Queues likely

                                           Queues likely

British people love to queue (or so it seems at least). They form an orderly queue in almost every situation.  When people ask me how Germans handle the dilemma of 100 people wanting to get on a bus with 40 seats, I never really have a satisfying answer. I don’t really know to be honest. It’s not that we don’t have queues in Germany; we have them in supermarkets, at the post office and in many other situations, but there is somehow a distinct difference. What you definitely won’t find are Britain’s absolutely unique bus queues.

Even though I have lived in the UK for a while now, I still sometimes find myself staring at the other side of the road thinking “what’s going on over there?”, quickly realizing that it is just an ordinary bus queue that has formed along the kerb. To foreigners this really is quite a peculiar sight…

                                                                          bus queue

British people really know their queuing rules and they are extremely careful not to break those rules or to step on anyone’s toes. You could be standing in the middle of Marks & Spencer’s waiting for your friend and an elderly lady might walk up to you asking “Is this the end of the queue?”. People are quite touchy when it comes to queuing. That’s one lesson I learned quickly: you don’t want to mess with a British queue! Queue jumping is regarded as a major offence. I have grown quite fond of this aspect of British culture and have developed my personal queuing rules over the years:

  1. always politely ask if you are at the end of the queue
  2. shrug your shoulders and possibly patiently nod to the people around acknowledging the fact that “yes, we’re all in this together; we’ll just just have to wait…”
  3. possibly make a comment about how slowly the queue is moving and – if outside – that hopefully it won’t start raining
  4. look disgusted and appalled at someone’s attempt to jump the queue
  5. bring a good book 

Queuing seems to be such an important part of British culture that British police have begun to encourage “crash courses in queuing” for foreign students living in England a few years ago (see article here). The locals had simply become too concerned  with the “influx of continental queue-jumpers”!

I don’t know what it is… maybe there are just never enough bus seats, bank clerks, supermarket tills and sandwich shops. But I don’t think this alone is it… Brits just love to queue J 


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Happy Birthday Sue!

A former colleague of mine in the US told me, what I thought was, a sad story. She is originally from Spain and lives in an affluent neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and 2 kids, who are both under 10 years of age and attend local schools. My friend was very surprised when one of her children received an invitation to a birthday party by one of her classmates. It wasn’t just your average invitation card featuring balloons and a cake; the card was accompanied by a letter to be signed by my friend. The letter that all the parents who wanted their kids to attend this birthday party had to sign, was basically a disclaimer that stated that the parents who organised the party are not responsible for any accidents or other mishaps that might happen at the party.

Why all this effort? It’s just a kid’s birthday party and not a bungee jumping competition we are talking about here after all!

Undoubtedly, the organisers were scared of being sued by one of the parents in case anything unforeseen might happen at the event (one of the children breaking an arm while playing hide and seek say). Isn’t it a sad state of affairs, if you have to think about these kinds of things when throwing a birthday party for your child? 

As a European, I found the American suing culture in general very difficult to get used to when I lived there for a year. Almost half the local phone book is filled with ads for lawyers of all different kinds and they heavily advertise on TV as well. In America, everybody can sue anybody for anything and this reflected in the number of lawyers. Just look at how many lawyers the US has compared to other developed nations; the difference is staggering:

Japan 23,000
France 41,000
Germany 121,420
United Kingdom 119,000
United States 1,000,000

1 million lawyers who all need something to do…

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Defeated Kiwis and Dr Who?

I’ve just come back from Cardiff where I spent the weekend with my husband’s family. You might just expect a stiff breeze and lots of sheep when going to Wales, but actually there was loads of stuff going on there… And I realised again that even after 4 years of living in the UK, there are still many of aspects of British culture that I have to learn about. Here are two of them:

  1. Doctor Who – We arrived in Cardiff late on Friday night and when we got to my brother-in-law’s house in a residential area just outside Cardiff, we thought the aliens had landed right then and there. It turned out that the BBC was filming the new Doctor Who episodes right in front of his house. They had installed huge floodlights which lit up the whole street and loads of people were watching the shoot. I have to admit that I have not watched a single episode of the show in my life and therefore didn’t get too excited about seeing the actors in the distance. I am absolutely not a sci-fi fan, but just out of curiosity, I will watch a few episodes… maybe it will grip me just as much as it has the rest of the nation.
  2. Rugby – The Welsh national  sport which I know nothing about (even though a South-African friend of mine tried to explain the rules to me a few weeks ago). Anyway… unbeknown to me, Cardiff was hosting the France – New Zealand world cup quarter final that weekend. It didn’t take long to notice that there was something in the air… The city centre was flooded with French people covered in blue-white-red and singing the Marseillaise. They far outnumbered a few people (as it later turned out – appropriately) dressed in black T-shirts carrying inflatable kiwis.

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San Francisco movies & forty-three trillion possibilities

                                       rubiks_cube.jpgRubik’s CubeRubik’s CubeRubik’s CubeRubik's cubeRubik's cube

I watched two movies that are set in San Francisco last weekend, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) and the Will Smith production “Pursuit of Happyness” (2006) which is set in the 1980s. Both movies have stunning views of the city and especially of course of the famous Golden Gate Bridge.

 I lived close to San Francisco for a year, so it was interesting for me to get an impression of the city in the 50s… I didn’t expect much of “Pursuit of Happyness” to be honest, but I actually thought the movie was ok. The story is roughly based on real events, the life of Chris Gardner, who manages to climb the social ladder against all odds, from struggling – at times homeless – salesman and single parent to self-made millionaire. While the movie had some beautiful shots of the city, it also shows one of San Francisco‘s dark sides, its large homeless population. Admittedly, a lot has been done to get homeless people off the streets since the 80s, but even today every visitor to this renowned city will quickly notice that the problem is far from solved.

The movie is of course a typical rags to riches story, but surprisingly didn’t annoy me too much. That quickly changed when I watched some of the extra material on the DVD though. It features an interview with Will Smith, who completely fails to talk about the problems addressed in the movie (I am now inclined to think that that wasn’t the intention of the movie at all), but just goes on about the American Dream, how everyone can make it if they just believe in themselves etcetc. A key scene in the movie is when Smith’s character manages to solve a Rubik’s cube (did you know that a 3x3x3 cube can have 43,252,003,274,489,856,000different positions by the way?!) . This extraordinary skill is his ticket into the financial world and eventually gets him and his son out of poverty. Having never been able to solve a Rubik’s cube myself – and believe me, I’ve tried! – I just couldn’t help but think about what happens to people in his situation who don’t have such rare talents… 

Anyway, San Francisco does make a brilliant movie setting and loads of films have been shot there. These are the ones I have watched so far… a rather strange selection: The Birds, Dirty Harry, Basic Instinct, Joy Luck Club, The Maltese Falcon, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Game, 40 Days and 40 Nights.

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Don’t mind the gap!

Who said Germans are lacking a sense of black humor? This is a billboard for a funeral company. The text translates as: “Please step closer”.  A more loose translation would be “Don’t mind the gap!”

kommen sie doch näher

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Hot or cold?

Ok, here is something that I have been wondering about ever since I moved to Britain   

                                      separate taps

Why on earth do so many British sinks have dual taps?! I have bored many of my British friends with this question and the answers I received ranged from “That’s a good point” and “They do the job” to “Aren’t mixer taps dodgy?”. It just must be one of these cultural things for which there is no proper explanation… No one in their right mind could actually want to be faced with the decision whether to freeze or burn their hands every morning.

To my delight I found an article from the Wall Street Journal which discusses the issue and to my surprise reveals that if it would have been up to Churchill, Britain would be on par with the rest of the civilised world as far as mixer taps are concerned: 

LONDON (Oct. 31, 2002)—During a wartime visit to Moscow in 1942, Winston S. Churchill discovered a marvel of modern technology: hot and cold    water flowing from the same faucet.The plumbing in the villa where he stayed as a guest of Stalin was unlike the primitive British standard of separate taps for hot and cold. Rather than having to fill up the sink to achieve the right blend, the British leader could wash his hands under gushing water “mingled to exactly the temperature one desired,” as he put it in his memoirs. From then on, he resolved to use this method whenever possible. His countrymen have been slow to take up the single-spigot cause. Most bathroom sinks in Britain still have separate hot and cold taps today, 60 years after Mr. Churchill’s conversion and decades after nearly all dual taps were scrapped in the U.S. and most vanished from continental Europe. For reasons of thrift, regulations and a stubborn attachment to tradition, the British have resisted the tide of plumbing history. Even when they renovate old homes, many choose two-tap systems, and builders often install them in new, low-end housing. Separate taps account for an estimated 40% of all bathroom-faucet sales in the U.K. “It’s very strange to me,” says Ayelet Langer, who moved to London from Israel last year and found two faucets mounted on the newly installed bathroom sink in her apartment. “I thought I couldn’t really cope with it at first, but now I do.” Worried that the water from the hot tap will scald the fingers of her one-year-old son, she washes his hands in the kitchen sink, which has a single spout. Britons don’t understand why foreigners raise a fuss over this issue. “The British are quite happy to wash their hands with cold water. Maybe it’s character-building,” says Simon Kirby, managing director of Thomas Crapper & Co., a maker of bathroom equipment in Stratford-on-Avon. Boris Johnson, a Conservative Party member of Parliament representing Henley, congratulates “the higher civilizations” that have adopted advanced plumbing technology. But he argues that having the choice of either hot or cold for washing hands “is an incentive to get it over and done with and not waste water.” (…) 

(“Old-Fashioned Faucets: Unique British Standard” by James R. Hagerty; from The Wall Street Journal Online) 

Right, got to go and build my character, err wash my hands…                        



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On towels and fair play…

As a German who has lived in the UK for a number of years now (with a 1-year stopover in California) it never seizes to amaze me how deep certain stereotypes run on both sides of the Channel. While many of them may be justified, I’ll be trying to just observe some of the differences between the different countries and cultures that have particularly struck me over the years. 

Btw: this is what I’m up against.

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