Notes from an Expat American (Texan) living in Britain
In late 2006 I moved to England and in early 2013 I became a dual citizen. Being originally from another culture has been both an advantage and a disadvantage. Thank heaven we speak the same language — or do we?
Have you figured out what is in the photo? It’s the world’s oldest working clock, on display at Salisbury Cathedral, believed to be from 1386. Many of its parts appear to be original. Britain is full of historical artifacts like this.
Note: A lot of the challenges I have faced in moving to the UK do not apply for citizens from the European Economic Area. EEA citizens have rights here that I do not have, and do not have to get the increasingly scarce type of work visa that I must hold. As Brexit kicks in, Europeans may start to face the same issues I have run into.
To summon help for a genuine emergency, call 999 (not 911). Only use this for emergencies.
Calling for non-emergency help may require you to plan ahead and look up the local non-emergency phone number for the police. I witnessed a burglary next door to a B&B where I was staying. Since there was no phone book available and burglary is not an emergency, I rang the B&B owner to let him know what was going on. He in turn rang the police.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but landlines are disappearing from hotels and B&Bs because mobile phones are so ubiquitous. Telephone directories are disappearing too — people look up numbers online. The police quizzed me repeatedly about why I phoned the B&B owner instead of calling them directly. For the future, when I check in at a B&B or hotel I will get the local non-emergency police telephone number, just in case.
If you are so ill or injured that you need to go to a hospital’s emergency room, that isn’t what it is called here. You need to go to A&E (Accident and Emergency). But there is a caveat. When you think you might have influenza, you are not supposed to go to a hospital or visit a doctor on your own initiative. Instead, you are supposed to contact NHS Direct first by calling the 24 hour telephone number 0845 4647. They may diagnose you over the telephone and instruct you to send someone who doesn’t have influenza to pick up medication on your behalf at a pharmacy.
Yes, 0845 numbers are telephone numbers where you pay by the minute. NHS Direct doesn’t usually keep people on hold very long, but get used to the idea of paying for calls that would be toll free in the USA. It’s often unavoidable.
Only people with certifications are supposed to help in emergencies.
Many people believe the British are not much inclined to file lawsuits. That used to be true, but it is becoming less and less so, and it has implications for bystanders who offer help in an emergency.
You can take specific training in first-responder skills such as first aid. If you take that training and get the certification, you are generally shielded from legal liability for rendering assistance in an emergency. There is no Good Samaritan law like what many states in the USA have to protect people who provide the best help they can in emergencies when no one with formal training is available. Without the right certification, even if you got first aid training elsewhere and do the best you can, you may be exposed to legal liability for trying to help. Certification you got in the USA is probably not accepted here.
Holidays — Leave Your American Holiday Calendar Behind
The UK deliberately spreads its holidays throughout the year. Most of them are simply bank holidays so most people (except in retail) can expect to have a day off adjacent to a weekend at reasonable intervals.
For obvious reasons, the British do not celebrate the Fourth of July. By the way, the USA did not split from Britain in the Revolutionary War — to the British, that was the War for Independence.
The British also do not celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a rather telling difference between the two cultures. Earlier in the month, though, they celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. Put simply, on a bonfire they burn an effigy of a man who tried and failed to blow up Parliament. There are big community versions of this, and small family versions.
Usually I’ve been working too much to get to attend, but in 2010 I got my first chance to attend. The family had put their Guy Fawkes straw effigy on top of a bonfire. Well after dark, they lit the fire and everyone admired how the effigy burned. Then we shot off fireworks (this and the New Year are the big holidays for fireworks) and had a picnic outside in the dark, in freezing rain. I must be adapting — I considered it as much fun as they did.
That’s about as excited as Britons get about holidays. When New Orleans is having Mardis Gras celebrations as though it’s the last chance humanity will ever have for a party, the British are having… Pancake Day! Yes, that’s right — they prepare for Lent by eating delicate European-style pancakes.
Everything except retail, dining and banking grinds to a halt for the last couple of weeks of the year. Eating out for Christmas Dinner is not as common as it has become in the States. If you want to eat that holiday meal out, you’d better book it weeks or even months ahead at one of the pubs or restaurants that advertises it will be serving on that day. The menu will be special, and a special (higher) price than usual. Just about everything is closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day (the 26th). You can’t go out and get an extra carton of this or bunch of that — stock up beforehand.
When you book the meal, vegetarians are much more common here than in most of the States, so you need not worry if you want a meat-free meal. Every pub and restaurant has at least a few vegetarian (often vegan) selections on the menu. There are sure to be at least two versions of the big holiday meal so vegetarians are just as well provided for as omnivores.
Nearly everything closes for New Year’s Day too. When businesses begin to open again after the New Year, it takes a little while for everyone to get back in their normal stride.
A couple of side notes about holidays…
You can send a card to your mother for two special occasions. The UK celebrates Mothering Day in March, and the USA celebrates Mother’s Sunday in May. Father’s Day is closer together for the two countries, often the same day.
When Valentine’s Day rolls around, you’ll have a hard time finding a card to send to your mother or anyone else you love in some way other than romantically. Brits only give a Valentine card to a spouse, life partner, girlfriend or boyfriend. They think it’s weird to give a Valentine card to anybody else.
To send an animated ecard for such occasions, try Jacquie Lawson. The annual fee for her website is low and her ecards are cute with a British flavour. I’ve even gotten a delightfully fluffy JL ecard from a British businessman I know — a big masculine bear of a man I would never have expected to send such a thing. JL steadily adds new cards to the website and rotates the featured card of the month. You can visit her site by clicking this month’s featured image below.
Pub Food Has Improved
Even in the middle 1990s, during visits to the UK I hated eating in pubs. It seemed like all the food was fried and everything came with potatoes, which I couldn’t eat much at the time. There simply weren’t many vegetables, let alone green salads.
Wow, have times changed!
Some pubs only offer snack food — crisps (potato chips) and other bag snacks, wimpy sandwiches in a plastic box like what you could get at a petrol service station. But the ones that offer hot food have generally gotten serious about it. (They’re called gastro pubs.) The pub about 100 yards from where I live, in the countryside, serves food that would do any restaurant proud in terms of variety, quality, quantity and the atmosphere of the dining section.
There are still a lot of potatoes, but they can be avoided. Other vegetables are on the menu. Green salad is on the menu. You can get a fried meal if you want, but most of the menu isn’t fried. It’s more varied, a lot healthier, a lot tastier. In many pubs the atmosphere is subtly nicer, too.
If you are looking for standardized menus and bargains, there are some chains you may want to try, such as Brewer’s Fayre, Marston and Wetherspoon’s. The pubs in these chains often have their own names (although pubs alongside a Premier Inn hotel are often Beefeater, and you’ll also see a lot of Lloyd’s Bar) but they have chain-wide menus and pricing, usually with some especially good deals. Of these, Wetherspoon’s is the cheapest.
Only sports fans should try eating at pubs when a big match is on the telly, though. Fans like to go to the local pub to watch the game together and enjoy a pint or two. It’s crowded and loud, sometimes a bit rowdy, when a game is on. Choose carefully before you actually cheer for a team. People are very… loyal… to their favorite sports teams.
Meat versus Veg
Menus when dining out tend to be much more vegetarian-friendly in the UK than in the States. Vegetarians are more common here. This isn’t entirely a philosophical choice. For much of British history, meat was a luxury unaffordable for most of the common folk. In some pubs, you will see something written on the wall or on a beam to the effect that the traditional diet of the Englishman is bread and beer. It isn’t a joke. For a substantial portion of the population, for a long time that was close to the truth.
During the Boer War, the government found to its dismay that a huge percentage of the men conscripted for military duty were too physically unsound to serve. This was a direct result of poor nutrition. Marmite was invented to supplement the nutrition of the lower classes and address the worst vitamin deficiencies without adding meat to the diet of the lower classes.
You’ll either love Marmite or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. I loathe it on crackers or toast the way many Britons love to eat it. But I admit that adding a little of it to a vegetarian soup or stew can be tasty.
Strawberries and Cream
I am addicted to British strawberries and cream. What else can I say?
Speaking of Cream…
You might want to try a cream tea. This is not tea with cream in it. Having tea can mean anything from having a cup of hot tea, to having hot tea with a snack, to having an evening meal (which is called taking your tea).
Cream tea is a scone served with clotted cream and perhaps some jam, along with hot tea to drink. It is considered a particularly delectable little luxury. Places that serve it are justifiably proud to offer it.
Tea, Dinner and Supper
You are usually safe referring to the evening meal as taking your tea. In some parts of the country, you can call that meal dinner when talking with someone who is not upper class. In other places, only the upper class calls the evening meal dinner and anyone else may feel you are looking down on them if you call it dinner.
Supper is not a meal. It is a snack such as cheese and crackers after evening has turned to night. Since you can take your tea anytime from late afternoon to late evening, supper keeps you from going to bed a little hungry.
Sandwiches will often disappoint you. A typical chicken salad sandwich is a few bites of chicken and a little lettuce (salad) between two pieces of white or brown sliced bread. There’s nothing else to it except maybe a little butter spread on the bread, which Brits often spread where you would put mayonnaise. A ham sandwich is a slice of ham between two slices of bread. That’s it.
Where to Get an American-Style Sandwich
If you want an American-style sandwich with lots of stuff in it, go to the American-based chain Subway, which has shops all over the country and serves sandwiches very similar to what you would get at Subway in the States. Ironically, a Subway sandwich is one of the best bargain lunches in Britain.
However, the quality of Subway shops here is more erratic than in the USA and the meaning of the meal deal is not the same from shop to shop. The best I’ve tried is in St. Johns just across the river from Worcester city centre. Their crew is cheerful, friendly and eager to please. Their bread is always warm from the oven. They always offer to put cheese on your sandwich and toast it. They are flexible about what drink you can have when you upgrade to a meal deal — fountain drink, hot tea, coffee or latte.
By contrast, for years the Oswestry shop would not allow a hot drink in a value meal (they will now), and bread at the Yate shop is cool and drying out in the evening. Even the Worcester city centre shop is not as attentive and friendly as St. Johns.
That said, even the least of the Subway shops will offer you a huge sandwich for about the same price most other places charge to feed you a lot less. I practically lived on the Yate shop’s sandwiches during one of my contracts there.
Traditional British cooking is not spicy. For someone like me who grew up with spicy meals, a steady diet of traditional British fare is boring.
Right after World War II, there were only a handful of Indian restaurants in the UK. Now they are everywhere, and their food is often very good.
If you want spicy food at reasonably prices and aren’t in a mood for Indian, look for Nando’s. They specialize in chicken (although they also serve veggie burgers) cooked Portugese style with African piri piri sauce. As a native Texan who is half Cajun by blood, I’m fine with the hot version of the sauce, although I often go for medium instead. There are one or two mild sauces for those who want spices but not pepper-heat.
The Inimitable British Chippy
Last but certainly not least, there are chippies everywhere. One village where I used to live even has a chippy van. Around 8 p.m. it drives around the village tooting its art car horn. Then it parks near the pub for about 20 minutes, where villagers queue up to buy fish and chips.
Chippies mostly sell fried fish with thick-sliced fried potatoes (chips), doused with malt vinegar and liberally salted. More and more of them sell curries and burgers too, but they generally don’t make curry as well as they make fish and chips. Brits are not as keen about ketchup as people in the States — they may put brown sauce on their chips instead (or sometimes mayonnaise). Where an American would grab a burger and fries, a Briton gets fish and chips. It’s a cheap, filling meal guaranteed to clog your arteries but leave you smiling.
The expression cheap as chips arises from the low price of a portion of fries from a chippy. Since eating out is mostly expensive, one of the most common ways to get together is sharing food from a chippy at someone’s home and then playing cards or board games or quiz games for the rest of the evening — cheap and cheerful entertainment.
On Your Birthday, Bring Cakes
In the States on your birthday, coworkers might bring a cake or other treats to work and everyone would have some in honor of your birthday.
In the UK on your birthday, you are expected to bring cakes to work for the people you work with. When the British say cakes in this context, they don’t necessarily mean a birthday cake. They mean goodies. You can bring cookies (called biscuits here — there’s nothing in the UK like an American biscuit), doughnuts, muffins, scones… as long as you bring enough for everyone you work with. If someone you work with can’t have sugar, consider including some cheese and crackers or some fruit.
Buying Bog Standard
Before you find out where to buy stuff made for the masses, you need to know the implications of buying it.
The Importance of Appearances
There are many places in the States where you can dress in jeans with holes in the knees and live in a modest house in a modest part of town even though you’re a millionaire, and people will still accord you full respect for what you have accomplished. Britons are very class conscious, so it doesn’t work that way here. Someone born into the upper class might get away with not appearing the way people expect for your station in life. You can’t. Since you don’t have the usual UK class markers of family tree, schools attended, upperclass accent, or category of university degree, you’re often going to be judged by appearance — what you wear, what kind of car you drive, where you live and what you own. It is hard to counteract that with a record of accomplishment.
Moving here from abroad is expensive, so perhaps you won’t be able to splash out on the right appearance right away.
You might be able to do a balancing act about this. People are more reserved here than in the States. Socializing happens more outside the home than in it. Dress well, socialize by meeting at a pub or some such so nobody sees your flatpack furniture, arrive by train or bicycle (which gets you points for being eco-responsible) so nobody sees your clunky old car, and you can appear more prosperous than you are.
Where the Ordinary Stuff Is
Now that’s out of the way, so let’s talk about where ordinary people get ordinary things of ordinary quality. Bog is slang for the toilet. Bog standard is economy-grade ordinary stuff. In the States, you could buy bog standard stuff at Wal-Mart and posh stuff at Neimann Marcus.
If you have plenty of money, you’ll have no problem finding places to spend it on such things as fine English tailoring or Victorian antique furniture. But if you don’t have money to spare, at least for a while you need to know where to buy bog standard stuff. When I moved here, you could have gotten a lot of it at Woolworth’s. Now that Woolie’s has gone under, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
The very bottom of both price and quality is at pound shops, which are analogous to dollar stores in the States. They go by various names, but it’s usually easy to distinguish pound shops from other shops. Many are independent. There are chains such as Poundland. Stuff from pound shops is below bog standard, in keeping with the cheap prices.
Most of the time you’ll want at least bog standard. Wilkinson (commonly called Wilko) has even better bargains than Woolie’s had. If there is a Wilko near you, count yourself lucky.
For ordinary stuff and flatpack furniture, people rely heavily on Argos. You can order items delivered or reserve them online for pickup in the nearest shop. When you buy at an Argos shop, you jot down the item number and quantity on an order slip and take it to the cashier. When you have paid, you are given a pickup number. A few minutes later, your purchases are ready for you to collect at the pickup counter.
If you need to make a prosperous impression on people you invite into your home, don’t buy bog standard flatpack furniture from Argos. At least step up to Ikea — and if you are mixing with the powerful or well-off, don’t even go for Ikea. Everyone recognizes both of those sources a mile away. I’ve heard middle class people sneer about people who have Argos items and thrill over Ikea (especially Ikea kitchens) — and I’ve heard the wealthy sneer about people who have Ikea items in their homes.
HomeBase is somewhat like Home Depot in the States, but more expensive and with less variety. You can’t go to the hardware department and buy exactly the number you need of exactly the nuts and bolts you need. Everything is prepackaged and, with limited floor space, there won’t be the staggering selection you would get in Home Depot. Look for a local independent hardware shop for a chance of better prices and perhaps the exact item you need.
Don’t order online from HomeBase. Their online store is fulfilled by Argos with a markup, so you would pay extra for no good reason.
Alternatively, you can try B&Q (which sometimes can sell you exactly the number of fasterners you need) or Wickes (now a subsidiary of Travis Perkins), also similar to Home Depot. For some reason there usually isn’t a B&Q near me, so I’ve only been in a couple of their stores. The quality and pricing were similar to HomeBase with a little more variety in stock at B&Q. When you are ready to step up a notch, try John Lewis.
If you need DIY hardware too uncommon to be in shops, I recommend ordering online from Ironmongery Direct. Their catalog is enormous and they ship quickly.
For consumer and small business computers and electronics, Curry’s / PC World (a Dixon company) is everywhere but suffered from the economic downturn. The aisles have become wider than in American stores and much less stock is on hand than when I moved here. Prices are often also top-end. Take a look at Maplin instead. If you are ordering online, you can also try Misco.
To take care of your car, you’ll probably end up at Halford’s. You can also get some bicycle stuff there.
For clothes, the biggest bargain name is Primark. Matalan also has bargain basement clothing, often of somewhat better quality.
Among the supermarkets, Tesco is to the UK as Wal-Mart is to the States. The two chains took opposite approaches. Tesco is centered around groceries but its biggest stores carry everything. Wal-Mart began with everything except groceries and its biggest stores added a grocery section. Attitudes toward Tesco are much like attitudes about Wal-Mart. People get upset that having a Tesco in their area will drive small local shops out of business, and people go to Tesco in droves for its huge selections and generally low prices. Other supermarkets advertise in terms of how many of their items match Tesco’s price.
Sainsbury’s is another popular supermarket chain. Their Basics line of food items competes well with Tesco on price and they have lots of stores. There’s a good chance that for a large selection with comparatively low prices, your closest option will be either Tesco or Sainsbury’s… or the Cooperative, which was our mainstay for about my first three years in this country. The largest of the Morrison’s supermarkets are comparable, but starting to move up the market a little more. Then you get to Waitrose or Marks & Spencers Food, decidedly more posh.
Bargain basement grocery store or supermarket chains include Lidl, Aldi, Asda and Netto. The last of those is the least common, but I’m told it is especially popular among Polish immigrants because it is common in Poland.
No matter where you shop for food, you’ll soon get in the habit of looking for sales. When a British colleague said food in the USA is “damned near free” (by comparison with the UK), he meant it. But it is much easier to order groceries online and have them delivered to your home here than it is in much of the USA — it’s a profitable line of business where population density is high, as it is here.
Find out what loyalty card you can get for each of your frequent large shopping chains, get it and use it. After 4 years of diligent use, our Nectar card just got a nicer replacement for a failed electric blanket and a six-bottle delivery of good wines as a gift to a very fine friend, with points left over.
Through the Mailbox
In the USA, it’s illegal to put anything other than U.S. mail in a home’s mailbox. Advertising leaflets and such have to be hung on the door, left by the door, or whatever — but not put in the mailbox.
In the UK, all manner of things come through the mailbox or a mail delivery slot in the front door. Mail, advertising, newspapers, specially marked plastic bags for you to put donation items into for a charity…
If you have a small local business, you can put flyers into mailboxes too — or you can pick up a little extra pocket money by delivering flyers or newspapers this way.
Charities, Donations and Charity Shops
Do Well by Doing Good
You will not get a tax deduction for your generosity like you would in the States, although donating items to charity shops and buying used items from them as a way of financially supporting the charity are very British things to do.
There is another way to do well by doing good. You can volunteer some of your time to help at one of the historical sites managed by the National Trust. If you choose carefully, some of those sites count your volunteer time toward a free National Trust membership for a year. That is very worthwhile. National Trust membership isn’t cheap, and non-member admission fees to the sites are steep.
Charity Donation Scams
When you get a specially marked plastic bag in your mailbox that asks you to put donation items in it and leave it outside your door for collection, it might not be legitimate. Sometimes criminals use this as a way to collect salable goods. They even have the nerve to occasionally do this in the name of a well known, highly regarded charity.
There is only one way to be sure your donations will actually benefit a non-profit organization. Gather your donations, take them to the thrift store operated by the charity (called a charity shop), and hand over the donated items directly to the charity yourself.
Charity Donation Quirks
Many charities, especially national ones, have begun instituting rules about which donated items they are willing to resell in their charity shops (thrift stores). You would be amazed by what they discard. You can bring them an old edition of a book — a genuine collector’s item — and because it is not on their list of desirable recent types of books, they will throw it away as junk. You won’t be told about this when you bring that collector’s item to them. They’ll accept your donation and then toss it in the rubbish bin later. The same happens to a lot of vintage clothing that would sell nicely in any of the vintage shops.
If you are lucky, though, some of the discards may be rescued by a small business that specializes in selling charity shop discards. I am personally acquainted with someone in Oswestry who made a living selling charity discards online until Amazon raised its fees and made the business no longer viable.
To make sure your secondhand roses get a chance to bloom with someone else, it would be wise to ask a charity shop what types of donations they can use before you bring yours to them.
What is Freeview?
You are sure to see and hear a lot about Freeview. Shops that sell televisions offer Freeview boxes or televisions that have Freeview built in. What is that all about?
Terrestrial television in the UK has gone digital. The ground-based broadcasting towers do not transmit analog signals any more. All ground-based television broadcasting uses digital signals.
Freeview is the shorthand name for ground-based digital television. A Freeview box translates between old analog television sets and the new digital broadcast signals. It’s called Freeview because after you have bought a telly or a box that can handle the digital signal, you don’t have to pay monthly fees as you would with a satellite subscription. After the initial hardware purchase, you get the digital channels free of further charges (ignoring, of course, the annual television license fee that you must pay if you have any kind of television — yes, you pay more in tax on that telly every year than the cost of buying a new low-end television).
Most homes should be able to get about 40 channels. In some areas (including my rural location), only about 15 channels are obtainable. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that an old analog antenna often does not work well enough with digital signals. You may need to get a strange-looking digital antenna installed in its place and aimed at the nearest digital tower.
Satellite Television Without a Repeating Fee
We had Freeview when we were in Worcester and enjoyed it. Then we moved to a house that had no antenna at all, but it had an old Sky satellite dish. We bought an old secondhand Sky box and a £20 one-time card (which costs a little more now) that lets us pull in only the most basic channels. Although we miss some of the channels we used to get on Freeview, we’re fine with Freesat and delighted to avoid a monthly subscription.
I have to admit we watch a blend of UK and USA shows. We love Dr Who, Torchwood and a lot of shows about saving animals in distress. We watch some quiz shows and quite a bit of educational telly. But we do like to watch some shows simply for entertainment.
Production values on most UK television shows are not at all like production values on USA shows. (What people see in the States as MI5, broadcast here as Spooks, is an exception to the rule.) We just can’t pass up CSI and NCIS on Five USA. It’s pretty difficult for anybody, anywhere, to top the production values on those shows — and we learn a lot from watching those, so we figure we’re using the telly responsibly.
Pets, Phobias and Other Obsessions
A Dog is a Briton’s Best Friend
The British love wildlife and animals in general, and are besotted with dogs in particular. They take dogs everywhere, as Europeans often do — on long walks (a favorite pasttime with or without a pet), into town, on trains.
Those who don’t have a dog themselves often volunteer to walk dogs for people who cannot walk their own, or walk the dogs at animal rescue centers. It seems like the entire country watches the Crufts dog show if at all possible. The Dog Whisperer, It’s Me or the Dog and Dog Borstal have been popular television series (in about that order). Nowadays other dog-oriented shows are equally popular.
If you get a dog, be aware that:
- A rescue dog is not a dog trained for search and rescue operations. It’s a dog that has been rescued by an animal shelter. You get dog-lover points with most people if you have a rescue dog from a shelter.
- There are breeds here that you never heard of in the States, and some breeds do not look quite like they do in the States. For some reason German shepherds are bred to have a lower hind end (which causes hip problems for them). A lurcher is any kind of cross with a greyhound. I can attest that they can be wonderful or enough to make you pull your hair out. In the past, only nobles could own greyhounds — lurchers were popular with the common folk as hunting (or poaching) dogs.
- You are expected to walk the dog a couple of times a day and must pick up any poo it deposits except sometimes in the countryside when it is far from footpaths. Unless you are well into the countryside, CCTV will catch you if you don’t properly bag the poo and dispose of it in an appropriate bin, and you will get an expensive citation for the offense.
Guinea Pigs are Popular Too
Guinea pigs are much more popular as pets here than in the States. You won’t have a hard time finding a vet who knows how to treat them, whereas in the States you may have to hunt to find one. However, if your guinea pig has unusual problems or needs to undergo general anesthesia, only a few vets have enough knowledge and the right equipment. After a nationwide hunt, we took ours to Rose Cottage Veterinary Centre in Runcorn for serious problems. They are deft with anesthesia and top of the line in skill. Another top of the line expert is Vedra in Cambridge.
But in the UK (and also some of mainland Europe), guinea pigs are kept in a hutch in an outdoor shed. In the summer, sometimes they are allowed to roam in the back garden or nibble grass in an outdoor enclosure. They don’t live long this way, maybe two or three years, in contrast to the five to eight they can achieve the way they are usually kept in the States.
The UK climate is more harsh than their native climate and a space heater in the shed can’t always make up for that. Any contamination of what they eat can make them deathly ill and it’s hard for their people to notice in time to save them when they live outside of the house.
Last but not least, if they are loose in the garden, Britain has an abundance of small predators eager to eat them. Ours lived American style — actually, it’s even posh by American standards — and that is part of why they lived twice as long as most British guinea pigs.
Pandora, our elder piggy, said if you have guinea pigs of your own you should visit her web page to find out all about her Palace.
Phobias and Extremes
Phobias seem to be more common here than in the States, and more uniform. Spiders are an especially frequent phobia.
I have also noticed a higher incidence of people who cannot tolerate clutter (understandable with compact housing and lack of storage space), cannot stand particular foods, and so on. Whether this is related to the phobias, I don’t know.
As for drinking… Ordinary people eat more than bread and beer now, but pubs are still a major social institution, and pubs revolve around alcoholic beverages. I can’t drink alcoholic beverages at all. Most people around me drink more beer and wine than anybody I spent much time with in the States. My associates drink moderately and are diligent about designating a driver who will have no more than one glass of wine or one beer early on, long before time to go home.
It isn’t a problem until you get to the binge drinkers — and unfortunately the UK does have a reputation for binge drinking. Where I am now, there isn’t too much of it. In Worcester, though, vomit on the pavement (sidewalk) is rather commonplace despite the city’s efforts to clean it up. Where you see a lot of that, you’re in an area with a binge drinking problem. Choose where you walk and drive at night accordingly.
Housing, Warmth, Damp and Wearing Layers
Houses, Insulation and Dampness
Much of the housing here is single-wall construction, either because it is very old or because it was built shortly after World War II when an awful lot of housing had to be replaced with as little building material as possible. By about 1980, houses were being built double-walled with a thin sheet of foam board inside as insulation. New construction has more space in the cavity walls, and sometimes that space is filled with insulation. But on the whole, statistically the UK’s housing is near the bottom rank for energy efficiency in Europe.
I have lived in all three types of houses. The single-walled homes are cold. The homes with uninsulated cavity walls or with a thin layer of foam board in a mostly-empty cavity are better, but still chilly. Modern windows and doors help a lot by insulating better than older styles of windows.
Single-walled and uninsulated houses are also prone to damp problems, although cavity walls greatly improve that situation and sometimes eliminate it. Where a house gets condensation on inside walls, the only solution that seems to work is keeping some windows slightly open practically all the time to keep air circulating and not allowing anything inside the house to be closer than a couple of inches from an exterior wall. Otherwise, mold grows. Keeping windows open a little is not much fun (and costs a lot for heating) in the winter when damp problems seem to be at their worst if the house is buttoned up.
Some new houses can be wonderful — easy to keep warm in winter, stay cool when summer days get warm, aren’t plagued by damp problems, and cost much less to heat. However, in recent years the government relaxed the building standards so new housing is often built 1980-style.
If you get cold easily, try for at least a house with cavity walls. There are often government grants to subsidize pumping insulation into the exterior walls, but you can only do that when there is no insulation in the walls yet, not even thin foam boards. There are also frequent grant programs to subsidize adding insulation in the loft (attic).
I suggest glass-fiber wall insulation. Blown-in cellulose absorbs water too easily for a climate as damp as Britain’s. In a small percentage of places, blown-in tiny plastic beads held in place with resin can wick moisture from any penetration in the outer wall to the inner wall, where it can cause damp problems and mold.
The grants won’t last forever in this era of budget cuts. They’re a great deal, and the insulation greatly improves not just your energy bill but also your comfort. I’ve been in homes with blown-in beads and glass fiber, before and after the additional insulation, and they feel much warmer since the insulation was added.
Layer Your Clothing for Comfort
The British wear layers for good reason. Layers make it easy to adapt. Outside in winter, wear them all. Walk into an overheated shop, remove a layer or two, and you’re comfortable. If you aren’t allergic to wool, it makes a wonderful outer layer. Wool keeps most of its heat-retaining capabilities even when it gets wet.
You may want to get some double-layer thermal underwear from L.L. Bean in the States before moving to the UK. The inner layer is cotton. The outer layer is a blend of wool, cotton and nylon. I haven’t found anything like it here, which is a shame because it’s ideal. I would have to wear two separate layers to get a similar effect.
For the outermost layer you’ll want something that sheds rain, yet breathes. You can go high-tech and wear GoreTex, but try a good British waxed cotton coat. There’s nothing else quite like it, and you won’t find such good ones anywhere else.
Conformity and Behavioural Standards
Did you notice the British spelling of behavioural? Most of this lens is in American English, but you must adapt at least your writing to British English word usage, phrasing and punctuation.
You will encounter more standardization of expressions here than in the much larger, much more spread-out USA. Some examples are to be honest (not “frankly” or “in all honesty”), touch wood (not “knock on wood”), and my personal pet peeve it ticks all the boxes.
Britain exerts far more pressure than the USA to get people to fit into their station in life. Going to school in the clothing of your choice is inconceivable, for example.
Recently I was in the midst of more than a dozen Britons spanning all adult ages at a family gathering. They talked about their school years. Based on that and other conversations, being different from most others attracts bullying from classmates and is remembered fifty years later as a traumatic childhood.
The devastating memory does not necessarily mean bullying was worse than it would have been in the States. Often it was milder. But the desire to fit in is so deeply cultivated and the behavioral standards are so much quieter, it was experienced as more fierce and scarring. It also doesn’t take much of a difference to set a person apart. Something that would be accepted as well within the span of normality in the States can stand out as wildly divergent here.
On the Road
In the States, each region has its own driving style. When I lived in Colorado Springs, which gets people from all over the country on military assignment or on holiday, I could often tell where a person came from by the way they drove.
In the UK, driving style is much more uniform. It is drilled in by driving lessons, the driving test, and everyone around you.
On the Pub or Restaurant Table
If you can’t have sugar, carry your own sugar substitute with you. Most places don’t offer any with your tea or coffee and don’t have any in stock.
If you want sugarfree sweet snacks or desserts, you will probably have to make your own. Not much is offered for diabetics and hypoglycemics.
Read the label carefully when you believe you have found something. It is common for a food or beverage to be labeled as sugarfree when it is sweetened with a sugar that is not table sugar (such as fructose or sucralose), or with honey, which may be just as bad for you as table sugar. You will not find the plethora of sugarfree cookies or ice creams that you could get in the States.
Please, Thank You and The Opposite
The British are terribly polite. Get in the habit of saying please and thank you (or the increasingly common ta in place of thank you) practically all the time, about everything. Do you want a cup of tea? Yes, please! (which is nearly always said with a particular tone of voice and rhythm). Do you take milk or sugar in your tea? No, thank you.
Oddly, they aren’t much for extending that interchange to You’re welcome. The interaction ends at Thank you.
This politeness will trip you up because the British hate to say no for fear of causing offense. They will often say “no” by saying something that translates in a rather subtle manner to yes but not right now. That really means “no” because the right time for it is never going to arrive.
Some quirks of word usage will also trip you up. As an example, never say (as I unfortunately did before I got told what it meant) ‘Thank you for dinner. It was quite nice.’ For some reason ‘quite nice’ usually means ‘barely adequate’ — what I thought of as complimenting the meal actually insulted it.
At the other end of the spectrum, the authorities issue an ASBO (anti-social behaviour order) against people for activities that people in the States tend to shrug off. On some reality television shows, you will see binge drinkers swearing like a sailor and behaving like the world’s worst louts. Don’t get the idea that you could get away with that. You can get an ASBO simply because you are overheard swearing a blue streak to yourself in your own back garden (back yard) over a do-it-yourself project that is going wrong.
Getting an ASBO is bad for anybody, but it could be especially bad for you as an immigrant. You’re not a citizen, at least not yet. You don’t have the same rights as a citizen. With rules tightening practically every week to try to keep immigrants out, you definitely don’t want to provide an excuse to get rid of you.
At many businesses and agencies, the customer or citizen is almost always wrong and often also stupid. British politeness goes out the window in regard to how the service representative can treat you, but you are expected to be polite, tolerant (indeed, meek) and patient when things go wrong. If you show your distress by so much as hardening the tone of your voice, the service representative will be highly offended because you are being ‘stroppy’ and ‘abusive’, and it is against company / agency policy to tolerate customer abuse of employees.
When you get polite, attentive, efficient customer service — and there are organizations where you’ll get it — appreciate it. They don’t have to do business that way to carry on successfully here. You can encourage wider adoption of their example by going out of your way to bring your custom to them (do business with them) instead of their competitors.
The British Way of Banning Something
You won’t see a Segway in a town in Britain because it is effectively banned. Not explicitly — just banned in the British way.
I mentioned how extreme British standards of politeness can be. While it’s often a very pleasant feature of the culture, it can also be confusing. You will be inclined to think that if something appears to be allowed, it’s allowed. That is not necessarily true.
When British authorities want to ban something, they often do so by leaving it officially allowed, but only by satisfying a set of conditions that are impossible to satisfy. This way they don’t offend anyone by declaring a ban, yet the effect is a ban.
Years ago a British friend needed an economical way to go to and from university. The distance was short enough to make a car overkill for her needs, yet it was long enough to make a push bike (a bicycle that you pedal) too energy-draining in light of her health. An electrically powered scooter seemed like an ideal solution. It would be a bit more than a moped, able to keep up with the 30 mph speed limit for local traffic, yet it would not be as polluting or expensive or space-consuming as a car.
It turned out that although electric scooters were allowed, they were classified as motor vehicles. They had to be driven on roads. They required a driving license that the government never got around to creating and special insurance coverage that nobody sells. In other words, they are banned except on private property.
Segway, the revolutionary two-wheeled vehicle, is banned in a similar way. Don’t believe me? Read all about it in the UK Telegraph newspaper by clicking here.
Incidentally, this is how immigration authorities are striving to get rid of immigrants like you and me. They are making the rules to obtain a work visa more and more difficult for non-EU citizens to satisfy. Officially you are welcome if you have high levels of expertise or bring a lot of money and start a business that creates jobs. In practice, money still talks but expertise doesn’t talk so loudly any more.
Very Important for Visa Renewal and Other Bureaucratic Matters
Resist the urge to eco-responsibly sign up for electronic bank statements and utility bills!
You will repeatedly need recent original paper bank statements and utility bills. The utility bills are regarded as proof of where you live. (You will usually need your original Council Tax bill as proof of address too.) The bank statements are regarded as proof of your economic stability and contributions to the UK economy. This is true for many businesses and especially for the government, which is (as described by one of the people who officially assessed government efficiency and procedures) stuck in the nineteenth century in this regard.
These original paper documents are most critical when you have anything to do with the government — most notably extension of the visa that allows you to continue living in this country.
You can only ease up on the paper bank statements after you obtain Indefinite Leave to Remain.
Getting and Keeping Work
The UK is of two minds about your presence here, especially in regard to its jobs.
People openly say too many immigrants have been allowed in, and they wish a lot of the immigrants would go home. They’ll talk this way right in front of you. When they realize you’re one of the immigrants, they’ll hasten to add that they don’t mean that against you — it’s the Eastern Europeans. You’re an American. They like you (although sometimes they don’t like our government — they think our Congress lost its mind in summer 2011, admire Obama and can’t understand why the American public was so hard on him, and loathe the President we have right now).
The odd thing is that they mean it. All of it. The British have an awkward relationship with the States. We’re the recalcitrant child that grew up and overshadowed the mother country, and now is an embarrassing laughingstock. As you start to be affected by the USA in ways similar to the way they are, you’ll get a very good gut understanding of that odd mix of love, discomfort and perplexity you keep encountering.
The government’s stance is more clear. You’re an immigrant. They can’t stem the influx from the rest of the EU until Brexit is final, so they have been closing the avenues for non-European immigrants as fast as possible. They wish they had managed to keep you out. Now that you’re here, the government will do all it can to get rid of you. One way to do that is to make it impossible for you to legitimately earn a living.
A lot of professions are officially off limits to immigrant workers. In the remaining professions, a British company can only offer you a job after showing that no one else is available from anywhere else in the EU to do the job. Although it’s a tick-the-box procedure, it’s a hassle (and an extra cost) that employers are not keen to take on.
You may need to run a business or take temporary contract work instead of getting a regular job. That’s a different ball game. (It’s also much more difficult now that self-sponsored work visas are a thing of the past, so you can only do this if you are well-heeled enough to go for an entrepreneur’s visa.)
If you decide to do business in the UK, please visit my article about doing business as an expat American in Britain. You may want to visit that anyway — it contains tips you may want even if you aren’t in business for yourself.
The Open Office
After World War II, an awful lot of housing and commercial space needed to be built to replace what had been destroyed during the war. But Britain was desperately short of building materials. Building practices had to adapt to stretch what was available.
That’s when the open office began to spread across the UK. You may be aware of studies in the States that show even going from offices to cubicles reduces worker productivity by about 40%. People are accustomed to the open office concept now, and I’ve never heard complaints about it here. If you get a cubicle, its partitions are likely to be so low that you don’t even have to stand up to see everyone else in your section of the building. If you get an office, relish it as the treat that it is.
Management likes the open office because they can see all the workers all the time. It feeds into the cultural push for centralized control. If managers can see you all the time, they feel like they are in control of everything you do.
Believe it or not, many of the workers like it too. Despite their infamous reserve, a number of Britons have told me they wouldn’t like even the privacy of five or six foot tall cubicle partitions — they would feel isolated and lonely.
You’ll adapt to the constant distraction of trying to concentrate in an open office environment. But there is one aspect of it that I haven’t found a good way to handle yet. When one person in an open office comes down with flu or a bad cold, it sweeps through the entire place. Since it is traditional to carry on without moaning, people will go to work when they are sick unless they are literally too ill to get there. I come down with every bug that gets brought in, despite all my attention to diet and vitamins and hygiene and so on. If you figure out how to fend off those bugs, please let me know!
Postal addresses in the UK are laid out differently from addresses in the States and in other parts of Europe. The website referenced above explains the address format for most countries. Note that when you send mail in the UK, your return address should be on the back of the envelope, not the upper left corner of the front as it is in the USA.
This is the official portal to a wide array of online information and services for UK government. Look here for such things as how to file a change of address for your driving license or car registration, or where to register and pay your Council Tax.
The British use a lot of “open offices” which allow easy spread of infectious diseases. If you are not in a high risk category that gets the flu jab (vaccination) free from your local doctor, you may want to pay a small fee to get it privately. Some locations of Boots, Superdrug, Tesco and other pharmacies offer it, but not the same ones every year. The lookup box on this website will help you find a place offering private flu jabs.
YOU SHOULD REGISTER with the U.S. Embassy. You can sign up to get alerts from the Embassy in the event that the U.S. government knows of a special risk to American citizens abroad. Regardless of whether you care about getting alerts, if a disaster happens, family and friends will look to the Embassy to find out whether you’re all right.
Books to Help You Get to Know the UK
The images link to Amazon USA. Each book has a text link to Amazon UK.
Notes from a Small Island (USA link)
Bill Bryson is an American, but you can tell from his writing that his soul has always belonged in Britain. You’ll soon be won over by his incomparable wit. Reading about his adjustment from the USA to the UK will no doubt have you nodding and laughing at the same time. Before you finish the first chapter, you will have encountered several of the first language and cultural stumbling blocks you are likely to trip over when you first move here.
Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (USA link)
If you want to live in Britain, you need to understand Britain. This is the best book I know of to help with that. It is a thick book, and reading it took me a long time. But it has been the single most helpful source for helping me understand how Britain became what it is now after being the head of empire that it used to be. The years covered so thoroughly by this book were the pivotal years that shaped the present. Read this, and suddenly the whole country will make more sense.
Shakespeare: The World as Stage By Bill Bryson (USA link)
Got addicted to Bryson’s writing, did you? You are in good company! Many Britons are addicted to it, too. Try this one next. Except for historians, we Americans tend to be completely out of our depth in regard to British history, but at least we’ve heard about Shakespeare. The book is more about the times he lived in than about the author himself. You’ll find some awareness of Britain’s past helps you anchor yourself in the culture.
Online Shopping in the UK
Argos offers economy-standard goods at economy prices. Delivery is available for an extra charge.
Most telecom providers will lock you into a contract for one or two years, and you won’t necessarily get the best price in return for pledging your loyalty that way. As an immigrant, you also may not be able to promise you will be here that long. Direct Save Telecom works on a month to month basis. Their rates are good. When we moved to a house so new that it had no telephone line, they gave us a better price than BT did for getting a line connected (by BT!) to the house — including installing a new telephone pole. That’s why they can work month to month. They know their service is so good, you’ll want to stay with them.
This is the best of two catalog / online sellers of hardware parts such as door fittings, window latches, bolts, seals… The catalog is huge and customer service is great.
This is my most frequent source of ordinary tech equipment and computing gear. I sometimes end up at Curry’s for appliances, but Maplin has a better selection for IT. Prices are generally good and shipment is quick if you order online. There may be a brick-and-mortar shop near you.
For tech stuff, if I don’t get it from Maplin, it’s likely to come from Misco.