Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Expat View of London

This week we are delighted to have guest blogger Erin from 'Cross the Pond, to talk about being an expat in London.

Seven months ago I boarded a plane with my husband of six and half years, our two-and-a-half old daughter and our 11-week-old son to move from our comfortable and happy life in New York City to the wilds of London. We didn’t have a clue. I was completely game, thinking it would be an adventure for us all and we’d skip through the historic streets of London singing pub songs, quoting Shakespeare to the jolly Brits while eating bubble and squeak and washing it down with a stout English pint.

So delusional! Okay, maybe I didn’t really think it would be that great, but I did have a bit of a rude awakening.

For a country that has had women as Queen and Prime Minister (at the same time), they are not very women friendly – bank-wise at least. Because I don’t work in the UK our bank would not allow me to open an account – not even a joint account. We moved here but without a permanent address (we were still in corporate housing) so they would not allow it. I still don’t have an account in my name – just a joint account. I felt like we had gone back in time to 1950 and I was the little housewife depending on my man to bring home the bacon for me to fry up in a pan! After 20 years of working my arse off it was the biggest pill to swallow. I still resent it.

But once I came to terms with that I started to look around the place. It is lovely, and historic and has that wonderful feeling of being European: old, fascinating and full of possibilities. I felt like a kid again...until I realized the new prime minister was born the same year I was – six months AFTER me!! Shocking. How could I possibly live in a place where the guy running the joint is younger than me? I need supervision and have little business running the household – how could he possibly be qualified? I consider myself a kid but I guess I’m not if the leaders of the free world are of my generation!

There have been some serious culture shocks. I figured it would be an easy transition from one English speaking country (one that was previously owned by England) to another. Wrong. The language isn’t the problem – although some of the accents (Cockney, Liverpool, Scottish) I’m straining to understand. It’s just different. For example: the portion sizes are much smaller here. I like that – a lot. Few places have built-in closets – ghastly! I’ve had to give up half my wardrobe because I don’t have the space. People are not as welcoming – they stick to themselves – very polite and lovely, mind you – but no one is inviting us for drinks, etc. I’ve been told it’s because we Americans can’t differentiate ‘acquaintance’ from ‘friend.’ Maybe not – but I still want to have a dinner party with people other than Americans. Paper towel rolls are a joke here – give me Bounty!! And don’t get me started on the nickel and diming: council tax, water and gas, electric, a license to watch TV – madness! And television – you must have cable or a giant library, there is no debate here.

But all said and done London and New York are a lot alike while being completely different. While NY is really a lively, happening, living-breathing entity unto itself – the city that doesn’t sleep, the city so nice they named it twice, etc. - London is steeped in something so extraordinary you can feel it in your bones. This is the land of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Churchill, Queen Elizabeth (I and II!), the guy from House, Stonehenge, Victorian everything – it’s the place where all that truly speaks to me was born. And I can visit all of them (except for the guy from House as they have laws against stalking)! All the great castles and churches are within driving distance. I love the Museum of London and the Victorian and Albert Museum – to name just two. Even as I think about it I get excited wondering when we’ll see it all – and we will see it all. It’s fantastic.

But New York is still home in my heart. I miss the bustle of the subway and Times Square, Broadway, my favourite haunts, my office, my old apartment and buddies in Brooklyn; hotdogs and Fourth of July bbq’s; great television and TiVo; and H&H bagels with a schmear. Heavy sigh. It’ll still be there when we get back with the Statue of Liberty welcoming us home. I’ll be bringing half of Fortnum and Mason back with me - though.


  1. Mmmmmmm,...bagels. I haven't had a decent bagel since my last visit to Brooklyn.

  2. Enjoyed reading someone else's experience. I'm in the same boat, having arrived here 4 months ago from Sydney for my husbands work with 2 small children.

    I think London is a really friendly city. I've found people to be exceptionally welcoming. This could be pure luck to do with where we live, or maybe they just felt sorry for me as my husband was away for the first 2 months we were here.

    Either way, I've been impressed. One example is when we first arrived all the neighbours made a point of coming to meet us - am sure that doesn't happen in many big cities!

  3. Fascinating post. As someone who lived in the USA for a couple of years I can relate to a lot of what you say Erin. The same language thing really does lull you into a false sense of security. The reason you couldn't get a bank account was because you weren't working, not because you were a woman! I had the same thing in the USA - I couldn't even get the utilities set up at our home in the USA because I had no social security number!! I was a non-person ....... :( Disagree about the TV in the UK - you don't need to buy cable in the UK to get loads of decent TV stations on Freeview. The 12 quid a month we pay to the BBC is, IMO, well worth it for eight high quality TV channels, radio, internet resources etc. I found that TV in the USA was dire beyond belief but at least I caught up with my immense reading list while we were there.

  4. I think London is a very impersonal place and not particularly friendly.
    I don't think you should judge all of England by your experiences in London.
    Enjoyed reading your post and wish you well and hope you feel settled soon.

    Nuts in May

  5. Interesting to read your take on it Erin! I have done the opposite to you, having moved from London to just outside New York. I can tell you that it is the same moving to the US, you are basically an alien who has no rights until you can get a social security number. Even now we have trouble getting credit cards, car insurance and the rest.

    Also, I have experienced that I am paying much more for TV here with our cable package than we did in the UK with License Fee and Freeview- the license fee is very good value and also allows you the joy of watching TV without ads.

    So, I guess it's all relative! Hope you enjoy London and don't miss NYC too much - I will say hello to it for you.

  6. I must add that the bank issue isn't sexist - more a question of paperwork and status. I've been here for 20 years, am a citizen and went into the AT&T store the other day to get my phone fixed. Even though I showed ID (with address) they wouldn't even look at it, because the phones are all registered to my husband (it being a family plan) and he needs to go into a store and have me put on the plan as an authorised person. Pah!

  7. It's lovely that you can see all the fab things about the move as well as the icky. So many new expats seem to focus on the bad stuff and I feel so sad for them!! But having met you I sense that you;d never just look at one side of anything.

    PS You can get Bounty paper towels here, hurrah! They're called Plenty though. I just bought some today in fact... :D

  8. I've lived in the US briefly and in Greece and my husband and I lived on a little Island near France for 5 years before we had the kidlets.... It made me realise I NEVER want to live anywhere but the UK again. Don't get me wrong, I'd travel the world in a heartbeat and would love to be rich enough to own a holiday home somewhere hot, but home is HOME!

  9. Thank you all for commenting. I realize that it's not a sexist thing - the banking, but it hurts all the same. As for television, I think it depends on where you grew up and what you're familiar with - it's what you prefer. I prefer US TV because it's a comfort of sorts. There are loads of great things on the telly here and I'm sure many I haven't even discovered yet. I'll get there (but I don't have much time to watch anything anyway.) Lou - I'm with you - you like what you know and are familiar with - living abroad is fantastic. This is the third country I've lived in, possibly not the last, but I prefer the USA because it's what I consider home. And you always want to go HOME.

  10. The funny thing is that the banking thing *feels* sexist. We just moved to Chicago for my husband's job, and because I've always had my own job, bank account, everything, before, it feels very odd being relegated to second class citizen status on moving to a new country. You feel like people are fitting you into a 50s housewife role when they refuse to send you bank statements, discuss the lease on your apartment with you, etc. And it's horrible.

  11. I've just tried to pay my gas bill over the phone (in Chicago) and they wouldn't let me because I couldn't give them the account number. (Ball & Chain has gone off with the bill.) That despite the fact that I answered the code question correctly. Sheesh.


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