Lost in the familiar – Repatriation musings

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This is another glimpse into my repatriation experience, written back in November 2016.

When I got back to London I kept walking the wrong way. Or stopping mid step, doubting my instinct. It was most embarrassing on the tube, when I had to wind my way through the labyrinth of ways not usually taken, walking what seemed like miles of additional distance to undo my mistake and get to the right tube line, going the right direction.

I couldn’t get lost in my thoughts and trust to autopilot anymore – it was like those first months in the States, where I had to concentrate every day to make sure I really was following the alphabetised streets in the right order. I’m not sure I ever got to the point there when I was completely sure of my direction when exiting the metro at Metro Center.

It was weirdest when I was back at the university where I used to study and teach. I knew I needed to get to the School office, which I remembered was on the third floor, but I couldn’t remember where the staircase was – quite an important detail to have slipped my mind! And then there was the TA room that I knew I could book for office hours; I knew it was a corner office – but which corner of the building? I remembered all the elements of where I used to teach, I just couldn’t remember the paths between them – how they fit together.

To some extent this translated into life too. We could go through the motions of our old life, but the motivations – the animating spirit – eluded us for a while. We’re not the same people we used to be. We had two years of different habits – habits which can’t be replicated over here – and they’ve changed us slightly. It’s a bit like @thesmult says, we’ve changed shape and it’s been difficult to fit back into our grooves.

But of course, the grooves haven’t stayed the same shape either. The epic reconstruction of London Bridge station is a case in point, and has led to me taking many new routes around London in order to avoid the chaos! Seeing that – finding the unfamiliar and the new in this life that on the surface is the same as we lived two years ago – is what’s helping. Our family and friends have been getting on with things (mainly having babies – apparently it was easier to give up alcohol when we weren’t around…) and we’ve been able to take on new roles in their lives.

On a much smaller level, there are quite a few new cafes/breweries/restaurants in London now, which are helping us to adapt some of our DC routines to fit the London context; and those great cultures of American football and Halloween have reached new heights of popularity since we’ve been away.

And after four months, I’ve finally stopped going the wrong way on the tube.

In my roundup of 2016 I mentioned the repatriation malaise or reverse culture shock I felt about 5-6 months after returning home. Here’s something I wrote at the time.

I do feel at home here. I know people say things like ‘you can never go back’ and that expats ‘never feel at home anywhere again’, but I’m feeling pretty welcomed back by London and my old life.

It’s weird to be back so completely – back in our flat, in our neighbourhood, friendship and family networks, and most of all, back at the university where I did my PhD and taught for four years. I’m even teaching a very similar course – the other day the course convenor referred to ‘last year’ as if I’d been here. I could very easily forget I’d been away at all.

I’m back working practically full time, thanks to two jobs, which is busy but makes me feel just like my old self. Which leads me to wonder, what on earth was I doing with myself for 18 and a bit months in the States. And who on earth was I?

 

Women’s Health in the States

Another post written last year in the States, before we came back to the UK. Of course this was also during the Obama care era, so things will probably change…

After about 15 months living over here I finally had to find someone to refill my birth control medication. Thanks to an understanding GP in the UK and a couple of visits home I’d managed for about nine months without having to negotiate the US health system, but after that I realized I’d have to make a start at finding a doctor.

I knew that in the States people can choose their own specialist and don’t need a referral from a GP. It’s actually not essential to have a GP – many of whom are known as internalists (specialists in internal medicine). (What’s external medicine I wonder…?) I then found out that the medical insurance we have, from the company that is sponsoring R’s visa, allows us to access either doctors who are in their network, or to go ‘out of network’ without any financial penalty. So now I almost had too much choice as to what sort of doctor/practice to go to, and no real way of knowing how to make the best choice.

I spent probably the best part of an hour scouring the list of in-network gynecologists (or OB GYNs), looking them up on the map, checking to see if there were reviews on Yelp – as if I were choosing a restaurant – and cross-checking with a good online medical service I found called ZocDoc. Weirdly there didn’t seem to be many OB GYNs in DC itself, so I found myself choosing between going to Bethesda in Maryland or North Arlington in Virginia. Based on distance from the metro, some nice Yelp reviews, and availability I chose my practitioner. It hardly seemed the best way to choose – using the same comparison site I use to find good pizza – but at least a decision had been made.

And I have been thoroughly satisfied – and not a little surprised – by my experiences. My doctor works for an outfit called the Physicians and Midwives Collaborative Practice, which I immediately liked the sound of. The office is very clean, modern and comfortable. Everyone is very friendly – more than one of them calls me ‘dear’ (though this is less affectionate and more like a conversational tic). Best of all, I’ve not been charged a co-pay on either of my visits.

The first time I went simply to get a refill of my prescription, though I knew there was a possibility I might have to get an exam (I’ve heard that this is more common in the States). They were good about getting a pretty complete history and wrote me a prescription for 3 months without an exam, on the condition that I make an appointment for a full physical. I had taken my British medication and the information leaflet with me so that the doctor could find an American equivalent, and she made an effort to find a generic version that was as close to mine as possible. As I said, I didn’t have to pay anything that visit, and while my insurance company makes me pay for my prescriptions up-front, I can claim back the full cost.

The second appointment came round and I turned up largely unconcerned – I don’t personally find these screenings at all problematic and actually have more anxiety about having my blood pressure taken (which obviously doesn’t help with the result!). But it turned out there are quite a few differences in practice between the UK and the US! Mostly in the UK the procedure has been done by a nurse, or maybe a nurse practitioner. Only the necessary clothes have had to be removed, and it’s been carried out on a normal GP bed.

Over here – in this practice at least – all clothes had to be removed and I was given a full-on hospital gown, in which I waited for my doctor. Thankfully I’d brought a book, and after about quarter of an hour she arrived. We had a conversation about my plans (or not) to have children, in which it was suggested that at my age I might want to look into getting my eggs frozen(!), and then there was the awkward getting into position on the gynecological table with stirrups that I’d seen in so many American TV shows. After some poking and prodding of various glands, the smear was reassuringly familiar, and after this I was ready to be getting up and heading home. So I was somewhat taken aback to find myself being pushed and prodded further, as she apparently examined my reproductive organs! I finally understand the joke about how gynecologists should probably buy you dinner before the exam – she now knows my uterus better than I do!

Again though, I was pleasantly surprised by not being asked to pay anything for this experience. I have read that recent changes in healthcare law have made all these sort of preventative health appointments free of any upfront charges – the entire cost being covered by the insurance company [Ed – thanks for the memories Obama!]. This must be a good thing in terms of detecting problems sooner as I can imagine that the idea of having to pay for a screening would be that extra reason not to go as regularly as you should. I’d also be genuinely interested to know whether the more invasive and thorough physical exam leads to cancers being found more quickly in the US than in the UK.

In any case, I survived my first experiences with American OB GYNs, and next time at least there should be fewer surprises!

How to eat American food for 18 months and not put on weight

‘Are you exercising?’ This was the doctor’s question which when put to me by my GP in London had me lying through my teeth. But in DC I didn’t miss a beat as I answered in the affirmative – ‘of course.’

To avoid this post becoming unbearably smug, I will admit that in the first few months living in DC I put on at least half a stone. We were eating out a lot and enjoying American beer. After that time I realized I couldn’t eat as if I were on holiday for the entire time we were here, and I would have to start running.

The first thing I saw when our taxi pulled off Memorial Bridge and into DC proper were runners. It was March, but the sun was shining and beautiful people were making use of the trails down Rock Creek Parkway and on the Potomac to break in their good-looking trainers and work-out clothes. As I spent more time in the city I realised that people could often be seen in workout gear – they were on their way home from the gym or from yoga, or on their way to Crossfit, or just going to have a run sometime that day. To support all this, there were a lot of sports shops in DC, including the appealingly named small independent store, Fleet Feet, downstairs in my building.

So I joined the movement, and did what I had barely ever done before – I started running outside.

It was hard at first, and I have to admit that when the humidity got too high I retreated back to the treadmill, but for most of the autumn and spring times* in DC I ran outside pretty much every week. I had some lovely places to run. Initially I chose to run across Ellington and Calvert bridges because this was nearly all on the flat, but I soon realised that the main advantage was the views. As I became better at dealing with hills, the whole of Rock Creek Park became available to me and made running an actual pleasure.

Rock Creek Park is a large area (1754 acres) of relatively wild parkland in the NW of DC, containing the creek as well as a network of cycle paths, equestrian trails and hiking routes. While we didn’t take up cycling or horse-riding, we did hike in the park pretty regularly, as it was really easy to access from our apartment block.

Other facilities available in DC were an amazing number of free, and very well-kept, public tennis courts.

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As an ex-pat partner who at times was not allowed to work, I was able to play tennis very regularly at least one summer after finding a good partner. There was also canoeing available on the Potomac river – as well as pedaloes in the Tidal Basin. We found the Key Bridge watersports center was the best of the two available and often got Canadian canoes from there to either paddle around Roosevelt Island and down to the monuments, or upstream to watch for turtles and cormorants.

On our holidays we love nothing better than to eat and drink well in the evenings and to hike or play tennis during the days. In this way, DC made our day-to-day life feel like a holiday – while saving us from obesity!

*in DC winter really only hits in December, and spring starts around March. It’s also pretty much bearable to be running up until July.

Expat life: the truth?

This is another post written just before we headed home to the UK. 

The other day I took part in an HSBC/YouGov survey about Expat life, which was basically a whole set of questions about whether I thought moving abroad had been good for us, professionally and financially.

Ex pat survey

The cold hard truth is that, no, it hasn’t been that great for us financially.

All the expenses/costs of expat life came as a bit of a shock. We’ve gone down to one salary between the two of us, DC is far more expensive than we thought it would be, and we don’t do that well in terms of tax.

Rationally speaking, it’s really not a good idea to take a job in America unless you’re getting a really good package, or are working for a UK outfit over here. Market-rate salaries are usually calculated based on cost of living, including US tax levels. If you’re a British expat though, you have to pay tax at UK rates – making up the difference in the UK for what you’re not paying over here. You also don’t get the same deductions/allowances as US citizens (e.g. we couldn’t file jointly), so often your payroll won’t hold back enough tax and you end up with a tax bill while everyone else is enjoying ‘tax refund season’.

Health costs are also a fact of life over here. You always have to keep a certain amount of money in your account in case you need dental work for example.

And of course it was really difficult to get set up with a bank account and credit card. We were very lucky that one of us already had a social security number, and that the other of us had an HSBC account and a good credit record with them. We definitely needed the very modest relocation allowance we got, as we had to pay 1.5 months rent in advance and buy a mobile phone up-front, as we had no credit record in the US.

Now, I don’t like to complain – we are of course incredibly lucky to be able to have this adventure and to see so many amazing things – but this survey just brought home to me how, in many ways, we were materially better off in the UK. For some people I think time abroad can be financially positive, but I wanted to make it clear that this isn’t the story for everyone who moves abroad for work.

Luckily, life isn’t just about the financials, and our expat life can’t be boiled down to a balance sheet. Not only have we had some amazing experiences, but we’ve also learnt a lot and become much closer as a couple. There are probably a number of gains from these years that we’ll only realise in the future…

But right now I’d just like a bit more disposable income!