I was born in Britain — Liverpool, actually — but left the country in the early 1990s to live in America, where I became a citizen. I’ve lived exactly half my life in the U.K. and half in the U.S. Now, I’m returning to Britain to live, and to set up Business Insider’s London office. (We’re hiring!)
I’ve visited Britain once or twice a year since the move, of course. But it turns out that living in Britain today is a vastly different experience than visiting it — and that has made me a foreigner in my homeland.
As always, the biggest changes are the littlest changes, too. It’s funny how life is composed of myriad small things, and when they change it’s a culture shock. Here are all the things that have changed in Britain in the last 20 years in ways that make me feel more American:
Global warming is allowing palm trees to grow all over London
When I left the U.K. two decades ago, it was rare to see a palm tree in England. You can grow them here, because even in winter the temperature rarely falls below freezing (unlike New York this year, where there was ice on the ground from January through to April). Nonetheless, palms were a thing of the Mediterranean, not Britain.
But London is now warmer and sunnier than it was when I left, and people are growing palm trees in their front yards.
It’s not exactly Miami of course. But only an American climate-change denier could miss the fact that suddenly there are palm trees all over London! Here’s a web site for Brits who want to take advantage of climate change by growing palm trees, banana plants and yuccas.
Everyone in Britain now has the exact same trash can
In America, everyone has the constitutional right to choose their own trash can, and everyone’s trash cans are slightly different because of it. Freedom! Not so in the U.K. Here, the local government will give you a standard set of “wheelie bins,” for free. These rubbish bins have wheels on the bottom and a bar on the top that hooks to a lifting device on the garbage trucks. Workers just wheel the bins to the truck, and an arm on the truck tips the bins into the back, automatically.
The result is that trash collectors never have to actually touch the garbage they’re hauling. It’s amazingly smart: Trash collection is faster, quieter and for the workers slightly more dignified (how many times have you seen an American trash collector stoop to pick up individual items of spilled trash in the street?). It makes U.S. garbage collecting look old-fashioned by comparison.
Of course, this would be regarded as a socialist plot in the U.S. Can you imagine what Fox News would say if the government required Americans to all have the same garbage pails? Worse, the private company that collects the rubbish in North London is French. Some town councils here are imposing even more anti-libertarian rules: Recycling will be collected every week, and landfill trash will be collected only once every two weeks — giving residents an obvious incentive to become much more careful about what they use and dispose of.
There are only two types of milk in British Starbucks
Starbucks invaded Britain just as thoroughly as it has the U.S. In America, as is our God-given right, Starbucks provides four types of milk: Whole milk, skimmed milk, soy milk, and half-and-half (which is half milk and half cream — Americans like it in coffee).
In Britain, I have discovered that many branches of Starbucks only offer skim and semi-skimmed milk.
You can get whole milk, but you have to be “that guy,” and go back to the counter to ask to borrow the stuff that they use to make frozen drinks. That’s the phrase you have to use by the way: “Can I borrow the whole milk please?” Then they give you the plastic can and you have to hand it back immediately.
There is no half-and-half. Here’s a web page describing the various U.S./U.K. milk equivalents.
Everyone in Britain is now Polish
My bank manager is Polish. So is my real estate agent.
The Poles are everywhere in the U.K., doing everything. You’re more likely to encounter a Polish accent in London than you are a genuine cockney accent. When the Iron Curtain fell in the late 1980s, a huge wave of Polish immigrants landed in Britain. First they went into the construction trades, and in the mid-2000s there was a lot of grumbling about an invasion of “Polish plumbers” taking people’s jobs. Today, you’re more likely to find the Poles in finance and services.
Now, high streets all over London have “Polski Sklep” shops selling … I don’t know. It’s in Polish! Interestingly, the Brits have come to love the Poles. Mostly because they will do anything, and they show up on time to do it, I’m told.
British people have stopped using soap
This photo represents a typical body and bath display in Boots, the biggest high-street pharmacy chain.
All these plastic bottles contain body wash. The only bars of bath soap available are sitting on the bottom shelf, ignored by customers. And there are only three brands to choose from: Dove, Simple and Imperial Leather.
The Brits have largely abandoned old-fashioned bars of soap in favour of body wash, it seems.
It’s an odd choice given the country’s obsession with recycling and the environment — body wash obviously requires more energy intensive packaging than hard soap, and I suspect a bottle of body wash disappears more quickly than soap does.
I’m told that “anti-bacterial” products are the growth area in bath products. Soap — which sits in its own gloop between uses — doesn’t fit that bill. (Also, there is something liberating about not having to pick the hairs off the surface of the bar.)
KFC is terrible at defending its intellectual property
This storefront for a knockoff version of KFC says it all: “Original PFC”? (“Halal”!) Hmm. Every main street in the U.K. — and the rest of Europe, frankly — features a fried chicken joint that steals unsubtlely from KFC’s brand. “Dixie Fried Chicken,” “Southern Fried Chicken” and — my favourite — “Hentucky Fried Chicken” are rife over here. The most wrong of all? “Yankee’s Fried Chicken.” McDonald’s and Subway do not suffer from the same problem.
America has far surpassed the U.K. when it comes to beer and cocktails
This is the most shocking thing: When I arrived in the U.S. two decades ago, American bars were a bad joke. They served Budweiser, Coors or Miller, and that was pretty much it. British pubs, of course, served delicious “real” ale.
But there has been a gastronomic revolution in America, and now U.S. pubs compete to offer increasingly vast ranges of craft beers. It’s not uncommon to be handed a beer “menu” in America, and to be faced with an intimidating library of dozens of obscure bottles at the bar. And the speakeasy trend has revived a cocktail culture that encourages adventurous, thoughtful drinking.
Yet most British pubs still seem to sell only about 10 beers at any one time.
As for cocktails, Britain’s drinking culture has been hobbled by the Weights and Measures Act of 1963 which banned bartenders from shorting customers’ spirits. It requires a minimum amount of booze in each drink. The unintended consequence is that pubs now only serve the minimum measure in each mixed drink — 25 ml.
Ask for a gin and tonic — the classic English summer afternoon drink — and you’ll be handed a dribble of gin in a glass of half-melted ice cubes. The tonic will come separately in a little bottle, and you dilute the drink yourself. Want some lemon or lime? Don’t forget to ask — it won’t come standard. It’s incredibly depressing, because there’s no incentive for bartenders to jazz it up with cucumbers or club soda the way they do in America.
If you want a decent gin and tonic, you have to go to New York.
Brits like to buy pop music in bulk, at a discount
As a kid, I remember the “Now that’s what I call music!” albums, CD compilations of recent pop hits.
During my time in America I assumed they passed the way of all things.
Not so! Currently on sale here in the U.K.: “Now … No. 87.” Eighty-seven! That’s a lot of undifferentiated pop music. Virgin and EMI pump them out at a rate of about three per year.
They’re the biggest-selling compilation albums ever, with more than 100 million sold to date. The franchise even has its own TV channel here in Britain.
Who knew that music for people not that interested in music would turn out to be such a big business?
Public transport infrastructure in Britain is much more advanced than in the U.S.
This photo isn’t of a nightclub — it’s the baggage claim area in Heathrow airport’s massive new Terminal 5.
And it’s indicative of the U.K.’s commitment to public transport. The London Underground map (below) is incredibly dense with both subway and overground rail lines. (Here’s a PDF.) I’ve published it here with the New York rail map beneath it, so you can see how many lines appear to be “missing” from rail-empty New York. Note that the London’s network serves a smaller population than New York’s.
Even the buses run like clockwork here, and many bus stops (and all train stations) have a digital display telling you how many minutes you have to wait for the next one. It makes getting from A to B incredibly easy.
This is something that America really needs to worry about. Because (proportionally) few Americans travel extensively abroad, America as a whole doesn’t seem realise how far behind the rest of the world it’s falling in terms of public infrastructure. If you’ve been to a major European hub, or any of the big cities further East, you’ll know that returning to JFK is like stepping into a moderately competent developing country, in 1975.
The Republican Party has been successful in stopping major public infrastructure spending in the U.S. (The most famous example being Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of the ARC rail tunnel into New York.) But infrastructure is literally the structure on which the free market sits — because private businesses can’t just build international airports or rail systems on their own.
Let the infrastructure dwindle, and the country on top of it will dwindle. A stark example of this was the Long Island Railroad fiasco at the Belmont Stakes this year: 100,000 people saw the race, and LIRR planned extra trains to get horse racing fans to and from the venue. But the trains moved so slowly it took five hours to evacuate the whole stadium — revelers were still making their way home at 11 p.m. at night.
That may sound trivial — who cares about a horse race? — but when the self-professed greatest country in the world can’t get people from A to B on a train, it’s embarrassing. This “problem” was solved years ago in Britain.
Here’s the London train map, which serves 15 million people in the metro area:
Here’s the New York equivalent, which serves 19 million in the metro area:
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