I don’t think there is any way to prepare for being an expatriate. What started out as a couple of years fun in San Francisco back in 1998, has, in the blink of an eye, become 24 years of living on the Left Coast, aka Northern California. You find yourself, much to your surprise, deeply rooted in a place that isn’t home. Kid. Animals. Career. Mortgage. Lifestyle. Friends. Vacations. A new vernacular. A new accent. It wasn’t a plan, but you look over your shoulder and you realize that living away from the place you called home for decades—England, in my case—has become your life.
When I first landed in San Francisco, back on April 30, 1998, I swore to myself I wouldn’t become one of ‘those’ ex-pats… the type that seek out their compatriots and rather than embrace their new surroundings, seek to recreate home abroad. Having visited Hong Kong many times growing up, and seeing these ex-pat communities in actions, it didn’t appeal to me to reject assimilating into the local culture. Looking back I wonder if there was a middle ground, a way to stay connected to the essence of what it is to be British without losing oneself in the likely fruitless task of trying to become a native Californian.
Like so many during the pandemic, I haven’t traveled internationally since late 2019, and especially haven’t welcomed the idea of sitting on a plane for 11 hours breathing in other people’s spiky protein particles. At the end of April 2022 I bit the bullet and headed back to England. Having been a veritable homebody for the last two years, I found I wasn’t relishing the prospect of being away, but knew it was time to go and see my family and friends, and reacquaint myself with the U.K.. What I failed to understand was that I actually needed to reacquaint myself with myself.
And boy, did England turn on a spectacular show for me. I landed on a balmy spring day. The sun was shining, and men in whites were playing cricket on Twickenham Green. The sky was blue and the parks were full of the happy voices of families and dogs. The trees had come into full leaf, apparently just days earlier, and blossoms were blooming everywhere. Within three hours of landing at Heathrow I was at gorgeous Marble Hill park in Twickenham with my nephews, my brother and his wife, before borrowing a bike to scoot down the Thames river pathway to get a quick (and very good) haircut. (Thank you Lucia at Toni & Guy.)
Seeing the verdant, luscious glory and beauty of what is forever England: looking across the Thames to Roehampton, crossing the historic bridge at Richmond-upon-Thames, and, of course, enjoying the antics, energy and occasional histrionics of my adorable nephews, I wondered why I had ever wanted to leave. Boredom? The folly of youth? The glamorous appeal of California?
24 years is a long time to be away. Of course, people’s day to day lives move on, my own included, but on some level we seem to stay the same. My trip included hilarious times with dear friends and old school chums. Personalities and conversations that seem not to have missed a beat over the intervening years. Catching up on my family’s day to day life, and getting to know their new routines and habitats. Little ones have grown; jobs have changed; my mum and her husband moved house during the pandemic, and it was good to see how the disjointed snatches glimpsed on FaceTime calls tie together in reality.
It has made me think about how I have changed. Perhaps when you’re the one that goes away, you’re the one that changes the most. I live in a ‘strange’ country, a different culture, and honestly, when I think about it, I live in a part of the U.S. – close to Silicon Valley – that seems to thrive on permanent dissatisfaction. The need to ‘disrupt’ (typically positioned as a positive thing), innovate, change, build, and erase the past while scoping out the future, is actually quite exhausting as it turns out. What’s more, it feels like we have to operate in fast-forward mode, afraid that if we hit ‘pause’ too often, or for too long, someone, or something, will overtake us. And in a local economy driven by being innovative, that is not okay.
I found it such a relief to be surrounded by history that was hundreds of years in the making. Walking through gardens, and gazing upon buildings that have withstood the march of time and seen people and things – dare I say, innovations – come and go. Take for instance, Bishop’s Palace in Fulham, which used to proudly boast the world’s largest moat. Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk which has featured in the Netflix series, The Crown. Or the splendid Badminton House (pictured above), which has played host to one of the world’s largest sporting events (with 175,000 spectators), Badminton Horse Trials, for the last 60-ish years – something I got to witness for the first time on my travels.
There is something so very grounding about gazing on these buildings and their gorgeous, well-kept surroundings, knowing that they were here way before I arrived in the world, and will be there long after I depart. It gives you a more accurate perspective of your place in the grander scheme of things. It offers you the opportunity to reflect, in fact, pause for a second. To use your imagination to conjure up what life used to be like, not simply to focus on imagining what life could or should be like. I’d go so far as to say that this is perhaps what the Golden West is missing. Or, certainly, what I am missing in the Golden West.