I write a lot about my life as an expat.
If you read my posts regularly, you might assume that I'm some super-closeted American type who'd never traveled before moving to what I'd say is the most American of international destinations: London.
But it's not like that at all. It's just that even after coming to London on and of for three f-ing years before moving here, I was stunned at how many everyday life details felt totally, completely foreign to me.
The funny thing is, when I first arrived there were a lot of things in the UK (and I'm sure other countries – I'm looking at you, Commonwealth) that really annoyed me. The ones that irked me the most were really practical rules and regulations that help to make a society fair, not to mention the fact that they just downright make sense.
But to a foreigner like me they were annoying as all hell.
In spite of the fact that these differences make are completely, I found them crazy dumb and automatically decided that my way was better.
To give you a taste of what I'm talking, I've put together a list of a few London commonalities that, despite being practical, annoyed my stubborn-born soul to the core. Oh, what I've learned.
Here are my favorites:
Head to a pub. You're obviously going to do this since you're in London.
Order either a glass of wine or a liquor drink.
Watch while the barkeeper measures the alcohol before pouring it in a glass, and marvel at the fact that they legally have to do this. Don't believe me? There will be a plaque on the wall outlining the 1963 law that put these measures into place.
This assures that you'll always get the same amount of booze no matter the establishment you choose to drink in. Yes it's fair, yes you never have to worry about getting stiffed by a crabby bartender, and yes I complained about the fact that I would have no chance of getting a decent liquor pour from a nice bartender. But you know what? Fair means fair, buddy, and I think this is a really smart way to do things.
ASSIGNED CINEMA SEATS
In the UK, choosing your movie theater seat when you purchase your ticket is de rigour – at nearly every cinema, nearly every time. And it's amazing – you never have to worry again about arriving at a theater far, far before the show for fear of not getting a good seat. Still, after years of fighting my way for a seat at the Regal Union Square in New York, this seemed extra safe and really surprised me when I first arrived. Why? We'll never know.
ONE DOCTOR APPOINTMENT = ONE AILMENT
At the NHS doctor's offices ("surgeries") I've visited, you're only allowed to speak to the doctor about one ailment during your appointment. Two ailments = two separate doctor appointments.
This is fair because it assures that you're not taking up the next patient's appointment time. It also means that I end up going to the doctor a lot or instead often practice my preferred method of sneaking in extra questions by talking really quickly and hoping the GP won't notice. Again, fair, practical and likely the best way to manage a system like the NHS (which I happen to really like), but I still whine.
While it forever annoyed me that the London underground would stop running at midnight (this is changing next year – just in time for us to leave), it somehow annoyed me that the Tube was generally speaking very efficient as compared to the New York subway system.
Because I'd spent my early 20s acting tough and waiting out Brooklyn subways that would sometimes take just shy of an hour to arrive, it felt again too easy that all of the London Tube had accurate, up-to-the-minute information about when the next train was arriving, where it was terminating, as well as updates about any changed plans in service. Why this annoyed me, I'll never know.
This doesn't even touch on topics of actual importance like social services, but when you move to another country you learn that it's the little differences that affect you in the biggest ways.
I used these small, everyday differences as a medium for greater frustrations, fears, and anxieties. They'll take over your life and ruin your international experience if you let them, so I no longer do.
I'm sure the second I land back in the States I'll start complaining about all of the things that felt so organized and efficient in the UK that just don't exist in the U.S.
In this case, as in most, the grass really is always greener. Soon London's practicalities won't exist in my world, so before I leave I'm doing what I can to enjoy my precisely measured glasses of wine, my on-time trains, and perfectly fair doctor's appointments.