Feeling Comfortable With Strangeness
Transitioning Abroad to London, England
By John Hillman
Life as a long-term expatriate falls somewhere between tourism and exile. As years pass, the home country feels less and less like home, while the adopted land can still seem stubbornly like “abroad.” To some, this might sound like a life sentence of loneliness, alienation and washing your socks out in the sink. To the committed expatriate, this sense of not fully belonging anywhere goes to the essence of who we are.
I came to London from New York to work for two years. I have stayed, so far, for twenty-five. Opportunity, chance and inertia all played a part, but from my earliest days I felt a mysterious pull to live abroad. From nearly the moment of my arrival in London, I knew this was where I wanted to stay. Aesthetically, culturally, historically, geographically, London suited me better than New York. It was a choice with which many people, including many Londoners, would disagree. I was and remain grateful for the privilege, denied to billions, of being able to choose between the two greatest cities of the Western World.
Moving abroad for the long haul as a young, single professional person requires a different outlook from that of, say, a family relocating overseas for a term of years. In some ways, it is a lot easier. You don’t have to worry about finding schools for the kids, accommodation with multiple bedrooms and baths or a job for your partner or spouse. Yet the solo adventure brings its own problems, the principal one being that you have no one to cushion you from the strangeness of it all.
Let no one be fooled by the common language: England is a foreign country. This fact was memorably impressed upon me the first time I invited guests to dinner. Frantically preparing a half hour before they arrived, I took the blender I had just bought out of its box only to find that, as with all electrical goods sold at that time, you were expected to fit your own plug!
My transition was eased by the fact that I was transferred from the New York to the London office of my employer, an American law firm. Not only did I have work of a similar kind to do when I arrived, but the firm handled a lot of the practicalities of the move, such as shipping my things, obtaining a work permit for me and hiring an accountant to deal with the complications of taxation in two jurisdictions. (A word of caution to budding expatriates: the IRS never forgives or forgets you.) My work colleagues, mainly Americans, collectively had a lot of experience in finding accommodation and ways to amuse themselves in London. Yet generally they neither expected nor wished to stay more than a couple of years, and so approached England more as tourists would. I, on the other hand, was looking to build a new life.
Work, shelter and relationships are the fundamentals of life anywhere. Work is an especially imposing hurdle for expatriate Americans, who, unlike citizens of the European Union, are restricted in the employment they may take in Britain. Unless you are willing to risk working in the underground economy—thus destroying your chances of becoming legally resident in the country—Americans may only take positions for which they can obtain a work permit. This generally means that their employer must justify hiring them on the grounds that no native Briton could do their job equally well. Jobs requiring a special foreign expertise—American law being a prime example—are obvious candidates. The huge international financial services sector of the City of London employs many Americans on this basis, as do American companies with operations in England. Employment in other sectors may require more ingenuity of argument and an employer who want you badly enough to make the effort.
Needing a work permit obviously limits your flexibility in the job market and puts you more at your employer’s mercy. If you don’t like your conditions or can’t stand your boss, you’re stuck, unless you can find another employer willing to sponsor you on the same basis. Moreover, many American companies operate a strict rotation policy for their employees overseas and may not be sympathetic to pleas to be allowed to stay longer. Even if you are allowed to stay, doing so may mean forgoing opportunities for advancement.
After four years of working under permit, you would be entitled to apply for permanent residence, which in theory frees you to take any sort of employment. Do not expect, however, that your foreign qualifications will necessarily be valued, let alone understood, by English employers. University education for more than a narrow elite is a recent phenomenon in Britain. Aside from a half-dozen celebrated names, the sheer breadth of quality across the American higher education spectrum is entirely unrecognized. Beyond that, professional barriers remain. An American lawyer, for example, even after four years’ working in London, cannot suddenly start practicing as a solicitor or barrister.
For all but the lucky few, expatriate life entails career sacrifices. If what you do is more important than where you live, it is probably not for you.
After work, buying a house or flat is the most important element in putting down roots in London. Owning property gives you a stake in the community and allows you to share in what is, after the weather, the most common of English obsessions: rising house prices. In order to find something remotely affordable, you will have to leave the smart foreign ghettos of central London, like Kensington and Chelsea, and move further out to where ordinary English people live, areas like Clapham or, in my case, Islington. You will have to decide whether you prefer the Edwardian, red-brick, suburban sameness south of the Thames or the more varied but chancier urban quarters to the north. ‘Moving house’ as it is called here, is a protracted business fraught with problems at every stage, presided over by that most reviled and mistrusted of professionals, the “estate agent.” You can make an offer on a property and watch the process crawl over many months towards closing, only to have the deal collapse because someone you have never heard of at the far end of the housing chain has been unable to arrange their finance. Or someone may put in a last-minute, higher bid on the property you thought you were buying and cut you out, a scandalous but legal maneuver known as “gazumping.” In survey after survey in England, moving house ranks just after death of a loved one or divorce as the most traumatic of life’s experiences. You cannot pretend to belong here unless you put yourself through it at least once.
Building relationships is the third fundamental of expatriate life. On the whole, the English are accepting of foreigners in their midst (though anti-American feeling is rising), if not particularly welcoming. Neighbors and colleagues will not feel obliged to extend the hand of friendship merely because you are new and don’t know anybody. On a small, crowded island, privacy is prized. The effort, which may be politely rebuffed, will have to come from you.
On the positive side, as Mrs. Thatcher famously said in another context, “There is no such thing as society.” That is, English society is far more diverse and fluid than supposed. The society I expected to find here after growing up on episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited, one dominated by aristocrats, old boy networks and gentlemen’s clubs, barely exists as an observable phenomenon. And London is perhaps the most cosmopolitan city on earth. The whole world is here; its crowded pavements ring with the chatter of unrecognizable tongues. Half the friends I have made here are neither English nor American but others from abroad who have settled here by chance, choice or necessity. They too have learned that the secret of a successful expatriate life is not to try to conform or to seek acceptance but to feel comfortable with strangeness.