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Friday, April 21, 2006

Separated by a common language

First I was told that Churchill said it. Then I was told that it was Wilde. But actually it was Shaw who described England and America as “two countries separated by a common language.”

Language is part of culture, so we’re also separated not only by a common language by also by a common culture. In both cases the differences are striking and interesting. The following observations are based on a mere week in England, so take them with several grains of salt — although I did spend several weeks in England several decades ago, for what that’s worth.
  • Everybody’s whining about gas prices in the U.S., but petrol in England was up to a pound per litre on my last day there, and that works out to about seven dollars per gallon. Frankly, that’s a good thing, as it discourages driving.

  • This ad appeared in many Underground stations and elsewhere:



  • Fortunately our gracious hostess was willing to drive us around everywhere, so we didn’t have to cope with driving on the wrong side of the road. After a year in England, she has gotten used to it. The roundabouts (rotaries) were my principal worry — well, actually, they were #2. It was making a right turn that always seemed the worst. There was also this concept of “mini-roundabouts” or virtual roundabouts, as I liked to call them. Imagine an ordinary T-intersection with a circle painted in the middle of it; the circle makes it a virtual roundabout, which changes the right-of-way rules so that whoever is “in” in the virtual roundabout has the right of way, instead of the usual rules.

  • Despite all the influences of American culture, the Brits still seem to queue up more often than we do. Probably not as much as 40 years ago, but still...

  • It’s not clear what the situation is with the double-decker buses. My guidebook claimed that they are a thing of the past. A report on NPR claimed the same. But there they were, all around London. Hmm...

  • There were security cameras everywhere. I suppose it’s a reaction to the terrorist attacks in the London Underground a year ago. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me, and I din’t feel that my privacy was being invaded.
Food and drink:
  • Food was definitely much better than I had expected. We had to try the ubiquitous fish and chips, which wasn’t bad, and most of the other meals were downright good.

  • But there were chips with everything (sounds like the title of a play); even an Asian or Greek meal that came with rice was also accompanied by chips (“half and half”).

  • Surprisingly, almost every restaurant we went to offered at least one vegetarian entree, usually marked with a V.

  • Also surprisingly, many of the restaurants were totally non-smoking, and most of the others had non-smoking sections. At the end of this calendar year the entire country is going non-smoking in restaurants and bars, following Ireland’s example.

  • Coffee is still bad in most restaurants — usually instant. But Starbucks is everywhere, and many restaurants and cafes are serving excellent brewed coffee.

  • We had an excellent Asian meal in London — mostly dim sum — at Yauatcha, an Asian restaurant with a Japanese ambience but mostly Chinese food.

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