Dispatches from the South: American Things I Still Can’t Do in Britain

Photo from Flickr

To continue with my “I’ve been here how long?” theme, this week we’ll take a look at some of the things I would like to adapt to, but just can’t seem to get the hang of.

On the up side, I am pleased to say I can now travel around without getting lost (too often), can complain about the weather with the best of them, and even speak the language like a native. What I still cannot get to grips with however, are British eggs, electricity, aspirin and time.

The electrical sockets here are 220 volt. Yes, even for a night light or a Glade Room Freshener. This makes the Brits very cautious around electricity and practically eliminates amusing anecdotes about the time you convinced your little brother to stick a bobbie pin into an outlet. As a safety precaution, wall plugs have switches on them, so you can turn the power off “at the mains.”

This is all well and good, as long as you remember to turn it on at the mains. I wish I had a 5 pence piece for every time my laptop ran out of power or I turned a light off and on half a dozen times wondering what was wrong with it or I returned to the kitchen after 20 minutes to see why I didn’t smell dinner cooking only to find the stove stone cold and the mains power still switched off.

And time, over here, is military-style, with trains arriving and leaving at such times as 16:34 or 19:04. And for some reason, I just cannot get used to this. The simple formula of subtracting 2 and losing the first digit (turning 18:46 into 16:46 or 6:46, for example) often has me thinking that my 18:47 train is due at 16:47 so that would make it 4:47. Even with a 24-hour watch, I would still have problems adjusting. The whole thing gives me a headache.

Which brings me to aspirin. The abiding belief that topping yourself by eating a handful of aspirin means you cannot buy it by the gross, as in the US. So I am forced to buy it in boxes of 12. And you can only buy one at a time. Consequently, when I get a headache, I have to go buy a box, take two and then put the box somewhere that I will remember it in the future. The medicine cabinet seems like a good place, and I swear that is where I put them, but weeks later, when I have another headache, the box has disappeared. So I have to buy another box.

Somewhere in this flat, there are about 187 12-packs of aspirin with 10 tablets left in them. I expect we’ll find them if we ever move out.

Photo from Flickr

As for eggs, I spent 46 years developing the perfect tapping technique for cracking an American egg and then found out—to my bitter disappointment—that the skill is non-transferable. The problem, in my opinion, is they don’t feed their chickens enough DDT or whatever it is we feed them in the States because the shells here (on their brown, not white, eggs) are hard as walnuts.

Since it is my privilege to make breakfast on weekend mornings, and since my vegetarian wife and I have a limited selection of foods in common, a typical morning meal inevitably includes eggs. A favourite of mine is eggs over easy, and my wife likes fried eggs (they are the same thing, by the way) but the odds of me getting a yolk out of an eggshell in one piece are about the same as the Labour government sweeping to victory at the polls in the next general election.

Now, I know from experience that I have to hit the egg harder than I am used to, so I steel myself and give it a good whack. Generally, the first blow glances off the armour plating leaving hardly a nick. The second blow, delivered with more determination, adds a dent and a few cracks. So the third blow is practically guaranteed to end up with me holding a dripping mass of canary yellow goo, splintered eggshell and a good deal of something that unnervingly resembles snot in my hand.

We eat a lot of scrambled eggs.

But only if I remember to turn the stove on at the mains.


  1. avatar says

    Mike to make life easier most of us Brits simply leave the switch in the on position at the plug socket.

    Unless the appliance is on or has a standby mode you won’t be using any electricity.

    Hope that makes life that bit easier for you over here.

  2. avatarLisa says

    Whatever we feed the chickens in America that makes the eggs both white and crackable must also mutate the chickens to super size. I have to adjust all recipes I make and add an egg. One “large” British egg is roughly equivalent to a small/medium American egg, and forget about an extra large egg cause it doesn’t exist. The first few times I tried to bake and make other things with eggs using American recipes I had a hard time getting the eggs right. Now I’ve learned just adding one egg usually evens it out. Still very frustrating cause I always worry maybe I didn’t need to add that extra egg.

    I’m with you on the turning “off at the mains”. I try to leave it on to make my life easier, but my husband habitually turns the sockets off so even if I tried to leave it on, he will always go behind me and do it.

  3. avatar says

    The color and size of the egg shells has to do with the breed of chicken. I can’t give you an answer for the strength of the eggshell, although people are always saying “They can put a man on the moon but they can’t make a better eggshell” when they break in the box. I guess we got the moon and the Brits got the eggshells.

  4. avatarStephanie says

    I stumbled on this wonderful sight by accident, and I am utterly charmed. I laughed out loud about the eggs..the first time I walked into Tesco, I yelped..”The eggs! They aren’t refrigerated!!”..and then attempted to make poached eggs, & consequently fished out about 60 shell fragments when the egg combusted in my hands. Along with cooking was “What is Gas Mark 3? What temperature is that exactly?” and then “What do you mean there’s no shower? A bath?”..ha ha ha! Man, I have to say, it’s all the little things that make me realize that I’m not in “Kansas anymore”..and I’m loving every second of it. GLasgow is wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier here!

  5. avatarpriscilla says

    I believe the thing with egg shells is how much grit is in the feed, no grit no shell! We used to have white egg shells so I don’t know what happened there. As for the switches in the sockets, I just leave them on!. If anyone does turn them off I also find myself spending sereral minutes wondering what the hell is wrong! We also used to be able to buy suicide size packs of aspirin too! I went to a local shop recently and was told they couldn’t sell it to me at all, only the chemist, I asked if this was a new law, and was told it had always been the law which is utter bollocks!

  6. avatarwendy says

    You said: “And time, over here, is military-style, with trains arriving and leaving at such times as 16:34 or 19:04. And for some reason, I just cannot get used to this. The simple formula of subtracting 2 and losing the first digit (turning 18:46 into 16:46 or 6:46, for example) often has me thinking that my 18:47 train is due at 16:47 so that would make it 4:47.”…easier way is to subtract 12….1300hours-12 is 1pm.

  7. avataralfuso says

    I had a hard time even finding aspirin in London! But there is paracetacol, or however that’s spelt, by the truck load. It is acetaminophen and that stuff can kill you if you OD on it. It destroys your liver in a remarkably short time.

  8. avatarAlex says

    It’s not common now for Brits to use asprin to treat a headache – it thins the blood and can be quite dangerous if you have underlying conditions/take too much.

    We would buy paracetemol or ibuprofen tablets, and yes there are limits on how much you can buy in one go. These are considered ‘safe’ painkillers which can be bought in pretty much any supermarket/pharmacy in enough quantity to see you through a headache/sore throat/flu or whatever.

    24 hour time is pretty standard throughout Europe when it comes to bus/train timetables and so on. But you wouldn’t use it verbally – “I’ll meet you in the pub at nineteen hundred hours” because you’d sound, well, like a bit of a berk.

    I’ve never seen a free-range chicken lay an egg with a white, paper-thin shell so I’ve always seen it as a good thing that our eggshells are quite robust. Having said that, it could just be down to different breeds (although we do use Rhode Island Reds here)

    Interesting reading though, it makes me see everyday stuff in a different light!

    • avatarelaine moore says

      I thought so. when i saw the pic of the eggs i was like they are different shapes, they are free range!! in US we treat our chickens very badly. shoving them in small spaces, feeding them tons of hormones ect ect so the eggs are very different, and taste very different, from free range eggs.
      and eggs don’t need to be refrigerated. in america we are use to seeing it that way.

  9. avatardavid says

    1 colour of shells is related to the colour of the chicken
    2 colour of the shell makes NO DIFFERENCE to the taste of the egg
    isnt anadin aspirin

    baby asprin ( orange ) is well tastey :)

  10. avatar says

    How funny! I can relate to a lot of this, but not because I just moved to Britain (though I did, last November). I’ve been living outside the US for years now, and I’ve been living with 220 volt electricity for quite a while, though so far the UK is the only place I’ve seen those little switches on the outlets. In Latin America, they’ve got their 220 volt outlets unprotected and ready to fry you with a simple poke.

    Military time, I’ve gotten used to. Not sure how long it took, but now I prefer it. At least I don’t have to stress about whether the alarm was actually set for AM, or whether I might have made a mistake and put it on PM.

    Eggs…I think that’s an issue all over the place. In Argentina I would end up crushing the shells from smashing them so hard against the bowl. Commercial American hens probably get far too many growth hormones, antibiotics, etc. I’ve never had free range or organic eggs from the US, so I’m not sure what their shells are like.

    As for aspirin, I hadn’t noticed that yet, but again I’m used to Latin America, where everything that’s supposed to be sold with a prescription is still available without the prescription. I was at the doctor the other day getting an asthma inhaler and asked whether I could just pick one up at a pharmacy (like you can in Latam) and the doctor just smiled and said no, like I was a little weird for asking.

  11. avatarJulia says

    Enjoying the site!

    With eggs, at stage 2, I put my fingers in the dent and split the egg in my hands – over the bowl, obviously. I’ve never really thought about it before.

  12. avatarHJ says

    You can’t stick a bobbie pin (whatever that is) into a British socket and get a shock.

    The power pins are internally shuttered for safety – the shutters only move out of the way as the earth pin on the plug (which is slightly longer than the power pins) is inserted.

    They really are very safe, with or without the on/off switch and, of course, you are protected by circuit breakers on all the ring circuits.

    American sockets and plugs are, by comparison, lethal!

  13. avatarDax says

    Have to say this article brought a smile to my face.

    Now that a year has passed, I hope that you have now figured out how to tell the time or crack open an egg…but maybe an update would be just what we need.

  14. avatartahrey says

    Hahaha … it’s quite funny seeing this from “the other side”, particularly as you’ve nailed it quite well!

    Mind you, the switches on the mains sockets are only really for safety either when there’s nothing plugged in, or you have something hooked up that doesn’t have its own power switch. You should be able to leave an electric hob turned on without any issues, for a start. Well, unless it’s something annoying like my inherited induction-effect one that lets out a piercing warning beep if you leave anything on top of it whilst it’s on standby… And things like computers, even if they use an adaptor like a laptop, the consumption is near-zero when turned “off”, and older ones actually have their own breaker switch incorporated to the power supply anyway.

    Not that this stops us sometimes doing exactly what you describe too!

    And I’ll have to be careful with the eggs should I ever come to the states and need to cook for myself, then – thirty years of being used to granite-hard shells as “just the way it is” means I can whack them with just enough force to crack them open without causing internal damage. I’d probably completely pulp an American one in a single tap without meaning to :D

    I think the current limit on aspirins is 2 packs of 16, which is a reasonable amount (you can go for a few days taking the maximum “safe” dose, and only make yourself badly ill rather than killing yourself if you down all of them at once) … however there’s nothing to stop you simply dropping into 2 or 3 shops in the same trip, as it’s such a commonly sold item.

    Must say I never realised there was a limit on aspirin though – as I rarely buy it. More familiar with those for Ibuprofen (which is quite aspirin-like in its chemistry and effect, but milder on the stomach), and for Paracetamol / acetaminophen which has a much more infamous effect on your liver, and is possible to OD on -accidentally- if you’re a forgetful hypochondriac with high pain sensitivity…

    Greets from the freezing wilds of west-central birmingham, by the way :)

  15. avatarAmeliaV says

    Americans don’t know 24 time??!! Ive never known that! I only ever use clocks and watches in 24 hour time, if I read 15:30 I just automatically know it is three thirty pm. I didn’t know Americans didn’t have switches on sockets either, it’s legal to have sockets in bathrooms in America as well isn’t it?

    • avatar says

      Yes, most ALL American bathrooms have sockets in them. For older structures, grounding the socket was retroditted. For newer developments, grounding is done for all outlets. Here is simplistic explanation of grounding:

      “ELECTRICAL GROUNDING or “Grounding” originally began as a safety measure used to help prevent people from accidentally coming in contact with electrical hazards. Think of your refrigerator. It is a metal box standing on rubber feet with electricity running in and out of it. You use magnets to hang your child’s latest drawing on the metal exterior. The electricity running from the outlet and through the power cord to the electrical components inside the refrigerator are electrically isolated from the metal exterior or chassis of the refrigerator.

      If far some reason the electricity came in contact with the chassis, the rubber feet would prevent the electricity from going anywhere and it would sit waiting for someone to walk up and touch the refrigerator. Once someone touched the refrigerator the electricity would flow from the chassis of the refrigerator and through the unlucky person possibly causing injury.

      Grounding is used to protect that person. By connecting a wire from the metal frame of the refrigerator to the ground, if the chassis inadvertently becomes charged for any reason, the unwanted electricity will travel down the wire and out safely into the earth; and in the process, trip the circuit-breaker stopping the flow of electricity. Obviously, that wire has to connect to something that is in turn connected to the earth or ground outside. Typically this connection is a grounding electrode.”

      And yes, Americans are not educated about the 24 hour time, unless trained in military, which is why Americans call it “military time.” It is of course more efficient, but something that is hard to get used to, especially if you are terrible with numbers! :)

      The hard egss in UK are comforting, as hard shells are also on organic, free-range chicken eggs in USA. I don’t know much about UK livestock policies or standards, but hopefully this means that they are better quality than the average garbage eggs we serve here in the USA, riddled with hormones and created from sick, weak chickens.

      Plan on moving to London in September, exciting and scary!

  16. avatarChris says

    Too many aspirins can cause a bleed (from thinning the blood), and are dangerous for other reasons too.
    The 24 hr clock is easy!! I think train times have to be so precise because the rail system is overcrowded. No, ordinary fold don’t ‘talk’ the 24 hr clock, only the forces, police, etc.

  17. avatarRosemary says

    Come on! Stop whingeing!
    Isnt this part of leaving your own country and living abroad?
    Yes you have to take a few minutes and work out the disconnects and then move on but please dont complain to everyone in the process. Cheer up…..you end up with a more educated and flexible view of life that should benefit you in the long run!

  18. avatarGavin says

    Brilliant site. I’m a born & bred Brit so reading about the differences you’ve found is educational … and hysterical.

    Switches on sockets though … I became a habitual turner-offer after getting a mains shock when I was about 13. And I recently replaced all the sockets in my house to get rid of the switchless ones.

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