One Thing I Miss About Britain

I’ve been back in California for just over a month and a half. And while there isn’t too much I miss about living in the UK (no offense, Britain, I promise!), there is one thing that stands out among all other things:

1. My Husband

If you read Five Reasons I’m Excited About 2013–A Mid-Year Update, then you will know that I’m in California on my own, and that Darren is staying in the UK until we have his visa/Greencard/etc. situation sorted out. We already hit one bump in the road with the Royal Mail not selling us enough postage to get the I-130 petition to the US Embassy in London. However, once we got that issue resolved, and the I-130 petition made it to the US Embassy, the petition was approved almost straightaway, and we’re well on our way to the next step.

Darren and I met in California in April 2008. For me, and as corny as it sounds, it was love at first sight. I still remember walking into Old Pro in Palo Alto, spotting him at the bar and my heart skipping a beat (we didn’t meet at the bar, but we had our first date there). We hit it off very well despite one of us being a bit nervous (it wasn’t me), and agreed to go on another date the following Sunday. We took things slowly at first, only meeting up two times a week for the first few months. Then he invited me along to play cards with some of his work colleagues on Friday nights, and tag along on Saturday movie nights with one of his friends. We spent more and more time together, and by July, I was absolutely smitten.

In August, I asked him about Thanksgiving. He’d been in the US for at least one Thanksgiving, but said he spent it at home alone, instead of feasting upon turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and other Turkey Day delights. I thought this was unacceptable, and asked him if he’d like to go to Wisconsin with me for Thanksgiving, and to meet my parents. He did a bit of thinking, and agreed to go. Meanwhile, he was subtly hinting I should get a passport. One of his friends even let me borrow a book, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox, which I saw as another subtle clue that he was thinking about asking me to spend Christmas with him and his family in the UK.

By the end of 2008, we’d met each others families, and were well and truly in love. The next year threatened to disrupt the harmony in our relationship (such is the life as a physicist–you never know where your next job will take you!), but we had fun anyway. My best memories of California are with Darren.

I still vividly remember a trip we took across the Golden Gate in March 2009 where we ended up at Stinson Beach (my favorite beach). We wanted to travel along Highway 1 north of the Golden Gate for a bit, so we got off 101, and headed into Mill Valley to get to the coast. We fancied something to eat and found an awesome burger place caller Pearl’s Fatburger–it was one of the juiciest, tastiest burgers I’d had in a long time. Once we filled our bellies in Mill Valley, we headed north along a crooked Highway 1, and found ourselves getting out at various vista points and taking snaps of the ocean and each other. Eventually, we made it to Stinson Beach. Not only did Stinson Beach have amazing views back to San Francisco, but it also smelled like chocolate (no idea why, but it did). We got some soft-serve ice cream, roamed the beach, and had a fun time relaxing before getting back on the road.

That’s what I miss, though. I miss having my best friend here, and I miss sharing our random road trips, weekly meet-ups at the Rose and Crown, treks to Amoeba Records in San Francisco, and generally exploring all the Bay Area had to offer. I miss going for walks together–something we started doing when we lived in Britain, having someone to talk to in the evenings, and someone who truly understands what I’m going through at any given moment. I know it’s only for a few more months, but it already seems like it’s been forever. I will be over the moon to be reunited at the end of this journey.

Thinking about making this long-distance relationship work for the long-term is really a struggle some days. I can’t imagine how spouses and partners of military personnel deal with their loved ones being deployed for months at a time, knowing their lives are at risk on a daily basis. If you have any tips for making a long-distance relationship work, share your thoughts in the comments.

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Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad, Part 4

This is the final part in my mini-series, Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad. You can catch up on the series by following the reflections on expat life tag. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series.

The past six months have been a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve had some truly amazing opportunities and experiences, and I’ve had some mixed feelings about finally deciding to pack up my bags and return to California.

I didn’t know where to start with the move when January came round. I was more focused on activities that were happening in the near future than I was on the move. Darren and I took a weekend trip to Dublin for my birthday, and I was going attend The Blogcademy.

The Blogcademy is one of those things that I really wish came along earlier in my expat experience. Not only did I learn a load of stuff to take my blogging to the next level, but I met many awesome, inspiring women. Sometimes when you know you’re leaving, it’s difficult justifying the effort to forge new friendships, but I tried to attend as many post-Blogcademy get togethers as I could, and I look forward to keeping in touch even after I have moved back to California. But as Blogcademy has gone global, and I’m sure there will be opportunities to make new blogger friends on the West Coast, too.

February was a mostly eventful month. Darren celebrated his birthday, and we started planning a visit to California. The trip was planned on a bit of a whim, but we thought it would be a really good idea to go back to visit so that I could make sure that I was making the right decision.

We set off for California in March, and it was brilliant. I met up with some of my favorite friends, visited San Francisco, went to the beach, and had a few lovely long drives. We managed to condense almost all of my favorite activities into one week. These were the very things I was desperately missing in my life; the things that make me truly happy. I didn’t want to leave; I didn’t want to come back to London (seriously, guys, it was embarrassing).

I managed to get myself together enough to drop off my bag at the airport and head through security. I knew I had great things to come back to in the UK. Two days after arriving back in the UK, Caroline hosted a group of Blogcademy babes for a day out in Cambridge. It was such a great, fun day that I quickly forgot my apprehensiveness about coming back.

When I was in California, I told people I’d planned on moving back in June. The problem was that I hadn’t talked to my manager about moving since my mid-year review earlier in the year. I was a bit afraid to ask him if I could move back and continue working in my current role while I looked for a job back in the US. I’d never met him in person before, and I had no idea how he would react. I had a chat with my parents the weekend before I talked to him, and they encouraged me to go for it–what was the worst that could happen? He’d say no (isn’t it funny how humans fear rejection so much?)? I mustered my courage for my bi-weekly meeting with my manager, and he was totally on board with the idea. He understood my frustration with finding a job here, and the possibilities that would open up if I could look for a job back in the US.

I was buzzing from the excitement. A final date for my move back was finally set, and we could get down to planning. Planning has been overwhelming at times, but also very exciting. It’s a new start for both Darren and I, and will be the first time we’ve chosen a place to live together, furniture, and other proper grown-up stuff.

Unfortunately, I will be on my own in the US for six months or so while we wait for Darren to get a visa to live and work in the US. It’s going to be tough, but I’m hoping that I’ll be happier at home. Happier with friends around, happier with sunshine, cats, tasty food, and familiarity. Happier with life.

When I was a teenager, and especially when I was a college student in Wisconsin, I knew that I wasn’t going to stick around the Midwest. I had day dreams of sunshine, beaches, and a more laid back vibe. I’d never been to California, but I’d always wanted to go, and imagined making it my future home. I had a great opportunity to move out West after I graduated from college, and there was no way I was going to pass it up–even if it was the first time I’d lived away from home, and even if it was quite far from Wisconsin.

Things were a bit difficult until I found a job, but once I started working and making my own friends, California was the only place I wanted to be. California was home.

While London was tough for me at times, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Yes. I would do this again.

The thing is, living abroad is an amazing experience, and anyone would be crazy to pass up the opportunity. It’s a great way to learn about other cultures–a way to see how they live, how they work, and how they play. It’s a great way to learn more about what you want in your ideal home, and maybe make you appreciate your home country, culture, and community more than you did before.

I may be an idealist, but I believe the more we know about each other, the better place the world will be. So while I’m eager to get settled in California, I can’t help but dream about living and working abroad again (maybe Australia or Canada?).

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Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad, Part 3

This is Part 3 in my mini-series, Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad. You can catch up on the series by following the reflections on expat life tag. Stay tuned tomorrow for a wrap-up of the series.

Of all the years I spent in the UK, I think 2012 was by far my favorite.

At the beginning of the year, a co-worker had told me about a job opening in the Bay Area, and encouraged me to apply. At this point, I was keen to move back, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I applied, did something like five interviews, then radio silence. The hiring manager was a apprehensive of my intentions for applying for the job, and didn’t seem convinced that I was applying for the job for the right reasons. The problem may have been that I was too keen to move back, or maybe I wasn’t really suited for the role or the team, but I found out by February that I wasn’t going to get the job.

I was absolutely devastated. I was starting to realize that moving home wasn’t going to be as fortuitous as moving to London. While I was feeling quite low after hearing this news, I tried not to let things get to me–I had a wedding to plan in less than four months time!

Over Christmas, we finally set a date, and decided we were going to get married in April. Have you been to the UK in April? Most years it’s gorgeous (not this past year though–it was terrible), and we were hoping to take advantage of lovely weather and blooming tulips. Mid-January through mid-April was mad with wedding planning (girls, give yourselves more time than I gave myself–and if you don’t, remember to keep it small like we did). My saving grace was that most of our wedding was planned locally. We married at the Petersham Hotel in Richmond, I bought my dress just a few hundred meters from my doorstep, the cake baker was just down the road in Kingston, and the flowers were from the florist in the center of town.

To us, the day was perfect. We only had 14 guests at the wedding which I loved. It kept things intimate, about us, and we got to talk to everyone who came which was especially important to me as I had friends and family traveling from the US. After the ceremony and reception (interestingly, the meal after a ceremony here is called a wedding breakfast which according to the Wikipedia entry comes from “the fact that in pre-Reformation times the wedding service was usually a Eucharistic Mass and that the bride and bridegroom would therefore have been fasting before the wedding in order to be eligible to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion”), we headed to a local pub where we spend the remainder of the evening drinks beers and Pimms and chatting. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to celebrate.

To an extent, having the wedding in Britain made me feel a bit better about being an expat, and almost made me want to stay. It’s hard to deny the impact having friends and family around had on my view of living in the UK. Unfortunately, upon returning from our honeymoon in Australia, it reminded me how much I missed having family and friends around (and cats–they didn’t attend, of course, but of the things I really miss, K2 and Whitney are probably at the top of the list), and how lame I felt for not making many new ones here.

The day I got back from Australia, my co-worker, bridesmaid, and best friend this side of the Atlantic called and dropped a bit of a bombshell–she was offered a new job, and was wondering if I’d be OK if she accepted the offer. We had been shifted to a new team at the beginning of the fiscal year, and neither of us was gelling particularly well with our new manager. My friend had reached breaking point while I was away, called a few people within the company to see if anyone was hiring, and managed to find a new opportunity quickly. I was excited and happy for her, but realized it would mean we’d be working on different teams, and not working as closely as we had when I moved the UK.

A month later, I was taking an afternoon walk along the Thames when she called. She dropped another bombshell and said she and her boyfriend were moving to the Czech Republic. On one hand, I was thrilled–it would be a great opportunity for her boyfriend to learn more about her culture, and despite how I feel about living in the UK (which isn’t always peachy, but mostly OK–in case that was unclear), moving country is an opportunity that should not be passed up. But it also perfectly proved the idea that the expat community is an ever-changing community.

When she changed jobs, my job changed as well. We worked together from the start of my job here in the UK, and in order to keep a bit of continuity for our stakeholders, and to switch up my job responsibilities a bit, I took over most of her work, and shifted mine to a new team member. At first, I liked the slight change in work and the challenge of training a new colleague and forging a new work relationship. But I quickly learned that the work wasn’t any more satisfying than the stuff I’d be working on previously.

With the management shake-up at the beginning of the year came a lot of changes to the project-based work I was doing previously. I think part of it was due to me being off sick for so long, and part of it because the geographic shift of our stakeholder community. But what it amounted to was no more project-based work, and strictly reporting stuff instead. I was no longer doing the job I was hired to do.

I decided it was time to take action, and start looking for a new job. I talked to a trusted colleague and former manager who gave me some advice to help me figure out what type of role I might want to pursue (which I’m still trying to nail down, but will keep you posted). She also recommended some people I should contact for informational interviews. Between late July and September I set up four or five interviews.

Meanwhile, the Olympics had come to London, and the entire city had lit up. The London 2012 Olympics were the highlight of my time abroad. I got to see the Olympic torch and two bicycle road races pass in front of my flat, and for the first time felt so proud and so happy to be living in the UK. When Team USA wasn’t in contention for a medal, you could easily find me cheering for Team GB. I had Mo Farah fever (how couldn’t you? He’s such an awesome athlete, and is so super likeable), I was cheering for the Brownlee Brothers, I was gonzo for Great Britain.

Seriously, if London had the same buzz, the same vibe it did when the Olympics were on, there would be no other place I’d rather live. But as the Olympics and Paralympics came and went, so did the energy.

I cracked on with my info interviews, and made an agreement with Darren that I would look for a job within the UK until the end of the calendar year. While the people I spoke with were friendly and somewhat helpful, many were quick to pigeonhole me into a business intelligence/report-generation role rather than something that would give me more opportunities to meet with customers and stakeholders, or flex my analytical skills in a new way, which was what I was looking for. Not only that, but none of them seemed to be hiring. I was getting increasingly discouraged.

The main challenge I faced was that I couldn’t look for a job outside my company. I am in the UK on a Tier 2 Intra-Company Transfer visa which strictly prohibits me from looking for a job in another company. And while I could have done info interviews until I was blue in the face, they weren’t going to get me anywhere unless someone was hiring. Thanksgiving rolled around again, and I started winding down my job search in the UK so I could focus on enjoying the holidays.

Once again, we traveled to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. The weather was fantastic last year, and we spent loads of time exploring areas we’ve not been to before. Everything was super relaxed, I got to catch up with several old friends, meet the first baby added to my circle of friends from childhood, and spend loads of quality time with K2 and Whitney.

Coming back to Britain hit me harder than ever. Even though I knew my UK job hunt deadline was fast approaching, and the likelihood that I’d move back to the US was becoming higher and higher, I was as homesick as ever. I wanted to spend Christmas with my family and my cats, I wanted winter sunshine and mild temperatures, I wanted a life that was seemed much different than the one I’d established here.

We ended up spending Christmas in London. It was the first time Darren had spent Christmas away from his family, but the eighth I’d spent away from mine. I don’t mind spending Christmas away from my family, but this year, I couldn’t bear the thought of spending Christmas pretending I was happy when I was anything but happy. We ended up having a lovely Christmas regardless, and as it was just the two of us, it made things a bit more special.

As New Year’s Eve drew near, I was eagerly anticipating the year ahead, and excited about the possibilities of 2013.

Tune in tomorrow for the final part of Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad. Things start looking up and plans are finally laid.

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Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad, Part 2

This is Part 2 in my mini-series, Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad. You can find Part 1 here, or follow along using the reflections on expat life tag. Stay tuned for more tomorrow and Friday.

Darren and I rang in 2011, and some things started becoming clear: 1) Darren was either going to be moving to Amsterdam later that year, or leave the world of physics; 2) my health was very quickly deteriorating.

In 2010, Darren and I spent a week in Amsterdam getting a feel for the city, and to see if living there was something either of us was willing to do. Early on, we decided it was a decent place to visit, but neither of us wanted to live there. For me, getting to the office took too long, the people using public transport in the morning were too pushy (mind you, I don’t commute through Central London, but I’m sure the same is true here), and the idea of moving to Amsterdam made us both feel like we were settling for a less-than ideal situation.

It was clear at this point that Darren would need to consider other options in terms of his career. The exciting possibility was that Darren could look for a job in London, and we could live in the same country again. I think we both mistakenly thought that being together more often would give me warmer feelings about staying in London, but as we eventually found out, things were more complicated than that.

After a relatively short job search, and a number of interviews, Darren found a job with a hedge fund in London (don’t ask me how, but he assures me that what he learned from physics is applicable in the world of finance). By mid-April Darren had joined me in London.

I was stoked that the endless traveling was finally going to stop, and that we could be together again. But work-related stress was mounting for me, my stress-aggravated Crohn’s got a bit angrier, and I soon found myself sicker than I’d been in the past 12 years. I’d finally managed to sort out a visit with a gastro consultant in February, but we were essentially starting at square one. In mid-March, I’d paid my second visit to Accident & Emergency (A&E) since I moved to the UK because of severe Crohn’s pain, dehydration, and vomiting (the tell-tale sign that I’m super-sick). This was followed by my third visit just a week later. Things were looking grim on the health front, but I was at the mercy of the NHS, and was waiting on some vital tests to determine the long-term treatment of my disease.

Meanwhile, Darren was preparing to move, and I’d been taking driving lessons in the UK so I could take the driving test and have a valid driving license for an upcoming trip to America. My California license had expired a few months after I moved to the UK, and not wanting to muddy the waters in a delicate tax situation, I decided not to renew. The driving lessons were going well, but the day I took my driving test, things started to change for the worse.

It was May 11–only a few days before I was going to set off for the US. I’d taken many driving lessons, and had finally grown comfortable with driving on the left side of the road, shifting with my left hand, and navigating roundabouts. My driving instructor picked me up two hours before my test, and we did a bit of driving to review maneuvers. Then we parked alongside a very narrow road in Isleworth for a few minutes so I could relax and regroup for the test. My instructor joked about me becoming one of the few students who passed without errors, and I said I’d do my best, but made no promises.

I drove to the testing center, and waited for my turn with the examiner. He was Scottish, and gave terse commands for navigating the roads of the Richmond and Hounslow Boroughs. I didn’t feel much at ease, and the stress was getting to me. I started feeling stomach pains during the test which didn’t go away for nearly four months (they may have eased off at times, but it was fairly constant). I made it through the test without errors, and the driving instructor drove me home. I was proud of myself for making it through the test, and passing without any faults, but I felt miserable.

Over the next few days, I monitored the situation to see if I could still manage the trip to the Midwest. One of my very close friends from middle school was getting married in Chicago, and I didn’t want to miss it. The trip was hell. First, our flight from Heathrow was delayed by an hour and we automatically missed our already tight connection at O’ Hare. Then we ended up taking a three-hour bus journey to get to Madison, Wisconsin so my parents could pick us up. This wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t feel as though I should be in an Emergency room rather than a bus.

I spent most of the trip in agony, and in bed. The day before we were meant to drive the 90 miles to Chicagoland, I was really ill, and doubting that I’d be up for making the journey the next day. Luckily, when I woke the day of the wedding, I felt much better, and was careful not to eat, instead drinking my calories for the day instead. My friend’s wedding was beautiful, and I was feeling much better than I had been for the last several days. At the reception, I let my guard down and stuffed myself silly. A huge mistake.

Shortly after we’d finished the meal, I could feel my stomach quickly bloating. My dress was becoming uncomfortable, and stomach pains were quick to set in. We left the reception early, and went back to our hotel for the evening. I changed into my pajamas and sat down for no more than a few minutes before I felt a very urgent need to be sick. I dashed to the loo as quick as I could, but it wasn’t quick enough. I very nearly hurled on Darren, and managed to trash parts of the hotel room in just a matter of seconds.

This was the night I realized Darren was most definitely a keeper (saint, more likely). Not only did he stick by me while I was feeling so ill, but cleaned up the mess I made without complaint. He was willing to do whatever it took to make me feel more comfortable.

By the next day, I felt significantly better, but had to make a tough decision. Originally, I had wanted to stay home to celebrate my mom’s birthday with my family. I wasn’t sure if I could make it another week, and even if I could, I didn’t want my parents to see me so ill for another week–they’d seen enough of that when I was growing up. I made the tough decision to leave my family and my cats a week early, and returned to the UK with Darren the following day.

Before I departed the Midwest, I sent my gastro an email asking for advice and wanted to see if there was any way I could be seen sooner rather than later. Ultimately, this was the start of my three-month hospital stay (you can read about that under the Crohn’s category, otherwise, When Crohn’s Takes Over sums up how I dealt with my Crohn’s for the period between moving to California and moving to London).

While I was in hospital, I couldn’t help thinking how much more quickly I would have been treated if I was in the US. When I was ill as a child, I never spent more than a week or so at a time in hospital, and overall, I was given treatment much more quickly than I was on the NHS. Sure, it was nice to not worry about the cost of care, sick leave, or any of those complications, but if I could have had surgery and been out of the hospital within a week in the US, none of those would have been a worry anyway.

My dad came back to the UK the day before I was released from hospital. I needed someone to help me carry things while I recovered, and it was nice to have a familiar face to help me get through, and get over, my difficult time in the hospital.

My outlook on expat life changed significantly while I was in hospital–I couldn’t be bothered to think about it. I was ill, and I wanted nothing more than to be well again. By the time I was released, I was just happy to see the outside world again, and cherished the ability to travel without pain when Thanksgiving came around. I spent extra time back in the US that Thanksgiving, which ended up being a bit of a mistake, but the problem didn’t arise until I came back.

Often when I travel back to the UK from America, I suffer some jet lag related sleep issues. I’ll feel super tired the first evening I’m back and try heading to bed a bit earlier (usually around 9 or 10p.m.). But what almost always ends up happening is that I wake up 45 – 90 minutes later, feeling tired and confused. In this state of confusion, I often forget where I am, and I start losing it. I get frustrated about being back, I start feeling homesick, and usually have a big emotional breakdown. If there’s one thing that terrifies me about Transatlantic travel, it’s the jet lag-induced emotional roller coaster that ensues the evening I arrive back in the UK.

After I’ve had a good hour or two of crying, feeling frustrated, and over-tired, I fall asleep, and go on with life like none of this ever happened. Although every time it does, I wonder how much longer I am willing to deal with the unhappiness.

In Part 3, Darren and I get married, I reach breaking point with my job, and an ultimatum is made. Tune in tomorrow for more Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad.

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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.

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Expat Diaries: Knowing the [Dress] Code

All Business

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 only had a short weekend to adjust to living in Britain before heading off to my first day of work in the UK. I had the usual first-day jitters: would I be able to navigate the public transport to get there? Do I know which stop is mine? Would I get on with my new colleagues?

One of the jitters I didn’t expect was about the dress code. I work for a large Silicon Valley tech company, and in Silicon Valley, the dress code tends to be reasonably casual; if the dress code isn’t casual, it’s business casual. For my first day on the job in the UK, I showed up dressed casually in a t-shirt and jeans. What I didn’t expect was that most of the people in my new office would be dressed in proper business attire; suits and ties for the gents, skirts and jackets for the ladies.

At first, I wondered if I stumbled into the wrong office. When people dressed in suits in Silicon Valley, it generally meant one thing: they were interviewing for another job. I instantly started feeling a bit out of place. Then I questioned who was actually out of place? Was I out place because I didn’t conform to the British work dress code, or were my co-workers out of place for not embracing Silicon Valley standards for work wear?

A close colleague clued me in a few weeks later. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) hit fever pitch in the year leading up to my move abroad. There were rumblings of potential lay offs at companies across the globe, and unfortunately, my company was one of those threatening layoffs. Up to the start of the GFC, a high percentage of my company’s workforce in the UK dressed a bit more casually, but once rumors of layoffs spread, people started dressing smartly when they showed up to the office; a sign, apparently, of taking one’s job more seriously.

There are fewer of us data-monkey/programming types lurking the hallways here in the UK than there are in Silicon Valley. For us, the dress code is less important; we sit in front of our laptops, toiling away, lucky if we even talk to our co-workers. These days, I spend 99 percent of my time working from home, and 95 percent of that time working in my pajamas. Does that mean I’m any worse at my job than those showing up to the office in their suits and ties? To be fair, many of the job roles in my office are customer-facing, so it makes sense for those employees to dress smartly regardless of the GFC.

Since I’ve been working in the UK, I’ve had an opportunity to work from my company’s offices in Brussels and Amsterdam. In Brussels, I found more people embraced Silicon Valley culture and dressed more business casually. Amsterdam, however, seemed to fully embrace Silicon Valley culture, and most people were dressed quite casually. But was that a reflection of the corporate culture, or more of a reflection of the local culture?

What I’ve learned since my first day working in the UK is that it’s important to take a bit of time stop and understand your surroundings. When you’re traveling, take some time to understand the cultural norms for your destination. Many people say they want to get the full cultural experience, but then go on to stick out as the token American tourist in ill-fitting jeans and white sneakers. Perhaps to truly embrace a culture and experience things like a local, you have to look more carefully not only at what the locals are doing, but how they’re dressing. If you’re traveling on business, do the locals dress up for the office, or are they a bit more casual? Will it bother you if you don’t conform, or are you trying to share a bit of your culture with your colleagues or customers?

Over time, I’ve made a bit more of an effort when going to the office. I may not wear jeans and a t-shirt, but I still don’t pull out my skirt and jacket. I have absolutely no interest in giving up who I am as an American, or as an employee for Silicon Valley, but at the same time, there have been plenty of clothes added to my wardrobe which reflect my time and influences in London.

Ultimately, traveling, working, and moving abroad is what you make of it. Don’t be afraid to express your individuality where ever you go in the world, but be respectful of the people you meet, and if you truly want to experience life as a local, why not try out the local dress code?

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Expat Diaries: Fate and Moving to London

Carrie and Darren

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

In 2009, I was living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I was happy with life–I lived in a nice apartment in Menlo Park with my cats, had a job I enjoyed, and a boyfriend I adored. Problem was, my boyfriend was moving away later in the year, and the big question we faced was whether we’d be able to continue our relationship.

Darren and I hadn’t even been together for a full year when this decision came upon us. He was a physicist, and his post-doc at SLAC was coming to an end, and he was awaiting a decision on whether he’d gotten a full-time job at a university in Florida, another position in the Midwest, one in Amsterdam, or perhaps even another post-doc position but this time at CERN. I’d kept my fingers crossed that he’d at least get one of the jobs within the US, but realized it was a real possibility that he might be moving away forever.

In January, he was offered the post-doc at CERN. I was really happy for him–I knew that CERN was super-prestigious, and having an opportunity to work there would potentially lead to more possibilities in the future. In the subsequent months, he was busy flying to and fro to interview for the full-time positions. Time passed and tension built. I was becoming increasingly concerned with what this meant for our relationship. Would things end once he left in September, or were we going to try to make things work long distance?

Spring came, and by April Darren got news on the full-time positions. It wasn’t looking good for our relationship–the only job offer he got was in Amsterdam, and we knew he’d be moving for sure.

I was super bummed about this news, but unwilling to give up on a good thing, I started thinking about what I could do. My manager at the time was vaguely aware of the situation, though I hadn’t formally discussed the matter with her. One afternoon, a co-worker sent me an instant message (IM) asking if I’d be interested in an opportunity to work abroad. It turned out, that one of my colleagues in Europe was going on maternity leave, and her team required someone with experience to back-fill the position. My European colleague had originally been in touch with the co-worker who IM’ed me as first choice for her back-fill. But he had recently purchased a house, and wasn’t looking to uproot and move.

The stars had aligned! Before I had a chance to talk to my manager, she had approached me about the same opportunity. I mentioned that I’d already heard about, and was very interested in applying. I had to scrape up a resume, and prepare for an interview, but she thought I’d be a shoe-in, more or less.

By the end of May, I had secured the perfect opportunity. It was a job that I’d be able to jump into feet-first with plenty of knowledge to keep me confident, but plenty of opportunity to learn to keep me interested. I was set to fly to Stockholm to begin training in June. Unfortunately, my Crohn’s had other ideas, and I spent that week at Stanford Hospital instead.

The idea was that I would move in September. This gave me and my employer only four months to sort out where I was going to live (it was up to me to choose which country to move to!), my work visa, what I was going to do with all my stuff, and my two cats. Choosing where to move was pretty easy. I’d only been out of the country once before the job offer, and that was to the UK for Christmas. Yes, it meant that Darren and I would still be living apart, but it meant I would have one less barrier (the language), and I’d always dreamed of living here when I was younger.

Deciding what to do with my stuff was a bit complicated. I ended up selling anything I could on, donating some of it, and sending the rest home to Wisconsin (which, when moving less than a one bedroom apartment is actually quite challenging–especially in a time-crunch). Thankfully, my parents agreed to take on my cats, but I still had to fly them to the Midwest. I decided in July that instead of moving in September, I’d push back a few more weeks to the middle of October. This gave me a bit of time to go home and help the cats adjust to Midwest living.

My brother came out to visit before I left, and we drove my car from California to Wisconsin. The gravity of the situation really hit me the morning we were set to leave. I realized there was a possibility I’d never live in California again, and that this was a completely new, scary chapter in my life. Darren wasn’t set to leave California until the end of the month, and saying goodbye felt terrible–it felt like I was saying goodbye forever, even though we’d see each other in two month’s time. Somehow I managed to pull myself together, and was on the road to the Midwest.

I spent a few weeks in Wisconsin with my family, making final arrangements to move things back, working, and researching. I found Moving 2 London a great resource (it’s aimed at Aussie expats, but was still super useful). I searched through ads on Gumtree to find somewhere to stay for the first few weeks, made some living arrangements, and re-booked the ticket I was supposed to use for my vacation in June the week before I wanted to leave.

I still remember arriving in London on October 10, 2009. I waited two hours to get through immigration at Heathrow’s T4, got the fast train to Paddington, took a taxi to my hotel on Tottenham Court Road, and waited a few hours in the hotel lobby to check into my room. The first thing I did once I was settled into the hotel was head down to the the junction at Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road to buy a SIM for my phone so I could send Darren a message to let him know I had arrived.

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Spring Weather, Lost Phones, and Pub Quizzes

Enjoying my first-ever pub quiz at The Britannia.

It’s funny how something as simple as beautiful spring weather can transpire into a whole chain of events.

Yesterday, the weather in the South of England was amazing. Highs were just over 60ºF, the sun was shining, and people seemed in a happier mood than usual. Darren came home from work and remarked how nice it was outside, and I suggested we take a walk after we had dinner.

So, around 7:30 p.m., we stepped out of the building, walked along the road until we were at the spot were we like to commence our walks along the River Thames. It was dark, and regardless of the lovely temperatures, even at that time of night, there weren’t many people out. We were nearly to the Richmond Bridge when I spotted a phone and pair of sunglasses that had been left unattended on a bench. I picked it up and asked Darren what he thought I should do; it was a nice-looking phone, and I was certain someone would be looking for it.

As luck would have it, the phone started ringing. I didn’t pick it up at first, just in case it was a friend of the phone’s owner (or worse yet, a female partner wondering why some American woman was answering his phone!). The person called again, and since number was the same as the one who’d called just seconds earlier, I figured this may be the owner. I answered, “Hello? Yeah, I just found this phone near the Richmond Riverside, are you the owner?” He confirmed he’d lost his phone, and said he’d noticed his phone was missing after he’d boarded a bus heading out of town. Arrangning a meeting place wasn’t too difficult–I suggested he just come back to Richmond and I’d meet him at the bus stop in the center.

Unfortunately, he’d gone quite far before he’d noticed the phone was missing, and said he’d be at least 15 minutes. OK, no problem. Darren and I started walking in the direction of the bus stop, and I was thinking it would be nice to have a pint if there was a pub nearby. Enter, The Britannia. This is a lovely, small pub tucked just off the high street on Brewer’s Lane–one of several small cul de sacs that branch off the high street. We’d been before for food, which was great, but hadn’t been in for several months.

We got our beers, sat down, and only a few moments later, someone came round asking if we’d like to do the pub quiz. Since it was free, and we had time to kill, we were happy to play.

This was the first time I’d taken part in a pub quiz. I know what you’re thinking– “you’ve lived in the UK for three years and this is the first time you’ve done a pub quiz?” Yes, it’s true. I don’t go out all that often, and when we do go out, it isn’t usually on the days of pub quizzes.

I had loads of fun answering the questions. We were lucky to catch a bit of the news just before we left for the walk, as there were some questions relating to current events (Justin Beiber’s late apperance for his recent London show), and I really shined when there was a four-question section on American sitcoms. Unfortunately, we totally bombed the picture questions, the true/false, and song lyric rounds. All told, however, we did pretty well for only being a team of two.

Between rounds four and five, the guy who lost his phone dropped by, so I stepped out for a minute to return it, and the sunglasses. He was grateful I’d not run off with his phone, and I was happy that he was reunited with it. If we didn’t have such a lovely day yesterday, who knows if he would have gotten his phone back? I certainly know I wouldn’t have had such a great evening.

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It’s Pancake Tuesday!


Today is Pancake Day in Britian (also known as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras in other parts of the world). Even though I am not at all religious, this is one religious day I can get on board with–even if it is only to stuff my face with pancake goodness.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Shrove Tuesday:

Pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent because they were a way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent. The liturgical fasting emphasized eating plainer food and refraining from food that would give pleasure: in many cultures, this means no meat, dairy, or eggs.

Pancake Day is a big deal. It’s the only time of year pancake mixes on prominent display, and the various pancake toppings seem to be available. And in Britain, there is surprisingly a lot of choice!

First, American or British-style? If American style, are you doing buttermilk, fruity, or pancakes with bits of bacon? How are you topping them? With maple syrup, honey, or fruit? If choosing British-style, do you go with the traditional lemon juice and sugar, Nutella, golden syrup or something savory?

In my household, we’re going American-style buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup (which is Canadian–how multicultural of us, right?), and completely from scratch–the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book has an easy and tasty recipe.

Tell me, how do you like your pancakes?

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