Blushing British Whale
London Winter

London 101

Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

Several weeks ago, a friend sent me a list of questions about life in London. Finally, here are my VERY BELATED answers:

Q: How does the British political party/election system work?

A: Britain has at least a half-dozen active political parties and dozens of smaller ones. But the three main parties are the Labour Party (Prime Minister Tony Blair's ruling party), The Conservative Party (members are known as "Tories") and the Liberal Democrats (aka the "LibDems").

In the UK, national elections are generally held every 5 years. But unlike the US, there is no set date of when an election will be held. Parliament could call for an election at anytime.

Unlike the US, there is no popular vote for a British leader (the Prime Minister). Instead, Brits vote for a local MP, or Member of Parliament, whom they want to represent their interests. The party with the most MPs elected wins control of the government, and the leader of that party generally becomes the new Prime Minister.

(Current situation: The UK's next general election must be held by 2009, unless ordered earlier. Tony Blair's hold on power is quickly eroding, and there is speculation he may resign early before his term is up. Like George W Bush, Blair's poll ratings are falling hard and fast).

Q: What are the bodies of legislature?

Q: There are two houses: The Parliament and the House of Lords. MPs are elected for a specific term. Lords are appointed by the Queen for LIFE, and their lordship is a hereditary title that can be passed on through generations. There have been numerous attempts to revamp or disband the House of Lords altogether, but nothing ever changes.

Q: What's Boxing Day?
A: Dec. 26, the day after Christmas. There are several theories but the one I've heard most is that back in the day, servants and other low-class employees, who were undoubtedly working on Dec 25, would hold their own family Christma scelebrations on Dec. 26. The gifts they gave their own families were often items or food rejected or thrown out by their rich bosses. The items would be BOXED and given to loved ones, hence, BOXING day.

Q: What's Christmas Like for the third biggest minority in the UK? (Americans). Where do they shop? Online? How do they send it back? Where do you buy trees? Do you put lights up? Festooned around Big Ben? Are Rudolf and Frosty big there, too? How's the Egg Nog? Donations to charities; volunteering to help the needy?

A: Christmas here was pretty much the same as it is in America. They have the same Christmas carols and some I've never heard before. One of my favorite sights and sounds was seeing children school groups singing carols outside the Angel tube station on my way to work. Decorations of Santa and Frosty are common, as is Santa in the shopping malls.

Christmas trees (real) are sold in the supermarket, at regular outdoor markets and at temporary stands on streetcorners. You can get fake ones too at department stores, but most people here go for the real deal. Trees are usually sold with a wooden block stand attached on the bottom. You can buy traditional decorations at the same locations but they are pricey! We paid 8 pounds, or almost $15, for a strand of 100 white lights. Most people put Angels on the top of their tree, or nothing at all. Stars topping the tree are much less common.

We didn't try the egg nog. But the common warm drink you will see in nearly ever market stall in winter is Vin Chaud, or warm fruity wine.

As for gifts, online shopping is definately on the rise here (we have Amazon UK). But the biggest location is Oxford Street, which is like New York's Fifth Avenue. All the pricey "High Street" shops are located on Oxford. On certain days, Oxford is closed to traffic and the streets are jam-packed with pedestrians. Mailing items back to the US is NOT cheap. Often the cheapest thing to do for American expats is to order a gift at an American website, and have it shipped directly to the recipient. (we actually sent gifts back with Pineapple Princess's mum in a second empty suicase she brought with her for that purpose!)

Uhh, no, we didn't volunteer. But we did donate to the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. Does that count?

Got UK questions? Send them to the Two Crabs!