By Isabella Ainsworth
It’s raining. It was sunny when I left the apartment that my family is renting in Cambridge, but this is England and the weather changes quickly, several times a day.
Before coming here, I didn’t understand the use of owning a rain jacket. And yet in these past few weeks I haven’t gone more than three days without using the bright green, $15 polyester jacket I got at Target two years ago on a whim. I am so glad I brought it.
Apart from the weather, which can either be bad or good depending on whom you ask, England is wonderful. I’ve wanted to visit it since fourth grade, when I started connecting my love of feudal fantasy books to this country where they still had royalty, knights and castles, all of my favorite things. The fact that this was the country of Harry Potter was just the icing on top.
I was finally able to come this year, when my mother got a visiting fellowship at Cambridge. The experience has been amazing, and the best moments are always when I realize something else that is different between the United Kingdom and the United States. This is because it’s delightful to realize that even though the two countries share the same basic language, they are vastly different.
The most noticeable difference between the U.K. and the U.S. is the accent. In the U.S., most British television characters have a high-class British accent, so that’s what some people are led to believe is the only accent, when the truth is that there are a disproportionate number of accents to people in Britain. And the accents range from the very easy to understand to the Scottish, which just sounds like another language entirely.
With the different accents come different words, different preferences for words and sometimes different definitions of words. For example, I’ve learned that a queue in Britain means a line, a chemist means pharmacy and anti-social behavior doesn’t mean sitting on the couch playing video games but behavior that “causes damage to society.”
I knew coming here that the British didn’t just speak the wrong way, but that they drove the wrong way, too. But I didn’t know that this left-side preference doesn’t apply just to streets but to escalators, stairs and bike lanes as well. It’s confusing and sometimes annoying to realize that you’re blocking someone by going the wrong way, or to go through the trouble of remembering to stay on the left side just to have someone disregard your attempts to respect ancient British traditions and bump into you because they’re walking on the wrong side.
Apart from the accent and the driving, and the excessive tea-drinking, there are a lot of things about British culture that are direct results of the Brits not wanting to stray from tradition. Not only do they have a monarch with no political power, but they lavish money on her and include information about the royal family in almost every single one of their tabloids.
But staying with traditions can sometimes be a good thing. The National Rail Service is an example of that. Unlike in California, where it’s hard to get anywhere quickly and efficiently by rail, the British still use their trains, making it easy to get to from one place to another without having to drive or take a taxi. It’s also good for the environment, and limits traffic inside cities.
And tradition isn’t just useful, but part of what makes Britain so special. Tradition results in palaces, castles and cottages preserved throughout the country, allowing the inner knight-obsessed fourth-grader to be fulfilled in every one. It’s what simultaneously makes British savory food so bad, and its sweet food so good.
And, most importantly, it’s what makes the British British, and it’s what I loved about being able to come here. It was amazing to be able to see a place where people still punt, have cream tea and call their mail service the “Royal Mail.”
Walking down the street in the rain, I spot a guy in a “California” shirt, which is funny, because in California I would have seen a guy just like that, most likely wearing a “London” shirt. Which just shows you that these two places, thousands of miles apart, aren’t so different after all.
— Isabella Ainsworth just finished ninth grade at Emerson Junior High. For the past six weeks she’s been in Cambridge with her mother, who is doing research there.