I first moved to the UK over 20 years ago and have lived here for various stretches of time since then. When I go back to America to visit, I am invariably asked a) does it really rain all the time? and b) is the food really bad? To which I invariably answer no and no. I tell them that the weather is one of the UK's best kept secrets – there is actually a lot of sun, it's almost never humid, and as long as you don't mind four seasons in one day, it's a pretty good time. Then I go on to offer my best gentle, yet unpatronizing explanation, that the food revolution happened several decades ago in this country and there is every bit as much amazing international cuisine, more in fact, than is available in many parts of the States.
By this time, their initial curiosity is sated, and they are ready to move onto other topics. However, I'm usually just getting started and ready to wax prolific on how the UK, and London in particular, is such a great place to live. But now that I have a captive reader, let me share nine ways in which living in the UK is amazing:
- Riding the escalator – If you are an expat, you have no doubt played the game of picking out the tourists on the escalator (the ones without backpacks and luggage). As everyone dutifully stands to the right, observing the cultural norms for escalator riding, the poor blinkered tourist is left usually dazed and confused when he is asked to step to the right. Americans come from the land of 'I will stand/walk/drive pretty much anywhere I damn well please', so there is a bit of a learning curve to becoming 'au fait' with British customs. But once we do, it makes commuting oh so much nicer.
- Rambling – Also known as long walks in the country. Here, rambling is nearly a high art form, given so much respect there is even a national organization devoted to walking known as The Ramblers. It means to roam about the countryside. It's not a legal right to walk on any land, but in England and Wales you can 'ramble' on certain public or privately owned land, lakes, and rivers for recreation and exercise. It includes public rights of way (footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic); Open access land (most mountains, moors, heathland and downs as well as registered common land, town and village greens and some woodland managed by the Forestry Commission); paths where the landowner has given permission; and National Parks. All this is popularly known as the "right to roam" or, in my book, the "right to roam without worrying if somebody is going to challenge you with a shotgun as to why you're cutting across their fields." Things are different in Scotland - it's worth checking www.ramblers.org.uk for details.
- Never needing to carry cash – I am a big fan of knowing I can leave home with nothing but my phone and my keys and not having to worry about carrying a wallet or remembering to hit the cashpoint machine. Whenever I go home to Ohio to visit, I always feel like I'm going back in time about 10 years whenever I use my debit card (forget about contactless) – I dutifully subtract four seconds from my life and key in my pin code, then offer up another precious fifteen seconds to also sign for the transaction. At this point, I am ready to leave the store in a huff, shaking my head at these flat-footed Americans who don't appreciate the ease with which those of us in the rest of the developed world go about our daily tasks of consumer spending with nothing more than a wave of our phone in every Starbucks or tube turnstile. This leads me to the next point…
- Banking – It befuddles me no small amount that for a world superpower such as America, its banking system still seems alarmingly clunky and behind the times. Take for example, the ease with which you can move money around in the UK and pay people. All one needs is an account number and sort code and within seconds you've paid Jane from Marketing back for her round of drinks she spotted you down the pub last night. Granted, the last few years have seen the rise of apps like Venmo and Cashapp in the US which has perked up the party a bit, but nevertheless, I guess it's because the UK has had a few hundred more years to get banking down to a science than the US so there, banks still have the audacity to charge customers $30-$40 for a "wire transfer", the same which is free here.
- Mobile phones – With literally hundreds of mobile phone plan options in the UK, it is nearly impossible to not find an option for every budget, compare that to the US where only 3-4 networks dominate the market and control the prices. Ironically, this level of choice is not matched in other areas of day-to-day life in the UK. For example, you will not find 17 choices of breakfast cereal and need an app to navigate football stadium sized grocery stores. But this I can live with.
- Great cheese – Oh, the joy of great cheese that doesn't cost the earth! While most Americans back home still think of cheddar cheese as some orange block of waxy substance, here we easily enjoy many hues of fine cheese. In the cheddar department alone, there is very sharp, extra sharp, and, my favorite, extra mature. Then there are many varieties rarely even seen back home: Dorset Blue Vinney, Shropshire Blue, Blue Stilton, Caerphilly, Swaledale, Cheshire Blue, Duddleswell, Lancashire, Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, and I'm just getting started. When my son decided he was a vegan for a while, I promptly informed him that I would not be joining him in solidarity, as there is no way on God's green earth, I will ever volunteer to give up cheese.
- Hop to Europe – I would be remiss if I did not include the obvious benefit of living in the UK is also being able to leave the UK (pandemic restrictions notwithstanding) and so easily travel to mainland Europe, and other places, by way of a short flight or train journey. With Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam all under 3 hours away by Eurostar, we get to experience an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the ability to travel to amazing places easily. It's a sad fact that most Americans don't even hold a passport and still think of foreign travel as some exotic thing other people do.
- Less fear of mass shootings – Call me morbid if you want, but it's simply true. When I go back to the US my awareness is heightened every time I am in a public place; I pray this is not the day a disgruntled employee or mentally unstable person has just gone on a shopping spree for semi-automatic weapons and decided to let loose his frustrations while I'm shopping for waxy cheese in aisle 81 of Kroger's. Yes, there are other threats living in the UK, such as random terrorist attacks. But somehow, they don't have the ubiquitous quality that the spectre of endless mass shootings have taken on in America.
- You can complain about the weather and no one thinks you're a downer – Discussing the weather in the UK is nothing less than a national pastime, with sometimes as many seasons in a day as Inuit people have words for snow. This is not to be confused with the ability to predict the weather, because that is as fickle a practice here as anywhere, but it doesn't mean people don't keep trying. One of my favorite features of life in the UK is listening to the mesmerizingly relaxing Shipping Forecast, a daily reading of the nautical weather for all seafaring vessels, on Radio 4. It's like listening to a collection of words in a language I know, but that nevertheless leaves me not understanding very much at all other than the occasionally identifiable phrases like "fog patches" or "moderate to good." Pretty much everything else is full of nautical or shipping related words that make very little sense to me, which is perhaps why I enjoy it and find it so relaxing.
It is comforting to know that not everything needs to be fully understood to be enjoyed. Not least of why living in the UK is so wonderful. In some ways it defies description and doesn't always make a lot of sense.
>> MORE NEWS & FEATURES