Learning London

I never expected to mourn the loss of a three-ring-binder, but I have. Thinking I was smart to save on room/weight when we moved overseas, and assuming I could easily buy a three ring binder once in London, I packed my plastic sleeve encased recipes without the binder, only to find that three ring binders don’t exist here in the UK, only two ring binders.

IMG_8404A two ring binders seems close to a three ring binder, but it doesn’t work with my recipes. Close, but functionally different.

The US and the UK may seem culturally similar, and in some ways we are, but our (mostly) common language can blind us to the many, often unexpected, differences. So before what seems foreign becomes normal, I thought I’d jot down a few of my general,  (does not define everybody) non-scientific  (I could be way off) initial (I’m a newbie – grace please) observations of some of the differences (not right and wrong) between two countries I love.

Of course the quick ones, the differences most everybody knows, include: left side of the road not right, metric not standard, Celsius not Fahrenheit, pound not dollar. Other distinctions include: French press not drip coffee, hang across the radiator not tumble dry, 220 volts not 110. My ear has just started to tune itself to various British (and other) accents, my feet are finally learning how to walk in a crowded station without “dancing” with somebody every five minutes, and my brain is beginning to grasp the definitions of words and phrases I think I should know: boot= the car trunk, fringe = bangs, you don’t say “come in” you say “come through” and when offered pudding expect any kind of dessert except for actual pudding  (‘cuz that doesn’t exist here either). Even though most puddings here lack the sugar punch American desserts deliver (hooray!) they are a.ma.zing. Except for black pudding. That’s just wrong really different. Do not mistake it for chocolate pudding.

Sizes: In addition to binders we’ve also discovered that our US computer paper doesn’t fit our UK printer that we were required to buy since the US printer plug doesn’t fit our UK outlets. Also, school notebooks come in a different size (A4) as do shoes, clothing, mattresses, paper towels, beverages, food products, gardens (yards), houses, cars… It’s safe to say most everything is smaller here.

Silverware Cutlery. As soon as we pick up our fork we announce our nationality. I try to hold my fork the British way (left hand and upside down by American standards) while using my knife to assemble each bite because it does look so much nicer, but I usually  give up and clutch my fork like a Neanderthal.

Signs. Pedestrians beware: stop signs are nonexistent and you do not have the right of way (unless you’re in a Zebra. Google it.) Streets signs are not where Americans would expect to find them either.

Shopping. Whereas America is known for superstores, London communities boast high streets. When we first moved, when all I wanted was one familiar store where I could get the basics to set up a house, I mourned the convenience of Copps/Walmart/Kohls/Target. But I have come to appreciate London’s smaller, more individualized stores. I like getting bread from the Sicilian baker and hearing bits of his life story; I like that we had a key cut at the tiny shop by the station, a shop that only cuts keys and cobbles shoes.


If you have one job to do, you’ll probably do it right, right? You can manage to find large, chain stores here inLondon, but the selection is significantly smaller than what we Americans have come to expect.

Some quick differences on Food:

  • Eggs are on the shelf, never refrigerated, and it took me forever to find them.
  • Produce has a much shorter shelf life. Many preservatives/additives used in the States are outlawed in the UK, so even hearty veggies like potatoes and carrots will only last about a week. (Thankfully, my GI system is much happier here in Europe! More on this in a future blogpost.)
  • The packaging and labels are all different. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I didn’t realize how dependent I am on them. How can I find the baking bicarbonate of soda if it doesn’t come in an orange box? Or the chocolate chips if they come in these minuscule packages? We don’t know what we consider familiar until the familiar is taken away.



Getting around. It’s true that many families in London own a car, but we don’t, so this has been an adjustment. Every now and then I miss driving a car by myself with the radio on, but all in all we’re finding that walking (so much more walking!) and busses/tubes/trains/ & trams do the job quite well. Sure, it can take an hour to transport yourself five miles, but this is city of 8.7 million people after all. Sometimes I rather like public transportation. Not during rush hour of course, or when it’s raining. Or when you realize you’re on the right train but headed in the wrong direction. Or when there’s engineering work, or a strike, or the bus is running late, or when you’re running late, or when your Oyster cards flashes red when you tap in (Google it). But when the sun is shining and everything is working just as it should be… public transportation is the best!

Catching the train to Waterloo at our closest station

Public Bathrooms Toilets & Drinking Fountains: Good luck finding them. You may come across a public toilet from time to time, but chances are you’ll also end up buying a coffee in exchange for the privileging of using the toilet. Drinking fountains are even harder to come by, which is strange for an American. You would have thought the one I spotted at the British Library on the 1st floor (which is actually considered the 2nd floor in America) was part of an exhibit. “Whoa, look at that! A DRINKING fountain!” For whatever reason, Americans do public bathrooms and drinking fountains reeeeally well.

School. Honestly, I don’t have the emotional energy to hash out all the differences . Yes, students wear uniforms and many, including my daughter, have a proper commute, but those are by far the easiest differences to understand. A levels, GCSE’s, Sixth form… and a schedule that rotates every two weeks. Exams are EVERYTHING, but my daughter often enjoys a pain au chocolat on her twenty minute break which is in addition to her 40 minute lunch break. Maybe it’s a fair tradeoff to teachers publicly announcing test scores and grades. (Americans, can you imagine the outcry?)

 People. No doubt this is the hardest difference to pin down. We’re all so nuanced, so unique, products of our mood, circumstances, families… and a host of other things. And in many, many ways, we are alike. But since this is a post about differences, GENERALLY speaking, here are some of my observations:

  • Brits seem to be quieter than Americans, value pauses in conversation, calmness, thinking before speaking, and are more guarded about offering personal feelings and stories. Americans tend to laugh more frequently and louder, value fun, use more hand gestures and body language, and share the personal nitty-gritty more readily.
  • In London it’s typically inappropriate to make eye contact, smile, or nod to strangers. The more crowded public transport gets, the quieter it gets (unless a soccer football game has just let out. Then you can expect a drunken serenade). Riding the tube during rush hour is like being at the library, except you’re standing shoulder to shoulder and nose in armpit and there aren’t any books. Unless you’ve brought your own. But if you need help, ask for it (like I did on the tram this morning). Be polite and apologetic: “Excuse me Sir, I’m so sorry, but could you tell me…” Once you politely break through the invisible walls that seem to encase everyone around you, and apologize for doing so, Brits are very happy to help.


Everyone in their own personal zone on the Piccadilly line, NOT during rush hour.


  • Americans tend to embody the “do it your way” and “do it yourself” mentality. If we don’t like how things are done, we’re quick to find a new solution, and we’re pretty flexible in letting people do things in their own, individual way. The mentality behind phrases like “Works for me” and “No big deal” now strike me as very American. Brits as a whole, seem to value uniformity and the proper process of “how something should be done”, and can be quite explicit in their directions on the how. You can see how these two mentalities might clash, like when I was filling out my daughter’s paperwork to enroll her for school. I was trying to respect the queue behind me (messing up the queue is almost a daily occurrence for me. Someday I’ll get it right…) by writing quickly. I didn’t think I was rushing, but the worker at the desk instructed me to “slow down and take my time because this is important”. I felt scolded. She probably thought I was being careless. But in truth we were both trying to be helpful. She valued that I do it carefully, the proper way, while I thought everyone would appreciate if I did it efficiently. Brits tend to be very instructive while Americans might bristle at being told what to do. Insert grace.

Parenting. (Again, these are total generalities and merely my impressions) American parents seem to value instilling independence and freedom in their children with a “they’ll learn to figure it out on their own”. Children seem to hold hands with parents longer here (past the age of seven or eight) and teens often stay at the dinner table to talk politics. While on the bus I have observed a sweet, quiet, very intentional and educational, eye to eye interaction between parents and their children. Yes, Americans have sweet interactions with their small children, but I’ve noticed something different about it here.

Cultural Diversity. Had we moved from New York instead of central Wisconsin, this difference wouldn’t seem so pronounced. But it’s one of the things we’re finding we love about London – a city that speaks over 300 languages. Such diversity comes with yummy perks – there are over a dozen Indian restaurants, just within walking distance of our house! At school, our daughter interacts with students and staff from Venezuela, Senegal, France, Portugal, Australia, Ireland, Brazil, Poland, Spain, South Africa, Japan, Germany, India, Hungary, Korea… and the list goes on.

So we’re certainly not alone in our cultural adjustment here in London. Whether you’re reading this as one of my “old” American friends or one of my new British friends, in all the ways that really matter, people are people, even if binders are not.

4 responses to “Learning London”

  1. A treat to read. Thanks for taking the time to summarize.
    All one beloved blood. (But no blood pudding.)
    And fun and “my way” are WAY overrated this side of the pond.

  2. I agree and understand so many of what you are saying. Last week it was a matter of fitting my daughter’s 8.5×11 birth certification into a plastic sleeve. I had to dig around and find one from the US and then punch holes so it would fit in the UK 2 ring binder. It was successful.

    1. Hooray! Sometimes it’s those small things that can be the biggest headache!

  3. […] an American living in London, one of the cultural differences I’m gradually come to see is this: Generally speaking, Americans […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: