The Peculiarities of the UK in Comparison to the US
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The United Kingdom is very similar to the United States in many ways, but very different in others. Of course there are the major things that are different, like driving on the left side of the road, an English accent, a much more exhaustive train system, and trash cans are rubbish bins. Then, there are the little things that take a bit of keen observation to notice, pubs are not bars, wall outlets have individual on/off switches, and you aren’t expected to tip. The more time we spend in the UK, the more things we notice. We’re sure if you’ve been to the UK, you’ve noticed many things that are a just a bit different.
Differences: Peculiar, Challenging and Genius
Some of the differences are peculiar, and just make you cock your head to the side for a moment and think about it. For example, it’s simply mind boggling to us that there are so many pay phones. We’ve seen them in cities of varying sizes, both large and small. However, in the US, we can’t recall the last time we saw a pay phone. We’ve also noticed that a majority of cars are black, gray or white. It’s not exactly rare to have a brightly painted car, but it’s certainly not common.
Some of the differences are a bit challenging to get used to. Crossing the street as a pedestrian can be dangerous if you’re expecting cars to be driving on the right side of the road, as they do in the US. Even though we consciously remember that cars here are driving on the opposite side, it’s so ingrained into us that we still expect cars to be coming from the opposite direction when crossing the street. So when we should be looking right, the instinct is to look left. Make this mistake too hastily and it could mean serious danger. We’ve done our best to make the habit of just looking both ways a couple of times to be sure. Better safe than dead.
Some differences are genius and we firmly believe that they should be implemented yesterday in the US to make lives easier. VAT, similar to what we know as tax, is included in the price. So, when you see a price tag for $1.95, that's actually what you’ll pay, nothing more, nothing less. Another thing we think is smart is having radiator room heaters instead of central heating, or HVAC systems. We know this exists in the US, however, we wish it was more common. It makes so much more sense to only heat the area you’re in, rather than the entire house, or have to close vents.
Keep in mind, the things we’ve noticed while in the UK are obviously through our own lenses and experiences. What we’ve taken notice of might be different than the person next to us has. What we think of these differences is also our own interpretation and opinion. Not to mention, there’s a decent possibility that we might not be seeing the whole picture, or are missing information that would lead to a different conclusion. With that disclaimer out of the way, here are a few more things we’ve noticed.
The difference in how a bed is made and what linens are commonly provided was unexpected for us. As you may know, we’re traveling with one bag, a 36-litter Manta AG 36 backpack, so what we carry with us is limited. In preparation for travel we purchased a travel towel. We’d read and thought we agreed that a towel would be endlessly helpful and used frequently (think Hitcher Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy!). However, of the things we packed, we realized that a washcloth would have gotten more use than the towel. In every place we’ve stayed, we’ve been provided with a towel. So, our travel towel went unused and after a couple of months was actually sent home with a couple of other things. However, we’ve almost never been provided with a washcloth, loofah, or shower puff that could be used to lather and clean-up in the shower. So, when we get to a new place, we usually buy a shower puff or loofah as part of the 6 Things We Buy When We Arrive. We’re still not sure if this isn’t typically provided to guests or if in general, people simply don’t use them.
Another interesting discovery was that a top sheet is rare on a bed. We’re very used to having a bed made with a bottom fitted sheet, a top flat sheet and then a blanket and/or comforter. However, a majority of the time we’ve slept in the UK has been without the top flat sheet. It goes from bottom fitted sheet straight to the duvet. The duvet always has a removable cover that can be washed, so it isn’t un-hygienic, just different.
One, of the many things we’ve grown to really appreciate is the food labeling. It takes a little of an adjustment to get used to the nutritional information and how it's listed. For example, salt in the US is listed as ‘sodium’, but in the UK it’s ‘salt’. One of the first things many people look at is ‘calories’, written out as such in the US, however, here it’s called ‘energy’ and amounts are listed in kL units and kcal units. The order of the nutritional label is a bit different, but we got used to that fairly quickly.
Of course, we aren’t your average couple, so when it comes to food, we're quite particular about what we eat. We want to be sure that what we’re consuming is going to keep us healthy, strong, and feeling well. So, when we’re buying something packaged, the first thing we do is read the label. Ingredients are very important, since if we can avoid it, we don’t want to be putting low quality oils, hydrogenated fats, preservatives, etc. in our bodies. We also want to know how much of the ingredients we’re consuming, like calories, sugar, carbohydrates, salt, etc.
If you’re a label reader as well, you may have run into the problem of comparing two different products and wanting to find the better of the two, nutritionally speaking. Should be simple enough, right? Just look at the amounts on the nutritional label and compare each product to the other. However, it’s all too common that serving sizes on the nutritional labels will be different. Even worse, is comparing products that have serving sizes in different measurements, like ounces to grams. We’ve taken out the calculator on our phone a few times to try to figure out the labels on two different products, and it’s not fun. The quick solution is to use the percentages of the nutritional element based on a 2,000 calorie diet. But this isn’t perfect since not every item on the nutritional label has been given a standard suggested amount for a 2,000 calorie diet.
100 grams: Genius
It’s no surprise then, when we realized that all food labels in the United Kingdom have a standard nutritional label that not only gives amounts per serving size but also per 100-grams, we were thrilled! You may think thrilled is an over exaggeration, and it may be for Sergio, but it certainly isn’t for Shannon. It makes it so easy to compare one product to another! Every packaged item that has a nutritional label includes a breakdown of the nutritional information by a 100-gram portion. No more comparing a 40-gram serving size to a two-ounce serving size and trying to figure out which one has less calories, sugar, and fat.
Last night we were looking at soups as a possibility for dinner. Well, if bought in the store, soups can be filled with way too much salt and sugar. So we, as usual, compared each possible soup to find the best option. The UK label made it simple and quick. Not to mention, when we went to a second store and looked at soups there, it was easy to remember the nutritional information from the previous stores’ soup, because it was just based on 100 grams. No math, conversions, or Googling needed.
Well, first it might be worth noting that bathrooms are more often called ‘toilets’ or wash closests (WC) here. If you’re traveling by train, we’ve also found that most restrooms in train stations are accessible only with payment. Usually it’s 20-60 p (pence, or cents). So it may be wise to carry change on you in case of emergency.
There are several small differences we have run across in restrooms around the UK. It may be a taboo subject to get into, but hey, we’ll go for it.
- Light switches are usually on the outside wall of the physical restroom.
- If the switch is inside the restroom, it’s probably on a pull string.
- The only outlets in the restroom are for shavers. Blow-dryers and other appliances can't be plugged in. So charging toothbrushes, blow-drying hair and anything else that requires a standard outlet will have to be done somewhere else.
- Toilets can be a bit finicky when you try to flush them. We find we have to wiggle the handle occasionally and then firmly flush and hold. Sometimes you have to do it a couple times to get it to flush. We suspect it’s because toilets have two different amounts of water that are used depending on how far down you depress the toilet lever.
- Showers use tank-less water heaters that require a button or switch to be turned on. It’s great for electricity or natural gas savings, but can be tricky with obtaining and/or maintaining consistent water temperature throughout ones shower.
- Most restrooms are equipped with a towel warmer.
- Shower doors only cover the front half of the shower and tub.
When cars are designed backwards and people drive on the opposite side of the road, many things are bound to be different when it comes to driving. In general, roads are small, lanes are narrow and cars are micro, relative to the United States that is. We know they exist, and it may be because we walk and take public transport way more than we drive, but we have yet to see a highway here like highways are in the US. We grew up with eight to fourteen lane freeways in California, so to not see these massive concrete highways is refreshing.
Lanes are narrow, and sometimes so narrow that they often reduce a two lane road to a single lane. It’s not uncommon to have a single lane for two directions of traffic crossing a bridge. Because lanes are narrow, parking is limited. Cars are often parked half on the sidewalk and half on the road. So it’s a good thing that cars are smaller here. SUVs are uncommon and trucks are just plain rare here. What would be considered a micro-car in the US is standard here. We’ve noticed that there are dramatically more cars that are hatchbacks and few cars with trunks. Very pragmatic in our opinion.
The colors of the cars are even a bit different. They tend to be a shade of grey, white or black. If a car is a different color, it’s highly unlikely to be a bright one. We’ve been in parking lots where every single car is some neutral gray color. It’s one of those things that takes a bit to notice, but once you do, it’s peculiar. We wonder why.
Food and Stores
We can’t go without mentioning food here. What we’ve noticed is a bit biased, since we don’t eat out much and shop for very specific types of food. However, we’ve certainly noticed a few things.
- Mustard in the UK is ‘English Mustard’ and has added sugar. Look for American or hot dog mustard if you want US yellow mustard.
- Oats are porridge oats, so more finely ground. If you want whole oats (called jumbo oats here), you have to really search for them and usually pay double to quadruple the price of porridge oats. We usually find them in the organic or gluten-free (‘free from’) section of the store.
- Gluten free is referred to ‘Free From’, as in, free from gluten. Many larger grocery stores (Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons) have a ‘Free From’ section. Some of the items in this section will also be free from dairy, egg or milk.
- Chips are fries and crisps are chips.
- Drive thru food, banks, pharmacies, coffee shops, etc., are rare.
- The number of fast food establishments are limited, as well as the selection. Typically you'll see McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut and Dominos.
- Shops close early, especially on Sundays. Even the ‘24-hours’ grocery stores are closed by 5pm on Sunday.
- Eggs aren’t refrigerated. This makes them challenging to find in the grocery store, but they’re typically found by the bread.
- Eggs are purchased in packages of 6, 10, 12, 15 and 18. Packs of one dozen eggs is less common.
- Baked beans are part of a traditional meal in the UK. Therefore, an aisle of canned beans consists almost entirely of baked beans, with a very small section (if any) reserved for other types (kidney, chickpea, butter, etc).
Gratitude in the Small Things
Okay, so we know in the scheme of things, these things may be minor. Yes, it would be a much more grandiose post to talk about the National Health System or gun laws in the UK (we officially have no opinion on this one way or the other). We’d rather not dive into that can of worms and stick to the smaller things. Overall, most of what we find in differences are peculiar, interesting or great. Very few things do we actually dislike, most just take a bit of getting used to. We focus on the positive and all in all, the differences are simply that, just different. For us, it’s practicing gratitude by recognizing the things some people take for granted, that make our lives a bit easier, happier, or more beautiful.