if this rings true for every single restroom in the England, but I have found it to be so in more than one place. At the school in which I intern, the water in the “loo” is so hot, I can barely keep my hands under long enough to rinse off the soap!
2. Bicyclists are first-class citizens of the road.
No matter where I try to walk— city sidewalks, paved roads, forest paths, walkways in the park and neighborhoods— you can bet that I have been surprised by the breeze of a bicycle whizzing past me. I am not talking about some leisurely rides through the park, either. Bicycles are a lot of citizens’ mode of transportation, so they are riding fast and do not want to stop for anybody. Bicyclists are everywhere; there are probably more cyclists than drivers! They ride wherever there is room, and this includes on the main road. I have seen cyclists ride in front of a bus and stay there despite being honked at by the bus driver.
3. Sit-Down-Stand-Up-Sit-Down Ordering
In most eating establishments in the States, you walk into a restaurant, are seated by a host or hostess, and then given menus as your order is taken. While that does occur in some restaurants here in England, many of the eating establishments are not “restaurants”, but pubs. In a pub, you often take a menu to your table, decide what you want to eat, then go to the main bar and order your food and beverages, including any soft drinks. You give the cashier your table number and payment, then take a seat with your beverage and wait for the food to arrive.
4. You Have to Buy Grocery Bags
You have to pay five pence per bag. This has apparently happened only with in the past six months. For an extra five pence at the grocery store, I was able to opt for the more durable plastic bag. Now I have a shopping bag that I can reuse so that I do not have to spend more on a new one. While I found this a bit annoying at first, I realized it is a simple and easy way to stay green, so why not? Which brings me to number 5.
5. There Is a Lot of Environmental Awareness
Next to every trash can (or “bin,” as it is called in the U.K.) on the street there is a recycling “can.” This makes it easy to recycle even on your way home from the store. The buildings are also made to conserve energy. Rather than turning on one switch to power the whole room (you know, the one you accidentally use to turn off the lamp and it also turns off the alarm clock, so that you have to reset it?), there is a switch for every individual outlet. This way, power is not continually flowing to an unused outlet.
6. There Are No Bills to Pay (With)!
A friend of mine asked a cashier to break her 20 pound “bill”. The cashier, very confused at this point, had no idea what she meant by “break the bill.” This may have mainly been due to the fact that paper money is known as a “note,” not a bill, in the U.K. In fact, while I was interning this week, the students were shown an American dollar and kept asking if it was a one pound note or $1 note!
7. There. Are. Flowers. Everywhere!
In every shop. In every market. On houses. In gardens. On the highways. All over the school grounds. You can find plenty growing wild, or you can pick up a fresh bouquet at the market. If you have an allergy and want to visit England, bring plenty of medicine!
8. It Is VERY Diverse!
This was the most surprising part of my first week here. I actually expected that London would be fairly diverse, but the city of Cambridge is also filled with people from different nationalities. I have eaten Turkish Barbecue, enjoyed a Greek Burger, and been served by a French barista at Starbucks. Whether walking on the street, through the park, riding on the bus, or even interning at a primary school, I can easily find people with several different kinds of accents and people speaking in different languages. The great diversity makes the city of Cambridge an even more interesting place to spend my summer, and I can’t wait to see the rest of it!