Expat Diaries: Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad

Expat diaries is a weekly feature where I talk about my experiences as an American expat living and working in London. I discuss cultural nuances, a few tips for would-be expats to the UK, and sometimes throw in a bit of pop culture, too. Have any questions, or topics you’d like covered in this feature? Then get in touch!

I’m moving next week. I’m not moving to a different flat in Richmond, a different borough within London, or even a different city within the UK, but I’m moving back to the US. After six months of what may have seemed like idle talk about moving back to California, I’m finally packing up my bags and leaving expat life.

This hasn’t been an easy decision. Yes, I absolutely love California (hence, California Love Letters–my love letter to the Golden State), but there is so much more to consider before deciding it’s time to end expat life.

One of the driving factors of the move for me has been my job situation. While I was thrilled at the opportunity to move abroad, I really don’t think it was the right role for international relocation. I enjoyed the challenge of managing employees for the first time (to be fair, it wasn’t challenging, I really had some of the best employees a manager could ever hope for), working with stakeholders in several different countries, and learning the differences of doing business in Europe (and later the Middle East and Africa). But the core of my job wasn’t much different than what I’d been doing in the US for the previous three years, and I found that the challenge quickly wore off.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with expat life. My husband, who was still my boyfriend at the time, lived in Geneva, Switzerland. At first, we tried to see each other twice a month which worked for the first few months while I settled in London. Then I started realizing how difficult it was to make friends. Sure, I had made a few friends at work, but not everyone wants to hang out with their co-workers all the time. It was also difficult to hit it off with the locals (Point 3 in Things London’s Taught Me by fellow blogger Lucy nails this). The next alternative was to try making friends with fellow expats, but I quickly realized this is an ever-changing community. You may meet a new expat friend today, just to find she’s repatriating tomorrow.

A few months into the move, I had another reason to stay: Darren and I were engaged in February 2010. Visiting each other every month kind of worked, but it wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, I’d not saved enough money prior to the move to travel to Switzerland more, so Darren started coming to the UK more often. It was nice having someone here, but it still didn’t sell me on expat life.

After six months, I started having doubts about making this a permanent move. Luckily, I had a few trips coming up to take my mind off things. I traveled home to visit my family and sell my car. I traveled to Brussles, Belgium for a business trip, and made a few visits to Geneva to see Darren. They were all a great distraction from the loneliness I was feeling in my new home.

But things started falling apart. One of my employees shifted teams for administrative reasons, and another left the company because we couldn’t offer a competitive salary. Money to rehire had gone to another team in the organization, and I was left doing my regular project-based work, along with the work of the employee who had left the company. I was simply overwhelmed, and becoming a bit stressed.

I started thinking more seriously about my doubts around settling permanently abroad and my future career trajectory. And when I went back to the States that fall for another work-related trip, I’d taken along a large suitcase of stuff that I wanted to move back to the States. I’d been mentally preparing to move back because I wasn’t getting what I wanted from my job, and expat life wasn’t really suiting me. I’d stuck things out for my obligatory year, and I was ready to move on, and move home.

But moving wasn’t that simple. I was engaged now, and we still had no idea what Darren’s career path had in store.

I’d taken my last trip to Geneva in October, then went back home to Wisconsin in November. I was still super busy traveling and hadn’t made the time to think about what I really wanted to do. I knew I was unhappy, but I wasn’t really doing anything about it. While we in the States for Thanksgiving, Darren was invited to interview for a job in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was keen to visit, so I tagged along hoping it would inspire me to take action.

As soon as the flight made its final decent into SFO, I felt at home–it was the most at home I’d felt in the past 13 months. I was absolutely stoked to meet up with friends there, and was quickly reminded of everything that I missed about living in the Bay Area–great friends, great food, and fun places to explore. Now more than ever, I knew I wanted to move back.

Since the prospect of moving back was becoming ever greater, my dad decided to come back to the UK with us just before Christmas. He didn’t want to miss the opportunity to have a local guide, and seemed quite keen to explore a new place. Oddly, having my dad here for a week helped Britain seem a bit more homely than it had before. More doubt was cast in my mind about whether I was making the right decision or not. Obviously, if Darren were offered the job in the SF Bay Area, I’d move back in a heartbeat, but I wasn’t sure what I would do if he stayed in Europe.

As the daylight hours got shorter, and Christmas came nearer, Darren found out that he was not going to get the job in California. It was a hard blow. Even though I’d felt more at home in the UK than ever before, I was still eager to move back. I had my biggest meltdown to date, but didn’t know what else I could do. Instead, I decided to push everything to the back of my mind and get in the Christmas spirit. We’d save sorting out the rest for 2011.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 where some massive changes come for both Darren and me, I experience the NHS first-hand, and the struggle of expat life becomes a bit more complicated.

One thought on “Expat Diaries: Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad

  1. Pingback: Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad, Part 2 | California Love Letters

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