Best of British: The Expat View

By: Maxine Sheppard

May 10, 2012

We might fly to 34 fantastic destinations around the globe, but here at Virgin Atlantic we’re equally enthralled with London and the rest of the UK, and if there’s ever been a year to celebrate all things British, it’s 2012.

But sometimes, especially when the weather is endlessly dreary, it’s easy to become complacent about the things we take for granted. So in the run-up to the first huge event of the summer – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – we’ve sought out a new perspective on these fair isles by asking some Brit-based expatriates for their take on UK life.


So what’s so great about living in Britain?

It’s easy to forget that some of the most ingrained and fundamental aspects of British life are what make this nation so unique. When we asked our expats what they loved most about living in Britain, we got some enlightening replies. For journalist and doctoral student Emma Lundin, originally from Malmö in Sweden, it’s our sense of decorum that gets top marks.


“I’d say the general everyday politeness. Most people seem unable to see an elderly lady with suitcases or a young mum with a pushchair on the top of a flight of stairs without rushing to help. And while there might not be much room in rush-hour tube carriages, people try the best they can to take up as little space as possible. Sharp-elbowed Stockholmers have something to learn here.”

And who would’ve thought our food would be something to write home about? For ex-New Yorker Matt Pincus, a tax lawyer who’s been working for a US firm in London for a year and a half, it’s been a revelation.

“People from the US always seem to laugh when I say this, but what I love most about living here is the food. Not the restaurant food, per se, although some of my favourite restaurants are here. But the quality of meat, veg, and especially dairy, is just far better than what one generally gets in the states.”


Vegetables at Borough Market, London © Blowing Puffer Fish

Vegetables at Borough Market, London © Blowing Puffer Fish


Originally from the San Francisco bay area, writer and vtravelled contributor Alex Robertson Textor agrees about the food and holds plenty of our other idiosyncrasies in high regard too.

“I love the attention to seasonality in restaurants, the ubiquity of mackerel, Barclays cycle hire, public transportation, London’s cultural diversity, Regent’s Canal, being addressed as “bruv” at the cornershop, and the general tenor of news programmes.”

But for 16 year old magazine apprentice Keiller Hipkin, who moved to rural Oxfordshire with her family from a small town near Melbourne, Australia last year, it’s all about the people.

“The thing I love most about Britain is how unique and individual people are here. Where I’m from in Australia, people tend to try and all be the same so it’s nice to see people expressing themselves without being looked down on.”

And while we’re on the subject of people, Alex had this to say. “I thought that people would be much more buttoned-up than they have turned out to be. British people are slower to warm up than Americans, for sure, but they will let loose under the right circumstances.”

Speaking of pre-conceived ideas, what else were our expats speculating about before they arrived? Matt puts it succinctly. “I thought moving here from New York would mean that my alcohol tolerance would be significantly strengthened. That notion has been confirmed.”

Emma was concerned about another type of drink altogether. “I was worried about the lack of good coffee, but this has improved tremendously over the past 5-10 years – it’s shockingly easy to find an excellent cup of coffee in London these days.”


Milk Bar, Soho © Rick Nunn

Milk Bar, Soho © Rick Nunn


Cultural quirks

Just like any other nation, we apparently have an abundance of unfathomable quirks, with our imbibing habits also top of our expats’ list of baffling British traits. Alex describes a typical scenario that he can’t quite get his head around. “Afternoon drinking followed not by dinner but by more alcohol. I very much enjoy drinking, but this approach doesn’t appeal.” For Emma, it took a while to get used to an intrinsic part of British life. “After 10 years I think I’ve adopted most British quirks myself, but I remember being slightly stunned by the drinking habits – Swedes go to cafés to chat with friends; Brits head straight for the pub.”


Matt’s head-scratching is over something rather more mundane. “I still don’t understand why this country hasn’t been able to import the clothes-drying technology that works so well in much of the rest of the world. I’ve yet to find a clothes dryer here that actually works.” Did no-one tell you that we all still use mangles, Matt?

Lifelong residents of the UK are probably not that phased by what bemuses Keiller the most. “I find it odd how you can drive one mile down the road and the accent can be almost completely different from where you started.” And that’s not the only thing puzzling her. “I also find the pollen reports on the news a total mystery.”

We’ll leave the final word to Emma though, because it’s an important one. “Fish-finger sandwiches,” she says. “I still don’t understand the appeal.” What? Emma, you’re missing out!


Tell us more

Are you an expat living in the UK? What do you love most about living here? What drives you crazy? What do you miss most about your home country? We’d love to hear about your experiences so please do leave a comment below.


And let’s not forget all those Brits who are expats themselves. We’d love to know more about where you live too. What are the best things about your new home? Do you miss anything about the UK? Please share your stories, tips and resources for future expats below.

And finally – on the subject of resources, here’s something fabulous for our USA-based Brits: Mind the Gap is a brand new blog from BBC America, launched in association with Virgin Atlantic, with the sole mission of helping would-be British expats make the jump across the pond and navigate seamlessly through the land of opportunity, all written by those who have been there and done it already.

Mind the Gap will sit alongside BBC America’s existing blog Anglophenia, which has built a strong and engaged following obsessed with the cultural differences and similarities between America and the UK.

Whether you’re embarking on a new life or heading home to your old one, visit Virgin Atlantic for flights to the USA, Australia, South Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

Thanks to photographers Blowing Puffer Fish and Rick Nunn.


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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