In December, I relocated from New York to London to work for Business Insider’s newly opened UK bureau.
I’d never set foot in Europe before moving here, so it’s been an adjustment.
The differences between London and New York might not faze a seasoned traveller. But for an American who hasn’t spent much time in other countries, it’s been a little tough getting used to daily life in the UK.
I’ve only lived here for a month, so this isn’t a comprehensive list, but these are the things that have surprised me so far:
Some of my favourite apps don’t work in the UK.
I’ve been obsessed with the music playlist app Songza ever since I was introduced to it. I used it every day at work and at home, so I was devastated to see the above message on my first day in the UK when I tried to access the app. You don’t realise how attached you’ve become to the “Tom Haverford, Boo Of Your Dreams” playlist until it’s gone.
Netflix doesn’t have the same selection.
The movies available on British Netflix are much better, but some of the TV shows I loved watching over and over again in the US (like “Parks and Recreation“) aren’t available for streaming on Netflix in the UK.
Most of the shows I watched on Hulu in the US aren’t available in the UK either. The site blocks virtual private networks that make it look like your computer is located in a different country, so that workaround isn’t an option.
You have to bag your own groceries.
The UK’s grocery stores don’t pay extra employees to stand at the end of checkout lines and bag groceries, and I guess that makes sense since customers can do that themselves.
But I was still flustered on my first trip to the store because I didn’t realise I was supposed to bag my stuff until the cashier had already rung everything up. I was that annoying foreigner who made everyone else in line behind me wait.
Also, most grocery stores I’ve been to don’t play music. I got a really uneasy feeling the first time I visited a Sainsbury’s Local in the UK, and it took me a minute to realise that it was because the store was completely silent.
Custom sandwiches and salads aren’t really a thing here.
Nearly every lunch spot I’ve been to so far has the setup pictured here. The sandwiches and salads are all pre-made pretty early in the day and they sit out in the open until people buy them. This is unlike the US, where most food seems to be made to order. This has taken some getting used to, as I’m someone who is known for making substitutions on nearly everything I order.
The bacon is weird.
I got a shock at my first English breakfast when I ordered bacon and got this limp ham-type thing in return. The sausage was much better than American breakfast sausage, but I was not a fan of the bacon. Some places do offer what’s called “streaky bacon,” which is more similar to the American variety.
Movie theatres don’t put liquid butter on the popcorn.
The first time I went to a movie theatre (or “cinema,” as the Brits say), I asked where the butter was when the concession guy handed me my popcorn. His response: “You’re American, aren’t you?”
My British colleague laughed and informed me that no one in the UK dumps liquid butter on their popcorn. This keeps with my general impression that British people are a lot less excessive and much healthier than many Americans.
The downside is that liquid butter is delicious; the upside is that you’re less likely to leave the theatre with a stomach ache.
The nutrition labels are different.
When I picked up this box, I couldn’t comprehend the nutrition label. I just want to know how much sugar is in the cereal bar! I recruited the help of my British colleagues in decoding this nutrition label (five grams of sugar seemed too low for a cereal bar with a bunch of chocolate in it), and now I think I’ve got the hang of it. Most of the same information seems to be here, but it’s organised differently, which is jarring to see at first.
McDonald’s and other fast food chains have different menus.
This one is obvious. Thanks to our retail vertical, I was aware before I moved here that McDonald’s offers different food in each country. But I am a big fan of American McDonald’s — so much so that when I told a friend I was moving to London, the first thing he said was, “You know McDonald’s is different there, right? Like they don’t have the same stuff.”
I laughed it off, thinking, “How different could it be?”
Since the whole idea behind chain restaurants is offering a similar or identical menu at each place, I assumed there might be a few UK-specific additions, but that everything else would remain mostly the same.
Wrong. The food is actually very different. The burgers don’t taste as good and a lot of what’s offered on the American menu isn’t available in the UK.
The same goes for KFC. I stopped there once to pick up dinner on my way home from work and found out that they don’t have mashed potatoes. That surprised me because mashed potatoes are pretty common in the UK. KFC without mashed potatoes is pointless.
The portions are much smaller.
More evidence that Europeans are generally healthier comes from the portion sizes. Another thing I noticed when I went to a British McDonald’s is that their medium soda was the equivalent of a “small” in the US.
Smaller portion sizes are found elsewhere, too. Plastic soda bottles are taller and thinner, and even shampoo comes in smaller bottles.
Although I do miss being able to stock up on bulk items (like shampoo) to save money, I don’t miss the giant food portions that have become standard at American restaurants. These meals are usually too big for one person to eat in one sitting anyway, and the American trend toward larger food portions has been tied to obesity.
The Chinese food is just as bad as everyone says.
Countless Americans warned me before I moved here about the terrible food in London. I haven’t found that to be true of most places (I’ve been to a few great restaurants so far), but my one experience with Chinese take-out made me never want to order Chinese here again.
I heard that the Chinese food in Britain is especially unappealing, so I decided one night to find out if that’s true. This is what I got. Fried rice (which didn’t appear to be actually fried) that had no flavour whatsoever and a giant “egg roll” that was basically just limp bean sprouts inside a greasy wrapping.
New York is very much a take-out culture, but I’ve been cooking a lot more since I moved here because the “takeaway” food that I’ve tried in the UK isn’t nearly as good. It’s probably better for me in the long run.
They sell hard cider in two-liter plastic bottles.
This was an exciting discovery. If I wanted to buy cider in the US, the only options available in most stores were a six-pack of glass bottles or a 40-ounce bottle. Some brands offered cider in cans, but those were often more expensive. Hard cider has just started catching on in the US, but it’s been big in the UK for a while. Grocery stores here offer inexpensive cider in a variety of different containers.
Many studio apartments don’t have proper ovens.
I was confused when I saw the kitchen of the first apartment I stayed in. We booked the place on AirBnb, and when I was looking through the photos online, it occurred to me that the “stove” looked like it had only two burners. There seemed to be a microwave underneath but no oven. I asked the owner about this, and she told me that the microwave oven doubles as a convection oven.
A colleague’s studio flat has a similar setup, and she told me that when she turns her microwave on “convection” mode, it browns whatever is in there. But there isn’t much space, so cooking large dishes is out of the question.
I’ve found that while tiny kitchens without proper ovens and stoves seem to be common in studio apartments, many larger flats have big kitchens.
Toilet paper comes in different colours and scents.
I’m still kind of freaked out by this. I get that it can’t be easy to market toilet paper to consumers, but these gimmicks are a bit much. I’ve seen lemon-scented toilet paper, pink toilet paper, and Shea butter toilet paper. Why?
Eyedrops also come in strange varieties.
I always thought of eyedrops as functional rather than cosmetic, but Britain has you covered if you worry that your eyes aren’t sparkly enough. I thought about buying these eyedrops out of curiosity, but I was a bit too intimidated by them, especially since the label on some brands says not to use these sparkling drops every day.
The bathrooms don’t have outlets.
Since every bathroom in the US (in residences, at least) comes equipped with an electrical outlet, I was really confused to find that I had nowhere to plug in my blow dryer in my AirBnb flat. I thought that maybe it was just that bathroom, but every other bathroom I’ve seen since has also been free of any electrical outlet. Most bathrooms I’ve seen don’t have light switches, either, but rather a rope or chain that you pull down from the ceiling to turn the light on.
The road tells you which way to look.
I used to worry that I would get hit by a car while I was over here. Once I got to London, I was happy to see that the city has a system in place to prevent that. These giant, hard-to-ignore letters remind you where to look when you’re crossing the street so you don’t get blindsided while gazing in the wrong direction.
There are no “exit” signs.
I don’t think I’ve seen a single “exit” sign while I’ve been over here. Instead of “exit,” the signs typically read “way out.” It makes sense, but it was strange to see at first.
London wins the real estate game.
As a final note, I will say that London definitely wins when it comes to affordable real estate.
I’ve been through three housing searches in New York City (the last of which ended with me giving up entirely and moving across the Atlantic Ocean), and each was incredibly stressful and took more than two weeks. Maybe I’ve just had exceptionally bad luck, but I could tell so many horror stories about apartments I’ve lived in, and I was shelling out a lot of money for those places.
I was bracing myself for a similar experience here since London has one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. But I was able to find an affordable place after just two days of looking. It’s a palace compared to anything I lived in in New York (it has two floors and a giant kitchen!), it’s in a good neighbourhood with plenty to do, and it’s only 30 minutes away from my office. During my search, I looked at four places total, and only one of them looked like a prison. The three others were all pretty nice. Major points to London there.
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