First Impressions

First Impressions

The cat’s long been out of the bag now; my husband and I have come to England for a year. He’s got a job teaching at a school in Frimley and I’ve tagged along in hopes of finding some work for myself. Moving across an ocean isn’t easy, at times it isn’t even fun, but having a chance to discover England has been amazing even during the darkest moments.

I wrote recently about my first few months in Canada, a similar experience and no less daunting at the time. We haven’t had time to discover all the ins and outs of England yet, and I’m sure there are a lot more interesting differences we’ll note in the future. But in the sleep-clouded haze of those first few days, we each made some observations, strange though some of them may have been.

Bathroom Oddities
I’m sure it’s strange, but the first thing I noticed about England is that toilets are shaped differently here. At first I thought it was just one strange bathroom in the airport, but it turns out toilet basins really are deeper here. Call me crazy (you’re probably right) but when you’re a housewife who’s spent the last two years perfecting the art of bathroom cleaning, you take notice of the hardware’s shape. Not only are toilets bowls in North America shallower, they seem to fill with more water than the typical toilet here in the UK. The toilets here also flush strangely… I haven’t quite figured out how it works yet.

The strange features of the bathroom don’t end there. It seems common for there to be two taps in the bathroom sink – one which provides hot water and the other which provides cold – rather than one tap which provides both. And I’m not talking about separate handles for hot and cold water, I’m talking separate spouts and all. The only way to get warm water seems to be to move your hands back and forth between the two. During our search for apartments, I noticed “modern bathroom” tended to appear as a selling point. Seems that includes an upgrade to a sink with one tap rather than two. We’ve speculated on why the two taps are so common, but neither of us know enough about the history of plumbing to figure it out.

Left at the Roundabout
One of the most easily observable differences between Canada and England are the roads. For one thing, the roads in England are quite narrow. Narrow enough I cringe at the idea of driving some of the two lane roads over here. One of the people we spoke to noted that many of England’s roads were never built for cars (which makes sense). There seems to be a tendency to split lanes of traffic so there’s one road which allows traffic to move in one direction and the lane moving in the opposite direction is separated from it in one way or another. But there are still plenty of roads where traffic moves in both directions and I sometimes wonder how two sets of cars fit, especially if people are parked on the road side.

It’s difficult to describe this observation in words. Having lived in Toronto for eight years, I have a certain sense of city roads. The word I would use for them is ‘vast.’ When you stand at the intersection of Bathhurst and Steeles, for example, or Bloor and Younge, there are four lanes of road between you and the other sidewalk. And these four lanes are designed so that a car can fit comfortably in the middle of each lane with room on either side. And since you get about thirty seconds to cross a road in Toronto, you often feel the need to walk quickly to reach the other side before cars start moving again. Those roads seem like yawning chasms when compared to the roads here in England.

The roads here are closer to what I would describe as an ally, though most of the main roads are slightly wider than that. And into these wide alleys they somehow fit two lanes of traffic. Buses and trucks look crammed into these road ways. I wouldn’t want to be in the opposite lane of traffic, because it doesn’t look to my eye as though they actually fit on their side.

Roundabouts are common here. In our first few days it was common to receive directions such as “take a left at the roundabout” or “go to the second roundabout and take a right.” I failed to find the library in Wokingham on my first attempt because I failed to realize I needed to pass the second roundabout on my route and continue on to a third before making my second turn. I think I’ve traveled more roundabouts in the two weeks since our arrival than I’ve been in my entire life. The roundabouts here come in all sizes, some very small and connecting only three roads, while others are quite large.

My husband explained during one of our walks through town the other day that villages in England were originally designed around crossings. These crossings were not intersections as we think of them (at least in North America). They weren’t laid out in a grid formation. Rather, a crossing would be the joining of many roads in one location. The natural evolution for accommodating those meetings, then, is the roundabout.

And despite the narrow nature of roads here, we’ve both observed very little standing traffic. Our theory is that the limitations of upgrading roads designed for horses and carts forced city planners here to manage traffic on a higher level. It seems to work well, though neither of us will be driving over here so it could just be we aren’t observing high-traffic areas.

Open to Air
When I was a kid, my mother used to yell at me about leaving the door open because bugs would get in the house. It was okay to open the door if the screen door was closed, because the screen kept bugs out. And indeed, every window in every house I’ve ever lived in that opened to the outside had a screen set between the house and the window to keep the bugs out.

I don’t think I’ve seen a screen since we arrived in England. I noted on our first night, when we stayed in the university residence, that the window opened to air. I thought it might have just been the dorm (especially since it just opened onto a narrow opening between two buildings), but while we walked through Portsmouth with friends I noted that not a single open window had a screen. One of the apartments we looked at included a Juliet balcony but, again, no screen.

Truth be told, surprisingly few bugs come in through open windows here. We’ve had one moth and two mosquitoes in the week we’ve been staying at this inn. Not bad at all.

On Every Corner
During my husband’s induction to his new job, he was told it’s rare to leave a tip in England. You only tip, apparently, in restaurants. You don’t tip the hair dresser. You don’t even tip in pubs.

In Canada, pubs are pretty common. We had several favorites in Toronto including Fionn MacCool’s and The Tickled Toad. But in Canada a pub isn’t all that different from a restaurant except that you seat yourself. Then a server comes by and takes your order and so on and you leave a tip at the end.

Here in England, where there are pubs more often than every street corner, things work a bit differently. You go in and seat yourself, look at the menu, then go to the bar and order. You pay right away. They give you your drinks and then they bring the food to your table based on the table number, which you note when you sit down and give at the time you order. When you’re ready to leave you just get up and go, since the bill’s already taken care of. We have yet to eat in an actual restaurant since our arrival. We’re not complaining; pubs have fantastic food!

Hung on the Line
Even before our arrival, we noticed electric dryers are uncommon in the UK. Most apartments come with ‘white goods’ which includes a washer, but never did we find one with a dryer. Instead it’s common practice to hang laundry on either a line outside, or to purchase a rack on which clothing can dry indoors. Some places also have heated towel racks which I suppose can also be used for drying.

And honestly this tendency toward minimizing environmental impact is noticeable elsewhere as well. Fridges and freezers, for example, tend to be smaller. And it seems most people go to the store more often and come home with less rather than stocking up for two weeks or a month at a time. It’s an interesting glimpse at the difference in mindset between people who live in North America and people who live here.

6 Replies to “First Impressions”

  1. re:bathrooms :) ‘DownEast’ the older bathrooms are the same. It would be an extra ‘valve’ involved to have the cold and hot come out one faucet I assume. Getting ‘warm’ water is always the trick! I don’t know about there, but down east they seemed to have single faucets in kitchens more often, it was just the bathrooms with two.

    1. Interesting! It’s the opposite here; our bathroom has one faucet and our kitchen has two. But I assume it’s because the bathroom has recently been modernized, which is a big selling point over here apparently ^^;;

  2. Thanks for this tantalizing glimpse into your new life. I’ve only been to England once, and just that short trip made me not want to ever drive there on the narrow roads. Thankfully the villages and cities are designed for walking and/or public transportation. I’m looking forward to reading more as you explore!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it :) There are lots more posts coming up, including pictures!

      As for the transportation, we haven’t had any trouble getting around walking and using the train. I do want to take the London underground at some point, but so far on our visits we’ve found we can get where we want to go within about 20 minutes of walking from the nearest train station (saves some extra money!). It’s even easier than when we lived in Toronto!

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