There are a lot of tiny but profound things I’d forgotten about British culture in my absence. There are the obvious and oft-repeated vocabulary differences, and there are plenty of (mainly humorous) idiosyncratic dictionaries devoted to parsing them all out. Then there are some more subtle things: when I first arrived in England I’d taken a long time at the Post Office counter one day, so instead of a simple “thank you,” I decided to depart with a “thank you, ma’am,” whereupon I was informed that only the Queen is called ma’am. Oops.
Even more pronounced than linguistic differences are those in body language. Having a conversation, especially a sort of routine transaction-type conversation, involves a lot less eye contact here than it does at home. I’m pretty sure that my first few weeks in England all the counter people thought I was flirting with them.
I also had to remind myself not to hug people too hard: in America, if you’re seeing a friend or loved one for the first time after a long absence, it’s your job to try and squeeze the life out of the other person before they squeeze it out of you first. Americans are also a particularly huggy people: while I tend to restrain my hugging to the second time I meet someone, it’s not really that unusual to skip the handshake and go straight for the bear hug, especially if you’re being introduced by a mutual friend.
When I got back to London this time I went straight to meet my best friend, a lovely young woman who I’ve known since I was six and we shared a locker in the first grade. (Now she’s doing a PhD in plant genetics.) Obviously, since we’re both American, this involved a lot of hugging, dancing about, and general merriment. I went to hug a few British friends not long after that and had to exercise quite a lot more caution: they were each more of a one-armed affair, even though I hadn’t seen any of these people in almost a year.
I discovered as well that I had let my skills lapse in the fine British art of pretending to be polite while actually barely concealing a seething bath of acidic rage. When I’m outside of Britain I’m quite good at this because it’s barely done anywhere else so nobody knows to expect it, but I got back and realised I am still but a lowly neophyte. I console myself with the fact that I’m bound to get quite a lot of practice in the coming months.
And then there’s the drinking. One of the most interesting contrasts between America and Britain is that at home most retail establishments are open until 9 or 10 PM, and quite a few are available 24 hours a day (Wal-Mart!) Shopping is a pastime unto itself. Here, shops close at 5 or 5:30 on the dot and there are only two things left open: the movie theater (which has assigned seating, by the way), and the many, many pubs. There is literally no place to hang out after dark that doesn’t serve alcohol. That’s just life. I’m not saying that I dislike going to the pub all the time, but it might be nice to have the option of going somewhere else once in a while.
But as long as we’re on the theme of alcohol, let’s talk about Pimm’s. Pimm’s is an alcoholic drink mix with a secret recipe, but we’re pretty sure there’s some gin in it. Generally you mix the syrup with lemonade (not REAL lemonade, but a soft drink like Sprite) and then add some cut-up fresh fruit and serve. Very refreshing summertime drink. Also a very dangerous summertime drink. It just tastes like a nice crisp, sweet pick-me-up, so it’s far too easy to have several and then suddenly wonder why all the trees are tilting at that funny angle.
As a contrast, I once saw a British person recoil at the thought of a root beer float, until we explained that it isn’t actually beer.