Category Archives: repatriation

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.

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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?

 

May 2016

By May we knew that we were going home to the UK, and soon. We had been discussing possible reasons for returning for a while: I really needed to get on with my career, but I couldn’t find work in the US that would give me a visa, and wasn’t allowed to work on my current spousal visa; my sister had just had a baby; R’s sister was pregnant; we missed our friends and family in the UK; and we missed London.

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A conference trip to Chawton in Hampshire coinciding with the birth of my nephew rather decided me on the matter…

 

There were reasons to stay too: we hadn’t made it to the Grand Canyon yet; we loved our lifestyle in DC; and we had great friends. We had really fallen in love with the America we had found in DC and on our travels and had (mostly) felt accepted and welcome.

 

My work restriction sucked, and the process of getting a new visa had been horribly stressful, and doing tax in two countries is the absolute worst – but apart from all that it had been a really positive ‘immigrant’ experience which had us at times considering how we could find a route to live there forever and bring up kids there. It’s funny to remember that now, given the current action being taken by Trump.

In May changes at R’s work and an offer of a new job based back in the UK decided us – we were going home. It was sad and exciting in equal measure, but there wasn’t much time to think through it all. Things had to happen quickly; there’s no grace-period with an H1-B visa, so as soon as R’s notice period expired we were technically illegal – which didn’t give us much time to pack up our lives! In the meantime all our friends wanted to say goodbye, so there were lunches and drinks, but we also had R’s mother coming to stay, and wanted to take that opportunity for one last road trip…

Related post: going home

Missing the States

At this time when America is so much in the news I’m missing all those things that were America to us.

I miss:

  • Watching NFL in a bar on a Sunday all afternoon…
  • Wearing a baseball cap and really casual clothes…
  • Drinking American IPA in sensible sized pints

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Though London and the UK more widely are catching up to what a great game this is, because of the time difference it’s really hard to watch our favourite teams live. Unless you have Sky TV (and can stay up real late) you can only catch the early Sunday afternoon matches – at very select bars. We found out that our local does show these, from 6pm UK time, but at 7.30pm the football is relegated to the background as they have their pub quiz (or trivia as my American friends know it).

Matt Herschberger has written how American casual doesn’t really fit in large parts of London (I reacted to his article here). I’ve tried wearing my baseball caps and Nats gear, but I’ve had to give in to the increasingly hipster vibe and be a bit smarter on the weekends.

Talking of hipster culture, the UK is also really catching up on the craft brewing front. I’ll go into this in more detail soon, but my area has recently acquired a whole mile of breweries, all of which do decent IPAs. Half pints are available, and indeed are to be recommended for the really strong beers they’re brewing round here now.

But I also miss:

  • Being able to hire a car that we can both drive…
  • Getting on the road and driving for hours through the most amazing scenery…
  • Singing along to country music.

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This last one we’ve been able to replicate thanks to Youtube and Spotify, but we have acquired a reputation as having slightly strange music taste. In terms of car radio music, we have enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with British cheese, especially eighties music, and we did have quite a bit of fun finding some typical French rap when we were driving to Bordeaux back in the summer.

But the attitude to hire cars – and street car schemes – in the UK is very different to the States. It’s more expensive to hire an automatic and there are quite high extra charges for each additional driver. Back in the US I don’t think they even asked to see my licence when we hired a car – the fact that we said we were married was enough to give me driving rights with no extra charge. This was great because I only had a learner permit, and I got to practice while driving my husband around the vineyards of Southern California… The hire car place in France was also fine with my American licence and our marital status, so I got my first experience of driving the narrow country roads of the old wine country. There’s just something about being able to skip the mediocre hotel breakfast and drive down to the nearest village for pastries and espresso…

Which brings me to some other things I’m missing:

  • Being able to reliably get good coffee…
  • And good (cheap) brunch.

img_0288I was at a conference centre recently with truly awful coffee. It was cruel and unusual and should be illegal.

I took coffee and brunch for granted in the States. And while I think we probably can get some good brunch in London if we make a date for it, maybe book, and travel a bit, it’s not the same as being able to go across the road to the Diner. On the upside we’re getting good at making our own eggs and pancakes and we can now get our favourite bacon and brunch on bacon sandwiches.

Other good brunch/lunch options that have opened up in our area are a really good salt beef and pastrami place – Monty’s Deli. And, round the corner, Maltby Street Market has an interesting looking waffle stall. So there’s definitely potential.

However, there are some things we can’t replicate. Here are some of the bigger, intangible, ‘this is America’ type stuff that people weave a national identity around, and that I miss more than I thought I would:

  • Going to the baseball (I can see why this is practically a religion)
  • Celebrating 4th July, or Halloween, and Thanksgiving… and all the other holidays…

Not because I particularly liked all the holidays, but because we got to celebrate with enthusiasm in the States. There was irony – ‘Merica! – but not often, and only on the surface.

  • Freedom!

Now I’m being ironic – especially seeing as how recently we’ve taken control back from Europe (more irony).

  • DC politics…

I know it might sound strange, but there was something about being in the DC bubble, where sports bars showed the debate, and the local paper went into great detail on local, regional and national politics. Though I couldn’t vote I certainly had my own strong views on abortion rights, gun control, and statehood for DC and Puerto Rico.

So right now I’m missing lots of things about America. I’m also worried for this country that welcomed me in for a while: is it going to become more right-wing, more misogynist, racist, more disruptive to world politics?

I’ll certainly be watching the election tonight and hoping that the result is that which will preserve everything I loved about America. Good luck friends!