As an expat family in England, we’re kind of like that spouse in a divorce who moves out of the house, has only partial custody of the kids and needs to find new friends because the ex isn’t sharing. Everything once familiar, while not gone completely, is now at arm’s length. Our family and friends are there, but not constantly, instantly accessible; we still see the pictures, know the people and could navigate the schools and the stores and the parties and the parks. But it’s not really ours anymore. We gave it up, by necessity and by choice.
Now, we are living a life completely alien to everything we know. We have deliberately traded in the “better” life supposedly on offer in America for a more complicated life abroad, living in London as neither tourists nor citizens, in the country but not of the country. We moved from a suburban Pennsylvania five-bedroom center hall colonial with an SUV in the driveway and 3 supermarkets in a square mile, to a 1,700 square foot “semi-detached” in a borough of London from which we hoof it to everywhere so as not to be confronted with having to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. Our kids went from being chauffeured to school every day, either via said SUV or a raucous yellow bus, wearing whatever happened to be clean out of the laundry basket, to doing the “school run” on foot, in uniform, and queuing up to enter the building only when the headmistress has rung her hand bell.
As Americans, we are taught to believe that the Atlantic Ocean is a huge natural barrier that keeps us safe; now, that big ocean is the thing that makes us foreign. Try opening a bank account or getting a cell phone if you’re not a native Briton; worse, try telling one of your new neighbors that you like their “pants” or having your son tell his teacher that he needs to go “potty.”
But as painful as it is to break away from the familiar, something about being foreign is also very freeing. I don’t have to know everyone, or be known by everyone. I’m content to simply observe as an outsider. I don’t have to fret if I or my kids are not included in social activities (yet). Being foreign means that I don’t have to continue ascribing to the lifestyles and customs of my native life. I don’t mind being carless: I am an able-bodied human and getting around on my own two feet (or tube) without the constraints of traffic and insurance and gas is as freeing as speeding down a highway. I am as proud watching my children at ease with the world – in their new school, their new town or on our trips into Central London and further-flung environs– as I was when they took their first baby steps. Change is scary but it is exhilarating. Especially when it comes in mid-life, as you’re resigning yourself to the idea that the rest of your days are more or less mapped out.
And so the chronicles of our mid-life move to London begin. I’m trying to capture everything, because unlike that divorced spouse, we are, eventually, going back.