A Day in the Life of an American in London

Mar 24, 2018

As an American living in the UK, I often have people ask me how life here differs from in the US, and it’s a hard question to answer. On the one hand, things are pretty much the same whether you’re living in New York or London, but on the other hand, there are hundreds of tiny differences that can be confusing or annoying. So, I decided to pay attention one day and write down all the differences I could notice, no matter how small, over the course of one day (specifically, Monday, March 12, 2018). I’ve presented it in chronological order so you can get an idea of what it’s like to live a day in London as an American.

06:25 - We wake to the sounds of Max humming the ABCs to himself. The ABC song doesn’t rhyme properly here, because they say zed instead of zee for the last letter of the alphabet. As far as we can tell, there are a few local attempts to fix this—like shoehorning in extra syllables to end with “zed not zee”—but for the most part English children just sing the non-rhyming version.

06:30 - We go get Max out of bed. A child’s bed is a cot in England, not a crib.

06:40 - I bring Max downstairs and give him some milk. The standard milk varieties in England are called skimmed, one percent, semi-skimmed, and whole instead of skim, one percent, low fat, and whole, though their percentage milkfat is the same.

06:45 - I read Max a book. The book uses “Mum” and “Mummy” instead of “Mom” and “Mommy”, though I say it the American way because Pat prefers to be called “Mom”. Today, I’m reading a book where that doesn’t matter, but we have a couple books where “Mum” or “Mummy” are the end of a rhyming line, and so changing it is awkward.

07:00 - I head upstairs to take a shower, where a lot of things are different. The light switches are outside the bathroom. The brands of toothpaste and soap I bought in the US aren’t sold here, so I use another brand. The shower head points directly down from the ceiling instead of at an angle. Heated towel racks are a common feature in English bathrooms, though ours don’t work properly.

07:15 - Getting dressed. The English wear trousers instead of pants, though while the latter is instead used for underwear by the English, nobody gets confused when you refer to “pants” with an American accent.

In order to figure out what I need to wear, I check the weather, which is expressed in Celsius.

07:25 - Before I leave the house, I have to clean the cat box. Cat litter is almost universally non-clumping in England, whereas we prefer clumping litter, so we have to buy it from Amazon. Amusingly, the brand we like best is called AmericaLitter. After I clean the cat box, I wash my hands. Our usual brand of hand soap isn’t available here, so we buy a different one.

07:30 - I say goodbye to Pat and Max, who are eating breakfast. We used to prefer Cheerios, but in the UK they’re made by Nestle instead of General Mills and don’t taste the same, so we don’t buy them anymore.

On my way out the door, I take a bag of recycling with me. Recycling is pretty much the same, but you have to put it in clear plastic bags. The place in front of our house that has the plants (and, in our case, the shed with the recycling bin in it) is called the front garden rather than the front yard.

07:31 - A short walk from our house, I pass a place advertising MOT servicing, which is like a smog check.

07:32 - I cross the street via a zebra crossing rather than a crosswalk.

07:36 - I pass an off license, which is a store that has a license to sell alcohol for consumption off-premises. I also pass by a lot of restaurants, which are pretty much the same as in the US from the outside, but have a bit of a different mix: many more Indian and Mediterranean places, fewer Chinese and Thai.

07:50 - I pass through Camden Market, which is a huge tourist attraction. At this time of day, none of the shops are open except the ones that serve coffee, but by the afternoon the pavement (what Americans call the sidewalk) will be packed full of people. One shop that I pass is the American Candy Co., which I’ve never been into, but hung up in the window is a large amount of Arsenal merchandise.

07:55 - I pass by St Pancras Hospital, its sign emblazoned with the NHS logo. The National Health Service is one of the biggest changes: free, single-provider health care for everyone in the country. The fact that everyone gets world-quality care is revolutionary, and the lack of it in the US is an embarrassment.

08:00 - I pass under the tracks leading out of St Pancras railway station. Trains are a part of the national culture in England, for many people they’re the primary mode of transport, including when going on holiday (rather than vacation).

08:10 - I pick up breakfast on the way to my desk. Among the things on my plate are streaky bacon, which is what Americans simply call bacon, and hash browns, which are like American hash browns that have been formed into triangular bricks before being fried.

08:15 - I arrived at my desk, where I’m greeted by a UK layout keyboard. It’s largely the same as a US layout keyboard except for the symbols generated by Shift-number key combinations and the placement of a couple of the more unusual punctuation characters like |. I actually have my computer set to US layout, so when typing on my computer the output doesn’t match what the keycaps say.

08:45 - I have a work neighbor that’s newly arrived in the country, and we have a conversation about all the difficulties in moving here, chief among them opening a bank account. The most common form of bill payment in England, including for rent, is direct bank transfer. This causes some issues when moving here, because you can’t open a bank account without proof of address, and it’s hard to pay rent without a bank account.

09:00 - I go make tea using an electric kettle. Basically every home in the UK has an electric kettle, but they’re very uncommon in the US. That’s partly cultural and partly because the lower voltage in the US means they’re not as quick to boil.

12:45 - I get lunch. Among the things available today are courgette, what Americans call zucchini, and serrano ham. In general, European cultural foodstuffs are a lot more common here, so seeing Spanish or Italian meats or cheeses is routine. On the other hand, it’s rare to see some North American foods like tomatillos or Andouille.

13:00 - Clocks in the UK are more commonly set to 24-hour display than in the US, so several of the clocks around me now read 13:00.

13:50 - I read a tweet from our MP about saving women’s refuges. I have to look it up, but they’re what are called women’s shelters in the US. Also, we’re not allowed to vote in the UK, so we don’t get any say in who our MP is.

16:40 - I take the Tube home. It’s actually quite like the New York Subway or various other mass transit systems I’ve used, though the Tube of course has its own quirks. It has contactless payments, which are becoming more common in the US but haven’t yet reached full-scale deployment in New York, and relatively small trains but very frequent service (indeed, the Victoria line has the second most-frequent service of any metro line in the world).

17:00 - I stop at the grocery store on the way home. I don’t have much to get, as we’re not cooking dinner tonight, but the aisles are filled with rocket (arugula), aubergine (eggplant), and the like. One thing I do have to get is a bottle of wine. The wine selection is definitely heavily tilted towards France and Italy and away from the United States compared to what you’d see in an American grocery store; there’s more Chilean wine than there is Californian.

19:00 - It’s time to put Max to bed. I put a fresh nappy (diaper) on him and read him a couple books. Today’s books include Each Peach Pear Plum, which is an English cultural touchstone that I had never heard of before moving here, though I understand it’s available in the US. Several of our British friends know it by heart, even in their 30s.

20:00 - Pat and I order delivery. In the US, where you’d say to stay or to go, the English say eat in or take away. Today we’re having Indian. In the UK, when you order a curry or something else that’s typically served over rice from an Indian restaurant, the rice isn’t automatically included, unlike in the US. We’ve forgotten this a couple times and been duly delivered a tub of curry with no rice, though that doesn’t happen today.

Obviously not every difference comes up every day (I didn’t even mention pubs or The Great British Bake Off), but this is a pretty typical day for me, and I hope this gives people a better idea of what it’s like living here.