If you want to get a sense of contemporary English culture, and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of daily life. Here are a few highlights—things you can take part in with relative ease.
Pints and Pubs
Pop in for a pint at a pub to encounter what has been the center—literally the "public house"—of English social life for centuries. The basic pub recipe calls for a variety of beers on draft—dark creamy stouts like Guinness; bitter, including brews such as Tetley's and Bass; and lager, the blondest and blandest of the trio—a dartboard, oak paneling, and paisley carpets. Throw in a bunch of young suits in London, a generous dash of undergrads in places such as Oxford or Cambridge, and, in rural areas, a healthy helping of blokes around the television and ladies in the corner sipping their halves (half pints) and having a natter (gossip). In smaller pubs, listen in and enjoy the banter among the regulars—you may even be privy to the occasional barney (harmless argument). Join in if you care to, but remember not to take anything too seriously—a severe breach of pub etiquette. Make your visit soon: the encroachment of gastro-pubs (bar-restaurant hybrids) is just one of the forces challenging traditional pub culture.
To blend in with the English, stash your street map or your cell phone, slide a folded newspaper under your arm, and head for the nearest park bench or café. Lose yourself in any one of the national dailies for often well-written insight into Britain's worldview. The phone-hacking scandal of 2011 caused various resignations and shut down the News of the World —but also provided yet more for the press to write about. For a dose of melodrama, choose the tabloid Sun. The headlines are hard to miss—"Prince's Cheating Scandal" and "Empire Strikes Bark: Dogs Dress Up as Vader"—and you can assume that the topless model on Page 3 has helped rather than hindered the paper's success. The biweekly Private Eye offers British wit at its best, specializing in political cartoons, parodies, and satirical reporting.
A Lovely Cuppa
For almost four centuries, the English and tea have been immersed in a love affair passionate enough to survive revolutions, rations, tariffs, and lattes, but also soothing, as whistling kettles across the nation mark moments of quiet comfort in public places and in homes and offices. The ritual known as "afternoon tea" had its beginnings in the early 19th century, in the private chambers of the duchess of Bedford, where she and her "ladies of leisure" indulged in afternoons of pastries and fragrant blends. But you don't need to dress up to lift your pinky to sip the steamy brew. Department stores and tearooms across the nation offer everything from simple tea and biscuits to shockingly overpriced spreads with sandwiches and cakes that would impress even the duchess herself. And if tea is not your cup of tea, don't worry; there's no shame for those who prefer coffee with their scones and clotted cream.
Whoever says England is not an overtly religious country has not considered the sports mania that has descended here, and not merely because of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Whether water events (such as Henley, Cowes, and the Head of the River Race) or a land competition (the Grand National steeplechase, the Virgin London Marathon, a good football match), most bring people to the edge of their seats—or more often the living room couch. To partake in the rite, you'll need Pimm's (the drink for swank spectators of the Henley Royal Regatta) or beer (the drink for most everything else). You may experience the exhilaration yourself—which, you'll probably sense, is not for the love of a sport, but for the love of sport itself.
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