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 craigslist.org, 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.