Things I Don’t Like about London

I’m actually cool now with driving on the wrong side of the road. But I really wanna know, what exactly ARE those squiggly lines for anyway? (Answer: Highway Code Rule #191, here.)

Because there are some, and it’s time to get real.

My blog may seem a bit Pollyanna at times, as I try to keep things positive and choose my words wisely. This is because (a) no one likes a whiner and (b) I’m wary of posting anything online that might haunt me later. Not that the masses are reading my blog or I’m anyone important (yet), but you never know. The Internet never forgets. (Try Googling Anthony Weiner, for example.)

But the truth is, I’ve now been here long enough that the little things are starting to get to me. So here goes.

1. The Food

It never fails to meet my low expectations.

(With a few exceptions: Indian food, good. Fish and chips, flaky-fresh. Soups, hearty. Yogurt, delicious. Bourbon creams, indulgent. Tea and scones, habit-forming. But everything else I could do without.)

2. The Customer Is Probably Wrong

British customer service, true to its reputation, can be pretty atrocious. The theory is that it’s because the British keep calm and carry on a little too well. If no one complains, no improvements are made to the system. As an American, though, I’m used to the “have it your way” approach: you may have to navigate an intentionally cryptic automated menu to get to a real person, but stay on the line long enough and fight hard enough and, if all else fails, invoke the manager, and you will ultimately get your way.

Not so, in London. Bang on a brick wall long enough, and you end up with bloody knuckles.

Case in point: I was running late but stopped by PAUL for a quick breakfast. I gave the cashier £20 for a breakfast that cost £2.95. She gave me back £2.05, thinking I’d given her a £5 note. I explained the discrepancy, and she apologized and asked me to wait for the manager so she could open the till.

The manager came in a huff, took the entire till out, grabbed a calculator, and proceeded to count all the money in the till against the day’s revenues thus far. I was aghast. Is this really happening right now? Is this normal? What the heck is going on?

After ten minutes counting the money, the manager told me that there was no discrepancy according to his calculations. He said in a skeptical/accusatory tone, “We don’t have CCTV. I don’t know how much you gave her.” By then I was so irritated at being forced to wait, at the insinuation that I was lying just to scam off 15 quid, basically at being treated like a cheat when the error was the employee’s. It literally left a bad taste in my mouth, so I left the food I had purchased untouched and walked out. But I immediately doubled back because I figured, it’s YOUR mistake and I don’t want my money in your till, supporting your shoddy business that treats its customers so poorly. So I insisted on getting my money back. He refused.

I probably shouldn’t have let it get to me quite so much, but it just, really, rankled me. The irony was that I was running late to church, and the incident put me in such a bad mood that I didn’t hear a word of the sermon because I was mentally phrasing an angry email to the corporate customer service department the whole time. The email was, I hope, equal parts eloquent and angry, and I received a surprisingly nice response that apologized, explained it was company policy to do so in the event of a dispute (which I still think is crazy)*, and offered a refund. I suppose all’s well that ends well, but it was nonetheless the strangest and most degrading feeling to be accused of lying, in so many words. Perhaps it riled me up as much as it did because it came at a time when I was starting to feel a bit homesick.

*Note: PAUL is a French company, so perhaps that accounts for their whack policy. But the problem was in the execution, not the policy itself. It would have been different if the manager had said at the outset, I’m sorry, but this is company policy and this is what I have to do when a customer disputes a transaction. No such explanation was given; when it comes to customer service, it’s like employees are paid to be as unhelpful and unyielding as possible. Chicken or the egg: Maybe this explains why tipping is less common here. Or is the service poor because there’s no incentive to do better? 

3. Is This What Homesickness Feels Like?

I’ve never experienced homesickness before, but it makes sense that this, if any, would be the first time. I’ve spent months and weeks abroad at a time, and not in English-speaking countries. But the longest I’ve ever been away was three months, so if there ever was a time for me to find out what homesickness is, it would be now.

It’s a combination of missing the company of people who know me well, those to whom you don’t have to explain anything; missing the ease of striking up a new friendship when you have a lot in common with the person you’ve just met; missing the familiarity of knowing how a system works, even if it’s faulty, because at least you know what to expect and how to navigate the situation. (Take, for example, the experience above.)

Of course, it’s not like the UK is all that different from the US, especially if you’re going from New York to London. We speak the same language, we watch the same TV and movies, we live in a busy, cosmopolitan city. And I have been fortunate to meet some great friends here… but still, deep, and especially comfortable, friendships just take time to build up. I understand that, and I didn’t come expecting to feel right at home right away. And actually, the transition in the first three months was so much smoother than I expected, what with finding a great church community right away and meeting a great group of girls in my hall.

But by month five, I started to see that there are differences after all. In particular…

4. Let’s Talk about Race

This is admittedly an observation based on limited experience and intuition, but British people seem to be uncomfortable talking about race or ethnicity. I still don’t fully understand what “multiculturalism” is in the British sense, but I don’t think it lends itself to meaningful discussion about race. Instead it seems to brush it under the rug, like saying, “Of course there’s difference,” without discussing what it is. Almost a patronizing “That’s nice,” but claiming to appreciate difference is an easy out for actually learning about it. Or, I don’t know, maybe people think it would be impolite to ask?

Whenever I crack jokes about being Asian, for example, I get an uncomfortable chuckle in response on a good day. The best shot one guy once gave was to say that he knows about Korean food: “You eat dogs.” He thought it was funny. I rolled my eyes.

I’m not sure if I’m being overly sensitive, and I hesitate to write about this without a more solid sense of what’s awry. But because the topic seldom comes up, all I have to go on is my intuition, and the best I’ve been able to come up with is that people avoid the topic. Which tautologically puts me right back where I started.

5. Speaking of Patronizing

I’ve heard a number of remarks and/or conversations defending the benefits of colonialism.

I have no comment on this; don’t even know where to begin. Flabbergasted.

So that’s my moment of honesty. I’m almost exactly midway through my time in London, and I have a lot to look forward to. My challenge to myself for the next five and a half months is to make the most of every opportunity; to keep building friendships, instead of pulling away because I’m mentally preparing to move back; to seek to learn as much as I can, and be as much of a blessing as I can, for as long as I’m here; and to maintain a sense of adventure!

In the next entry, we’ll be back on a fun wavelength: more visitors! Madrid & Segovia! Maybe a daytrip to Bath! Good times ahead, y’all.

*To my British readers, I mean no offense, and I’m certainly open to discussion if you take issue with any of the above. Enlighten me!

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9 thoughts on “Things I Don’t Like about London

  1. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! That’s pretty awesome. I had to comment on this particular post though, since I am also an American living in London. You pretty much hit the nail on the head with all of my gripes, so I just want you to know that you aren’t imagining them ;)

    Enjoy your travels! 5 airports and living on the doorstep to the continent almost make up for the lack of fresh produce, right?

    1. Thanks for the moral support! I absolutely agree; when people ask me what my favourite thing is about London, I always say it’s the proximity to the rest of Europe. It doesn’t say much about London itself, but it’s true! I do like plenty of things about it too (this list notwithstanding), but above all it really is a great home base for European travels :) We certainly seem to be kindred spirits in that! I checked out your site—your photos are lovely, and I love your site design!

      1. Thanks for the compliments about the site-I’m in the process of rebuilding my content after moving from wordpress.com over to wordpress.org. I’m also taking a writing course and it made me really self conscious about the posts I had up, so I’m starting from square one!

        Anyway, happy travels and enjoy the sunshine while it’s here ;)

    1. It’s not, of course. My list is not meant to be definitive; it’s an entirely subjective set of things I didn’t like about [being in] London.

  2. I really enjoyed your post! I moved to London couple months ago from the States (CA) and couldn’t agree with you more on all the points. (I am also Asian, and also get the feeling that “multiculturalism” here isn’t the same as back home.) To me, London is like any other city, with its good and bad sides, and I just don’t quite understand the hype of it all. Though, I am still trying to understand it and get to know it better, leaving out all the whining. ;} I hope you are having a great time in San Fran now. I am from the Bay Area, and SF is definitely on the top of my favorites!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jessica! I hope you are enjoying London despite the weather and lack of customer service. Hehe. Nah, like you say, every city has its pros and cons and there is so much to love about London. I actually miss it all the time, although I am definitely enjoying SF too! If only there was a way to have it all in one place, eh?

  3. So you were homesick which apparently is something you don’t like about London, and you ripped off in some shop, therefore all British customer service is bad. I suggest you shop at better shops in future, such as John Lewis/Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Sainsburys, ASDA (Walmart), Harvey Nicholls etc etc – all of which generally have good customer service.

    As for food, London has restaurants representing every possible corner of the world and it’s a myth than all the food is somehow terrible. You may have had a bad experience but overall London has an abundance of choice and some great restaurants, indeed there are web pages full of restaurant recommendations for every conceivable type of food imaginable.

    Finally in terms of race, I find the British to be a very tolerant and fair minded people, and the truth is London embraces people from every culture, and over a third of London’s population wasn’t even born in the UK never mind London.

    1. I admire you for defending London so passionately. I absolutely loved my time in London, and you’ll find a myriad of posts on this blog about the teashops I loved, the wonders of Britain’s free museums, the rich history and culture, and respect for how much goes into making London accessible and affordable for students. But there are also things, some of which are here, that made me certain I wouldn’t want to live there for good.

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