I think it started around 1995, when the Oasis album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was released, and I became obsessed with everything England. Something about the culture, the creativity and the history spoke to me. I knew that I wanted to spend time there, and I also knew that a vacation wasn’t going to do it. I wanted to live there.
Over the years my desire to live in England waxed and waned as I went to university, got married and started my career – but it never left me. I remember bringing up the idea to my husband and his less than enthusiastic response. He initially didn’t share my desire to live abroad, but over the years he warmed up to the idea and eventually became the driving force, applying for a work transfer that allowed us to make the move.
I was accepted into a Creative Writing Master’s program, and it felt like everything was coming together. When we finally made the move across the Atlantic, I was beyond excited to immerse, to live, to learn.
And I learned a lot, and not just about narrative fiction.
1. Family is forever.
Living 4,632 miles and eight time zones away from family is tough. We had to schedule calls, Skype sessions and when we said goodbye we knew it would be weeks, months, or maybe even a full year before we saw each other again. We missed out on important life events and we also missed out on the not-so important events.
When we returned to Canada for a holiday, we would greet our family at the airport with tight hugs and streaming tears and we would make the most of our time together. When we said good-bye, my heart ached.
Absence really does make the heart grow fonder and distance made me love and appreciate my family in a new way.
2. Some friendships are forever.
And some are not, and that’s okay.
For as long as I can remember I have always felt a burden to maintain friendships. I have always made the calls and written the emails or texts. I’m a people pleaser; I thought I should make the effort in order to have and keep my friends.
When we moved to England, I found it hard to maintain friendships with people back home. I was so busy with work, school and making new friends that I didn’t have time to call or write. When I would receive an email or a card from a friend back home, it meant so much. It meant they were thinking of me, that they missed me and that they made an effort to show how much they cared for me. And I, in turn, would make the time and write the email or send a silly souvenir because I wanted to show them how much I cared and how much their friendship meant to me.
Some friendships endure the test of time, distance, and all of life’s trials and tribulations… And some friendships are just for a time. And that’s okay.
3. Home is where the heart is.
Like any country, England has its pros and cons. Pros: five weeks vacation, free and fantastic healthcare, proximity to Europe. Cons: 4,632 miles away from home.
I spent three years in England and it was everything I thought it would be. I learned so much and I fell in and out of love with England many, many times. But along the way, something surprising happened, something I didn’t anticipate: I realized what it meant to be Canadian.
I didn’t expect it. Growing up in Canada, I felt like we were the arm or leg of America. I didn’t realize that Canada had a strong identity, until I was an outsider, looking back in.
When we would return to Canada for a visit, our eyes were opened. Yes, Canada is known for its maple syrup and sense of humor, but it is so much more. Canada is drivers who make room for you on the road, strangers who make conversation and litter-free streets. Canada is also the natural beauty of our environment, and the multicultural inclusion that other countries don’t afford.
O, Canada. My home and native land.
And then I remembered why I was drawn to England in the first place: Everything was different.
4. Being alone is okay.
Moving to a new country is never easy, even if you have a partner to share the experience with. My husband’s new position was very demanding: long days, phone calls at all hours, and stress that turned his profile gray. I worried for him, but I felt very sorry for myself. I was alone, a lot.
My Master’s course was four classes a week, and the rest of the day I was home, alone, with my thoughts and the blank page. At first, I cried. I hadn’t made any friends, I was away from my family and everything was different.
And then I remembered why I was drawn to England in the first place: Everything was different. Everything was new. Well, everything was very old, but new to me. There was so much I wanted to explore and there was nothing stopping me from exploring. For months I had wanted to visit the pub in Oxford where J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and their writing group, the Inklings, had held their meetings, but I hadn’t wanted to go alone. And then I thought, why not?
I took the train, followed my Google map and arrived at the small, narrow building. As I sat at the table where Tolkien and Lewis once sat, as I looked up at the plaque above the table, I smiled. For so many reasons.
5. Adventure awaits.
Living abroad truly expanded my horizons. London was a great hub to explore Europe, and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in many different cultures and experience things that I never dreamed of: I ate a sandwich in the town of Sandwich, bathed in the Blue Lagoon, devoured fondue in Gruyères, shopped the Christmas markets in Stockholm, sipped tea at Windsor Castle and danced in a beer hall in Munich.
After three years my husband was offered a job in California and we didn’t hesitate because as Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”
I won’t say that moving to another country isn’t scary or overwhelming, and that there won’t be times that you feel faint and cling to a sunglasses rack and think, “What have I done?” But there will also be times that you realize there is no place that you would rather be, and that you are fully present for this adventure we call life.
What has living abroad taught you?
Image via Gillian Stevens
The author just learnt about what it means to be a Canadian after moving to England. England itself didn’t make the impact it would happen anywhere she moved I think. England is rather unfriendly place to live. Many people are artificially friendly very shallow too. After you go a bit deeper you see there is not much there. Also they feel this constant need to share details of their country that I or anyone else is not even intrested in but they are so awfully proud of I never inderstood what exactly. But being proud, areogant and ignorant is a bit problem in here leading to many xenophobic behaviours. After 6 years of living in London and meeting many foreigners we all agreed that the UK is not great to live, the food, weather, overprces pretty much everything but with low standard and dirtiness outside of zone 1 makes it very difficult to live this place. After living in other countires in Europe and Asia and now living in Aussie I must say that England will never again be on my list.
Living abroad must be the greatest feeling. As a European person born in the U.S. that has never been over seas I love to believe I am living abroad in the U.S. I am saying this because over everything I believe I truly believe living in the UK is where I am supposed to live. It is one of the most enchanting places to me from here. Like the writer, I would not want to do it alone. I am sure I could do it alone but I do not think I would want to do it alone. For me, it is more about knowing the history and the news/events of today. Moving to the UK from the US at this point in my life would make total sense to me. I would invade like the Spanish Aquisition and party like Prince Albert.
Thank you for writing this Kimberly, I can relate to your experience so much. As a British person, I love anything that is a symbol of ‘England’. My father was in the army when I was young so we moved around the country and abroad a lot. It learnt so much about my own country and my own ‘people’, but there is a downside to so much travel too. As an adult I didn’t want to marry someone who would move with his job (like my mum did), I didn’t want that much disruption for my own kids and for their education. It was a total surprise when my husband was offered a position in Houston, Texas, but since I knew the sacrifice of living abroad, we went for it. We only meant to go for a couple of years but ended up staying for nearly ten. Three of our four children were born there and they had to deal with all the emotions and difficulties of moving country when we came home. Before we moved, I thought Texas would be full of tumbleweed, cowboys, JR and Sue Ellen. I was almost right! But I wasn’t prepared for how green and luscious Houston is, how eclectic and cultural it is and how completely, overwhelmingly friendly the people are. We made so many lasting friends in Houston over the ten years, friends for whom I can still slip right back into conversations with that we had years ago. We are in contact regularly and visit one another as much as possible. It’s been five years since we moved back home and the funny thing is that I’m still adjusting to fit into a culture that should be so familiar. Travel is wonderful, experiencing different cultures is unforgettable, but it makes us different people and that often makes it hard to fit back into what should be normality but that has irrevocably changed. Having said that, every summer I still put up my bunting, drink Pimms, eat strawberries and cream in the summer rain and muse on the fact that there is no place like home.
I loved reading this! I had so many similar experiences (I wrote about them here: http://frocksandforks.com/lessons-from-living-abroad/) when I moved from England to Chicago. It’s so interesting to hear the perspective coming the other way- as the Hans Christian Andersen quote goes “To travel is to live!”
Thanks for writing!
When I was in University I was also obsessed with living in England (I’m embarrassed to admit that Bridget Jones Diary had a lot to do with it!) I eventually made it there for 6 months, but life is full of twists and turns, and I ended up migrating to Australia instead. (I’m originally from the States.)
I can definitely related to so much of what you’ve written here, although I have to admit after 10 years abroad, Australia is definitely home. The distance never gets easier though. Great post – thanks for sharing 🙂
Thanks so much for your comment! I love Bridget Jones Diary, and that may also have been a factor in the move! 😉
Thanks for your comment Jennifer! I love Bridget Jones, and that movie may have also been a factor in my move… 😉
Living for a space of time in an African “third-world” country taught me that there are unexpected treasures to be discovered in such places…..like a night sky filled to overflowing with star-diamonds, children who are thrilled out of their minds with a toy push car made out of flattened pop cans and bits of wire and wood, ocean views where not a dwelling can be detected to the north or to the south along the beach and oh-so much more. It taught me not to gauge richness based on a GNP.
Thank you for your comment Cindy! It sounds like you’ve been on an amazing adventure!
This was a wonderful post and really resonated with me. Thank you, Kimberly! I’m an American, living in Italy, and find so much support in your post. Feelings of loneliness, being far from your friends and family…these are still challenges for me and it’s always refreshing to hear from another expat about this topic <3
Thanks for your comment Marie! I don’t think I had any idea how BIG moving to another country and continent was. I’ve always compared it to the movie, “Into the Wild,” where Chris McCandless felt drawn to Alaska, and journeyed into the wilderness, hiking through mountains, crossing streams (in my version – it’s the Atlantic), but when he wants to return “home” the snow has melted and the stream is now a raging river. Once I made the journey, it felt like an impossible task to return “home” because I had changed so much. Until you’ve made a journey like that, it’s impossible to understand.
I love this post. I’ve lived in England for the past year and a half, and all the above and much more have been true for me. I think the single greatest lesson I learned early on was to stop comparing. It’s only natural that we compare the context of the places we’ve been with the places we are, but that comparison can kill our appreciation of the beauty of what IS.
Thanks for writing your story for us!
Hi Sarah, thanks so much for your comment! I don’t think I ever stopped comparing, or evaluating, or discussing (with anyone who would listen) on the pros and cons, and what I loved, and what I missed. I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and it’s interesting because now I see my life as very distinct chapters.
Thanks for the post, Kimberly. I, too, am a Lewis/Inklings/England fan who finally made the leap across the pond. After living here for nearly two years now, I resonate with much of what you’ve written. What I’ve found most thrilling about the expat life, however, is the privilege of sorting through my own culture from afar while evaluating and embracing a new one up close. Never before have I had the opportunity to let go of those values that I once held to be true so that I could take hold of that which is “truer,” if that makes sense. As a Christian, this is a particularly important endeavour in understanding the universally true values of God’s kingdom over and against my own cultural preferences and proclivities. All this to say, I’m profoundly grateful for this season of expat life!
Thanks so much for your comment Eliot! I love the phrase, “sorting through my own culture,” because that has definitely been my experience.