Britain and the United States are notoriously two countries, divided by a common language. In this web-site we have used principally English English (as distinct from American English) for two reasons. First, it comes naturally to me. Second, we expect more of our readers to be British, simply because it is much easier to get to Europe for Britons.

There are therefore some cultural and other references that may be worth recapitulating for the benefit of Americans. But on the other hand, although I have only a British passport and Frances has both British and American, Frances has spent more than half her life in the United States while I lived there for several years. It is not, therefore, impossible that the occasional Americanism has crept in to confuse loyal readers throughout the Commonwealth and Empire.

Actually, British and other non-American readers may also learn things they didn't know, especially about my prejudices and viewpoint. So read on.

AUTUMN -- English for 'Fall'. See also 'Seasons', below.

FUEL CONSUMPTION -- Britons and Americans do this in miles per gallon (mpg) but matters are confused by the different sizes of the gallons (the miles are the same size).

Most Europeans calculate fuel consumption in litres per 100 km; in India, the normal measure is kilometres per litre. The confusing thing is that in the British, American and Indian systems, higher figures represent better fuel economy, while in continental Europe, a low figure is better. Roughly:

30 mpg26.2 mpg30 mpg34.4 mpg
40 mpg34.9 mpg40 mpg45.9 mpg
50 mpg43.6 mpg50 mpg57.3 mpg
60 mpg52.3 mpg60 mpg68.8 mpg
70 mpg61.1 mpg70 mpg80.3 mpg

30 mpg10.7 km/l9.38 l/100 km
40 mpg14.2 km/l7.02 l/100 km
50 mpg17.8 km/l5.63 l/100 km
60 mpg21.3 km/l4.69 l/100 km
70 mpg24.8 km/l4.02 l/100 km

30 mpg9.3 km/l10.75 l/100 km
40 mpg12.4 km/l8.08 l/100 km
50 mpg15.5 km/l6.45 l/100 km
60 mpg18.6 km/l5.38 l/100 km
70 mpg21.6 km/l4.63 l/100 km

GALLON -- A British or Imperial gallon is 4.54 litres and is made up of 20 fluid ounces to the pint and 8 pints to the gallon; a gallon is therefore 160 fl. oz. An American (or Short or Wine) gallon is 3.96 litres and is made up of 16 fluid ounces to the pint but still 8 pints to the gallon, for 128 fl. oz. From this it can be seen that while the Imperial gallon is some 15 per cent bigger, the balance is somewhat redressed by the fact that the American fluid ounce is bigger: the actual figures are 28.4cc for the Imperial fluid ounce and about 31cc for the American fluid ounce, which is, therefore, about 10 per cent bigger than Imperial. Confused? Tough.

The conversion factor is 0.87, i.e. the American gallon is just over around one-eighth short (one pint per gallon) not 0.80 or one-fifth short as the ounces per pint might lead you to believe.

We have used the Imperial gallon because Britain was there first.

GASOLINE -- Petrol, of course, in English. But what the French call 'petrole' is 'paraffin' in English and 'kerosene' in American. The French for petrol is 'essence' (and diesel fuel is either 'diesel' or 'gas-oil'). And the Germans call petrol 'Benzin'. Armed with all these words, there is a good chance you can recognize the local word for petrol in most European countries. More confusion: sorry.

GREEN CARD -- Nothing to do with an American immigrant visa. This is the English term for an extension of British vehicle liability insurance into other countries. Any EC vehicle liability insurance is required by law to cover all EC countries to the minimum required in that country, but it may (or may not) extend additional cover to the extent that has been paid for in the UK. The minimum required in some countries may be pretty minimal, too: not even enough to meet the likely expenses of a serious claim. Some firms offer an automatic, year-round extension of full UK cover in the EC; some offer free cover for up to a specified number of days per year, though you may have to request the Green Card specifically; and some make you pay for your Green Card. See also insurance.

KILOMETRES AND KM/H -- A kilometre is near enough 0.62 miles; or conversely, a mile is near enough 1.6 kilometres. Britain is the only country in Europe where distances are given in miles and speed limits are posted in miles per hour. Elsewhere it is always in kilometres and km/h.

LITRE -- Almost identical to an American quart (the two are about 1 per cent different) but distinctly short next to a British quart (which is almost 14 per cent bigger). The standard unit of measurement for the sale of fuel in Europe.

MOTORWAYS -- Fast roads with limited access. There are typically, far fewer on- and off-ramps than an American freeway, parkway, turnpike or expressway, so if you miss your turning, it may take a while to turn around. Most are free, but some are toll roads, and the tolls can be quite stiff: as much as 15 dollars for 200 miles. Toll roads are always clearly marked so you can avoid them if you wish.

OCTANE -- American fuel octane ratings are normally calculated by the simple R+M/2 formula: the 'research' (R) and 'motor' (M) values are added together and averaged. 'Research' octane is always higher than 'Motor', typically about 10 points higher, so an American 92 octane may well be 87 Motor, 97 Research.

In much of Europe, 'Research' values alone are given. The two most common values are 95 and 98, corresponding roughly to American 90 and 93. Americans should not assume that Europeans use only high-octane aviation spirit, and Europeans should not assume that American petrol has the octane rating of cough syrup (though Indian petrol does).

PAVEMENT -- The American usage is, we have to admit, more logical; at least, provided the road is paved. But in English, the term 'pavement' is usually reserved for what Americans call the 'sidewalk'. In English, what Americans call 'pavement' is simply called 'road'. Mostly, I've used 'sidewalk' here.

PETROL -- See 'Gasoline', above.

ROAD SIGNS -- These are increasingly international -- even Americans use many standardized international road-signs nowadays. A couple that have puzzled Americans of our acquaintance are double lines with one line broken, and curved arrows in the road.

A double line with one line broken means that you can cross the line from the broken side (usually to overtake) but not from the solid side. The curved arrows simply mean 'move in the durection of the arrow'. They are used to indicate the end of a lane -- 'move into the next lane' -- or to indicate that soon, there will be road markings indicating 'no overtaking' so you should move back onto your own side of the road.

One that puzzles even the English is a yellow lozenge or diamond, like the diamonds on a pack of cards. This means 'this is a priority road, so other people joining the road have to give way to you.' The same sign with a diagonal slash through it means 'you are coming up to a junction where you will have to stop or give way' or (more rarely) 'there are no road signs around here concerning priority, so it's rigidly priority to the right'. This can be especially interesting in village centres, where you can be riding peacefully along at a modest speed when suddenly someone shoots out in front of you from a tiny alley on your right. Sorry, but they may well have right of way!

SEASONS -- The concept of fixed seasons is utterly alien to me, and to many other Europeans: the idea that summer, autumn, winter and spring begin and end on fixed days makes no sense at all.

Winter is when it's cold; summer is when it's hot; and spring and autumn are transitional. In Malta, where I spent much of my childhood, winter is short; spring is early and brief; summer is long and hot; and autumn is a month or so of storms before the winter (such as it is) begins. In Scotland, where my father lives today, summers are shorter; autumn comes earlier, and lasts longer; winters are longer; then spring comes later, but lasts longer.

In other words, seasons vary widely both in when they arrive and in length. So if I say, "Go in the spring," don't assume that I mean the period from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice, which is what many Americans assume is spring. No: read on, and see what I say about when spring arrives in that part of the world.

SETT -- The proper name for shaped stones used to surface roads. These are what most people call 'cobbles' but they are not the same thing. Cobbles are rounded, vary in size, and have mud between them. Setts are regular, usually rectangular, surprisingly deep, and often set in sand. Many are brick-shaped, twice as long as they are square, and they are set on end, with the long axis vertical. Old wet setts can be a disquietingly slippery surface on which to ride, especially when it rains lightly after a dry spell when they have been coated with dust that has also polished them.

SIDEWALK -- See 'Pavement', above.

SUMMER -- See 'Seasons'

TAP WATER -- The stuff that comes out of the domestic tap or (in American) faucet. Drinkable in most of Europe but there are exceptions. Then again, we were told by a nurse in New Orleans not to drink the water there...

UGLY AMERICANS -- I don't believe that the Ugly American is anything like as common as many Europeans believe. By 'The Ugly American' I mean American tourists who are ill-informed, loud-mouthed, and always making unfavourable comparisons between the country where they find themselves and the United States. These are the people who lump the whole of Europe together, as if it were a single country, and often pronounce it 'Yurrup'.

On the other hand, I know that Ugly Americans do exist; and a disproportionate number seem to have web-sites. Some produce statements of truly stunning fatuity. One, for example, stated flatly that the French would have to realize that English was the world language if they wanted to attract more tourists.

If you are this sort of person, do the world a favour (or favor). Stay home. You probably won't enjoy yourself anyway, and all you'll do is reinforce both your own prejudices and those of the people whom you meet on your travels. You'll also spoil it for the vast majority of Americans who aren't Ugly and who can expect to receive a genuine welcome from the vast majority of Europeans -- though not necessarily Parisians, it's true, because many Parisians don't even like other French people, let alone foreigners. Think of them as France's answer to New Yorkers.

UNLEADED FUEL -- As well as unleaded fuel, typically in 'regular' and 'super' octane ratings (see above) you can usually buy what the British call 'LRP' or 'Lead Replacement Petrol'. This is marked as 'Super' in Europe. The extent to which the non-lead-based additives actually replace tetraethyl lead is a matter of dispute, to put it kindly.

Unleaded is SP (sans plomb) in French, Sin Plomo in Spanish, and Bleifrei in German. From these three you can work out most of the other languages.

VAT (Value Added Tax) -- Similar to a sales tax, and high, often around 20 per cent. VAT can be recovered for export outside the EC of single high-value items such as jewellery/jewelry -- most retailers of that sort of thing will have discreet notices about VAT-free personal export -- but otherwise you have to grit your teeth and pay it.

Unlike most states' sales taxes, VAT is normally included in the posted price for fuel, rooms, food, etc., so it is not added on afterwards. The only common exceptions to this are shops selling goods of interest to professionals, such as office supplies, professional cameras, etc., and these are unlikely to be encountered by most motorcycle tourists. Camera stores, stationers and computer stores catering to the amateur normally post a VAT-inclusive price.

Non-American visitors to the United States may however think they are being ripped off when they are charged more than the posted price. They are, but blame the government, not the retailer.

WINTER -- See 'Seasons'


This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

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last updated: 28/10/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks