Britishness seen from the outside

Britishness is so much more than double-decker busses and drinking tea. My fiancé, Richard, and I came here for our Master’s degrees. Having lived in Ireland for five months, we thought we knew what it would be like. We had traveled to Scotland and England, they seemed pretty similar, right?

Wrong. Both of us were born and raised in California and the UK is pretty alien to our accustomed way of being. Besides driving on the wrong side of the street and not stopping for pedestrians, there are many other aspects of British life that we were unaccustomed to. In my Creative Writing program, many interesting conversations arise from these incongruencies. Pants are apparently called trousers. Colorful pants are called chinos if they aren’t jeans material. And, of course, punctuation comes up a lot, from the Oxford comma to what is considered clichéd to nitpicky things, like is it downstairs or downstairs? But it is the stratification of class in every aspect of life that is really foreign.

One of my classmates said about their story, “I chose those names on purpose because they are lower-class, but I’m writing about middle class people.” He said he wanted advice on how to write a story without the class differences – my bewildered response? “Just write a story…” Similarly, when I asked what a ‘posh’ last name would be, I was immediately informed that Harrington-Smythe would be perfect. “You have to have a dashed name, the first one longer. Smythe is upper class of Smith,” I was instantly informed. It seems ingrained in my classmates’ way of life, permeated through the culture from names to grocery stores.

Richard and I are both vegetarian, I am gluten free, and he is dairy free – so naturally we have to shop at every grocery store to get all the things on our list. As Americans, we are practically trained to go for the good deal; if carrots taste better at M&S we get them there, if bell peppers are cheaper at Tesco, no problem. We don’t consider ourselves posh for wanting a free coffee every day from Waitrose. And all of these stores seem practically the same to our eyes. But from a British perspective, there is a distinction. Richard’s teachers in the business programme talk about this a lot. You have to know your customer, build your brand. One of class does not shop at Primark, and M&S and Waitrose are the only grocery stores to be affiliated with.

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Fashion is another aspect that I’m sure class touches, though I am too distant to really understand it here. To me, the men with styled hair, tight pants, nice coats, and artful scarves are above and beyond what most men back home wear on a day to day basis. They all smoke like movie stars, rolling their own cigarettes in a well-practised movement. And when we lived in Ireland, the guys all wore sweats and sneakers. Pants and fancy shoes were for ‘going out.’ Through these transitions, Richard wears the same jeans and T-shirts, like I do. In Ireland I stood out from the women by this fact alone: I dressed warmly and comfortably, while they had short skirts in the freezing rain, usually no coats when out partying, and insane make-up that stayed pristine despite the weather. Here, the women are too diverse for me to comprehend, from plain to extravagant, short skirts to puffy coats.

It isn’t just the way people look, but also the way people act that is different from the States. Backhome , servers depend on their tips to make a living and are often very friendly and make small talk, asking about your day. Most jobs place great emphasis on friendliness and customer service in the hiring process. Café servers here seem very brisk and no-nonsense in comparison. Sometimes we go to Starbucks just to have someone be a bit nicer than the usual barista.

When we were applying for university, we were pleasantly surprised with the differences in paperwork from American colleges. In the States, your letters of recommendation are supposed to be sent from your teacher directly to each school you are applying for, as is your transcript, etc. Neither of us enjoys extra paperwork and we thought the ease of application process to be exemplary of Britain’s paperwork situation. Alas, the framework is absurdly bureaucratic. It seems like every extra piece of paperwork can only be dropped off in this place, at this specific time, and these three people have to have already signed it before this last person will sign it – then we can take a week just for that signature before you can get it back, turn it in to these other people, who will print up what you need within another week. If you’re lucky.

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And yet some things are familiar. The gym down the street contains the grunting regulars; the children are adorable; and there are good Asian restaurants. People walk their dogs and go about their lives. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things that I prefer here and will terribly miss when we have to go back (if we go back – I mean, if Trump wins, we’re staying). The transit systems are extremely useful and use green energy, the food is properly labelled as to where it was grown and what is in it, and we even have a gluten-free bakery down the street that provides sourdough – something my California life has been lacking since I was diagnosed with coeliac disease.

Living in Oxford, I am constantly aware of the amazing history that surrounds us. The Vaults and Garden café is in a building that has been there since 1320. The Queen’s Lane Coffee House has been there since 1654. There is nothing remotely comparable in the United States, especially not on the west coast. Back home, going for a hike in nature, the world around you almost feels young and unexplored still. I think just knowing the history of the millions of people who have lived here and walked these very streets over 1,000 years ago makes everything seem far weightier.