Underground sign, Charing Cross Station

“MIND THE GAP.” The harsh, British, male accent commands us as we get on the Underground. I look down as I step up onto the train, and the phrase is repeated on the ground in bright yellow road paint as well. There’s a small gap in between the concrete platform and the floor of the train, about two inches wide. Just enough space for a foot to slip into if you land the wrong way.

“Mind the gap?” I’m thinking. “Oh, you mean ‘watch the gap,’ or pay attention to the gap.” Many of the phrases we Americans use everyday are different here in England. “Give Way” means yield (but the road sign still looks the same), “lift” means elevator, “way out” is exit, “engaged” is in use or occupied, “to let” is for rent, “underground” or “tube” is subway, and the one I find the weirdest is “toilet,” which means bathroom or restroom. All the others just seem so proper compared to our English counterparts, but toilets… One of the other students on the trip said he felt like he was asking where the “fecal depository” was. It just seems so improper for this ultra-posh society.

I didn’t really get used to these different phrases until I’d been in London for a week. When leaving the subway (I mean Underground), I’d look for “Exit” and then remember I should be looking for “Way Out.”


Way Out sign, Victoria Underground Station

If I’d ask an employee at a museum where the bathrooms were, he or she would stare at me, confused, until I’d realized what I’d said and inquire about where the toilets were. Then they’d comprehend what I was saying, and we’d both be on our merry way, me feeling a tad foolish and very American.

But even though we Americans and Brits have this slight language barrier, we’re all still human beings. On our first day here in London, riding the Underground from Heathrow to our hostel, a mother and her kids got on with a stroller. There was a little boy, around six or seven years old, who I don’t think had been on the Underground very often. His mother mentioned that they normally took the bus. The boy was asking a lot of questions about how the Underground worked and was insatiably curious. The mother was explaining, very simply, what everything was and adding a couple fun stories about how she and her friends would hang from the bars in the Underground and kick each other off. It was all very reminiscent of the interactions I’d seen back home in America between mothers and children at malls or restaurants.

A couple of times we’ve been standing in front of the Underground map, trying to figure out our stop. A Brit also looking at the map will ask us where we’re trying to get to and tell us the route. This was terribly reminiscent of our “Minnesota nice” attitude. Niceness doesn’t just exist in the Midwest! It may be a bit harder to find in a huge city, but some people still go out of their way to be kind to others here, as well. Even though an ocean separates our countries, we Americans and Brits are all still cut from the same cloth.

–Elizabyth Ladwig