So as I mentioned in this post, by the time you read this, my brother will be visiting me from the States. Of course, I’m incredibly excited, having not seen him for nearly 6 years so a reunion is long overdue. After living in England for the last 16 years, however, I sometimes forget just how Anglicised I’ve become. How many things that struck me as totally bizarre when I first moved here are just totally commonplace for me now.
I do get reminders from time to time of that feeling of being in a country that is SORT of like the United States but also TOTALLY DIFFERENT from the United States. In fact, when I first moved here, I remember there was a point a few months into my new life when I just wanted to shut my brain off. Of course, most of the big things were very much the same (I mean, people are just people everywhere) but it wasn’t the big things that bothered me. It was in every tiny minuscule detail. It was all the little things that my brain was picking up (road signs, plug sockets, the way people used a knife and fork, et al.) and suddenly I remember feeling quite overwhelmed and perhaps strangely, stressed out by it all. I couldn’t switch my brain off from noticing all the tiny details. It was as if I’d overloaded my circuits and suddenly I felt incredibly homesick, a stranger in a strange land.
Photo by Heidi Sandstrom
Thankfully, that brief feeling of, ‘oh my god what have I done?!’ passed, I was able to see these differences as points of interest and intrigue. I got to know the country I now called home, I threw myself into learning as much as I could. I watched old television programmes, watched history programmes, tried to understand its people and the culture and where they’d come from, I even tried to learn how to use a knife and fork the way they did. Basically, I embraced my new life.
These days, I don’t know where the American part of me ends and the adopted English part of me begins. It’s all sort of a mishmash in my head. My accent is a bit odd too, as I am often told – it’s not exactly English but it’s not quite American either. There are certain words that I pronounce as they would here, my vowels have flattened, I have picked up so much British vernacular, even my intonation has changed, the strange melody of a simple question lifts and falls the way the English do.
I drink an awful lot of tea now.
Of course, these are not things I think too much about – it’s all happened like a very slow evolution. It’s only when interacting with other Americans that I am reminded how spending the last 16 years in a foreign country has shaped the person I now am. And I have no doubt my brother will bring all this back to me in full force, someone I spent my formative years with, someone who has known me so well for so long.
So today I wanted to share 10 things that I know Americans would find a little strange about the UK. Of course, you all know we drive on the left or that we drink a lot of tea over here. But here are a few things you may be surprised about.
Washing Machines are in the Kitchen
Yes, that’s a washing machine in my kitchen.
While it seems to make no sense to have a machine to wash your clothes in the kitchen, it’s pretty much the norm here. Unless you are posh and have a utility room (which, yes, it’s on my wishlist when we move), it is a typical kitchen appliance. Oh, and we don’t have a tumble dryer. Yes, people have them but they aren’t as common – most people are happy to have their clothes hanging around like a Chinese Laundry all over radiators or drying racks because the number of days that are actually nice enough to hang your clothing on the line cumulatively is about 4 days a year.
The ‘little’ sink at the side of the big sink and washing up bowls
I had so many people asking me what that little sink is for. Ya see, it’s all to do with how the British do their dishes. (Did I mention dishwashers are also not quite as common as they are in the States? Lots of people have them, sure, but they aren’t a given as they are there.) There’s normally a big plastic bowl that sits inside of the sink. So dishes are stacked in there, soaking until they are ready to be washed. Then they are all taken out, the bowl is filled with hot soapy water and the dishes are hand washed in the bowl and rinsed in the ‘little’ sink. If there are dishes stacked in the sink, you still have the little sink available to use which is normally empty. Hey, I didn’t make up the rules, it’s just how it’s done here. Also, I totally don’t use the plastic bowl thing. I have to retain something of my American heritage, after all.
While dryers and dishwashers are not necessarily a given, one thing that every single household on this fair isle has is an electric tea kettle. When I tell my English friends that electric kettles are not as common in the States, I always get a look of sheer horror and incredulity followed by the question, “But how do they boil water for tea?!” So you probably know that tea is a national obsession thereby these little electric babies are an absolute necessity. Take the top off, fill it with water from the tap, stick it back on the little base which plugs into the wall and push down the lever. Within a few minutes, you’ll have boiling water. No need to put on the stove, no need to wait, no need for fancy hot water tap installations – it’s (almost) instantaneous.
Oh and a bonus fact: The National Grid has in place something called TV Pickup. Described as an electricity nuance completely unique to Great Britain, it refers to the fact that massive swaths of the nation’s population will all get up at the same time — say, at the end of a popular TV show or football match — and cause a surge in electricity usage simply by boiling a kettle full of water to make a cup of tea. They actually have systems in place so that the whole grid doesn’t go down. Yes, really.
The sheer amount of various accents
I always find it utterly hilarious (and slightly cringe-y) when Americans try to imitate “the British accent” as though there is only one. Well, actually, you might be familiar with two – the old ‘Cockney’ accent (think Vinnie Jones in ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’) or the ‘Queen’s English’ (like the rich people in Downtown Abbey). Yeah, I promise your pretend accent isn’t as good as you think it is.
The truth is that there are a mind-boggling amount of different accents and dialects in this tiny country. Move 5 miles in any direction and the regional accent will change – and that’s in no way an exaggeration. When I moved from Kent (in the South East) to Manchester (in the North West), it was as though I had to learn English all over again. You will normally hear what is referred to as ‘Received Pronunciation’ which is what BBC News readers use – it’s not regional but instead is considered the most ‘well-received’ ie, the most easily understood and therefore, just a bit posher. But very very few people actually speak like that. There’s a delicious amount of regional variations that will seriously make your head spin.
These are only some of the main ones. I mean, she doesn’t even cover the Manchester accent (which is what Wayne has). Pfft. But it’ll give you a rough idea!
Everything is more condensed.
I don’t just mean that the country is smaller. I mean everything is literally smaller and more condensed here. The roads are narrower, the houses, of course, have smaller rooms, even the aisles in the supermarkets are narrower and shorter. Were people years ago that much tinier than they are in America? Probably not but when I first arrived, there was a strange sense of claustrophobia I had everywhere. I’ve gotten used to it but it’s probably why I might refer to, say, my living room, as ‘small’ and I’ll have 10 English people say to me, ‘No, that’s not small… this is small’ and share pictures of their own bijou spaces.
Everyone walks everywhere.
Look at how HAPPY she is not having a car.
Of course, people have cars but due to everything being smaller (including car parking spaces, congested roads and limited parking), many just opt to walk anywhere if they can. So getting in your car for everything from nipping down to the post office to doing your weekly shop is just not a done thing and many people are more than happy to walk everywhere if at all possible. We walk to the pub, we walk to the bank, we walk to do our shopping or we walk to public transport to get to where we need to be.
In fact, it’s gotten to the point now where I’ll soon be giving up my car because I realise how little I use it! I either walk where I need to go or I get on the train. We still have Wayne’s car so having two where one of them ends up sitting there doing nothing but cost money, there seems little point to keeping it.
Oh yeah, speaking of school. Those big yellow buses we have in the US? Not really a thing here. Most people either walk their kids to school (or older kids will walk on their own) or drive which means that early mornings and mid-afternoon are some of the worst times to get in your car. Thus all the walking.
We pay taxes for owning a TV
More widely known as a ‘TV license’. Ya know how everyone in America loves the BBC? Well, what you might not realise is that the BBC is government owned and as such, they don’t have any advertising on their programmes. This means that the costs for producing television, radio and film and paying actors and studios and everyone else involved has got to come from somewhere else. So it comes from the British taxpayer. We all contribute to the BBC programmes across the board, paying roughly around £150 a year (or around £12/month or roughly $15/month) for a TV license per household. It is actually very strictly enforced and if you don’t have a TV and you don’t watch the programmes or listen to the radio or stream the content online, you better be able to prove it.
Everything is called ‘pudding’ – except pudding. Which is called Custard.
Yorkshire pudding. Except not a pudding at all.
We’ve got Yorkshire pudding (a sort of airy bread made with eggs, flour and milk that you eat with a roast) and Black pudding (a breakfast sort of sausage made from pig’s blood), neither of which have absolutely anything in common aside from their name and the fact they are both savory. While I would call the sweet food you eat after a meal a ‘dessert’, many people here will refer to it as ‘pudding.’ Except for custard which is the closest thing we’ve got to American pudding except it’s not actually called pudding at all. It’s called custard. I can’t even explain this, to be honest. It just is what it is.
They apologise for everything.
Of course, the British politeness is something that is widely recognised but they apologise for EVERYTHING. Even if YOU bump into THEM, they’ll apologise. If they bump into an inanimate object, they’ll apologise. If they are in no way at fault but just feel a little awkward, they’ll apologise. It’s basically this inbuilt response system that covers all eventualities. And yes, I do this now too. Sorry.
The number of amazing words you didn’t know you needed but you totally do.
Sorry, I’m not going to even try to explain what a ‘cheeky Nandos’ is.
Just a few of my favourites… Knackered (when you are just REALLY tired), bollocks (when something bad/shit happens), the dog’s bollocks (strangely, this describes something really really good but don’t confuse it with dog’s dinner which is when a situation has gone wrong), wanker (someone who is a jerk), tosser (someone who is a jerk), prat (someone who is a jerk), knobhead (someone who is a jerk… okay you get the idea. There are a lot of excellent words here for someone who’s a jerk), can’t be arsed (when you just don’t feel like doing something), claggy (more Scottish but I love it – means sort of damp/humid/sticky and perfect for describing the weather 80% of the time in summer), taking the piss (a bit rude but means when someone is trying to take advantage. Not to be confused with taking a piss which is totally different or pissed which means drunk; see also taking the mick or taking the michael which are much less rude but mean the same thing), minging (something gross/disgusting), whinge (complaining), jiggery-pokery (deceitful or dishonest behaviour), gormless (someone lacking in intelligence), blather (when someone talks excessively), pop (to go somewhere quickly/spontaneously), gutted (to be gravely disappointed), lost the plot (someone who’s gone a bit crazy, see also: doolally), wonky (something that’s not quite right). I could go on.
So that’s my little roundup of things that Americans might find just a bit peculiar about the UK. Of course, this is just based on my own experience of living in England and what applies here might not apply to, say, Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland so sorry sorry if I’ve blathered on. I promise I haven’t lost the plot and there is no jiggery-pokery going on here, I’m probably just a little gormless but honestly? I just couldn’t be arsed. ;)
Your turn! If you are an American or an American expat like me, what do you find weird about the UK? Is there anything here that surprised you? If you are British, I’d love to know if you realised these are all quintessentially unique to this country? Go on, let me know what you think!