“The English and the Americans are one people separated by a common language.” This is one of the hundreds of great quotes by Sir Winston Churchill, war-time prime minister, and one of the greatest people who ever lived. So, if you had to live somewhere other than the USA, the UK would be a good choice. The people are great, and they almost speak the same language. My company,Westinghouse, had a need for somebody to live there for a year and Denise and I decided to take the plunge. We had a lot going for us at the time as Max was not yet in proper school, my folks were living in our house and we wouldn’t have to leave it empty, Denise loved to travel to Europe, and we had just finished watching five seasons of All Creatures Great and Small on DVD.
If you’ve never watched this wonderful series, you should. It is based on four books by James Harriott, a veterinarian in Yorkshire which are all lines from a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
The Yorkshire Dales are beautiful. So when I told her that I had been asked to go, she asked, “London?”, and I replied, “No, up north, near Yorkshire.” She couldn’t say no.
Actually, we were going to be near Liverpool, the home of the Her Majesty’s Government’s Office of Nuclear Regulation in beautiful downtown Bootle. Luckily, we didn’t have to LIVE in Bootle. Instead, we moved to a lovely town along the Irish Sea called Lytham-St. Annes. This is the home of the Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club where they play the British Open every few years. When you live there, you tell people you live in St. Annes on the Sea, and they just call it The Open. It is a mecca for all things golf. Alas, I don’t golf.
Finding a Flat
My wife and I traveled to St. Annes in late February of 2008. We were greeted by gale-force winds off the sea and sleet. You couldn’t walk upright. We were given a guide, Nick, who hailed from the Yorkshire town of Giggleswick. So, of course, to us he was Giggleswick Nick, or GN to save typing. GN doggedly took us to several flats until we found the one for us. It was technically not a flat, but a two-story affair with three tiny bedrooms. We settled in for about £900 per month. All we had to do to get the place was to open a bank account. We went to several banks, but without a local address, we couldn’t get an account. A classic Catch 22. Luckily GN had a girlfriend at the local Halifax Bank branch, and we worked things out. We were now residents of 12 Margaret Court, King Edwards Avenue, St. Annes on the Sea, The Fylde, Lancashire, United Kingdom, FY8-1FB. Interestingly, the post code, FY8-1FB is all you really need in the UK. It will get you to within shouting distance of any residence.
An English blackbird nested on the light pole outside Max’s room. In the spring and summer, they sing very sweetly and very loud. And the Beatles were right, they sing in the dead of night. We had to get an industrial strength white noise machine to drown it out.
Electricity is different there and non of our stuff would work without all manner of outlandish electrical equipment to allow our puny two-pronged 110 V, 60 Hz devices to run on 240 V, 50 Hz UK electricity.
Dorothy, We’re not in Kansas Anymore
Lots of stuff is strange about the UK. First, they don’t use clothes driers. They typically have these weak-assed driers that have to run for days and days, but everybody just hangs out the wash. I can remember my mom doing this when I was a kid. Second, the satellite TV has 900 channels, but only five of them are useful. In the mid-400s, I found a group of Welsh language channels. Welsh is a language most akin to Martian with words like “Blwyddwyn Newydd Dda” which means “Happy New Year”. I think it means, “Pat, can I buy a vowel”.
Also, English scrabble games have an over abundance of “U”s due to their propensity to put a useless “U” in colour, behaviour, labour, etc. Also, there are no “Z”s, which they call “Zed’s”, and apparently they don’t realise that they are authorised to use them. And while everyone knows the word “schedule” is pronounced “sked-yool”, the Brits insist it’s pronounced “shed-dyooooool”. How bizarre is that?
The system of measurement is one of the strangest you’ll see. First, they say they use the metric system, you know, kilograms, meters, Celsius, what-have-you, and they get all bent out of shape when you use things like inches, feet, pounds, and Fahrenheit. Oddly enough, these units are commonly referred to as “Imperial Units”. Well, guess who’s empire they come from, you got it, the BRITISH empire.
Now it would be fine if they were to stick to their guns like the snotty French and the rest of Europe, but the Brits pick and choose. The buy meat by the kilogram, but they measure their body weight in stone. Yes that’s right, stone. There was a stone back in the Middle Ages that weighed 14 lbs. So a Brit who weighs 140 lb will tell you he weighs 10 stone. If somebody loses weight on a diet, they will tell you’ve “I’ve dropped half a stone”. They also use miles on the highway instead of kilometers. Weirder still, they use yards to tell you how far it is to the exit or the intersection. The only place on earth that yards is used is on the golf course, the football field, and British highways.
Driving in the UK
Very few Yanks are keen to try this. If you live there, then there’s really no choice. Almost all cars have manual transmissions with the gear shift on the left, but the pedals are the same as the US. I had one of the few automatics in the British Isles so that I didn’t have to re-learn too many things. It’s funny when you get there from the states as you see older couples on holiday playing rock-paper-scissors to see who has to drive the rental car. The last time either of them drove a stick was in the 1950s. If you don’t specifically ask for an automatic, you will get a manual.
The steering wheel on the right so that they can drive on the wrong side of the road. Survival requires you to learn how to do this very quickly and be constantly vigilant. However, nothing will keep you from entering a parked car on the passenger side again and again and again to the amusement of your colleagues.
The roads are a bit different, too. The freeways are called motorways, and all the route numbers start with an “M”. We lived near the M55 which ran from Blackpool to the M6, which is the major north-south artery on the west coast of England. British freeways are excellent, but they’re undersized for the traffic load. They are almost always three lanes on each side. The left lanes are for lorries (trucks) which are not allowed in the right-most fast lane. For some reason, the height of a British long-haul truck is much higher as the clearances on the overpasses is much higher. This gives them the look that they are going to blow over in a strong wind. You can pass, but if you linger in the fast lane, you will be pilloried. Also, shifting lanes without signaling is a hanging offense in the UK.
Major roads that aren’t motorways are “A” roads. These were the major roads from city to city during the Roman times to about Cromwell’s day. Many times “A” roads will parallel the “M” roads such as the A6 parallels the M6. The A6 goes through all the towns. Last are the “B” roads. B roads are supposed to be big enough for two vehicles to pass, but this is rarely the case. Most pass through farm country so that there are very unforgiving dry stone walls on each side which are about a centimeter away from your side-view mirror when passing another car. A four-laned road is a “dual carriageway”, and is always designated as such with a sign. Like you’d see the Earl of Sandwich zipping along in his carriage. Finally, if you go to Scotland or Wales, subtract one letter grade for each road type. “A” roads would be “B” roads in England. “B” roads would be cow paths.
Another big car-related change is the roundabout. Now we have these in the US, I think there may be eight of them. In the UK, they are everywhere. They are used to effectively eliminate stop signs. The roundabout rules are simple. If you’re in the roundabout, you have the right of way. If you want, you can stay in there all day ala Clark Griswald in European Vacation. “Look kids, there’s Big Ben”. Once you get the hang of them, you would want it no other way. Mastering the two-lane roundabout is a rite of passage on English roadways. You enter the roundabout at 6-o’clock into the outer (left) If you want to make a right off the roundabout (3-o’clock), you have to quickly move to the inmost (right) lane. As you come around, you again move outward to exit. All the while, people are coming in and going out. Sometimes at the intersection of major roads, the roundabouts are too big and they have to put lights in them. Oh, and if you’re apt to get lost, roundabouts make U-turns legal. You come in at 6-o’clock, and you keep going until you come out at 6-o’clock. Swiss watch. “Look kids, there’s Big Ben.”
There are LOTS more, but these are a good sample of things the Brits do differently, and in some cases, better than us. But my wife told me this was already too long, so I broke it up into two. Please enjoy Moving to the UK – Part 2.