{We Do: Travel} Life as a US Expat in the UK

Hello to all of you who have made your way here from The Charming Blog! I’m Becky, and I’m a U.S. expat living in West Yorkshire, England. I moved here in September 2011 and haven’t left! (There is so much behind-the-scenes in terms of visas and logistics that has allowed me to stay here. I don’t plan to go into that in this post, but if any of you have questions about those details, please don’t hesitate to email me.) I hope you enjoy my post and that you’ll stick around to read more from me!

When I found out from Amy that I would be contributing to the We Do series by writing about life as an expat, I was equal parts excited – because I have the opportunity to share about a topic I know well – and nervous – because there is just so much that can be shared. I really had no idea where to even begin, so on the advice of my husband and my mom, I went through some of my old blog posts for ideas. They are smart ones, those two! I stumbled upon this paragraph from this post I wrote in February 2012:

Sometimes, I feel there is an assumption that when you move abroad your life will immediately be more glamorous and full of adventure. I admit that is an easy trap to fall into; wishing that every day I had some incredibly amazing story to tell. And yes, sometimes my life here is more glamorous than my life in the US (and I love those times too!), but it’s the every day that has become so meaningful to me. The mundane to me is the perfect.

Even after I wrote that post, I had only been living in England for just over five months, so I still found myself feeling as if every day should be full of adventure. One of the great things about being an ex-pat is that you can truly find your own place in whichever country you choose to make your home. So, although you might not think your life abroad as an expat is all that exciting, it actually is pretty great. It’s almost as if you know you have really assimilated when life in your adopted country seems normal to you. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when the tourist feeling finally went away, but at some point it did. It was then that I truly realized that my life here in England is perfect as it is and that I could call myself an expat without feeling like I was pretending.

BoltonAbbeyExploring Yorkshire landmarks much older than any building in the U.S.

So, what were some of the things that made me realize I was no longer a tourist? Although I honestly could write so much more on this topic, I have chosen to share some of my favorites today.

Shall I just swing by the chippy? My husband, Richard, will sometimes ring on his drive home from work and ask me that question. The chippy is the fish and chip shop. Oh, the fish and chips of northern England are most definitely done right and so delicious! They are often served with mushy peas, which are essentially mashed peas. I have texture issues when it comes to food, so I wasn’t sure if I would like them, but I definitely do. This simple side dish is the perfect accompaniment to the fish and chips. When we return to England from a trip abroad, Richard always likes to have fish and chips for our first dinner back. I used to poke fun at him for it, but now I actually look forward to it!

Fancy a cuppa? After much practice and instruction from my husband, I am able to make a mean cuppa the proper way – milk and sugar (if you like), but always milk. Previously, I found it so strange to put milk in my tea, but now I find it odd to drink my tea without milk. Also, I look forward to a cuppa before bed with my husband while we’re winding down from the day. In fact, we’re watching MasterChef (a BBC classic) and enjoying our teas as I type!

IMG_3272What’s better than tea and cake in the afternoon?!

The pub. Most people know that the British love their pubs. They are everywhere making them an easy meeting place when you want to catch up with friends. Even in our tiny village, I can count four without even thinking about it. The best part about the pub though is that many of them are family establishments, which is not something you would find with bars and pubs in the U.S. Yes, everyone loves a night out just the adults, but we have a little one now so it’s nice to know you won’t get the side eye from the other patrons if you bring a baby with you. In fact, she is usually the star of the show when we take her with us! Also, this was the first Christmas since we’ve been together that we have actually stayed in England as we usually spend the holidays in the U.S. We went to the pub before dinner on Christmas Day and I didn’t think twice about it. My parents were visiting at the time, and they thought it was the funniest thing!

Hiya! You okay? This is a common greeting when you see someone you know. To be honest, it got on my nerves when I first arrived, but now I often catch myself saying it to friends as we’re greeting each other with a quick kiss on the cheek. I find that it just fits into the flow of conversation here.

The ‘x’. With close friends in the U.S., I would sometimes end emails and text messages with xo. The in the UK is a bit of an institution. With friends and family and even some people you aren’t that close with, every email, text, and greeting card will be signed with at least one x symbolizing a kiss and the end of a thought. At first, it felt forced and I would often find myself asking Richard when it was appropriate to use the x. However, it has become second nature. I’ve even found myself signing professional emails with it (and thankfully catching it before I would click send!).

The ‘wrong’ side of the road. For the first 2 1/2 years that I lived here, I did not drive, which was odd for me because like many others from the U.S., I had become reliant on having my own car. I could have driven legally on my U.S. license for the first year, but in all honesty, as a newbie to Yorkshire living, it was fairly nerve-wracking. We live in the countryside with narrow roads that sometimes are only wide enough for one car and left me holding my breath as a car approaches from the other direction. Because of that, I was content taking public transportation (which thankfully is quite good) and walking everywhere. However, public transportation is not as easy with a baby in tow, so I was keen to pass my test. (It’s funny to me that she spent the first few months of her life taking taxis with me!) I applied for my provisional license in March 2013 and began driving lessons in July. In March 2014, after two failed attempts, I finally passed my UK practical driving exam!

The exam here is nothing like the U.S. exam. Yes, you take a theory and a practical exam, but that is where the similarities end. In fact, I’m fairly certain I ran a stop sign on my U.S. test when I was 16 and still passed while that would be an automatic fail on the UK exam. (If you have a few minutes, I’d highly recommend reading this article written by an American describing his experience with the UK driving exam. My experience was nearly identical!) The fact that I now drive here on the opposite side of the road and from the opposite side of the car has been a massive factor in making me feel more settled. It’s so nice to be able to pop to the shop or catch up with friends as I please. It’s hard to remember what it was like before I drove. (I will be blogging about the entire process in the next few days, if you want to hear more about this, then be sure to check back!)

IMG_2900I’m pretty proud of that certificate!

Shall I just pop round for a quick catch up? Just reviewing this post, I see a number of words and phrases that I either didn’t use or never would have felt comfortable saying or typing prior to settling into life here…a bitring (as in call on the phone), poke fun at (as opposed to make fun of), cuppa, was keen toand pop to the shop. They now just seem to roll off the tongue when I’m speaking and writing. Here are a few more that I catch myself using:  have a thinkpop round, and watching some telly. I’d definitely recommend you read this great post written by another US ex-pat on some common British phrases and how they fit into conversation. She also mentions some words that don’t seem to sound right in an American accent if pronounced the British way, and I wholeheartedly agree with her point of view on tomato and aluminum. I’d like to add basil (pronounced bah-sil) and oregano (pronounced or-a-gan-oh) to that list if I may!

Living Across Two Cultures. Aside from the every day, there are so many things about being an expat that excite me. I enjoy the ease with which we can travel to continental Europe as well as a number of other places that aren’t as accessible from the U.S. I love that our daughter, although she will spend most of her younger years in the UK, will grow up with traditions from both sides of the pond. I find it funny that although the Yorkshire accent is slowly rubbing off on me, I’m still a bit of a novelty when meeting new people. I like to talk about where I’m from, but I also like to see people smile when I say I love living here.

RBParisParis is just a quick plane ride away!

All of this is not to say that I don’t still have moments that leave me frustrated or asking Richard way too many questions about why things happen the way they do. Being an expat is most definitely a continual learning process, and I enjoy being a student in my own life. I feel it is natural to still have moments when I find myself pining for things in the U.S. There are times when I desperately miss my family and friends in the States, despite the fact that my friends and family here are all incredible people. This is my home now though and it is hard to imagine life any other way. Life as an expat is about finding a balance between learning to love your life in your new home whilst still keeping a place in your life and heart for your home country. So, although the adventure isn’t always apparent to me, it is definitely still there!

countrysideIt’s hard to imagine living anywhere else, especially on days like the one pictured above!

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{The Olympics} Women’s Beach Volleyball Finals

In 2011, the lottery for Olympics tickets opened for UK citizens, so the Brit entered for three events:  the Opening Ceremonies, athletics (which included the 100m men’s final), and women’s beach volleyball. We were pretty lucky as he was one of the only people that we actually knew that got tickets through the lottery, and you already know what they were for because of the title of the post. Both of us were excited, especially me knowing there was a chance I could see Team USA in either the bronze or gold medal match!

The day arrived and the weather was absolutely beautiful in London. (The Brit asked me to stress how nice it was since I often talk about how rainy it has been this year…haha!) I had big plans to paint my nails red, white, and blue, but I forgot my nail polish at home, so that didn’t go so well. I wore a blue shirt and the Pennsylvania necklace that the Brit got me for Christmas, so I was country pride, but definitely nowhere near over-the-top and the nails would have been a nice touch; that’s how it goes sometimes!

To get into the venue at Horse Guards Parade, you had to go through airport-style security, which was so seamless and the volunteers directing us and the military completing the security checks were so friendly. The Brit made a comment that airports should take lessons from them…so true!

St James Park

Horse Guards Parade constructed from sand!

Once inside, there were loads of places to grab food and drink. And, when I say ‘drink’, I’m not just talking soda, juice, and water; we are talking beer, wine, and champagne! We started out with a couple beers, but when the Brit went back to the bar between the two matches, he came back with 4 glasses of pink champagne! Seeing him walk up the bleachers with those plastic cups of champagne had me in stitches! He still hasn’t told me how much that cost, and I think we’ll keep it that way!

There was a group of English people sat in the row in front of us who were waving US flags and continually yelled ‘yee-haw’ when something good happened. A bit random, definitely…but all in good fun! The atmosphere inside the stadium was brilliant as well. They would play music in between each point, got the wave going quite a few times, and had the crowd involved in various chants and slow to fast clap segments! And, with nearly everyone at least one drink in, it really was like a giant party!

The views from inside the venue were stunning! Check this photo out…

The first match was Brazil v. China for the bronze medal match. Brazil ended up with the win and the bronze medal. It was so exciting to watch and got me really pumped for the gold medal match between both teams from the US. Yes, we were that lucky that we got to see Team USA play Team USA!

I just thought this was a neat shot from when Brazil won the bronze medal.

During time outs and between matches, these people came out to rake the sand and the announcers would crack jokes about the ‘rakers’, who would rake to Benny Hill music. It was brilliant! Here is a photo of the volunteers who were deemed the rakers…

In addition to the rakers, there was some lively entertainment in the form of dancers who even had costume changes between sets. Below, you can see them in their red, white, and blue outfits that they wore throughout the gold medal match.

The start of the gold medal match!

It was fun to not have to pick sides, although the Brit will tell you I was cheering a bit louder for Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. I attribute that to the fact that I knew this would be their last Olympics, so I wanted them to go out with a bang! We had a good laugh though when we realized all of the British people in attendance were cheering for the other team representing the USA of Jennifer Kessy and April Ross.

It was really an amazing match and both teams played very well, but Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor came out on top. (I don’t have any good photos of the three teams on the podium because we videoed that part, and after I watched it again, it is a very bouncy video and you hear my voice cracking as I scream my lungs out, so I think I’ll keep that on my laptop for now! :)) It really was an incredible experience, particularly getting to hear the Star-Spangled Banner and see the US flag flying high on the gold and silver medal flag poles!

3 days to go…

The countdown is really on now!

Both of my parents have said this week that they can’t believe how quickly my time with them has gone. And, I have to agree. It seems like I’ve barely been here. When late August hit, I realized it was time to get serious about what had to be accomplished before I left for England. So, basically, I feel like I have crammed a few months of stuff into the last few weeks. (I honestly can’t believe how busy I have been. Not sure how that is possible without a job. Any ideas?)

Here’s what I’ve been up to since the realization that I’m really moving to England sunk in…

1. Selling my car. Last week, I said goodbye to my Nissan Versa. 😦 In October 2010, I traded in my SUV for something more fuel-efficient. I can’t believe how attached I became to that little car in 11 months. (I was actually a bit teary-eyed when I walked away from it last Tuesday.) It had been with me through a lot…most notably, an 11-day road trip from the Pacific Northwest to Pennsylvania. Such fun times! However, I am looking forward to smooth-running public transportation and car pooling with the Brit.

On the day I brought it home from the dealership...photo by the Brit!

2. Making the most of my time at home. Let’s just say last week was an emotional week for me, so I’ve been trying extra hard to spend time with my parents. I cried and Mom cried and Dad told me he really is going to miss having me around. Mom and I went shopping on Monday and we have plans tomorrow night. Dad and I watched a pre-season game of the greatest football team ever on Thursday and Hillbilly Handfishin’ (seriously watch this — hilarious!) last night.

Mom, Dad, and I on vacation in central New York this summer. 🙂

3. Visits with friends and family. Today, I had lunch with one of my besties and her little boy then lunch with my brother and his fiancée. (It’s 7 PM and I’m not even close to being hungry yet.) Last week, I was in DC selling my car, so I was lucky enough to stay with my cousin and her boyfriend plus catch up with one of my favorite friends from our days as new college graduates at our first jobs. I’ve been cramming in these visits (plus those with friends nearby) and it’s been really great!

4. Phone calls to my friends scattered around the country. I had two wonderful phone calls today with two of my favorite ladies. I still feel like I have a million more people to get in touch with before I leave the U.S. I’m not sure why I feel like I’ll never be able to talk to these people again on the phone! Because of Skype and an awesome phone plan through O2, I’ll be able to stay in touch with everyone.

5. Packing. Blech. I dislike packing. You’d think after my many travels that I’d have this down to an art. Not quite. I’ve taken over my brother’s room (he has his own house, so don’t think he is living around my stuff) and my room. Clothes everywhere!

The brother's room...

My room...

Studying (legally) in the UK, Part II

(Here is Part I, in case you missed it! You know, since it is so hard to find it amidst my whopping three posts!)

After the FedEx box swallowed my application, I told my perfectionist self that it was out of my hands and hoped for the best. At that point I had done everything I could have done. It was hard not knowing if I was really going to start graduate school or not, especially because I had no back-up plan which is not typical for me.

A few days after I mailed my application, I received an e-mail that my application had arrived at the British Consulate in New York and was in line to be reviewed by an Entry Clearance Officer. This same e-mail mentioned that I should receive another e-mail stating when it was reviewed with a follow-up message informing me of the outcome. So, I continued to wait.

That same week, the Brit was coming to the US for a quick visit. (I would be doing all the traveling, but my passport was being held hostage, remember?!) I picked him up at the airport on Thursday night, and on Friday, we were enjoying lunch together at my favorite cafe in my hometown. For some reason, as we were waiting for our food, I decided to check my e-mail. There, staring back at me was an e-mail about my visa.

I opened it and the first line was all I needed to see, “Your UK visa has been issued.” YESSSS! (Apparently, they skipped the middle e-mail and just went straight to the good stuff…fine by me!) We were both ecstatic! I planted some big kisses on the Brit and neither of us stopped smiling the rest of the day. (He even beat me at miniature golf that afternoon, and I still didn’t stop smiling!)

So, the process I was most nervous about went better than expected. In a matter of a week and a half after mailing the application, I had my passport back with a fun sticker inside!

Good thing I didn’t have a back-up plan after all!

A snippet of my visa in my passport!

Studying (legally) in the UK, Part I

I thought I’d give a little background about how all of this came to be….

All of my application materials were into the university, which left me obsessively checking my e-mail for any news from the school I had applied to. I had just woken up one morning in mid-May and was browsing my e-mail on my phone with one eye still closed. (Totally normal morning routine, right?!) When I saw the e-mail from the university, both eyes were wide open in a flash! I clicked on the e-mail and saw what I was hoping for – an acceptance! Just so happened that I was meeting the Brit in New York City that night, so we had much to celebrate!

They really want me!

Step one was complete. However, as an American wanting to study legally on a year-long graduate program, I still needed to apply and be approved for a UK Tier 4 PBS (Points-Based System) General Student Visa. It was now up to the UK Border Agency.

I should mention that I do have prior experience working with UK student visas because in my past ‘life’, I advised college students on study abroad. At the college where I worked, I was the official (yet unofficial as I can’t speak officially for foreign governments) adviser on student visas. Because I was the sounding board for my students as they went through the UK visa process, I was a bit nervous. I knew fairly well what was required of me to submit a complete visa application, but after my acceptance, I began more thoroughly sorting through the details of the visa application guidelines.

In late May, I set off to England for 5 weeks. I worked on my application a bit while in England, but mostly I procrastinated (oops!) and waited until I returned to the U.S. to take care of it. Completing the application included a trip to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Visa Support Center to submit my biometric information (basically digital fingerprint scans and a digital photograph of my face), which was an extremely painless, simple, and much shorter than expected appointment. Most of the other requirements were fairly simple to gather as well, which was a nice surprise. So, I completed the application and read over it one too many times. In late July, I overnighted my passport (eeeek!) and all of my application materials to the British Consulate in New York.

There were a lot of what if’s running through my mind when I dropped that envelope into the FedEx box….