Random observations on British life

I’ve just returned from a fantastic 10 day holiday in the UK with my family. Our travels took us to Caterham, Cheltenham, Stroud, Bristol, Stoke-on-Trent, Liverpool, Norwich and London. Traveling to another country is one of the best ways to get an education, an appreciation for one’s own country, and an unfiltered sense of where there’s room for improvement, on either side. We’d all do well to get over ourselves a bit and acknowledge when someone else has a Better Idea. Sometimes it’s the little things that make up a quality of life. Here, then, in no particular order, are the ones that stuck with me.

groceriesGroceries in general are less expensive – at least, they were in Liverpool. Sometimes drastically so. Butter is $8 for 16 oz. in the US. Here, it’s 79p (about a dollar) for just under 9 oz (250 grams). So, essentially, $2 a pound. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is around half the price that it is in the US. How can this be – especially when you consider it’s an import? A package of chocolate “digestive biscuits” is one pound in the UK, and about $10 as an import in the US. Hmm… *somebody* is making a killing.

• You know how pre-sliced cheese in the US is basically overly processed industrial Velveeta crap? Here it’s “mature cheddar” that you’d normally find in the gourmet section. These people know how to live!

wind_turbines_-_hadyard_hill_windfarm_-_geograph-org-uk_-_185628Wind power has clearly been embraced. There are fields of beautiful, graceful wind turbines along the countryside approaching Liverpool.

• The train system is great but the on-board wifi is a pain. It varies greatly depending on your destination/line. Often, you can’t sign on or retrieve a lost password unless you have a valid UK mobile number and/or postal code. Virgin train’s wifi only works on my iphone, not on my macbook. The sign-in page won’t load. The user interface for these services is miserable, too. I spent a half an hour trying to sign on during one trek. It kept reloading the page just before I finished entering my credit card info. It’s not much better on the streets. There appear to be precious few completely free wifi services anywhere.

• The first program we saw when we briefly turned on the TV was Law & Order UK. It was exactly like the US version, right down to the “In the criminal justice system…” intro, except for interrogations being interrupted with “Would you like a cup of tea, love?” I swear I am not making this up.

metal-towel-rack• Signs of an advanced civilization: Giant electrically heated metal towel racks as standard equipment in every bathroom.

• Most standard wall outlets have a tiny on/off switch built into them. If you don’t know this in advance, you may wonder why your device didn’t charge overnight. I’ll bet it saves a lot of energy, though.

washer-and-dryer• I’d never seen a single machine that was both a washer and dryer before. Pretty nifty – the fact that it required a degree in hieroglyphics to decipher the controls and took nine hours to dry the clothes notwithstanding.

• Paper or plastic? How about neither? It’s bring your own or buy a plastic bag for 5 or 10p at checkout. Bags are not freely dispensed the way they are in the US. There is also significantly less garbage on the average street. London is a noticeably much cleaner city than New York. It is possible that these things are connected.

• Some theatres offer instant seat upgrades. Unsold seats are offered by ushers at the point of entry. This is a big improvement over NYC! The British do not do standing ovations, though. Or very rarely, at least. This, too, is an improvement. NYC theatregoers seem ready to leap out of their seats for even the most pedestrian performance. One notable exception: Natasha J. Barnes, the Monday night alternate for Sheridan Smith in FUNNY GIRL at the Savoy, got a well-deserved standing O and was moved to tears. I guess that’s because when you get one over there, it really means something.

CPAP users take note: One thing that seems to be IMPOSSIBLE to find in any store is distilled water. The closest we could find was ionized water, which is carried at auto parts supply shops (for the radiator), but is unsuitable for human consumption as it causes nosebleeds.

garden• Having a garden is an integral part of life. Sure, some people have gardens in the US but it seems like everybody has a garden in the UK. It’s a lovely, charming tradition.

• If you’ve never traveled on the British train system, here’s one thing you wouldn’t know unless someone told you: hang on to your ticket! You need it to exit, not just to enter. Fortunately, every train station has an actual human waiting at the turnstiles to give directions and help you if you run into trouble. Also, book your tickets 12 weeks in advance on thetrainline.com and save yourself a LOT of money.

nightlife2• I wish more American cities had the commitment to nightlife that Liverpool has.

• Sarah and I ventured out for late night kebabs in Liverpool and happened to pass by some very husky drag queens in Givenchy gowns, boisterously exiting a place called Heaven, presumably named after the famous club in London. It took all my strength to resist breaking into, “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK.” I’m sure they’d have laughed. Either that or beaten me senseless, which I’d have surely deserved.

kids-clothing• Much like New Yorkers, Londoners have style. Even the kid’s clothing fashions are sharp, yet unpretentious and imply a certain toughness while still being cool.

• For all its obvious advantages over the US, the UK has its sorrows like any great society. There was the very young mother who couldn’t have been more than 19, looked more like 16, pushing her pram (baby carriage) down the street, dressed in her school uniform – grey plaid skirt, white shirt buttoned all the way up, heavy grey suit jacket, hideous green tie. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She seemed absolutely miserable.

boarded-up-shops• There was also a fair amount of boarded up shops. Our friends in Stoke-on-Trent mourned the loss of industry there. It was once the pottery capital of the UK. Wedgewood and Royal Doulton were a major presence, reduced now to a whisper due to automation and outsourcing to slave labor in China and India. Many thousands of jobs lost. Worse – it’s been a few generations now and nobody has the skills anymore to bring it back. As in the US, very few goods are stamped “Made in Britain” these days. Most of the jobs in Stoke now are with “distribution centers.” Order picking at warehouses, basically. In time, these too will be replaced by robots. This is a problem that transcends geographical boundaries, of course, and no market segment is immune. Expect it to become much worse in the future. It is a function of unfettered capitalism and the relentless march of “progress,” but we all play a part. As long as people demand a) the highest possible return on their stock investments and b) the lowest possible price for their goods and services, these abuses will continue.

american-hot-dog• US brands I was quite displeased to see making an appearance: The obvious ones like McDonalds and Burger King. Also Pizza Hut, Subway, TGI Friday’s, KFC and Clear Channel, which as any American knows is to music what all the aforementioned brands are to food. Mainstream American crap is seen as exotic in certain places. It must be said: if you travel to the UK and eat at McDonalds, you should have your head examined. If you drink Budweiser, you should be deported.

• The most important and lasting impression I will take from our too-brief holiday in Old Blighty, though, is the incredibly warm and gracious reception we got from the people here, without exception, even from some fairly rough looking characters. Liverpool in particular has to be one of the friendliest cities on Earth. Perhaps it was partly due to our American accents. I know when I encounter people with British accents here in the States, I automatically feel inclined to go out of my way to be helpful and friendly to them. In any event, I used to love England in part for what I imagined it to be. Now that I’ve had the chance to live the reality of life there for a while, I love it for what I know it to be.

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