Category Archives: Culture shock

Thinking through the ex-pat experience

This is a post written last year, just before we headed home to the UK.

I came across a list of words to describe ‘wanderlust’ on Wordables, and wondered what they meant to me now following this experience of living abroad.

Fernweh (n.) An ache for distant places; the craving for travel. (German)

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I’ve always loved this one. I’ve certainly experienced a craving for travel while in America. As is pretty obvious from my blog, we’ve given into this craving as much as possible, but I still get frustrated, knowing there’s so much of America still to see, but we’re prevented from jetting off and seeing it by a lack of funds, or a limited number of vacation days. Now and again I also get cravings to go back to favourite places in Italy, or France. I don’t feel we made the most of being in Europe when we were living in the UK.

Nefelibata (n.) Lit. ‘cloud-walker’; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination or dreams or one who does not obey the conventions of society, literature, or art. (Spanish and Portuguese)

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I like this one – in some ways it describes the way I like to feel that we don’t do what’s expected, don’t fit into a particular way of living, and therefore end up living alone, unable to see the path ahead in the mist. The ex-pat experience has been challenging at times, but it has underlined for me the fact that unexpected things will happen in life, and we don’t always have a road map – but things will usually be ok anyway.

Numinous (adj.) Describing an experience that makes you fearful yet fascinated, awed yet attracted – the powerful, personal experience of being overwhelmed and inspired. (English)

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This sounds like the Romantic sublime. It definitely captures how I initially felt about moving to the States, and how I feel about the future. Once you’ve done the unexpected once, it feels like there are so many opportunities out there that you might go for – so many possible futures – and that can be overwhelming as well as inspiring.

Resfeber (n.) The restless race of the traveller’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together; a ‘travel fever’ that can manifest as an illness. (Swedish)

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I’ve become a much better traveller since I’ve been out here. Though I still get flutters of nerves before a journey, I’m far better at just getting going, putting one foot in front of the other, with the assurance that it will all probably be fine.

Nemophilist (n.) A haunter of the woods; one who loves the forest and its beauty and solitude. (English)

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I’m ambivalent about the forest. On the one hand I love its silence and the way it can seem to stretch on and on forever in this country. However, it can also be a bit boring to walk in – the trees obscuring any views there might have been.

Annus Mirabilis (n.) (phr.) A remarkable or notable year in history; a year of wonders and miracles, used to speak hopefully of the future. (Latin)

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As nearly every ex-pat will tell you, living abroad can be full of wonders and miracles, but it’s also very much full of the mundane and banal, as well as the occasional dies horribilis(!)

Smultroställe (n.) Lit. ‘place of wild strawberries’; a special place discovered, treasured, returned to for solace and relaxation; a personal idyll free from stress or sadness. (Swedish)

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On the balcony of our current apartment

I’m not sure that any place that we return to in DC has entirely escaped stress or sadness, but there are certainly places in the States more generally that we’d like to return to. Yellowstone was absolutely an idyll, as was Maine that first summer we were out here, and we loved the San Francisco bay area of California. On a more mundane level though, I suppose our balcony has always been there for us, when we just need a quiet moment in the sun with a beer.

American habits to give up when moving to the UK

Last year Matt Herschberger identified 7 American habits he lost after moving to England – and it’s all so true!

His original article is a lot of fun and I encourage you to read it: http://matadornetwork.com/life/7-american-habits-lost-moving-england/

But it got me thinking about these differences between America and the UK again, especially how I’d experienced them in reverse. So here’s my take on them:

  1. Matt ‘stopped wearing shitty clothes’ when he left the house. I totally get this. When I lived in London I didn’t even want to wear trainers out of the house – I didn’t own any that were fashionable (expensive) enough. So I’ve really loved how casual I can dress in DC. I’m not at the stage where I can go to the deli downstairs in my PJs (some of my neighbours really do this), but I’ve embraced the idea of walking to the gym in my workout gear and an old sweater. I’ve also bought (and been bought) so many beer and city themed t-shirts and hoodies, that I don’t know what I’m going to do with my wardrobe when I have to move back to London!
  2. Matt ‘stopped saying “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”. Now, I’m not really sure about this one. Since being in DC I’ve probably attended more happy hours than ever in my life before, but I would say that on balance I do drink less. The thing I’ve noticed is how when Americans go out for happy hour, that’s exactly what they do. One to one-and-a-half hours later, they’re getting ready to go home, or for dinner, or even the gym. R and I fondly reminisce about how after-works drinks could go on for hours – without appetizers – and end in some late-night bar in soho, or with pizza and a bottle of wine at some Pizza Express at 11pm.
  3. Matt ‘stopped shouting in bars’. This is the reason I’m usually pretty happy to be going home after happy hour – all the shouting to be heard gets very tiring!
  4. Matt ‘stopped saying hi to strangers on the street’. This is definitely a DC thing that I’m going to miss – people are so friendly. I love chatting to people on the check-out, or to strangers at the same bar/restaurant. This is definitely something we should develop more in London.
  5. Matt ‘stopped using [his] English accent at parties’. Annoyingly, in the US people often just can’t understand you if you pronounce something in a way they’re not expecting. Though my accent isn’t going anywhere, I have had to start saying tom-ay-to rather than tom-ah-to…
  6. Matt ‘stopped taking [his] coffee black’. I’ve certainly had no problems with proper coffee in the US. I’ve learnt that sometimes it’s nice to have coffee made slightly weaker than I would normally – that way you can enjoy a couple of refills with your breakfast or brunch. And I’ve really developed a taste for iced coffee. Although I didn’t think I could justify buying a drip-filter coffee maker, I could get a replacement for my broken French press, and ground coffee a-plenty. Instant coffee in America is absolutely foul though.
  7. Matt (almost) ‘stopped eating meat’. Another one I totally get. Although I’ve been able to limit meat in my home-cooking during the week, I’m constantly depressed by the lack of interesting vegetarian sandwiches especially when we go out. Certainly when we were on our road trip we ended up eating a lot of burgers and steaks. America is the home of the whopper after all.

First impressions (again)

Back in DC:

  • There’s a smell of fried food everywhere.
  • All the fruit in the supermarket is bruised somewhere.
  • People don’t know how to use the underground. Or the escalators. But really, it’s not entirely their fault – the stations are just so badly designed!

On the bright side:

  • It’s sunny and warm. (This was last week)
  • It’s light from 7am till 5pm.
  • People are friendly. Really – in my first two days back two people spoke to me in the street around Adams Morgan. The first was a local street peddling artist (every neighbourhood should have one) who guessed from my Austin t-shirt that I wouldn’t mind keeping Adams Morgan weird by buying a painting from him. The second, an oldish woman, approached me, all smiles, exclaiming ‘is it a cat?’ – which confused me until I remembered I was wearing my blind tiger t-shirt from Topeka!

I don’t know how long we’ll stay in DC, but overall I’m happy to be here.

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DC from the roof

Favourite things about a trip to the UK

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We had to go back to the UK to collect our new visas. Our old visas ran out on the 15th October and we couldn’t get an embassy appointment until the week after. All of which meant we had to spend a nice long holiday (well, 2 and a bit weeks) in the UK!

There have been a couple of lists doing the rounds recently about the little differences between the UK and America (for example this one). So I thought I’d do my own list of 10 things I loved and had missed about the UK.

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‘Hovis’ Hill (despite the advert’s implications, it’s not really in Yorkshire at all, but in Dorset – its real name is Gold Hill) and my mum in the foreground (taken back in 1981).

1. Pubs. We had so many pub lunches while we were in the UK! Some in city pubs – Wetherspoons and Nicholsons – others in proper country pubs with roaring fires and excellent beer and cider. Which brings me on to…

2. Pints. These are bigger, and we were able to practice what is considered a party trick in the US: carrying three pints at the same time from the bar to the table. Which brings me to…

3. Self-service. Sometimes I don’t want table service. Sometimes I just want to pop into the pub for a swift half on the way back from a walk. Buying in advance from the bar means I can just up and leave when I’m ready, rather than having to get someone’s attention and wait for the ‘check’. Which brings me to…

4. Not having to tip. Things feel so much cheaper when you don’t have to add on tax and that extra 20%. We tip around 12% when we feel it’s deserved but otherwise we really don’t have to. But let’s get on to…

5. British food. I wrote myself a list before we got to the UK of all the things I wanted to eat, and proceeded to cross them off. We have enjoyed:

  • Proper Yorkshire fish and chips (in Whitby), with crisp batter, vinegary chips (for me), bread and butter and Yorkshire tea.
  • Yorkshire pudding – as part of a great pub roast (beef) and as toad in the hole (I know this is a great mystery to Americans so see recipe here).
  • Homemade apple/apple and blackberry crumble – my favourite dessert.
  • Melton Mowbray pork pie and Scotch eggs.
  • Full English breakfasts (‘fry-up’s) with proper British/Danish back bacon (it’s nothing like Canadian bacon before anyone says anything), fried mushrooms, fried bread and black pudding.
  • Bacon sandwiches – not possible with anything other than British/Danish back bacon.
  • Crisps! – the British ‘chips’ come in way more exciting and varied flavours.
  • Malt loaf – does this really not exist in America (see here for what I mean)? Because I’d forgotten how much I love it for breakfast.
  • Curry – it’s always so reliably good pretty much anywhere in the UK.
  • Lots and lots of English tea.

6. Drinking to excess. I know this sounds bad, but I rather like the fact that in the UK it’s perfectly acceptable to order a bottle of wine even if there are only two of you – and it’s lunchtime. There’s also something about getting drunk with friends or family that just bonds you together on a deeper level… or so it certainly feels at the time!

7. Borough Market. R and I used to spend so many weekends here, and when we had a couple of hours before we had to get on to our next stop we just had to pop down and go back to our favourite stalls. It felt like no time had passed at all since the last time we’d stood in the autumn sunshine eating chicken burgers followed by treats from the Cinnamon Tree bakery. But this is just part of my love for:

8. London (and its integrated transport network!).

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This city provides so many wonderful experiences, like browsing in Borough market, wandering the old streets around Mayfair, and enjoying the Thames at nightfall from one of the restaurants on the Southbank. But most of all I love the fact that I can dash around this huge city so easily using my lovely London buses and the most famous and best of underground systems – the tube. Since we were last in London the Overground had completed its extension so we had even more choices to get us to the mainline stations we were using to visit friends and family. Which brings me to:

9. Short distances. After traversing America and getting stuck in the comparatively close city of Boston, I really appreciated the way that you can travel to most parts of the UK really quickly and easily. We had so many people we wanted to visit and such a short time, that it just wouldn’t have been possible if the UK weren’t as small. In two weeks we visited people in Pickering, Sheffield, St Albans, Cambridge, Oxford, Winchester, Exeter, Chagford, and Tunbridge Wells. For many of these we used trains, but for the SW we hired a car. Which leads me to:

10. British driving. A lot of the things mentioned in the American’s list of 100 things I referenced earlier are related to this. After driving in the US we were very attuned to the differences. Apart from being confused that we’ve still not embraced automatic cars (when even parking is automated now), we mostly found this a pleasure. We were back to signage that made sense, was consistent and didn’t distract with too much text! We were back to a consistent speed limit that people pretty much followed! And when people flashed their lights, we realised, they were actually thanking us for overtaking in a considerate manner! I don’t think this is entirely an issue of national characteristics (maybe we’re more polite, but I wouldn’t generalise), but perhaps more of consistent enforcement. As that American noticed – ‘If you speed on a motorway, you get a ticket. Period. Always.

11. (Bonus!) The best thing, of course, was seeing friends and family again. Although we have made new friends in the States, there’s something about old friends. No matter how long it’s been you can just get right back to how you were, and it seems like you’ve barely been away.

Taking stock

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that my original 18 months in DC are nearly up. However, we’ve enjoyed our time in the States so much that we’re trying to get a new visa so we can stay a bit longer. I’ll attempt to write about our visa saga soon, when I might know more. Whatever happens, we’ll have a four week grace period, after the 18-month work placement, in which we can travel and say our goodbyes. But, as I was flying back to DC from a trip to California (also to be written about soon!) I started taking stock of a few things.

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Taking stock up in the clouds. I think this was the edge of the Rockies.

Back when I was in the midst of ex-pat culture shock I wrote lists of everything I hated about living in DC and about living in America (I later wrote one about the things that I liked). So, as I’m staring down the barrel of possible repatriation culture shock, I thought I’d write a few more lists: about what I would miss about America if we really have to leave soon, what I am looking forward to about possibly returning to London and the UK, and things that I’ve learnt about myself since moving to America.

Things I’d miss about America

  1. Diners. This one is linked to my second:
  2. Brunch. I’ve written before about my love of American brunch. Since our first experiences we’ve also sampled boozy brunches with friends, amazing home-made pop tarts at the DC institution that is Ted’s Bulletin, and a lot more Mexican themed brunch dishes. My waist-line will probably not miss this.
  3. Climate. I know I have complained about this on numerous occasions (for example, here), but I really like how in DC I don’t have to worry about a coat or even really a cardigan for about 7 months of the year. I’ve also just visited California, and their climate makes me wonder why we don’t all just move there.
  4. Variety of states to visit. There’s so much to see! I’ve visited I think 10 states in my 18 months here, which means there are 40 I haven’t had a chance to see yet. I can make a decent stab at improving this situation during our grace period, but I have enough places on my to-visit list to fill at least five different holidays.
  5. Attitude. I didn’t realize how British negativity can get you down, until I was freed of it. There’s just an assumption over here that people will be friendly, open and confident. And because this was expected of me, I found that after a few months I was friendly, open and confident – or at least a lot more than I used to be.
  6. Wine. Ok, I know we have this in Europe. Pretty good wine too. But I’d just been wine tasting in Sonoma, so it was on my mind.
  7. Fitness culture. People who knew me a long time ago will be surprised at this one. But I have found that it’s a lot easier to start running outside when everyone else is doing it.
  8. The ease of everything. This is always what R and I say about America: stuff is just easy. Apart from the bureaucracy of tax, health insurance etc., things like going out and enjoying yourself, in terms of booking, or putting your name on a list, or there just being room, just seem a lot easier over here.

Things I’m looking forward to about London/UK

  1. Knowing my way around. I love traversing London using the network of buses and tubes.
  2. M&S and Waitrose. I do miss their ready-meals and snacks.
  3. Cantonese food. I wrote recently about how hard it’s been finding the kind of Chinese food that I’m used to. I have cravings for prawn crackers and chicken chow mein in gravy.
  4. UK Holidays… in Yorkshire or Devon or the Lakes, or Wales. While it’s a small country the UK certainly has its own wealth of landscapes. I’ve been vicariously enjoying other ex-pats’ adventures in my home country (such as Amanda Afield’s adventures in Wales which made me very homesick!).
  5. Being close to Europe. I really didn’t take advantage of this enough while I was in the UK.
  6. Culture. DC does have theater and I do like the Kennedy Center, but I haven’t been able to work out how to get cheap tickets to reliably good things yet. I miss the English National Opera and National Theatre’s deals.
  7. Friends and family. Obviously.
  8. Humour. And British spelling.

That second list was hard, as I was trying to write it while flying over the Grand Canyon… It’s a bit difficult for the UK to compete with that.

Things I’ve learnt about myself  since moving to America

  1. I actually quite like patriotism and earnestness. In moderation.
  2. I can get along with most people – and I’ve met a lot of very different people.
  3. I love road trips. Though, as we’ve only really done one proper road trip, this might just have been the novelty. We’re planning to take a couple of weeks of our grace period and drive out West, that should be the real test.
  4. I really like motels/American hotels. This is partly because of the ease and friendliness of all my experiences so far.
  5. Traveling doesn’t have to be a big deal/stressful for me. I used to be a terrible traveler, stressing about a few hours’ train journey. Now that I’ve driven with R for days in the South and traveled on my own to conferences in cities I’d never heard of – and enjoyed these experiences – I’m a far more confident traveler. And finally…
  6. I can run! The fitness culture of DC, the easily available sports gear, and the variety of trails/courses to run have turned me into a runner (at least when it’s not too humid).