Our Expat Story

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In July 2015, we packed up 4 suitcases, 2 cats, and left our life in California behind for a new adventure in London. Of course, moving to the UK wasn’t as simple as booking a one-way flight. Becoming an expat is a process, and not something that happens overnight. For us, the journey started with a shared dream to someday live in Europe. It was just a thought in the back of our minds for a few years while life carried on as normal. We graduated from college, got married, and I started a master’s degree. Then Andrew was given the opportunity to change his work-base to the UK, and we didn’t think twice about pursuing it.

If you are interested in how it all went down, here’s the whole long story of our roller coaster first year in the UK. I’ve also included a list of all the posts I wrote during the first 12 months at the bottom of this page. (Be warned, you’ll have to scroll awhile to get there, click >>here to jump.)

But first a bit of context…

Andrew’s company is fairly small, not a huge corporation that relocates employees all the time (or ever), so we did our own research and planning for this move. We had *hilarious* American expectations that made it difficult to navigate London real estate/banking/life. International moves are a beast, and we learned so much from conquering this one! (But let’s just say, there are a few things we’ll do differently next time.) ;)MoveCube

– Preparing To Move –

I won’t bore you with all the details of getting ready to move. We spent MONTHS filling out paperwork, and waiting for other people to sign off on it. Things really didn’t start coming together until July 2015 when our visa applications were accepted. With that precious document in place, we were able attach actual dates to our move timeline. In mid July, we carefully packed up all our possessions into a wooden crate, and it all started to feel real.

All the preparations that went into moving felt like a such challenge at the time. Admittedly, there was a lot to figure out, and living in limbo was stressful. But preparing was so so much easier than executing! As they say, hindsight is 20/20.

the big move map

– Arriving In London –

It wasn’t until our plane landed in London that I began to realise what we had just done. Andrew’s company paid for us to stay in a Travelodge for 1 week (that turned into 2), and our plan was to find a place to live that was available immediately, open a bank account, and set up a phone plan – all in 1 week! It might have been achievable in America, but it was overly ambitious for England. We immediately felt the weight of that 1 week deadline, but there was no going back or plan b!

We left the airport and took the tube from Heathrow to our temporary home in East London (Walthamstow to be exact). I had never been to Europe before, and whole experience of being in London for the first time ever TO LIVE was so overwhelming. My first experience on the tube was us juggling bags and suitcases through central London at rush hour. Once we’d dropped our stuff off at the hotel, we had to head back to the airport to collect 2 extremely jet-lagged cats from animal reception. Andrew wanted to take them to our hotel via the tube, but this time I knew what that entailed and flatly refused. The airline-approved pet crates were bulky and awkward to carry, I was exhausted, and our feline travellers hated us for putting them through such an ordeal. Andrew wisely agreed to get a taxi instead, and I had a meltdown while we waited for the taxi …as one does.


– First Week In London –

The next morning, we put our game faces on and set out to get ish done. But what to do first? A bank account seemed like the logical place to start, so we popped in to the nearest Lloyds with our passports/visas in hand. The poor bank clerk looked at us with disbelief when we told him we’d just arrived in the country the day before, and had no address -let alone proof of an address. He didn’t say, “good luck with that one,” but might as well have. Andrew thought maybe the larger bank branches would be equipped to set up accounts for newbies like us, so we tried a few more before giving up.

The second day we tried to set up a phone plan, but without a bank account or financial history, we couldn’t do that either. Time was ticking away, and we were getting no where. By the third day we were pretty discouraged. I made a few inquiries for properties listed on Rightmove and Gumtree. Most of them were ignored, but one property owner did reply with the below email:

I doubt very much this is the flat for you. Its quite small. Your husbands job must be quite well paid and I’m sure you can afford something nicer – not that there is anything wrong with this place, just a bit small and out of the way.
Most Americans live in the west of London – Notting Hill and the surrounding area (which is expensive but lovely).

I think this message was sent out of kindness, but the first time I read it I thought, “this person must hate Americans.” We did not have a lot of money, and couldn’t afford Notting Hill much less anything “nicer” in London. It was a bit of a culture shock to be told “no” everywhere we turned.

Americans love to say “yes,” and then discuss details/complications later. Customer service in the US is all about saying “Yes, we can do that for you. No problem!” We feel like we’re letting each other down if we say something can’t be done without trying first. I think English people view this as “leading people on,” and a misuse of time. They can come across as uncaring, but this trait is sometimes amusing –when it’s not being directed at you. For example, the first time we went to a McDonald’s in the UK, a man next to us gave his order saying, “Can I get a [insert order here]?” The lady behind the counter simply said no. There was no explanation, no “can I get you something else?” Just no. The man got annoyed and demanded to know why. Apparently, they were sold out of what he’d ordered, and after a few a few abrupt exchanges he left. We thought it was hilarious.

Anyways… In order to get anywhere, we needed help from someone who knew what they were doing. We visited a nearby estate agent, and at last met someone helpful. The chap we met with advised getting cheap pay-as-you-go phone, and promised to get some properties lined up for us to view in the next few days. It was our first sign of progress, and we started to feel hopeful that we might meet our 1 week deadline. ( LOL)

We viewed a flat on the fourth day, but it had a 2 month wait period for the current tenants to move out, and some renovations to be done. The property we viewed the next day had a similar wait period. The market was too competitive for us to find something that ticked all the boxes in our time-frame, so we broadened our search outside the city. And that led us to our home-sweet-home in Brentwood.

– Finding A Home –

Andrew contacted some estate agents in Brentwood, and we got a few encouraging responses. We took the train to Essex the next day to view two properties. I immediately felt more at home away from the crowded city. We applied for the first home we saw straight away. It was in our budget, allowed pets, and the fact that it was already vacant meant it would be move-in ready in just a few days.

new homeIt felt like an empty shell when we moved in (see what it looked like here), but it was a home. The days that followed were filled with trips to Ikea and Poundland (Americans, think Dollar Store) to buy immediate essentials such as an air mattress, furniture, towels, curtains, and cleaning supplies.

– Building A Life –

Life stayed pretty weird for a few months, or a year depending on how you look at it. We mostly ate microwavable food since our shipping crate from the US wasn’t expected until October (funny story about that one). I got a job at a community college even though I knew nothing about the British education system. I also got better at blogging about our life. The posts I wrote during that first year are really the best way to share what that time was like. So if you’re still with me and yearning for more, feel free to click through all my posts from our first-ish year as expats. 🙂

Our first year as expats, in a few posts:

– To Sum It All Up –

Becoming expats was one crazy journey. Many aspects of the move were outside of our control, and I truly believe that God was there every step of the way, closing and opening doors that led us to this point. We spent the first few months in UK so anxious about our immediate needs (housing/finances), that we didn’t really consider our long-term needs. But God is so detailed in his care for us. We could have ended up anywhere, but we were blessed to find a home that is still the best option for us 2.5 years later, and a church where our social and spiritual needs are met. Who knows, we might have burned out and moved back to the states by now if things had turned out differently. Despite all its twists and turns, I wouldn’t change a thing about our wild first year in the UK.