For the uninitiated, Britain can appear to be a pretty odd place. We have odd habits, odd food, odd weather, odd taps and an even odder sense of humour. It's nothing that a good bout of cultural training can't sort out, but I'm going to run a series of posts about what makes the Brits so wonderfully weird - or weirdly wonderful - which may help our non-indigenous friends to understand what the heck we are all about.
There may be the odd bit of colourful language and perhaps even some controversial ideas, so in the unlikely event you are offended by any content, Celsium would like to make it absolutely clear that we are very sorry you aren't a little more laid-back.
1. We are not all English
Great Britain or the United Kingdom? GB or UK? Oh, and what about the British Isles? There are too many options, just like our language. Allow me to explain:
Great Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland, including any surrounding islands;
The United Kingdom consists of the aforementioned plus Northern Ireland;
The Republic of Ireland (Eire) is a completely separate political and legal entity and does not belong in any way to the UK;
To make things even more complicated, there is also the term "British Isles", which includes both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland!
Don't worry, as most Brits don't get this either - because we don't really care. Ultimately, everyone refers to our itty bitty island as the UK, and if you come from the UK you must be a Brit. Simple.
But is it that simple? Yes, we are all Brits but who exactly are the British? For starters, the UK does not consist of just London - unless you happen to be a member of Government, of course. It's the ontological topic of the century. "I say, David, old boy, those clever chaps at GCHQ purport to have discovered an existence beyond the M25. One does sincerely hope they have it wrong otherwise we'll have to construct a bally big wall to keep the buggers out. Absolutely top hole."
The British population is actually made up of the English, Scottish, Welsh and the Northern Irish. Each sub-nationality has its own unique identity, accent, (incomprehensible) dialects and set of values of which they are very proud, so please exercise caution when addressing people. As an example, if you referred to a Scotsman as English, he might beat you to death with his bagpipes, cut out your kidneys with his sgian-dubh and mince them for his haggis supper. Funnily enough, it is not uncommon to hear the English refer solely to England, almost as if Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland didn't even exist. There is nothing more disdainful than the denial of existence. Post-colonial pomposity lives on, then.
Oranges are not the only fruit.
2. British bathrooms are bloody cold
I prefer to wet shave rather than use one of those electric shaving devices. It gives a cleaner, smoother finish and does not irritate my oh-so-sensitive skin as much. To have a decent wet shave, you need very hot water, a by-product of which is steam. When that steam hits a colder surface, condensation forms - and that's usually on the mirror into which one is peering. I've tried heating up a small free-standing mirror by holding it under hot water but the inconvenience was that I had to dry it off to see my reflection properly, and it soon cooled down thus attracting condensation, anyway. I haven't tried warming it in the oven as to heat it to a high enough temperature so that I could complete my shave before it had cooled enough to attract condensation would have necessitated oven gloves and that is bordering on the realms of ridiculousness. I haven't tried the microwave for the same reason, and also because you shouldn't put metal inside a microwave. I can even have the heating on full blast and the bathroom as toasty as you like - but condensation still forms.
Showering or running a bath is a different matter. The whole bathroom fills with steam, regardless of whether or not the heating is on or the extractor fan is running. Extractor fans in UK bathrooms do not work. They are pointless. Bathrooms should be fitted with industrial dehumidifiers rather than what seems to be the equivalent of an asthmatic pensioner in the corner of the bathroom, sucking on a cigarette.
The only effective way to reduce steam is to get it out of the window by opening it as wide as you possibly can for as long as you can. This is not a great problem in summer, but towards the end of autumn and throughout winter, this can be a deeply unpleasant experience. But hey, we're British, we do what it takes and we won't grumble about it.
It's character building.
3. What's with the taps?
Whilst we're on the subject of bathrooms, let's talk about taps.
"Two water feeds - one hot, one cold - that requires two outlets. Obviously."
"Why not just stick them through the same outlet?"
"No, that'd be daft, what if I want just cold water?"
"Well, what if you wanted to melt the skin off your hands?"
"Oh, that's easy, I just keep the cold tap off."
No, it doesn't make any sense from a practical viewpoint whatsoever, yet still we do it. More recently, we seem to have cottoned on to the benefits of using mixer taps, like not scalding yourself, but this seems to be more in kitchens. If you've got a mixer tap on your bathroom sink, you're probably a bit posh, like.
4. Men love football but don't love men who don't love football
Some women love football, too, but all men are expected to love football. If you're a man and you don't follow football, you may as well not exist. I don't follow football any more and I haven't spoken to another bloke since 1996.
As a bloke, when you have been invited to a social gathering at somebody's home and are introduced to another bloke, the first thing he will ask you is, "So, who do you support?" Although this is a vague question that could have a number of answers - "My wife"; "My bit on the side"; "Oxfam"; "Angela Merkel?" - everybody knows that it refers to your football team. Trying to dodge this question will make you look like an idiot. Answer that you don't actually support a football team and you will look also like an idiot and probably spend the rest of the evening skulking in the kitchen as the other blokes avoid you for being weird. I mean, who doesn't like football? 22 grown men running around in shorts - what's not to like?
If you're lucky, you might get away with a follow-up question: "What do you, then?"
5. So, what do you do, then?
This always strikes me as the kind of question somebody asks you after you have just told them you have immense difficulty mounting your horse ever since you lost both feet in a freak climbing incident involving Vinnie Jones. However, as vacuous as it seems, that is not how it is intended. The true intention of this question is to work out what kind of person you are - i.e. does the other person actually want to talk to you?
Very much like the football question, your interlocutor is not expecting a flippant response. "As little as possible," or a full breakdown of your weekly activities is not going to work. This question means "What is your job?" Of course, being British, we can't bluntly ask somebody what their job is, as that we be far too impolite. We have to do a bit of linguistic poncing about, as usual.
"So, what do you do, then?"
"I'm Marketing Director for Samsung; how about you?"
"Well, I'm Marketing Director for Apple."
"Nice to meet you. Goodbye."
That's not really how it works as we are much more courteous than that in Britland, but once you have told them what your job is, they have already made a number of assumptions about you - how much you earn, where you live, how big your house is, how handsome your husband is, how many holidays you have, what you eat, what you drink, where you eat, where you drink, how many handbags you have, etc., et., etc. Just don't mention that you are an estate agent. Nobody like estate agents in the UK.
They don't even like other estate agents.
Tune in next week for part 2!
Image by Carlos.