Monday, March 3, 2014

The Art of Living Abroad

I would never consider myself to be an "expert" on living abroad. But when HiFX asked me to contribute to their campaign (which consists of a collection of tips from ex-pats around the world), I realized that the 7+ years I've spent living in a country that isn't my own has earned me some entitlement to wax poetic on the subject. So ...

Be a tourist. Even if you've lived in your adopted country for a while.

You know what? I've been on the London Eye three times. Most recently, last year. I seek out the highest points and parks in London (Centrepoint, Primrose Hill, Hampstead Heath, Heron Tower, and The Shard, to name a few) and scramble up each one, oohing and ahhing like I've never seen the city from above before. And every time I exit Westminster station, I almost always stop to take a photo of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. I HAVE NO SHAME. Because, why not? They're beautiful. They still take my breath away. When I walk across Waterloo Bridge? I stop, like a tourist, and just stand in the middle, facing Southbank, overlooking the Thames. Then I turn the other direction and look East towards Tower Bridge. And I take one (or four) photos. I don't care. It's my favorite view of London. I'm allowed. What I'm trying to say is, it's okay to still be enthralled by the place you live in. Who cares if it's not cool? I'll tell you what's not cool ... the people who think they're too cool to stop and smell the roses. They're definitely not cool.

Explore the city on your own.

When I was living in shared housing (i.e. not with John), I wandered around a lot on my own. I had a handful of friends that I enjoyed making plans with, but one of my favorite memories was getting on the DLR from Shadwell, where I lived at the time, all the way to Cutty Sark station for Greenwich Market. I'd spend an afternoon there, wandering the market stalls and taking in the smells of the delicious food bubbling away. I'd buy a brownie and save it for later, sipping a coffee as I strolled through the grounds of the Naval Academy. I liked the solitude. I felt like the experience was mine and mine alone to interpret - and it was in this way, in little chunks of different places, that I began to get to know London a little better.

Go on "friend dates". 

Yeah, they're awkward and 9 times out of 10, you'll walk out of the restaurant/pub/bar/coffee shop both knowing that you'll never see each other again, but they're worth a gamble. How else are you going to meet new people if you don't go out on a limb? Say you start chatting to someone at a friend's party and realize you have a lot of common interests - it's worth swapping email addresses or taking up an offer to explore a museum or hear some live music together. Sure, I've been to one or two friend dates that turned out to be disastrous (we had nothing in common and I found the other person to be utterly annoying, though I'm sure they felt the same) but a few were amazing. For example, I met my dear friends Ruth and Peter (who have since moved back to the US - boo!) during a group friend date and it was a match made in friendship heaven. I'm pretty sure Ruth and I would have traded friendship bracelets by now, if we were in the third grade. She's still totally my pen pal.

Stay away from negative people - at least, in the beginning.

I definitely have complaints about living in the UK. My friends always ask me what I bring home in my suitcase after a visit to the US. Embarrassed, I think about it for a second: "Um ... well, you know ... razors. And kitchen sponges. And dental floss. Scotch tape. Red Vines. Marshmallow Peeps. Scissors. Sticky notes. Sharpie markers." Confused, they respond defensively: "Oh, what? Our dental floss isn't good enough for you?" And meekly, I have to say, "Sorry, no, it isn't." It's always little things, but I feel like Americans are just so darn good at inventing things to make your life just that much easier. Or, those products aren't available here.

But too much complaining leads to a huge negativity suck. And that is so not good. If you're going to live in a new country, you have to try to accept that things work differently there. It may be frustrating, you may cry into your pillow (as I type this, the black skinny jeans I want to wear tomorrow are hanging up to dry because I only had time to do my laundry today and our flat, like most UK homes, doesn't have a tumble dryer and I just know - I just know that there'll be some major panicked blow-drying around the crotch area tomorrow morning if I want to wear them to work).

I had a lovely American friend who lived here a few years ago (she's since moved back to the States) whom I loved meeting up with. But it didn't take long before I started rationing our meet-ups because she was one HUGE complainer. The worst things always seemed to happen to her. A sales assistant was rude to her. She complained to the manager. He was rude to her. She fell on the Tube. No one helped her up, etc. etc. Everything was better back in the States. Everything was terrible here. After a while, I just got really tired of it. I sympathized with her but I also believe that you can find the worst in everything - if you go looking for it. And she definitely looked for it.

So I just stopped hanging out with her.

Find an activity that "grounds" you - and stick to it.

It's totally natural to feel off-balance/off-kilter/unbalanced/untethered when you first move to a new place, let alone a new country. I'm settled enough now that I have routines and habits that make me feel at home and at ease in London. But in the beginning, I settled in and was like, "Okay, now what?" Something was missing, and I felt lost. So I joined a gym. I started practising Vinyasa flow yoga twice a week. I also joined an orchestra, The Royal Orchestral Society, which performs three times per year and rehearses once a week after work.

These were activities I brought with me from the US - activities that felt familiar, yet different enough (since I was doing them in a completely different environment, not to mention that the Brits have an entirely different musical vocabulary - e.g. I still don't know what a "crotchet" is. Is that a quarter note or an eighth note? I just nod when the conductor says it during rehearsal and then continue to play it incorrectly) that they helped me feel grounded.

And that's when I started to feel at home.



  1. When I was singing with a chapel choir at Cambridge, at one point the student director stopped us and said "Quavers, quavers, quavers!" I gained zero information from this piece of advice.

    1. Oh, your comment just made me laugh out loud, Marjorie. I'll be returning to Cambridge this fall for an orchestra retreat. 'Quaver' and 'crotchet' are such silly words!!!


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