Notes from Abroad: The 6 Biggest Differences Between New York and London

People here ... care about the environment??
February 10, 2019
7 mins read

I did it. It finally happened. I remember going on college tours and the guides asking the group how many of us were thinking about studying abroad. My hand was usually the first to shoot up. So, here I am, an English major in London, England. It’s true what they say: It’s an adjustment period, because there is a lot to get used to, especially cultural differences.

However, being from New York City means that London doesn’t feel so jarringly new or unfamiliar. Both cities are densely populated, extremely expensive and a melting pot for people from all over the globe. But don’t get me wrong; despite their initial similarities, NYC and London certainly have their differences.

Here are six of the biggest ones.

1. Traffic Lights

By the end of the first week, I learned that I despise London traffic lights. If you don’t press the button at the crosswalk, or “zebra” as the English call it, you will never — never — be able to cross the street. And once you’ve pressed the button, don’t expect the green “walk” signal to appear anytime soon.

I’ve waited anywhere from five to eight minutes (which feels like a century when you’re holding loads of bags and groceries) for the little green man to appear. I recently discovered that the trick is to watch for the direction of traffic and sprint whenever you can, like most people who cross the street when the light is still red.

Oh, and another thing: Don’t expect a car, truck or bicyclist to let you cross, even on a side street. Take this anecdote for example. The other day, while walking home in the rain, my brown-paper bag full of towels, blankets and my dinner fell apart in my arms. To top it off, my hair was soaking wet and my fingers felt like icicles. When I saw a car coming, I halted to a stop at the edge of the pavement, yet the driver skimmed right past me without a single glance in my direction. Forget courtesy. What about safety? You really have to fend for yourself.

So while I’m trying to be true a Londoner, I miss NYC traffic lights dearly; at least they count down so you know when you can and can’t cross the street. I don’t remember waiting more than 30 seconds for the light to change, and that’s a generous estimate. In my humble opinion, NYC traffic lights beat out London’s lights.

2. Street Signs

On a similar note, street signs vary from the U.S. to the U.K. If you get lost or forget what street you’re on in NYC, all you have to do is look up or across the way to the green street signs. Every street and intersecting street is clearly labeled and explained.

Here in London, if you look up, all you’ll find is the sky and maybe some birds. In the U.K., street signs are located on the sides of buildings. I find this astonishing. So if you ever visit London, look to a building as your northern star. Not up.

3. Lingo

Although New Yorkers and Londoners both speak English, each city has adopted their own way of communicating. Something that makes each dialect so unique is the use of slang words.

Here are some of my favorite British slang words, which I hope you find interesting too.

Elevator = Lift
Sneakers = Trainers
Arugula = Rocket
Garbage = Rubbish
Television = The Telly
College/University = Uni
Like = Fancy
Sausage = Bangers
Various things = Bits n’ Bobs
Cookie = Biscuit
Friend = Mate

4. The City That Never Sleeps … Not

The Big Apple is called “the city that never sleeps” for a reason. You can get a bagel at Jumbo Bagels or candy from the deli across the street at any — any — hour of the night. In London? Fa’ get about it! Shops and restaurant tend to close before midnight, while a majority of clubs shut down around 3 a.m. Even the Tube (aka the subway) shuts down around midnight.

On a Saturday night in NYC, shouts and laughter from the city streets always echo through my 15th-floor bedroom, even at crazy hours of the night. In my apartment here in London, which is located on a side street, I have never heard so much as a car horn; it’s so quiet, which is something I’m still getting used to. If you’d like to stay up however, check out some of the best coffee subscription services in the U.K.

5. Drinking Age Heaven (for Some)

In most European countries, including England, teens over the age of 18 can legally guzzle down all the alcohol they want (just as long as they don’t do anything stupid.)

In Spain, young people can get a buzzed as early as their 16th birthday. I wouldn’t be surprised if some American teens dreamed of moving to Europe for this reason, as the legal drinking age in U.S. cities is 21 years old. Are you sold?

6. The Environment

In a lot of European cities, shoppers have to pay for bags, which is why I decided to buy a reusable tote bag. If I spend five pence (equivalent to five cents) every week on grocery bags, it’ll really add up!

During one shopping spree here in London, I bought some clothes at Primark, a fashion store that uses environmentally friendly brown paper bags. As I walked away from the register, the paper handles ripped from the bag and my purchases fell to the ground. So, I politely asked the teller for a plastic bag (for free) since the paper one clearly couldn’t hack it. She then called over her manager, who looked at me as if I had asked him for the shirt off his back. He was absolutely dumbfounded.

Long story short, London is doing its part for the environment. I wonder if New York will ever jump on the bandwagon. Seems unlikely.

What’s more, garbage cans are also scarce in London, a scarcity that apparently discourages people from throwing their rubbish on the ground. I wonder if New York didn’t have garbage cans on every corner … yeah, we’d probably still throw coffee cups and gum wrappers on the sidewalk.

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