I may be experiencing a very mild case of culture shock.
But I wouldn’t call it that.
“Culture shock” makes me sound uninformed and intolerant and completely taken aback, when in all honesty, I knew I would notice a few little things about England, and by “a few little things” I really mean cultural behavioral norms that are endearingly different, occasionally maddeningly indirect, and sometimes even just a little humorous, leaving me watching these Brits with fond, starry-eyed, amused wonder.
A sampler from my first five days in London:
– Sidewalk traffic tends to run opposite of the way it does in the US. Ever noticed that in America, people seem to naturally form two lanes coming and going, every pedestrian with his left side to the middle of the sidewalk and his right side to the edge? It used to be that every time I traveled down a major sidewalk (say, Oxford Street, for instance), I’d tend to crash head-on into passerby after passerby. It was a while before I realized it was because I was constantly moving against the flow of human traffic.
– I’ve been given maddeningly lengthy sets of directions here for about three days straight. In the US, the custom is to simplify descriptions of places and/or create a mental map. Here, I’ve been told to go ‘straight forward, down the stairs, right, right again, right down the hall, a left, then a right, out the doors. That’s halfway. Then turn right…” etc., etc. And it never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that I should be given a map, never mind that the people giving me said directions had giant stacks of maps in one hand to give out. When this happens, I can never seem to wrap my mind around the fact that someone thought a route description like this would be helpful. Helpful. Maybe if I took notes?
– The British don’t nag you when you’re holding up a line. This is unheard of in the States, where people waiting behind you to buy their cigarettes or get their movie ticket or apply for a driver’s license can get horribly and unnecessarily nasty. Not the British. They stand silently. Patiently, even — leaving me in complete awe. No one can queue like the British.
– If there’s a way to make the entrance to a building the most difficult to find that it could possibly be, UCL has done it. The main block of campus features several large building groups that fit together in such a way that you can’t actually pass straight through it — at least, not aboveground. You have to walk all around the complex until you find another way in. And even though the front of the academic building Gordon Square has one door every 15 or so feet, all are blocked entries. We need to find a single gated side entrance, follow a path downwards, and then take some rickety stairs up the back of the building to use a door with the kind of forbidding iron latticework that grandmothers love.
– Americans are big on being able to grab merchandise off a shelf and go pay for it at the counter, but a great number of UK stores feature books full of pictures of products that you can point at and ask for. Some guy will go to a back room, find it for you, and bring it to the counter himself. It’s not really expected that you shop around and look at different things firsthand — only that you pick, pay, and depart.
– Light switches: flick upwards to turn off. Flick downwards to turn on.
– Instead of swiping credit cards, here we insert cards left-side first and hold it there while the transaction completes. The first time I had to do this, I stood there stupidly looking for a swiping slot for a good half-minute before the checkout lady told me how it was supposed to work. Also: Brits sign the backs of their credit cards, and store employees are regularly asked to check the back of a credit card to make sure the signature matches the one on the receipt. In the US, no one gives a damn about the signature — they just ask for photo ID.
– Men and women share bathrooms in the university dorms. It’s strange and not exactly happifying.
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In other news:
The body of Jeremy Bentham, founder of UCL, dead since 1832, is kept in a case in the UCL main building. His head is gone — only his real hair remains, streaming out from under his hat — since students kept stealing it as a prank. It was replaced with a less gruesome looking wax head, but despite this — as well as the fact that his skeletonized body is entirely concealed by clothing — I still felt entirely ill at ease staring at him as he sat in his little box. Just the knowledge that under those gloves are a pair of bone hands…no, thank you. I don’t even have a problem with bare skeletons of dead bodies. I just have a problem with the ones that are completely decked out in early 19th-century garb and wearing wax masks.
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From the past two days:
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Foraging: because Tottenham Court Road is just too convenient, I keep going back to it to scavenge for meals. The Japanese Canteen near Maple Street/University Street is the first place I’ve been to so far that hasn’t made everything all one flavor in different textures. I figured it might be decent when I noticed that actual Japanese visitors eat there.