The American Londoner’s Mixtape Medley of Migratory Tips and Advice: What I Wish I Knew Before I Left
Don’t get me wrong. I love life in London. Wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else (right now, anyway… perhaps in the future… and then I would trade it for something else… I digress). A capital city, this big metrop. If a man is tired of London, he is… yada yada and the rest of what Samuel Johnson said. Point is, it’s a great life and it’s a continuing adventure, but boy could it have been made easier. I’m not saying we don’t learn from our mistakes or that how we deal with adversity doesn’t play a key role in defining who we are in some way, but you might not want to make the same mistakes that I made or suffer the slings and arrows that I endured.
It is in this spirit of public munificence, smoother transitions, obstacles avoided and exponentially greater enjoyment from the expat life that I blog today. With the help of and somewhat at the behest of our friends at HIFX, who have put together a fantastic HIFX tip page to collate some wonderful tips from us experienced expats, I give you a somewhat random (hence the reference to that great art of my high school days in the 1990s, the magnificent mixtape) collection of tips and pointers on making the most out of that incredible journey.
What follows is categorised somewhat arbitrarily between ‘useful’ and ‘make the most’, so bear with me. You might benefit. Even if it’s only from wry amusement.
Do Your Homework — This is going to sound obvious, but certain assumptions can lull you into a sense of security, and you know what happens when you assume. Mine was that being expat spouse, I was automatically entitled to work in any European country by virtue of my wife’s Irishness. Well, every country has its own intricate and insistently labyrinthine bureaucracy and every country has their officious public servants who, just doing their job though they are, are disinclined to ‘process’ you efficiently if they perceive the slightest disrespect for the rules and regulations that it is their job to uphold, manage, administer, and enforce. For the first three years of living in England, I spent six months out of every year, countless pleading, begging, hours in a torturously kafkaesque waiting area down in the Home Office in warm and welcoming Croydon (sarf of the riva’), and minutes beyond measure on the phone listening to coma-inducing muzak waiting to talk to a real person who could tell me what was taking so long for a stamp to come down on my passport granting me that glorious privilege: leave. to. remain. For another year. Had I done my homework and not trusted the dodgy Scottish recruitment agency that brought us over from Ireland, I would have saved time, money, several appeals to our local MP, and the hiring of a West London immigration specialist threatening to sue The Home Office before my passport suddenly turned up. And my case is by no means unique. Take the time. Find out what you need to work and stay in the country. It could save you a headache and an early trip home.
Build yourself an identity — Sure, the love of money is the root of all evil greases the wheels of a vast capitalist global empire, but until we turn to an organic bartering system and convert to an idyllic cashless society, money and the basic bank account are key to some very basic things as an expat. Be careful with this one. Back in my day (when I emigrated from the US in 2001), you could get a letter from your employer, take it to his local bank, flash it to the manager and Bob’s your uncle, you’re suddenly a banking and contributing member of society. Only three years later when we moved to London, I had to depend on my wife’s account and the banks were so strict that even she had to make do with a ‘basic’ or a ‘step’ account, the one they give to shifty foreigners they don’t yet trust. Find out about banking in your country. In England, it’s key to build yourself an identity as soon as you get here. They like to know you’re here. Big brother is watching. Simple things like utility bills or unexpected things like getting a library card all build up an identity for those that watch and wait and decide if they want to issue you with plastic or better yet, a long term loan or mortgage. Find out what’s necessary in the country your destination country and if possible, make contact with local banks and make enquiries as to what makes good credit history. I can matter a great deal.
Shop around when exchanging — No doubt you’ve heard of a bureau de change (took me ages to get the pronunciation right). If you travel a lot you’ve probably needed one in a hurry. It pays to shop around when you’re changing money. Some companies will charge extortionate rates on commission. The Post Office here in England is commission free! There may be a similar deal in your destination country. It may even be cheaper to pay by debit card wherever you’re going or withdraw from a cash machine while abroad. Whatever you do about it, shopping around for the best deal.
Every city’s as cheap as you make it — Yeah, but London is one of the most expensive cities in the world… if you don’t know where to go. This capital is famous for its street markets. We lived above on the Roman Road in The East End for the first year and a half or our Anglo-existence. The fruit and veg was good quality for a fraction of the price of the Tesco supermarket down the road. We live in an age in which every city has hidden costs, but look a little further and you find the hidden ways to save money as well. Anything from freecycle to Airbnb, to the beautiful array of floral displays that can be acquired, “cheap as chips” from Columbia Road when you get there either insanely early or as everyone’s closing up, you don’t have to go broke to go abroad and expand your horizons.
Make The Most:
Follow the Vegetarians — Bit of a strange one, this. Try it though, omnivore and fellow herbivore alike. All the cool places in any city, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, cluster together, satellite fashion, around vegetarian hotspots. Soho in London, Soho in New York, Brooklyn now, West Philadephia, West Kensington Market in Toronto, Vesterbro and Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen… the list goes on and on. I had coffee in a Michael Ondaatje’s regular coffee shop this way. I don’t think it’s vegetarian, but it’s in the neighbourhood of cool. You want to find the cool cafes where the hipster locals go, the cute little vintage clothes shops, the adorable antiques with the dusted off G Plan and Eames in the window, google ‘vegetarian ____________ (your destination).’ Trust me.
When in doubt, laugh — A sense of humor is one of the most subjective and various qualities a human being on this earth can possess. It goes without saying that the British sense of humor is… well, different from the American. If you think that’s true of TV, try competing with fine cockney (or Northern or Welsh) wit in a pub conversation. For that matter, try rolling with the Irish wit, which I find to be even dryer, more deadpan, and arguably closer to teetering on the wrong side of offensive. Wherever you go, the sense of humor will be very different. Accept that. Go with it. Grow some thick skin. Laugh sometimes when it sounds too ridiculous to be true. It probably isn’t. Your colleague is just looking a tad serious to try and catch you out and see if you’ll fall for it. They’re just taking the mickey, ya know. That means having a bit of fun with you, by the by. Real pub dialogists will just tell you they’re ‘taking the piss’, which is to say the same thing, but hearing that particular gem for the first time left me somewhat open-mouthed.
Be a Yes Man — Practically cliche, I know, ever since Danny Wallace’s book, but still a truism that’s worth remembering: say yes to everything, especially when you have doubts. Those are probably the anxieties you need to get over to make the most of life abroad and learn what you were missing all your life in your place of origin. And sometimes, you get the most from that which you expected absolutely nothing from, like Belgium, which sounded like the most boring place in the world to holiday in until we got there and hit three cities in three days thanks to an efficient public transport system, a small amount of ground to cover and some aesthetically grandiose places, gladdening our hearts to that small Eurocentric nation ever since. You want to come out to the pub after spending the last 48 hours partying in Belfast? Not really. Tough. Go. My wife and I got together in just such a circumstance, very much by just such a chance. Say yes.
I could go on, but you’ve got enough to be getting on with what with researching flight prices and purchasing your Eurail passes. I hope some of these do help to save time and make the experience pleasant for you or even prove useful to file away in that mental palace in the back of your head. Enjoy and embrace the adventure!
And remember, for more tips on the life expatriate, check out HIFX’s fantastic tips page.
This weekend it was The London Coffee Festival at The Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. Sounded like a festival designed just for me and it did not disappoint.
Tickets were £9.50 and so naturally, I start thinking in American buffet mode: must get money’s worth. The canvas bag they hand out at the door does not look promising, holding a few periodicals on beer and coffee geekery and a couple ‘coffee bags’. Thankfully, this did turn out to be a very generous festival.
We start at The True Artisan Cafe area, with a very smooth Flat White from the good people at Caravan Coffee. I waited eagerly, crisp £20 note in hand, waiting to hand our lank, baggy-shirted, floppy-haired baristas, nervously looking around for a price list and wondering if everyone else knew the etiquette because they were just a bit more clued in to the world of coffee than I was. Niggling away at me was the feeling that you can’t possibly have a nice coffee in London for free. My eyes darted around to search the hands at the front of the line for any sign of an exchange of cash for caffeine. None was evident. Then, I ordered: four flat whites, two babycinos. Still no charge. I issued a silly, unnatural sounding laugh as I walked away with my drinks, feeling like I’d got away with it. Naturally, I hadn’t. I’d paid £9.50. Our tickets were good for three hours in the coffee festival. I suddenly realised, I better get drinking.
It turned out that actually, you would be rather naive to pay for any caffeinated beverage at this celebration of all things java. Etiquette, as my wife, Paula, shrewdly sussed, was that if there were prices up, you paid. If there weren’t, you didn’t. And there were plenty of tradesman who were happy to serve you high-quality cup after cup just expounding on their wealth of expertise and experience, thankfully sans snobbery of any kind.