My Very American Moments in London

April 28, 2014

Truth be told, I feel like I only recovered from jet lag this past weekend. Crazy, right? I’ve been back for a week…but honestly, I didn’t really sleep when I was in London. Lucky for me, the early years of having babies who are only 16 (and some change) months apart laid a solid foundation for adaptable sleep patterns, right? Haha. Save for last night, I have been in bed by 9 p.m. at the latest every night since I got back. Today is the first day where I don’t feel like I need a nap in the middle of the afternoon. I am really only telling you this because I wish I had the energy to blog some of this stuff before now. 🙂

As I’ve covered here, I am not well-traveled internationally, so with that comes a healthy does of self-consciousness about ‘fitting in’. I already knew my accent would give me away the moment I opened my mouth (as it does here in Portland – haha!). But I didn’t really account for those ‘awkward American’ moments where I felt I was being pin-spotted and the entire country was looking upon me aghast. (Yes, yes – this is very dramatic, I know, but I mean it.)

Anyway, I arrived in London sleepless, but excited. And kinda shocked that despite the fact that there was no excuse for me NOT to sleep during the 14 – 15 hours I was on a plane, I only dozed off for small periods at best. No matter – I was an American gal in LONDON – something I’ve looked forward to for many, many years. But with my arrival came some of those awkward American gal moments that I am pretty sure could / would only happen to me. Read on, friends. 🙂

American gal moment #1: You have to turn on the electricity in your hotel room before anything that requires it will work.

Upon arriving, I really thought I was a moron as I stood in my room waiting for my bag to be delivered and couldn’t get any of the lights on. There were all sorts of buttons and switches and slots on the wall just off the entry, but none seemed to be the magic switch that turned the lights on. I was, however, extremely delighted by the fancy ‘Do Not Disturb’ / ‘Service Room Please’ switches that would light up a placard outside of my room to state my preferences if / when the electricity worked.

When the bellhop arrived, I was still in the dark (-ish…it was 3 p.m., so there was a decent amount of natural light coming through the window). Using my best attempt to be casual and cool, I mentioned that I didn’t think my room had electricity, and wondered if I should call the front desk for help. The very polite gentleman grinned and asked if I received two room keys. I said I had and he asked, “May I have one?” I made giant bug eyes as I smirked and said, “You want one of my room keys? I am married. And, we just met like two seconds ago.” (See? American. With a side of East Coast quick-wit.) Luckily, he was good-natured and cracked up, and said, “No, no, miss – sorry for the misunderstanding. I need one of your room keys to operate the electric.” He didn’t wait for me to hand over a key at this point, rather he gave me a Billy Elliot / Victoria Palace Theater promotional card and showed me where to insert it to turn the electricity on. He then told me I have to do this each time I enter and remove it each time I exit.

Aha! Pretty genius, actually. I am not sure of the reasons why you have to turn on the electricity, but it seems to be a good way to conserve, at the very least. This is probably also something that should have been explained when I checked in, but let’s take the lack of instruction to mean that I look like a savvy international traveler, shall we?

American gal moment #2: There was a short period of time where I questioned whether Londoners preferred cold showers because I couldn’t figure out the super fancy shower controls in my hotel room. 

Yep, my first shower was lukewarm at best. As I was shivering through this torture, and wondering why Kenny hadn’t warned me about this, I remembered my Grandmom Newman telling me (tall) tales about European women taking cold showers to “keep things firm”, so in the midst of my own cold shower, I started thinking that her (tall) tales weren’t actually tall at all. Perhaps an affinity for cold showers was indeed a cultural difference?! (Yes. For real. I had this conversation with myself. What can I say? I was delirious from lack of sleep and hypothermia at this point, so it made sense at the time.)

In fact, I was so convinced that cold showers might actually be a thing here  that I asked one of my friends / colleagues back home about it.

Naturally, she replied she didn’t remember having to take cold showers, but in a show of  what I can only assume was pity for her moronic colleague, she couched that with a statement along the lines of ‘but I don’t really like hot showers anyway, so maybe I didn’t really notice.’

This American gal spent about 15 minutes the next morning trying to find hot water. I eventually figured things out and enjoyed hot showers the rest of the week. I especially enjoyed that I thought this was a cultural difference instead of a simple user error. Totes American. Haha.

American gal moment #3: I am so accustomed to the cross-walk buttons not working in American cities, that I didn’t even try them in London.

And I definitely stood at my first cross walk way longer than I should have as a result. Someone finally came along and pushed the button and I was trotting across the street in seconds. Duh.

American gal moment #4: I had to ask my first cab driver to help me sort my local cash.

Americans are more bill-oriented than coin-oriented, so I didn’t realize that coins were pounds until my cabbie explained it to me. I just assumed that coins had smaller value and you couldn’t really use them for anything of real value. However, there are pound coins and two-pound coins in London – perfect for tips!

American gal moment #5: I had no idea where to get a forgotten item.

One of the charming things about London is that it seemed to be a series of small shops vs. the mega-brand stores we have here in America. However, if one forgets say….their hair brush, this makes it difficult to discern which shops might carry such items.

Since I had already embarrassed myself with one of my friends / colleagues back at home, I decided that I could ask my London-based friend / business partner where one could procure a hair brush. He graciously took me around town to secure one before we headed out to dinner that evening and then helped me select a good brand. I went British with my selection because, well, I figured if I was adding to my brush “collection”, why not go international?

American gal moment #6: I had no idea where to get cash. And how!

I stupidly figured 100 USD in cash would be fine for the week since I was on a business trip and would use my corporate card for most expenses. I am pretty much cash-free all the time, so this seemed reasonable. And it was a fine plan until I realized that black cabs don’t always take cards and they are crazy expensive. I used almost all of my cash on two cab rides to / from the office on Monday (my first full day there).

So, I needed cash AND a hair brush by the time dinner rolled around. Which means the poor fella who had to take me hair brush shopping also had to take me to get cash.

Naturally, my bank card didn’t work, which was simply fantastic. It was past operating hours in the US when this happened, so I would have to wait to call the bank until the morning. BUT – I needed cash that night for my cab ride home.

Yes. It happened. This American had to borrow cash from a local friend after I already made him take me hair brush shopping.

As he was throwing me in the cab (quickly, to get himself out of any other possible crazy requests I might have), I made some jokes along the lines of ‘Hey, thanks for dinner…and the hair brush…and the cash. Aren’t you glad I came to visit?” Hahaha. Oh my. Awkward American. He’s still speaking with me (and pleasantly), so I guess he didn’t mind too much. (Or it could be that we’re currently partnering on the largest event we produce every year and he has no choice. Haha.)

American gal moment #7: Tipping isn’t really a big thing in London.

But, because I am American, I am mentally programmed to tip for services. I was definitely a fan-favorite with servers, cabbies and bellhops by the time I left!

American gal moment #8: I walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk.

Which causes a lot of close / unwelcome contact with strangers. I mentioned to my hairbrush-shopping, bank-rolling friend that I felt like Londoners walk very close to each other and there wasn’t a ton of personal space to be had. I told him I was going to start walking down the street like this <picture me walking with elbows out to the side, even with my shoulders> (if you don’t know me, but are reading this, picture someone you do know doing that pose – haha). He quipped, “This isn’t America, man. This is an ISLAND – precious space to be had.” Hahahaha.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I realized I was actually walking on the right, like all Americans do. Muscle memory. Haha. Once I figured out that I should be on the left, all was right in my world. (See what I did there?) Sure, people still walk closely to one another, but in a normal ‘this is a crowded city’ kind of way vs. a full body contact kind of way.

All-in-all, nothing too embarrassing, right? Sure, sure a few laughs to be had, but I think I’d be welcomed back. 😉


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