I moved to London on the 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. This is insignificant and completely accidental but it added a touch of drama to an already quite emotionally heavy day. I spent my last day living in California wandering around the city with my immediate family and British internet boyfriend, who I was moving to be with, in a complete bubble of denial of what my life was about to evolve into. We ate lunch at an overpriced restaurant with overly large cloth napkins, and the most thrilling part of the meal was that the waiter served me a rum and Coke despite my being only 20 years old. It was like he could sense the adulthood in me. At the end of the day, before I boarded my flight, my dad met me at the airport and gave me a bag full of Twinkies and a card with Elvis on it. God bless America.
The whole day was full of conflicting emotions. I was sad to leave my family and excited to leave my family, while being ecstatic that I was MOVING TO ENGLAND with my BOYFRIEND. I didn't think to be scared. I didn't know about how different my life was going to be.
I also didn't know that the reason people didn't seem more devastated that I was leaving was because they fully expected I would be back in California, serving up Frappuccinos at Starbucks within a couple of months. (Apparently people didn't think my internet romance with a British man on Myspace would last.) (We've now been married for nearly 10 years, so fuck you.)
But here is what I know now, after 10 years of living abroad.
It happens slowly – celebrities you don't recognise, films you've never heard of, new brands of yoghurt in Target you've never tried – but soon, you'll become a visitor in the country you grew up in.
It's a strange thing, having to ask your mom for directions to places you used to drive to all the time. Or forgetting the names of roads that used to be etched on your memory. The way people are, the standard cultural behaviour, suddenly feels both jarring and nostalgic at the same time.
Even stranger – to be standing at the cash register of a Walgreens and struggling to count out the cash and coins needed to pay for your Goldfish Crackers and Nilla Wafers, because dimes are the size of 5p coins but are worth 10¢, but quarters are worth 25¢ but look like 10p coins and why do all of the pennies look the same?? And when you try to explain you no longer understand this coinage because you've "been away for a long time", it just makes it sound like you've spent the last decade in prison or in a coma.
My northern Californian accent has evolved over the last 10 years from being Obviously American to "Are You Canadian?" to Unplaceable North American – or to what someone once described as "Transatlantic", which I took be one of the greatest compliments of my life.
In an effort to simply fit in, rather than a conscious attempt to culturally acclimatise, I shifted my vocabulary to use British words. Years later, due to the nature of my job (Writing online! For a British audience!) my keyboard and spellcheck settings would switch to British English. But, at the same time, when I'd go back to America, the bin would once again become trash, the pizza would once again be "hella good", and I'd go to the bathroom or perhaps a restroom, rather than the loo.
This transition back to the words I once knew was conscious, an effort to not sound snobby, to not act like my dismissal of the words I had used for 20 years were somehow also a dismissal of my family. Nearly 10 years on, I now just call things what comes out of my mouth first – sometimes pounds are dollars, and dollars are quids. Whenever I say "cheers" and "loo" while in America, I sound like a try-too-hard wanker, but I've come to accept that. Maybe I am just a transatlantic, try-too-hard wanker.
No matter how hard you try, dogs do not want to participate in Skype calls. They will not recognise you on a laptop screen. They don't give a fuck if you try to FaceTime with them. They will not answer you when say "HELLO" and "WHAT ARE YOU DOOOOING?" in that horrible voice you use only for them.
With people, with your family, you can WhatsApp them an unflattering selfie and three poop emojis to let them know you're thinking of them. That you miss them. You can call them on the phone when you're drunk at midnight and they're still getting ready for work and laugh about how weird timezones are. With dogs, there is no consolation for not being able to bury your face in their wonderful mane of silky, white neck fur and tell them they're such a good girl.
That's all we have with pets: their foul-smelling kisses and Frito-scented paws in real life. They can't tell us they miss us on the phone. Which leads to further, deeper questions about canine psychology – like, do dogs even know how long we've been gone? Does that feeling of loss deepen with time, or do they eventually forget us until we're back on their doorstep, smelling of foreign lands and 1,000-fart plane air?
But it's even worse when they go and break your heart by doing the unthinkable: passing away without you by their side.
Grieving for a family pet, separate from your family, an ocean apart is a uniquely devastating experience only understood by those who have felt it. By those who have silently sobbed in the toilet at work while staring at the old puppy photos your sister emailed you, and who struggle with the logic of: "My dog died...well, not my dog, my family's dog. No they weren't here, they're back home. Yes, in America. No, I've not lived with them for seven years, but YES I am this fucking devastated."
Do all dogs go to heaven? They fucking better.
It's something that anyone who has moved away from where their family lives, or where they were raised, has experienced. Its daily usage, "I'm headed home now", means you're going back your current place of residence. Your flat. The broader term, "I'm going home for Christmas", usually means you're going back to wherever your immediate family lives. Maybe it's the city you grew up, maybe it's the house you grew up in. Or maybe it's not.
For some of us, "home" very much means your own house. The home that you made for yourself, thousands of miles away from the familiar. The home where you learned how to be a grown-up, where you fry bacon to mend hangovers and binge-watch TV shows and cry on the floor because you're learning how to be a grown-up on the other side of the world, away from everything familiar. A place where you can't just go to Target and buy a ready-made, Orla Kiely-designed "Adult in a Bag" kit. Or have your dad come over at the weekend and help you with the things around the house that only dads know how to fix. Maybe, instead, you're just left with an internal mess, filled with things inside your heart that only dads know how to break.
If you have to fiercely fight to build a home in a place where you have had to start completely from scratch, where you've had to redefine and reconstruct creature comforts, that becomes your home. Your independent, away-from-everything-and-everybody home. Not to sound like an Instagram quote, but you really do become your own home.
If you have communication issues and "please let's not talk about this again" issues with your family before you move thousands of miles away from them – things will not magically be fixed by the ocean between you. Relationships are hard and messy and complicated, even when you have plenty of face-to-face, one-on-one time. When you only have FaceTime and a few hours together a year, it makes it harder to ~talk~. Who wants to talk about a thing that you cry about in therapy when you could just have a NICE FAMILY DINNER of repressed feelings and passive aggression like a NORMAL FAMILY.
And any guilt you feel for living so far away is only made worse when you experience a family-specific strain of FOMO – and it's not always the big holidays that feel the worst. It's the mundane, everyday things, like your sibling saying they're "returning a shirt with mom at Old Navy", that fill you with such an intense feeling of being left out and forgotten – even though you're the one who left so do you even have the right to feel sad about this? – that you do a little cry in the loo of whatever pub you're in.
Living far from your family makes things more complicated, but not impossible if everyone is willing to adjust and learn timezones.
I am always slightly envious of people who are from a city or country they have such a strong connection to – like Oliver Queen and Star City, Matt Murdock and Hell's Kitchen, Lady Gaga and her Italian heritage. It seems so straightforward – I am from here, this is my home, I am this, I am a New Yorker. But the more I travel, the more people I meet, I actually think that feeling, that strong of a connection between city and identity, is quite rare.
Most people, like me, look like one thing, sound like another. They have a last name that doesn't necessarily explain their heritage. They have an accent that doesn't reveal where they live. Their skin tone and their eye colour don't immediately explain lineage, either. Whenever my British husband and I are abroad, I always feel anxious when I say, "We're from London", and need to finish it off with, "But I'm from California, originally." As if people with North American accents aren't allowed to say they're from London when someone asks where you're visiting from.
I cheer for Team GB in the Olympics, and I cry at Obama's speeches. I dip my pizza in ranch dressing and my grilled cheese in ketchup, but hold my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right – properly. I uphold that Kraft Singles are a delicacy, but equally that the NHS and the lack of guns in the UK are two of the biggest reasons why I will never move back to the US. My identity is complicated and conflicting, but that's what happens when you become both British and American. I will never be fully one over the other – I will never 100% fit in, no matter where I go. And this is where finding and speaking to other expats is hugely comforting, because they too have a strange dual identity and even stranger accents.
There is something particularly refreshing and validating when you meet and speak with other expats who know the exact kind of bewilderment you've felt throughout your time in a different country. Someone who knows the constant, low-level anxiety you felt throughout your first months (years?) in a country that tricks you into thinking it's not that different – where every system, every social norm lures you into a false sense of security, and then shows you that, actually, you have no idea what you're doing, you Big Dumb American.
But while it can be tempting to surround yourself with other Big Dumb Americans, to help protect you from the prickly nature of expat life, like a soft, protective quilt lovingly sewn together by your granny in Florida who smells of chocolate and White Diamonds – you can't do this. You must stand and face this strange, new life, with your face turned up towards the headwind. You must literally stand (not sit) through those many drunken nights in packed London pubs, starving and wondering when exactly everyone plans on eating dinner – until one day, you realise that this is dinner. And that there's a dirty burger in your future, as a midnight snack. You'll know that when you accept this, you've reached a milestone.
You will adapt and learn more about this new place, your new surroundings, much quicker if you're simply in the thick of it. And once you've learned all this, and accepted those dirty burgers, you'll learn that there actually plenty of other people who would rather get dinner than starve in pubs. They're just too British to suggest such a thing.