It's the Little Things...

Small observations of things that have struck me as weird during our UK stay to this point:

-- There is no alarm clock in our hotel room.

-- There are no drinking fountains in public spaces.

-- The travel-on-the-left thing would be easier if it were consistently applied. About one stairway in three asks people to go up the right side instead, and for some reason the escalator etiquette is to stand on the right, walk on the left. (That last is sort of a moot point at Worldcon, given the tendency of many fans to just plop themselves squarely in the middle of the steps and block everything up...)

-- "Bacon" to the English apparently means "thick slices of undercooked ham."

-- "Pie" to the English apparently means "bowl of stew with a croissant on top." At least based on the pubs I've eaten in. Granted, it's been very tasty stew-and-pastry, but it's an odd use of "pie"...

-- The reputation of American beer is even worse than I realized, because whenever I order an ale in a bar, I get complimented for my bravery.

-- I keep getting tripped up by the price of things, because food and drink prices look perfectly reasonable, if they were in dollars. Of course, they're actually in pounds, and thus 70% higher than they look. For about 70% as much food as you would get in the US.

Nothing shockingly original here, I'm sure. These probably would've gone on Twitter, but I haven't bothered setting it up on my phone here, so I'll dump them here, instead.

Anyway, having a very good time. A brief whine on Twitter about the lack of character in the Docklands area where the con is being held produced a recommendation for the Grapes in Limehouse, a short train ride away. This was exactly what I wanted-- tiny pub, good beers, and cheerful and friendly mockery from the woman running the bar. Sir Ian McKellan is one of the co-owners, but the only indicator of this is a Gandalf staff on the wall behind the bar. We also got lunch the other day at the Victoria two blocks from Hyde Park; given the name and the location, I was expecting it to be wall to wall tourists, but everybody else in there seemed to be locals, including a couple of guys doing some sort of business deal. I concur with the linked reviews that both of these are worth a visit.

I've been posting photos on Google+-- only a selection of the many I've taken, because the hotel wi-fi is slooooow-- but if you want a sense of what we've been up to:

The Tower and St. Paul's
The Tate Modern, the Globe, and Millennium Bridge
Hyde Park

More like this

Wait, somebody said something wrong about the UK on the internet? I have to comment.

First, a parable. When I was a student in Cambridge, the international students in my college would consistently complain about two things. Firstly they would say that ALL windows in the UK are drafty, and then they would say that ALL showers in the UK have no water pressure. Now, if you are a student in Cambridge then you live in one of two types of accomodation. You either live in an ancient listed college building that cannot be modified, or you live in rented accomodation in the private sector. In the former, there are obvious reasons why the building might not have double glazing or modern plubming. In the latter, the landlord is not living in the house and has no motivation to make improvements, since you are the one paying the utility bills. I am quite sure he has double glazing and a power shower in his own house. He can afford this because of the inflated rent he is charging you.

OK, after this parable about the dangers of over-generalization, let's try to sort these comments into genuine quirks of the UK vs. things that are particular to your experience.

– There is no alarm clock in our hotel room.

That's odd, but not an especially British thing, just something weird about your hotel.

– There are no drinking fountains in public spaces.

This may have something to do with the fact that the climate is such that you are not likely to die of dehydration if you stand outside for several hours. Still, a lot of public spaces do have them in my experience, e.g. hospitals, schools, parks, etc.

I think your experience has something to do with being in central London. A lot of the public infrastructure, e.g. water fountains and public bathrooms, was closed down at some point since, why waste money maintaining something that is only going to be used by thousands of tourists each day when you can get them to pay instead?

– The travel-on-the-left thing would be easier if it were consistently applied.

Can I justify this? If you are standing on the escalator then you want to he holding the rail with your strongest hand, which for most people is their right. People who are walking up the escalator are relying on holding the rail to a lesser extent. On the other hand, for a staircase the same reasoning implies that you want the bannister on your right, so you should walk on the right.

From this, it follows that there should be a second escalator and staircase everywhere for left handed people to comply with anti-discrimination legislation. Maybe this is why some tube stations have two escalators in each direction. Or maybe not.

– “Bacon” to the English apparently means “thick slices of undercooked ham.”

In Britain, there are two types of bacon called "bacon rashers" or "streaky bacon". Rashers are cut from the loin and are considered the correct accompaniment for a full English breakfast. Streaky bacon is cut from the belly and is similar to the American version of bacon. Neither of these are "ham", which would refer to a cut from the hind legs, although with the processed stuff available these days who knows what ham really is any more.

If anything, you could call bacon rashers "pork", since the loin is also used for pork cuts. The main difference is that the bacon cut is thinner and includes more fat.

In any case, if you miss American style bacon then you should ask if they have "streaky bacon". They probably won't, but they will be impressed that you know the lingo.

– “Pie” to the English apparently means “bowl of stew with a croissant on top.” At least based on the pubs I’ve eaten in. Granted, it’s been very tasty stew-and-pastry, but it’s an odd use of “pie”…

A Lament for the Lost Art of British Pie Making

Up until the early 90's, a "pub" referred to an establishment in which you could drink, but food was thin on the ground. Typically you would find crisps, pork scratchings, and if you were lucky a pickled egg. This stems from the fact that, back in the dark pre-feminist days, pubs were traditionally places that men went after eating an early dinner with their families to get away from their wives. As time moved on, traditions changed and many pubs started trying to attract women and families. Also, many single people started eating later, leaving little time for the pub. One of the main ways in which pubs reacted to this was by offering food (of varying quality). Now, you could go to the pub straight after work and eat there, and families could come for Sunday Lunch and so forth.

Along with the food in pubs revolution came the invention of the "pie" that you refer to with a puff pastry crust just on top. These are invariably a dissapointment and not worthy of the name "pie". I can only surmize that they are easier to store frozen and bung in the oven than proper British meat pies, or perhaps they can use the same "stew" in more than one dish to make their menu look bigger.

A proper meat pie is encased in shortcrust pastry and is purchased from a butcher's, some bakeries, or, if you are lucky, a specialist pie shop. As a snack, it is a thing of beauty. Even better though, is to serve pie with mashed potato and peas, all covered in gravy. You'll be hard pressed to find these in a pub or restaurant in London unless you specifically seek out a specialist pie place.

The tradition of proper British pies is however alive and well in Australia, where they incorrectly think of them as "Australian" pies. They have, however, far surpassed the British in the average quality of pie. This is par for the course as the British are world champions at inventing things and then having other countries outperform us at them, c.f. cricket, tennis, etc. This is why snooker and darts are televised sports in the UK. They are the only sports left at which the British still regulalry win.

A tradition that is very much still alive in the UK however is the petrol/gas station pork pie. This is to be eaten in desparation, in a similar way to an NYC street hot dog. Also try "scotch eggs" and "breakfast bars" if you dare.

– The reputation of American beer is even worse than I realized, because whenever I order an ale in a bar, I get complimented for my bravery.

They must be used to American tourists who only drink lager. Note that, the definition of "ale" in North America seems to be very different to the UK. In the UK, "ale" is a beer that is bottom fermented whereas "lager" is beer that is top fermented, where "top" and "bottom" refers to whether the yeast floats on the top or sinks to the bottom during fermentation.

As far as I can tell, there are very few bottom fermented beers in the US; at least all the ones I have tried taste top fermented to me. You can tell because bottom fermented beers are basically flat and have a foamy head, if any at all, whereas top fermented beers taste like they are carbonated. It seems that "ale" is a synonym for "dark lager" in the States, which is a category that does not really exist in the UK. For this reason I usually stick to beers that are referred to as "lager" or "pale ale" in the States because I know they will be lagers made to a more or less traditional recipie, and many of the craft ones are quite good.

– I keep getting tripped up by the price of things, because food and drink prices look perfectly reasonable, if they were in dollars. Of course, they’re actually in pounds, and thus 70% higher than they look. For about 70% as much food as you would get in the US.

I can't complain about this one. It's expensive. If you want to see somewhere even more expensive then go to Scandinavia.

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 16 Aug 2014 #permalink

The water was unpalatable when I was there so consider yourself fortunate.

Ales are warm top fermented and lagers cold bottom fermented in the states. Most are lagers as they have an edge in taste. Carbonation comes from fermentation under pressure rather than the yeast. Pilsner is a classic lager.

I realized why there's no alarm clock after posting this: it's because the hotel has one of those enforced-conservation systems where you need to drop a room key in a little slot just inside the door to turn the electricity on. There's no alarm clock because they'd either need battery power or a separate circuit for every room that wasn't on the key-card switch.

(This is, by the way, very annoying-- when we first got in, we plugged our new phones in to charge then went out to Greenwich for a few hours. We came back to find that they hadn't charged at all, because the power cut off about five minutes after we took the card out of the slot on our way out the door. Fortunately, they keep screwing up bits of our reservation, so we've had a steady supply of non-functional room keys to leave in the slot to allow electronic to continue charging while we're off at the con.

The no water fountain thing is amusing, because there's an ad campaign running on the Tube about subway health. This includes one sign advising passengers to stay hydrated, and encouraging them to carry water bottles with them. Which would be much more useful advice were there anywhere to fill a water bottle in downtown London-- even the big museums we've been to (British Museum, Tate Modern) didn't have drinking fountains, and most of the restroom sinks seem to have a single auto-on faucet supplying hot water.

This isn't all bad, of course, because it provides an excuse to mostly drink beer. Bottled water is bad for the environment, you know.


Thanks for pointing out my mistake. Of course, I got "top fermented" and "bottom fermented" the wrong way round. I guess the American dark beers are brewed under too much pressure for my taste.

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 17 Aug 2014 #permalink

Water: The idea that you might drink water from the tap is mostly a North American thing. In most places, at least historically, you had to either boil it (which is why south and east Asians drink tea and Middle Easterners drink coffee) or add alcohol to it (which is why Europeans drink beer or wine) to make it safe to drink. The Japanese found an elegant alternative solution: the ubiquitous (at least in cities) vending machines where you can buy a bottle of water or can of soda (some machines also offer beer, but you may have to walk a few blocks to get to one of those machines).

Electricity: So far, I have only encountered the insert-key-to-turn-on-electricity system in Asia (specifically in Vietnam and China). In places where that is the norm, the fact that pulling out the key activates a timer rather than immediately shutting off the lights would mark your hotel as one of the better hotels in the city. However, I have been to places in the US with dodgy electricity networks (e.g., Fairbanks), so I am in the habit of traveling with an alarm clock.

On prices: London is notoriously expensive. You may find more reasonable prices in the countryside, if you are spending any significant time away from London. OTOH, prices in Europe generally include tax and gratuity (round up if you want to leave a tip), so if the menu says that item costs 10 pounds, it really does cost 10 pounds, as opposed to the US, where your $10 item actually costs $12-13 depending what state you're in.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Aug 2014 #permalink

Pilsner is a classic lager.

And Kölsch is a Lagerbier, even though it's top-fermented.