Whenever someone asks whether it’s been a big adjustment living in London after spending my entire life in the U.S., my stock (and honest) answer is that no, it hasn’t been a big adjustment at all. Almost none, really. In fact, I can’t imagine how any American or Canadian could feel much culture shock here because so much of what you see and hear is instantly familiar.
The language is the same, so that’s one potentially huge barrier I didn’t have to cross. The food is not all that different, except they don’t have nearly as many Mexican or Latin American choices in the UK, which breaks my heart a little more each day. The culture in the UK is as familiar as an old sweater. Americans know all the British film and pop stars, and Brits know all the American ones. I’ve been reading British authors all my life, and Brits have been reading American authors all their lives.
You walk around London and you see many of the same establishments you saw back home: Starbucks, Five Guys, TGIF, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Domino’s, H&M, TJ Maxx (well, it’s TK Maxx here in the UK but the “K” is about the only thing that’s different). You walk into a pub and you hear the same songs you heard back home, and see many of the same beers on tap. You walk into a grocery and see many of the same brands. The adjustment of living in a big city hasn’t been a problem, either, because I’ve lived in New York and Los Angeles, so I’m pretty well conditioned to being around lots of people, buildings and sounds.
Many of the differences have to do with practical stuff. Brits talk Celsius instead of Fahrenheit, and metric vs. whatever it is the U.S. measurement system is based on. They drive on the left-hand side of the road in the UK, and the driver sits in the right-hand seat (I don’t drive here, so that doesn’t come into play, other than making sure I don’t get drilled by a car when I cross the street because I’m looking left when I should be looking right). There is virtually no air conditioning in London, so during the warm summer days you find yourself standing in front of the open refrigerator a lot, like Americans did back in the ‘40s or so.
The stores, bars and restaurants in the UK close WAY earlier than in the States, and that’s annoying when it’s 10:05 pm and you’re trying to find a decent meal. The weather here is damper and cooler than back home. The winters in London don’t get as cold as they did back in Charlotte, but they last longer. You don’t get 10-degree temps in January in London, but then you also don’t get the occasional 70-degree temps in January in London. The customer service in the UK tends to be slower than in the U.S., but you don’t have to tip nearly as much, either.
Of course, there are the usual differences in terms and expressions: Awesome vs. Brilliant, Biscuit vs. Cookie, Chips vs. Fries, Band-Aids vs. Plasters, Right? vs. Innit? No big deal there. You get used to it. Brits are a wee bit more reserved than Americans, which is no real problem, either.
What do I miss the most about the U.S.? Besides the obvious stuff – baseball, tamales, big yards, long road trips over hundreds and hundreds of miles, the shifts in geography between the coastline and desert and mountains and plains – there’s this:
Yep, barstools. For some reason, these seem to be taking up a lot more space in my head as our family edges closer to the year-and-a-half mark in London. Weird, right?
Barstools are not a big thing here in the UK, at least in a lot of the pubs and saloons I’ve frequented (and I’ve frequented quite a few). The physical bars themselves act more like fast-food service counters than actual drinking spots. You order your pint, wine or cocktail, pay up, and move along to a table or chair. No pulling up a barstool and making yourself cozy.
There’s a reason for this, and it has to do with British pub culture. Something about the long and cherished history of pubs being a center of community life, and how the customers were really visiting someone else’s home – the “public house” – so naturally you go have a seat in a comfortable chair, or gather ‘round the table, like you would at home.
That’s fine, that’s fine. Different strokes, etc. It took me about two days to get used to it.
But I have to say, I do miss sitting on barstools, in front of bars, like back in the States. I miss watching sports on the bar TVs, and eating the bar food, and chatting with the bartenders, and chatting with the person beside me at the bar, and running a tab, and drumming my fingers on the bar, and rolling the cocktail straw back and forth from hand to hand, and hanging my coat over the back of the barstool to claim it as my own, and a whole laundry list of other totally inane and wonderful things. I’ve spent a large chunk of my adult life sitting at bars, or thinking about sitting at bars. I’m like Norm from “Cheers,” except not everybody knows my name.
When we return to the States I’m going to install a bar in our house and make up for lost time. I’m going to sit there at my barstool and sip my beverage and pretend to talk to the pretend bartender while the pretend person beside me asks if I can watch his pretend barstool while he goes to the pretend men’s room. I might even sleep on the damn thing.
Until then, I’ll just grab my pint here in London and wander off amongst the tables and chairs, looking a little lost and American.