Archive | Expat Living

Tips for Adulthood: Five Ways to Live Frugally Abroad

espresso machine

espresso machineI’ve been living abroad for twelve and a half years. One of the things I’ve noticed is how frugally our family lives in London compared to when we lived in the United States. Some of that has to do with the fact that I’ve worked freelance for a large chunk of that time period. And some of it has to do with the exorbitant cost of living in London.

But we’ve also made some smart choices about how to cut costs and I thought I’d share some of those with you today:

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Espresso by Cahadikin via Flickr

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Why I Won’t Be Watching The Royal Wedding

Harry and Meg

Harry and Meg I realize that I’m an outlier on all things royal wedding. Just the other day, a close friend in America texted to ask me what I was doing Saturday afternoon.

“Umm, taking an improv acting class,” I answered. “Like I do every Saturday. Why?”

“Why?” she repeated, three eye-rolling emojis materializing on my screen. “It’s the Royal Wedding!” Like countless others, she plans to wake at 4 a.m. Saturday to take in the entire rigmarole.

When it comes to Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle, there are those like Sarah Jessica Parker and the entire British press corps, who are over the moon with elation. And then there are the few, the proud, the ones like me who really wish the whole thing would just go away.

Read the rest of this post over on USA Today

Image: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on Christmas Day 2017 via Wikimedia Commons

An American Goes to the Polls in the U.K.

UK voting booth

UK voting boothLONDON – I’m not quite sure what I expected when I showed up at my local polling station in London last Thursday morning to vote – for the very first time – as an ex-pat American in a British General Election. But it certainly wasn’t this: an “open air” voting booth, a single sheet of white paper perhaps seven inches long listing a bunch of political parties with a small box next to their names and – wait for it – a pencil – to fill out said ballot.

It gets better. At a certain point as you stood in line to vote, you were meant to split off into two separate lines based on the name of your street, with all streets in the district divided alphabetically. Fair enough, except that it turned out that most of the larger streets in my district were all clustered in the first half of the alphabet, so while about 18 of us stood waiting in the “Big Street” queue, two lucky souls sprinted ahead to the “Short Street” queue. (Call me crazy but had someone not thought to cross tabulate street size/population with alphabet when they devised this fairly straightforward time-saving device)?

I actually found myself feeling sorry for the volunteers at the “Short Street” queue” table when one person discovered that she actually belonged in the “Big Street” queue and had to rejoin our line. The poor souls looked absolutely heartbroken to have lost a potential customer.

When I finally made it up to the head of the line – which, to be fair, didn’t take very long given the microscopic length of the ballot – one volunteer took my last name, found it on a list and called out my voter registration number to a second individual who then assiduously checked me off a different list. Which was all well and good except that when I glanced down at the sheet of addresses I noticed that myself, my husband *and* the former owner of our house were all registered to vote at our address, even though he now lives in a very different part of the country.

While voter ID controversies here are nothing like they are in the U.S., the British Electoral Commission will be instituting a new law requiring photo ID for all voters starting in 2019, although that photo can come in the form of a free elections ID card. In the meantime, the whole thing was so quaint and – well – English, that I half expected some kindly old lady to rock up with a trolley full of tea and cakes and offer me some while I waited my turn.

Read the rest of this post over on The Broad Side

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Yikes! I’m British! (God Save The Queen?)

“Do you think it’s OK if I wear my bike clothes to the swearing in ceremony?” my husband asked, on our way out the door.

I thought about it for a second. “Um…no?”

We were on our way to the local Town Hall to obtain our British citizenship. Though I don’t usually stand on ceremony, something told me that showing up to pledge your loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen in neon cycling attire might not cut it in our adopted country.

I was right.

I have no idea how they do citizenship ceremonies in the United States, but in the United Kingdom, it’s a big deal. You process into this grandiose chamber that looks like a mini House of Commons – replete with a horseshoe of ornate green chairs centered round a main dais – and then stand – in unison – as the Mayor of your Borough (county) is announced and marches in.

I don’t say “marches” lightly. She was dressed in a bright red cloak with fur lining. Around her shoulders was a Chain of Office covered in silver shields.  The gentleman escorting her into the chamber was carrying an enormous, four-foot long golden mace which he set on a table in front of the Mayor. This over-sized scepter had the curiously menacing effect, as if none of us would-be citizens should dare speak out of turn whilst it was laid before us. A large photo of Queen Elizabeth II sat to the right.

Read the rest of this post over at The Broad Side (“Real Women. Real Opinions.”) where I’m now a contributor…



At the Olympics, Proud of the U.S. and the U.K.

As an American living in London during the build-up to the 2012 Olympics, I’ve felt torn for some time now. On the one hand, I knew I’d be rooting for Team USA. But as a permanent resident here, I also found myself hoping the Brits would come together to pull off something  truly spectacular that would impress even the Americans.

Mitt Romney’s gaffe-tastic visit certainly helped unite this complex, multi-cultural country in record time. (My prize for best Romney diss goes to former White House economist Austan Goolsbee, who tweeted “Romney in Gdansk: Lech, thanks for being here. And hey – how about that shipyard there? Is that a rusting pile of crap or what?”)

But it was more than just #romneyshambles that’s pulled this famously standoffish island nation together over the last few days. Personally, I still have no idea what Danny Boyle was after with that opening night extravaganza.

I only drank two Coronas but am I right that there were two countdowns instead of one? And who was that dude strumming the guitar? I know one thing: I’ll never be able to look at Kenneth Branagh with a straight face again.

Read the rest of this post at The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: Olympics 2012 – Team GB T-Shirt by Daniel Bevis via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

Halloween In London: Why I’ll Never Make It As A Brit

So today is Halloween.

And like all good Americans, I arose early and donned a costume.

Neither of my kids’ schools were dressing up this year. But Halloween is increasingly popular here in London, especially in neighborhoods like mine, which are home to their fair share of Americans. So even though my kids weren’t putting on their costumes, I thought: “What the heck?” and threw mine on for fun.

And that’s  – as we say over here – where it all went a bit pear-shaped.

You see, for the past five years I’ve dressed up as a witch on Halloween. This basically amounted to wearing a large, black, pointy hat, a black sweater and some black jeans and boots. But I was tired of being a witch. Plus, my hat had started to droop. So this year, when browsing for my son’s costume in a local shop, I decided to go crazy and buy a wimple.

For those in the know,  a wimple is that black and white thing that nuns wear around their faces.(Think Maria, pre-Captain, in The Sound of Music.)

From there, it was just a  matter of rummaging around in my closet for a frumpy, over-sized, white turtle neck, a plain, black skirt, some dark tights, a pair of clunky shoes, a semi-gaudy cross and – within minutes  – I looked just like my father’s Irish cousin, good old Sister Claudette.

Needless to say, I was extremely pleased with myself. (It’s amazing what can impress you when you’re unemployed.)

But then I went outside. And that’s when the fun really started.

You see, no one realized that it was a joke. That was fine, when I was walking through my neighborhood at eight a.m. past all manner of  harried parents, construction workers, commuters and shop owners. They could be forgiven for thinking that I was either a real  nun or just…a bit strange. But by the time I hit the school run and – STILL – no one had gotten the joke, I knew I was in trouble.

The first person I ran across was a good friend – (and fellow American, though she’s lived here for 15 years) – who was rushing to catch a train. I greeted her with something on the order of “God Bless you, my child,” at which point she did a double-take and paused to take me in.

“Are you going to wear that all day?” she asked, somewhat aghast.

Then I hit the school gate. After a few odd looks on my way in, I found myself standing in line behind a recent immigrant from Lebanon with the improbable name of  – wait for it – Jihad. It was Jihad’s daughter’s first day of school and he had all sorts of questions for me. I got so caught up in orienting him about the school that I completely forgot that I was dressed as a nun…until, of course, I turned to introduce him to my daughter and I noticed that he looked a bit uneasy.

“Oh! Right!” I chuckled, glancing down at my habit. “This is just a Halloween costume. I’m American,” I added, by way of explanation.

“It’s O.K., Madam,” he answered, smiling politely but looking over his shoulder as if a taxi might miraculously present itself within the school yard.

At line-up time, I ran into another acquaintance. While not American, she’d lived in the U.S. for at least five years. But when her gaze fell upon my costume, she looked positively grief-stricken.

“It’s for Halloween!” I said, clapping her on the shoulder, thinking that she didn’t recognize me and was wondering why my daughter had been escorted to school by a nun.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said. “I thought that maybe…maybe…” Her voice trailed off.

You thought that maybe I’d gone into the convent over half-term?

I left my daughter’s school, dejected. No one seemed to get the joke. No one seemed amused. They all seemed perplexed…and mildly concerned.

Of course, I should have been prepared for this. I’ve appropriated a lot of things during my five years living in the U.K. – The BBC, The NHS, even a fair bit of British slang. But one thing I’ve never quite internalized is the whole buttoned-down, reticent thing. For better or for worse, I’m loud. I’m chatty. And, no. I’m not afraid to walk around dressed as a nun at nine o’clock on a Monday morning in October. Especially if it’s Halloween.

On my way home, I ran into one of my son’s ten-year-old friends who did recognize me, wimple and all.

“Bless you, my child,” I said, half-heartedly making the sign of the cross.

He studied me carefully, looking me up and down.

“But that’s not scary!” he finally exclaimed.

Oh, my dear, you’d be surprised.


Image: Monestario de Santa Catalina/Arequipa by Command Zed via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Studying For The U.K. Citizenship Test

I’m studying for my U.K. citizenship test.

It’s actually not citizenship per se. Rather, it’s what’s known – in an impossibly English formulation – as “Indefinite Leave To Remain” (ILR). But ILR the first step on the road to citizenship, and it allows us to become permanent residents in the UK.

In addition to assembling a shed load of paperwork that would appear to include evidence of everything we’ve ever eaten since moving here five years ago (kidding…barely), we also need to take a test about “Life in the United Kingdom.”

So for the next two weeks, I have set aside a half hour every day to review various facets of British life ranging from historical immigration patterns to the ins and outs of the educational system to how laws get made here.

At first, I was really irritated that I needed to pass an exam to show that I understood life in the U.K. (I mean, seriously, folks. After last week’s working class vacation, how could anyone possibly tell me that I don’t “get” what it’s like to live here?)

Plus, all of my American friends who’ve already taken the test have told me that it’s a complete waste of time and that I’ll forget everything I study as soon as I walk out of the test room.

Much to my surprise, however, I’m finding the whole thing rather useful.

There are, first of all, the things I already know and can take pride in having mastered lo these past five years: things like how the NHS actually works, how one goes about obtaining a driver’s license and, for better or worse,  how one goes about buying a house. (On this last one, I’d like to volunteer to add a segment on getting gazumped.)

Then there are the things that I thought I understood, but actually didn’t. Like the difference between the Council of Europe, the European Union, the European Commission and the European Parliament. (Here’s a handy-dandy primer, in case you’re, um, interested.)

And then, finally, there are the things I had no clue about, may well forget, but am actually really pleased to discover:  like what percentage of the population in the UK is actually Muslim (surprisingly low, given all the anti-Islamic rhetoric…what the heck is a GCSE and when do my kids need to take them?…and how big is the population of Wales vis a vis the rest of the country?).

Above all, however, preparing to take a citizenship test in another country forces you to grapple with your own patriotism. If, as and when we obtain British citizenship, we will still be free to return to live in the U.S. at any point.  Nonetheless, at the end of this whole process and assuming that I can remember that 70% of British citizens belong to the Church of England on test day – we’ll be bonafide citizens of another country.

We’ll be able to vote. We’ll be able to work anywhere in the EU. And our kids can serve in the British military.


Image: Union Jack Paper Flag Picks by Amanda *Bake It Pretty* via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.




Tips For Adulthood: Five Useful Pieces of British Slang

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

From time to time, I enjoy sharing the wonderful peculiarities of British English I encounter during everyday life over here in the U.K. A few years back, I identified that inimitable term, trouser tenting, to capture that time in the morning when a gentleman might be – how to say? – more alert, aroused or otherwise excited.

Lately – because my husband and I are trying to figure out whether or not to purchase a home – much of my new British-speak has come from the housing market. The ongoing unrest over budget cuts and tuition fee increases has also given me some colorful new expressions with which to spruce up my vocabulary.

To wit, here are five pieces of British Slang worth incorporating into your own arsenal:

1. GazumpedGetting “gazumped” refers to a situation where you have a verbal  – or possibly even written – agreement with a seller to buy a property at an agreed price, but at the last minute, s/he sells it to someone else, usually for a higher amount. I absolutely love this term, (although I didn’t love it so much when it happened to us, as it just did.) Nearly everyone I know here has a story about being gazumped and apparently, they are in good company.

2. Gazundered – Equally compelling (to me at least) is the sister real estate term, gazundered, which refers to a situation where, right before contracts are to be exchanged, the buyer suddenly drops his offer on the property, knowing that s/he holds all the cards.

3. Beshert – OK, this term is actually Yiddish (though don’t they all sound a bit Yiddish?) and it actually means “inevitable” or “preordained,” usually in the context of marriage. But our mortgage broker used it with us twice:  first, when it looked like we had just enough money to secure a mortgage on a property and later, when we lost said property by being gazumped. Either way, it was all “beshert.” God bless him.

4. Crustie – Here’s one I pulled from the anti-government strikes and protests that have flourished here since the government announced its austerity budget last autumn. As protesters took to the streets (again) in early March, London’s colorful mayor, Boris Johnson, referred to them as a bunch of “aggressive crusties and lefties.” According to the Urban Dictionary, a “crustie” is an unkempt youth of uncertain domicile who is marked, above all, by his or her anti-authority attitudes. But a friend of mine said that it just meant “tree-hugger.” Either way, I’ll take it.

5. Argy-Bargy – Argy-bargy (soft “g” please) basically means a heated argument. Which is a lovely way to describe a family meal…a lively street mob…or a political debate. Take your pick. Love it.


Image: House for sale by mundoo via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


My Working Class Holiday In England

Part of the beauty of being an expatriate is that just when you think you really “get” another culture, you find out that you actually don’t, and peel off a whole new layer of understanding.

My first inkling that I still had way more to learn about the UK came several years ago, when I first grasped the profoundly important place of alcohol in British culture.

I had another such realization this past weekend, as my family and I – by virtue of attending a chess tournament for my son – ventured out to sample a working-class holiday camp in England.

Yes, that’s right. A “working-class holiday camp.” Americans in the audience may be scratching their heads at this point, since there really isn’t an equivalent in the U.S.. I guess the closest thing would be the sprawling family vacation resorts out in the Poconos Mountains or up in the Catskills, but I’ve been to some of those resorts and they don’t even approximate what I’m describing.

Imagine your worst Motel Six – the grimiest, most fleabag hotel room you’ve ever frequented –  and then add another 800 rooms or so to produce an endless, Soviet-block style chain of  purpose-built “chalets” (I use that term advisedly) where people come to vacation en masse.

Now add some chipped pastel paint, a handful of broken down children’s rides (several of which have been condemned and are covered in yellow tape) and an all-you-can-eat buffet for two quid (roughly three bucks) and you will begin to get the picture.

But the picture would not be complete without the odors. Everywhere you go on this compound, you confront an array of different scents- some smelling of urine and cheap alcohol, and others entirely unrecognizable.

And then there is the smoke. Almost everyone we met was smoking a cigarette. When I saw a couple simultaneously ash on their toddler’s stroller (buggy), I knew we weren’t on the Hampstead High Street anymore.

As my ten year-old son summed it up: “This place is just sad.”

I say all of this not to denigrate the place, sad though it truly was. The problem has more to do with me, with how utterly gob-smacked I was – to employ an English term – when I arrived and began to take it all in.

And that’s because – let’s face it – this was not an England I’d encountered before. I say this as someone who lives in an urban environment, has a daughter in a quite diverse state (public) school, and has relied on public transport nearly every day since moving here five years ago.

And yet…I somehow hadn’t grasped that there was such a thing as a working-class holiday “camp.”

Of course, I should have known. Britain is famously class-conscious. While I’ve never bought into the American myth that we are a classless society, “class” is not a vocabulary or paradigm that we Americans traffic in. (We have other narratives and other dividing lines.)

But here in the U.K., people are not only acutely aware of social class, they don’t even pretend to hide it. There’s actually a new book out entitled Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, which argues that to laugh at, ridicule and despise working class people has now become socially acceptable. (Chav is slang for working class.)

That may or may not be so. But it is definitely the case that the thatched roofs, rolling hills and tea and scone England that we’ve all come to know and love (helped in no small measure by the recent Royal Wedding and hullabalo around it), does not even come close to approximating the reality of the touristic experience on offer.

Am I mortified that I, too, seem to have bought into the whole Shakespearean, ye-olde-worlde vibe that is still the signature mystique around this country (at least to its quaint, country-bumpkin cousins on the other side of the Atlantic)?

You betcha. (To coin a phrase from a quaint American female politician.)

But there it is.

And now, the bloom is off the rose. I can officially state that I see my host country not just as the average tourist sees it, but from the inside.

I wonder what I’ll learn next.


Image: AboveUs by brutalSoCal via Flickr on a Creative Commons license


Image: AboveUs by brutalSoCal via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Getting Your UK Driving License: A Rite Of Passage For Americans

Few events in adolescence carry more symbolic weight than that blissful moment when you get behind the wheel of your car and drive it for the first time…with a proper license. No more Mom and Dad. No more Driver’s Ed. Just you and the open road.

Getting your own license is a moment one rarely forgets: right up there with losing your first tooth and the day that you realize that there really isn’t a Santa Claus after all. It’s one of those signature experiences that seems to embody so much of what lies ahead in adulthood:  freedom…responsibility…danger… fun.

Those of us living overseas, however, have the rare opportunity to go through this experience twice. And I’m here to tell you that it’s no less thrilling the second time around.

I know this because my husband – miraculously – just passed his UK driving test this weekend and was awarded a British license as a result.

I say “miraculously” because if you know anything about the UK driving test, you’ll know that it is notoriously difficult to pass. So difficult that most of my American friends here have failed it at least once, if not multiple times. They have left the test cowed and demoralized, if not downright terrified.

In it’s own weird way, the U.K. driving test has become a sort of litmus test for how well Americans really can adapt to British life and culture.

Why is it so hard, exactly? Mostly, it’s just that the rules are so entirely different from the ones we learn in the States. The hand brake, for example, features prominently in the exam, as does checking one’s mirrors compulsively and the ability to make a turn from the inside lane of a roundabout (traffic circle). (And that’s just the practical test. There’s also a 35-question, computerized “theory” test which makes our own written tests look like a cake walk. My husband has a Ph.D. and he easily studied for six hours before attempting the theory portion and, even then, barely passed.)

The results of the practical test bear out its difficulty. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (which gives a fabulous account of exactly what it’s like to endure this process from start to finish), the pass rate for the test in Britain was under 44% (and falling) in 2002 when the article was written, compared to New York, where 61% of drivers passed.

Which perhaps explains why people here invest so much time and money paying instructors to teach them how to “Drive British.” (For a brilliant send-up of this experience, see Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky.)

Indeed, teaching driving has become such a racket here that some instructors have begun charging extra for secret tips to passing the test that have absolutely nothing to do with driving whatsoever. A friend’s husband, for example, was told by his instructor to warm the car seats in advance so that he could then “bond” with the (male) driving examiner about how awful it is that wives always make their husbands over-heat the passenger seats. (He passed.)

And so we were elated that my husband made it through on his very first try.

Part of our joy was just relief that we didn’t have to shell out more time and money to revisit this whole thing all over again. Right up to his very last lesson (which took place one hour before the exam), my husband was entirely unconvinced that he would pass.

We’re also excited because while we’ve traveled extensively outside of the U.K. during our time living in London, we’ve done comparatively little travel inside our country of residence. A lot of our hesitation was due to our reluctance to drive with an American license which – while scores of people do it – is actually illegal after you’ve been living here more than one year. As a sign of the exuberance we’ve experienced after passing the road test yesterday, we’ve already signed up for Street Car – which, after cycling – strikes me as the best way forward for a greener, healthier lifestyle and planet.

But I think that most of our happiness derives from the fact that symbolically, passing this test was a major psychological hurdle towards feeling like we might possibly stay here in London. I wrote not long ago about the eternal uneasiness one feels as an expat as to whether – and when – you might repatriate to your country of origin. One of the central ways to reduce that anxiety is to eliminate the barriers – psychological and practical – that keep you from sinking roots. In short: to figure out ways to commit, large and small, to your host country.

In our case, it turns out, not being able to drive had become one such barrier. And with it now removed, we feel that much closer to staying – or at least being able to contemplate staying here for the long haul.

There’s only one catch: I still need to pass the test as well.

Stay tuned…


Image: driver’s ed by sciondriver via Flickr under a Creative Commons’ License