One of my favorite pastimes over the past two months has been enjoying the quirks of daily life in Britain, from the order of stoplights to the background of their currency. Simple things like the fact that their traffic lights turn from red to yellow before changing back to green never cease to make me smile – they remind me that I really am somewhere else entirely! Here are some of my favorite quirks so far:
I hate using change. Hate it! I’m just one of those people. Coins bulk up your wallet, never fitting appropriately and always bulging out in the most uncomfortable and awkward shapes. It takes forever to count out and always leaves you standing awkwardly at the check-out line, delicately counting single pennies while everyone behind you becomes silently exasperated. When I use cash to make purchases (which is rare) I always opt to save my change – I put it in my piggy bank at home, and every few months or so I get to deposit my savings in the back and get a little paycheck from myself. It’s a system that’s worked well for me.
In Britain, these tried-and-true tactics have failed me miserably. The Brits have an utter reliance on coinage – they have coins for 1 pence, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence, 1 pound, and 2 pounds… and they use them all! Regularly! My misguided attempts to save my pennies have resulted in a huge bag sitting in my desk drawer at home and some amazed (and exasperated) comments from housemates who have a hard time understanding my tendencies. It may seem silly, but one of the most significant changes I’ve gone through over the past few months has involved forcing myself to use my change on a regular basis! That, and laughing at the fact that the 2p (short for 2 pence) coin is larger than all of the others, even the 50p coin, and the 5p coin is the tiniest thing I’ve ever seen…. where is the logic behind that?!
I also only recently discovered that there are several active designs on the back of the £1 coin, similar to the state quarters we have back at home. I’m not sure why I found this so fascinating, but it was a fun little discovery that made my day :)
One of the first things you learn in Britain (and almost everywhere in Europe, and possibly most other places in the world?) is to specifically ask for tap water at restaurants. That is unless you want bottled water, which they will bring to you as the default and charge you a hefty price for the trouble. I’ve heard it said that you can immediately recognize an American by their ridiculous obsession with ordering tap water at restaurants (and it’s totally true!). It’s also imperative to specify between still and carbonated water… you can guess why. The best part about having friends who worked in Parliament over the past two months was getting to experience the official government food service (sooooooo delicious!) and getting to witness their official brand of bottled water…
Whether you’re taking the tube, flagging down a taxi or attempting to figure out the epically complicated bus system, there are some quirks to the British transportation system that are all their own. For one thing, I have never been able to figure out the correct side of the road/sidewalk to walk on… it seems like no matter where you walk, you’ll always be in someone’s way (and no, just because they drive on the left side of the road doesn’t automatically mean you walk on the left side, too! Sidenote: I just had to remind myself which direction cars go in America…!). I’ve attempted to walk on the left, walk on the right, walk in the center, but it has never really seemed to make a difference. This is especially true in the Underground, where people go into a sort of frenzy and decide that they absolutely must get to wherever they’re going faster than you. Escalators inside the Underground have a very strict (and very,very important) rule of thumb: stand on the right, walk (run) up the left. If you fail to do this, you will be run over. Save yourself the hospital bills and STAND ON THE RIGHT, PEOPLE! (breath) This rule breaks down in the walking tunnels, however… usually, you are instructed to walk on the left via signs on the wall every few feet or so. Basically: you can’t win. Walk faster.
Public transportation woes also extend to the taxi and public bus systems. Just like in the States, you flag down a cab in order to get its attention. Cabs are big and black here, and you must always be careful to flag down a licensed one, otherwise you risk some rather unhappy consequences. Cabs are also super expensive, so they are always a last resort! A better option (especially in the wee hours of the morning after the tube has closed) is to catch a night bus. The bus system here is extensive, cheap, and reliable, but lord if it isn’t one of the most complicated systems I have ever encountered! For one thing, it is necessary to flag down buses here as if you were hailing a cab – they don’t just stop for you like they do in the States. Bus stops also display small maps which depict nearby lettered stops as well as a listing of all the bus stops and their respective letters – however, it’s often hard to plan a journey because it’s hard to know what the rest of the map looks like! It was a good thing I was with friends the first time I attempted the bus system, otherwise I might never have made it home!
Finally, one of my favorite pastimes here has been collecting fun/interesting/ridiculous advertising from the TV and elsewhere around the city. Here, in order of weirdness, are some of the gems from the past few days:
I promise an update about my last week is forthcoming. My class and internship have finally ended, and I’m facing my final exam tomorrow evening as well as an oral exam on Wednesday morning… after that it’s enjoying London to the fullest before I head off to Barcelona, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and then back to London with Leigh! :) Cheers!