It has taken some time for me to adjust my view of the role of the post office.  In the US, it was a place to send and receive mail, buy stamps, apply for a passport, and buy postal orders and postal goods.  Also in the US, mail carriers delivered and picked up mail directly from your home.  In the UK, mail carriers only deliver mail.  If you want to mail something, you either have to stamp it and drop it into the post box, or you take it into the post office.  Since I am still getting used to the different postage rates, it is always best for me to go directly into the post office.  They have so many rules about the thickness, size and weight of the mail, that unless I have the right equipment, I would not be able to determine the postage on my own.  Of course, the US recently made changes in this area, so things are getting bad in that regard as well.  But, since the US uses a larger margin of weight for its mail, it’s easier to determine the amount of postage required.

Although the UK mail offers practically everything the US ones do, there are other differences.  First of all, the UK mail system is so complex and part of it is deregulated.  Don’t ask what that means, because I’m not sure anyone has a clear understanding of it.  Although postal workers are still civil servants, post offices are individually owned, but they are government licensed.  Therefore, the rates they charge are determined by Royal Mail.

One of the major differences is the role of the post office in daily life.  Not only do they provide postal services, they also function as a bank.  You can set up savings accounts and pay bills (council tax, TV licensing, etc.).  Also important is paying your vehicle tax.  You can either pay car tax at the post office or at the DVLA; however, the post office is much more convenient.  Also, the post office can draw your state pension and hand out your cash or deposit it into your bank account.  They have expanded their services to include offering insurance for everything.  And, last but not least, they have gotten into telecommunications.  They offer plans for phone, broadband, cell phones, and TV.  They  have certainly expanded in recent years.

So, whereas, in the US the postal service is simply a post office, the UK post office is so much more.

How many times have we sat in front of the TV, in the US, watching a 30-minute program, which was interrupted a dozen times for commercials advertising such things as Prevacid, Nexium, Procrit, Viagra, and numerous other prescription and controlled drugs? A million, I’d say.

I have been struck by the fact that I have not run across any ads in the UK promoting medications. In fact, I was sitting there one day in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, when a commercial popped up for underpants. You know, the kind that older people wear to protect them from embarrassment when they accidentally leak. These panty protectors are found in US stores, usually in the baby diaper area, or near the pharmacy. However, they are hardly, if ever, promoted. No, more likely you’d see an ad for Detrol LA (Gotta go, gotta go).

What you see in the US is a culture devoted to taking pills to solve all kinds of problems. Instead of wearing a pad, they would rather take drugs, which can have effects on many other things. It seems that in the UK, they would rather accept minor inconveniences than to pop a pill. I don’t know if it’s the different attitude towards medication in general, or if there is a tighter control on the dispensing of drugs. I do know there is a law against advertising drugs on British TV. Whatever the case, I’m glad I’m not being bombarded with ads for medications.

There are many differences in the educational system between the US and the UK. One of the most obvious is the emphasis on tests in the UK. I don’t really mean that they take lots of tests and quizzes over here. I sure haven’t seen that in school. But it seems that you are tested for every achievement.

These achievements are not always related to formal schooling. For example, to show you achieved a certain level in playing an instrument, you have to sit music theory tests as well as playing your piece. You get a certificate to show your achievement. My daughter never had that pressure in the States and we are unsure if we want to take this route. We wouldn’t want anything to dampen her enthusiasm; however, if she wants to do it, by all means, we will encourage it. In sports, as well, there are badges and certificates rewarded for accomplishing certain levels and skills.

However, other achievements are academic. Yet, in the US, some of these areas do not require any academic training. For example, a preschool or daycare worker can be hired without any previous experience in the US. Over here, you have to have special licenses, which can be obtained after a required training course. Similarly, in the US, home healthcare workers are trained on the job. Here, there is a formal training with certificate you must receive before even applying for work. Every little job requires a certificate of achievement. It’s no wonder that those who drop out of school, without even vocational training, find it difficult to find any jobs out there. There are few, if any, unskilled jobs available. One day, even the burger flippers will be required to take a formal test.

It was on way back from Hastings after buying a piano for our daughter that we drove into Battle and saw the abbey, which we thought was some castle.  We thought of coming back, so after Christmas we made a trip to Battle and saw that it was really an abbey and it was featuring a children’s quest.  Because it was getting late, we decided to come back the next day and spend more time there. 

The next day, upon entering the shop, we were accosted by the greeter, who turned out to be a canvasser/solicitor for the English Heritage Society.  We had already decided that we needed to compare the English Heritage with the National Trust and join one after the new year.  Well, he proceeded to talk up the English Heritage and in the end, we joined.  We figured that we would probably fully enjoy its benefits within the next year.  There are many places we want to see.  It is only a matter of finding the time to enjoy them.  Of course, this winter, it will be difficult to enjoy any place that focuses on external viewings.

Unfortunately, the day was rather cold and despite all our advice, our younger daughter insisted on wearing a skirt and her new shoes, which were appropriate for going to church, but not for walking on muddy trails.  By the end of the day, she was complaining and crying because her feet were cold and hurting.

The displays at Battle Abbey were educational for all, but they also had an audio guide that can be heard in adult version or child version.  The former cloisters were closed.  They had been converted into a school.  We will have to make a second trip to fully enjoy the abbey, since we were unable to view everything that cold day.

Despite all her crying, once we were back in the shop, our daughter resumed her enthusiasm for shopping, and she had to buy souvenirs for everybody.  Because we know that even with the best intentions, our impulsive actions can prove to be our downfall, we need to start planning some family outings at these English Heritage sites.

One of my first experiences of British culture was Bonfire Night.  For those who don’t know, Bonfire Night is in remembrance of the capture of Guy Fawkes and his accomplices in the infamous Gunpowder Plot that was meant to blow up the existing parliament of the time.  Since those times, people have been burning effigies of Guy Fawkes and others on November 5th.

We went to one Bonfire Night event and had planned to go to more, but the weather was not very cooperative.  It was drizzling and cold the night we went.  Yet, it did not diminish the celebration at all.  It was unbelievable how much more elaborate Bonfire Night was as compared to the Fourth of July celebrations I’ve seen in the US.

The night started with a procession of various groups in masked costumes.  Each group had torch bearers and the whole effect was quite gothic.  Especially when they had one group carrying an effigy of Guy Fawkes.  Once the effigy reached the bonfire, they light this massive structure of tree branches and add their torches to it.  This one also burned some huge teddy bears.  (We heard that one bonfire was going to have an effigy of Sarah Palin – we did not authenticate this.)  Being a cold and rainy night, we welcomed the warmth from this huge fire.

During this entire time, several organizer members were throwing off fireworks.  When the real display came, it was fantastic.  For a full half-hour, fireworks were continually being let off and in the end, a Guy Fawkes image was blown up.  Having been used to short firework displays in the US during July 4th and New Year’s Eve, I was very surprised at the quantity and quality of fireworks on Bonfire Night.  In the US, they tend to have fireworks for about 10 minutes, with a major let-off at the end, so that you knew it was the finale.  Here, it was continuous for 30 minutes and you didn’t know when they’d be done until Guy Fawkes blew up.

This Bonfire Night display took place several days before Guy Fawkes Day.  Unlike the Fourth of July, Bonfire Night is an extended event, taking place several days before Halloween and ending several days after Guy Fawkes Day.  That may be one reason why Halloween is practically ignored over here, to my daughters’ disappointment.  It is overshadowed by Bonfire Night.  Driving around the country at night during the two weeks surrounding Guy Fawkes Day, you can see various firework displays in different towns and by individuals as well.  We saw a very nice one from our window – we didn’t know whether it was from our village or the adjacent one.