Our two year anniversary of living in London arrives this week. As with last year, we’re feeling all of the feelings – amazement, delight, gratitude. When we signed that paperwork two summers ago, dutifully packed up our apartment, put Basil on a plane and headed east, we had literally no clue what was in store for us.

I love how sometimes reality can exceed even the most wild imaginations.

Now we find ourselves fully at home in London. We love this city and we extol its virtues to anyone who will listen. The changes to our lives as individuals and as a couple have been radical – a new balance of work and life, a website that brings us joy and a calendar full of travel, to name a few of the highlights.

London

As we mark this milestone date, we are having fun looking back over two years of expat living – my how we were naive then. We were so surprised by ‘how the UK works’ and now those quirks are familiar and comforting. In honor of our 24 months overseas, we have rounded up our top 24 lessons from life in London. We are sharing the first 12 today and the rest will come on Friday (this post is literally thousands of words long if we don’t cut it down).

1. Victoria sponge – This lovely British dessert deserves its spot at the top of the list. It’s a simple but elegant thing – light, flat vanilla sponge cake, a generous smear of cream and a helping of jam, sandwich style. Why this lovely invention hasn’t made its way into the dessert lexicon of the United States is beyond us. It’s delightful. Bonus, the gluten free versions we’ve tried are equally delicious.

London

2. Tipping – It took us a few awkward pub visits in London to realize the nuances of tipping here. When you order a drink at a bar, no tip. If you leave a tip on the bar, awkwardly pushing it to the bartender and trying to make eye contact to indicate it’s for him, he will not take it. Instead, he will think you left it there my mistake, or maybe will know exactly what you meant to do and will chuckle to himself and ignore it all the same. In a sit-down restaurant, a service charge will usually be added to your bill, or if it’s not, normal tipping range is 10-15%. Now you know.

3. Bureaucracy – Holy hell. The Brits have bureaucracy down to a science. Or art. Let’s leave the drama out of what could be 500 words on this topic and just say that it took Drew about 8 months to go through all the hoops and steps to get a UK drivers’ license. It took 6 weeks to figure out our utilities. Customer service phone numbers always charge the caller (no toll-free service calls here!). I like to call it ‘bureau-crazy’ and every new UK resident quickly learns why.

4. Argos – Argos is a department store. One that has tiny storefronts that contain a room full of massive catalogs. A shopper goes in, finds what they want to order in the catalog, places their order at the counter, and if the product is in stock (in a usually sprawling basement) the order is fulfilled. Otherwise, you come back when the item is shipped to the store, and pick it up then. Now the stores offer both iPads and catalogs for ordering, but what a crazy system. It reminds me of Service Merchandise from the 1980s.

London

5. Airport central – I love living in a city with five local airports. My disdain of connecting flights has found its heaven, and we haven’t had a connecting flight in Europe since we moved here. Our preference for the different airports, in order, is: City, Gatwick, Heathrow, Stanstead and Luton. We always avoid Luton if we can.

6. Street markets – We have never seen the abundance of neighborhood street markets like we have in London. We regularly visit ten or so, on a loose rotation. We love Broadway Market for the Vietnamese iced coffee stall, Maltby Market for the German sausage, Dalston Street Feast for Smokestak and massive watermelon cocktails, Brixton Market for the tiny Brazililan brunch place whose name is escaping me. Et cetera, ad infinitum.

London

7. Cider – Now that we have a gluten free person among us, we have never been more thankful for the popularity of cider in this country. Every single pub has at least one cider on tap, and many more by the bottle. It is as common to be a cider drinker as a beer drinker, and Drew has never had to experience a scarcity of options thanks to his allergy. We wrote extensively about some of the widely available options here.

8. English roses – The climate in the UK is temperate. It rarely freezes in London, we have yet to see more than a dusting of snow, and the summers are pleasantly mild. No wonder then that we find ourselves in an ever changing flower explosion. Crocuses start to bloom in January, the wisteria is in full force by May, roses bloom all the time, but particularly in early summer. And of course, thanks to all the rain, the backdrop to all the flowers is green, green and more green.

London

London

9. Food TV, UK style – We’ve always been Food Network junkies, and we’ve happily discovered a whole new group of celebrity chefs on this side of the pond. There are the more well-known TV personalities (like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson) that we were aware of prior to living in the UK. But now I’m a dedicated superfan of Nigel Slater, who talks about food in a way no one can match. We can’t get enough of Tom Kerridge, and his decadent cooking and belly laughs. I set my clock to Wednesday nights in August, September and October when The Great British Bake Off finally has its annual season. It’s an addiction. The best addiction ever.

London

10. Elections – This year we were in the UK for the big election cycle. You may not have heard about it on the worldwide news for months on end, because in the UK, that’s not allowed. The official election season is 5 weeks, culminating in the national elections. At the 5-week-to-go mark, the parties release their manifestos, debates begin and the news coverage is hot and heavy. Then the elections happen, the Prime Minister is confirmed, new members of parliament are seated and everyone goes home. This year, David Cameron’s easy victory was a surprise to many, but his post-win meeting with the Queen was short and sweet. Maybe the US could learn a thing or two from Europe on this front.

11. Baking by weight – Back to sugar, my favorite topic. Outside of the US, most baking is done by grams and litres. There are no cups or tablespoons, or quarts (what is that again, anyway?). If you didn’t already know, not all cup-size cups are the exact same size, and the pros always use grams to get more consistent results. Now we have two scales in the kitchen and our cookies never looked so good. The fact that I can’t follow a recipe to save my life has not been improved much by the weighing…I still just eyeball it.

London

12. Ordering coffee – Our very first morning in the UK, Drew went out to get us some coffee. He went to a shop around the corner, and upon ordering ‘two coffees’ the barista looked at him blankly. She asked what kind of coffee he wanted. He said, ‘normal’ as we Americans are trained to say. She directed him to the extensive coffee menu behind her, full of lattes, cappuccinos and Americanos and we’ve never made the same mistake again. ‘Regular’ coffee is NOT a thing here. Now we drink tea day-to-day and order fun lattes on the weekends.

London

Phew. Let’s the nostalgia flow, people. I need a cup of tea and a Victoria sponge. We’ll be sharing the rest of the top 24 London learnings on Friday. Cheers!

London

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  • September 23, 2015

    Happy two year londonversary! Looks like a gorgeous place to live! SO funny about tipping the bartenders. I have heard that before but good to keep in mind. Love experiencing all the different cultural aspects of new locations. Thanks for sharing!

    • September 23, 2015
      Julie

      The time has gone by so quickly. Two years seems like two months! We truly love London and have enjoyed our time here. There were so minor cultural adjustments, but for us, that is the fun part of the expat experience. We have one more year before we have to figure out our next move, so we plan on taking full advantage of London while we can!

  • September 23, 2015

    Happy anniversary! So fun to read all the things you’ve pointed out! About to head into the British bureau-crazy myself (again) as soon as I’ve secured a job. Oh the joy! Luckily, it should be a bit easier for an EU citizen, but getting a bank account apparently still isn’t that easy. Well, we’ll see. Excuse me while I go searching and applying for some more jobs now…
    Maaike – Travellous World recently posted…Rome at Night: a Photo EssayMy Profile

    • September 24, 2015

      Opening a bank account was a challenge. We had a two hour sit down with a branch manager to fill out the paperwork to open a basic checking account. It was weird. In the US, we would just fill out a piece of paper and get a new account in 10 minutes.
      Good luck with locking down a position in the UK. It is much easier for an EU citizen, so you have that going for you.

  • September 24, 2015

    Happy anniversary! London sounds absolutely delightful 🙂 And despite having been there several times, I have never heard of the Victoria cake – will be on the look out for it next time!
    Jenia recently posted…One YearMy Profile

    • September 24, 2015

      Def have to try Victoria sponge cake. They sell them at almost every bakery and coffee shops, plus it is often part of afternoon tea. Light and delicious!

  • September 24, 2015

    Amazing list. I started reading this thinking ‘Oh it’s almost our 1 year in Thailand, I can relate!’. But now I feel like we need to move to London, so we can enjoy ALL of that, and watch endless hours of cooking shows with you guys, because that’s our addiction too! hahah Thanks for sharing!

    • September 24, 2015

      Glad you enjoyed it and congrats on 1 year in Thailand! It was fun putting together the list and looking back at our two years of discover in London. It is a fantastic city and we are thrilled to have one more year to explore it even more.

  • September 24, 2015

    Congratulations on two years! You guys are as adorable as ever – and I had to laugh at Argos being included in your list 🙂

    • September 24, 2015

      Thanks Hannah! We actually bought something from Argos recently. Felt very British to buy something from an Argos store. Our new local store is all digital though, so no more catalogs. Just used a tablet to purchase!
      We have 12 more coming on Friday. Hope you enjoy…

  • September 24, 2015

    Happy anniversary!

    Are scones something different from Victoria Spongecakes?
    Happy Hotelier recently posted…Flight of the StorksMy Profile

    • September 24, 2015
      Julie

      They are different desserts – in my mind, scones are more buttery and heavier. Sponge cake is super light (but cake consistency) which makes for a lovely snack for anytime!

  • September 24, 2015

    Based on this, I can definitely see why you love living in London! Looking forward to round 2!
    Kacy recently posted…Garrison DC: Go for the VeggiesMy Profile

    • September 25, 2015

      It is a great place to live. And get ready for part 2. It is coming today. Hope you enjoy it!

  • September 24, 2015

    Happy London Anniversary to you both! I’m more than intrigued by the Victoria sponge cake. I’ve been to London once, but somehow missed trying one of these. It looks like something I’d really enjoy! And your comments about the driver’s license sound familiar – my parents lived in Lytham-St. Anne for a couple of years and they had similar things to say about that process. It sounds like it has been totally worth it though!
    Susan recently posted…Ireland Road Trip Day 1: Dublin to KerryMy Profile

    • September 25, 2015

      Victoria sponge cake is simple but delicious. Classic British cake with a layer of jam, served with afternoon tea and sold at most bakeries. Even Starbucks and Costa sells them.
      The driver license process for a little crazy. Even had to mail my actual passport to the license office. They held it for 2 weeks, though they warn it could be up to 4 weeks. My driving test last almost an hour!

  • September 25, 2015

    Congrats on two years! Life in London looks and sounds very sweet. Based on this post I’d move there in a heartbeat if I ever had the chance 🙂 I laughed when I read about your experience ordering “normal” coffee. I find myself doing that all the time. When I first went to Europe when I was 22 I could not get over the fact that they didn’t have American-style coffee anywhere, though I tried to order it during my entire trip. And now a decade later I am still the girl who orders “normal” coffee at cafes in Phnom Penh only to be met with bewildered stares. I guess there are some things I’ll never learn…
    Justine recently posted…What to Pack When Moving to Southeast AsiaMy Profile

    • September 25, 2015

      I would definitely recommend London to anyone who can get work here. It has so much to offer and you meet people from all over the world on a daily basis, way more than in NYC in my opinion. In fact, I rarely hang out with Brits, but plenty of Irish, Swedish, Finnish, Australian, French and Italian. Such a fun cultural mix.
      The coffee incident was an interesting introduction to London, as it was 7am on the first morning, so jet lang was in full effect. I was so confused when the barista was confused. I just wanted coffee. When she pointed to the massive board behind her and gestured to it like I was the village idiot, I realized there would be some things I needed to learn about the UK.

  • September 29, 2015
    Aunt Mary

    So enriching to read your blog! I love reading every detail!
    The picture of Drew and the underside of Basil’s tongue is award-winning!!
    Love you!

    • September 29, 2015

      I have always loved that pic. Great (and very lucky) timing!

  • October 18, 2015

    The Great British Bake Off is indeed the best TV show there is in the UK! I got to know it during my time in Scotland and I’ve been watching it ever since!

    Argos is quite a phenomenon but once you’re used to it, it becomes a one-stop shop. Another favourite of mine was Asda because they sell books at a very cheap price!

    Great post!
    Dominique recently posted…Athens – A Four Day ItineraryMy Profile

    • October 19, 2015
      Julie

      It took us a while to ‘figure out’ Argos, but now we don’t look back. The other day I needed printer paper, so we did a little online order, and picked it up at the local Argos (5 min walk) and that was that. So weird, so genius!

  • November 28, 2015

    Great post!
    I’m happy for you that you like living as expats in London. I was also living there for over a year but I need to admit it was the most difficult time in my life and I returned to my home country with relief… But I wouldn’t mind going there one day to do some sightseeing 😉

    • November 30, 2015

      Joanna, sorry to hear that you didn’t care for London. What did you find difficult? I think people believe that a move to the UK from the US is easy solely due to the common language, but culturally, they are VERY different. Those differences are usually overlooked, but can be a serious issue for many expats.