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Prior to embarking on our first expat journey, we had visions of what living abroad would look like. All the amazing offerings of London and easy access to Europe. Although we moved to an English-speaking country, culturally it is still a foreign country. What was hard to imagine were the nuances of our new daily life. Little details that we never gave a second thought to in our home country. Knowledge and specifics that we had slowly accumulated over a lifetime. Now, we wouldn’t have the luxury of time. We would be thrown head first into adapting and settling.
In the first year, we were mostly fuelled by the adrenaline and excitement of a new place. A laundry list of items that needed to be taken care of. Simply trying to keep our heads above water while trying to absorb and be present during this amazing transition. Throughout the last year, on an almost daily basis, we were reminded that we were expats.
Here are 6 experiences that shaped our first year as expats.
This was one of the biggest challenges as we were trying to make our house a home. Everything from home items to groceries proved to be challenging. There are very few crossover stores. Some of the ones we have found so far are Ikea, Costco, and Amazon. Although we knew we would be able to find most goods, it was more the question of where and what exactly was it called in the U.K.? For example, zucchini in the U.S. is called courgettes in the U.K, eggplant (aubergine), cornstarch (cornflour), drip coffee (filter coffee), grilled cheese (cheese toastie), beets (beetroot), cotton candy (candyfloss), chips (crisps), biscuits (cookies), candy (sweets), etc. Here is a more comprehensive list. Some of the things that are not typical British items include root beer, American style lemonade (the British version is a carbonated drink), and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The look on peoples faces when you explain a PB&J is a mixture of fascination and disgust.
Why oh why did the Brits or Americans (you choose your team) have to choose the opposite way in which to drive? You don’t realize how much of driving is muscle memory until you’re required to do the complete opposite. When approaching an intersection, I’m never sure where to look. Is it right first or left first? Most of the time I do some sort of head bob…right, left, right, left, right, ok I think I’m all clear type of move. Couple that with incredibly narrow English roads and it has taken a long time to get comfortable. I still sometimes get in on the wrong side of the car and pretend that I meant to place an item in the passenger side so I don’t look like a complete idiot.
The coins! The coins! In the U.S., we only use 4 different coins (25 cents, 10¢, 5¢, 1¢) on a daily basis. A year later and I still have to slowly count out change at the register. Flipping the coin over slowly, squinting, and trying to find the value with sweaty palms as the line continues to grow behind me. It’s humbling and mortifying at the same time.
Understanding the buying power of the Great British Pound (GBP). Our biggest challenge has been figuring out if something is a good value since we do not have an historical frame of reference for pricing. It’s difficult to do a direct comparison of cost of goods by calculating the exchange rate. For the same positions, salaries tend to be lower in the U.K. Goods that may seem less expensive in the U.K. may cost more if you calculate it as percent of salary. For example and ease of simplicity, if you make £500 per week and buy a £50 item, that would be 10% of your salary. In the US, with the same job you might make $800 and buy the same item for $75, 9% of your salary. So even though it might seem more expensive in the U.S. (even adjusted for the current exchange rate), because salaries are higher, you are paying less as a percentage of income. Obviously running through this calculation every time we buy an item would be an insanely bad use of our time, so we’ve had to guess. Sometimes we’ve purchased things that we thought we got a good deal on only to discover to our chagrin that it was far from that.
“You ok?” is a British greeting such as the American “hello” or “how are you?”. In America, I feel you only ask someone if they are ok if they look like death warmed over. This threw me at first as people would say this as they breezed past. My first reaction was “do I not look ok?” By the time I sputtered some sort of response, it was already too late as they had moved along. It continues to be awkward for me because I’m still not sure what the proper answer is to that greeting. Not knowing the British rules of greetings quite yet, we also ran into this awkward encounter that we only later understood was just English behavior while reading this book, Watching the English*.
Let’s be honest, utilities are the least exciting thing in most peoples lives. My school of thought is make sure it’s on auto-debit and then set it and forget it. Now I would have to take up one of the most boring subjects I can think of and try to understand how the entire system worked. In the U.K. you have to pay for a TV license. According to many expat groups, it’s best to pay the £100+ per year fee even if you do not watch TV to avoid the very intimidating and very real TV License officials who drive around and check to see if you are illegaly watching TV. So we pay even though we rarely watch TV.
The U.K. also has a privatized energy market which means there are many different energy companies to choose from. Initially you think, that’s great! It makes prices more competitive and customers have choice. The downside? They make it as confusing as possible with a daily usage rate, an actual usage rate, discounts for multiple services, early termination fees, auto-debit discounts, etc. So in reality it’s really hard to compare what you might actually pay given all the variables. There is a site called USwitch that is a good starting point and will help calculate potential costs based on projected usage. Since the difference in final cost can be significant, it really pays to do your due diligence and find the best rate.
Every day we confront and learn something new. Most of which are amusing, tolerable, or acceptable. It’s part of being an expat and we accept that. Some days it’s easy. Other days it can feel exhausting.