Travel Observations

As a graduate student, I do a fair amount of traveling. Most recently, I spent an entire summer in England in order to do a research internship at Microsoft Research Cambridge. This has given me a lot of experience with all the little oddities of daily life in other countries, and the ways a person must adapt while traveling. To help my fellow graduate students, or anyone else who wants to travel to Europe, I thought I would write down some of my observations about those bits of “common knowledge” that took me by surprise.

Life in England

Pubs and Drinks

One of the most common activities in England is going to a pub, and in most towns there's practically one on every corner. Pubs in England are a combination of bar and restaurant that are slightly different than anything you find in the United States. Rather like a casual diner, you can sit anywhere, and may or may not find menus at the table; if not, they will be stacked at the bar, and you can feel free to take one to peruse. However, there are no waitstaff. When you're ready to order, take note of the number that is affixed somewhere to your table — it may be on a little brass plaque, or carved into the wood of the table itself — and go up to the bar. Orders for both food and drinks are placed at the bar, and when you order food, they will ask for your table number (drinks will be handed to you there like in any other bar). You pay for everything at the bar, and then the food will be brought to your table by a server when it's ready. It's not necessary to tip the server, though, and the same person may or may not come back to bring other orders to the same table.

In keeping with their status as combination bar and restuarant, pubs also have different hours for their bar and restaurant components. Most pubs have posted business hours that end somewhere between 11pm and 1am. However, these are the hours for the bar. The hours for the restaurant are not written down, and are almost always shorter than the hours for the bar. In practice, a pub's kitchen usually closes at 9pm, and only drinks can be ordered between then and the pub's closing time.

It's actually surprisingly hard to get food to eat after 9pm in England, even on a Friday night when everyone is up late. Not only do most pub kitchens close at this time, most restaurants do too. There also aren't many fast-food places, which might be open late, and (in a surprise to most Americans) there usually isn't 24-hour pizza delivery. If you're still hungry after 9pm, your best bet is to go into a grocery store such as Sainsbury's or The Co-Op and buy a sandwich or wrap — they generally stay open until 11pm, and have deli-like premade food options.

Although most pubs and bars offer a good selection of hard liquor in addition to beer and wine, they almost never serve cocktails. In an attitude surprisingly unchanged from what's seen on Downton Abbey, cocktails are seen as a peculiar American custom, and if you attempt to order one the bartender might not even understand what you're talking about. (On the other hand, even the shabbiest of pubs will generally have multiple brands and ages of single malt Scotch, which is not something you'd find in an American dive bar). There are a few exceptions to this rule, though. In the summer months you can often get a “Pimm's cup,” which is a mixed drink made with Pimm's (a strawberry liqueur), lemonade, and usually some whole fruit pieces (in the style of Sangria). Most pubs will also serve tonic water with your gin if you ask for it, and some will even have a menu of different tonic waters so you can choose the brand or flavor that best compliments the gin you chose. Finally, I saw a few bars offer relatively simple mixed drinks by the pitcher, such as rum and fruit juices.

Going Out and About

Everyone knows that the British drive on the left. However, it may surprise you to learn that they do not consistently walk on the left side of a sidewalk. When walking on a busy urban sidewalk in England, you may find yourself headed for a head-on collision with another pedestrian regardless of whether you walk on the left or the right. If you're walking on a paved path through a park, though, it's generally safer to stay on the left side, since cyclists can also use these paths and will expect to “drive” on the left (they usually ride in the streets in dedicated bike lanes).

Another obstacle to be aware of when walking around a British town, especially if you are sightseeing, is that bathroom facilities can be very hard to find. Many shops and tourist attractions don't have them, though in some cases this is because they are located in a building that predates indoor plumbing and was simply never retrofitted with a bathroom. There are sometimes public bathrooms in parks and public transit stations, but these charge 25-50 pence per use, and may be closed after 9pm. Furthermore, it's not uncommon for a women's bathroom accessible to the public (including those in restaurants and museums) to be out of toilet paper.

If you're traveling to England for a short amount of time, you might be tempted to make the most of it by planning to do things on a Sunday. However, most shops, restuarants, and tourist attractions are closed on Sundays, or have sharply reduced hours. This isn't just tradition, either; there is actually a law preventing businesses over a certain size from opening on Sundays. Interestingly enough, that law's exception for “small businesses” is written in terms of square footage, not number of employees, so even though Sainsbury's is a large national brand, a physically small Sainsbury's store will still be open on Sundays.

One of the nice things about traveling in Great Britain is that, unlike in the United States, there is a functional passenger train system. Trains are an affordable and convenient way to get around the country, and thanks to the Chunnel you can even take a train to France. Since they are so commonly used, though, trains in Britain are subject to the same ticket price escalation that Americans are used to seeing with airplanes: If you buy a train ticket close to your travel date, it will be much more expensive than if you buy it far in advance. Thus, it behooves you to plan ahead and book your train tickets at least 2 weeks in advance, preferably 3.

Living There

If you're planning a short vacation to England, you might not need to know any of the tips in this section, since these are things that only come up after an longer period of time. However, if you plan to live in England for a while (such as for the duration of a summer internship), you might benefit from some of my experience living there.

First of all, if you're looking for someplace other than a hotel in which to stay, you'll find that even the newest and most modern apartments do not have air conditioning. The British view air conditioning as an unnecessary luxury, and think Americans are rather silly for asking for it, because the British Isles have such a cool climate. Unfortunately, they're wrong. Perhaps as a result of global warming, England gets quite hot in the summer, and un-air-conditioned buildings are very uncomfortable. The best you can do is open all the windows and place fans in front of them, but be warned that British windows do not have bug screens (another silly American invention) so this may result in bugs flying into your apartment. My strategy for dealing with the heat was to spend a lot of time outside in a park, because for most of the later afternoon and evening it was actually more comfortable in the shade than inside my apartment (due to heat building up in the apartment without adequate ventilation).

If you live in a small apartment with a very compact kitchen, you may find that it appears to have a microwave instead of an oven. However, if the device mounted in the kitchen is called a “combi oven” or “Baumatic,” it can actually function as a convection oven as well as a microwave. The default is usually microwave mode (which is why it seems at first glance to be just a microwave), but if you change the the device to oven mode, it will allow you to set a temperature (in Celsius, of course), and it will heat the interior to that temperature for a set period of time. I had never seen one of these appliances before moving to Cambridge, but I was able to use it to successfully bake bread, so it did work effectively as an oven. In a small apartment it can certainly save a lot of space, though the disadvantage is that you can't reheat anything in the microwave while you are waiting for dinner to bake in the oven.

Buying groceries works a little differently in England than it does in the United States. In most American cities the easiest and most cost-effective way to buy groceries is to drive to a large supermarket once every week or two and buy food in bulk. This approach does not work very well in England; instead, you are expected to buy a few groceries at a small local store several times a week, rather like the French ideal of picking up fresh bread on your way home from work every day. There are very few large supermarkets in England, except for Tesco, which is more like Walmart than Wegmans (in terms of quality and selection). On the other hand, there are a lot of small local grocery stores, such as Sainsbury's, The Co-Op, and Tesco Express. Unlike an American “convenience store” of the same size and location, these stores don't sell overpriced or low-quality food; they're national brands that many people rely on for their everyday grocery shopping.

If you're used to one-stop shopping at an American supermarket, you may also be surprised to learn that the small local grocery stores in England focus exclusively on selling groceries. Most of them do not sell housewares or dry goods such as towels, toiletries, kitchen appliances, and office supplies. To buy these non-food necessities, you'll need to go to a specialty store for each category of product (for example, a pharmacy to buy toiletries, an office store to buy pens and paper), buy them online, or make a special trip to a large suburban Tesco, which does sell housewares in addition to food.

Cambridge

Obviously, most of my observations in the previous section came from the time I spent in Cambridge. However, there are a few things I have learned about Cambridge specifically that I think deserve a more focused section.

When you visit Cambridge, one of the first things you'll probably want to do is see the famous university. The University of Cambridge is actually a confederation of 31 different colleges, each of which has its own admissions, tutors, faculty, and student residences. Most importantly for non-students, each college has its own policies and hours for when visitors are permitted to enter the campus. Since the college campuses are generally constructed as a series of walled courtyards with guarded front gates, it is pretty much impossible to see them outside of the allowed visiting hours.

The Cambridge tourism office usually has a list of open hours for the most popular colleges (King's, Queen's, St. John's, Trinity, Corpus Christi, Trinity Hall, etc.), but unfortunately the colleges do not always follow their posted hours. After living in Cambridge for an entire summer, I still never got to see the inside of Trinity College because they were closed to visitors every time I passed, even during times that were listed as visiting hours. On the other hand, some of the colleges may be open for visitors even if they are not listed as open, so it's worth walking by a college's gate in person just to check.

Visiting Paris

[This page is a work in progress; more content will be added as I have time]