a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Mon, 13 Dec 2004

[14:48] Some Tips for Americans Living or Visiting in London

  • Do not be alarmed by the strange coins you may be handed. The thing that looks like a dime is actually a 5p coin, but is worth almost a dime. The thing that looks like a quarter is actually a 10p coin, but, if exchange rates continue the way they are headed, it will be worth almost a quarter. The thing that looks like a penny actually is a penny, and the thing that looks like a penny, only much larger, has almost certainly got to have the lowest actual value to surface area ratio of any coin in the Western world. And never mind what a shilling is (or was).
  • The legend DECUS ET TUTAMEN, which you will find on the edge of certain pound coins, is Latin for "this coin has not been forged," and is an almost certain guarantee that it has been. Don't spend them all in one place.
  • Most people you meet are either English or Scottish or Welsh, or possibly Irish, or even Northern Irish. Confuse them at your utter peril. No one here knows what the term "British" means, so don't bother with it.
  • On a related note, the national flag of Great Britain, otherwise known as the "Union Jack", combines the crosses associated with the Catholic (and now Anglican) Saints George, Andrew, and Patrick, the patron saints of England, Scotland, and (Northern) Ireland, respectively. St. George is remembered for having slain a dragon, St. Andrew is known for having been crucified in a particularly uncomfortable fashion (hence, the shape of his cross), and St. Patrick, of course, is famous for having rid Ireland of its snakes. No one in the UK actually flies the Union Jack because the English can't bear to be associated with the Scots, and vice versa, while the cross of St. Patrick is of dubious origin and is only used in earnest by people wishing to refer to (Northern) Ireland without irking either the Irish republicans or the Ulster unionists. Meanwhile, the Welsh, who aren't even represented on the Union Jack, in spite of having their own language with its own uniquely incomphrensible spelling, also have their own flag. This Welsh flag quite naturally sports a large dragon as its main feature, presumably to spite the followers of St. George.
  • Strange fact: The word for "English" in both Gaelic and Welsh is Saesneg, which I take to be a cognate of the English word Saxon. I think this says a lot about how far back the internecine squabbling has been afoot in the British Isles.
  • Meanwhile, back in London, and, indeed, clear across England, the pubs all close at 11 PM, which is why binge drinking is the national sport. This is fine, because the Tube closes just after midnight. Don't worry, you will get your comeuppance when you take your English friends to Amsterdam, and you are the only one left standing by 1 AM. On the other hand, you don't have national health care back home, so who are you sneering at?
  • For God's sake, look BOTH WAYS when crossing the street. When you first arrive in London, you will instinctively look the wrong way, and Heaven help you, because London drivers have no mercy whatsoever, especially not for foreigners. If you had to drive around a city laid out the way this one is (think: Boston), you would go berzerk eventually, too, except that you are from the States and, given the chance, you will instinctively turn your automobile into head-on traffic at the first left-hand turn, so you probably won't be driving here long enough to find out what it's really like.
  • The consequence of all this is that you, as a passenger in other people's automobiles, will perpetually try to get in the driver's seat entirely by mistake, because the cars are backwards, too.
  • More on the subject of transport: There are two kinds of cabs in London, regular cabs and mini-cabs. Traditional London cab drivers are required to go through a rigorous years-long training course which includes hypnogogic instruction in the names and locations of every street in greater London. Mini-cab drivers, on the other hand, are by and large some guy who just showed up with an unexpired driver's license, and haven't the foggiest clue where even the most basic nearby landmarks are, but they will still promise to take you there for a fiver. The main difference between cabs and mini-cabs is that the former will rip you off, whereas the latter will rip you off not quite as badly, but with the added thrill of the remote possibility that you may wake up some hours later minus a kidney. I, for one, recommend sticking to the night buses after the Tube closes.
  • You will find computer keyboards in the UK confusing. They have swapped the at-sign and the double quotes, which they call "inverted commas", and <shift>-3 is still the pound key, but not the pounds you expect. (If this sort of thing causes you to weep and gnash your teeth, just wait until you make it to the Continent.)
  • When you first step on a scale in the changing room at the gym, you may discover that you have weighed yourself in both kilograms and stone. Stone? you may ask. Do not panic. The English use this archaic measure solely to weigh people, though no one can recall why. There are 14 pounds to one stone, and 2.2 pounds to a kilo, so either way you reckon at it, you had probably best be planning to spend more time in the gym.
  • The English are ambivalent about their relationship with Europe, and in particular with their allies, the French, whom they refer to as "frogs" and who refer to them as "les roast beef". The crowning act of defiance on the part of the English is their insistence on keeping all their road sign distances marked in miles. In spite of this, nearly everything else (except people, as described above) is measured in metric units.
  • In England, people actually pay for broadcast television. No foolin'. It's called the "license fee," and if you own a television, you are supposed to pay it (to the tune of ~100 pounds every year) for the privilege. Although the rumors of television detector vans that roam the cityscape looking for offenders are widely scoffed at, you will still see ads in the Tube that read "We have a list of all the homes in the UK that haven't paid a TV license fee. Just thought you should know."
  • On that subject, the UK does not have a Fourth Amendment - why, they don't even have a constitution! - and so the concept of privacy does not have an awful lot of legal protection around here. In particular, expect to have a closed circuit camera trained on you any time you're in public. Hey, what are you sneering at, buddy, you don't even have national health back... Oh, wait, I already mentioned that, sorry. Anyway, if it makes you feel paranoid, just think what foreigners have to go through when they visit the States (and don't get me started on that).
  • Now, for some terminology: In England, a clamp is a boot, and a boot is a trunk. Also, a skip is something you empty your dustbin into, possibly after you've got done hoovering.
  • Contrary to popular belief, real live English people do not say "pip pip", and only occasionally are they moved to say "cheerio".
  • In England, pasties are not something a stripper wears to keep her nipples warm. Nevertheless, you will still enjoy nibbling on them. Remember to pronounce it past-eez, not paste-eez.
  • In England, fries are chips, and chips are crisps. In any event, try the chips (if your arteries can stand it) and be sure to have them with salt and vinegar. Other recommended chip toppings include mayonnaise, so-called "curry sauce", and "brown sauce," which sounds vaguely repulsive, but is actually just A-1 sauce.
  • Since England was not by and large blessed with edible cuisine of an indigenous nature, they have mastered the art of importing other people's. Be sure to try the Indian curries and the falafel. (When they ask you if you want salad with that, just say yes.) Vegetarians actually make out okay here, better even than on the Continent - in particular, Chinese food is more or less like you'd expect it to be. As a vegetarian, I've never had the the Turkish kebab, but if you are so inclined, stop and remember two things: Mad, and Cow.
  • Actually, to be fair, the English have perfected the concept of breakfast, which includes, but is not limited to, eggs, toast, chips, beans, peas, mashed potatoes, fried tomatoes (?), something called "bubble" which is actually quite tasty, your choice of dodgy meat substance, hot tea, and Marmite, which is indistinguishable from the Australian knock-off Vegemite, even though the whole of England swears up and down that's it's somehow better. Mmm, Marmite.
  • On that subject, you are always going to be the loudest one in the restaurant. Sorry, get used to it. (Actually, maybe that's just me.)
  • As an American, you will have to repeat yourself constantly when addressing strangers. It's not that they can't understand your accent - they hear it on TV and in the movies all the time, after all - it's just that when you open your mouth, they instinctively expect a different set of noises to come out. There is not much you can do about this besides give them a second to recalibrate, and then start again, only this time, more slowly.
  • If, while in London, you are at any point challenged in an uncomfortable fashion by the locals about your national identity, remember the following handy reply: "What are you talking aboot? I'm Canadian, eh!" (Note: Do not try this at the immigration desk at Heathrow.)
  • In spite of how I may have made it sound, you will probably like it here, if you can stand the weather. People are invariably polite and even friendly (if a bit reserved), and there is no shortage of things to do or places to see. Do come visit!

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