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Transitioning Abroad to London, England

View of London Parlaiment from along the river.

Life as a long-term expatriate falls somewhere between tourism and exile. As years pass, the home country feels less and less like home, while the adopted land can still seem stubbornly like "abroad." To some, this might sound like a life sentence of loneliness, alienation, and washing your socks out in the sink. To the committed expatriate, this sense of not fully belonging anywhere goes to the essence of who we are.

I came to London from New York to work for two years. I have stayed, so far, for 25. Opportunity, chance, and inertia all played a part. Still, I felt a mysterious pull to live abroad from my earliest days. I knew this was where I wanted to stay from nearly my arrival in London. Aesthetically, culturally, historically, and geographically, London suited me better than New York. It was a choice with which many people, including many Londoners, would disagree. I was and remain grateful for the privilege, denied to billions, of being able to choose between two of the most significant cities of the Western World.

Moving abroad for the long haul as a young, single professional person requires a different outlook from a family relocating overseas for a term of years. In some ways, it is a lot easier. You don't have to worry about finding schools for the kids, accommodation with multiple bedrooms and baths, or a job for your partner or spouse. Yet the solo adventure brings its problems, the principal being that you have no one to cushion you from the strangeness of it all.

Let no one be fooled by the common language: England is a foreign country. This fact was memorably impressed upon me the first time I invited guests to dinner. Frantically preparing a half hour before they arrived, I took the blender I had just bought out of its box only to find that, as with all electrical goods sold then, you were expected to fit your plug!

My transition was eased by the fact that I was transferred from New York to the London office of my employer, an American law firm. Not only did I have work of a similar kind to do when I arrived, but the firm handled a lot of the practicalities of the move, such as shipping my things, obtaining a work permit for me, and hiring an accountant to deal with the complications of taxation in two jurisdictions. (A caution to budding expatriates: the IRS never forgives or forgets you.) My work colleagues, mainly Americans, had a lot of experience finding accommodation and ways to amuse themselves in London. Yet generally, they neither expected nor wished to stay more than a couple of years and so approached England more as tourists would. On the other hand, I was looking to build a new life.

Working in London

Work, shelter, and relationships are the fundamentals of life anywhere. Work is an incredibly imposing hurdle for expatriate Americans, who, unlike citizens of the European Union, are restricted by the type of employment they may take in Britain. Unless you are willing to risk working in the underground economy — thus destroying your chances of becoming legally resident in the country — Americans may only take positions for which they can obtain a work permit. This generally means their employer must justify hiring them because no native Briton could do their job equally well. Jobs requiring particular foreign expertise — American law being a prime example — are obvious candidates. The vast international financial services sector of the City of London employs many Americans on this basis, as do American companies with operations in England. Employment in other sectors may require more ingenuity of argument and an employer who wants you badly enough to make an effort.

Needing a work permit limits your flexibility in the job market and puts you more at your employer's mercy. If you don't like your conditions or can't stand your boss, you're stuck unless you can find another employer willing to sponsor you on the same basis. Moreover, many American companies operate a strict rotation policy for overseas employees. They may not be sympathetic to pleas to be allowed to stay longer. Even if you are allowed to stay, doing so may mean forgoing opportunities for advancement.

After four years of working under a permit, you would be entitled to apply for permanent residence, which, in theory, frees you to take any employment. Refrain from expecting, however, that your foreign qualifications will necessarily be valued, let alone understood, by English employers. University education for more than a narrow elite is a recent phenomenon in Britain. Aside from a half-dozen celebrated names, the sheer breadth of quality across the American higher education spectrum is entirely unrecognized. Beyond that, professional barriers remain. For example, an American lawyer cannot suddenly start practicing as a solicitor or barrister even after four years working in London.

For all but the lucky few, expatriate life entails career sacrifices. If your work is more important than where you live, it is probably not for you.

Buying a House in London

After work, buying a house or flat is the most crucial element in putting down roots in London. Owning property gives you a stake in the community. It allows you to share in what is, after the weather, the most common of English obsessions: rising house prices. To find something remotely affordable, you must leave the intelligent foreign ghettos of central London, like Kensington and Chelsea, and move further out to where ordinary English people live, areas like Clapham or, in my case, Islington. It would be best to decide whether you prefer the Edwardian, red-brick, suburban sameness south of the Thames or the more varied but chancier urban quarters to the north. "Moving house," as it is called here, is a protracted business fraught with problems at every stage, presided over by that most reviled and mistrusted of professionals, the "estate agent." You can make an offer on a property and watch the process crawl over many months towards closing, only to have the deal collapse because someone you have never heard of at the far end of the housing chain has been unable to arrange their finance. Or someone may put in a last-minute, higher bid on the property you thought you were buying and cut you out, a scandalous but legal maneuver known as "gazumping." In survey after survey in England, moving house ranks just after the death of a loved one or divorce as the most traumatic of life's experiences. You cannot pretend to belong here unless you put yourself through it at least once.

Getting to Know People

Building relationships is the third fundamental of expatriate life. On the whole, the English are accepting of foreigners in their midst (though anti-American feeling is rising), if not particularly welcoming. Neighbors and colleagues will not feel obliged to extend the hand of friendship merely because you are new and don't know anybody. On a small, crowded island, privacy is prized. The effort, which may be politely rebuffed, must come from you.

On the positive side, as Mrs. Thatcher famously said in another context, "There is no such thing as society." That is, English society is far more diverse and fluid than supposed. The culture I expected to find here after growing up on episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, and Brideshead Revisited, one dominated by aristocrats, old boy networks, and gentlemen's clubs, barely exists as an observable phenomenon. And London is one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. The world is here; its crowded pavements ring with the chatter of unrecognizable tongues. Half the friends I have made here are neither English nor American, but others from abroad who have settled here by chance, choice, or necessity. They have also learned that the secret of a successful expatriate life is not to try to conform or seek acceptance but to feel comfortable with strangeness.

Related Topics
Living in the UK: Expatriate Resources

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