English

Living in the UK: things they don’t teach you – Part 1

Citizenship tests are useless. I tried to answer the questions of a Dutch citizenship test online once for a bit of a laugh. It turns out that I don’t know enough to function as a citizen in my country of birth. For instance, I had never heard of the Dutch word for ‘checkout divider’ before, which is apparently deemed as essential knowledge for would-be Dutch citizens by the Dutch powers that be.

Everyone knows it: the knowledge one has to obtain to pass a citizenship test is akin to learning the Pythagorean Theorem at school. You learn it just to get a decent grade, only to never, ever use it again. The internet can be relatively useful when trying to learn about things ‘typically British’, but most websites limit themselves to stereotypical nonsense about red phone booths and fish and chips without dispensing any useful advice.

I’ve lived in the UK for 11 years now, and I have had to learn a great deal about things that are different compared to my native Netherlands. Even though a great deal of things are very similar, the finer details are always different (and often in ways that you don’t expect). Below is my first ever list of British things that you can usually only learn about through experience:

  1. Your parents gave you a nice first name? Good for you, but Britons will never call you by that name if they can help it. Is your name Gareth? Britons will call you ‘Gary’. If you then catch on and introduce yourself as Gary, Britons will call you ‘Gaz’ (I’m still to find out why the letter ‘z’ is used so often when shortening names). Ideally, your name will be shortened to something that’s only 2 or 3 letters long (apart from ‘Richard’, which is shortened to ‘Dick’ to keep things interesting).
  2. Yes, the weather in the UK isn’t great most days. But it’s far too simplistic to resort to describing it solely by using the word ‘rain’. A better description is: “too cold to be called ‘warm’, too warm to be called ‘cold’, with rain”. In other words, expect the temperature to be around to 10 to 15 degrees Celsius, whether it’s July or Christmas.
  3. Want to cause an argument when you’re in the company of people you don’t know very well? Bring up Margaret Thatcher and you’re almost guaranteed to see some genuine anger.
  4. Get used to it: British garages are not built for cars as they’re never wide enough. That’s why you park your car on a driveway, or (even better) half on the street, half on the pavement. That way you also legimitise the existence of your local neighbourhood Facebook group, as you give them something to complain about.
  5. Everything is the same, but different. If you’re from the Netherlands and ask for Dreft, Calgonit, Axe, Lay’s, Dove, Ola or Kapitein Iglo at a supermarket, they’ll tell you that these products are not available. However, they are guaranteed to be in stock with the same packaging and everything. The only difference is the names of these products: Fairy, Finish, Lynx, Walker’s, Galaxy, Wall’s and Captain Birdseye. Because, why not?
  6. Britons have given meanings to certain words that are completely non-existent in other languages, which can be very confusing. ‘Tea’ refers to the hot drink Britons love so much, right? Yes, but it can also refer to ‘dinner’. Do Britons drink tea with dinner then? No, they do not.
  7. Never immediately accept an offer for e.g. a hot drink. There’s a ritual where you say ‘no, thanks’ first, after which your host or hostess will repeatedly tell you it is absolutely no bother for them to put the kettle on, after which you’ll accept the offer in the end. And of course, leave your Dutch ways behind by only saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It doesn’t matter who you’re speaking to – ALWAYS say ‘yes, please’ or ‘no, thank you’.
  8. Bus shelters are not primarily used by people waiting for the bus. 90% of their users are teenagers who will spend entire evenings there as they’re too young to go to the pub or nightclub, but too ‘cool’ to spend the evening at home.
  9. Everything that you can possibly eat is put on toast or in a sandwich. Baked beans on toast. Spaghetti hoops on toast. Crisps in a sandwich. Chips in a sandwich. Fishfingers in a sandwich. I even know a couple of people who like vinegar on toast. (Yes, really).
  10. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is not the motto for each and every situation. For instance, it does not apply in those instances where KFC has run out of chicken. In those situations, you are allowed to panic and call the police.

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