Category Archives: Living/moving abroad

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.

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A Year in DC – that was 2015!

I tend to get reflective around the new year. I and my blog are another year older. I’m pretty much exactly a year older, as my birthday falls this time of year; my blog is becoming a toddler and will be two in March. So it was nigh on impossible not to write a reflection on the year that was 2015.

The eagle-eyed of my readers will have noticed the subtle change in my blog’s title: we’re now 18-plus Months in DC. This has been a year of applying for visas, preparing to leave America, and then settling back in for a little while longer. Sometime in the new year I’ll tell the saga of the visas, as promised. I’ll also finish my tales from our road trip out west, and find a way to bring these all together – possibly on a dedicated road trips page.

It has been a good year for traveling. Two road trips, a conference in New York City, and a fellowship in Austin, TX means that I’ve now visited 20 states.

States 2015

We already have plans to visit Delaware this holiday break, and New Orleans (Louisiana) in January, which will bring me up to 22 states. Still lagging behind R, but then he doesn’t have to pay for his trips.

Taking a look over my most popular travel posts from 2015, it turns out that people were pretty interested in our Southern adventures (https://18monthsindc.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/on-the-back-roads-from-atlanta-to-the-coast/), and that plenty of people share my love of food-tourism (https://18monthsindc.wordpress.com/2015/06/14/queuing-for-regional-specialities/). My first guest-post on a holiday in DC and Shenandoah (https://18monthsindc.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/guest-post-autumn-adventures-in-dc-and-shenandoah/) was also popular – and quite rightly! As well as some lovely photos and descriptions of the Virginia countryside, my guest poster also said some lovely things about DC, which I hope might encourage more of my readers to visit!

I was unexpectedly charmed by DC.  In its own, low-key way it is quite lovely. R&A live in an area called Adams Morgan which is home to a classic American diner, a number of great restaurants and a degenerate bar called Madam’s Organ … Other highlights of DC were canoeing on the Potomac in the autumn sunshine, watching the Washington Wizards in action, R’s informative and beautiful walking tour of the war memorials and hours spent in DC’s brilliant museums.  Watching E scrambling through air ducts in the spy museum will stay with me for a long time.

After about 21 months in DC I feel pretty much at home here now. I noticed the other day how my feet just take me where I’m going without me really having to think about directions, and I usually have a recommendation for a bar or restaurant wherever you might be in town. So this year I felt able to describe some of the sides of DC that a tourist wouldn’t experience. For example, a trip to Costo. Or the experiences of a private tutor: https://18monthsindc.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/dc-as-seen-by-a-private-tutor/. I also felt equipped to answer the question: how safe is DC really?

My most popular posts, though, have dealt with the issues faced by the foreigner living abroad – the ‘expat experience’ if you must. This is a weird time to be living in America. We’ve felt a bit disconnected from the political debates in Europe over immigration, and far too far from home when tragedy struck in Paris. And at the same time, we feel completely baffled by some of the political debate in the US right now. Everything that’s going on in the world can make a blog about a British person’s life in DC seem a bit trivial. In response I have tried recently to write about the bigger issues of the day, from my current perspective. But I also hope that my blog’s usual topics provide entertainment (and potentially useful information) for people back home and those embarking on their own international adventures – and I think that this can be just as important.

Because it’s not all plain sailing in expat life. Clara Wiggins, in her book Expat Partner’s Survival Guide (see my ‘blogs I follow’ section for the companion blog), covers the serious side of living abroad better than I do, but this year I reflected on how relocating affected my relationship with my husband (https://18monthsindc.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/relocating-with-my-best-friend-2/), and wrote about finding friends in a new country (https://18monthsindc.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/friends-and-friending-social-networks-abroad/). Hopefully these pieces may be of some help to people in similar situations.

However, sometimes it’s the littler things that can help the most. Like being able to find your favourite foods in your new city (Eating British). Or being able to laugh at how Brits and Americans can’t understand each other (American English).

Ultimately, as anyone who has studied travel writing will know, this sort of writing is best when it allows readers to turn their gaze back on themselves, with the benefit of a new perspective. In other words – we love reading about ourselves! So I’ll end this round-up with my most popular post to-date: my Favourite things about a trip (back) to the UK.

Thanks for reading – and Happy New Year!

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.

Interlude – a trip ‘home’

So, as many of my family and friends know, we got our visa petition approved! I’ll write more about the saga that was our visa application soon but, suffice to say, it went right to the wire.

Originally we were only going to do our big trip out West of we knew we hadn’t got a visa to stay – we were going to use the grace period at the end of our current visa (four weeks when you can’t work but are encouraged to travel) to say a grand farewell to the States. But as we got to the end of our visa and still hadn’t heard if we could stay or not, we decided to do the trip anyway – it would certainly beat sitting at home waiting for an email.

And I’m really glad we did. I’ll write more about our adventures in the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Denver and Chicago soon, but right now I’m sitting at an airport bar trying to get my head around the fact that we were in Wyoming about two weeks ago and will be in London tomorrow morning.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing trip, and I’m really really looking forward to seeing people in the UK, but I’m kind of looking forward to getting back to some kind of routine and writing about the minutiae of DC life. All this waiting to hear has been very disruptive, and I really got into travelling mode on our trip – all we had to think about was where we could drive to for breakfast, and where did Expedia and Yelp advise us to stay the next night. Getting back to my writing will be difficult!

Still, for now I have a couple of weeks of visits and travels in the UK to look forward to. Hopefully there will be Yorkshire fish and chips, West Country game and cider in nice pubs, and maybe even a curry in London. Certainly there will be plenty of fun with family and friends.