Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Oceans apart (in more ways than one)

Prior to our London move, I consulted every source I could find for information and advice about moving to the UK. Unable to anticipate the shape our lives would take in the coming months, I hung on ever word ever written about the expat experience. Only some of the conventional wisdom that I so diligently took to heart turned out to be particularly accurate or applicable, but I was on the whole very grateful for all of my pre-move research and preparation once we arrived here. (I am, however, still using up a stash of Secret deodorant purchased in a frenzied pre-move Target spree after I read somewhere that English deodorant doesn't work very well. "Did you expect us all to smell all the time?" an amused English friend asked me recently after I confessed to this misconception. "Um, yeah, I guess I did," I replied ruefully. Is it any wonder that the whole ugly American stereotype holds strong around here?)

I've been told that repats (or returning expats) often have an even harder adjustment upon arriving back in their home countries than they experienced when they first moved abroad. It makes sense; you move back to a place that you consider "home" only to find that you have changed and the place has changed and nothing fits as you expected. When living abroad, you had a ready excuse for your cultural confusion and occasional ignorance, but that excuse rapidly disappears when you hit your home soil. You're left in a place that looks, yet doesn't feel familiar, trying to figure out how to break back into a community which has quite rightly gone on in your absence.

It sounds quite dreadful, doesn't it? I'm certain that it is at least partially accurate, of course; it seems awfully naive to think that I could just slide back into my former life as if nothing had changed. But just as I have been delighted to discover for myself that my friends here don't actually smell, I'm choosing to believe that my repat experience won't always stink either. No, I don't expect this move to be without its challenges and frustrations, but I've weathered my share of those here and come out the other end, so surely I can do the same back there. Just to be on the safe side, I'm once again attempting to forestall the inevitable challenges that lie ahead by doing my research in advance, however, this time by devouring every resource I can find for British citizens who are moving to the US.

Stop laughing. I'm not deluded enough to believe that I've become British after less than 2 years here. There aren't a lot of repat resources to be found out there, however, and my appetite for things to obsess over is insatiable. So I figured maybe I'd at least find a bit of a clue about American lifestyle issues which might be likely throw me after having lived in the UK if I looked to my British equivalents in the US. It worked... to a point.

I found plenty of discussion on British expat forums about the mysteries and challenges of life in the US. Some of it I was able to gloss over right away. I will not have visa issues, nor trouble obtaining a Social Security number, and no one is likely to tease me about my accent. Hell, I won't even be missing bangers and mash. Maybe this won't be so hard after all, I thought. But then I kept reading. People who move to America from the UK find the clothing styles boring and predictable after European fashions, I discovered. Fair enough. I don't dress all that European now, but I can make an attempt to jazz up my wardrobe before I head back. People who jump the pond in reverse also can't figure out the lack of electric kettles in American kitchens. I agree whole heartedly with this one. Fortunately, I've pre-shopped at Target and I think I'm good there. Moving on. Everyone misses the prevalence of pubs and many who have landed in suburban America bemoan the loss of their walking lifestyles. Oh, God. Those are some of the things I love most about London. Am I going to be miserable driving around in my gas guzzler back in the US???

As the panic began to set in, I hit the kicker, the longest thread in the whole forum. Pages and pages and pages of discussion about the issue that this group of British expats appear to find the hardest about life in the US. They hate American washers and driers. Life would be good again, it appears, if only they could return to something like this (you know, that appliance which is naturally broken for the gazillionth time right now, just as I am attempting to recover from a week of missed washing opportunities due to house guests while simultaneously trying to gear up for a week-long trip to Italy).

Call me crazy, but I think I'm going to be just fine back in the good ole' US of A.


Blogger Kristin said...

Friends of mine lived in London several years ago and within a year of moving "home," they moved to a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. They just got so sick of having to get in the car to go anywhere, especially after a couple years of walking/public transport. That was their biggest challenge with moving home.
They were definitely ready to get back to the American washers/dryers.

Thanks for sharing your stories, as a maybe future expat from DC to London they have been incredibly helpful.

7:37 PM  
Blogger E said...

I am an expat wannabe. I recently found your blog and I must say I am loving it and dreading your homecoming just a bit. I want more from over there....

7:54 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

Why does it not surprise me that you have researched the heck out of returning from the expat experience? (and I mean that lovingly, of course) :) I'm sure that you will be just fine when you get back home.

I was about to suggest shipping back your clothes dirty, but then clicked your link because I thought I remembered you already coming to that conclusion on your own. Do you have a return date yet?

12:18 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

I'm an American expat as well, having lived in England for about 8 years now. For me, the hardest concept of moving back to America (which isn't an option) isn't so much different fashions or appliances, even foods - but a different way of thinking, of living. It's hard for me to explain, which is why I don't write too much about my experiences on blog, but I'm glad you're doing it, it's been interesting to read.

11:00 AM  
Blogger denzylle said...

I read that Chichimama had gone out and bought a kettle after her visit to London. How on earth do you boil water for tea in the US? I know you don't all drink coffee all the time. Surely not a pan on the stove?

I walk miles around London - love walking - and enjoyed the cheap public transport system until eight years ago when Mayor Ken started to ruin it by hiking up the prices and taking away our beloved Routemaster buses.

When I lived in the US, I worked in Manhattan and lived in LIC, so no problem with walking. Of all the US cities I've visited, the small towns (Madison, Burlington) or cities (Chicago, SF) where you can walk were my favorites and I hated LA, where you couldn't much do so.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Patois said...

It is the lack of British chocolate that is the hardest to cope with here. Okay, I'm not originally from the UK, but I've become addicted to the stuff due to my many forays into Manchester, London and Wales.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Cami said...

Yes, I really think you should ship back a UK washer/dryer combo!!! They are so practical!!

That has to be about the LAST thing on my list of Things I Miss (if it even makes the list).

6:54 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Keeping in mind my feelings about The Kitchen...um...what is an electric kettle? A kettle that you plug in? Like a tea pot, kettle? And if so, how is it easier or better than a regular tea pot?

(These are, apparently, urgent and important questions for me.)

9:38 PM  
Blogger Iota said...

An American friend here, who lived in London and Oxford for a few years, said it was such a relief to get back to US washing machines because she no longer felt she was doing her laundry in a tea-cup.

Of course you will have to buy loads of extra clothes, because you will be doing your laundry much less often in those huge US machines (but you'll have your big double closet back, to keep them all in). My realtor felt so sorry for the Brits when I told her that, yes, we did have to do our laundry more than once a week (but then our clothes smell so much because of our inadequate deodorant, that we just couldn't bear those smelly piles of laundry to linger for too long.)

Oops, just joined the brigade of Brits abroad who can't miss an opportunity to go on about US washing machines...

I think you'd have had more luck with a plain washing machine. Those washer-driers are notoriously unreliable, and a faff to use. Then you could have had the Great British experience of permanently living with damp laundry draped on racks in the bathroom, or on radiators. That might have made your return home even easier...

An electric kettle was one of the first things I purchased from Target on arrival here.

1:47 PM  
Blogger SamB said...

Hi, As a new expat in London (for about 6 weeks), I hate to see you are heading home. I've been reading your blog since September when we found out about our move. I hope that you will keep up your blog as you get settled in back home!

10:24 PM  
Blogger Liesl said...

After living in Scotland I realized how nifty electric kettles are. I haven't been without one since, but when people enter my kitchen the first time, they always look confused when I attempt to explain the necessity of such a device :)

Denzylle - Some people do boil water in a pan. Other people use what is called a tea kettle here. It looks like an electric kettle, only one heats it up on the stove top. They work, but not as quickly or efficiently as the electric ones. Also, there is no handy automatic shut-off.

Jennifer - Electric kettles look like the kind you put on the stove top. You know, the kind that whistle when the water reached boiling. The electric kettles plug into an outlet and sit on the countertop. They bring water to a boil very quickly, and shut off when boiling gets going. You then pour the boiling water into a crockery tea pot to brew your yea.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Almost American said...

When I arrived in the US 23 years ago I had to go to Canada to buy an automatic electric kettle, but now they're available at places like Bed, Bath and Beyond or online at Amazon.

The new front-loading washers are supposedly comparable to European ones (which in my experience really do clean much better than top-loading American ones!) One difference - the American version is, of course, capable of taking a much larger load of laundry!

1:10 AM  

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