15 Things I Learned When Living in the UK
In early 2018, I volunteered in the United Kingdom through Workaway, a platform that arranges a homestay and cultural exchange for its members. I spent about three months in Norfolk and then a couple weeks in Scotland, where I mostly played tourist since I was on my own.
I’d been in the UK before, while in high school, so I thought I was prepared for all the cultural differences. Not only did I fall in love with Scotland — sorry, Brits, men in kilts stole my heart! — but I also discovered many more habits that I found strange, yet highly interesting. And I wouldn’t have necessarily learned these things by staying in Italy.
1. The British do not rinse their dishes
The British family who hosted me used to hand-wash the dishes that couldn’t fit in the dishwasher. Normal, right?
They’d fill a basin with water and soap, soak everything, and clean one dish at a time with a sponge. They then put the dishes on the drainer without rinsing them with clean water — they were still full of soap bubbles.
I later discovered that this habit was not exclusive to my guests, but is widely spread across the UK.
2. Sink taps
Speaking of water, let’s talk about sink taps. As you probably already know, the UK is sadly famous for having sinks with two separate taps — one faucet is for hot water that burns your hands after a few seconds and the other is for cold water.
Apparently, back in the day, cold water was drinkable, as it came from the public service, while hot water was not since it came from a cistern located inside the house. A special law was enacted to prevent the two waters from being mixed and creating not only health problems, but also an imbalance of water pressure.
It is currently possible to use a special mixer to combine the flow from the two taps — or this can be improvised by using a plastic bottle or a drain stopper.
I personally only saw these taps during my first stay in the UK, in 2005. During my 2018 trip, my host family didn’t have them and neither did my Airbnb. (My hands were happy not to get burned from the super hot water.)
3. Learning about tea, pudding, and the loo
If the British are not very careful about cleaning dishes, they certainly are in the use of words.
“Tea,” for example, refers not only to the afternoon break, but also to dinner. Likewise, “pudding” is not used exclusively for the sweet it is, but also for the non-pudding after-meal dessert.
And I discovered that saying “toilet” is rude — to say you have to go to the restroom, you must use the word “loo,” as in: “I’ll be right back — I just have to use the loo.”
4. Smashed peas
Fish and chips are a typical British dish, so I learned at school. But all my teachers seemed to have forgotten to mention they come with smashed peas. If you think “smashed peas” sound healthy, think again: they’re “smashed” with ingredients like butter and heavy cream.
Although the meal as a whole was delicious, it was impossible not to feel guilty when thinking about all the calories I’d consumed.
5. What the … haggis?!
The haggis is not a mythological creature that lives in the Highlands as I’d foolishly believed in the past. Rather, haggis is one of the most famous typical Scottish dishes and is also readily available in the supermarket.
But what is it?! Haggis is a combination of minced meat — mostly lungs, liver, stomach, and heart of sheep, lamb, or veal — mixed with ingredients like chopped onion, oatmeal, aromatic herbs, spices, and salt. Traditionally, all the ingredients would be cooked inside the sheep’s stomach, but these days, people tend to cook it in artificial casings.
When my host family told me what it’s made from, I thought I’d never have the courage to taste it. But how could I live in the UK and not? I tried it and … I must admit, I liked it! It’s an exquisite dish with an original taste and should absolutely be tried, along with “neeps and tatties” — turnips and potatoes — too.
6. Robert Burns
Robert Burns — also known as Rabbie Burns — was a famous Scottish poet and composer from the 18th century. Every January 25, on his birthday, the Burns Supper is held, a dinner in his honor.
As soon as I arrived in the UK, I had the opportunity to participate in this celebration. My hosts held a fun dinner: The head of the family recited the “Selkirk Grace,” a prayer by Burns, and then we all drank a sip of whiskey in Burns’ honor. Of course, haggis was for dinner, this time with mashed potatoes and turnips.
7. Scotch eggs and sticky toffee pudding
My journey through English delicacies did not end with haggis. Another typical dish is a Scotch egg — a boiled egg wrapped in sausage, covered in breadcrumbs, and fried.
There are different versions of these eggs, which depends on the cooking of the egg yolk and type of meat used. At Lemon Tree Deli and Cafe in Ely, for instance, I tasted some with black pudding, a type of blood sausage made from pork blood and cereal, like oatmeal or barley groats.
Scotch eggs are definitely caloric and perfect for a packed lunch that can give you plenty of energy while you visit some delightful British towns, like Peterborough, Lincoln, or King’s Lynn.
And while we’re on the topic of rich dishes, why not talk about sticky toffee pudding?
It is typically a cone-shaped dessert with ingredients like flour, butter, dates, vanilla, and eggs. The pudding is served upside-down and covered with a sauce made from butter, sugar, and treacle (a dark syrup of non-crystallized sugar) — with lots of cream.
Have you ever tried to get on an Italian train carrying a heavy suitcase and wondered why on Earth someone decided to add three extra steps to climb up the wagon? Well, the UK trains don’t have those steps.
This was a pleasant surprise for me, considering that when I arrived in the UK, I was traveling with a rather large suitcase. But while the lack of steps to access the train was a strong point for me, I cannot say the same for punctuality. Yes, we Italians always complain about the delays of our trains, but when I went to the station to leave for Edinburgh, I discovered that the first train had been canceled and the next one was also late.
However, English trains are perfect for daily trips. An off-peak day ticket, and return, cost just a little bit more than a single ride. I took advantage of this option to visit cities like Ely, Cambridge, and London, and highly recommend you do the same.
9. No umbrella?!
In April 2018, it was a cold, windy, and rainy day in Inverness. I was wearing my amazing padded waterproof coat, hat, hood, and umbrella. Too much? Definitely “yes” compared to the gentleman who was walking along the river wearing just a jacket and tie, regardless of the rain. To him, it was like a sunny day …
In fact, nobody around me was using an umbrella.
Or so I thought until I decided to enter a church to stay a bit warm and I met a couple — they had an umbrella! And the funny thing was, like me, they were from Italy.
10. Free museums
The UK is famous for its gray and rainy days, which is not great for being outdoors, but perfect for visiting free museums, from The National Gallery in London to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
There is something for everyone — lovers of art and history, science, or archaeology. You can visit the museums with children, or alone, and spend days and days learning new things.
Although the museum guides, audio guides, and tours are free, donations are always welcome.
11. Deer and trees
During a guided tour in Scotland, I discovered that most trees throughout the UK are not native: The deforestation has taken place gradually to give more ground to farmers and shepherds.
The two World Wars were the coup de grâce, when a large number of trees were cut down and non-local plants, which were able to grow faster, were planted to restore the forests.
In Scotland, the government recently decided to plant typical vegetation to rebuild the woods as they once were. But red deer make the job difficult, as they eat the young trees. As a result, the trees are equipped with a protective plastic tube and surrounded by high fences in order to prevent the deer from jumping inside the future wooded area.
12. The thistle and the unicorn
The thistle and the unicorn are, respectively, the plant and the animal symbols of Scotland.
According to legend, the Vikings were preparing to invade Scotland, so they silently decided to take off their shoes. Everything was going great until a Viking stepped on a thistle, screamed in pain, and woke the Scottish army, who then crushed the attackers. Hence, the end of the invasion.
From then on, the thistle became one of Alba’s symbols, the ancient name of Scotland.
As for Scotland and the unicorn, it is a mythological creature symbolizing virtues such as purity, innocence, strength, nobility, and virility. You can even see it on the United Kingdom’s royal coat of arms, along with a lion, which symbolizes England.
Did you know that Mel Gibson’s super popular movie, Braveheart, is full of historical errors? I’ll just mention a few:
Let’s take the character of William Wallace: The clothing is entirely wrong — the kilt, and the typical Highlands clothing that the protagonist wears, has nothing to do with the historical Wallace. He is from the Lowlands and is known for wearing religious clothing.
Second, the ritual of painting your face before going to battle was typical of the Picts, a population living at the time of the Romans, and had nothing to do with the era in which Wallace lived.
Furthermore, Wallace never met Isabella of France, who was less than 10 years old when the events took place.
Despite all the above, the film won several awards — including five Oscars — though I find it fascinating how much history was “rewritten,” so to speak.
On my last day in Edinburgh, I went on a free walking tour, the kind where you tip the guide at the end.
As she took us around the city trying to get to each place of interest before other guides, she told us a fascinating story: Long ago, when there were still no bathrooms inside people’s houses, the Scots threw their excrement in the street from their windows and said, “Garde l’eau!” — “Attention to water!” This translated from French and soon turned into the Scottish version: “Gardy-loo!”
This practice took place twice a day — and one of the times was in the evening around 10 p.m., right when the pubs were closing. Imagine the poor guy who’s leaving the pub, heavily drunk, and heading home — and everybody’s pouring sewage on his head.
Thus, “shit-faced” was born to define someone very, very drunk (though I have seen various stories out there, but I prefer this one).
15. Keep calm and carry on
Did you know that the British invented the slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”?
In 1939, the aim was to distribute flyers with the motto among the population, inviting everyone to remain calm and not panic in the event of an enemy invasion. I had no idea: I found out during a car trip with my host family.
In fact, Norfolk’s countryside still has remnants of stakeout towers from which soldiers could hide and counterattack in the event of an invasion during World War II.
Overall, my experience in the UK was terrific and I learned so many things about the culture that I wouldn’t have from my hometown in northern Italy.
Not only did I appreciate how rich in history and art the UK was, but also how there’s a countless number of things to do and see. And I’ll never forget Scotland’s fantastic landscapes and how each place has its own legend. Next time, I’ll have to go back and look for the Loch Ness Monster … Anyone else?