London Week 2 – Figuring Out Pounds and Learning the Culture

I’m not gonna go into CTLS and my classwork because I’m doing a study abroad… strong emphasis on the “abroad” and strong irrelevance to the “study.” I mean, I’m only taking 10 credits.

So, I’m just gonna get to it with a stream of consciousness:

I don’t know about other American women, but I came to London with the hope – dream, if you will- of finding my Idris. You know, the perfect specimen of a man with a British accent. The golden eyes of his Thor-character wouldn’t hurt, either. My first interactions with British men, however, did not go so well. Here is a quick breakdown of the average first 30 seconds:

Him: Do you blah, blah, blah?

Me: What?

Him: (chuckles) Do you blah blah blah?

Me: What?

Him: (slight frown, no chuckle) Blah blah blah blah?

Me: (chuckle) Oh! (awkward pause) Um, what?

Him: (slightly annoyed, slower) Do you want blah blah blah?

Me: (smile) K byeee.

I kid you not, I cannot understand them at all. Who knew. We speak literally the same language, but something about the lilt of the accent and the way the words form together make the British accent completely incomprehensible to me. Perhaps the British men on TV are just enunciating extremely well, or perhaps the jet lag is making me orally dyslexic, if that’s even a thing.

Moving on, I’ve made a concrete decision to never eat at the same place twice, no matter how delicious or easy to get to they are. There’s just so many new and different things to try!! Oh, since my parents are reading this- no, I’m not eating out for every single meal, relax. I cook for myself 2 out of 3 meals and pick a new restaurant for either Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner depending on what time my classes are.

My first restaurant was a place down the street from my apartment, called the Peasant. The portions were huge for only being around 12 pounds, so I, being the good little money saver that I am, asked for a to-go box for “take away” as they call it. I was very proud of myself for asking our waiter for “take away” instead of “to go,” a phrase I had learned while watching About Time (great movie, by the way, if you haven’t seen it – about a man who learns that he, like all of the men in his family, can travel back in time, and uses it to get a girlfriend. But, of course). But, the waiter shook his head at me: “We don’t do that.”

I sighed internally. F*ck me. There goes that odd language/accent barrier again. I repeated my query, much slower. The waiter laughed at me: “We. don’t. do. take. away. here.” Whaaaaaaaaaa? That’s a thing in the UK? What an interestingly annoying development.

I think he saw my bottom lip quiver when I looked down at my half-finished meal, because, although take away was not technically a thing, he kindly agreed to wrap my leftovers in aluminum foil, arranging the foil so that my pouch of food formed an adorable little handbag with an aluminum foil handle. I mean, it leaked, but it’s the thought that counts.

When the time came to pay, my friend and I elected to split the bill using cash. I had been using my AAdvantage credit card up till now, and, in all honesty, I was stumped by British money. First of all, the paper money looks and feels like Monopoly money that one of the players took a lighter to after losing Park Place to Grandma and, instead of throwing it out, replaced the burnt off portion with clear plastic.

Second of all… have you seen British coins? Do you see why this sh*t is confusing?

The waiter stood beside us, more patient than an American waiter would have been, but still slightly impatient because, let’s face it, he is human and I was digging into my wallet producing coin after coin, holding each up to the light to figure out what they were worth, and musing aloud how clever the United States wasn’t for copying “cents” from “pence” when it seceded from England. Side note – while writing this, I am overcome with a renewed patience for when I go out to eat with my Grammy and she agonizes over figuring out the tip.

My other quirky restaurant story was at a place called Plum Valley in Chinatown, where my friend and I also elected to pay with cash. (110% get the Dim Sum if you ever go there) The bill between the two of us was about 55.40 pounds or something, service included, so we put down three 20 pound bills. The waiter took our payment and vanished. We sat there, waiting in vain for our change for a little over a quarter of an hour, before the waiter reappeared to wipe down a table near us. We froze in shock.

“Is he… not bringing us change?” My friend whispered.

“Maybe he thought it was the tip?” I whispered back, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end, as they typically do whenever I am uncomfortable.

“But… the tip was included…” She said, hunching her shoulders. We were casting furtive looks at our waiter, desperately trying to figure out if we were missing some sort of cultural faux pas. I knew we were being ridiculous, scrunching ourselves up in our corner booth, trying to appear small and whispering about our waiter. I was older than her; I should take charge.

So, I nudged her under the table, “You ask.” She thought about it, glancing at our waiter, who was now humming as he started on the next table to wipe down.

“No,” she decided firmly, “I think we should just consider that money a loss.”

At that point, we had been sitting there for almost a half hour, our drinks finished, food boxed up (side note- to get our food for take away cost an additional 1.75 pounds!). Our waiter looked up, noticed this, and then approached us, eyebrow quirked:

“I’m sorry… are you waiting for change?”

Gawd, yes. I still haven’t figured out how that dynamic works – the whole “service tip is included, but, like, do you want change?” – but I figure it has something to do with the ridiculous number of specific types of pence available. Perhaps there is zero excuse for not using exact change?

Quick aside re: money – my mother is so adorable whenever I go on trips because she tucks $5 bills around my luggage for me to uncover while unpacking. When I arrived in the UK, one such $5 bill was discovered, and I awww‘d. When relating this to my friend, she laughed and said “Your mom might as well have tossed a handful of nickels in your suitcase for how much that’s worth here.” Ha-ha. Damn conversion.

In every restaurant I’ve been to thus far, I have gotten a different type of tea. Tea, to me, is a stereotypically European thing so it had to be gotten, plus I don’t drink coffee and I find unheated tap water suspect. Interesting things to note:

  1. Fresh mint tea is literally hot water with a huge mint sprig dunked into it. It’s glorious, both in taste and for pictures.
  2. Traditional Greek tea, in my opinion, has a wonderful smell that does nothing to offset the not-so-wonderful taste. Will not be getting again.
  3. Jasmine tea at an Asian restaurant, versus Jasmine tea at a different ethnicity restaurant, has a delicious quality like soft butter with the fresh jasmine taste and scent. I will note that when I used this description to my friend and had her taste my tea, she rolled her eyes, put the cup down and said “Stop.” Whatever. I love it.
  4. English Breakfast tea is life, if it’s actually English Breakfast. I’ve had it at four different places, and one of them definitely gave me Earl Grey. Thus, if you get English Breakfast tea and don’t think it’s life, then it’s probably Earl Grey. Just saying.
  5. This is not specific to tea, but to the random cafes around London that you might want to stop in, grab a drink and/or croissant (get the croissants heated, if you are in the mood for one, cause OMG), and then people-watch for a bit. Prices for food and drink vary based on whether you are eating in or taking away. For restaurants where you’re expected to eat in, there is almost always a fee to take away, which I assume is because take away (for the places that actually offer it) features legitimate tupperware containers that can be reused over and over again, not the crappy styrofoam containers we use in the U.S. For restaurants where you’re expected to take away, there is almost always a fee to eat in, which I assume is because the staff has to clean the tables after you eat at them. For example, my tea for take away would typically be 1.95 pounds, but if I want to eat in, it becomes around 2.45 pounds.

Travel Tips & Recommendations from Week 2:

  1. Echo Dot: Remember all the stuff I said last time about Amazon prime not transferring between countries? My friend uses an Echo Dot – with Alexa, obvi- and apparently, when she tells Alexa to play or do anything that it did in the U.S., even if it is technically not available in the UK, Alexa still does it! While this obviously does not apply to movies, some people use Prime Music more than Prime Video, so definitely useful. I should also note that for people who have a codependent relationship with their pets like I have and are unable to travel with their pets, Echo Dot allows you to “drop in” on your pets so they can hear your voice and you can listen to them bark/meow/whatever. There are, of course, pet-specific programs for such use, but not one that allows you to also order items on Amazon, play music, etc.
  2. Cheap Hamilton Tickets: This tip actually applies to quite a few musical/theater shows in that you can enter into lotteries to be able to purchase tickets for 10 pounds each! The lotteries run the day before each show and apply to matinees and evening shows. Just enter and enter and enter… and enter. All you need is to win once! I already am going to Motown and am now attempting to get to Hamilton, Wicked, Mamma Mia, and (of course) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Note that entry into these lotteries are typically through free, downloadable apps.
  3. The Lumiere Festival: If you’re around London for this festival, you should definitely go, but be forewarned that it is not a typical festival. At least, I was confused when I went. It’s an art light show, but it’s so spread out across London that you really need to research ahead of time which shows you want to see. My friend wanted to see the butterflies, which were super pretty, but they were so far away from other cool sights that we couldn’t even get to them in time. Yet another reason to set an actual itinerary, no matter how overly Type A that feels. I expect I’ll try to go back next year and actually get to all the cool sights.
  4. Tate Museum: Okay, I’m not a huge museum person, so take this with a grain of salt. Go, cause it’s free, but, like, don’t stay long. There were a couple of cool things going on, like the shadow swing sets in the middle of the building and this big swinging mirror ball that would likely crush everyone beneath it if it were to fall, but a lot of the other exhibits looked like someone had stacked together the recycling from their house and the museum curators had gone “Whoa, this is so random it must be deep.” My friend says art is subjective, so all that really matters is how it makes you feel, but I dunno. Looking at piles of glued-together garbage kinda makes me feel like I should go take a shower. But, hey, maybe that’s art.
  5. Holland & Barrett: My mother and, by extension, myself are very into homeopathic and naturopathic medicine. I mentioned in my previous post there is a noticeable difference in obesity in the UK versus the U.S., likely in part to the lack of GMOs in all EU food and the large amount of walking and biking, but also likely in part to the prevalence of Holland & Barrett. They’re on almost every corner/street in Central London, and have naturopathic options for pain relief, detoxing, dieting, raising your energy, and more. I, for one, bought a pack of Valerian root tablets to help overcome my jet lag. I had been here for over a week and couldn’t manage to get to sleep before 4am because of the time change. Thanks to Valerian root, snooze snooze within 30 minutes of getting into bed. Yay me and bye to the bruise-colored circles under my eyes.

Until next time!!

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