Americans think we speak the same language as the English. We don’t.
Dear friends and fellow countrymen,
We had toyed with the notion, my English girlfriend and I, every now and again, of pulling stakes and moving to her native country. Some day. One of these years. But while I had been living in New York for 20 years and had grown into more hate than love of my adopted city, she had a good job in her career of choice — business travel — and was new to America. We had a nice home, lots to explore and things to still accomplish.
Then that thing called coronavirus seeped into the American way of life, the travel market plummeted and we thought, “England”. Less than a year later, we landed on its shores: her, a refugee returning home and me, a reverse Puritan seeking absolution from the all-or-nothing, break-it or make-it, self-made myth of which I had been infused since age five.
And was it all-darling Queen Elizabeth and afternoon teas, Big Ben and cutesy Harrod’s china? No. Choosing to enter a country in the middle of its exit from the European Union during its second Covid lockdown with nothing but a visitor’s visa might be akin to packing up the car in Oklahoma at age 23 with all worldly possessions and $1,000 in the bank and moving 3,000 miles to the East Coast. Except that was 1999 and this was 22 years later. The more one ages, the more fear becomes a factor. Age is experience, yes, but whilst more experience equals more wisdom, it detracts from that “be-damned”, gutsy certitude of youth. Boxes must be ticked, paperwork put in order, bank accounts secured, rather than just having a packed trunk whose lid entirely shuts.
For my first Letter from London column, I wanted to impart a bit of experience that every American venturing a long visit or a move or a toe-dip into this country should know. From landing at Heathrow stone cold sober, (which I didn’t do) to not demanding time, attention, assistance (another didn’t do) to understanding the English way of life.
1. Driving on the opposite side of the road is not just simply switching lanes; it’s like learning how to be ambidextrous. One must shift with their left hand — especially tricky for a standard transmission — turn their heads the opposite direction to watch for oncoming vehicles (and bicycles — they ride them assiduously here) and somehow appropriately judge the distance on the opposite side of the road without side-swiping cars that park in seemingly every direction on VERY narrow lanes. It’s like playing pro tennis like Rafael Nadal, except without being Nadal.
2. Putting an extra “u” to match the “o” for flavour and using “s” instead of “z” or “zed” on the end of words is damn hard to remember. Most of the time the English can translate, but then they will know from your correspondence that you are, indeed, American, and the email will likely come back even more formal and condescending than usual.
3. Three-quarter shower doors make everything wet, and UKers don’t see the reason for having a full glass door covering the showers or the bathtub. After all, they can control their emotions; they can control the trajectory of water — even from a Water-Pik-esque massager, which streams water everywhere, much like American sentiment.
4. Exceeding politeness gets one far; New York demanding-ness or even straightforwardness, gets one an annoyed look and a supreme run-around that the English will enjoy because one has been rude and moreover, not adapted to their way of life. And never, ever, ever do an imitation of an English, Scottish or Welsh accent, even if one is trying to be flattering — or funny. It’s neither.
5. A “Freehouse” means a pub can serve more than one brand of beer. Nothing is free here, especially not the beer.
6. No matter the adapter, American devices will blow their bulbs, their fuses and their increasingly expensive bits on English voltage. Either leave the American electronics at home or prepare to spend a small fortune on repairing your lovely Bose home entertainment system.
7. It rains at least once a day most days. While the English generally “get on with it” they will complain and Americans should just go with the general sentiment. Always check the weather days in advance, as the meteorologists in the UK are not just pretty talking heads and never buck the weather talk.
8. “Put the kettle on” means many things, including “welcome home”, “let me comfort you”, and “wouldn’t you rather have tea over beer?”
9. A prescription is required for everything including Neosporin (antibiotic cream). No one understands this here, but no one understands the Home Office, which regulates such things, either. Best to just stock up on items such as pain relievers, Xanax, antibiotics, certain cold remedies, medical marijuana and other things available in the States. But don’t worry about getting contraceptives or morning after pills (these are free), or codeine (?!).
10. Although the English, indeed, speak English, this is a country infused with nuance. When the English suggest something, such as “Wouldn’t you like to go to Waitrose and pick up a sandwich?” they are making a statement, such as “You should go to Waitrose and pick up some sandwiches for us.” The English also follow up every statement with a question, like “That was a very good sandwich, wasn’t it?” Just ignore these.
English or American Rebuttal
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