When considering a move to London, most people feel comfortable with the idea. England’s’ shared history with North America and its prevalence in pop culture gives it an air of familiarity. However, the English language may be the only black and white common factor between Britain and its American descendants. This deceptive similarity may have you in for a shock once you land and realize many similarities end there. A funny combination of paradoxes and quirks, understanding the nuances of British culture will help you adapt to your new environment. The culture is built around dramatic history, pubs, intimacy through jokes and respect through distance, and lots of tea with milk. As one of the leading cities in the world for innovation of arts and culture, you don’t need to look far for entertainment. Work in these integration tips to accelerate your assimilation into this vibrant city.
1) Lay of the land
When you first touch down in London, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The center of London is so densely packed you can feel like a needle in a haystack. Of course you can take a spin on the London Eye to get a birds-eye view, but the best way is to take the classic “hop on, hop off” double decker bus, which allows you to get a sense of distance and the layout of central London. This bus has the added benefit of stopping at major London landmarks, which will serve to orient you in the city no matter which twisty side street you are on. The main reason for going overground is that most people’s impression of London is based on the subway map. However, this map can be very misleading if you are not traveling by train. The center of London is very compact and the tube map in no way represents the actual scale – the true distance between two tube stops may be a hundred yards or 10 miles.
For instance, Leicester Square is 200 yards from Piccadilly Circus, but the map would encourage you to take the tube due to the spacing shown on the map.
2) East End vs. West End
Most Londoners consider Chelsea to be the crown of the West End. It boasts the best museums in the world, along with luxury shopping institutions such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Its convenient location allows easy access across the city. However, when you refer to the “city”, a Londoner would take this to mean the East End of London, where the original city was founded back in BC. The West End was built down the Thames river as a wealthy suburb in the 19th century. Much of the modern London life is seeped in history that affects its daily flow, and a newcomer can use this knowledge in deciding which direction to head. Traditionally the west end is where one would go for entertainment, theater and culture, and the East End is mainly the financial district, but retains the quaint Dickens–style architecture that is so characteristic of London. As all of London depended on the waterways for transport of goods, all of the cities major attractions are based up and down the river.
3) Forget coffee shop culture
Pub culture is more that an anecdote – its at the heart of British living. This is where you will find the living culture, and not at coffee shops, such as in the US. Make a point to check out each pub within walking distance from your location, for food and socializing. Once in the pub, British formality dissipates and you will find people more open to chat and get to know each other, often through jokes and poking fun. If you are offered a drink, accept it as it demonstrates you are being welcomed, but be sure to reciprocate. Each person often takes turns to buy drinks at the bar for everyone, called “a round”, rather than just buying a drink for themselves.
4) Be polite, unless you “take the Mick”
One of the more complex areas for a visitor to get the hang of isn’t the weather, food, or transport, but the sense of humor. Formality and polite behavior is the norm throughout the day… always accept a cup of tea if offered, and if someone bumps into you, you are best off apologizing, even if its their fault. This is a priority of British culture, to always be kind and polite. Generally British humor is self-deprecating, however once a Brit takes a shine to you, it’s likely the way they will show their affection is by making fun of you, called “banter”. At first this form of joking may feel sensitive, but this banter is the beginning of building a friendship.
Always be prepared. Leave the house with multiple layers, which you may remove as the day gets warmer. Have an umbrella handy at all times. The weather changes drastically and the reliance on public transport means that you will often find yourself exposed to the elements. Seasonally appropriate clothing is necessary, especially if you are coming from the south or west of the US. Raincoats, sturdy shoes, heavy sweaters and wooly coats are all necessary for daily London life. In the 3 months of the year (June-August) that provide sunshine, you will find everyone trying to get a tan (regardless of the temperature) and spilling out of the pubs. These are the months where people take the pub culture into the street, and you will find Londoners cheerier and friendlier than ever.