Five Lessons I’ve Learned from Living in England

About friendships, home, and more.

Emma Elliott Freire

For the past one-and-a-half years, I’ve been living in England. Not in London, that chic, cosmopolitan hub where half the accents are American. Rather, I live in Exeter, a city nestled in the green, farming southwest of England. In medieval times, Exeter dominated Europe’s wool trade. It’s come down a bit in the world since then.

Today, about a quarter of Exeter’s residents are retirees. Most accents are British. All stores close at 6pm.

I moved here from Arlington, Virginia, after I got married. The transition was difficult initially, but over time I’ve started to appreciate Exeter. Here are five things I’ve learned from the English that have made my life better.

Keep Your Confidences for Your Friends

The English are famous for their reserve, and a first meeting with an English person can be a very awkward experience. As an American, I’m used to asking the people I meet a few questions about themselves. Where do you work? How long have you lived in this city? To me, that’s only polite. The English, however, don’t like to reveal that kind of information to a stranger. They don’t even particularly like to give their names. I’ve had extended conversations with people and had no idea what their names were.

Initially, I found this very hard to deal with. I would make fun of English people for acting like their names were “state secrets.” Now I realize that they will open up to you, but only once the relationship is better established. There’s a certain honesty to English social interaction. Meeting a new person is awkward. Why should you pretend to be old friends? Since living in Exeter, I’ve adopted more of the English reserve. I post fewer status updates for my 700 Facebook friends. Instead, I prioritize personal contact. When I meet someone new, I don’t volunteer as much information about myself as I used to. But I still always give my name right away. That will not change.

Your Home is Your Castle

Maybe it’s because they spend so much time indoors sheltering from the rain, but English people care deeply about living in a beautiful home. In America, I regularly saw friends buy huge houses and then barely furnish them. They only buy the basics of life and maybe hang a few pictures. English people tend to live in small houses, but they prop them full of as much beauty as they can. Not a wall goes unpainted. All sorts of items have no discernible use other than being beautiful. English people frequently undertake remodeling projects that are solely for aesthetic enhancement. And they don’t pay professionals, they do it them themselves. In fact, in England home remodeling is usually referred to as “DIY” (Do-it-Yourself).

I won’t be knocking down walls any time soon. But Exeter has inspired me to put a lot of work into making our apartment a cozy, welcoming space. My pride and joy are the rose-patterned curtains in the living room. I’ve spent days scouring the shops of Exeter for pictures, dishes, frames, sofa cushions. None of it matches, yet somehow it does.

Let Your Flowers Grow

One upshot of all the English rain is that it does wonders for plants. Nearly every house in Exeter has a flower garden. My neighbor is a middle-aged handyman who never went to college. He grows roses that would put Martha Stewart to shame. When I compliment him on his efforts, he gives a typically modest English reply like, “Oh I just put some seeds in the ground and see what comes up.” He only grows flowers – there are no fruits or vegetables in sight. His garden, like most in Exeter, is purely for aesthetic pleasure.

We live in a second-floor apartment so no garden for us. But I have been lovingly cultivating a fuchsia, two geraniums, and a fern. That may not sound like much, but before I moved to Exeter I had managed to kill every plant I’d ever owned within a month. I just didn’t have the time or patience. These days, I feel maternal tenderness towards my four little plants. Each morning, I take a few minutes to observe how they’re doing. Does my fuchsia need more sun? Perhaps I’ll move it closer to the window for a few days. The sight of my plants blooming brings me enormous happiness.

Love the Language

All the usual statistics about declining standards of education and literacy are as true of England as most developed countries. Yet English people still seem to have a special relationship with their language. A group called the Idler Academy in London runs the popular annual Bad Grammar Prize, which names and shames the worst abuses of the English language. Last year, a local government near Exeter decided to ban apostrophes from street signs (e.g., King’s Street becomes Kings Street). This drew such a public outcry that apostrophes were swiftly reinstated.

Literary prizes for novels are major cultural events in England. There’s dozens of prizes. Some of them are even sponsored by chains of retail stores. Novels that make the short lists for the most prestigious prizes earn media attention and a place on the bestseller list. Even I have started picking up books simply because the cover says they won a prize. As a result, I recently read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Both were fascinating and intellectually challenging. I would never have found them if literary prizes weren’t so highly valued in England.

Tea Makes Everything Better

All the stereotypes are true: English people drink gallons of tea. They use tea to refresh themselves when they’re tired and to relax themselves when they’re wound up. I have a classic Brown Betty teapot, which is supposed to brew the best tea. I cover it with a Union Jack tea cozy, thereby giving myself away as a foreigner. Displays of patriotism are very un-English. I make a proper “cuppa” first thing in the morning, first thing when I get back from running errands, and when I need a break. Whenever I need to stop and think, I make tea to help me concentrate. It really works. When it comes to tea, like many other things, the English are on to something.

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Emma Elliott Freire is a freelance writer living in England. She has previously worked at the Mercatus Center, a multinational bank, and the European Parliament.

3 Comments

  • Avatar
    September 1, 2014

    john

    Its a great article on our cultural diffrences. even though in many ways the us and uk are very similar. but the stores close at 6? I get home at 6 from work.

  • Avatar
    September 2, 2014

    Lucas

    Yeah most shops close at 5.30 pm, but of course pubs, restaurants and overpriced convenience stores are open until 11 pm. If you’re lucky or have a car, you can also go to a 24h supermarket outside town, or perhaps go to a Tesco or Sainsbury’s which are open until 8 pm. In England the normal working hours are 9 am to 5 pm.

  • Avatar
    September 2, 2014

    Emma Elliott Freire

    It’s completely illogical. Stores are basically deserted on weekdays and overcrowded on Saturday. You’d think they’d get the message.