22 September 2009
I would imagine that many Americans don't realize or don't think much about the fact that the Roman Empire once encompassed the British Isles. There are lots of places around the country where Roman building sites can be found. Apparently, there are also lots of known Roman merchant routes, and along these routes it isn't uncommon at all to find coins that merchants and locals of the day dropped long ago.
This is where the harvest comes in. After the farmers have claimed a field's crop, they turn the top layer of soil over to mix in whatever is left of the plants, and thus make whatever items that might be buried there a bit more accessible to those who would seek them.
Enter the treasure hunters. Arriving in small platoons, camping in the fields, and armed with metal detectors and sufficient patience, they perform a careful sweep across the fields along these routes (with the farmer's permission, of course), searching for antiquities. And this isn't a fool's errand-- they indeed do find treasure. One gent gave our son a small Roman coin. A bit of research we've done indicates that often a deal is struck with the farmer to split the findings. Further, any significantly valuable artifact must be reported to an appropriate government agency who may elect to purchase the artifact from the hunter for a suitable price. Otherwise, these gents sell their discoveries on the collectors' market, or of course keep them for their own pleasure.
It would be romantic to think that the UK has a subset of its population that fits the Indiana Jones demographic, but I get the impression that this is largely a hobby, and a "boys weekend out" when a group arrives to hunt. One hunter we spent a bit of time chatting with was a financial adviser when he wasn't on the prowl for Roman coins. He was hunting in the fields adjacent to our garden with a bunch of his chums, and I find it unlikely that many of those gents were full-time treasure seekers. But hey, who knows? Even Indy needs to know how to invest the proceeds from his discoveries.
08 September 2009
I've only seen few London addresses that reach above 100. How can such a big city not have higher numbered addresses? Obviously they have plenty of streets. The secret is to continually change the name of a street. It's quite common for a street's name to change as you follow it through an intersection, and for it to change names several times. And every time the name changes, the address numbering starts over from the beginning again (at least they're all positive numbers).
To add to the challenge, the streets aren't laid out in any familiar pattern like a grid. Roads are in a mad tangle of rings, crescents, straights, and loops, more like they grew there organically than were planned in any fashion. I'm told that's not far from the truth, that many roads are simply paved-over versions of horse paths that developed as London grew. It makes sense, and it certainly gives one a great sense of the history present in the very streets of the city, but that doesn't help much when you're trying to find the dentist's office.
So to my mind, this makes it amazing that London's cab drivers are able to find just about any address so handily. There's a secret here too, and it isn't that there's a trick that they don't tell Americans about. It's due to the acquisition of something referred to as "the knowledge". In Chicago I'm used to cabbies only knowing the major streets and needing a passenger to provide the number of blocks N/S and E/W to find a destination. In London, you pretty much just tell the cabbie where you want to go, and somehow they can just take you there. This is due to the knowledge, a comprehensive map of London's streets that's more or less been tattooed on the cabbie's brain.
To be licensed as a London cab driver you must acquire the knowledge, a process that takes a few years of study. To demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge a prospective cabbie must undergo a series of tests that involve finding the most efficient path to a destination taking time of day, road works, and passenger preferences into account, while simultaneously being able to name every street traversed during the journey as well as being able to recite what's visible along the road on the way. Apparently obscure destinations are often thrown in to test depth of knowledge, and a cab driver is also expected to be able to recommend attractions, restaurants, and pubs to passengers who inquire about them. Clearly, cab drivers are expected to serve as unofficial good-will ambassadors for the city. And I have to say it works pretty well.
You can easily spot a cabbie in training in London; these are the people on the scooters with a clipboard mounted on the handlebars that's holding a map. They can be found in traffic frequently checking their map, or pulled off to the side where they're studying the map and the surrounding area. Obviously, you have to really want to do this job, as it's clearly no picnic to become a black cab driver.
Generally speaking a Chicago cabbie doesn't fare well in a comparison with the London version. While Chicago cabbies are expected to know the major streets in town, they often need the fare's help in finding the final destination. Not only is the London cabbie required to know how to get you to the doorstep of your desire, but are also expected to know points of interest along the way, including "streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, restaurants and historic buildings" (quoted form the Wikipedia article linked above). Essentially, you could book a cab for a day and have a pretty thorough tour of London.
And somewhere in this I can't help think there's a bit of insight to be had into the folks here. In a country that has a reputation for bad service (deserved or not), since 1865 they have institutionalized a level of taxi service that mostly likely has no equal anywhere else in the world. I have to wonder if national pride doesn't play a significant role in not only setting this standard but in people raising to the challenge it presents.
05 August 2009
A conker is both an object and an activity. From the object perspective, a conker is the nut from the horse chestnut tree, two to three of which can be found within a single spiky green husk. The nut is a gorgeous reddish-brown color, and every time I hold one I find myself sorely tempted to eat it. But it's poisonous to humans, and so they predominantly serve as food for squirrels. The ground around the horse chestnut is littered with these things in autumn, and on public land the tree will be surrounded by kids too, collecting as many nut-filled balls as they can.
This is due to the activity aspect of conkers-- the nut is used in a game of the same name, and kids around the UK can be found playing conkers every fall. To play, you make a hole through the nut and thread a string of some type through it (I hear that the tradition is to use a shoelace), tying a knot at one end to keep the conker from slipping off. Then two players line up for battle: one kid lets his conker hang at the end of the string, while the other kid uses his string to propel his conker at the first kid's in an attempt to smash into it, trying to break it. After the second kid takes his shot, the first kid gets a turn. This keeps going until one conker lies is shards on the ground, leaving the other conker's owner the winner. Lots of conkers get broken while playing, which explains why kids collect so many of them.
As with many things British, I thought my neighbor was pulling my leg when he first told me about conkers, especially since I had never noticed the kids around the trees in the fall. His stories of sore knuckles from errant missiles didn't help convince me that his tale was on the level.
As with almost anything, you can find lots of conker-related websites on the net, telling of “world championship” competitions, relaying playing tips, and even sharing ways to cheat (keeping the conker for a season, for example, is a good way to harden the nut up, while other bake them to increase hardness). And of course, lots of “conker porn”-- lush photos of baskets overflowing with the tempting but inedible nuts.
Now, I can remember collecting acorns as a kid, but for no other reason than it seemed cool to have a bag of acorns (my threshold for cool as a child was pretty low). And I can remember having “buckeye fights' with other kids in the woods of Pennsylvania where I spent some of my childhood. But none of these approached the cultural prominence of conkers. In fact, I can think of no equivalent, certainly not at a national level, that compares (although some some regional practices, like the annual “pumpkin chunking'” contests that go on, are close).
And now I get to relive someone else's childhood. With a 5 year old who's growing up here, my life becomes conker-intensive every autumn, and given that a 5 year old is their keeper, fugitive conkers from last October keep showing up in the odd corner of the house all through the year. Maybe they'll be hard enough to serve as a ringer.
Conker image made available under a Creative Commons license by Andrew Dunn: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/
23 July 2009
So it was a bit of a shock the first time we had to have a document notarized here, something like 7-8 years ago. It was a document having to do with the sale of our house back in Chicago, and they needed a notarized hard copy of this closing document couriered to them. So the first surprise came when we attempted to find a notary; they aren't as common here as they are in the US. It seems to be a bit more of a specialized service. The second surprise was the fee: ₤75 for the magic stamp. We had it done at a solicitor's office as that was the most convenient place to where we lived, so perhaps it was a bit pricey, but a current Google search of UK notaries yields services with fees ranging from ₤60 to ₤250.
But the real surprise comes when you see the stamp. Here's how it played out for us: we signed our docs with the solicitor in attendance, showing our id to prove who we were, and then the signed docs were whisked away to another room by an assistant. During their absence, we had the standard pleasant chat with the solicitor regarding where we were from, how we were liking the UK, and how we were getting along (very well, thanks). When the docs returned, we weren't prepared for what we saw. No simple rubber stamp was used-- instead, the notary seal was embossed in a big lump of sealing wax on the front page. Embedded in the wax were a few strands of ribbon that were wrapped around the docs in such a way as to make it impossible separate seal, docs, and ribbon. Clearly they wanted no chance of this official affirmation to be separated from the docs it was affirming.
When you finish the notary process, it's very clear that you were then in possession of some Very Important Paper. But it was a mild struggle not to laugh at the pomp of it all. Walking out of there I felt like I was holding the deed to the Louisiana Purchase, not the sale of my little three-bedroom. You've got to wonder about the backstory to that practice.
19 June 2009
What those older houses did have in common, however, was that there was a timer attached to the heating circuit that allowed you to turn the heat off completely at night. Apparently it isn't uncommon at all for folks to save on fuel simply by turning the heat of altogether while they sleep; one friend has stated that he never sleeps with the heat on as he always wakes up with a headache the next day.
So how to keep warm on those chilly, damp nights? We initially thought it the best strategy was a down comforter with an R-value high enough to qualify it as attic insulation (well, in reality we just kept the heat on). But we've since learned the real trick is the hottie, or hot water bottle.
Hot water bottles always seemed like an anachronism, even as I was growing up. We had one, but no one actually ever seemed to use it, save for those infrequent grave occasions when you required the hose attachment to “unblock the plumbing”, if you catch my drift. I'll admit to one novel use during high school: I carried a hottie (purchased just for this use) under my arm with that hose attached to it and filled it with rum. Then when my buddies and I went to the football games, we could pass the hose around and dump it into our cokes or take a long draw off of it directly. Ah, the ingenuity of youth.
But it wasn't until the UK that we learned of the hottie's true noble mission: to keep your bed, and especially your feet, warm while you keep the rest of the house cool. The first time we encountered this use was actually on a vacation in the bush of Botswana; the safari people who organized our trip would put a filled hottie into our beds before we retired for the evening, and it made sleeping in an otherwise unheated tent entirely comfortable.
It was after this time that we began to actually notice all the hotties for sale at the pharmacy every autumn/winter. And not only hotties, but a whole range of different decorative covers (which also kept you from getting scorched accidentally). Tartan plaids, fake fur, animal and cartoon characters for the kids; clearly we had entirely glossed over the hottie cultural subtext entirely.
And these things are awesome. I have to admit that I would never have guessed at the comfort such a simple device provides. There's nothing that encourages a good night's sleep like a cold room and a warm bed. We still keep a little cube heater in the corner; it makes sure the room doesn't go below 60° F, but otherwise the house is entirely unheated for about 6 hours a night in the winter (I'm sure that many locals would think I was a wimp for having only 6 hours with no heat). The really amazing thing is that the hottie is still warm in the morning; keeping it and us under the comforter really holds the heat in nicely.
And no, we don't fill it with hot rum.
16 June 2009
I resisted buying wellies for 6 or 7 years after our arrival here. My wife got some right away and loved how convenient and comfy she said they were. But I was a Timberland leather-work-shoe-and-boot-kind-of-guy, and somehow those big, rubbery-looking things never seemed, well, I don't know...rugged enough? I'm not sure, but they always seemed somehow wrong.
No longer. I finally bought a pair last year, and they've become my favorite around the garden footwear. There's something about them; they slip on easily, there's no lacing/tying, you can scoff at the stinging nettle and not worry about getting them wet, and they're awfully comfortable. My Timberlands now sit moping the boot tray. But I haven't yet got the nerve to wear them to the DIY shop yet.
11 June 2009
The steam meet is an interesting phenomenon. Often held at park grounds or some farmer's field, the meet consists some concessions, craft booths, a bouncy castle or other attractions, and a few rows of neatly arranged and meticulously maintained steam vehicles, all idling away apparently to prove they still work.
It's hard not to be impressed when you see these things for the first time. The appearance is overwhelmingly that of a free-range old-time locomotive, complete with smokestack and big rear wheels. The similarity ends with many of these things, however, when you notice that instead of a cab for the engineer, there's simply a single seat (at least on the smaller ones), and it hits you that this is essentially a steam-powered tractor.
The two things that stays with you, however, are the smells and the heat. These machines are almost all running, pouring out smoke rich with the smell of burnt oil. You need to make a constant effort to maneuver yourself so that you're not downwind of the smoke plume, as the smoke is quickly overwhelming. Not as easy to avoid is the heat, that is, unless you're happy to observe at a distance. These things are all huge boilers on wheels, and the heat radiating from them is impressive. Form a few lines of them and you can get evenly browned just walking down between the rows.
Our first encounter with one of these things wasn't at a meet; it was through the windows of the first house we lived in here. One weekend day I heard the unlikely sound of a steam whistle right outside, a somewhat odd occurrence since we lived in the countryside nowhere near any train tracks. Looking out the window toward the road, I was able to spy over the hedge what appeared to be a steam train, moving very slowly down the road, and carrying a couple of passengers on a platform at the back. Of course, this elicited one of those subtle “WTF!?” responses that we Americans are known for whenever we're confronted with something outside of our realm of experience. By the time I fetched Lisa to have a look, it was gone. But it would return from time to time, usually pulling a cart full of brush that had been cleared off to be burned somewhere. I'm embarrassed to say that wasn't until our son was old enough to start watching Thomas the Tank Engine that I found out what I had spotted.
Who says TV isn't educational?
09 June 2009
One little amenity that you can come to expect here in the UK is that right next to most toilet bowls sits a little bowl brush in a holder. Instead of being hidden away in a cleaning closet like in most places in America, the bowl brush is right there for you to see, and more importantly, use. Its presence is pretty pervasive, not only in homes, but in businesses, restaurants, the pub-- it would be more unusual to not see a bowl brush than to see one.
This might lead you to conclude that Brits are culturally indoctrinated to clean up after themselves, a practice that, frankly, more of us Americans could stand embracing. It certainly fits into the image that the UK is a tidy place.
But I don't think that's the reason at all. I think the reason is that with a British toilet, you have to clean up.
See, the average British toilet is shaped in such a way as to present a much smaller “landing zone” for your incoming “package”, which results in it being difficult to achieve that “nothing but net” delivery that keeps things tidy (even with the metaphors, that was painful to write). So I suspect that the brush is a matter of not habitually grossing people out rather than a well-respected cultural nicety. But the expectation does appear to be that you, like a good camper, leave nothing behind.
08 June 2009
You'll have to excuse me; we have house guests arriving in a few days and we've been on a marathon cleaning and reorganization rampage (hey, we've only been in this house 1.5 years, so of course the guest room is still full of boxes). And part of this has been scouring the house for spider webs and brushing or vacuuming them away. And they're simply everywhere.
Now, it's not like we haven't cleaned in that 1.5 years; in fact, web-duty is a reasonably common cleaning process around here. But somehow we're always outpaced by the spiders. They seem to manage to continuously create more webs than we can keep up with. So you'll understand my consternation from having a sore back from running the vacuum wand along the ceiling corners to suck down all the webs.
Conventional wisdom would say that we have a lot of spiders because there must be a lot of food for them to eat. While that must be part of it, I don't believe that this is the whole story. Every house we've been in here has been awash with spiders, and there never seemed to be any consistent local conditions (besides being in the UK) to explain it.
And man! Some of these things are disturbing. The ones I'm particularly thinking of are a little bigger than a poker chip across, with stout bodies and legs. And they can run! I mean really book! You think you're going to give one a good gishing and suddenly it charges (yes, charges!) between your feet, and you just about leap out of your socks trying to stay out of its way. I'm told they're harmless, but I'm betting they probably carry guns. Or at least a knife.
I thought this was the beneign land of Miss Tiggywinkle.
05 June 2009
I suppose it's just a function of a lot of people living efficiently on a small island, but from an American perspective the size of the appliances here are minuscule. It's hard to not get a brief sense of having accidentally walked into a kindergarten “pretend house” when first confronted with the size of what are termed “white goods” here.
One might be inclined to organize a tour of UK appliances by traveling from laundry to kitchen, but that approach frequently doesn't work here. That's because you'll often find the washer, dryer, fridge, and freezer all in the kitchen (that should give you an idea of size). So you instead must proceed by function: storing food, cleaning your filthy rags.
It's very common to find under-counter fridges and freezers here. And yes, that makes the fridge hold just a little bit more than the cube fridge you had in your college dorm room that was mostly stocked with beer. It also means that if you're tall like me you hate having to look for anything in the fridge.
There's an additional sense that you can make regarding the size of fridges when you consider the shelf-life of perishable goods. I've heard it stated that the UK puts a lot fewer preservatives in the food, which would explain the somewhat shorter shelf life of perishables and also the laser-precise “use by” dates on those goods. Maybe it's just a result of guy-ness, but I remember being able to rely on the “sniff test” for food in the US to determine if it was still edible after the expiration date. But here, if they say that yogurt is good until the 4th, don't attempt any second-guessing them on the 5th.
So maybe you don't need a big fridge if there's never enough food because it's going past dates so quickly. In fact, it might be a blessing and keep you from loading up with stuff that you wind up throwing out because it goes past dates before you use it. Or maybe you don't need a lot of preservatives because no one can keep much on hand due to storage capacity at home. Or maybe it's society plotting to keep women tied to the home by forcing them to go to market every other day. Oh, the fun of theorizing!
This isn't to say that there are larger stand-up fridge-freezers. These run roughly around ½ the size of standard American fridge-freezer combo, which really puts into perspective how small the under-counter units are. The first house we rented here was a huge place and had lots of room in the renovated kitchen, and the owners obviously decided they weren't going to be encumbered by the conventional lack of storage capacity. So they installed two under-counter fridges, one under-counter freezer, and had a stand-up combo in a nearby room.
It is possible to get American-size fridge-freezers here, and in fact that exactly how they're marketed: “American-sized refrigerators”. But unless a kitchen is designed with one of these in mind, they often stick out like a sort thumb in the otherwise scaled down UK kitchen. It's hard look at them in a UK kitchen and not wonder if they aren't an unintentional indicator as to the reasons for the girth of so many Americans.
As for doing the laundry; well, the washer sits under lots of countertops here, too. Which means for guys my size that you can reasonably hope to wash at most a couple of pairs of trousers and a shirt if you don't want them hopelessly twisted up. Of special note are the “combi” units which have a washer and dryer in a single device, providing you the efficiency of being able to toss your laundry in soiled, and about 3 hours later pull out clean, hopelessly wrinkled clothes, ready to keep you busy ironing for the rest of the day.
To be fair, large homes often have separate units, and some folks have discovered the wash-day joy of the American sized washer and dryer. With a 5 year old in residence, we couldn't have lived without our big US machines, and so now a big determining factor for homes suitable for us is whether or not the house can accommodate our towering American Whirlpools. It's just one place where we can't accept the shrinkage in our white goods.
02 June 2009
The culture serves John and all gardeners well in the form of the garden center. While they don't quite have the statistical density of hot dog stands, it seems you are never far away from a garden center.
Now, the British garden center is not like nurseries we're accustomed to in the US. Here, garden centers are sprawling, elaborate affairs, and it's not unusual to find them equipped with things like a cafe, bookshop, ornamental pond, or play areas for children, not to mention the extensive choices of plant life, gear, accessories, furniture, and more. One near our last house (and we had two within two miles of us) had a miniature woodland railroad for the kids, and around the holidays you can visit Father Christmas (Santa) in his grotto in the woods (Santa lurks in a grotto here), and an old double-decker London bus is opened up and fill with “holiday refreshments” for the grownups (if you catch my drift). They become frequent rest stops for cycling clubs, hangouts for seniors, and in general have a considerable gravitational pull on the community.
And the tools! I'm sure it's the male equivalent to a woman finding herself in a room full of shoes, all in her size. From what I recall in the US, usually you'd be presented with two lines of tools, three at most, covering a few price ranges. Not so at the garden center: it's not unusual to be confronted with six or more complete lines of tools, representing the purely functional (the basic stuff), the high-tech (composite handles, shock-absorbing grips), the highly engineered (what else would you expect from a German tools line), the keenly edged (Wilkinson, the razor blade people, make garden tools here, so mind those hedge clippers), and the absolutely beautiful (and very pricey).
The aesthetics of this final category are wonderful. Refined metal finishes on blades and edges, quality handle woods, bent into graceful ergonomic arcs-- you don't want to get them dirty. And it's not like there's only one brand of these gorgeous tools; there are several, and clearly there's an active market for them. It's as if there's a strata of gardener that wants to maximize the pleasure of every aspect of the gardening activity.
Or maybe it's just garden bling. But for guys, it certainly is tool porn.
31 May 2009
But here, I have the feeling that having to refill the empty shelf space frequently is viewed as a bit more trouble than a merchant had bargained for. So much so that more than once we've seen stores simply stop carrying things that they sell out of rapidly. Lisa has even asked the management at Waitrose whether they were going to start carrying a lovely little garlic pizza that usually flew out of the door. The exasperated manager said no, noting that "they just couldn't keep it on the shelves!" Apparently having full-looking shelves is the point of retail for at least some segment of that industry here.
Isn't this in violation of some sort of fundamental axiom of economic theory? Lisa remembers that you're supposed to strive to have enough units on hand such that you're unable to sell the very last one. Shouldn't that mean these guys should be buying more?
I'd have written this off as an isolated event if it hadn't happened more than once, and to other people that we know as well. I'm not willing to claim that it's pervasive, mostly because I can't believe the general mindset is to minimize trouble rather than maximize business, but it doesn't exactly seem unusual either. Get 'em while they're hot, indeed.
29 May 2009
I'm reminded of that whenever I run into one of the numerous printed apologies here. See, you get apologized to a lot here, usually by faceless entities, whenever anything goes wrong (frequently this is in relation to rail events).
So for example, you might enter a train station and be confronted by a large printed (but occasionally hand-written) sign that reads something along the lines of "Yesterday at 16:23 hours the temperature reached 32° C (a little under 90° F-- TC), which is a full degree Celsius above the specified service temperature range of the steel in the rails, causing them to dissolve into slag which resulted in significant delays in the evening commuter service. We apologise for any inconvenience caused."
Or maybe upon your approach to a candy machine, thinking that you might score a snack, you're faced with a sign taped to the door that reads "The change-making function of this machine is faulty-- while the selected products are vended properly, instead of also yielding any change due, the machine simply responds with a heartless mechanical chuckle. We apologise for any inconvenience caused by the chuckle."
You run into the phrase "we apologise for any inconvenience caused" again and again, until you wind up experiencing it as nothing more than an empty string of words, meant to convey contrition, but really acting simply as boilerplate to placate the otherwise irritated masses.
Lisa's life once again provides one of the pinnacle examples for my observations in the "FedEx supplies incident". Being a reasonably active eBayer, Lisa has acquired a FedEx account and occasionally has FedEx shipping supplies sent to our home for her convenience. However, after one of our moves, FedEx apparently suffered a corporate stroke, which caused the world's largest shipping company to become incapable of shipping us shipping supplies. Every time she'd call back and explain that's she'd called umpteen times before and had been waiting X months for shipping supplies, the phone rep would promise to straighten everything out, and then would "apologise for any inconvenience caused", a phrase which grated increasingly on her ears.
Finally, rage levels at maximum, Lisa called FedEx back and demanded a supervisor, to who she told her story to for what she assured them to be "the final time." At the end, with voiced raised and finger stabbing an invisible British chest in the air somewhere in front of her, she demanded "Now, tell me you don't want my business, or tell me my supplies will be here next week, but don't you dare tell me you're sorry!
This is what it's come to, you see; the apology seems such a civil gesture, but all too frequently it simply becomes an empty one.
...and the uncomfortable stare-down begins. You've just paid for your goods and want them placed in a bag, but the cashier is just looking at you with that retail-worker's “would you move along now” smile, leaving you unsure about what to do next. This is a common stumbling block for Americans, and it's because many UK stores don't bag your goods for you. Talk about cushy-- you have no idea how conditioned you've become to the simply luxury of having your groceries bagged for you, nor how untethered you become when someone doesn't simply do it for you.
But you have yet to learn that you've expected to handle this yourself, so the silent, awkward face-off begins. Most likely what will happen is that cashier will eventually say something like “you'll find the bags over there”, at which point it will dawn on you that you'll have to look after this yourself.
26 May 2009
Let's suppose that during a trip to the UK you strike up a friendship with some local folks and get invited to their home for a meal. Being good guests, after you finish you volunteer to help in cleaning up in the kitchen. One of two things will now happen:
- If you take up a position at the sink and do your normal wash and rinse, you will be regarded with puzzled stares.
- If you take up a position at the drying rack and uncomfortably say “you still have a bit of soap on that one” as suds covered dishes are deposited there, you will be regarded with puzzled stares.
In reality, this isn't a very big deal, and in all the times we've eaten at friend's houses we haven't noticed it or really given it much thought (in the above hypothetical, I can assure you that after the dishes are completed you won't have to be rushed to the ER when you realize that the meal you just ate came off of un-rinsed dishes). But for some reason, the lack of rinsing is a major source of an “oh, ick!” reaction on the part of many Americans. And it's even more problematic in British/American couples; it can be a cause of such friction that the American partner will volunteer to do all the dishes since they simply can't abide by the dishes not being rinsed off. This clearly should be a good motivator for British women to seek out American husbands.
For the record, not only do we rinse, but we've trained our long-time babysitter Clare to rinse when she's cleaning up here. She's spent so much time here that occasionally she rinses when cleaning up at her home, eliciting “what the hell are you doing?” from her confused husband.
Why no rinsing? One may speculate that since this is an island nation the inhabitants may be quite conscious in conserving water. However, that's pretty clearly not the case. Most UK homes have unmetered water piped into their home, and a single annual payment covers as much water as you can drain from the system. This results in predictable behavior, and generally people are pretty free with their water use. And it's not like the water suppliers set a good example: in 2005, Thames Water, the authority that provides water for London and surrounding area, leaked 1/3 of the water it delivered, over 900 million liters of water per day. As of July of last year, they'd reduced that figure to a little over 700 million liters per day, which is better than their target rate, but still a breathtaking figure. So one shouldn't look at cultural conservation as a motivator for not rinsing.
But Lisa has an intriguing theory-- she posits that the reason for no rinsing is because the water is so hard. See, if you rinse all of the soap off and leave only the hard water, you wind up with spots on the glassware when the dishes dry. But if you leave a film of soap, its properties cause the water to slide off more easily, leaving the dishes cleaner. And the final polishing step removes the remaining spots and the soap. It's as reasonable an explanation as any we can come up with, and frankly it seems that the origins of a lot of these conventions are lost to the Brits themselves (I once read the story of a British schoolgirl who, as part of an assignment, mailed a letter to the Inland Revenue, the UK tax authority, inquiring as to why the tax year ran from Apr 6 to Apr 5 the following year; it took them seven months to unearth the answer and get back to the child). So don't worry, eat heartily, and when in Rome, rinse like the Romans do.
24 May 2009
It's quite common for locals in these places to ask where you're from and strike up a conversation as soon as they hear you speak, and if they see you on a regular basis they make a point of trying to draw you into a conversation, just so they can hear you. There's a cashier at a local grocer that my wife runs into periodically, and while he's fairly formal with the people ahead of her in the line, he lights up and gets quite chatty when it's her turn (maybe I should be worried). Just recently we went to a farm that had opened itself up to the public during lambing season, and an older gentleman (a vendor selling local sausages) was apparently quite captivated by my exotic accent, going so far as to leave his post at the grill to come over and visit us more where we were eating lunch. We've lived this experience many times, at restaurants, pubs, shops, etc. This has gone a long way in forming our opinion that Brits are actually a pretty warm bunch.
23 May 2009
But what really makes the markets shine isn't the farmers-- it's the people who come in from the continent to fill the stalls for the European specialty markets. French markets, Italian markets, Greek; every specialized market is wall to wall with vendors who've carted their goods across the channel, and the stuff they bring along is absolutely wonderful. You can't find stuff of this caliber in much of the UK; forget about the US at all. If you get a chance to attend a French or Italian market, it's a good idea to skip breakfast, since you'll want to try all the offered samples or snarf up some of the freshly prepared food cooked before your eyes. This goes a long way to explain my need for larger trousers.
22 May 2009
There are so many rules on how to make a cup of tea correctly. One friend puts milk in straight after she puts the tea in but my husband declares this approach totally wrong. He puts a little boiling water in first, lets it brew, then tops it up and milk goes last.
I, for all the years I have lived here, have never learned to make a 'proper' cup of tea, and the stuff I make has no flavor. Therefore, whenever I see a British person near a kettle of boiling water, I make them make me a cup of tea because, as my husband says, I can't be trusted with this task.
When we moved back to Chicago after living here the first time, the movers came with their own electric kettle for making tea on their breaks, and it was pretty clear that they'd moved enough Americans that they knew that if they wanted a proper tea they'd have to take care of it themselves. Therefore, Americans visiting here should just give in and leave the tea-making to the experts. And don't even mention sun tea.
21 May 2009
One odd consequence of the rain and damp is how cold things feel in the winter. For some reason, the dampness penetrates in a way that a mid-westerner isn't used to, and you can really feel chilled to the bone at first. So while your higher-order brain is telling you “feh; it's only a little under freezing-- this is nothing compared to Chicago”, your reptilian brain will be yelling “get inside the warming shelter you moron-- it's freezing!” After a while you get used to it, but you'll be amazed at first at how the temp and how things feel don't add up.
Having said all this, I should note that a lot of the locals gripe about the weather a lot. For instance, they complain that it doesn't actually get hot. I think they would like things to be a lot more like their holidays in Spain or the south of France, but having lived through lots of summers in Chicago and Kansas (phew), I don't think they realize how lucky they are. Such things go both ways, of course: anytime I hear a Chicago friend complain about the CTA, I tell them to shut their pie hole-- they don't know what real transport troubles are like.
20 May 2009
For me, this just does not compute. The Romans' presence in England included the construction of the baths and temple in the city of Bath back in 60-70 A.D. These baths included steam rooms, plunge pools, and and all manner of sophisticated ducting and drainage systems. Handling water was a Roman area of expertise, and the Romans covered the UK. Given this long history with managing water, I'm at a loss in understanding how it's still so flawed today.
19 May 2009
In Paris, when the guy on the scooter went down, 2 or 3 pedestrians made their way over to help the downed cyclist (scootist?). But in the London incident, when the motorcyclist went down, the busy commuters who choked the sidewalk swung into action as a group, almost as if they were guided by an invisible foreman. Some went to the aid of the rider, some cleared debris off the road out of the path of the cars, some pulled the bike to the side of the road, others spontaneously began to direct traffic, while still others were on their cell phones to emergency services. Simply put, it was amazing, and all the more so since London workers are actually pretty grumpy during the evening commute.
Things went similarly on the Underground during the 7/7 bombings: people broke out their cell phones and used the backlights to provide lighting for others in the tunnel, and others automatically started helping everyone get off the destroyed train, prioritizing the more gravely wounded and organizing people to help carry the injured off. And the media didn't portray those who helped as “heroes”, further emphasizing how this pitch-in attitude is part of the UK cultural identity.
In fact, it almost seems like the British may be better at instinctual reaction than they are at planned action. In contrast to these spontaneous acts of organization in crises, planned responses, such as dealing with the annual leaf fall on the railroad tracks, or facilities for snow handling (or lack thereof) to keep the roads clear for drivers, are surprisingly inadequate. Sure, it doesn't snow all that much here, but apparently that's a newer phenomenon from what we've been told by the locals. What did they do with the snow when they used to get more of it?
At the end of the day, I think I'd be pretty glad to have a crowd of Brits around when the chips are down, but I'll keep my own snow shovel in the boot.
18 May 2009
Even more thrilling are the “lanes”. Much of the country is paved with roads that are only a little over 1 lane wide, even though they are meant for bi-directional traffic. And the lanes are often lined with very tall hedgerows, making it difficult to see what's coming. People often go flying down the lanes, even though you're only supposed to be doing 20 MPH on them. So not only is driving on them at speed challenging, but you get to practice your emergency maneuvers when you suddenly come upon an oncoming vehicle, or a happy family out for a walk.
And then, of course, there is the roundabout
Sometimes they do seem to get a bit carried away, as with the monster roundabout in Hemel Hempstead where three roads intersect, creating a six-sided roundabout. Not satisfied with a roundabout with six entry/exit points, they decided to structure the roundabout as a hexagon rather than a circle, and at each vertex in the hexagon they installed a mini-roundabout to control the traffic a bit better. THEN, they decided that simply having traffic flowing clockwise wasn't sufficient, and so they added a secondary traffic ring inside the primary ring in which the traffic flows counter-clockwise (but do say “anti-clockwise” while you're here). The result is a roundabout that's the favorite of the area's drivers license road examiners.
17 May 2009
But this doesn't mean challenges don't still lurk on the menu; dishes featuring organ meats can be readily found. That steak and kidney pie isn't composed of beef and legumes; it's all beef, if you catch my drift. Unless you're the kind of person who likes sweetbreads or blood sausage, flee.
16 May 2009
Once my wife needed to find some mineral oil for treating our wooden cutting boards, and went from one pharmacy (chemist) to another asking for it. Time and again she was told “no, we don't stock that” with the authoritative weight of someone who knew what it was and was also keenly aware of the totality of their stocked items. Finally, on a hunch, after being told once again that it wasn't stocked, she asked “Do you know what mineral oil is?” “Well, no. What's it used for?” “We need it for cutting boards, but people also put it into ears to soften wax, and it can be used as a laxative.” “Ah-- perhaps you could use liquid paraffin instead.” Out comes the pharmacy reference book, and there in teensy print under the liquid paraffin entry was the footnote “*Also called mineral oil”. We've had this happen time and again, so you should consider making sure a shopkeeper knows what you're really talking about before giving up.
This isn't an isolated incident; I've encountered a similar response when looking for certain woodworking equipment at a tool shop. OK, so this isn't enough data points to declare this a universal phenomenon here, but I'd advise creating thinking on the shopper's part when faced with the refrain of "we don't do that".
15 May 2009
13 May 2009
So don't come here thinking you can say “cheers”, “quid”, “crikey”, or “mate”. You might get away with “oi” since it's close enough to “hey” that people might not be sure what you said. We've struck a diplomatic accord with our friends that if we don't say “quid” they won't say “buck”. One exception is “no worries” since that seems to have been appropriated from the Aussies anyway. But in general, resist the temptation or risk being considered a wanker.
12 May 2009
And they do-- walking the paths is a common pastime, and you'll frequently see people trekking across open fields, consulting their Ordnance Survey maps for the proper route to the country pub for lunch, as you drive along the motorway or ride a train. Sort of “walking the walk” in a way-- not only are the green spaces preserved, but they are actually used.
11 May 2009
But for all the positive aspects of rail travel and despite its long existence in the UK, the system is surprisingly fragile. Strikes, delays, cancellations, and equipment problems are extremely common, with some of the problems being almost comical (I was on a trail where the driver wasn't feeling well, so he simply stopped the train at the next station, got off, and went home). For example, every autumn the surface rail lines have trouble due to wet leaves making their way into the switching mechanisms, causing delays. Bilandic lost the Chicago mayoral re-election when he couldn't get the snow out of O'Hare in a timely fashion ONE TIME (well, that and a few other things), but year after year trains here are delayed by this same problem, and people just put up with it, although they know it's crap.
In the summer, it can be even worse: the steel used in the rails was spec'd to operate within a certain temperature range, but beyond that range the steel expands so much that the rails actually BUCKLE, making the line unusable. And we're not talking about 100 degree weather for two weeks here; a few too many days in the high 80's can do it. Frankly, after a while you get the impression that the rails are made of chocolate and a little girl in a calico dress merely needs to frown at a switch in order to cause it to erupt in a shower of sparks.
But although the trains give me grief on a regular basis, it's still hard to beat them for getting around easily. That is, when they're running.
10 May 2009
It is illegal in the entire UK to have a light switch or electrical outlet inside of a bathroom (with the exception of a special low-amp plug for electric razors). The switch must actually be near the bathroom door but outside of the bathroom. The only exception to this that you're allowed to have a cotton pull string attached to a ceiling switch inside the bathroom, so that there's no chance of creating a short while standing in some water.
From this, you might conclude that electrical standards are really strict, but you'd be wrong. Outside of commercial buildings, conduit is never used-- simple vinyl-clad cable runs through walls all over the country, supplying power to outlets and wall switches. So apparently it's OK to die by drilling into a wall and through a live wire, but not to shake off this mortal coil in the can; I guess they just don't want people hogging the bathroom. And don't get me started about the breaker box; no, just don't go there.
09 May 2009
07 May 2009
However, sometimes the betrayals are downright homicidal. Driving on the other side of the road (Brits hate it when Americans say “the wrong side”) has more subtle ramifications besides shifting with your left hand. Here, making a right turn requires you to look both ways, as that's the direction that crosses a lane of traffic. But you can rest assured that your brain has done it the other way for so long that it's positive that it only needs to look one way, and you're certain to give yourself more than a few pants-wetting experiences by unwittingly cutting across the path on an oncoming car.
The same thing applies to crosswalks; apparently they prove so problematic that many UK cities actually paint the words “Look Left” or “Look Right” directly at you feet on the curb to make sure that you aren't creamed by a black cab. Fortunately, your brain relearns these programs a lot faster than with the light switch.
06 May 2009
Our one-decade milestone for first moving to the UK looms a little over a year and a half out, and in the time we've been here we've raised many an eyebrow and uttered many a "you're kidding" at the small truths about life here we've uncovered in our stay as guests.
While the employers that relocated us here have provided useful resources to help us adjust to our transition, the reality is that no amount of briefing will prepare you for the occasional odd thread that is woven into the fabric of life here in the UK. Well, threads that are odd at least to American eyes.
We've come to appreciate, and in some cases warmly embrace, these differences in our ways, but we've never entirely let go of our amusement and occasional amazement at how two peoples who seem so similar can conduct much of life so differently.
None of these differences is so huge, nor are Brits so unaccustomed to the parochial ways of most Americans, that visiting here without taking these differences into account will result in any hostile response. In other words, being plain "American" won't result in you being chased out of the town by torch- and pitchfork-wielding villagers, nor will it get you laughed out of the pub if you say "mate" or "cheers". Generally.
But being armed with some knowledge of local customs can go a long way in improving your interactions with a people who are, by and large, a pretty delightful bunch of folks. And even if you're not going to visit the UK, I suspect that you'll still find yourself amused by the differences in ways of life that you've long taken for granted.
Thus, this blog aims to provide a "public service" to Americans to help them gain some insight into the significant (and not so significant) differences to expect in a visit to this island nation, and to prepare them better than just making sure they have enough pound-denominated travelers checks. I hope these tales increase your fondness for the British in the way they have done for me over the years.
And that's about as sentimental as I intend to get.