A month's excursion to the USA, from east to west and back to the east again, including ten flights and thousands of miles of land travel, got me thinking and talking profoundly and obsessively about what it means to be an expat.
After nineteen years of living in London, I have no problem expounding on the advantages and disadvantages of being an expat, or pointing out what I like and dislike. Admittedly, life here is second nature to me nowadays, maybe even first.
From donning my rain hat, a baseball cap and dry-fit hood all at once to go for a morning run in the rain, to automatically calculating metric measurements back to the old imperial system to gauge the weather or buy some chocolate, I've got this.
Furthermore, I'm no longer daunted by roundabouts, big or little ones (I can drive with the best and worst of drivers), and I'm bilingual too, and as and when I fall short, my editor or my husband remind me where I am.
You see, it's this understanding of where I am that drives me. Though I will always be an American citizen (at least I hope I will), I call England home nowadays. Not necessarily because it's where the heart is, as the saying goes --surely some of it is here, although a big part is still in the US -- but England, specifically London, is home because it's where I live.
The point is this: I've learned to make my life wherever I am, owing to a tip from a retired US Air Force Master Sergeant, who ought to know. Otherwise, life might pass by: me on the outside looking in, yearning, stuck in the past.
Admittedly, however, I haven't always been able to appreciate this advice. But after a few blunders -- for instance, being dropped from a radio course, and failing my driving test, even after more than fifteen years' driving experience -- I found a few ways to make life achievable in a country other than the one in which I was born.
First, I found it crucial to become familiar with my new home. From communications to transportation, I needed to know how to get around, how to survive. And though I thought grasping the Underground system and the difference between British English and American English was enough, it wasn't. Hence, I was dropped from the first round of my dream radio course for not knowing a thing or two about current affairs, and failed my driving test for not thoroughly understanding the rules of the road.
Lessons were learned and heeded in becoming familiar in other areas too: food, culture and entertainment. So now, instead of pointing out that there are no cut 'n' bake cookies here, I enjoy the treats that are here, and have an excuse to veg out on old favourites when I go back to the US. No wonder shares in coffee cake went up in July.
Next, I had to find friends fast ... real fast. At thirty-five years of age it was the last thing I wanted to do. But having learned early on in life that friends provide a support system, among other benefits, I knew I would falter without them. Otherwise, I would have expected my husband to be everything, to fulfil all of my needs. No wonder he went on a friend-seeking campaign for me, and succeeded.
On my own, however, I joined gyms, did activities that I enjoyed, such as taking writing and art courses, and though it took some bravery, I found friends, some of whom are still close confidantes today. And thankfully my BFF never hesitated to visit, which helped too.
On the note of relationships, family is also important. It's easy if you're marrying into a new family, right? I was and my in-laws used to say our meeting was love at first sight. But this is not always the case for everyone. The important thing about family is that you learn about Rome, its culture, its etiquette and all, through the intuitive eyes of the Romans. You are no longer a tourist, so you don't think or act like a tourist.
So if inheriting family isn't possible for one reason or another, the key is to adopt relationships with people who fulfil that role. They'll show you the ropes, whether intentionally or not. And likewise, they'll learn a thing about you and your culture as well, making the world a better place.
Finally, life (new or old) is full of facilities and things that need facilitating, like immigration issues, health care and hairdressers. I don't think I let a day go by without searching for an appropriate hairdresser in the early days. In a part of the city where afro hairstylists don't come a dime a dozen -- at least they didn't in those days -- it was a tough experience.
Even so, it was crucial to making my life here in the UK, as was seeking out immigration experts and navigating the National Health Service and health care in general, and so on.
Make no mistake about it, there is no one formula that fits all expats in transition, as we all come into different situations and adopt different lifestyles. But living life to the fullest wherever you are can be the difference in staying stuck in the past or being fulfilled in the present. I can vouch for that.