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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