Ye Merrie Olde England

I spent part of the holidays back on my home turf.  While it is great to see family and friends, I always have mixed feelings about being back in the UK. 

On the one hand, it is where I grew up and lived until my mid-twenties.  On the other hand, it is also a place I chose to leave with relatively little intention of ever moving back.

So, as an insider, what’s to like?

  1. Amazing history.  You can’t hack a loogey without desecrating a chunk of history.  For example, on the way back to Heathrow, we stopped in Windsor.  Queenie has a teensy pad there that she lives in for part of the year.   It’s one of the biggest castles in Europe, and the longest continually inhabited one at that (about 900 years at this point).  My home town was mentioned in the Domesday Book (written in 1086 AD) and was one of the centers of the industrial revolution.  It’s home to all kinds of historical whatnots, including a 12th Century Cistercian Abbey and a 16th Century stately home.
  2. Fantastic candy.  I’m biased, but you can’t beat an English Cadbury’s bar, bag of Maltesers or a toffee-chocolate from a tin of Quality Street.
  3. Great bread, cheese and beer!  All at fairly good prices!
  4. Remarkably civilized drinking habits.
  5. Generally reliable and reasonably priced public transportation.
  6. Some great fuel efficient cars that get 40-60 miles to the gallon (like the ones from Renault and Citroen).

There’s more, but those are some of the things that come most readily to mind.

Assuming you’re not history/lactose/sucrose/alcohol intolerant, what’s not to love?  A few things, IMO…

  1. Holey Moley is it EXPENSIVE.  Even without the current terrible exchange rate (~$2 to the pound), it’s horrendous.  Generally speaking, you’ll pay the same number of pounds for something that you would pay dollars.  A $4 McDonalds meal would cost around 4 pounds i.e. $8 at today’s rates.  During our brief stop in Windsor, we hit a Pizza Hut.  Dinner for four was ~$85.  Yeah, Pizza Hut.  No, we didn’t have caviar on the pizza.
  2. Did I mention it was EXPENSIVE?  Try $8 per gallon for gas and sales tax at 17.5% (although the price you see in the store includes the sales tax, so you’re not hit over the head with it when you check-out).
  3. Insane taxes.  So there’s income tax and National Insurance.  But there’s also the 3% tax on buying  a house, Road Fund License (basically a tax), a whole variety of taxes on top of sales tax on gas, liquor and beer.  You have to buy a TV license.  The British equivalent of an inspection is the MOT, but it’s an inspection on steroids.  I have never owned a car in England that passed it’s MOT without needing work done.  So in addition to the $100 for the inspection, you’re looking at anywhere from $200 to literally thousands in repair fees.  And you can’t have a car on the road without a valid MOT.  Every where you turn, they have a nifty way of taxing you, and while salaries are better than they used to be, they are still lower than their US equivalents.
  4. An absurd, out-of-control nanny state.  Excessive numbers of surveillance cameras are one thing, but jail time for talking on a cell phone?  Some of the rights granted to individuals are great (the mandated standards for maternity leave are amazing), but others are inane and burdensome for anyone daring enough to be a capitalist (particularly in the areas of tenant, employee and consumer rights).
  5. The NHS (National Healthcare System).  Yes, everyone has access to health care, but (a) it’s not free — you pay plenty of taxes for the privilege, and (b) the quality of care can be both appalling and life-threatening.  I have a Great Uncle with documented angina.  While traveling, he had a mild attack and was rushed to the emergency room (he’s fine now).  The doctors there were convinced it was indigestion, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  And while I believe it is better now, any non-life threatening condition needing surgery can take a long time.  4+ years for a hip replacement, anyone?
  6. Some of the people.  The myth is that the English are stunningly polite, and many are.  But equally, some of the rudest, most small-minded people I’ve ever met live in the UK.  I fondly remember my first trip back after moving to the US.  I arrived at Heathrow at 6am, which is very much akin to being thrown in purgatory. I was supposed to be taking a bus to a nearby town, but could not find the appropriate bus stop, despite looking for some time.  I finally found an employee, on their tea break, and politely asked where I might find bus stop M.  After a moment’s pause to put down the tea, the employee looked me in the eye and said "It’s between f*cking bus stop L and f*cking bus stop N" and promptly went back to his tea.  Ahh.  The sweet smell of home.

All in all, it’s a great place to visit.  I highly recommend getting out of London if you’re there for any length of time.  I also recommend getting someone else to foot the bill for the trip whenever possible!