I thought I was prepared, a seasoned traveler. I was armed with knowledge, curiosity and bleary eyes from reading everything I came across that had to do with England. And yet, it still managed to surprise me.
Don’t get me wrong. Visiting London was fantastic and I’m more than eager to return. I love the blend of old and new, the vibe of the city, the diversity. Even so, there were certain things that caught me off guard, some good and some not so good. Things like this:
1. You pay to use public restrooms.
This was true in Paris as well, even in the train station. The only way to avoid this is to make sure to use every free bathroom you encounter in pubs, restaurants, your hotel room, etc.
2. You have to turn things on…before you can turn them on.
I spent thirty minutes trying to figure out why the oven wasn’t heating up in the flat we rented. By the time I finally found the little on/off switch on the wall behind the coffee maker, I wasn’t even hungry anymore. It probably saves a lot of energy not having things on all the time, but it was frustrating not knowing how to do something as simple as turn on the oven.
3. Lemonade is a soda…
…kind of like a Sprite, and it probably won’t come with much ice. The first time this showed up at our table, we figured our waiter misunderstood. By the third time we just accepted that this was what they call lemonade in London. And despite the fact that it comes in what we would consider a child-sized portion…
4. Don’t expect a free refill…
…because that’s not a thing in London. Or anywhere in Europe that I’ve heard of.
5. The power adapter you buy for London won’t work in France.
Or pretty much anywhere outside of the UK other than Hong Kong and Singapore. And the one you buy for France will work in Germany and Greece, but not Switzerland or Italy. Moral of the story: make sure you have the right adapter for EACH of the countries you’ll be visiting. Because the last thing you want is to not be able to charge your phone on your epic vacation!
6. Your HBO Now subscription won’t work in London.
This was especially painful for my son since he missed two episodes of Game of Thrones while we were gone. There are apparently ways to use proxy servers and unlocators to make it work, but I can’t say how effective (or legal) they are or how much they cost. We just waited until we got home to catch up on the episodes we missed. And avoided any social media posts with spoilers!
7. You might have to carry your trash for a while because trash bins are hard to find.
Most US cities have trash cans up and down the streets. Not so in London.
8. You have to buy your shopping bags or bring your own.
I fully support this, I just wasn’t expecting it. Especially when the cashier in Tesco said it so fast that I wasn’t even sure what she had said and then I felt like an idiot asking her to repeat it. Twice. Suddenly it made sense why there were so many bags in our flat. Next time I shopped I was ready!
9. Welsh is very different from English. But you probably won’t hear it.
Even though we spent a day in Cardiff, and saw it written on several buildings, we didn’t hear anyone speaking the native language. Everyone spoke English.
10. Look right before entering the crosswalk, not left.
Fortunately, this reminder is often painted on the curb or on the street. Not quite as ubiquitous as “Mind the gap” on the Tube, but equally important if you want to avoid being hit by a bus.
11. English food is as diverse as the people who live there.
I’ll admit — I went in with very low expectations for English food. My father, who hates McDonalds, actually went to one in London after having to endure what he called “bland food” for more than a week. That was more than a decade ago. Our experience was very different. Every restaurant we went into had delicious food and my daughter didn’t have a hard time finding vegan meals. It’s possible that we just got extremely lucky, but we were thrilled with the food in London.
12. Free wi-fi is literally everywhere.
I wasn’t sure if I should buy SIM cards for each of our phones, buy a pricey travel package from Verizon or just suck it up and stay on Airplane Mode anytime we weren’t in the flat. We ended up getting a cheap international package and taking advantage of the wi-fi all around us. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to find free wi-fi, even on the street. Some of those iconic phone booths have been transformed into wi-fi hubs, making it easy to stay in communication with friends.
13. So is CCTV.
It was a bit disconcerting to realize that you’re being watched all the time. Even the flat we rented had CCTV in the hall, the living room and over the entryway, presumably to make sure we weren’t trying to sell off the flat screen TV to pay for our return tickets. Most public spaces have up signs letting you know that CCTV is in use, and you do get to where you don’t think about it very much. But still, it felt a bit Orwellian. Maybe that’s the trade-off for not having guns?
14. People dress nicely. Really nicely.
Maybe because they’re always on camera? 🙂 It was fun to people watch and try to figure out who lived in the city based on how they were dressed.
15. Londoners are extremely kind and helpful.
Since London is such a big city, I didn’t expect to get a lot of tourist love. I was wrong. People were friendly, happy to give directions, willing to help if needed, sometimes downright chatty! It made our trip that much better meeting so many nice people along the way.
16. It doesn’t rain every day.
We were in London for nine days. We had rain one afternoon and on the morning we flew home. One other day was gray and cloudy, but the rest of the time was sunny and beautiful.
Even with cloud cover, London is one of the most incredible cities I have visited. For me, the good outweighed the not so good, without a doubt.