Living in London (AKA cultural learnings for make benefit glorious University of Washington)

Outside the office, I’ve found the UK a very hospitable place for Americans. Obviously, there are a lot of values that the US and the UK share. Compared to any other country except Canada, the language barrier between Americans and Brits is minimal.

Many of the differences are “procedural”, such as driving on the left side of the road. Since most of the world drives on the right, the Brits have generously painted “Look Left” and “Look Right” at intersections to help you check for oncoming traffic.

Then there are supermarkets. Most people in London (like people in New York) have to shop for groceries with baskets instead of shopping carts purely for space reasons. This is fine for me since my fridge only holds so much anyway.

One of the few differences is that supermarkets generally make you bag your own groceries. This should theoretically save labor costs, but really doesn’t since the cashier can check out your purchases twice as fast as you can bag them, so he or she just winds up sitting there watching you bag (though at some chains, cashiers will pitch in at the end voluntarily).

Like New York City, London has a very developed mass transit system. Its most prominent feature is the double decker buses (alongside smaller, normal buses) that cruise the streets. Buses with two sections joined by an accordion segment are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, but most Londoners hate them, preferring double deckers. When “bendy buses” were introduced, numerous complaints were made about the amount of road space these buses took up as well as the allegedly higher risk of crashes due to the sheer length of them. Among newly elected London mayor Boris Johnson’s campaign promises was a pledge to get rid of the bendy buses by 2015. This all seems funny to me since in Seattle the accordion buses are not really very controversial at all since double deckers would be unthinkable—Seattle just isn’t built to accommodate such tall vehicles in the places they would need to go. Every city has its own needs, I guess.

Beneath the city streets, of course, lies the London Underground, or “Tube”. During rush hour, the Tube is generally crowded but much less hot in summer than the New York City subway, mainly because the air isn’t nearly as humid. It is quite easy to use, although fares are expensive—my 2-month unlimited pass for the bus and the Tube for Central London cost about $270, and a one way cash fare is about $8 (you can see why I bought the pass). On the other hand, the Underground (and the London bus system) is far less subsidized by the government than most European and US public transit systems, which helps keep down the tax burden and may well be fairer, since you only pay a lot towards the system if you actually use it. The lack of subsidies also encourages the Tube to run as efficiently as possible and provide the best service to riders in order to make more fare revenue. Each tube station and each bus stop is customized, showing where transit services can take you from that particular station via maps which are famous in their own right for their efficient presentation of a huge amount of route information. Getting around London by Tube and bus really is a snap, and well worth the money the system charges.

Many people bemoan the lack of a similar subway system in major US cities, but what works great for them might not work as well for us due to the lack of population density. Washington DC would probably be too small to have a subway if it didn’t carry the extra need arising from the fact that it’s the national capital.

As you get off the Tube or the bus, you’ll often be intercepted by a somewhat seedy looking person. Fortunately, he or she usually won’t mug you and instead will aggressively offer you a free newspaper—either Metro, London Lite or the London Paper. These are newspapers that sustain on advertising revenue and are meant to be read very quickly while on the go. Feature stories may only be a couple hundred words, and most news items are just little blurbs or sidebars. This is almost like junk food for information since it doesn’t offer you the kind of depth you might get reading the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. However, the free papers are good for just keeping yourself occupied on the Tube, as an impromptu fan or rain hood, or catching up on pop culture that wouldn’t make it into more serious publications. They are a fairly recent development, and serve the demand created by what might be two major cultural trends in many parts of the world: people don’t want to pay for general news information, and people have short attention spans.

London is a city with plenty to do; a person could spend their whole lifetime within the bounds of Greater London and never get bored. I have talked to someone at my internship however who has been on cross-country road trips in the southern parts of the US, something I haven’t done myself. She likes the small towns as well as the big cities. I think for most people it’s not a question of whether fast or slow is better, it’s just a desire for variety. People want to experience a range of lifestyles ranging from the rural South to super-fast New York to almost as fast London to largely suburban, laid-back Seattle. All of them can be nice but in very different ways.

In later posts I will discuss places I have visited as well as elaborate more on my internship. Stay tuned.


Posted by Russ - August 5th, 2008 - 0 comments - Permalink



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