Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lemons, Gin and Tonic

I'm going to keep this intro short and sweet -- and anonymous. Sometimes in the greater wide web of the world we want to say things 'out loud' but we really don't want our name splattered all over the place. And as the guest author would rather maintain some privacy, I'll be using the pseudonym D. Price for her name. 

D. is one of the funniest people I know and some of my favorite times in London recently have been drinking (a lot of) wine and laughing with her. Here's her take on her expat experience.  (And of course, you'll see why we laugh a lot together...)

Today, making a gin and tonic lemonade,

Lemons, Gin and Tonic
 By: D. Price

My journey as a expat began in 2004, and it's one that started with a boot; a boot to a relationship that I received from my ex-boyfriend, which arrived, helpfully, over email. "Not sure if this is working out, but being really mature, I'm gonna split and not tell you face-to-face. C'est cool?" Well, not exactly those words, but you get the gist.

Things didn't get better afterwards, a string of bad luck with a persistent injury led me to quit my post-grad work early, a bout of sadness I just couldn't shake - life just wasn't exactly working out the way I had planned it.

However, never one to get bogged down, I figured that if I was given the lemons of life, I would get resourceful and make a gin and tonic to go with them. So, I packed my bags for new adventure abroad, and headed off to Manchester in the north west of England.

While I had visions of Mary Poppins, the English countryside, tea and crumpets, and the Queen, Manchester was a cracking good surprise - gritty, buzzing and full of energy and life! It was home for over five years until I left for London town, but it was just the jolt that I needed to get myself back on track.

I never actually thought I would stay this long, but when I look back at all of the cool experiences, it's not hard to see why. Being in England, you are, often, just a short journey away to continental Europe, whether by plane, train or boat. The closeness to so many different cultures and countries is just incredible and I'm so glad I've been able to take advantage of being able to see and do lots of different and exciting things.

I've yelled 'PROST" in a beer hall of 1000s at Oktoberfest in Munich; danced to the wee hours under the Ibiza sky; smelled sweet tulips in Amsterdam; been horseback riding in the Slovakian Tatras Mountains; seen ancient battlefields in the Scottish highlands and 'tracked' the Loch Ness Monster; watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night in twinkly lights; drank Gluhwein at the Christmas Markets in Berlin…the list could go on forever!

But, that's just the point, it could go on forever and will continue to do since there will always be places to see, people to meet and adventures to be had. So, when things aren't going to plan, take the time to think of something completely new to try and just run with it.

Without trying to get all gouda or fromagieux on you, Ferris Bueller, it would seem, had it right. "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Loneliness and the Expat Experience

I met Emm at a party given by my pal Melizza. As Emm notes later in this post, expats and friends of friends are crucial to the survival of expat life. It really can be lonely, particularly if you're used to more culturally open and friendly societies and you move to a somewhat cool and removed one such as London.  Emm and I have compared Texas and her home country of South Africa -- warm weather, wide open spaces, friendly locals, and houses with central heating and air. Often you long for the ease and comfort of the familiar, but there's a reason you moved and more importantly, there are extraordinary new people whom you will meet. Being exposed to expats, not just from the U.S. but from other parts of the world is one of my favorite aspects of expat life. Meeting Emm was and is part of the *best* of being an expat -- new and fascinating friends to create new memories and share new experiences.  Sure, there's nothing like your best friends who've known you forever and know your neurotic charming quirks, but having the immediate commonality of 'expat' makes for rapid friendships and likely ones that last a lifetime.

Be sure and visit Emm's fabulous expat + travel blog as well as A Passion to Understand a blog she began to explore social and political events such as war, genocide, human rights and equality.  She also has a fun blog, Addicted to Media about...well, her addiction to media.

                        Loneliness and the Expat Experience                     
By: Emm

When Sarah asked me to write a little story about my expat experience, I was really keen at first.  I love to think of myself as the type of person who would help other expats to make the move and to settle down in their adopted country.  The weeks ticked by though and still I hadn’t written anything and then came the email from Sarah reminding us that she would soon need to wrap up the expat stories!

The problem is that I have found myself in the middle of one of the hardest aspects of being an expat: the inevitable change in relationships. December 2011 was when it all came to a head.  I had my husband’s parents over from South Africa but never have I felt lonelier than I did right then.  You see, my friends back home are rubbish at keeping in touch.

People often express surprise when they hear me say this.  What about Skype, FooCall, Facebook, email or letters, they ask.  I then have to explain that no, they don’t understand, my friends back home are really rubbish at keeping in touch.  Phone calls, voicemails and emails go unanswered and even unacknowledged and I’m stood up for more Skype dates than I care to admit.  It is heartbreaking but the hardest part is that I get it.

I’ve been the one who was left behind before.  When my friends traveled around Africa or moved to the UK or Australia for 2 year working visa stints, it was as if they did not exist.  Part of me was happy for them but part of me, the part I would never have wanted anyone to know about, was apathetic and a tiny bit resentful.  I was absolutely rubbish at keeping in touch and in retrospect I have to admit that I failed to read their blogs or group emails.

When they returned, it was like they had never left in the first place!  We were best friends again and amazed at how we picked up where we left off.  I know that if I ever go back to South Africa, it will be exactly like that.  I will immediately be assimilated into the crowd and I will never need to feel lonely again.

The problem is that we’re not going back. I have always been a British citizen and my husband recently obtained his British citizenship.  Even if we were inclined to leave England, it would be to continue on our big adventure somewhere new; we certainly wouldn’t be returning to South Africa.

Which is where that tiny bit of resentment grows into something more.  South Africans do not like to admit how dangerous and corrupt their society is and they take it as a personal affront when people leave.

When I put all of this into perspective, I can’t really blame my friends but I do have to admit that the time has come when I need something more.  Being an expat can be the hardest, loneliest, most soul-destroying experience on earth and doing it without friends is near to impossible.  It has really made me open up my eyes to the friendships that I do have, that have survived or have blossomed into something new.

There are five broad classes of friends that expats can turn to when their lifelong besties are overcome by apathy for their Big Overseas Adventure:

  • Other expats: there is something incredible about meeting up with other expats.  They come from the widest corners of the world but somehow landed up in the same city as you.  They share your love for adventure and travel and are usually intelligent, witty, educated and interesting. The best thing about other expats is that they totally get it.  They will sit with you over coffee and just nod and pat your hand while you talk about loneliness, homesickness and bureaucracy.
  • Colleagues: I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in London, it is incredibly hard to make friends with the locals.  I had been in London for nearly four years before I was actually invited to the home of another Londoner.  This is especially notable when you consider that I spent the first 35 years of my life identifying as British! So colleagues are important.  Make friends with them, go out for drinks with them and get to know them because they are often the closest you will come to making friends with the locals!
  • Hobbyists: whether it is sewing, blogging, movies or photography, meeting people with the same interests as you is priceless when you are in need of friends. Sites like are brilliant for meeting people but also look out for notices in local shops or community centres.  Some of my closest friends are people I met through sharing similar interests.
  • Friends of friends: whichever city you decide to move to, it is likely that someone you know will know someone in your chosen destination.  These are often the best and easiest friendships to make because there is something intrinsically trustworthy about the friends of our friends.  The two couples I am closest to in London were originally friends of friends but over time they have become part of my inner circle.
  • And finally, there are the friends you never realised you had.  With so much social interaction on Twitter and Facebook, it can sometimes be easy to miss the individuals who are willing to move beyond being just pals or acquaintances, those that have a genuine interest in you and are willing to take the extra step in becoming your friend.  While I was so busy feeling miserable because my besties were ignoring me, I almost overlooked the two or three people from back home who had become much closer to me over time.  We wereemailing each other, catching up on messenger and generally trying to keep in touch.  It is not easy to admit things like this but the truth is that friendships change and sometimes the most rewarding relationships are right under your nose.  My advice is to take hold of those friendships and appreciate them! Put your energy into the relationships that matter.
That said, if you are ever in London, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I work in an office from 9-5 each week day so I am always looking for some company at lunch time!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Expat Life is Never Perfect

I met Melizza via her blog and we became fast friends.  We both love coffee, travel, dinner parties with friends, afternoon tea, and bopping around enjoying London's free and fun things.  Melizza and I have also found, with each other, a safe space to have expat meltdowns. There are days when you miss home and you need to vent about it. Melizza came to London via Austin (as well as Brooklyn, New York and a few other places) and she loves Austin as much as I do...the trails, the people, the weather, the food.  And we've both sat in a coffeeshop talking about Tex-Mex and Town Lake on a cold rainy day.  Does it mean we don't appreciate our incredible opportunity to live in London? No. Does it mean that sometimes being an expat means you need to have a really good friend from back home who understands that sometimes being out of your comfort zone is difficult? Yes. And I'm SO grateful for her friendship. (Also, if you have a chance, you should check out her adorable sewing blog! She's a genius!)

Today, thankful for Austin Texpats,

Expat Life is Never Perfect

By: Melizza

In 2010, eight years after living in London as a graduate student, I found myself living the dream, returning to live there as an adult. My husband was offered the chance to transfer within his company to the London office, so we took it. We were very happy in Austin but we couldn’t say no at the chance of traveling and living in such a beautiful, historic city.

As a student I didn’t get to experience as much of the city as I would have liked. I was really looking forward to this new opportunity. To me, London was going to provide me with the chance to change careers, a great home base to travel from, and charming English friends who we would have over for dinner monthly. Sadly life here has been a lot less amazing than I imagine, and a lot more frustrating.

The cost of living in London is outrageous and the pay, as it’s been in our case, low when compared to our earnings at home. And when I say “our earnings” I really mean my husband’s. I haven’t had the best of luck finding full-time employment. Navigating through the job market has been quite a heart-wrenching and depressing experience. I had a certain expectation of what my career would be like in my 30s and temporary part-time jobs weren’t part of it. As a student it was okay to pick up a retail job with a constant changing schedule. But now, with quite a job history behind me, I’d prefer a role that was challenging and consistent.

Finding that has been my biggest struggle while living here. Living on a single income has affected our travel plans a bit. We can’t zoom off over the weekends as much as we’d like (I know, I know, first world problems) but we’ve made it work by seeing and doing more in the city and the rest of England. The museums are free so we constantly go and wander about. We take day trips to the countryside and see shows here and there. We have done and seen a lot of London. And there’s still so much to see.

When I was a student I was constantly working or going to school so I couldn’t afford the time to explore.  But I was okay with not doing as much because my entertainment came from friends. Friends were a lot easier to make at university because everyone is there for the same purpose. A woman who lived in my hall invited me to the campus pub to meet her friends and enjoy a drink. We’re still very good friends today. In fact, she was in my wedding party. I am very grateful for her friendship because she has been so welcoming since we have arrived. Unfortunately I don’t see her often enough because she doesn’t live in London.

To say making new friends in London is hard is an understatement. It is especially hard when I don’t have a job, go to school or belong to a church. My husband’s colleagues are mostly unmarried and younger. We tried reaching out to them when we first arrived but nothing came of it. I've often gone out to meet people through a friend or from online, and like a first date, I really hope they like me. And when a friendship doesn’t pan out I wonder what the hell is wrong with me. It has taken quite a few months, but I have finally met a few good friends through one of my part-time jobs and my blogs. They keep me sane when I gripe about finding a job or the lack of feeling at home.

What I miss the most about living in Austin is that sense of community: people taking time to ask you how you’re doing, businesses providing great customer service, and neighbors looking out for you. Londoners walk around with blinders on and I understand that’s a city mentality but it doesn’t mean I’m fond of it. Living in London hasn’t been as glamorous as I would have liked. Nor is it as carefree as when I was younger.

The expenses wear you down, the shit job market keeps you frustrated, and the lack of belonging to a community saddens you. But we’re going to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt. We’re going to continue to do and see as much as we can before returning; because there isn’t a doubt about that. Before moving here we considered starting a family and making a home here. But the decision to move back comes down to quality of life, and ours was way higher in Austin. So by the end of the year, hopefully, that is where we will return and the life we have on hold can continue.