From When We Looked Up…

There are a number of things about London that stand out as new or weird to every person who moves from the Antipodes. It’s a universal experience and one that we rather enjoy comparing notes on, but fades so quickly as our wide eyes drift downwards and we blend into the heaving masses.

I find the little differences fascinating, and am already struggling to remember what some were, so new ANZACs, lend me your oddities! Some that I remember still are:

  • If you spend more than three days in London your snot turns grey. Don’t be shy, ask your friends – theirs is the same. And it will not go away while you live in this city.
  • Toilets around Europe are often different based on whichever country you’re in – in London there are a lot of handles, and you have to turn them multiple times to get a good flush going. A little terrifying the first time you yank it once and get a measly dribble, and you’re at someone else’s house…
  • In tube stations, the signs tell you to stand on the right on escalators, but walk on the left in the tunnels. This starts to make sense once you’ve got the tube culture down-pat, but at first it’s baffling, especially in a country where they drive on the left, since in NZ this means you walk on the left, too.
  • I didn’t realise my street was a one-way for nearly a month because cars can park in either direction. So on either side they’re facing both ways, making it rather difficult to know which way the traffic’s coming if it’s a one way street, especially when you’ve just been in Europe and almost run over a dozen times due to the ingrained methods of crossing the street.
  • On the traffic note, there are often controlled crossings with traffic lights and clearly defined places for pedestrians, but no green man. So if you can’t see the traffic lights and don’t know the phases of the intersection, you end up doing that will-I-won’t-I dance with the cars that may or may not be about to speed into you. Not to mention the cyclists!
  • Poundworld (teehee) and Poundland (*snicker*) introduced me to the magical UK equivalent of dollar-stores (with actual amazing bargains), but also to the concept of a card minimum. In these fine establishments, you must pay cash on purchases under 5 pounds, because the charge for them to use their card machines is too high. Coming from a country where people rarely carry cash I found this rather distressing, and quite easily succumbed to the suggested items around the counter placed to lure me into making my purchase up to a fiver. Those were good mints though.
  • On that note, I really have had to learn to carry cash – it’s almost impossible to split a bill otherwise. In NZ everyone would just go up to the counter whenever they were ready and pay how they liked, pointing out their table and then saying what they had, and then return to table if the chat was still good. Here it’s all (*snaps fingers*) ‘can I have the bill please?’ and an awkward attempt to calculate portions and pretend you’re not back to year three level maths. Not to mention tipping, which is rather unpredictable – sometimes included, sometimes expected to be added by you, sometimes no mention. All very confusing.
  • My friend KJM was outraged when she thought she had to pay a pound for supermarket and airport trolleys (they won’t work without the coin). After staunchly carrying her own luggage/groceries for a while she figured out it was a bond system to avoid trolley thieves (aka students) and you get your money back when you return it. I’m sure I would be baffled by this too, if I ever bought enough groceries at a time to need a trolley!
  • Planes! Everywhere! And so low! The same KJM had told me how she used the passing planes to encourage her wee charges to eat their lunches (‘let’s see if you can finish before the next one!’), but my first few days/weeks here I honestly had a wee fright every time, thinking there was a terror plot afoot. Turns out lotsa people wanna come and go here, and unlike NZ they don’t have a whole lotta conveniently unpopulated areas to make their flight paths over. I now actually find it strangely comforting – any time I’m walking along early morning or late night alone, I can look up and be guaranteed to see the sun-reflecting windows or twinkling lights that indicate hundred of people coming to hang out with me here, or go to their adventures elsewhere.
  • Freaking cobblestones and paving stones. They may be romantic and quaint around Europe, but in London the haphazard paving of footpaths is not only evidence of the way this city has been pieced together bits at a time, but also a dire danger to ankles. By the end of a week wearing (very moderate) heels for work, all the stabiliser muscles around my ankles are exhausted from the constant threat of tipping over. There are so many cracks and such unevenness in the pavement that when people trip up out of the blue, they don’t even bother to awkwardly look around to see what dared assault them so.
  • Personal space is the luxury of those with actual physical space. NZ has a population density of 16.5 per square kilometre (202 on a list of 242 countries), compared to the UK’s 256. Now consider that London prob represents a rather more than fair portion of that population density. Oh yes, Wiki tells me it’s 5206. That’s… 315 times the density I’m used to!
  • Even without the stats (which now have me even more worried about the zombipocalypse than I already was), it’s bloody apparent that there’s a [bucket]load of people here. And apparently they don’t mind touching each other, and me, and not saying sorry about it. The naturally apologetic nature of the humble kiwi is certainly not normal, appreciated, or even accepted on the London streets, upon an accidental shoulder-barge. By the time you turn about to supplicate the stranger that (you presume) accidentally banged you a good one, they’re long gone and don’t even recall the incident. In fact, you’ve probably now got yourself into worse trouble by turning about mid footstream and you’re now ping-ponging back and forward to the melody of melancholy sighs and perturbed head-shaking.
  • At some point you will shake your head and sigh at a bloody tourist, swear under your breath at an old lady, and no longer apologise for an accidental barging. You might even put a little extra shoulder into that barging if the tourist stops in an annoying enough spot. At this point you will simultaneously congratulate yourself on being a real Londoner, and want to put a fork in your own eye for being a ‘real’ Londoner. The only way I feel I can combat this inevitable downward trend in my own humanity is to play the kharma game… for every ten sigh-eyeroll-shove-swearunder(orover)breath I try to stop and help a lost tourist.

    You can always pick them out coz they still look up.

So fellow foreigners, or in fact anyone who ever moved to this marvelous metropolis, what did you notice when you first stepped out (and into the path of rampaging oncoming commuters)? What notes did you compare with fellows from home while clinging to the little taste of home in your glass of Marlborough Sav? What have you adopted as normal that you never believed you would?

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One thought on “From When We Looked Up…

  1. Pingback: Looking up again | 1in12million

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