It’s The Little Things

There are a number of little things that are different in the UK. Here’s a few.

Switches are Upside Down Of course the Brits would say ours are upside down. 🙂 A light switch in the down position is On not off.

Plug Switches
Plug Switches

Every power outlet has a switch on it. I won’t even mention the plus are different and HUGE in the UK, but all the places you plug them in have a switch next to them that turns power to that one outlet on and off. This extends to things like your oven and countertop appliances.

They have different switches Like the US, there are lots of different power switches, but the one I see the most often is a rocker switch. It also makes the down is On more logical because they often have a little red flag on the top that’s only visible when the switch is down. So you can look down at a switch and tell if it On.

We have pull string switches in the States, but here they are very common in Bathrooms. They also make a lot of sense when you have a very small space and wouldn’t have a clear wall to put a switch on. I’m thinking about getting one for our bathroom at home, where the light switch is on the outside wall.

Melatonin requires a perscription As a guy who has trouble sleeping through the night, the supplement Melatonin is a requirement every evening. Imagine my surprise when I went to a natural food/vitamin shop and couldn’t find it. I asked and they said they didn’t carry it. A quick Google search told me there is no OTC Melatonin in the UK.

There’s a Tax on Dining InWhen you go to place like Starbucks or McDonalds, they will ask you if you want it “Dine In or Takeaway”. This isn’t just because they package it differently. They actually have to charge you more for Takeaway. I think it is a pound per order, but it may be per item. Starbucks actually lists two prices on the board.

US_vs_UK_KeyboardsHighlightThey have Different Computer KeyboardsI was registering my Oyster card when I joined the London HackerSpace and they wanted me to type in my email address. In the middle of the address I couldn’t find the @ sign. Shift-2 is the “, and the @ sign is where the ” is on our keyboard, over the single quote. Shift-3 is £, which maybe why I call the # the “pound key”. See the image for complete differences.

Stores with no UK Equivalent

Wal-Mart/Target There are some fairly large grocery stores, and a Tesco Super Store is a little like a Wal-Mart Super Store, but only a little. They have department stores where you can buy clothes and housewares, but they don’t have that category where you can buy toys, clothes, sporting goods, etc.

Hobby Lobby/Michael’s I needed a sewing kit and some proper needles. Well I can find cheap set at a Pound Store (Like our dollar stores and just as prolific), but there isn’t a big crafts store.


This has been the most difficult thing for us. We’re Americans and we’re used to tipping for everything. But in a conversation with an English photographer friend his comment was “Never. They picked their job, if they don’t like what they are paid get another job.”

On the other hand we Americans have corrupted the culture, and more places are encouraging tipping. At restaurants they either include a 10% “service charge” or say on the bill, “Service is NOT included”.

In the book Watching the English by an English anthropologist she told us it was an insult to tip a bartender at a Pub. That means they are “the help”. Instead you should occasionally buy them a pint.

They have a lot of delivery and none of those people expect to be tipped. I tipped a food delivery guy out of habit in Scotland and he appeared surprised.

In a twist, Uber, the disruptive car hire service started in the US, only allows tips for Taxi’s in London. Apparently London cabbies expect tips. (Uber by the way is cool. Used it for the first time getting from the train to our flat with 6 bags on arrival in London.)

Obviously the words used are different too, but you can find those in Britishisms.

Cardiff a Whogasim

DalekEyeWe spent a week in Cardiff and I have to say I really like the city. It was very different from Edinburgh which I liked as well.

Cardiff is a very modern city. Much more like American cities. Yes, it still had a castle in the middle of it and the house we stayed is was kind of “new” being built around 1920. But Cardiff has undergone a rejuvenation over the last couple of decades from a industrial port city to a cosmopolitan business and media center.

They like to say it is the youngest capital in Europe because it is the capital of Wales, which the Welch consider its own country. It is a new capital because the English just gave them back – devolved – some self rule in the last decade or so. But I think of it more like a state than a country, but that may just be me.

High Street

In the Cardiff High Street, but not the same as the Texas Mission burrito despite being a very similar big ass burrito place.
In the Cardiff High Street, but not the same as the Texas Mission burrito despite being a very similar big ass burrito place.
In every town in the UK they have a High Street. It is normally named this, but often that term encompases more than one street. The High Street is the main commercial shopping area. It has the majority of shops and many eating places. A smattering of banks and a Ladbrokes which is a sports betting chain here. As the High Street gets more popular, the road is often blocked off and it becomes a pedestrian only area.

So when you go to a new city and want to shop, you know to find out where the High Street is.

In Cardiff the High Street is more than one street. Doing a quick mapping thing, the area is about 92 Acres, 14 by 11 blocks. Some of this is enclosed completely, others parts are open areas. Much of it is blocked off to vehicles, and in the open outdoor areas you’ll often find street performers doing their thing. I even saw a street preacher on a literal soapbox speaking the truth in fire and brimstone. And people were listening.

Interestingly Google Maps will give you walking directions through the “mall” parts because it still thinks of them as streets. I get the impression they just closed off an outdoor mall and made it an indoor one. At least metaphorically, the architecture doesn’t look like it was ever designed to be outside.

Cardiff Quay

Cardiff Millennium Centre
Cardiff Millennium Centre
Another area of new development is around Cardiff bay. It’s called Cardiff Quay pronounced “key”. When shipping dropped off for the port the city decided to create a upscale business and entertainment zone around it. The new Welch Parliament building is right next to the water. The Millennium Center which is a beautiful performance and arts space. There’s a lot places to eat and it is very tourist focused.

It also the home of…

The Dr Who Experience

Whenever people asked why we came to Cardiff, I somewhat sheepishly answered “Dr. Who”.

The Dr Who Experience
The Dr Who Experience
I don’t think your average Brit understands just how popular Dr Who is in the States right now. Our hosts said they’d had other guests who came just to do the Dr Who Experience.

What is the Dr Who Experience? It’s a cross between a amusement park ride and a museum to the TV show.

The first floor is an “experience”. You walk through an an adventure that takes you from Starship Britain, lets you pilot the TARDIS, and run around with the Dr.

The second and third floor….wait I’ve got that all wrong.

The Ground Floor is the experience. The First and Second floors are the museum. The Brits don’t start numbering the floors until there is more than one.

The upper floors exhibit everything you could ever want to see from the show. There are at least 2 complete TARDIS consoles – the very first one rebuilt for the 50th anniversary special, and Tenent’s last one. Smith’s first console is part of the ride part of the experience. There is also the costumes of every Doctor. Costumes of most of the new companions from Rose through Claire. The top floor has props and monsters.

I took detailed pictures of everything and you can see them in my Dr Experience Album on Facebook.

Dr Who Watch
Dr Who Watch
I’ve noticed that my way of experiencing a place tends to include buying something. I now own a Scottish and Welsh flag for instance. At the Experience I wanted something unique and maybe subtle. Turns out they have a very nice Dr Who watch. If the band didn’t have the police box stuff on it, I don’t think anyone looking at it would realize it was Whovian at all.

I could go on about Cardiff, but I think this gives you a good understand of the place and my view on it.

Staff Required vs Help Wanted

If you’re looking for a job in the UK the signs you are looking for in shop windows say “Staff Required” or a more specific “Sales Staff Required”.

In the US we ask for help. The sign says “Help Wanted”. I wonder if this has to do with some negative connotations to the word “Help”? Not in the sense of needing assistance, but in the sense of “The Help”.

A Proper Kilt

One of the things I really wanted to do while in Edinburgh was get a proper kilt. One made by master kilt makers from a high quality tartan and sized for me.

Today I picked it up and it is a beauty.


What I really wanted was a Bluebonnet Tartan which is the official tartan of Texas. But that is owned by a woman in Texas and no one else can weave it without her permission.

I asked what the kilt maker suggested and they asked my name. There is on Davis tartan, but the Scots will tell you what line it goes back to. Davis comes from Davies and Davies comes from Davidson, for which there is an official readily available tartan. Actually there are two Davidson tartans, and I picked the Ancient Davidson because I liked it a bit better. By readily available I mean they keep that one around already weaved and can therefore start on your kilt immediately.

Kilt Front
Kilt Front

Sorry for the crap accessories. I have a very nice kilt belt at home – nicer than any I found in Scotland, even at high end places – so I just bought the cheapest one I could find here. Same for the sporran.

Kilt Maker

Having done a little research I’d pretty much already decided on Geoffrey the Tailor on the Royal mile.

This video on YouTube on the Evolution of the Kilt is a good introduction to kilt making. They don’t own the weaving place mentioned in the video anymore, though they do still weave their own kilts.

When ordering the kilt I talked to one of their kilt makers who said she’d been with the company since she was 16 and was now in her 40s. They did a great job explaining the different ways the can pleat the back of the kilt. The default proper way to pleat the kilt in the back is so the same pattern shows in the front and the back. The pattern of the tartan is maintained even though there’s probably 5 yards of material making it up. That’s the way my kilt is made.

Kilt Back
Kilt Back
The little white threads are to hold the pleats in place while the rest of the kilt it worked on. I’ll cut them off before I officially wear the kilt, but I think it will help the kilt survive going into my suitcase for the next part of our trip.


When I ordered the kilt the tailor said “We’ll make matching flashes for it as well.” I expected them to match the tartan, but the Mrs was the first to notice they are actually two different colors on each side.

Davidson Kilt Flashes
Davidson Kilt Flashes
That is because they show different parts of the tartan pattern. I leave you to play match the patterns.

An Improper Kilt Too

My now thought of as Dress Kilt is big and heavy and so nice I might be reluctant to wear it some times. I decided to get a cheaper kilt as well. I bought this black kilt for casual wear and I may do some wearable electronics stuff to it for WorldCon. (More on that in a later post).

Black Kilt Back
Black Kilt Back
Black Kilt Front
Black Kilt Front

Till Vs Register

In the states the machine used to pay for things you buy is called a cash register, or the register for short.

In the UK it’s called the till.

I also confused a shop person at the Apple Store in Glasgow when I said I needed to “check out”. They don’t seem to use that term at all. Rather they just say the straight forward “I want to pay.”

5 Things Brits Take For Granted Americans Don’t Have

Electric Kettles

It took me a little while to notice this one because I actually do have an electric kettle. I twigged to it one day while watching a cooking (or cookery as they say here) show and the chef grabbed his electric kettle and added boiling hot water to something. That wouldn’t happen in your average American house. We’d have a rather complicated procedure to boil water.

Falkirk Wheel rotates 180 degree raising the boat and water in the bottom to the top.
Falkirk Wheel rotates 180 degree raising the boat and water in the bottom to the top.

Obviously this comes from the UK have a tea culture the US doesn’t. They also metaphorically measure energy based on the tea kettle. According to our skipper, it take just over 6 kettles of tea boils to turn the Falkirk Wheel, all 400+ tons of it.

Grocery delivery

Sure they’ve tried this big innovation in the US, but in the UK it’s just taken for granted. It’s pretty nice. You go to a grocery store’s website, add everything you want to a shopping basket and pay for it. Then you can select a delivery time. The delivery time slots vary in price based on how popular they are.

Oh and unlike an American cable or phone company, they hit their delivery times almost exactly.

Passenger trains to everywhere

Trains to Every Where
Trains to Every Where

Train travel is ubicutous in the UK. It’s assumed you can get to any town on the British Isles via train and you can.

Train travel is interesting. As an American you want to compare it to air travel and you notice those differences first. There’s no security checkpoint to strip down and go through. You have to take care of your own bags. There are big shelves in each car for large luggage and you put your bags there. You are also warned to keep an eye on them yourself. You can put “hand baggage” in racks over your seat. Train seats can face either forward or backwards, and some have tables between them.

Chip and pin credit cards

All UK credit cards have computer chips in them. Everywhere has little terminals they stick your card in and then it asks for a PIN instead of having you sign. Of course my credit card for the trip requires a signature, but the machines handle that fine.

One interesting thing is at restaurants they bring the machines to you. I bet it’s weird to UK travelers in the US that waiters take their cards away to run them.

Adult TV

This first time you’re watching British TV around 10 PM and someone says “Fuck” an American does a double take. “Shit” is also common. There does seem to be a rule about what time you can bring out the cuss words but they can say all the forbidden words.

In the UK there is what they call “freeview” TV. This is the TV your TV license fee (ie tax) entitles you to plus some commercial channels that get included. After that you can pay for more TV if you want more. Not much different from the US, though much of the free BBC TV has no commercials.

Ready yourself for another double take if you scroll down the channels around 11PM or midnight and suddenly are confronted with a woman in lingerie with her legs spread as wide as the will go. She’ll be waving a wireless phone handset with one hand and stroking herself with the other. All the while she’ll be attempting to sell you the idea of calling her at the number on the screen for some private time, or hitting the “Big Red Button” which is some sort of interactive TV available here.

I was going to write some personal sociological musings about Brits and sex, but I really don’t have enough insight yet. I’ll have to do some research 🙂

It is the end of our time in Scotland and we’ll be leaving for Cardiff in a couple of days. The next two weeks is be more like a standard American vacation than any part of our trip. Middle of July we’ll land in London and spend the rest of our time there. Expect to hear more insight then.

Wee Scottishisms

Scots speak differently than the English and have a whole slurry of words that are different. Here a few that I’ve picked up recently.

Scotishisms Tea Towel
Scotishisms Tea Towel

Wee = little

Before I got here I really thought the Scots wouldn’t possibly use wee for little much. I was wrong. They pretty much always say wee vs little. Matter of fact when I heard a Scot say little yesterday I noticed.

Crabit = Grumpy

Learned this one recently from a tour bus driver. I found it interesting because she said it in the context of describing the difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh. She said Glasgow people were more open and friendly and “we in Edinburgh can be a little crabit”.

Glen = Valley

Not a major one, but it’s relevant.

Loch = Lake

There is only one lake in all of Scotland Lake of Menteith. It used to be called a Loch as well but when John de Menteith sold out William Wallace, Scots stopped calling it a Loch. Or at least that’s the story our highland tour guide told us. Every other inland body of water is referred to as a Loch.

Even though it is pronounced the same, it shouldn’t be confused with a Lock. A Lock is like a water elevator on their canals. Of course the Falkirk Wheel really is a canal elevator, but there are still lots of Locks on the canals around Scotland.

5 Things Americans Take For Granted The Average Brit Doesn’t Have

Ice Water at Meals

In the US when you sit down at a restaurant almost the first thing that will happen is the waiter will bring everyone a class of ice water. In Britain, not so much.

Firstly they will only bring you water if you ask for it. Then they will ask if you want “still or sparkling”. If you say still and mention it is for the whole table, they will probably bring you a bottle and glasses.

They also won’t bring you ice unless you ask for that specifically too. Actually they don’t put ice in their drinks by default. We even went to Burger King once and they don’t put ice in their drinks here.

Ice Tea

I’m pretty sure this concept is blasphemous. You can always order tea at a restaurant in the UK, that’s a given. They normally bring you a little kettle of hot water and a cup with a tea bag in it. Their tea bags don’t have strings on them either. You just have to fish them out with a spoon when you are done.

Normally you’ll also get a little pot with milk in it. I thought this a weird idea the first time someone asked if I wanted milk in my tea. But my “this is an adventure” mentality made me say yes and try it. (By the way this took place at a hair salon, where they offered us tea or coffee while we waited)

I liked it. British tea is always black tea, and it’s pretty strong. That’s not a surprise when you think you are using a whole tea bag – about the size of a big one at home – in one cup. Adding milk a) looks cool going in, and b) tones down the strength some too.

Air Conditioning

I guess saying Americans take this for granted is a southern/western idea. I know people up north often don’t have AC. It’s true here probably for the same reason, it just doesn’t get that warm much.

Room Radiator
Room Radiator

They also don’t have ceiling fans, which is a little odder because they have some effect on heating as well and are easy to put in.

You can also open windows about everywhere. I was at a business lounge in a business building and someone opened the window. Their windows don’t open like ours either. Instead of sliding up, they tilt outward from either the top or bottom.

They also heat differently. Each room has a radiator in it. You can set the level of that radiator at the radiator, but there is still a central thermostat that turns them off and on. It’s also a good place to put some clothes to dry. Which brings us to…

Clothes dryer

Drying Rack
Drying Rack

Some places are starting to have dryers, but it is still rare. Mostly people either hang them outside to dry on a clothesline, or they use “drying racks” inside the house.

They have some washer dryer combos, but from everything I’ve heard about them the dryer isn’t very effective.

Our expat friends have a dryer in their flat with interesting twist on the American concept.

Where does the moist air from your dryer go? At home it is vented to the outside of the house via a big silver hose.

In the UK houses weren’t made for that. Instead the dryers have a reservoir in the bottom that collect the water. A light comes on to tell you when it is full and you have to empty it by hand.


Almost everyone does their dishes by hand. There are dishwashers – our expat friends have one – but mostly people wash by hand.

Sink With Draining Side
Sink With Draining Side

Guess it’s a good thing we went almost 2 years doing ours at home in Abilene, so we’re used to it.

An interesting side effect of this is I haven’t seen a double sink yet. Instead they have a flat draining surface on the right side of the sink.

Remember how I said different isn’t bad. Next time I’ll tell you 5 things Brits take for granted Americans don’t have.