31 May 2009

We couldn't keep it on the shelves

So there's this weird phenomenon that my wife and I have experienced on more than one occasion here, and that has also been reported to us by other puzzled ex-pats, and it has to do with the policy that merchants follow when deciding what to stock on their shelves. See, we always thought that it was sort of Econ 101 that if you had a popular item, you'd be inclined to continue to stock it as your customers would continue to buy it, and even having it would be useful as it would bring people into the shop where they'd be likely to buy more things. So popular items are ones that you'd continue to order from the supplier, at least in our small way of thinking.

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

Apologies wearily accepted

At the risk of exposing what an odd kid I was, I remember as a youngster making the discovery that if you say the same word over and over and over again, at some point it stops meaning anything and eventually becomes just a sound, divorced from the original (or any) semantic interpretation.

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.

Unease at the checkout

So suppose you decided to take a long vacation in the UK, and to make it feel more like home you rent a small flat. Once you get over the teensy appliances (more on that later), you figure it's time to stock the larder. So you head off to one of the local grocery stores, Waitrose/Sainsbury/Tesco/whatever, load up your cart/basket/arms, and head for the checkout. One of the first things you'll notice is that the person working the till is a good bit shorter than you're used to; this is because they're seated. So you watch your selections being rung up as you silently think of how cushy cashiers have it here, recalling how you had to stand for hours while working the register at that after school job at Dominicks. Then the total is tallied, you pay the amount due, get your change, and...

...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

Final rinse

Update: I will admit to the crime of not living over the entire UK at once, nor sharing a meal in the homes of most people here, hence my overstating that not rinsing after washing is a "cultural norm". It seems that things are a mixed bag here, and it appears that the rinsers don't want to be lumped in with the non-rinsers. I apologize if I've caused any offense. Nonetheless, the practice does exist here, and so I'm going to keep the original, if somewhat less-than-accurate, post.

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.
This is because the cultural norm here in the UK is to not rinse the soap off of dishes after they've been cleaned. Really. You leave them in the rack to dry, and then give each one a final polish with a dishcloth before putting them away.

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 good to be American outside of London

By and large, Americans are quite welcome in the UK, or at very least well-tolerated. A lot depends on the local saturation level; where there are lots of tourists, or lots of Americas who've settled into local communities (in London's South Kensington area, you can actually find cars with the steering wheel on the left), Americans can find their welcome worn a bit thin, although most Brits are way too polite to be openly hostile. But while London may be a bit fatigued by American tourists (and tourists in general), the smaller towns outside of London are another story. There, especially again where there aren't large American settlements (Surrey, I'm looking at you), there's a lot more open interest in Americans.

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

One-upping the farmer's market

A lot of little UK towns and villages are “market towns”; that is, public markets are routinely held there. Lots of traveling merchants sell various goods, and lots of local farmers come around to hawk their produce. These guys are often entertaining as they shout out pitches regarding their goods and the price (which gets cheaper nearer to closing time), and throw in the occasion silly claim as to the properties of the goods they sell, curing everything from scurvy to unattractiveness.

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

You don't know squat about making tea

If you're lucky enough to be moved over here at some company's expense, they generally provide you some acculturation classes to help you integrate more smoothly. One of the classes given to Americans moving to the UK teaches you how to make tea. Really. There's such a thing as a “proper cup of British tea”, and Americans don't know a damn thing about making one. It may be hereditary from what I can see; my wife has a friend named Elizabeth who's from Mississippi and lives in Berkshire with her British husband, but although she's lived here in the UK since she attended Cambridge, her husband still doesn't allow her to make the tea. In her blog, Elizabeth writes:

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

Yeah, but how's the weather?

Not bad in my view, actually. When a rainy spell sets in, it can really last, and winter is a pretty wet season, but in general the weather has a lot to recommend it, especially over Chicago. The winters don't get very cold, typically not getting below 20, and there's not a lot of snow-- we had our first snow that lasted more than 1 day this past winter, and that's been since 2000. Even better, the summers never get very hot. At the peak, you get about a week of 80 degree weather, but otherwise its somewhere in the 60s and 70s all summer long with no mosquitoes. If it isn't rainy, this yields long and glorious summer days with oddly low humidity, another surprise for a place that can be so rainy.

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

Water management

How can an island nation that is known for its rain not have absolutely mastered rain handling and dampness prevention? Houses have problems with damp walls all the time, and water seems to find its way into buildings from all sorts of sources. And we're not just talking about homes here-- I've actually witnessed first-hand buckets placed on the floor of Heathrow Airport to catch water that was leaking in through the ceiling. Two different modern office buildings I've worked in had water problems, one through the roof and the other through an atrium. And in any DIY store you can find a wealth of products for managing water. In a sign that many folks have given up, a lot of those products simply absorb dampness-- instead of keeping the water out, you just minimize the impact once it's gotten in.

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

Predisposed to civil preparedness

It's hard not to come away with the impression that Brits are culturally conditioned to pitch in and help out in a crisis. If this is true, I have some suspicion that this is a holdover from the Second World War, when the folks here pulled together to weather Germany's attack. But I've witnessed two different motorcycle accidents, one in Paris and one in London, to which the passersby reacted very differently.

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

Drivers welcome

While the motorways are pretty straight and boring, the secondary (and tertiary) roads can be a gas to drive on. Much of the country is quite hilly, and the roads snake up, down, and around through them. In some parts of the country (such as Scotland), drivers on these roads are expected to go fast even when there's a single lane in each direction, and if you don't go fast enough, be prepared to be passed, even on a blind curve.

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 , possibly the greatest traffic control invention ever. There are few traffic lights at UK intersections and even fewer stop signs (in fact, I don't think I've ever seen one). Instead, at the place where two or more roads intersect, some sort of circular construction is created at the center around which traffic flows in a clockwise direction. Drivers in the roundabout to your right have the right of way, and your lane where you enter determines if you are going to turn right, left, or continue straight ahead when you leave the roundabout. The result is that unless things are heavy or lots of traffic is coming only from one road, cars never really stop-- the traffic just keeps flowing with perhaps a brief slowdown or pause. And they build these things at all kinds of scales, from little mini-roundabouts that are only about 8 feet wide for little suburban intersections to motorway on/off ramps where the roundabout is large enough to contain a softball game.

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

British food's bad rep is undeserved and out of date

Sure, there's crap here just like in the US, and at one time food in restaurants was pretty poor, even by the estimation of many locals, but the general standard for food has become pretty good. There's lots of really nice food available in unlikely places, like in country pubs nestled deep in the woods. And the UK's answer to the ubiquitous Mexican restaurant is the curry house; if you're a fan of the spots around Devon and Western in Chicago, you'll be pleased to know that good Indian food is everywhere.

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

Admit nothing

Lots of common items that are available in the US can also be found here in the UK, but often are known by different names. Finding what you're looking for, however, can be difficult because British shopkeepers apparently don't to like to admit they don't know what you're talking about. If it's in a field they know nothing about, say, understanding the blue lines in hockey, they don't have any problem admitting that and will ask for an explanation. But if it sounds like it has anything to do with what they should know about, they simply say that “no, we don't have that.”

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

Re-purposed words

You need to steel yourself to the fact that your leg-covering garments should be referred to as trousers, because “pants” in the UK refers to underwear. Getting this wrong leads to all sorts of amused looks from the natives, as if you're a five year old who just said “fart” in a restaurant. You would do well to become familiar with some of the more racy differences; for instance, “fanny pack” sounds more like a verb phrase here than a noun. To be fair, we're probably the ones who re-purposed them in the first place.

13 May 2009

Americans sound stupid using British colloquialisms

Really stupid.

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

There's great reverence for green spaces

I have genuine admiration for this. Urban sprawl is tightly controlled, and green spaces are only sparingly given over to development. London itself is surrounded by the so-called “green belt” within which housing development is simply not allowed. Further, the country is laced with public right-of-way footpaths which can never be closed off, even if the land they are on is bought and made otherwise private. It seems you're never very far from a footpath. This has its downside, of course, and is a big contributing factor to the high cost of housing. But the British seem to have a common view that green spaces are something to be protected, cherished, and enjoyed.

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

Rail coverage is extensive...and fragile

UK rail services make it easy to reach most of the country, and apparently only cover 50% of what was the previous rail system (much has been shutdown). The London Underground trains, moving almost 1.2 billion people annually, are easy to understand and provide great coverage of the city.

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

DIY'ers will be puzzled by British electrical standards

Electricity is supplied at 240v and ½ the amps here. This means that heavy-draw appliances like vacuum cleaners will be sporting a wire that is so thin it looks like it should be hooked up to a telephone. That at least makes sense; abandon hope if you're trying to understand the logic behind house wiring.

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

You think you know English? You don't know English.

Compared to the British, Americans are newbie English users. In British hands, the English language is a tool of infinite subtlety. For example, when a Brit tells you that they “agree with you to a point”, this doesn't mean that, with the exception of a few aspects, agreement has been reached; it means they don't agree with you at all. The magazine The Economist once reported that English-speaking Dutch diplomats had to employ British translators in order to understand what their British counterparts were really saying. This adds a whole new dimension to arguments at the pub.

07 May 2009

Your motor programs will betray you

This is the most pervasive and irritating thing you'll find. Sometimes the betrayals are simple annoyances, like with wall-mounted light switches. A properly installed UK light switch turns the light on when thrown in the down position, not up like in the US. I'm sure many guys will be familiar with the ability to enter a darkened room and, at just the right moment when you're breezing past the light switch and have just reached an arm's length away, will execute a perfectly timed upward sweep of the arm, catching the switch with the very tips of your fingers and turning on the lights, all without breaking stride. Do that in the UK, and your skillfully executed flick will have absolutely no impact on the room's illumination, leaving you free to trip over the kid's toys and do a faceplant into the cat's litterbox. And you'll do it again and again and again.

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

A Public Service

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.