The Big Questions

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5 (short) Tales From My New UK Life

Trollys to Canterbury, Hazardous Walking and Parking Lot Bonnets

I moved from Tampa, Florida (USA) to Chartham, just outside Canterbury (United Kingdom) about 10 weeks ago to start a research position in psychology at The University of Kent. I thought it might be fun, as well as potentially informative, and even maybe safety promoting, to write some of my experiences so far as an American living in the UK. Though both countries like to have men draped in flags and pointing as national symbols, these experiences show a bit of what it is like adjusting to a new culture.

The Airport

I arrived at London Heathrow Airport, got off the plane, and went through customs. I got my bags, which meant I had 3 large wheelie-suitcases and only 2 arms (yes, that is 2 arms, I needed to clarify that I am sure). So I am struggling through the airport going about 5 inches at a time and then having to backtrack to my 3rd bag when a gentlemen asked me if I could use a trolly. I said "Sure, but will that get me to Canterbury?" I was thinking streetcar, which was a stretch in itself because it is about 80 minutes from London to my home by car. But alas, I was wrong, and the man, delightfully humoured after looking very puzzled, got me the trolly. Turns out, a trolly is something to move your bags. 

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So I am hand-lever pumping this thing with all my luggage on it to keep the wheels inflated (yes, that is necessary) and I get to the information center. My dog had arrived on a separate flight from me an hour or so earlier and was taken to the "Animal Reception Centre" at the airport to have her paperwork looked over and such. Well, turns out, the information center at London Heathrow didn't know where this was. I am sure you are as puzzled as I was, but 30 minutes passed before I got directions to find my pet. 

It only got more chaotic from there.

In the end though, all was well, and I arrived in Canterbury after making my taxi driver from Afghanistan nervous and fidgety after bringing up Osama Bin Laden, but I really was only about 80% sure that is where he was killed. And besides, I thought I was going to be killed as it looked like - to my American mind - every car on the freeway was headed right towards us, which brings me to the next topic.

Walking

Americans know that the British drive on the opposite side of the road and that the driver side is on the right of the car instead of the left. But I never appreciated how alarming this would be in terms of walking safely.

My 1st instinct has always been to look left as that is the nearest lane of cars. But in the UK, the first line of danger is from the right, as that is where the cars in the lane you step out onto when crossing the street are coming from. So a few times at least, I nearly died walking, and in one instance, my dog Emily was almost a victim as well as I lead us right into danger!

If you throw in the roundabouts with multiple lanes, then crossing the street is pretty much like mental mayhem. I imagine locals could make a humorous day out of watching Americans try and cross the street. So my point is, when in the UK, be very careful walking. Your brain is programmed to lead you astray, and just when you think you have the new patterns of traffic down, your brain will default back to it's old ways. 

What is less dangerous, but infinitely more interesting, is that British people also walk in the same pattern as they drive. So, I have spent the last ten weeks bumping into people while walking, and just in general causing awkward moments of dodging others because of this. As an example, when going into a staircase to my right, to go up, I want to take the inside lane, like Americans do when walking and driving. But that will lead right into a stream of students and staff heading down the stairs in that lane. The opposite problem occurs on the top of the stairs, and the same things happen on sidewalks and hallways more generally. (if you are out there, all the people I have bumped into and done "dance-dodging " with, I am sorry! I am not a rude crazy person!)

Bonnets and Pubs

I was out with some fellow faculty members - I mean "staff" - and someone told a story of seeing vomit on a bonnet in the parking lot. Not everyday you see a vomity hat just laying around in a parking lot, and who wears a bonnet to a pub anyway (I am thinking Amish and "Little House on the Prairie" style at this point), let alone vomits all over one?  Turns out bonnet means front end of a car though.

Football and Jumpers

I went to play some five a side soccer -I mean football - with some faculty members at this gym on campus. When I arrived, I stripped down (that would be got my gear on, sans nudity), but left my sweater on as I was freeeeeeeeeezing. (that is an "e" for every level of cold I felt). Someone said to me "I would take off jumper." I said something about my leaping ability, not understanding at all what was happening. The man then said "that you are wearing," At this point I thought that this was some gesture to discuss my footwear, so I said something about my soccer shoes (football boots, my bad) and how, yes, I can jump in them just fine. Then I realized he meant sweater, once someone else said that I would be too warm with my jumper on and pointed to their shirt and did a taking off motion. I guess I should be relieved that I didn't think at this point I should play barefoot to avoid the warmth caused by my jumpers.

Exiting the World

I am at "Poundville" this store in Canterbury center (centre!) that sells everything for a pound, like a classic dollar store in the U.S., only it is a pound. I got a bunch of small stuff, got in the queue (line) and headed to the cash register and checked out. While leaving - exiting- the store, I saw a sign that read "do not enter here." This totally nonsensical sign lead me to try to exit the store there, as it didn't mention a thing about exiting. While doing this, a lady comes over and is like "sir, it clearly says you cannot enter here." I was puzzled and pleaded "I am not entering, I am exiting." That useless exchange happened another 2-3 times before I just went out the other way, thoroughly confused, and thinking that British people must use the word enter when referring to entering the outside, as opposed to inside. But alas, some colleagues straightened this out, and it was just a nonsensical sign after all! (in hindsight, I rather like the idea of using the phrase enter when going into the outside, but oh well!).

The Heat and the Faucets

When I arrived here, I was told that the heat in the home I was renting was set to only come on twice during the day, no matter how cold it was. I later was mentioning my shock at this to a colleague, who is British, and his reply was, "can't you just put on another jumper if you`re cold?" I think that sums up a lot of cultural differences right there. 

And the faucets, well, they have separate hot and cold outlets, so to speak. So you either have your hands freezing or flaming, basically, as a central outlet with 1 correct, sane, temperature just doesn't exist. My bath is also like this, so I spent a good deal of time with a flaming hot left side and a chilly right side until I learned to just get in at the end when all the water has been sort of swirled and swished around a bit.

I love it here, for the record (what record, huh?). The people are great, and I could fill many pages more with positive, awesome things.  (for starters, my research participants are WAY less likely to just circle random numbers and not pay any attention to what is going on!) But I thought I would just muse a bit about some of my more interesting, humorous (hopefully!) and useful experiences.

In the future, I plan to write a bit about some other cultural differences between Americans and Brits, so keep an eye out! But for the interested reader, the book "Watching the English" is a very good read. 

Also, this link is quite humorous and gets at this as well. 

Hope you all enjoyed your holidays and have a great new year.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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