The London American is back in the U.S. this week, enjoying the heartiness of the Midwest and the sun in California. I’ve been noticing differences I’ve never before thought significant, and thought I’d share these with you – both as a guide for Americans returning home and for those traveling to London for the first time. I always suspected that culture shock is what happens to other people, those less traveled than I; but I have found myself surprised at these little things that trip me up!
First, water! London’s tap water is mineral-rich and odd-tasting. It’s nothing a filter can’t fix (and perfectly normal if you’re from Florida), but it is lovely to drink straight out of the tap. Although some may argue otherwise, I think Chicago’s water tastes quite nice. Here in Minneapolis, it’s a bit sweet. In restaurants, water is delivered to the table immediately and refilled frequently. Water isn’t instead of another drink, it’s in addition to. I was actually quite shocked when I received a glass of water without asking. It is actually illegal in England for a restaurant to charge you for a glass of tap water (and if they do, you can tell the authorities), but that doesn’t mean it’s automatic. And you often have to ask for refills there; many American waiters seem to have a sixth sense for when water glasses are getting empty.
In this vein, the portions here are huge! I never really noticed that British portions are much smaller than American ones. It’s not that the food is so much fattier (deep-dish pizza aside), but that a serving contains less food. I ordered a vegetable dish at Ping’s Szechuan in Minneapolis tonight, and after eating at least two platefuls, I still had enough for leftovers (I presume $8 is average for a single-person dish). I have rarely needed to bring anything home from a London restaurant except when a friend and I share multiple dishes. Once I ordered a pizza at Ciao Bella and needed a box; unsurprisingly, the box was too big for my fridge. It was unsaid that the pizza was really meant for two to share with a side salad, and not for one hungry American to eat alone. I ate in a gastropub once that didn’t even have takeout containers, so they scrounged around until they found a Tupperware that contained the original ingredients. I was once told by a posh Brit that taking leftovers is “vulgar,” but maybe few people do it because it’s so unnecessary for the portion sizes. Bringing leftovers home seems to be a very American thing to do, which is surprising: the food in London is so delicious I want more of it later!
Tipping is another thing I constantly forget. First, tax in Britain is added-in. This means that if you buy something that costs £5, the amount after tax will be … £5 rather than the American $5 à $5.09. This makes ordering – especially in groups – incredibly easy, as you don’t have to do any calculations for the bill! Thus there isn’t the conundrum of tipping before or after tax.
Sometimes, the tip is included. Americans may be used to this as restaurants will often say “gratuity of 18% added for parties of 5/6/8 or more.” In London restaurants, they’ll say “an optional gratuity of 12.5% has been added to your bill.” This is purposefully confusing: nobody wants to tell their waiter, “I’m sorry, I’d like to give you less,” but it also deprives Americans who like to tip up to 20% from supporting British food service workers! Generally, the tip is 10%. This is so easy to work out – if it’s less than 5, it’s usually counter service and no tip; if it’s £10, put an extra pound; if it’s £20, put 2. Easy-peasy. If the service was amazing, put down some more. For the first few days here I kept forgetting that waiters in America earn way less than minimum wage and tips keep them going – my $8.95 dinner tonight cost me $13.83 with tax and tip of 15%. I apologize to any waiters who may have served me early last week.
Finally, I think the most surprising thing is the elevators! It wasn’t hard for me to switch back to “elevator” after saying “lift” for so long, but I just can’t believe the speed and efficiency at which they operate. I’m on the 22nd floor of my hotel, and it takes the elevator (one of four!) less than 30 seconds to reach it. It is also approximately eight times the size of the lift in my building. If you’ve seen the movie “The King’s Speech,” it looks sort of like the elevator in Logue’s building – but smaller. I have to open and close three doors to operate it, I can’t turn around inside, and it takes at least a minute to reach the 5th (well, really 6th) floor. (I like to think of it as endearingly slow, like an elderly relative.) I had come to expect all elevators to take this long, and was so excited when not only did my elevator go so quickly, but that I could practically run laps inside it!
I hope some of this new knowledge will help some of you experiencing culture shock on either side of the Atlantic!