Brian Klaas has lived in the UK for 12 years – and has revealed what he thinks his adopted country’s strengths and ‘oddities’ are
I’m a statriotic Minnesotan but I’ve lived in the UK for 12 years and I’m going to become a dual citizen.
After living abroad for 12 years, I see America’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly, just as I see Britain’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly as an outsider.
Life here in Britain has its problems – the cost-of-living crisis and the general decline post-Brexit are real and serious – but here are some tremendous strengths – and endearing oddities, too.
There is interesting history everywhere. When I was a kid in Minnesota , we went on a field trip to one of the oldest grand houses in the state, which was built in 1891. Since moving to the UK, I’ve lived in a cottage that was built in the 16th century – 1578, to be precise. It had no closets. The floor was slanted. It was lovely.
Cities/towns are much more walkable than in the US and there are tens of thousands of miles of walking paths, fanning out in every direction. It really is extraordinary. Where I live, there are several long-distance paths where you can walk out of your door and continue on the same path for hundreds of miles. If baseball and apple pie are America’s national pastimes, having tea after a countryside walk on Sundays seems to be a fair nominee for one of Britain’s most cherished rituals.
Most villages are utterly charming. There are several bleak industrial towns and cities, but most British villages are picturesque, complete with at least one pub, a church (often a very old one), old terraced houses, and nice walking paths crisscrossing it, often near some body of water. (If there is no body of water nearby, you are, of course, welcome to swim in your own bin.)
Healthcare is a guaranteed right and it’s free at the point of service. The NHS has issues, but every experience I’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive.
British political humour is hilarious. (If you haven’t seen The Thick of It, watch it.) Whenever the prime minister is getting elected, they have to stand, flanked by crazy people and joke candidates, such Lord Buckethead and Count Binface.
Brian marvels at how the Eurostar can whisk you from the UK to Europe in around two hours
There is virtually zero risk of getting shot. (It’s also a myth that stabbings are more frequent in the UK compared to the US; there are more stabbings per capita in America.)
There is tremendous social capital and people are, for the most part, friendly, polite, and terrified of social awkwardness. (The mathematical definition of a limit approaching, but never reaching, zero is the final morsel of cheese at a British dinner party, which subdivides endlessly, until it is approximately one micron long and one micron wide, at which point it will be thrown away.)
You can travel most places in Europe in an hour or two, often for under $100 if you plan ahead. (I once took a morning Eurostar train from London to Brussels – it takes around two hours – gave a lunchtime talk at the European Union, had some Belgian beer and a little walk around, then returned home by 5pm.)
Pubs are wonderful institutions. Enough said.
The London Tube [subway] is fantastic. It’s clean, safe, and reliable. Most of the time, it’s so reliable that waiting anything beyond two or three minutes for a train in central London is deemed an annoyance.
Most places, there are very few annoying bugs (Scotland’s midges are a notable exception). You can just leave your doors and windows open without screens.
Almost everywhere is dog-friendly: bars, restaurants, bookstores, you name it.
Brian writes: ‘Tiny country lanes that would be considered sidewalks in America are supposed to accommodate two normal-sized cars going at speed in opposite directions, often flanked by unforgiving hedges’
To turn the light on in many bathrooms, you need not find a light switch, but a little string hanging from the ceiling, which you pull. Nobody knows why.
To get warm in the winter, many people – yes, even in the 21st century – boil water and pour it into a red rubber bag, sometimes with a furry cover over it if you’re extra fancy. These ‘hot water bottles’ are staples of British homes.
Tiny country lanes that would be considered sidewalks in America are supposed to accommodate two normal-sized cars going at speed in opposite directions, often flanked by unforgiving hedges. When you encounter another car, one of you will reverse, sometimes a great distance, often over tree roots, into a tiny little ‘passing place’. (Both drivers are obligated, by British social law, to wave. The punishment for failing to comply is deep personal angst for days that they might have thought you were rude, which, to many British people, is worse than death).
‘To get warm in the winter, many people – yes, even in the 21st century – boil water and pour it into a red rubber bag, sometimes with a furry cover over it if you’re extra fancy,’ writes Brian. ‘These “hot water bottles” are staples of British homes’
Dr Brian Klaas’s book Corruptible: Who Gets Power And How It Changes Us is out now
What an American would called a kids’ size popcorn at a movie theatre (sorry, ‘cinema’) would be the largest size available in Britain.
The word ‘quite’ is often used to reduce intensity in British English rather than enhance it. In America, ‘quite’ always means ‘very’, whereas in Britain ‘quite nice’ often means ‘sort of nice’ instead of ‘extremely nice’. (I learned this the hard way three years into my time in the UK, when complimenting someone. I was told I had been inadvertently rude.)
In Britain, ‘middle class’ refers to well-off professionals such as doctors and lawyers, not the middle of the economic bell curve, as in America.
You can learn much more about a person by their accent. Accents can change even in the span of a few dozen miles. (When I first moved to the UK, I once went cycling in Wales, encountered someone on the top of a big mountain climb, and couldn’t understand a word he said. I told him I didn’t speak Welsh. It turns out he was speaking English, albeit with a Welsh valley accent. I’m sure he still tells that story about the American idiot he once met.) There is even a special accent associated with Eton, a school for posh boys. Whereas when I talk, I sound like a generic suburban Midwesterner and could conceivably be from an area with a 1,000-1,500-mile radius.
This article was originally published on Brian’s blog site – The Garden of Forking Paths.
Dr Brian Klaas is Associate Professor in Global Politics, University College London. For more from Brian visit brianpklaas.com. His book Corruptible: Who Gets Power And How It Changes Us is out now, available from Amazon.