I think it started around 1995, when the Oasis album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was released, and I became obsessed with everything England. Something about the culture, the creativity and the history spoke to me. I knew that I wanted to spend time there, and I also knew that a vacation wasn’t going to do it. I wanted to live there.
Over the years my desire to live in England waxed and waned as I went to university, got married and started my career – but it never left me. I remember bringing up the idea to my husband and his less than enthusiastic response. He initially didn’t share my desire to live abroad, but over the years he warmed up to the idea and eventually became the driving force, applying for a work transfer that allowed us to make the move.
I was accepted into a Creative Writing Master’s program, and it felt like everything was coming together. When we finally made the move across the Atlantic, I was beyond excited to immerse, to live, to learn.
And I learned a lot, and not just about narrative fiction.
1. Family is forever.
Living 4,632 miles and eight time zones away from family is tough. We had to schedule calls, Skype sessions and when we said goodbye we knew it would be weeks, months, or maybe even a full year before we saw each other again. We missed out on important life events and we also missed out on the not-so important events.
When we returned to Canada for a holiday, we would greet our family at the airport with tight hugs and streaming tears and we would make the most of our time together. When we said good-bye, my heart ached.
Absence really does make the heart grow fonder and distance made me love and appreciate my family in a new way.
2. Some friendships are forever.
And some are not, and that’s okay.
For as long as I can remember I have always felt a burden to maintain friendships. I have always made the calls and written the emails or texts. I’m a people pleaser; I thought I should make the effort in order to have and keep my friends.
When we moved to England, I found it hard to maintain friendships with people back home. I was so busy with work, school and making new friends that I didn’t have time to call or write. When I would receive an email or a card from a friend back home, it meant so much. It meant they were thinking of me, that they missed me and that they made an effort to show how much they cared for me. And I, in turn, would make the time and write the email or send a silly souvenir because I wanted to show them how much I cared and how much their friendship meant to me.
Some friendships endure the test of time, distance, and all of life’s trials and tribulations… And some friendships are just for a time. And that’s okay.
3. Home is where the heart is.
Like any country, England has its pros and cons. Pros: five weeks vacation, free and fantastic healthcare, proximity to Europe. Cons: 4,632 miles away from home.
I spent three years in England and it was everything I thought it would be. I learned so much and I fell in and out of love with England many, many times. But along the way, something surprising happened, something I didn’t anticipate: I realized what it meant to be Canadian.
I didn’t expect it. Growing up in Canada, I felt like we were the arm or leg of America. I didn’t realize that Canada had a strong identity, until I was an outsider, looking back in.
When we would return to Canada for a visit, our eyes were opened. Yes, Canada is known for its maple syrup and sense of humor, but it is so much more. Canada is drivers who make room for you on the road, strangers who make conversation and litter-free streets. Canada is also the natural beauty of our environment, and the multicultural inclusion that other countries don’t afford.
O, Canada. My home and native land.
And then I remembered why I was drawn to England in the first place: Everything was different.
4. Being alone is okay.
Moving to a new country is never easy, even if you have a partner to share the experience with. My husband’s new position was very demanding: long days, phone calls at all hours, and stress that turned his profile gray. I worried for him, but I felt very sorry for myself. I was alone, a lot.
My Master’s course was four classes a week, and the rest of the day I was home, alone, with my thoughts and the blank page. At first, I cried. I hadn’t made any friends, I was away from my family and everything was different.
And then I remembered why I was drawn to England in the first place: Everything was different. Everything was new. Well, everything was very old, but new to me. There was so much I wanted to explore and there was nothing stopping me from exploring. For months I had wanted to visit the pub in Oxford where J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and their writing group, the Inklings, had held their meetings, but I hadn’t wanted to go alone. And then I thought, why not?
I took the train, followed my Google map and arrived at the small, narrow building. As I sat at the table where Tolkien and Lewis once sat, as I looked up at the plaque above the table, I smiled. For so many reasons.
5. Adventure awaits.
Living abroad truly expanded my horizons. London was a great hub to explore Europe, and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in many different cultures and experience things that I never dreamed of: I ate a sandwich in the town of Sandwich, bathed in the Blue Lagoon, devoured fondue in Gruyères, shopped the Christmas markets in Stockholm, sipped tea at Windsor Castle and danced in a beer hall in Munich.
After three years my husband was offered a job in California and we didn’t hesitate because as Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”
I won’t say that moving to another country isn’t scary or overwhelming, and that there won’t be times that you feel faint and cling to a sunglasses rack and think, “What have I done?” But there will also be times that you realize there is no place that you would rather be, and that you are fully present for this adventure we call life.
What has living abroad taught you?
Image via Gillian Stevens