So a few weeks ago, Stephen and I celebrated our one-year anniversary. Not our one-year wedding anniversary. No, something that was much more of an upheaval than that: our one-year anniversary as expats.
For my next few posts, I thought I would reflect on the previous year: everything we’ve learned, everywhere we’ve been, everything we’ve experienced. We jumped right into traveling and day trips as soon as we arrived: that very first weekend, we were in Bath! I know my blog up to this point has focused almost exclusively on these travels, and I have neglected to tell you anything about our day-to-day lives in the UK. This post will do a small bit to rectify that. I thought I would tell you a bit about our first few weeks after arriving.
I wrote the following a week after our arrival with the intent of making it my first blog post, whenever I happened to get that up and running. For one reason or another, I never posted it, but here was my take on our first 24 hours as Londoners.
After arriving at Heathrow, Stephen and I were exhausted. And cranky. And so so very sleepy. I don’t actually remember much except walking for what felt like miles to the border check, and then being really nervous at the entry point while the guy asked Stephen all sorts of questions: How long were our visas valid? What company sponsored him? When did they first hire him? What degree did he have? What would he be doing here? What company was it again? After he stamped our visas, we went to meet the car that was going to take us to our hotel. We were so grateful that we wouldn’t have to figure out public transportation in our jet-lagged state, but there was a bit of a problem with the car: it was tiny. Like, smaller than Stephen’s old Elantra tiny. And we had four massive pieces of luggage, two carry-ons, and two backpacks! So the driver had to call his company and request that they send out a larger “estate” car. They ended up sending a huge van.
Once we were finally in the car, we headed to our hotel. The driver was very nice and pointed out some of the sights as we passed them, but we just grunted in response. This didn’t seem to hurt his feelings or deter him, as he kept up a running commentary the entire time. When we arrived at our hotel, Stephen checked us in while I just sat on the couch, frantically trying to connect to the internet to see if there were any updates on Jasper, our cat. Once I finally got connected, the wonderful pet transport company that we used had already texted me to say he got in safe, and I was able to track him online with his ticket number, which showed him as having deboarded the plane and been transferred to customs.
Satisfied that there was nothing more to do but wait, Stephen and I got into our room, set up the litter box, and then just sat down wearily. We had been determined not to sleep until that evening in order to adjust to the time difference as easily as possible, but we soon realized that was a pipe dream. We went to bed and slept for several hours, only waking when the transport company called to tell me that Jasper had cleared customs and was on his way to us. We got his food out of the luggage, poured some water into a cup, and waited to see what state he would arrive in. It had started to pour outside, and when they brought him in, he was yowling loudly, clearly outraged and confused that water was falling from the sky. He had curling himself into a ball in the back of his cage, but as soon as he heard our voices, he began to calm down. He slowly crept out of the cage, and the first thing we noticed was how thin he was. He had lost 2.5 pounds in less than 24 hours, according to his check-in and check-out paperwork. On top of that, he was missing hair from his face and ears, and more continued to fall out over the next few days. However, he bounced back quickly, and he soon started to explore the rest of his new temporary home.
Later that evening, we decided to walk around to find something to eat for dinner. We only made it a few blocks before going into the nearest pub. It was sensual overload. The buses, the British accents, the weird siren sound the ambulances made, looking a different way when crossing the street. It sounds a bit silly now, but at the time we were just so nervous and tired, it was a bit too much. So we ate at an okay pub, not great. Stephen made friends (as usual) with the people at the bar when he went up to order our food, and they kept asking why we would ever move from California to England. They were seriously flummoxed. I think they doubted our sanity.
The next day, Stephen and I woke up around 4 am, couldn’t fall asleep, and killed a few hours showering, watching tv, and unpacking some essentials before it was light enough to start exploring. We immediately went on the hunt for a real English breakfast, and we found it! TripAdvisor led us to Regency Cafe, possibly the best breakfast of my LIFE. In order to avoid congestive heart failure, we made a pact that morning that we can only go there a maximum of once a month. You have no idea how hard this has been to keep.
On our way back to the tube from breakfast, Stephen and I noticed a really large, beautiful church that he was convinced was Westminster Abbey. After calling him ridiculous several times, I told him I wouldn’t mind going to look at it, and sure enough, he was right! We immediately got in line to buy tickets, and we spent the next few hours wandering around the various tombs (and seeing the oldest door in Britain!) and getting tea in the Cellarium.
After touring Westminster Abbey, we walked around Westminster, took a few pictures of the Palace of Westminster, and then went back to the hotel to get some more sleep. All in all, a pretty wonderful first 24 hours in London.
It is so odd to look back at this time. I really can’t describe what it was like to walk around that first day for the first time. We had gone to breakfast with more than the desire for a genuine British fry up to cure our jet lag blues. We went with all the hope of falling in love, with the cafe, with the neighborhood, with the city. We were already desperate to find our places: our favorite cafe, pub, restaurant, grocery store, park, street, etc. Maybe if we could find these places, we could find our place and where we fit into this new, big, strange city. (For what it’s worth, it is still our favorite fry up).
After breakfast, when Stephen thought he saw Westminster Abbey, I just couldn’t believe it. How could something so iconic that I had only seen on television possibly be right in front of me? It practically snuck up on us. When you travel down a long, winding driveway with perfectly manicured trees lining your way, you aren’t too surprised when you eventually come up to a huge manor house. Even in London, if you approach Westminster via Whitehall, all of those grand, white-stoned buildings clue you in to what’s ahead. You are prepared to be awestruck. This was nothing like that. We were walking down a nondescript street when it was all suddenly upon us: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye. And we were seeing these things for the first time as both tourist and quasi-local. We weren’t memorizing every line and snapping dozens of pictures to try to hold onto these memories. We knew that these sights would eventually become as familiar to us as the Hollywood sign or the Malibu coastline, and that fact itself was something to wonder at. We couldn’t believe that we would be living here. It was a dream come true.
Meanwhile, Jasper was less enthused about his new home. Sure, he was grateful to no longer be on a plane, and sure, its wasn’t so bad having his humans back to feed and play with him, but did his new cat palace have to be quite so small? As the missing fur on his face and ears grew, so did his impatience with his new situation. The hotel room was far too cramped for two humans and a cat, and he seriously had a problem with the lack of vertical space, causing him to find vertical space where there really was none. The search for a permanent home tested all of our nerves, and there were several disappointments and hiccups along the way. We ended up having to stay in the hotel for two whole months. Even once we found a place and signed everything, it was weeks before we would be able to move in. It couldn’t come a day too soon.
Besides spending most of my time researching apartments, going on walk-throughs, setting up our cell phones, opening bank accounts, and doing the hundred things required when setting up in a new country, I also started to explore during the day, with Stephen joining me on the weekends. We couldn’t have gotten to London at a better time. The flowers were still blooming, the sun was still out past nine o’clock, and the rain had only made a few appearances so far.
All of these explorations led us to try some pretty tasty treats, including my favorite little cake-lets of all time, and our first ever Pimm’s cup, a British summer classic. We were eating fish and chips, Spanish paella, pie and mash, Indian thalis, Morrocan tagines, Lebanese fattets and all kinds of new and interesting foods that we had never tried before. With all of this newness, though, came a serious bout of homesickness, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves at the Covent Garden branch of Shake Shack. While the food wasn’t nearly as good as the Shake Shacks in DC or NYC, it satisfied an emotional craving for the familiar.
Finally, after two months of sleeping within a few few of a litter box, it was time to move. We packed up our stuff, hailed our first ever (and still to this day, only) black cab, and drove (or, rode) to our house. Jasper immediately approved of the size, although it took a bit of convincing to get him to try the staircase for the first time. He quickly became a pro, and now lords over it like it’s some kind of toll bridge. Or like he’s Gandalf (“You shall not pass!”).
And from there, we set about making this house and this city our new home.
On my next post, I’ll be looking back on the top things we’ve learned in the past year, and you will be hearing (or reading) from both of us. That’s right: Stephen has written up some thoughts of his own.
Until next time!