The Actual Art of Living Abroad

I was thinking the other day that the address up there for this blog is carolynintheuk but that I don’t often talk about the day to day of living in a country that I did not grow up in.  Here’s the thing, it is both wonderful and horrible almost all the time and at the same time.

One the one hand London is a beautiful city.  It is a remarkable mix of old and new mixed up together in a blender.  From in front of my office I can see both St Paul’s and the gherkin. I eat lunch sometimes in the churchyard at St Bride’s.  I am walking distance from the Tate Modern, which I truly believe is one of the best art galleries in the world.  The use of space is epic in scale.  The weekend following Jeremy’s job interview in 2004 we crossed over the Millennium bridge and walked into the Turbine Hall to find a sun had been installed at one end of the massive room with a fake cloud hovering above us and the ceiling completely mirrored.  People lay on the floor staring up at themselves and others on possibly the most miserable February day of all time.  That moment, stepping out of the sleet and cold and into the most tangible art experience of my life thus far, made me believe in London.  Up to that point London had lived in my head as a 3 day adventure from 1994.  I knew I loved it, but it was a dream, something far off and impossible to achieve.  But stepping into that science fiction environment in a Victorian power plant cum modern art gallery everything sort of fell into place.  This is something that only London can do.

But on the other hand, I grew up with space.  So much space.  The house I lived in until moving to Detroit when I was 20 was situated on 3 acres of land.  We had vegetable gardens and flower gardens and fruit trees and room to ice skate in the winter.  Even my first apartments were huge.  Space was everywhere.  On moving to Chicago and beginning my love-hate relationship with the el, I lost some of that space, I thought, but still, living space, walking space, breathing space was everywhere.  This is not the case in London.   There is no such thing as personal space in London.  Everywhere you go,  someone is walking into, standing in your way, taking a photograph.  Living space is smaller, restaurants are smaller, shops are smaller, stairways are smaller (and generally steeper too), roads are smaller, it takes getting used to after the open wide of the midwest.  And while Ive mostly adapted there are still moments when I crave that bubble of space, that luxurious bubble, that I used to take for granted

There is also a constant need, still, to translate a good third of what I say into British English.  It’s not that I will be misunderstood completely if I don’t do this, but I will be treated as either a tourist or a jerk who refuses to make allowances for her new home.  And sometimes I just want to talk and be understood without having to sort through my vocabulary for a word that is not instinctual to use.  And then, you have the issue of shared cultural references, people here don’t know about things like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Jem and the Holograms, Little Ceasar’s commercials with origami pterodactyls, Styx, or Red Wings Hockey.  And fair enough, why would people over here give a crap about the hockey team I like.  But, still, sometimes it would be so nice not to have to explain why I still say ‘Synchronize Swatches!’  Thank Christ the A*Team made it over here or I’d be saying ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’ to a bunch of blank faces.

These are things you don’t think of when you decide to move far away.  You assume that in a country that allegedly speaks the same language as the one you grew up with that you will be able to communicate as easily and clearly as you are accustomed to back home.  But you also open yourself up to having a million new and wonderful experience.  It’s an adventure, and I never stopped to think about it before, but sometimes adventures can be tricky and when you’re on them you can feel like an outsider because, as the adventurer, you are the other, you are not the average, you are the observer even when you are a participant.  You will always  be singled out by your strange customs and accent and references.

I suppose here I should offer some tips to living abroad, some ideas for coping with it all, but right now, as much as I love it, I am feeling a bit worn down by it as well so it is hard to think of said tips.  This is not to say that I’m feeling homesick exactly, but more familiarsick, I could do with some old familiar odds and ends right now and they are not so easy to come by.  The expatriate existence is a strange one, I’m glad I at least have Jeremy with me on this grand adventure because he totally knows what I’m talking about when I say ‘You can make a pterodactyl, caw caw caw!’



Filed under the travails of living abroad

6 responses to “The Actual Art of Living Abroad

  1. If it’s any consolation, I still regularly get treated like a tourist and I’ve lived 13 years in a country that neighbours my country of birth!

    • carolynintheuk

      so what your saying is that this will never change 🙂

      at least in a city the size of london i can get sort of lost, i don’t think i’ll ever be willing to move to a small town over here (not that edinburgh is small) because i’m scared of that type of attitude exactly

  2. H

    Just remember, Jem’s truly outrageous.

    • carolynintheuk

      just saw a clip on youtube of both jem and the misfits, i think i might like the misfits more than the holograms now. 12 year old carolyn is outraged!

  3. Keri

    truly, truly, truly outrageous.

    i feel like this alot. and that’s when i have to hop on a plane, fly back to new york and recharge with my friends and family.

    • carolynintheuk

      we’ve actually just booked tickets for may, even though we weren’t planning to go back until 2010 originally, i wonder if my grouchiness has contributed at all to my willingness to change plans.

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