Category Archives: Rule Britannia

The First ExPat-iversary

A year ago. A whole year. We landed with a lot of luggage, a lot of excitement, a few nerves, and some semblance of a plan.

In some ways it feels like we still arrived here yesterday. In others, it feels like it’s always been like this.

So, a year in, what have I learned?

It takes a lot longer to feel settled than I thought it might. What might be considered small bureaucratic accomplishments by a native (like getting a parking permit, or a new banking service) still feel like larger victories.

However, I’m starting to find that hearing a lot of North American accents together is somewhat jarring. And I don’t have an accent myself (yet?), but my speech patterns have changed somewhat. I say ‘yeah’ a lot more than ‘eh’ now. And some pronounciations are being overtaken by the Queen’s English. These days I’m not entirely sure how it’s going to come out when I open my mouth to say ‘tomato.’

We’re doing pretty well in the friends department. Oxford is small, so it’s easy to run into the same people a lot. Having a kid helps, because we get to know parents of other kids. As does having a job and making friends with workmates. But a rare in-person visit with a friend I’ve known for over a decade quickly puts these much fresher friendships into perspective.

It’s hard, really hard, being so far from family.

But there is one thing about being an ExPat, an overarching theme to it all, that I really, really like. And until very recently, I wasn’t sure how to put it into words:

Being an ExPat means being free to forge a new path.

When we arrived here, one thing I really liked was the perception I had that more people work-to-live than live-to-work. The English, I thought, have a much healthier attitude toward their careers. I have a friend here who spent a year living near Toronto, and thought exactly the same thing about Canadians!

It seems to be less about the attitude of a country’s people toward life, than the type of people you end up exposed to as an ExPat, and your experience of seeing the world without the lens of their cultural history and expectations.

And the same thing happens to the way people see you. Natives don’t expect you will have the same background, goals, or priorities they do, since you are not one of them.

At the same time, nobody from ‘back home’ expects you to live the same way anymore, because you are no longer there.

It’s a total opting-out of the rat race. Of the competitive parenting. Of keeping up with the Joneses.

Oh, we still cause people’s eyes to bug out of their heads occasionally, when saying things like “well, if we don’t end up living in that catchment, we’ll be ok. It’s only primary school.” Except the eye-bug is more one of ‘Wacky Canadians’ rather than ‘Terrible Parents’ (which is what many of those who aren’t ultimately consumed by where their kindergarteners end up are labelled).

There are still things I miss about Vancouver. Top of the list is that network of family and friends, of course. But I also find myself longing for the beaches and mountains in a way that surprises me. I miss North American pizza, great cheap sushi, and bread that doesn’t disintegrate if you wave some butter near it.

But I am finding new things here. Not replacements for the life we built before going, but additions to it. A proper cup of tea. Bacon sandwiches. Pub culture. Beautiful old treasure houses. The network of rivers and canals. The ever-present sense of English ‘fair play.’ New friends.

All things that I’m discovering I’m going to miss whenever the time comes that we move on.

Happy ExPativersary to Us!

As of July 12th, we’ve been in the UK a year – a whole year!

It has really flown by.

mixedflag

Image from mixedflag.com. I think I need this on a t-shirt.

I have so many more words to say about it, but between a crazy quick trip to Vancouver earlier this month (a surprise for my dad’s 60th birthday) and moving house (argh!), time to extract them from my brain through my fingers to the keyboard has been in short supply.

But! If you are on the twitters, you can follow @PeopleofCanada this week, where I’m curating the account and sharing snippets of life as a Canadian ExPat in the UK.

Life List: Learn to drive a manual transmission – Check!

It’s been slow-going, including some active avoidance of all driving on my part, but I think I am finally confident enough to cross “Learn to drive a manual transmission car” off the life list!

I am not currently going to win any races, but with Neil out of town for a few days (leaving the car sat in our parking spot), and the weather taking another turn for the miserable, the temptation to take 4, enclosed wheels, rather than my usual 2 exposed ones to work was too strong!

Not a lot has changed since last August, when I complained about my reluctance and terror. Except, after a few more lessons, and a lot more time as a passenger here, getting more opportunities to observe the rules of the road, I feel like I know a little more about what to expect from other road users.

And, more importantly, I feel a lot more confident about what to expect from my car.

One thing I didn’t expect from the driving lessons was that it would make driving my own car a lot more difficult. The instructor’s car has a well-used, incredibly mushy clutch. Great for learning on, when one has a hojillion other things to think about.

Less good, when trying to drive a car with a much tighter gearbox, which ours has. It was stall-city. And at one point I found myself trying to enter a busy mini-roundabout from a slight incline, and could just not manage to move off.

At which point I threw a complete snit, made Neil hop out of the passenger seat and complete the journey himself, and refused to drive our car anymore out of nothing but frustration and spite.

But, one hectic day, I ended up having to drive the car to a job interview when I ran out of time to call a cab. And then again to running group. And then I willingly took it on a few more errands.

Which brings us to this week. I drove to and from work (including nursery dropoff for Isaac), which means navigating left and right turns, a few hills, and a clutch-tastic creep across town in heavy commuter traffic.

And I made it. Mostly confidently. Stopping on a hill still results in looking like a bit of an idiot with my high revs and heavy clutching. I still lurch wildly on occasion. But I’m not stalling. And I even pulled my shoulders down from around my ears long enough to turn on the radio at one point.

I’m not what you’d call graceful in my maneuvering, but I am remembering how much I really love to drive.

So I’m calling this one a win!

Silver 2009 5-door Ford Focus

Hello, friend.

Winds of Change

With all the griping I did about our move, you would think I do not like change.

This is not true. I like it a lot. Perhaps too much. I am rarely content to leave well enough alone. I just prefer when I’m the one initiating it, rather than having it imposed upon me.

So after a bit of a yell and a bit of a cry about the unfairness of the world, etc. we picked ourselves up and got on with it. Saturday morning we headed down to the property management office, and by Saturday afternoon we were viewing a property right around the corner. Monday morning we had an accepted tenancy application. We move in on July 11th.

One thing that’s been made really obvious on this ExPat adventure is how much change there is in the world. Without the usual, familiar anchors of neighbourhoods we know like the back of our hand, social systems we’ve been navigating all our lives, long-known friends & family nearby, a house we don’t have to move out of until we decide to, or jobs we’ve been in for a long time, we feel all the other little changes quite a bit more keenly.

Basically, we are coming to realize that we can’t actually count on anything staying as it is.

New friends come and go as people move in and out of our jobs/daycare/neighbourhood/city. Businesses we have come to rely on & enjoy close, or change owners, and we need to find new ones. Landlords adapt to the changes in their own lives, which trickles down to ours. The constant ebb and flow of bureaucratic processes surge in and out, interrupting and changing our plans as we weave our way through our dealings with government offices and institutions.

It’s actually kindof amazing to ride the rollercoaster of emotion that comes with each change. Sadness and disappointment are keen, but tempered by knowing that they’ll pass. And in contrast, joy and excitement are so much sweeter, and really relished, knowing that they could be fleeting.

With each change, we learn a little more, broaden our horizons, gain a bit of wisdom, grow a bit more resilient.

And wait for the next wave to crash.

Wind Of Change – Scorpions – Official Music Video from Chito Mañosca Francisco on Vimeo.

On the Move

Just last week we were talking about how gloriously happy we were in our current place. Great space, lovely neighbours, excellent location. So of course, we received a call today that the landlord wants to move back in, and won’t be renewing our tenancy when it expires on 31 July.

Fuck.

We have just shy of three months to find a new place. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to be very hard to find a place in our budget that gives us the space and location we love about our current digs. This is exactly the kind of thing I was worried about when we jumped on the renting bandwagon.

Not that purchasing a place is really possible for us right now anyhow.

As soon as we got the news, in an effort to not be unceremoniously punted out of our next place (and the one after that?), we called the bank to ask about buying. And being new to the UK has burned us again. I can not apply for a mortgage without being a permanent resident (known here as having Indefinite Leave to Remain – ILR). That’s in the process, but certainly won’t be done by the time we need to move. So we’d have to qualify on Neil’s salary alone. That doesn’t leave us much to work with in this neighbourhood.

It’s just another of the ways I’m feeling particularly screwed by the immigration process lately.

I am mired in the procedure and bureaucracy of the arduous processes to get a driver’s license, because they need to take my passport for a month to verify my identity. Unfortunately, the UKBA Home Office has it for the 6 months they take to process ILR applications.

I have basically given up on the idea of getting a credit card in my own name (I am currently a secondary cardholder on Neil’s), because I do not know a bank officer, doctor, postmaster or chartered accountant who lives in the UK, has known me for two years, and will sign a certified copy of my passport swearing that I am who I say I am for the anti-money-laundering regulations.

And, immigration-wise, we have it relatively easy. Neil is a UK citizen, so he has fewer hoops to jump through to get a driver’s license (though he does still have to pass a road test on a manual transmission). His company set up a bank account and credit card, so we’re ok on that front. He did have a hard time getting a national insurance number, though.

We’re even moving faster than most on the whole ILR thing; we coincidentally received my and Isaac’s visa just a couple weeks before they changed the rules, so it means we do not have to serve the mandatory waiting period (used to be 2, just changed to 5 years) before even applying for settlement.

I do not know how other people get through that period, to be honest.

I don’t even have a lot of the barriers many other immigrants do of coming from a totally different culture or language. I don’t look or dress like I’m ‘from somewhere else.’ We are allowed to drive here for a full 12 months on our Canadian licenses, and can exchange them for UK ones, even if it is only for automatic transmissions. Nobody recognizes my university or my degree, but I am at least able to practice my profession here (unlike foreign-trained doctors, etc.) Hell, I’m even allowed to vote here (thanks, commonwealth!) But just when I feel like I’m fitting in and settling down, I keep running into these roadblocks that make me feel like a second-class citizen.

The things I worked for, achieved, or had earned in Vancouver mean nothing here. No credit history, no reputation. Nobody cares. I am an unknown, and generally not to be trusted. It all feels profoundly unfair.

“Starting over” sounds aspirational and romantic. Mostly, it’s a logistical nightmare.

I have so much empathy now for anyone who makes a much bigger leap than we have, to begin a new life in a new place.

Anyhow, having this rental rug pulled out from under us, when it was one of the only things I was feeling really good and confident about, is hard. Really hard. Making me question why we ever bothered coming here hard. Making me want to cut our months of time and thousands of dollars in losses and just get out hard.

But I have never been one to do things the easy way.

And so we plod on.

Six years later

It’s grey here today. Exceedingly grey. And cold.

And there is nothing like reminders from Timehop about the fact that this time one year ago, I was in Cuba, and two years before that, in Thailand, to make me feel extra grumbly about the grey and cold.

So I scrolled further back in the past, and whaddya know, it was six years ago today that we were in Oxford. My first trip here.

Oxford's Bridge of Sighs

Six years ago, Neil and I were engaged, and planning to move into our condo in Kits (which wouldn’t actually be completed for an additional 6 months). There was still no plan or idea of Isaac. The dog didn’t have a hint of grey in her now salt-&-pepper muzzle.

Neil didn’t yet have a UK passport, and wouldn’t for another 4-ish years. Moving abroad wasn’t anywhere on the radar. Heck, I had barely traveled anywhere at all before that year.

And yet, there was something about our visit. Something that sparked the idea of moving abroad at some point. Something that made us think, as we wandered around the city, that maybe one day we could live here.

It wasn’t so much about Oxford, as just going somewhere Other Than where we were. Making our world a little bigger than it had been. It became a gauge by which we’d categorize all trips we’d take: interesting, but could I live here?

View from the Tower

It was six years ago that we ventured the furthest from the hotel we’d gone, into another neighbourhood via a narrow street lit by bare overhead bulbs. Where we turned right, onto a street anchored by the iconic Oxford University Press and full of interesting looking boutiques and eateries. Where we looked up one of the side streets and saw the bright streak of pastel row houses, and I said “if we ended up in an area like this, I could totally live here.”

It was six years ago that I stepped into the road to take the photo currently used in the blog header.

Neighbourhood and street names long-since forgotten, we found ourselves actually moving to Oxford. And against all odds ended up moving to that neighbourhood. I only recognized it because of the pastel row-houses, and had to dig out the picture to be really sure. They are the same houses. Observatory Street.

And we found them, via Walton Street in Jericho, by heading down Little Clarendon street, illuminated at night by bare bulbs strung across the street. Now our regular stomping ground, but feeling eerily familiar, in a dream-like way, from having seen them so many years ago.

Six years ago it happened to be sunny this week. Uncharacteristically so. Except for that one day in Henley-upon-Thames when it was so rainy and windy that my umbrella blew inside-out and practically tied itself in a knot. And the river was flooded that year, just as it is now.

But that little blast-from-the-past now has me thinking a lot less about today’s cold and grey, and about the immense amount of adventure the past 6 years have held. And how absolutely clueless about it all I was back then.

And I’m wondering what, or where, on earth I’ll see in another six years.

Tea-mendous

Moving house can often lead you to see your possessions in a new light.

Especially when you have packed in a hurry, without making much effort to thin your piles of stuff before beginning. And are then distanced from that stuff for half a year.

Because who the hell brings tea (from the new world, at that) to England?

Us, apparently.

Amber just posted round two of her Tea Stash Challenge, which reminded me how overwhelmed and somewhat incredulous I feel every time I look at the shelf containing all our tea.

Tea Shelf

It doesn’t look too bad, until you unpack it all onto the kitchen counter:

Photo 1

There are multiples of different types of tea, thanks to my old work-desk stash making its way back home, some tea gifts, and impulse purchases of various lemon/ginger-type blends bought on a whim when I’ve felt sick. There are random bags and samples I’ve picked up along the way. There are tins from at least two tea shops that have gone out of business.

The small green tins down the right side are all leftover wedding favours (we gifted tiny tins of mint tea, to tie in with our Moroccan honeymoon) from nearly five (!) years ago, and the large tupperware on the left is Moroccan mint tea, bought on said honeymoon.

Does tea even last that long?

Honourable mentions go to two tins of drinking chocolate, a box of spiced cider sachets, and a couple orphan packs of Starbucks VIA coffee; also on the shelf, but not pictured, since they’re not tea.

Of course, the tea that actually gets used is the box of standard PG Tips, going through a pot or two a day. Runner-up is the loose or bagged Rooibos, for when I’m feeling overcaffeinated.

I would never describe myself as a “tea fiend,” but I clearly have some sort of tea hoarding issue.

It’s obviously time to start introducing some variety into my daily cuppa, or bin the lot and reclaim a shelf.

Are you a tea fiend and/or unintentional hoarder? Do share!

Show me Your Tea Stash at Strocel.com