Grocery shopping is the best teacher


During my stay in London, I have had many misunderstandings communicating with Londoners, despite both parties speaking English. There are cultural and grammatical differences to navigate here, but you can learn quickly. Oddly enough, grocery shopping has been my best teacher here.

My most memorable insights into the differences between American and British English came while grocery shopping. For my first grocery trip, I decided to splurge and go to a gigantic, three-story Whole Foods a mile down the road from my flat.

Initially, everything was going smoothly. Just like in America, I grabbed my cart and found some cheese for my planned spaghetti dinner.

Next, I searched for meat sauce ingredients. In Bloomington, I would call what I was looking for “ground beef.” However, when I asked the butcher for this, he gave me a blank stare met with a confused, “huh?” I was embarrassed and apologized as I quickly walked away.

I wanted to find a quiet place to Google what ground beef was called in London, so I asked another worker where the bathrooms were.

“We call them toilets here,” the woman replied. “And they’re on the first floor.”

I was in the store’s basement at the time, so I quickly found an escalator up to the floor I’d entered and looked for the “toilets,” but again, no luck. Turns out, yet another employee explained to me, that “first floor” in London means something different from the floor where street entrances are. Here, that is called the ground floor. I ended up taking an elevator, or “lift” as it is referred to here, to the real first floor and found the toilets. Still embarrassed, I plopped down on the sink and Googled. Turns out ground beef is just called minced beef here — a simple word swap.

Grocery shopping also revealed another cultural difference to me apart from language: the cuisine in general. Last week, I was really craving nachos with melted cheese and salsa, so again I went to Whole Foods. It was easy enough to find salsa and tortilla chips, but I ran into trouble when looking for nacho cheese.

“Do you have any nacho cheese here?” I asked an employee.

Again, I was met with a, “huh?”

“Nacho cheese? Like liquid cheese?” I said.

“Are you crazy? There is no such thing as liquid cheese!” the employee replied.

Another quick Google search revealed that in the U.K., nachos aren’t as popular as in the U.S., and therefore nacho cheese doesn’t really exist.

While I never did get to satisfy my craving for nachos, I learned yet another valuable lesson on London’s culture.