"Leaving America" is a series of articles on experiences and observations of Americans who choose to live outside of the country. Call them ex-pats (ex-patriots), global citizens of just world travelers, these folks have crated-up their belongings and their loved ones and emigrated outside our borders to live. First in the series is Philip Allega who was born in California, but today, lives with his wife, Ann, and 7 year old son, Austin, in London, England.
I travelled between the US and Europe frequently for years before moving abroad. Moving outside the country you grew up in always looked like an experience others were having, but not one that Americans were having. School books about international business strategy and even my frequent month long trips abroad just couldn’t satisfy my curiosity about what it must feel like. I often wondered what it would be like to be on the outside, to look back in at the US, to be immersed in another way of looking at the world and not just a visitor. At first, it appeared that the only way to learn that was to move. In the end, I learned that I had to move twice.
Our first move to London occurred because my business asked, and we negotiated an acceptable expatriate agreement to assuage the concerns of my wife, who longed for her native Texas. As an “expatriate”, I had a contract with my company that I would not have had in the US. After 5 years, the contract ended and we moved back to America – to Texas.
Reverse culture shock is something rarely discussed: cars, grocery stores, humour, people, and even language – all different. I had only been in one grocery store in 5 years (all grocers deliver in the UK). Discovering a 100 yard aisle of orange cheddar cheese at the first US grocery store I went to was mind boggling, making me confront the differences between belief systems concerning the simplest of things: food, cheese, and colour (it’s not natively orange, in case you were wondering). The issue of egg colour alone would take pages to explain.
Shortly after returning to the US, a walk across the parking lot of our condo in San Antonio resulted in a loud, 100 yard distant, "MORNING!" from a new neighbour I had never met. In Europe, and especially London, such friendly behaviour was not common place. The return move brought up a litany of things I hadn’t considered as “different” that I had to confront head on.
The cost of television was a shock. I knew that cable was high, but I was paying around $15 a month in the UK and watching the best shows on HBO for free and my new fees seemed like highway robbery. Although American customer service is lauded in England as being the best, the customer service of my new cable company was non-existent.
Commercials. Yes, there are some in the UK but not as many as in the US. Medical commercials telling me what condition I might have and what prescription I should get to solve that condition are illegal in the UK. In the US, I found myself railing at the television and, ultimately, hitting the mute button. I had also forgotten, perhaps thankfully, how all news anchors speak in “that voice” regardless of where you are in the US. Some old pet peeves arose anew.
I had not driven a car in in 5 years and, frankly, didn’t know how to use the key to get into the first car we rented and had to embarrassingly ask for assistance. The cost of buying a car again because there was no other reliable transport, plus gas, plus insurance, plus maintenance – ugh! Few locations in the US allow a car-free lifestyle as I had become accustomed to in London.
Back in America, Texas neighbours brought food over when they had made more than enough, invited us on evenings out, and went out of their way for us in every way possible. We no longer had to find the mail box to send something outbound, and winter was measured in days. The number of festivals and restaurants available, versus London, dwindled; but some amazing finds and friends were made as well. We settled into living in Texas.
The second move to London came, not as an expatriate, but as an immigrant. Again, I moved for work reasons, but we also moved for personal ones. My grandfather had immigrated to the US less than 70 years before, and it seems that immigration is something in my genes. This time, we are not new visitors but new arrivals with eyes wide open. Living outside your home country is something not to be taken lightly, and comes with the need, and capacity, to re-learn everything.
It’s the little differences of living in London that may not be immediately obvious. Keeping your mouth shut, for most Americans, is a difficult but an important requirement. Hailing friends across the street just isn’t done. The tube at rush hour is deathly silent as people read a book or the newspaper. Spontaneously discussing family issues or life experiences with a stranger, although normal in the US, is not an acceptable cultural marker in the UK…unless you’re in a pub.
Simple things like, “How do I make an international phone call (011 doesn’t work)?”, “How do I write down my phone number (it’s not in 3-3-4 style)?”, “Who do I call about the trash (the local government council handle your ‘rubbish’)?”, “How do I get credit to buy a phone (you start over with zero credit)?”, “What do they call an eggplant (aubergine), or arugula (rocket)?”, “Who fixes a window (glazier)?” - all are familiar questions with new answers. Spelling and pronunciation of the English language has to be re-learned. All the metric system I learned at school finally has a use now.
Mexican food used to be a big differentiator. During our first move, I wrote the Mexican Embassy and got a list of four (4) places they would consider well enough for going out to dinner. A recent weekend, this time around, saw a “Taco War” with many restaurants vying for the title. Proper Mexican food is finally in London, satiating the need for this native Californian and his Texan wife. All the food products that were hard to get, that required “care packages” in our first time living here, are no longer impossible to find. A-1 is always welcome from visitors as it’s cheaper than the same bottle in London, but it can be easily purchased and delivered in the weekly shop that we order on the Internet and have delivered straight into our kitchen each Wednesday.
There are always some days that I feel “on vacation” (holiday). I love the fantastic food choices I have in London, but am still surprised when, at the end of the meal, the waitress or waiter says, “Enjoy the rest of your holiday”. The accent is a dead giveaway. I have a very good friend who calls me “American Phil”.
Although we are pleased to have returned and have no future plans of moving back to the US, we are clearly not native. Our young son, born in London and attending school here, is blossoming and learning more than he could have absorbed outside of most major US cities. But, our accent will always mark us out as “not from here”.
“Cheers” (hello), “Alright?” (how are you doing?), “Bin” (trash can), “Dog and bone” (phone), “Mobile” (cell phone), and more – all are terms that infuse my vocabulary, marking me out as different from other native American speakers. Learning cultural rules like walking on the left on the escalator, or passing a person coming towards you to your left (Americans pass to the right), have to be learned anew.
All of the common culture markers that you grow up with have to be jettisoned and replaced. News reporting is different, sports are different (it’s FOOTBALL, not soccer), celebrities are different, TV shows are different (“I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Her” is a guilty pleasure), and even the newspaper you read marks out your political beliefs to passers-by. A 1980s show unknown to most Americans was called “Yes, Prime Minister” and noted that, for example, “…the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country, the Times is read by people who actually do run the country [and] Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits”, making a reference to their Page 3 girls gracing their pages each morning.
Pub culture, quiz night, Sunday lunch, stag-do’s, hen parties, Christmas crackers, poppies, the loving cup ceremony, walking sheep across London Bridge, dressing up for the horse races (suit and tie for men, hats for ladies), buying tickets for events a year in advance because they’ll sell out fast, music festivals, having every musician in the world come through my City, nasty weather, beautiful days in the park, pomp and circumstance, spoiled for choice for anything I could ever want –
"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." – Samuel Johnson (1777).
Living outside the country you grew up in isn’t for everyone. It changes everything. No baseball, no Super Bowl commercials, no “USA!, USA! USA!” chants. There are “American ghettos” in some places that keep connections strong with American schools, Junior League, Democrats Abroad (I’m a Republican), 4th of July parties, Thanksgiving Day Turkeys, University alumni meet-ups and more. I like that I can dip my toe back in when I want, but I’m also pleased to be in my new culture.
Whatever I once was, today I’m a Londoner.