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JCP-UK 2012: Watery Matters

In my foray across the pond, I was particularly interested in small cultural differences, and I took particular delight in discovering things that were done differently in the UK than they were in the US.

While the electric kettle is hardly an exotic appliance here, they’re absolutely essential in the UK. Personally, I’m more likely to boil a cup of water in the microwave, but now I see that’s so much less accurate and efficient. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting one of those single-cup coffeemaker, but I suspect I would eventually feel like the K-cups are a ripoff and end up not using the device. Now I’m thinking I’d rather have an electric kettle. While the kettles in the US are a different wattage due to our wimpy 110 volt electrical system and they won’t blast water to a boil in no time flat like a UK kettle, I still think I’d like it better than a more limited appliance like a single-cup coffeemaker.

IMG_0130All that coffee and tea brewed by the kick-ass kettle has got to go somewhere. Another unexpected difference was that the toilets in the UK weren’t quite the same as in the US. On the surface, they may look similar enough, but the flush is different. In the US, water squirts out sideways and shoots around the bowl in a circular motion, whereas in the UK as far as I can tell the water shoots across the bowl from both the back and the front.

Initially, I would press the handle and the toilet would give a little chug, and then I’d think, “It doesn’t work. Damn.” Then I’d re-attempt my flush five or six times until finally the big front-to-back cleanse occurred. Once I finally got the hang of UK toilet flushing I found that the key was to sneak up on the unsuspecting handle and then really lay into the flushing motion. This would give me a satisfactory flush every other time, as opposed to one out of six.

During my stay I also had the first experience I can remember with a pay toilet. It seems to me that when I was a child, pay toilets existed in the US, but I haven’t seen one since I was a kid. Or maybe I’ve never seen one, and I only think I have, because most Americans my age are can recite the infamous two-line bathroom verse:

Here I sit, brokenhearted
Paid a dime and only farted

I’m not sure how typical the pay toilet is in the UK, but they are common enough that I did run across one I wanted to visit during my stay. Luckily, at this point, I had British money in my pocket and didn’t need to go beg 20p off someone. But it also meant I needed to stand there with a crowd milling around me and sift through each and every coin in my possession to determine whether I did indeed have 20p. (The coinage would be another big difference. There are more coins in common use in the UK than the US. The 1p, 5p and 10p I understood. Then they have 2p, 20p, 50p, plus one and two pound coins that don’t have much of an equivalent in the US. We have half-dollars or dollar coins, though we don’t use them much. And if you give a dollar or half-dollar coin to a clerk, they’ll stare at it for a while.)

As I experienced the pay toilet, I pondered whether it was ethical to demand 20p from someone in their time of need, and I decided that I didn’t mind paying for the upkeep of a decent bathroom. Plus, if the alternative was to have no toilet at all, it was worth the money. Though I suspect most people didn’t get quite the same thrill that I did from correctly identifying the proper coin to put in the slot.



( 37 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 26th, 2012 01:53 pm (UTC)
I love that you notice details!
The blog posts about your UK visit are fantastic! My husband has been to London (and nearby) for business at least three times since we got married, and the only thing he tells me is, "You need to go." He's not very good at relating, or even noticing, interesting details. (I had to tell him that I cut more than 6 inches off my hair three days after the appointment...his dad had been snickering at him openly for those three days.)

I look forward to reading more if you have time!

Sep. 26th, 2012 02:31 pm (UTC)
Re: I love that you notice details!
The short version of my trip is, "Wow, it was GREAT!" but you're so right, a few good details really make all the difference in trying to share the flavor of the experience!

(I'm guessing this is Kristi, am I right?)
Re: I love that you notice details! - (Anonymous) - Sep. 26th, 2012 02:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 26th, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC)
All public toilets that I encountered in Germany are pay toilets. Someone would be sitting there by the door with a dish for the money. And they are always cleaning the toilets. German coins still give me grief. takes me forever to figure out what I have in change. German coinage is - I think - 1/2/5/10/20/50 cents and then 1/2 Euros and the sizes and colors are similar so its hard to figure out quickly what you have. And it's funny when my relatives visit me they are at a loss with our coinage and I think our coins are easy to figure out and our paper money not so much.
Sep. 26th, 2012 02:34 pm (UTC)
Maybe it's the 25¢ that seems weird to Europeans. I would definitely sympathize with them now. The 2-pence coin seems big and spendy, but really it's just 2p.

I appreciated that the 2-pound coin was two colors, a ring of gold-tone around a circle of silver, I think (maybe the opposite). It helped me remember it was worth more.
(no subject) - andy_slayde - Sep. 26th, 2012 02:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - idamus - Sep. 26th, 2012 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 26th, 2012 02:18 pm (UTC)
Heehee, that was fun :)
I think toilets that you pay for are rather common in Europe, have not seen a country without any yet, hmmm, possibly I didn't go to one in Belgium...
I much prefer these as they are much cleaner

In Vienna I saw one where the toilet seat (the part you sit on when, um, peeing) was turned like a record player when you flushed, a sponge disinfected the whole thing, cleanest toilet I've ever seen ;) -and the priciest, they charged me €5 for that :/
Sep. 26th, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
If I paid 5 euros to use a toilet I'd expect a massage at the end of my bathroom break!

There were a lot of little differences I noticed on my trip, all of which I loved. This one just seemed to be the funniest to share :D
(no subject) - idamus - Sep. 26th, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 26th, 2012 03:00 pm (UTC)
I have never been to the UK. I dearly hope to go someday. These things are good to know!
Sep. 26th, 2012 04:59 pm (UTC)
Do go if you can. It was worth every minute and every cent I spent getting there.
Sep. 26th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
YES! The pay toilets. We were at King's Cross station and I had to pee and arrgghh. We needed to pay and I was standing there with a handful of change while Jen picked through it and we didn't have enough for both of us so she had to get change and we have luggage and we're trying to get through the turnstile thing and I think other people were giving me the evil eye. Sigh. What trauma. I'm sure all the poor Americans who'd been in London for the Olympics were baffled by why they couldn't just pee at will in any bathroom around town. LOL

My shower at the hotel was odd. Usually you turn on the taps and then pull/push something to get the water to divert out the shower head. But in this case, the shower had a different water system. I couldn't figure out the first morning why water was coming out both the tap and the shower, but eventually I figured it out. :-)

My daughter is asking for a kettle. Now she uses the microwave or when I want hot water I simply put some in a pot on the stove and boil it. I guess I'll break down and get one so she can make her own damn tea. ;-)
Sep. 26th, 2012 05:01 pm (UTC)
That's true, I found the shower was different both at the hotel and at Clare's house. Like you, I did figure it out :D

I think I'm sold on this kettle idea. Though they won't boil as fast for us because of the wattage.
Sep. 26th, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
I love our electric kettle!
Since I've been drinking tea more in the past year or two, I think it's a godsend. Ours holds up to 1.7L (I guess since this isn't an American invention, they had to make it metric? ;-). The only downside is that you're supposed to put a minimum of .75L in it (why the .5 mark instead, then; I have to guesstimate), which feels wasteful to me since I usually drink only one cup of tea. ;-/ I should just nuke it, I suppose, but like you said, this is more precise.

Get a kettle! ;-)

Sep. 26th, 2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
Re: I love our electric kettle!
I spotted one that has precise temperature settings for black, green and white tea. Since I do drink all these different types, it looks like it would be a good investment. I just noted I have a free outlet space on my countertop so I suppose there's no excuse...
Re: I love our electric kettle! - sanguinepen - Sep. 26th, 2012 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I love our electric kettle! - jordan_c_price - Sep. 26th, 2012 06:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I love our electric kettle! - sanguinepen - Sep. 26th, 2012 06:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I love our electric kettle! - (Anonymous) - Sep. 27th, 2012 03:36 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I love our electric kettle! - jordan_c_price - Sep. 27th, 2012 12:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I love our electric kettle! - (Anonymous) - Sep. 28th, 2012 01:58 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I love our electric kettle! - jordan_c_price - Sep. 28th, 2012 11:02 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I love our electric kettle! - jordan_c_price - Sep. 28th, 2012 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 26th, 2012 05:22 pm (UTC)
After my first trip to England I got an electric kettle right away, and I've loved it ever since. I drink tea every day, and it does actually taste different when made with kettle water rather than put in the microwave. My mom wonders why I cringe whenever she makes tea in the microwave.

My sister lives in London, and when I visit I love to catalog all the differences. Did you notice how the bathroom stalls don't have the big gap at the bottom like in America? I loved that they were more private.

As for the coins, my sister says everyone calls them "shrapnel," lol. When I came back this last time I had a wallet full I just couldn't get rid of.

Edited at 2012-09-26 05:22 pm (UTC)
Sep. 26th, 2012 06:12 pm (UTC)
I noticed someone else commenting on the kettles saying they'd also fallen in love with them on a trip to the UK. What a funny thing to bring back with us! How strange they're not in common use here.

I totally noticed that thing about the more private bathroom stalls! Two things occurred to me. 1. it must suck for them when they visit over here, feeling all exposed, and 2. how do their homophobic senators have illicit gay sex without playing footsie under the stalls? Oh yeah, they don't have senators.

I love the term "shrapnel" for the change!
Sep. 26th, 2012 06:16 pm (UTC)
lol at the poem. I learned the second verse as "Tried to shit but only farted."

We have an electric kettle thingy that heats water in about the time it takes Kirk to beam down to the planet. But we use it for making ramen, not being tea drinkers.
Sep. 26th, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
There is a second couplet that went something like, "The time I thought I'd take a chance, saved my dime but shit my pants." So clearly it was about a pay toilet which I may or may not have ever actually encountered!

I'm thinking about eating oatmeal again. The kettle would be nice for that too.
Sep. 26th, 2012 06:19 pm (UTC)
Plumbing is always confusing in a foreign land - and sometimes in your own. Pay toilets used to have a pay slot on the door - your dropped an old penny in the slot, turned the handle and could get into the cubicle. If there wasn't an attendant several people could use that same penny in sequence providing they didn't let the door close as they swapped places. The phrase "I need to spend a penny" is still in use although only us old ones remember when it did only cost a penny to have a pee (decimal coinage replaced old money in 1971).

The UK version of that rhyme is:
Here I sit brokenhearted,
Tried to shit but only farted

Myt husband says he thought pay toilets were outlawed in the name of sexual equality because men didn't have to pay to use a urinal under the old system. The new system with turnstiles is complicated - I'm not sure I've had to deal with it before the other weekend, but then I don't use buses and trains very often and that's where I found the turnstiles. Generally a pay toilet with an attendant will be more pleasant to visit than a free public toilet. Did you brave any of the automatic toilets on London's streets? I saw one and gave it a wide berth!

I hadn't thought about the voltage difference being a problem for boiling water over there. I know I missed the ubiquitous kettle in the motel rooms. Tea just doesn't woork as well using hot water from a coffee maker. The kettle is an essential piece of kitchen equipment here and a social necessity as well. "I'll just put the kettle on" is greeting, welcome and escape in most homes. There's a thing about the British and tea - detailing all occasions that need a cup of tea which range from getting up in the morning to the end of the world. I'd probably go for a cuppa if we ever did get a nine-minute warning of anihilation.

I found US coins confusing because the smaller silver one is worth more than the bigger one. Generally in the UK the bigger the coin the more it is worth (ignoring the 20p) and silver is worth more than copper. Not that there is much silver or copper in any of them. The goldy stuff in the pound coins is supposed to look more valuable than silver, but I don't know why they made the £2 two-tone. We might end up with a £5 coin in circulation one day.

Anyone who can get to Manchester next July will be more than welcome and there's bound to be someone willing to explain the strange fixtures and fittings!
Sep. 26th, 2012 07:09 pm (UTC)
I tend to avoid restrooms with attendants in them because in the US basically everyone expects a "tip" from you for doing anything. So they hover around you and try to hand you paper towels, and I guess you're supposed to give them money. Which I feel I shouldn't have to. Maybe one of these days I'll get over my "I shouldn't need to tip you" hangup and just happily spray money out wherever I go.

It would be confusing that the US 10¢ is so small compared to the other coins. That's the small silver one you mention.

How interesting that women's facilities were paid and men's were free! That totally seems like a big lawsuit waiting to happen. Then again you're not as litigious over there. Or at least that's my perception. The bathroom I used was indeed on the public transit. I might have been leery of a public pay toilet on the street. I dunno why...public transit isn't exactly notorious for its sterility.
Sep. 26th, 2012 08:58 pm (UTC)
Ha! I never heard that little pay-toilet rhyme before. Classy. ;-)

I love my electric kettle. No, they're not instantaneous, but even my little cheapie from WalMart.com works well. My sister has a Braun that's faster than mine. The kettle is great for a lot of things besides coffee and tea (like boiling water that you can pour into a pot on the burner to make pasta or rice, or whatever).
Sep. 27th, 2012 12:17 pm (UTC)
I think I'll find lots of uses for it. Or I'll use it twice and forget it exists. Either or.
(no subject) - thistlethorn - Sep. 27th, 2012 04:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 27th, 2012 01:13 am (UTC)
I love reading stories about the differences between countries.

When my hubby visited the US, he really noticed the lack of electric kettles in the motels. Here in Aussie land, all our motels have kettles for tea/coffee making, plus sachets of coffee and tea bags, and usually free biscuites (cookies) as well.

If I remember rightly, another LJ friend actually bought a kettle when she visited over there, because she couldn't cope without her daily cuppa as she travelled around the country.

Also, I understand the height of the water in toilet bowls is different in the States. Ours only have a couple of inches in the bottom, whereas I think the water is higher in your neck of the woods. I remember several friends thinking the toilets were blocked when they went to "spend a penny".
Sep. 27th, 2012 12:21 pm (UTC)
Oh, I feel bad for your friend having to lug around her own kettle! It's true, they don't have them in motels here. They figure the coffee maker is all people need. They usually have the free coffee/tea (usually icky powdered stuff) in the room but not the cookies.

I did notice the water level was a lot lower, but also that the bottom part of the bowl (the exit ramp, for lack of a better word) seemed deeper. Plumbers must feel even more bemused by the difference when they travel from place to place.
Nov. 15th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
I wandered over here from your newsletter because I didn't understand your rec. of the electric kettle - I thought you meant you'd found a really nice brand of kettle over here. I didn't realise you didn't used to have a kettle! How did you live??

It does rather bring home to me though how little I've seen of the USA - we spent two weeks with the in-laws (near Philadelphia) a few years back, and during a weekend in New York had noted the lack of kettles in the hotel, but just thought it was a hotel thing. No wonder people think the UK is exotic and strange when I think most of it's quite boring & normal...
Nov. 16th, 2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
Isn't it funny, such a basic thing? I heated water in the microwave before. Or, when I was a kid, before microwaves were common, we'd just put water in a saucepan on the stove (unless we had a whistling teakettle for the stovetop, but I don't think we did. My dad might have.) I used to have a stovetop kettle but the spout didn't work right and I always ended up splattering boiling water everywhere.
( 37 comments — Leave a comment )

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