Expat Living in London

Shopping on Oxford Street.

Shopping on Oxford Street.

I was recently asked to contribute an article to the expat website World of Expats. This website provides useful information and tips to anyone considering moving overseas on a work assignment. Below is the article I contributed to World of Expats. At the end I provide additional links to the World of Expats site as well as related articles that I have written about expat and London living.

My family just returned from living in London for two years. We moved there with two teen-
aged children and a chocolate Labrador Retriever in 2011. As a family we feel those two years were some of the most exciting and valuable experiences in our lives. Whether you are single or a family considering an expat assignment in London, I’m here to say, “Go for it”. 

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

London is an absolutely beautiful city contrasting both modern and classic architecture. Nestled throughout the city are eight picturesque Royal Parks providing ample green space. Our dog certainly enjoyed the parks especially in the areas that she was allowed to go leash-free.

Discovering London on foot.

Discovering London on foot.

London has outstanding public transportation in the form of the underground and buses. If you absolutely need a car, you may want to consider the following: 1) getting a UK license requires lessons and thorough preparation for the test, 2) finding parking in London is challenging, and 3) remember the English drive on the left-hand side of the street. Another option is to rent cars as needed with services like Zip Car. We chose to not have a car during our 2-year stay and did absolutely great getting around.

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

London offers an enormous array of entertainment for all ages. Whether you like museums, theater, ballet, concerts, or traditional tourist attractions, you will have plenty to pick from. London is a world capital with people from all over the world living there and calling it home. This was a huge highlight for me personally, to be able to meet people from around the world and enjoy such an international experience. London used to have a reputation for having bad food. Well not anymore! The food revolution began around 2001 and London has become a culinary destination. You will be able savor Michelin star cuisine and still enjoy traditional English pub food. There are also amazing outdoor food markets.

Our favorite food market, The Borough Market

Our favorite food market, Borough Market

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

It is important to understand some of the practical aspects of living in London as an expatriate. For starters the cost of living is high. As with any expensive city in the world, you will find rentals very pricey. However, depending on neighborhood you will also have many choices to pick from. Set your expectations appropriately, this is city living and space is at a premium.

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

If you have children, there are excellent British, International, and American schools to pick from. We chose to send our children to The American School in London located in the neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. We chose this school because we wanted our children to continue with the American school system. The British and International school systems are slightly different. I will share that although our school was “American”, there were over 45 nationalities represented giving the school a very international flair. I recommend you apply to schools as early as possible.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux. I saw him twice in our 2 years in London.

Opening bank accounts in the UK is a lengthy process. Again, begin this as soon as you can and even before you officially move. For some strange reason, getting telephone, cable, and internet installed in London is quite a challenge. Request these services early in your moving preparations and be PATIENT. We thought we were so on top of things by setting up these services 4 months ahead of time, only to discover once we arrived in London that the cable modem box would take yet another 4 weeks to arrive. I suppose the advice of being patient is very important when you embark on any expat assignment.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone. We saw the actor Bill Nighy once.

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

It is certainly advantageous to move to a country where English is the main language. As with any foreign travel or living, it helps to learn about and appreciate your host country and culture. The English have some unique norms and customs as well as their own form of “British” English. Take the time to learn them. When we first told our children we were moving to London they had a million questions for us. We felt it was very important for us to set the appropriate expectations. For example, they would ask us if there were certain foods or activities in London that they had back at home. The standard answer became, “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”. We embarked on our adventure with an open mind and a positive attitude. In our two years in London we visited over 25 UK and European cities.

The Tower of London Bridge

The Tower Bridge

We also experienced “city” living and were exposed to a wonderfully diverse community. If you ask any of our family members if they would do this again, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.

For more of our expat and London living and select the corresponding tabs:  https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/

About Finding Housing in London: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/finding-housing-in-london/

About London Post Codes: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/london-postcodes/

About Borough Market: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/borough-market/

About moving overseas: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/moving-overseas/

About the Queens Jubilee celebration: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/london-gets-ready-for-the-queens-jubilee/

About Eating Around the World in London: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/eating-around-the-world-in-london/

To visit the World of Expat site go to: http://www.worldofexpats.com/

London Department Store Offers New Service: Baby Hanging

Yesterday afternoon I was at the Westfield Shopping Center in Shepherd’s Bush (London) killing time while my daughter took her ballet class nearby.

I went into the department store, Marks & Spencer, to buy a card and decided to visit the toilet as it is referred to here. As I looked for the ladies’ room I came across the following door.

IMG_1384

What? Baby Hanging? I wondered what it meant. As Americans living in London we are accustomed to hearing and learning different phrases and words used by the Brits. So I figured this had to be one of them. I kept staring at the door and wondering, wow, is that what they really call a diaper changing area in this country. I also thought, “Strange how I have not come across this term before”.  As I took the picture I thought of how terrible but funny it sounded.

“Baby Hanging”

I had images of hooking the baby to some kind of device that allowed you to change its nappy (diaper) while in an upright position…or perhaps if as a mummy (mommy) you ran out of positive parenting skills and were at wit’s end you…

As I washed my hands, I noticed two ladies also taking a picture of the Baby Hanging door as they entered the ladies’ room. I engaged them in conversation and soon we were all laughing together about the door. (Cannot imagine this happening in the men’s room) I recognized their British accent and realized that it was not an English Phrase on the door but the fact that the letter “C” had fallen off the door. They too were amused with the new service being offered by M & S.

Moving Overseas

Yesterday, I walked my dog Maya in Regent’s park and we ran into a black labrador and its owner. The woman asked me about my dog and I noticed she was an American. Well, that was enough invitation for me to start a conversation. It turned out that she had just moved to London with her family. I was able to share a lot of good tips with her about living in London. We exchanged e:mail addresses and mobile numbers. I always like making new friends but I especially like lending a helping hand to a new expat family.

The experience of living overseas may be one of the most rewarding and yet one of the most challenging experiences you will have in your life. After the initial bewilderment stage comes an opportunity to enjoy and learn. I am writing hoping to reach many of you who just moved to London with your families or even by yourselves. Perhaps you just moved to Brussels, Paris, or Tokyo. Some of my words may apply to you as well. I am here to tell you that it does get easier with each passing day and that before you know it, the strange new land you moved to, becomes your home.

When we were preparing to move to London from the US in 2011 we were very excited about the opportunity. The reason being that we had already been expats in Brussels, Belgium from 1997 – 2001. We were now seasoned expats like so many people you meet. Some families have spent their whole lives moving around the world and can only say positive things about their lifestyle. Our overall experience in Brussels was amazing. We loved it so much that we yearned to someday go abroad again. But I will admit moving to Brussels in July of 1997 was initially a very shocking experience and I can sympathize with some of you who are completely overwhelmed as you read this.

Let me share a story. When we moved to Brussels many life events converged into what seemed like a personal nuclear explosion at the time.  The first one was that I left my career. For someone who had been so career-driven this was a very difficult decision. However, I had been very willing to go on a “sabbatical” because, I was pregnant with our first child and I was presented with the opportunity to travel all over Europe, something I was passionate about.  Had I been in the states I probably would have taken a standard leave of absence and then returned to work. The advent of losing my salary and cutting our income in half was frightening. I also had to redefine who I was as a person since so much of my self-confidence and self-esteem was linked to my profession. But we were open to the life adventure ahead of us. However, during my 17thweek of pregnancy, while the movers were back at the house packing us, our lives were rattled when we received bad news about the pregnancy and baby. News that seemed so insurmountable that I questioned why were we were even moving overseas.  The baby would require surgeries after birth. At the time, I was still narrow-minded in thinking that I would only be able to receive excellent medical care for our baby in the US.  On top of that I was leaving my family and friends at a time when I needed them the most. But there was no turning back with the moving plans. Sometimes destiny does lead you in mysterious ways and Brussels was to be our next destination.

The Early Belgium Years 1998

Our  beautiful son was born on Christmas Eve 1997 in Brussels, Belgium. I would have at my disposal an amazing team of doctors who were so gifted and wonderful that even demigods would not compare. I still believe that it’s as if though we had to move to Brussels to have these incredible doctors take care of our son. What had started out as a tempest, with no calm in sight, had evolved into a clear horizon allowing my husband and I to successfully navigate our new lives in Brussels.

OK, I won’t kid you. Living in a country where they speak foreign languages, in our case French and Flemish, was difficult at times. Many Belgians spoke English which definitely helped but there were times that you had to be creative, like when the phone guy came over and we had to communicate with hand signals. Sometimes I would spend hours reading food labels in the supermarket trying to figure out if I was buying the correct item. A big help for me was joining The American Women’s Club of Brussels. They were an amazing resource of support and friendship. In August of 1999 our beautiful daughter was also born in Brussels. Our son was 19 months at that time. And now with two babies in tow we continued to explore Belgium and Europe. Our children learned to sleep in planes, trains, and automobiles.

By Chenonceaux Castle in the Loire Valley, France
2000

We got lucky because they were good babies/toddlers who allowed us to bring them everywhere, from châteaux in France to Champagne houses, from crystal shops in Prague to Michelin star restaurants.  After an amazing 4 years in Brussels we returned to the US in 2001.

Developing a Discriminating Taste for Champagne in Champagne, France
2001

Fast forward to 2011 as we prepared to return overseas…

We were now moving overseas with 13 and 12-year old children. The key was in selling them on the idea of moving very early on. It’s all in the marketing, isn’t it? What helped was that we had already moved within the US. When we returned from Brussels, we had first lived in Westport, CT for 5 years and then we had moved to West Chester, PA. The children were in 2nd and 3rd grade when we did this move, and yes it had been hard for them to leave friends, but they instantly made new ones. So when we announced we were moving to London they were absolutely fine with the idea. They were excited about living overseas and had the confidence that they would be able to make new friends. Before the move, they would ask us questions like:

“Do they have Wawa’s hoagies in London?” (For those of you not from PA/NJ area, Wawa’s is a Gasoline/Food/Convenience chain that makes delicious hoagies (heros/grinders/sandwiches))

Our answer would be, “No they don’t have Wawa’s hoagies in London but they will have different things that may be better ”.

Sure enough the children discovered that you can get some very amazing baguettes in London and the sandwiches made with these are delicious. We have opened ourselves up to new experiences with the thought that the outcomes will be positive. We keep saying to the children:

 “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”.

My husband and the children exploring the streets of Bologna, Italy
July 2001

Exploring the streets of Bellagio, Italy
August 2012

I am not here to say that change is completely easy and without challenges. Change can be very difficult at times. It’s how we manage the process of change that allows us to move forward in a productive and healthy fashion. It is important to know how to manage the stresses that get thrown our way. How we behave is also critical. Our children are watching us every step of the way. Children are very intuitive and they can sense your attitudes and feelings immediately.  Sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves and at the difficult situations. Like the time my friend in Brussels went to put her Thanksgiving turkey in her oven and it did not fit. She had to carve it up and roast it in pieces. Then there’s the time I tried to use my “French” language skills, and asked the waiter for a spoon,“ une cuillère”, and instead they brought out cheese, “le gruyere”.  That’s o.k., I’ll take some of that too. You may have already faced or are in the middle of facing daunting tasks like opening bank accounts, buying cell phones, getting a phone line connected, getting internet and cable, dealing with home repairs, figuring out how to get around, grocery shopping, unpacking, baby sitters, dog sitters, or where to buy something. We waited for 3 weeks for our Sky Internet modem to arrive and we were supposedly one of the lucky ones. Just know that with each passing day it will get easier and you’ll laugh at some of the missteps over a glass of wine or pint of beer.

Walking Over the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland

Know that this overseas experience will profoundly change you and your family members in so many positive ways. How you perceive the world and react to it will be different and better. This experience will test your and your family’s resolve, flexibility, and even relationships. For many it will bring you closer as a family. Open yourselves up to this new adventure with a positive attitude. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to organizations and support groups. Try new foods, make new friends, explore new places and hopefully you’ll look back at the expat years as some of the most amazing years of your life.

Finding Housing in London

Just a year ago my husband and I were deciding where to live in London. We knew we wanted to be in the city. Our children had been accepted to The American School in London located in St. John’s Wood. We had been to London numerous times and felt that we wanted to look in both Marylebone and St. John’s Wood. It helps to study a map of London and start learning the various neighborhoods and postcodes before you come on a house-hunting trip. This helps focus your search.

If you have children, you’ll need to know what postcode or neighborhood their school is in. (See my posting on London Postcodes)

https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/london-postcodes/

Then you’ll need to confirm if the school offers a bus service or find out what your public transportation options are. There’s always the option of driving or hiring a private car service.

Examples of neighborhoods where expats live include but are not limited to:

  • St. John’s Wood NW8
  • Maida Vale W9
  • Hampstead NW3
  • Swiss Cottage NW3
  • West Hampstead NW6
  • Knightsbridge SW7, SW1X
  • Kensington W8, SW3
  • South Kensington  SW7
  • Chelsea SW3
  • Mayfair W1
  • Marylebone W1
  • Holland Park W11
  • Nottinghill W11

Factors Influencing your decision

Your budget and willingness to give up space are critical factors in determining your location. You get more space for your money in places like Hampstead, Swiss Cottage and West Hampstead. These neighborhoods are north of the city. For example, my friend is less than 10 minutes by car to The American School in London (ASL) from West Hampstead. Public transportation will take you about 15 to 40 minutes to ASL from some of these further locations. Some families want to be more centrally located and choose neighborhoods like Mayfair or Marylebone.

Townhouses in Marylebone

Some folks want to be near one of the city’s beautiful parks like Regents Park, St. James Park, Green Park , Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, Primrose Hill, or Hampstead Heath. Proximity to public transportation can also influence your decision as well. Others pick particular neighborhoods simply because that’s what they like.

There is a high concentration of Americans in St. John’s Wood because The American School in London is located there. Many families prefer to be close to the school. However, keep in mind that a walk to school can range from 1 to 15 minutes depending on where you are in St. John’s Wood. The South Bank International School has campuses in Hampstead and Kensington for the Lower Schools and in Westminster for the Middle School and High School.  Some families choose to enter their children into the British School System. These are decisions that may influence where you live.

A Semi-Detached House in Maida Vale

Something to keep in mind when calculating commuting distances is traffic. London like all major cities has its share of traffic jams. If you live in Kensington or Knightsbridge, which is very popular with expats, it is typically a 15-minute car ride without traffic to ASL. I have friends who live there and their child’s school bus ride from ASL in the afternoons can take upwards of 45 – 50 minutes. Another factor influencing your decision may be proximity to your children’s friends’ homes. And let’s not forget the dog. Do you need a patch of grass in the back or are you willing to walk the dog all the time.

You’ll need to decide whether you want: a flat (apartment), a maisonette (a cross between a flat and a semi-detached house), a terraced house or townhouse (4 to 5-storey row homes, some with their own garages), a mews house (converted stables), a semi-detached home, or a detached home.

A Maisonnette in St. John’s Wood.
There are two duplex flats in this property. One is on the ground (1st in the US) and lower level (Basement in the US), and the other is on 1st (2nd in the US) and 2nd floor (3rd in the US)

In many cases you’ll be working with a relocation consultant that will help you sort through all of this. Availability of inventory will also influence your decision. If you are planning a summer move it makes sense to come in the April/May time frame.  Remember, not only are you competing for properties with families that are moving over but also with families that are already living here and need to change their housing. On some occasions, families have to live in temporary housing because they are unable to find something ideal.

It helps to speak to other families living in London. The schools can put you in touch with support families. I was able to speak to families living in both St. John’s Wood and Hampstead and this really helped with our decision. We looked at housing in Marylebone and St. John’s Wood. Marylebone is a wonderful neighborhood closer to the heart of the city with a great high street. A high street is the main street in a neighborhood for shopping. Keep in mind that London is made up of neighborhoods which hundreds of years ago were separate villages with their own high streets. Today they all blend into one city.

A semi-detached house with its own driveway

Some parts of Marylebone border with Regents Park. It offers wonderful shops and restaurants. We chose to live in St. John’s Wood and be near our children’s school. My 14-year old son visits with friends after school or on weekends and most of his friends live in the neighborhood. I still escort my 12-year old daughter to and from friends’ houses. She has a few friends in our neighborhood but many live in other locations. We take buses, underground, or taxis to get her back and forth. St. John’s Wood is still very centrally located. We can easily hop on a bus and be at Oxford Street in 20 minutes. We brought our dog over from the states and we chose a house that has a small back yard for the dog. We selected a lovely 4-storey terraced house/townhouse. We lucked out because our house has a generous sized kitchen and an American style side-by-side refrigerator. It also has its own laundry room.

Example of Terrace Houses in St. John’s wood

Many homes in London and other European cities come with small refrigerators and washing machines located in the kitchen. Although, some places come furnished ours did not. We ended up renting furniture here.

Also, beware of being gazumped. This is the expression for when you may have signed contracts with a potential landlord, but they continue to list the house and end up accepting a higher offer. I know of cases where families have been ready to move and they have lost the property the night before the move. In another case, a friend went through two consecutive cases of being gazumped. I suppose in the end it is better that you don’t end up with a unscrupulous landlord, but the stress of the whole experience is exhausting.

Armed with your house & family requirements and of course with a healthy dosage of flexibility you too will be able to find a suitable house in London and turn it into a lovely home.

If you want to get a jump start on looking for housing, we found the following website very useful:

http://www.zoopla.co.uk/

The following three websites describe neighborhoods in London:

are:http://golondon.about.com/od/londonneighborhoods/London_Neighborhood_Descriptions.htm

http://www.anglotopia.net/british-travel/london/best-places-for-americans-to-live-in-london-american-expat-areas-of-london/

http://www.reloburo.com/uk_information/area_information/introduction.shtml