I really should learn to write better clickbait headlines. I’m sure “insane” or “mind-blowing” would attract more readers than merely calling my experience “surprising”. But my twelve loyal readers would surely be horrified to see me sell out like that.
Anyway, since I’m wrapping up my English adventures, I thought I’d end with a fun little list, similar to the one I created when I left Italy.
You’d think there wouldn’t be much in the way of cultural differences between England and New Zealand – after all we mostly speak the same language, have the same Queen and drive on the same side of the road. But it turns out the cultural chasm is wide and yawning…and these are just a few of the surprises I faced!
People Keep Asking if I’m “All Right”
“Huh? What? Yeah, why? Oh, this is just friendly small talk? Well then…are you all right?”
I never quite got the hang of answering this question.
The Cuisine Is…
People like to make a lot of fun of English food, but the day after my arrival in England I thought I was in heaven devouring a large English breakfast after a week of continental breakfasts. However I soon found that while Italian and French food seemed to be of consistently high quality, English offerings varied wildly from excellent to “you tried” and hit every stop in between. I could easily find myself having a sad English breakfast with shriveled mushrooms and ragged poached eggs in the morning and a platter of exquisite smoked meats in the evening. Claggy scrambled eggs with no seasoning in the morning, perfect seafood platter for lunch.
Burgers seemed to be consistently terrible, but local seafood, good fish and chips and local specialties were usually good bets. Also, as always, home cooks are brilliant, so work those dinner invites!
Snakes and Spiders
Shortly after arriving, I discovered that England is home to something called the “giant house spider”, and no part of that moniker is incorrect. They could perhaps add the word “rampant”, since it is in the habit of charging out from under furniture directly towards one’s feet.
I was also alarmed to be cooling my feet in a river on a hot day only to see a snake casually swim past. What is this, Australia?! I thought the most dangerous creatures here were supposed to be the sheep!
You Can Own A River
I don’t know why I was surprised to be told I’d have to pay to fish – over and above what I already paid for a fishing licence – since this is exactly what Jock McKenzie was thumbing his nose at when he created our Queen’s chain, guaranteeing a narrow strip of access along Kiwi river banks. And Terry Pratchett lampooned the very same thing in Snuff, having wealthy estate owners chase their stretch of water as it flowed off down the river.
But that still did not stop me from being somewhat offended upon discovering I’d have to negotiate with the proprietors for river access. What’s next, private ownership of the sea? The sky? The wind?
The strangest thing about it was the contrast with the byways system. So you are legally guaranteed walking access through private land (even active military zones) but access to waterways is a crapshoot.
No Pinot Gris
I’d just come from Italy where I’d suffered from a concerning lack of my favourite spirit, and now I found in England that while I could obtain bourbon quite easily, my favourite wine was out of the question. In fact most people had never heard of pinot gris and thought I was mispronouncing pinot grigio. When will my suffering end?
Just as bafflingly, sour cream was not available with wedges and requesting it would result in being handed a bottle of salad cream.
Apparently I Make Awful Tea
“That looks a bit anaemic, doesn’t it?” Well I didn’t think so, but apparently my tea-making skills needed a serious upgrade.
I eventually learned to do it the English way but now that I’m back in New Zealand I apparently make it far too strong. I can’t win.
The Bureaucracy is Stuck in the 90s
Want to buy a car? Better be prepared to wait a month while the paperwork gets sorted out! Want to replace some of that super-important paperwork? Guess you’ll have to wait 6 weeks for it to be mailed to you, but only at the address we have on record! Want to change your address? Simply print out this form and post it to us! Email? Online forms? What is this devilry you speak of?!
It was strange to find myself in the cradle of western civilisation only to discover time and again that what I was used to doing in a single day would instead take several weeks. And snail mail? I haven’t sent a letter for about seven years – I barely know how!
Oh, and be prepared to pay 25 times what you would in New Zealand to insure your vehicle (and four times the actual value of the car – annually). Car insurance is mandatory in England, and clearly the insurers are not above taking advantage of the fact.
A Culture of Fear
“You can’t do that” was the refrain I heard time and again. I can’t travel on my own, I can’t camp alone, I can’t sleep in my car. To my hosts, all of these things were practically a guarantee that I’d become a victim of violent crime. Not even a graph showing that violent crime in the UK has been decreasing since the 90s and in fact is down even from the 80s would convince them otherwise. And then I go and almost get murdered just one time, and nobody will let me forget it.
As far as my English friends would have it, I am reckless and naïve. For my part I am heartbroken that so many English people feel unsafe leaving their homes to enjoy their beautiful country, and my one biggest regret is allowing myself to be talked out of having more and bigger adventures.
I leave England with body intact (despite predictions) and soul enriched. So many adventures and yet so many more not yet embarked upon. Will I ever return to this remote and ancient land, tamed and softened by millennia of human footsteps? Or will it become an ever more distant memory as I live out my time in my wild and untamed homeland?