When I met my future husband three years ago in Kyiv – a British citizen – he recounted stories of teaching English to Ukrainians and answering their questions about the UK: “Is it really always foggy in London?... “Why do Brits love to queue?... “Does everyone in Britain have tea at five o’clock?”
I must admit to having pondered these questions myself. I had a picture in my mind of British men strolling along the city streets in bowler hats and sat on park benches reading The Times.
Like many Ukrainians, I learned English at school and – yes – and grew up on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” According to my husband, English vocabulary among many young Ukrainians shows clear links to classic English literature. Apparently, we use words like “seldom” and “moreover” quite regularly in conversation, which I’m told are no longer common in everyday speech in Britain.
I’d always wanted to visit the UK, for example to have my photograph taken outside a red telephone box; to see the double-decker London buses; and to see robins bobbing about in the snow like on picture postcards of English villages at Christmas time.
When the full-scale war came to Ukraine in February 2022, it proved bittersweet. My husband and I relocated to Britain where we are now living with our baby daughter. It was a hard transition at first, but I know I’ve been incredibly lucky at the same time. I miss my family and friends back home, but I know things could have been so much harder – and they have been harder for thousands of people scattered across Europe and beyond, separated from their partners who have to stay in Ukraine under martial law.
With so much sadness in the world right now, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my experiences about the quirks of British life, hopefully bringing a smile to people’s faces at the same time.
To start with – and a spoiler alert for Ukrainians back home – London isn’t usually foggy! Apparently, that’s an image stemming from many decades ago when people burned coal and the air was heavily polluted with soot. Also “five o’clock tea” isn’t always at five o’clock. In fact, people in northern England are more likely to call the evening meal “tea” and people in the south “dinner.” I always thought that “tea” (with milk of course, in Britain) was just a drink, but it’s more complicated than that
The upper classes in “Pride and Prejudice” definitely still exist and there are some amazing country houses and castles. That said, I haven’t seen any handsome men galloping along on horseback like Mr Darcy. Any Ukrainians with romantic dreams about English gentlemen please take note – Britain also has its fair share of those annoying boy racers in their loud cars whizzing around the streets.
Speaking of books, I’ve learned since living in the UK that it’s “Harry Potter” and not “Gary Potter.” My fellow Ukrainians will understand how it’s easy to make that mistake in pronunciation. My husband tells me he’s “Harry the wizard” and not “Gary from the estate,” whatever that means.
British people on the whole seem to love their monarchy. We had a day off when King Charles III had his coronation earlier this year. Flags everywhere and street parties (although sadly we missed ours because I was giving birth).
Food, glorious food!
Whilst in Ukraine we have shelves and shelves of different types of buckwheat, in Britain they have shelves and shelves of baked beans in tomato sauce. They go really nice on toast for breakfast – I’m addicted to that, I have to say! I do miss being able to easily make Syrniki and I have to go to the Polish shop in the next town to find the type of cottage cheese that I need.
Oh, how the Brits love spicy food! I’d say there are as many Indian restaurants in the small town where I live than I think there are in the whole of Kyiv. A pity that you can’t easily find Georgian restaurants, but we do share a common love of Italian food. There are also lots of cute little cafes where you can buy little bready cakes called “scones.” People here are very particular about whether you should smother them with cream then jam, or jam then cream.
Of course, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without fish and chips. A bit too salty for me, although when I was pregnant I did have a craving for them on one occasion! I’m not such a fan of mushy peas though. The least said about them, the better.
Pubs are also a popular place for people to get together here. Sadly quite a few in the town I live have closed down – hard economic times – although one or two nearby villages have re-opened their local pubs under community ownership. People don’t want to let them go.
Greetings cards are a big thing here. Many shops have shelves full of them. It’s common to give someone a card if they have a birthday, if they’re sick, or if you want to wish them luck. I even saw a wedding card “to the bride and bride.”
When you walk in the street in Britain – especially where we live as it’s quite rural – strangers will often say hello. Sometimes, when I walk with our baby, they tell me how gorgeous she is and ask me her age, which would never happen back home. It’s really sweet and lovely in that sense.
I’ve noticed that it’s quite common in Britain to share photos of your baby on social media and to show the scan photos when you’re pregnant. In Ukraine of course, that’s less popular, so I’d say British people are definitely more open.
When driving here, everyone is incredibly courteous to other drivers. For example, in Ukraine, if two cars drive towards each other on a narrow street, the drivers will honk their horns to force the other to move. In Britain, they flash their lights to invite the other car to go first. As a result, nobody goes!
Finally, about the health system. Britain has an amazing free National Health Service (NHS). My family doctor here is called Doctor Protheroe, but that’s too hard to say and I can never remember it, so I refer to her as Doctor Profiterole instead! The only downside is that it can be so hard to get an appointment with a doctor and even harder to find a dentist.
On balance – for anyone in Ukraine who has the opportunity to come to Britain in the future – it’s a wonderful and curious place. Just don’t forget to buy the people you know a birthday card!
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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