This post has been sitting around in my mind and in my phone notes since the first week I got here and today on the tube I decided I should finally sit down and write it out. I will acknowledge that this post may come across as a kind of negative, but I promise to do a post when I leave about all the good things and why London is worth being placed on your “to see” list. The reason why I post these not-so-great things is not because you shouldn’t come here, but so you know that they happen. These are things I’ve experienced that my American friends have also shared with me. Sometimes travel blogs gloss over the not-so-great things and you end up surprised or embarrassed or offended by something that happens. Keep in mind, this is my experience and not meant to be a sweeping generalization. I just hope some of these things can turn out to be useful to future travelers.
1. Public toilets are hard to find.
Placed first because it is VERY different than back home. In the United States you can find a bathroom anywhere. You just pop into any store/gas station/restaurant and they will have one free for public use (some are for customers only but it’s not as strictly enforced). Most stores in central London do not have toilets. Small restaurants often don’t have bathrooms. If you happen to find one, it is always for customers only or they will charge 30-50p (but it’s a really nice clean bathroom if they charge you for the maintenance). This was kind of hard to adjust to at first because when I’m out sight seeing and shopping it’s really difficult to find a place where you can just pop in and use their bathroom. Some tube stations have public toilets and you can download the toilet map from the TFL website. Plan your trip accordingly.
2. There are no water fountains and water is expensive.
I learned this the hard way on my second day. You will do much more walking than you’ve probably ever done in your life and the 80% humidity means you will get dehydrated fast. There are zero water fountains anywhere (ok maybe not zero. In three months I saw one at St. Paul’s and one at Shakespeare’s Globe). Not in the tube stations or parks or school hallways. Back at home water fountains are just about as common as bathrooms. Buy a large water bottle and force yourself to carry it around with you. It’s cumbersome but worth it because you won’t want to be dizzy during your travels.
3. You should bother to learn the pronunciations and slang.
This is really just because you’re in their country and should put in a little bit of effort to not reinforce the stereotype of the self-absorbed American. Some words you’ll read on tube stations or street signs are almost impossible to pronounce without an accent so if you say it in an American way people might give you a blank stare. British English is also different because they don’t pronounce every single letter and syllable in a word. It’s kind of like French how you don’t pronounce most of the letters in words like “champagne.” Here are some common ones:
- Buckingham – buckingm (not Bucking-HAM)
- Leicester – Less-ta (not Lee-keh-ster)
- Devonshire – Devon-sha (anything with “-shire” is pronounced “-sha.”)
- Edinburgh – Edin-bruh
Also bother to use the common slang: rubbish (trash), toilets (bathroom), lifts (elevator), queue (line).
4. Carry cash! Credit cards are not fast or easy.
While you won’t want to walk around with huge amounts of cash on you, you should carry the cash you plan on spending that day. Here everyone uses contactless RFID cards they just hold up to the card machine and the machine reads it. We haven’t really adopted contactless cards in the US. We’re barely getting used to using chip cards. I have not been to a single store where you can just swipe and be on your way. Every single one has required a signature for my chip card. In the U.S. no one ever checks ID when you run your card. You either swipe and that’s it, put in your PIN, or sign and continue on your way. Here they will ALWAYS require a signature with a credit card purchase and they will compare it to the signature on the back of your card. Often times they will ask to see ID as well. This usually holds up the queue and makes the people waiting impatient and it is inconvenient for the cashier. Withdraw a large amount of cash at once so you don’t have to pay a lot of foreign transaction fees, and do it on your way home so you don’t walk with it. Bonus: this will help you stick to your budget!
5. Be wary of phone snatchers.
You’ll get a lot of travel warnings about pickpocketing when researching London and Europe in general. You definitely will want to get a purse that zips shut or a jacket that has inner pockets to protect your wallet and phone. But I’ve noticed from reading the news that phone snatching is really common. This seems to happen a lot in tourist areas and it’s often done by men on scooters who grab phones and drive off. Make sure not to zone out while walking and playing with your phone. If you’re in dense tourist areas like around the Houses of Parliament or Piccadilly Circus or something you’ll want to keep your phone close. Pull to the side of foot traffic and stand with your back to a wall if you have to look something up, and generally don’t hold your phone in a way that someone could easily grab it out of your hands.
6. Don’t be an idiot while traveling.
Tube etiquette is not that difficult. Keep your voice down, wear headphones, take regular showers, do not get drunk and disorderly, take your backpack off and carry it, don’t take up more than one seat, and don’t disrupt people.
When walking, beware that pedestrians almost never have the right of way. With the exceptions of zebra crossings (big striped cross walks like the one on Abbey Road), you only have the right of way when the signal says you do. A huge amount of people ignore these and just jaywalk, but interestingly enough there is no word for jaywalking here. Still, be careful, don’t forget that the cars are coming from the opposite direction, and use your head.
I also wanted to note that everyone here walks so fast! Maybe walking slow is a California thing, but if you aren’t prepared to hustle, prepare to get shoved out of the way. That’s probably true of all big cities… I’m just used to California cruisin and taking in the sights.
7. Nothing anyone says and nothing that you read can prepare you for the customer service.
Americans and some British people will casually say that the customer service is bad. When I heard this I thought “lol it’s ok, I’m flexible. I can deal with it.” Boy was I proven wrong. If you’re the type of American to lose it and start screaming at the 17 year old in McDonalds because your order is taking too long, NEVER LEAVE THE US. It is a different world out here. My experiences have ranged from “here is your food, get out,” to a clerk and manager making fun of my roommate in front of her because she misread the menu, leaving her in tears. I’ve had some great and friendly experiences with waitstaff but boy, in America you would get fired on the spot if you behaved the way some of these employees behave.
And the reality is, your customer service will depend on how much that individual likes Americans. We have a lot of negative stereotypes preceding us, and as soon as you open your mouth a lot of people will immediately have their opinion of you solidified. You just have to grow a thick skin and not take it personally.
Banter. Witty banter. This is probably the thing I struggled the most with in the last three months, and even though I now recognize it for what it is – sarcastic humor(?) – I’m not used to hearing it. I don’t think I will ever get used to hearing it. To untrained American ears, the word “banter” appears to translate to “awful, rude comments that are supposed to be a joke.” I really do think a lot of people in public are just joking, but it can sound really hurtful nonetheless. When I first arrived I left stores or the tube in tears from the comments I received from employees or commuters.
I’m reading a book that has a PERFECT example of this sarcasm. Because I read this part of the book today, I decided to write this post. It’s a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck (I will do a review on this soon!). The author, Sarah Knight, is based in Brooklyn and is American but the humor is very, VERY British. Here she describes an “acceptable” reaction to someone taking too long at Starbucks:
When the person in line ahead of you at Starbucks can’t make up her mind and you are legit in a hurry. I hereby grant you permission to inquire, “So… are you nearsighted? Because I’d be happy to recite the menu in its entirety for you, a process that cannot possibly take longer than we have already been standing here waiting for you to make some pretty basic life decisions.”
I have heard people say things exactly like that. In coffee shops, the grocery store, in bathrooms, anywhere someone might not want to wait and I am horrified every single time. Maybe in some parts of America that kind of passive aggression is ok but at home that would get you kicked out. It would not make the person go any faster, you would just look like a jackass and now be the most hated person by everyone in the line, more hated than the person holding up the line.
But you can’t get mad that this is not the United States. It is not personal. That’s a pretty extreme example but there have been dozens of times I’ve encountered these kinds of passive aggressive comments. It can feel like people are being intentionally rude. I don’t think it’s intentional, I think it’s just the humor and my American ears don’t pick up on it.
9. Don’t get mad that it is not the USA.
In America we see Great Britain as our more sophisticated big brother. We speak the same language and we have similar histories so everything will be fine and easy to adjust to! We do speak the same language but it is absolutely a foreign country. Everything from the direction doors open, the brands we use, the drinking culture, the clothes we wear, or the media we consume is very different. We are different people with different world views and different perceptions of normal. Some things are horribly offensive in the US but are a-ok here (like buying a magazine with nude women in it for 30p at the train station). Or vice versa; in America pepto bismol is no big deal but it’s illegal here. The tiniest differences might start to drive you nuts like how there is no £1 note so you have to carry around a bunch of coins. Like it or not, it’s different and as much as we like to bury our heads in the sand, the world is not Americanized. There are different ways of thinking that are equally legitimate.
10. London is incredible.
Henry James said it best:
We can talk forever about the negative things, but London is completely unique and worth every minute and pound spent getting here and being here and taking it all in. Now that I rode out all shock waves, I could go on forever about the good things too, but I will give those a post of their own.