An American in London? 5 great things to know!

USA and UK flags in bedroom
An American in London either visiting or moving can rightly expect most things to be fairly similar as they are in The United States of America especially speaking the same language – or so you might think!

Variations in the spelling of and the meaning of words, however, might take any American by surprise. Furthermore there are other differences Americans in London need to be aware of such as transport, accommodation, food & shopping and the weather!

Transportation for the American in London

busy London traffic
There are lots of ways to get around for an American in London – tubes, trains and buses as well as the world famous black cabs and, of course, nowadays Uber, which is well known in the US too.

It will pay to look up the options and familiarise yourself with the general layout of the city before you arrive if possible.

The TfL (Transport for London) website is the best place to start and also sets out the ways of paying which can be confusing especially as London buses no longer accept cash!

There is also a London travel etiquette which is good to know. For example on the escalators you find in many underground stations people are expected to stand on the right unless they are ‘walking down’, which happens on the left! If you don’t follow this you may be on the receiving end of some irritated looks or comments!

You’ll also hear ‘Mind the Gap’ at some stations where there can indeed be a gap between the platform and the tube you are about to step on or off.

A recent change is the introduction of 24 hour tube service on some lines at the weekends, although some still run only up until around midnight and it’s yet to be extended to the weekdays.

Other top tips include always looking to the right first when crossing the street as the British drive on the left hand side of the road rather than the right as in the US; understanding how ‘roundabouts’ work if you’re planning to drive – not something you see in most parts of the US but a very common way to manage traffic at major junctions in the UK; and there is no turning right or left at red lights if it is all clear as you have to wait for a green light.

For the shopaholic American in London

man preparing food in London cafe
The food in London, whether eating out or shopping to eat in, is now highly regarded worldwide – a far cry from the days when British cuisine had a poor reputation. The array of gastro pubs, restaurants, take-aways and food shops will ensure you can enjoy great eating experiences whatever your taste or budget! Of course, there are US imports such as MacDonalds, Subway and Whole Foods, plus lots of American style foods on sale in the grocery stores, so if you want to stick with your familiar cuisine you can easily do so.

Pubs (or public houses to give them their full name) used to be a way of life in the UK and they were often the heart of a community. Whilst they have been in decline in recent years, they are still numerous, especially in London, and there are many traditional pubs that will give you a real taste of British beverages such as beer and food such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Pudding is a word you’ll often hear used for what Americans are more likely to refer to as dessert, but in this case the Yorkshire pudding is savoury rather than sweet. Just another of those British quirks!

When it comes to drinking, the choice is equally as vast. As well as pubs, the number of bars is increasing and some specialise in certain types of alcohol. Craft gins are especially popular right now and look around for places serving craft beers too – a top tip is the closer to a brewery the better the beer!

Britain is also known as a tea-drinking nation, although coffee seems to have overtaken tea and if you have a craving for Starbucks you will not be disappointed as it feels like there is one on every corner.

Every neighbourhood has supermarkets or convenience stores selling a wide range of food – but be sure to carry your own bags to pack your shopping as most shops are legally required to charge customers 5p per bag.

On the subject of money, the UK currency is pound sterling and the symbol you’ll see is £. Each £ is worth 100 pence (commonly shortened to ‘p’), very similar to dollars and cents. A new £1 coin has recently been introduced and is gradually replacing the existing coin which will be phased out by October 2017. There is also a new supposedly indestructible and less forgeable plastic £5 note and over the next few years £10 and £20 notes will also be changed from paper to plastic versions – there is currently a £50 paper note but there’s speculation that is being phased out. Pence come as coins and currently range from 1 to 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 pence; and as well as the £1 there is also a £2 coin.

For the American in London it is important to know that prices in stores and shops already include a tax: Value Added Tax. VAT is mostly levied at 20% but not all goods/services are that rate and most food is excluded. If you eat in a place that also does takeaway you’ll find if you ‘eat-in’ you pay VAT, but if you take it away to eat, no tax added. It can be very confusing! Otherwise you will nearly always pay the marked price and you’ll find some things are cheaper and others more expensive than in the US!

An American in London accommodation options

houses in Notting Hill in London
Finding a place to live in London has its challenges however a few tips may help ease your search. Although ‘apartment’ is becoming a more commonly used word, most Brits will use the word ‘flat’ and you are likely to hear the term ‘blocks of flats’ rather than ‘apartment building’. If you want to live with a roommate or two, you will be looking for a ‘flat-share’; and don’t be misled into thinking that a flat on the first floor will be at street level – in the UK it is called the ‘ground floor’ and the 1st floor is one storey up!

Rented accommodation may be referred to as letting a flat or house and you will be asked for a deposit (anything from one month’s rent to 6 or even 8 weeks) and bills are usually extra including Council Tax, somewhat like property taxes in the US, which are paid to the local authority for the area. These vary and can mean nearby properties in a different area may be paying a lot more or a lot less depending on the local rates. However, here at Vincent House, council tax and other bills for utilities are included and can make life much easier for the American in London especially if you are just moving to London and getting settled (a rookie!).

Weather

weather
As an American in London you need to understand that ‘the weather’ is a major talking point for all Londoners and especially as it is very seasonal. Snow is a rarity in London but there are times when rain seems to be a persistent feature – although that means the gardens and parks here are all the more spectacular. And there are occasional warm, sunny and very dry periods – in fact at the time of writing this, the capital has seen little rain for the past two months.

The British are a hardy bunch but the weather can sometimes cause havoc with London daily life. News programmes always end with the forecast; however, they can get it wrong as happened in 1987 when the weather report played down the prospect of a ‘hurricane’. Now referred to as ‘The Great Storm of 1987’ it caused major damage and took the country by surprise. Thankfully, such severe weather is rare, but it’s advisable to keep an umbrella handy – or a ‘brolly’ as Brits often call it. Scarves are another useful accessory in the winter when layered clothing is also a good choice with the variable temperatures.

And Finally The Language!

American in London walking in the rain
Okay, so as already hinted, although the UK and the US have the same language, you’ll discover there are plenty of differences as you may already have noted reading the above sections. Here are just a few to note:

  • ask for the loo rather than the restroom – no sofas are required. Other alternatives for restroom are toilets or the ladies (or of course the gents!);
  • you will want a jumper not a sweater and if you want pants make sure you ask for trousers or you may end up with some new underwear as in the UK pants are another word for knickers!
  • ask for chips rather than fries when eating out and when paying in a restaurant ask for the bill rather than the check;
  • spelling differences include a ‘u’ in words like colour and odour, jewellery rather than jewelry and centre rather than center; and in the UK they use ‘s’ rather than ‘z’ in many words such as apologise rather than apologize, specialise rather than specialize and countless other examples which you will no doubt come across.

You will find these and many more examples at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/usage/british-and-american-terms

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