Britain is a strange place. Especially when you’ve been out of the country for five years.
1. There are ice cream vans.
When you think about it, ice cream vans are pretty strange. For those in the dark, ice cream vans are trucks that drive round the neighbourhood selling Mr. Whippy to young kids, and they play a song from loudspeakers as they go.
It’s always a really rubbish song like “Greensleeves” or “The Entertainer,” and it usually sounds like it’s been recorded at the bottom of a well by narcoleptic rabbits.
The ice cream van round my way came by on Tuesdays and Thursdays, much to the excitement of Sandy the Labrador who lived two doors down. No matter how fast I ran, I never managed to beat Sandy to the queue. After bouncing up and down excitedly for a while, he would stand patiently in the queue with his bowl between his teeth, waiting for his two free scoops of vanilla. I loved that dog.
2. There are no bins in London.
In Central London a few years ago, a South American friend was looking for a bin. “They took them all out,” I said. “They were worried the IRA would blow them up.” He thought I was winding him up, but no, it’s true. Since the IRA ceasefire, we’ve made new enemies and we’re still bin-less.
3. This coffee is HOT!
Britain is obsessed with health and safety. It’s impossible to have fun in this country now without some jobsworth filling out a risk assessment and deeming it dangerous. Hot water is labelled “HOTTTT!,” wet floors are “WETTTT!,” and concerts are “LOUDDDDDDDDD!” How we ever managed to hold our forks or leave our houses of a morning before all this nonsense is anyone’s guess.
4. Sunshine makes the front pages.
“OMG! SCORCHIO!” The sight of a thermometer hitting 30 degrees in this country is enough to have journalists and photographers scurrying to the beach to snap happy-looking Brits getting their kit off. Good weather is so shocking in this country, it’s news. Go figure.
5. Don’t walk. Oh, okay.
One of the things I loved about Chile was its people’s utter disregard for the law. Underneath a large sign saying “STRICTLY NO CAMPING OR PARKING” would be 32 cars, a bus, and about 50 people having a barbeque. “One-way street” signs were thought to be advisory rather than obligatory, and CVs were rampant flights of fancy.
Here in Britain, we take the law seriously. We’re a nation of Rainmen stuck on the pedestrian crossing with the sign flashing “Don’t Walk.” They banned smoking so we stopped. They put cameras everywhere so we drove nicely. They made so many laws that we have to go on ‘blow-out’ holidays to Spain, Greece, or the Czech Republic where we throw up, black out, and offend the locals.
They’ve legislated so much, we’ve forgotten who we are.
6. Must-have moisturiser on sale now!
In other countries, people have hobbies. Of a weekend they go skiing, play bowls, visit the country, or have long lunches with family or friends. In England, we go shopping. When we’re not actually in shops, we read magazines that tell us what we should be buying if we want to keep our friends and find a mate. We fill out credit card application forms and show other people what we’ve done with the rent money.
7. How much?
I know tourists have been saying it for years, but sweet Jesus England is expensive. After earning Chilean pesos, the prices here actually make my eyes water. Last week, two newspapers and four stamps cost me £8. I started taking the shirt off my back assuming they wanted that too. In London pubs, I implode into a ball of Northern rage and have to be dragged out screeching “How much?!” at the bar staff.
8. Which Northern Line exactly?
Whoever came up with the Tube map in London must have taken a lot of drugs. Poor tourists have it the hardest. On the Tube they have to remember to stand on the left in the corridors but right on the escalators, struggle with anarchically pronounced place names like Leicester Square, and then have to figure out the map.
Here, it’s not enough to know that you need to go south on the Northern Line, you also need to know which branch. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve confidently hopped on a train only to find myself shamefully having to sneak a peak at the map and ending up in Essex.
9. No alcohol = no fun.
It’s a fact, but we British are completely incapable of having a good time without alcohol. We get all geeky and awkward without a pint in front of us. Once started, we also have absolutely no idea how to stop.
10. We worry about stupid stuff.
Do my pores look big in this? Does decaf skinny cappuccino give you cancer? Will that reality TV star’s ex-boyfriend’s next-door neighbour win Celebrity Big Brother? Is that iPhone app any good? Who cares? We do apparently.
For want of anything better to worry about (we live in a relatively rich democracy devoid of big weather or regular natural catastrophes after all), we find other insignificant things to fret about. I have absolutely no idea why.
And 5 things I’ve missed
- Everyone’s a comedian.
- Living in a cultural melting pot of different nationalities, races, and religions is cool.
- People aren’t afraid to look different. Fashion is anarchic here.
- New music is treasured (even if the BBC has got some balls trying to get rid of alternative radio station 6 Music, the backlash against them makes me proud to be British).
- Old ladies struggle onto buses and 10 people offer them their seats.
* This post was originally published on the author’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.