When you move to Britain from the USA, you’ll have to get used to some changes, but for the most part, everyday life isn’t wildly different. There are still movie theaters, cell phones and elevators, even if there are different names for those things. The quality of life is more or less the same in every wealthy western country. You’ll still shop at supermarkets, drive in cars, watch television and drink coffee.
But there are a few quite fundamental things that you’ll have to learn to live without. Here’s how to prepare yourself. Say goodbye to:
Saying and hearing “Merry Christmas”
In Britain, they do sometimes say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Christmas,” but they are really quite stingy about it. As I write this, it’s 5 days to Xmas, and not one British person has said “Merry Christmas” to me yet. Not even staff working in Christmas-themed shops where I’ve bought Christmas decorations. In America, Holiday greetings become commonplace as early as November, but in the UK basically you have to be dressed as Santa Claus to earn even a mumbled “Merry Christmas.” It’s not that British people are starved of holiday spirit – actually they go a bit mad for Christmas. It’s just that Britons put rules and protocol ahead of the natural need to connect with other human beings: One does not say “Merry Christmas” to someone, unless one is saying it on Christmas Day.
People introducing themselves
Few things are stranger to an American, than the experience of being at a pub, party or dinner with friends, who won’t introduce you to other friends at the same pub, party or dinner. You may find yourself standing next to people in the same group all evening, even chatting with them, with no one bothering to introduce you to them, and no one bothering to introduce themselves to you*. I suspect this is a hold-over from the days when meeting new people required a formal, written letter of introduction from a common acquaintance. To Britons, Americans must come across like Will Ferrell in the film Elf.
* Yes, it has occurred to me that the issue may actually be that no one wants to know who I am, rather than this being a cultural convention.
People talking to each other
Stores known in the states for their friendly customer service, such as Trader Joe’s, would be abject failures if they ever attempted to open in the UK, because most shops here work to limit, not encourage human interaction. At Marks and Spencer, most tills are self-serve machines. The few tills that are manned, press a button that makes an announcement for the next customer to come forward (instead of just saying “next!”) I’ve heard that people up north are a bit more gregarious, but last time I tried to book a train, the man behind the ticket counter kept pretending that I wasn’t there, occasionally tilting his head towards a nearby ticket machine when I did manage to catch his eye. In the end I gave up and walked home in silence.
The doggie bag
Asking a waiter “can you wrap this up for me?” is a faux pas in Britain. No. They can’t wrap it up for you. They don’t even understand the concept. Every time I’ve asked, I’ve gotten a look that says:
“Why would you come to a restaurant – a place where you are meant to eat food, and then ask to have that food placed in a container so that you can take it away? I wouldn’t go to a barber shop for a haircut and halfway through ask to take the scissors home with me. Tosser.”
One of my lasting memories of life in New York City, is asking for a turkey sandwich, watching the sandwich guy get out a big Boar’s Head brand roast, and having him slice it extra thin for me on the machine. Here, sandwiches are made in factories, packaged up and put on display. I may desire thinly-sliced turkey on rye, but TOUGH LUCK WE HAVE CRAYFISH AND WATERCRESS ON BROWN BREAD. Would you like extra tomatoes on your roast beef sandwich? SORRY MATE, WE HAVE CHEESE AND CHUTNEY ON AN ARTISANAL BAGUETTE THAT WE MADE YESTERDAY. TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT! Sometimes I think I miss that sandwich guy more than I miss my parents.
Movie Theater Popcorn
This one will be hard for Americans to believe, but there is not a single movie theater, theatre, cinema, or movie house in this entire bloody country that makes fresh popcorn on the premises. Every. Single. One. Sells. Popcorn. From. A. Bloody. Giant. Bag. Made. In. A. Factory.
I don’t understand it – popcorn is 999,999 times better fresh, it’s easy and inexpensive to make and the smell of it is pivotal to the experience of going to the movies. The only reasons not to offer this to movie-goers in the UK are the sheer stubbornness and malevolence of cinema owners. They don’t want you to taste the goodness of fresh popcorn because they are evil. And they still have the nerve to charge as much for this wicked, stale snack as American theaters charge for their god-fearing fresh, tasty warm popcorn of wholesomeness. My first time back in the states after moving here, I went to the movies- bought a giant bag of popcorn, fresh out of the machine, and as big as a bathtub. I slathered it in extra “butter flavoring” and ate it all so quickly that I felt sick. Afterwards, I licked my greasy, salty fingers, and hummed the Star-Spangled Banner to myself until the movie began.
Oh they have things they call “bagels” over here- but they’re really just round bread-things with holes in them. They are to real bagels what cheez is to cheese. They are lies- worse than counterfeit, out-of-date medicines sold to sick children. If you move to the UK, a day will come when you think you’ve found a real bagel and you will feel safe and happy as you prepare to eat it. But suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, as you bite down upon a thing that is in fact a dry, profane mockery of a bagel. And you will rage as I have raged. But there is nothing to do, and nowhere to go, as the real bagels are all still in New York. And the worst part is, British people don’t even know how bad their bagels are- they’re clueless lost souls, like North Korean citizens talking about how much “freedom” they have.
Argh. That’s it. I’m done. My memories of real popcorn and bagels have upset me too much. I’m too homesick to go on. Here’s a list of other things you will have to say goodbye to if you move abroad. If you need me, I’ll be lying in my bed dreaming of movie theater popcorn, with bagel-shaped tears rolling down my cheeks.
- Graham crackers
- Goldfish crackers
- Turkey burgers
- Monterey Jack cheese
- Root beer
- Cream soda
- Hydrogen peroxide
- The word “Acetaminophen” (called Paracetamol here)
- Hebrew National hot dogs
- My wife claims there are no gerbils in the UK
- Tater tots
- Stovetop stuffing
- Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch
- Pop Tarts
- Baseball caps
- Reese’s Pieces
- Oscar parties (time zone makes it impossible)
- Candy corn
- American Football
- Gun aficionados
- Iced coffee
- Generously-poured mixed drinks
- Iced tea in restaurants
- Hacky sack
- Hush puppies
- Good Customer service
- Child beauty pageants
- Wifi that works in coffee shops
- Good nachos
* If you think of other “little friends” Americans have to say goodbye to when they move to Britain, post in the comments and I’ll add them to the list. This way no one else has to go through the trauma I’ve gone through.