This guide is an ongoing attempt for me to cronicle some of the differences I've found between the States and London. I welcome discussion and opinions. To give Americans a bit of a reference point, I grew up in Ohio and ended up living in Chicago for a dozen years (go Northwestern!). I'm a computer geek and would rather have Taco Bell than pigeon and other foo-foo food in a 5 star restaurant. My wife works for SBC Warburg and was transferred from the Chicago to the London office. We moved here mid December of 1995. We have a flat in South Kensington. We think of South Ken as a ritzy neighborhood on the West Side of London. Some people have equated it to Beverly Hills. It's also known as where all the foreigners live. We just liked it because it reminded us of Lincoln Park, where we lived in Chicago, and was close to the tube.
London is just very, very cool when it comes to history compared to America. Almost everywhere are examples of structures, walls and stuff that was here long before even the Vikings "discovered" America. For example, you can often find examples of homes built during the early 1700's and while we were busy with our civil war, the English were busy beginning thier underground transportation system, called the tube.
I mean, come on. You can go to the British museum and see the Rosetta Stone! Sorry, but the display at the Smithsonian of M*A*S*H* doesn't really compare. Skipping over the tourist displays and museums, even just walking around Kensington and Chelsea, there are blue plaques on dozens of buildings telling what famous people stayed at that house. Especially if you are into architecture, literature or art, there are tons of landmarks that Londoners just take for granted.
Walking Around and Getting Bumped
This is one of my biggest pet peeves over here. This may just be me, but other Americans have agreed with me when I've told them this. Londoners have no sense of personal space when it comes to walking down the street or in the stores. They will walk in front of you, bump you, push you and just get in your way in a way that would start fights in Chicago. I'm a big guy and I thought it might just be me being clumsy. I would constantly get bumped into when I was walking. Not just a casual brush against, but a staggering shoulder push or a baby carriage thrust in front of my legs.
Finally I began to realize that it wasn't just me when I would be standing in the grocery looking in the frozen food section for the non-existent Eggos, and people would bump into me. One night, I was following behind my wife when a grey haired old woman pushed in between us. I saw her actually take her elbow and forarm my wife hard in the back. There was a crowd in front of my wife who's all of 5'1" and nowhere to go. I'd had enough and returned the favor, shoving the bitch from behind in exacly the way she did my wife. I'm not proud of it but, she didn't even notice.
So I've taken this attitude. Get out of my way. I'm bigger than you and I WILL NOT STOP if you step in front of me. My wife has found that the same attitude works for her also. Of course there are instances where I'll try to be polite, but not many any more. Unfortunately, I've found that being rude is the only way to combat this rudeness. And be prepared to take a shoulder or two before you get to this point. You will. And if I'm in a crowd, such as shopping at Oxford Street, I just look over the heads of the people coming towards me and walk purposefully. If I don't look like I'll move, they part like to proverbial red sea. You still have to watch out for those @#$ baby carriages though. Women and men will use them as a sheild and just plow through things with them. Poor kids.
I've gotten to feel about this as I have about all those yuppie bike riding idiots that ignore the stop signs in Chicago. Just give me the chance, just give me the chance, please get in my way.
Pubs and Drinking
This seems to be the favorite pastime of many of the locals. There are almost more pubs in London than there are crooked politicians in the U.S.. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere the common tourist or American living in London will probably be, you' ll be able to find a pub within 2 blocks. Usually you can find several. This is one aspect of London I really like and I'm not a big drinker. Going to the pub is much more a social thing to do than going to a bar in the States. It's very accepted and common to go there alone and read or just drink your beer. It beats most of the TV and Radio selections. Each pub has it's own ambiance and feeling, so scout out several and then get to be a regular in one or two. It's a great way to make local friends or just study the people.
There're only really two things that suck about pubs. One, many of them close at 11:00 or 11:30. A big change from the 4 am bars on Division in Chicago. This is citywide and I haven't found the reasons for it yet. So just as you're hitting stride on those drinks, out ya go. Some establishments do have licenses that allow you to drink till 1 or 2, but sometimes these require a cover charge or are part of a members-only club. The second thing that sucks is that if you are a non-smoker, goooood luck. And get rid of those contact lenses before you even enter the pub. Smoking is a hobby and is as natural as breathing to Londoners. Many good pubs will look like L.A. on a bad day as the evening gets into the swing of things.
Pub food all depends on the chef at the time. Most pubs will offer some type of hot and cold food. Some only at restricted times. If you are looking to go to the pub for dinner, be sure to walk in and ask if they have hot food. Many will just stock Saran Wrapped sandwiches at night, even if the sign says hot food served. And try to get away from the tourist track. If you're going to Harrod's or going to the theatres, wander down a side street for a few minutes or so to try to find a more "local" pub. You'll get a better idea of things. Just walk in and find a seat. The patrons may stare at you a bit, especially if they hear your American accent. So far, I haven't found anyone hostile towards Americans, usually just curious at the accent.
Also, normally you'll have to go up to the bar to order your drinks or food. Normally the only time someone will come to your table is to gather the empty glasses or plates. Tipping is pretty optional and I'll try to cover it in a separate section if I ever come to understand it.
How to Stand Out as an American
One of the reasons I moved over here is I have always been intensely curious on how other cultures view the U.S. I was in Zurich a couple years ago and having a conversation with a wonderfully quiet woman my wife works with. I asked one of my standard questions about how she found Americans different. She answered with one word. SNEAKERS. Over here, tennis shoes, sneakers, Nike's, Reeboks, whatever are worn just when you are playing sports. What a concept huh? And sure enough, as I looked around and as I see people here, no one wears sneakers. If you are, you're probably an American. Bring a pair of dockers or boots over instead if you're a guy. The casual style for men seems to be a pair of big clunky shoes or boots you'd see in an outdoorsy catalog. For women, just find the ugliest, biggest, clunkiest, highest heeled (not platform) shoes you can find in garage sale from the 60's and you'll be a hit. Black leather boots to the knee or hip are not uncommon (seriously).
My wife has heard from an unnamed source that Americans are also considered always fat, somewhat ugly and bad dressers. I guess everything is relative when it comes to looks and styles, but I've gotta admit from what I can tell, they're right about the weight thing. I'm overweight so I notice others who are also. They almost always seem to be American. I'm not saying that all Londoners are thin and fit. They just aren't fat the way many of Americans are. They aren't necessary healthier as they chain smoke and have dentures by the time they're 40, but they are thinner.
The other thing I've noticed is that the majority of Londoners don't wear bright colors. If you don't want to be pegged as an American, don't bring over a bright colored nylon ski jacket. They'll think you should have your skis nearby. Or look for your American sneakers. The style seems to be a dull green (my friends call it snot-green) or grey cloth jacket or coat. Although, if you are a woman, you can get away with a bright red. Women's fashions are something else I'll get into later. Very sexy, very 60's. The feminists would have fits.
Jeans are acceptable, but dockers or dull corderoys might fit in also. I haven't quite figured out men's casual shirt dress, but I've found loose turtlenecks and big sweaters (not necessarily together) seem to be safe.