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/

Another Day in Maya’s London Life

One of Maya’s favorite pass times in London was going on adventurous walks. On this spring morning, Maya took us to some of her favorite London sights and shared some of her thoughts.

 

At the Wellington Arch

“You want me sitting where?”

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At Buckingham Palace

 “I cannot wait for my Corgi friends to come out and play in the Royal Gardens!”

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Standing by the Red Phone Booth

 “Indeed, one must admit to oneself that there is a presence of brilliant odours enveloping these boxes.”

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The Bobby by Big Ben

“Who’s Bobby and who’s Ben anyway?”

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On the Westminster Bridge with a View of the London Eye

 “We are allowed on the London underground and buses but not the fun ride. That’s not very nice and it makes me sad.”

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Across from The Parliament Building

 “Can I please, please, please jump in and swim?”

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At Westminster Abbey in Quiet Contemplation

“What is my life’s purpose? To eat, to sleep, and to go on walks but most importantly to teach my humans about love, patience, humility and loyalty.”

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London Taxi Cab

 “My human says London cabbies are the best in the world… that’s interesting… ooh, I think I see a doggie friend over there.”

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Modeling Along the Mall

 “This is definitely getting old, can we please please just continue walking. I see another park down the road!”

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Riding the Bus Home

 “I’m really tired now, oh but is that a potato chip I see over there?”

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Time for a Nap

“Exhaustion overtakes me… I must rest up today for tomorrow will bring another adventure. ”

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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.

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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.

The Journey

Back in September I snuck into one of my posts that I had just joined a women’s beginner running group and that we were in training to do a half-marathon in Bratislava, Slovakia in March of 2013.

Part of the Beginner's Running Group in our favorite meeting place

Part of the Beginner’s Running Group in our favorite meeting place

We are now 3 days away from the big day. I leave to Bratislava today and the run is on Sunday March 24th. Our group of 33 women, ranging in ages from 30 to 50’s started out with routines of walking 2 minutes, running 2 minutes and so forth and so on, to eventually running 11-mile runs. Back in September, when I printed out the training program I was amazed with what we would accomplish. We slowly increased our running times. We used to wince at running 15 minutes straight, then 30 minutes seemed outrageous, and an hour run was the “unthinkable”. Then the runs started getting longer and longer. By December we were running 3 times a week. The short run was 35 minutes long, the medium run was initially a 45-minute run which eventually became an hour run, and the long run, well we made it to 2+hours. Last week was our last “long run” before the race. We are ready for the half-marathon. Our main coach is a woman who has dedicated the last 11 years of her life to introducing women to running. She does not charge for this, for her it is a labor of love. Through her dedication to us she shares her passion for running while at same time building our confidence and serving as an inspiration. She recruits other runners to be assistant coaches to help her with the rookies. Every year she takes an average group of about 70 women, both beginner runners and graduates, to half marathons. She also trains some of the women to do marathons.

Our First Run to Big Ben

Our First Run to Big Ben

What we achieved as individuals and as a group was remarkable. I get a little misty eyed thinking of this group of amazing women, my pillars throughout the training. When the weather was dreary and dark, with temperatures below freezing accompanied by that quaint London spitty rain, all I wanted to do was go back to bed after the kids went to school. Instead, I donned my running gear and knew the group was waiting for me at the St. John’s Wood High Street Starbucks. Although over time the group divided into 3 sub-groups depending on our running speeds, we all remained cohesive and supportive of each other. We “left no woman behind”. There were falls, injuries, and disappointments along the way but we endured. There were also triumphant achievements, laughs, and celebrations. I was also very fortunate to have a fan club at home. My husband and children were so supportive throughout the training. They have been very proud of me and that is such a special feeling.

Last week proved to be a fateful week with regard to my running. On the day of our “last long run”, last Thursday, during the first 10 minutes of an 11-mile run I felt as if though a dog bit my right lower calf muscle.  I continued running thinking it was a cramp and that it would go away. I slowed down, and waved my friends on. I felt a pulling in the leg, not really a harsh pain, but things were not right. And as always, our head coach was suddenly there, massaging my leg, asking me questions, and assessing what to do. She asked me to slow down my pace and see how I felt. Part of me was afraid of further injury, but part of me was determined to accomplish the long run. Since there was no harsh pain, just a dull discomfort, I slowed down, and was able to complete the 11-mile run. I was fine once I was running. By 1:30 that afternoon I was at the physical therapist’s office. And yes sadly, I had a small tear of my right leg calf muscle. The good news was that based on the strength I showed in the leg that afternoon he felt confident that he would have me ready for the race, only of course if I followed his strict instructions. So this past week I was very busy icing, exercising, stretching, and going to the physical therapist. I did 3 short runs successfully and that helped increase my confidence. I will do the run on Sunday but I will need to start at a slower pace than usual and depending on how the leg feels, then I will increase my speed for the second half of the race. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

This journey I have taken with this amazing group of women has made us all richer in spirit, stronger in body, and courageous and confident in mind. It has reminded us of how important it is set goals. And I have had the opportunity to make wonderful new friends. This journey reminded me of how important it is to reach beyond our comfort zone and to aim to do things we thought we might not have been able to achieve. We set our mind to it and we achieved it.

The Wicked Witch of the West is Alive, She lives in London, Rides a Bicycle, and She Wears Tweed.

Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz

An Injustice is Committed

For those of you who have been following my blog, you may recall that last summer I wrote about the lady who stole my parking spot in a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Delaware and how I reacted to this injustice. Well, today there was an injustice committed on one of my running mates and I am writing about it! I thought that by sharing the story I would in some way bring light to the injustice, offer some support, and help restore balance to the universe.

Here’s what happened…

We are a group of about 25 – 30 women running through the streets of London. Sometimes we can run in 3’s, or 2’s, but sometimes we must run in a single file because of people and traffic. We try to be very respectful of motorists, bicyclists and walkers.  As we ran through Little Venice (remember my article this week about the area with canals) some of the gals were on the sidewalk and a few were on the street by the edge of the sidewalk. Unfortunately, I did not eye witness the event. I only heard the aftermath sounds. All of sudden we heard a bicycle bell ring. The cyclist rang it multiple times as he/she passed the huge group. Typically we make way for the passing bicycles. And then all of sudden the bicycle rider punched one of my friends, who had remained on the edge of the street, out of her way. I don’t understand why this cyclist did not try to slow down, stop, or move further into the quiet street. There was ample space and time to react in. What violent behavior, “Let me just punch the person who is in my way”. I suddenly heard a gasp from the group as my friend recovered and yelled a retaliating comment to the bicycle rider. The culprit was a lady in a tweed jacket. What unexpected behavior from someone in this very polite and proper country. I think this act would be considered “assault & battery” somewhere else.

I felt really bad for my friend. It’s good I did not witness this event or that it did not happen to me because I have a bit of an overactive “injustice” meter. I know I would have been compelled to try out my unprecedented sprinting skills in order to catch up with the culprit who had stopped at a light ahead. And just like I cornered my parking spot thief at the store this past summer, I would have pointed out to this lady her inappropriate behavior towards my friend. Destiny also led us away from the crazy cyclist lady as we took a different path to hers. I know it’s not good to let these bad things affect us. We continued running. All I could do was be empathetic and remind both my friend and me that there is a balance in the universe and that these behaviors do not go unchecked. We later laughed together as we commented how the lady reminded us of the Wicked Witch of the West, of Ms. Gulch riding her bicycle this time sporting tweed. We continued running while we reenacted the music to this particular scene of the Wizard of Oz movie. And then with each stride that we continued to take, we gently shifted topics to much happier ones.

Borough Market

FOODIE OVERDOSE IN LONDON

Borough Market

One of the first things we did when we moved to London was going to the very famous food market, Borough Market. If you are a foodie, you will love to immerse yourself in this food mecca. The market is located at 8 Southwark Street in London SE1 1TL. The closest underground station is London Bridge. The market runs Thursday from 11 – 5 pm, Friday from 12 -6, and Saturdays from 8 – 5.

The market is very popular and can get very crowded. They recommend for you to visit either on the earlier or later side. My husband and I like to go early on Saturday mornings when we have the market almost to ourselves.

By noon you can barely walk through this area.

At this market you will find vendors selling baked goods and confectionery products. You will find stalls offering dairy, fruit, vegetables, meats, seafood, fish, beer, wine and international foods.

There are dozens of artisans selling their culinary creations. The market also offers a huge selection of cafés, bars, and restaurants. Once the market closes to the retail customers it turns into a traditional wholesale market for London’s restaurants and shops.

Although, I don’t have a picture of the spanish store, Brindisa, I am here to tell you that they sell the best Spanish chorizo I have ever had in my life. They also hand cut Iberian ham to order that will melt in your mouth. In addition, they have a separate tapas restaurant at the market. For more information go to:

http://www.brindisa.com/

Notice the Gigantic English Muffins on the Left

A decadent late morning breakfast for me is to buy the grilled cheese sandwich at Kappacassein. This most delicious toasted cheese sandwich is loaded with Montgomery Cheddar on onion, leek, & garlic bread. You will have gone to grilled cheese sandwich Nirvana and back by the time you finish this delicacy.

Grilled Cheese Nirvana at Kappacasein’s Stall

Another very popular place for a take away (take-out) lunch is the deli arm of the restaurant Roast. The lines to this place are huge. There you can order all sorts of beef, pork, and turkey sandwiches.

For Delicious Fish and Chips go to Fish!

Whether you live in London or you are just visiting, if you love food then a trip to Borough Market is a must.

For more information go to:

http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk/borough-market

Borough Market

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.