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.