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  • Abigail Woodruff

A Look Into Being An Expat

It is coming up on my 3 year anniversary of living in the UK and I thought it might be a good time to talk about some of the positives and negatives that I have experienced with living abroad.

One of my last 'touristy' pictures taken with a red telephone box.

As long as I knew it was possible to move across the world, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I was the kid at school that was bullied for liking culture outside of the American norm. Yes, this is a thing in a small-town Iowan school- kids would pull me over and say 'What's wrong with America? Why do you have to watch foreign TV?' and when my geography teacher made an assignment where we had to plan a trip abroad, my best friend and I were one of the only groups that decided to not just do a Caribbean cruise with an itinerary of working out and sitting on the beach, but to actually schedule trips to museums and landmarks across Europe. I never understood why some of my fellow classmates were so content with the idea that they may never leave Iowa, or that the furthest they would ever travel would be to Disney World or the Wisconsin Dells. There was a whole world out there for them to explore.

My face when I realised I would actually be going to Europe for the first time.

I did not know at that time, however, that moving abroad wasn't as simple as typing in 'jobs in Germany' and flying less than two weeks later. Even when I travelled abroad for the first time through Camp Adventure, most of the travel and accommodation was arranged by the program and since I was only over there for 3 months, the word 'visa' hadn't even reached my ears yet. It was only when I started getting serious in my relationship with Jonathan that I started to look into the mechanics of moving abroad- newsflash- it's ridiculously complicated. Granted, the UK is notorious for their difficult visa process, but nonetheless it was so much more intense than I ever could have assumed.

Due to wonderful shows like '90 Day Fiance' and various shows where they shame people for marrying to get a Greencard, I was very hesitant when Jonathan mentioned the most straightforward way for me to move abroad was to come over on a Fiancee Visa or a Marriage Visa. It felt sketchy to me that I was going to marry someone in order to live abroad and for some reason made our relationship seem like a sham. I still get nervous sometimes when I tell people I moved abroad to be with my husband because I feel like they are going to go home and whisper about the lady that they met who is faking her relationship to get access to the UK healthcare system or something. However, when I looked into the other options, they were as follows: 'get a student visa' (I was almost done with my degree) or 'get a work visa'. I looked into getting a work visa so we could get married on our terms in our time, but in order to get a work visa in the UK, you have to fill a role that nobody else in the UK could fill. I had a good long list at my qualifications and called Jonathan crying 'I am not special in any way' I sobbed, 'I guess you're just going to have to marry me'. I laugh looking back on this because very luckily, by the time I was ready to move to the UK, I was more than ready to get married, but when we had first started dating it was a lot of pressure on the both of us to think that marriage was the only way that our relationship could work long-term.

This is what our relationship looked like for 3 years!

When we had finally gotten through the first stage of the horrendous visa process (third stage to happen this month with 2 more to follow, ugh), I thought that the hard part was over. Through a stupid amount of money for a young couple, weeks of the worst anxiety I have ever experiences in my life, and copious amounts of paperwork, I had proven to the UK Visa and Immigration people that I was worthy of living in the UK. I'd move abroad, finally get to be with the person I had been longing to be with for years, get a great job, and settle into my life in Europe.

Jokes!! Moving abroad will forever be one of the most difficult and bravest things I have ever done, even though I wanted it more than anything in the world. If you know anybody who has moved to a different country and is flourishing there (or not, because that's okay too), do me a favour and send them a message telling them how proud of them you are because it's a BIG DEAL. Moving to the UK has placed so many challenges in my way and I am still working through them all 3 years later. So, without further ado- 5 things that are very difficult for me as an American expat in the UK.

  1. Getting a job. Holy nuts is this harder than I had ever anticipated. I don't know if it's because the Brits have bad images of American stereotypes while looking at my application (lazy, obnoxious, stupid), if it's because employers think they are going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to hire an American, or if they just want to give the job to a full-blooded fellow Brit, but finding a job here is lunacy. I have probably sent my resume (CV) into 50-70 organisations since I have lived in the UK, have only had 3 interviews out of all of those applications, and have only been offered a job once (pretty sure this was just because I had family working in the establishment). I am currently going through this process again due to being made redundant because of Covid-19 (yay), but thought it would be easier with some UK employment under my belt. I can safely say it has not proven easier in the slightest.

  2. Learning to drive. I am sure there are some people that find this easier than me, but the idea of driving here continues to make me feel like I am going to be sick. First of all, the traffic here is absolutely no joke. I learned to drive in Iowa, so nothing has prepared me for rush hour in England. Second of all, driving manual (stick shift) is the norm here. They have a special license for people that just drive automatic, but for the most part manual licenses are what's expected. Thirdly, they drive on a completely different side of the road, their roads are often times JUST the width of a small car, and there are roundabouts every 3 minutes. Finally, after having driven 10 years in the US, it's made it extra hard to drive here because I have to un-teach myself half the things I know and fight against instinct. Maybe you'll see me on the road in the next few years...

  3. Making friends. Making friends as an adult is hard enough! Add being a foreigner, struggling to find a job (where most adults make friends), and not knowing how to drive on top of it and it becomes relatively impossible. I can honestly say that after being here for 3 years, I have not made one in-person friend. I have found a few communities online with some wonderful women in the UK (British and American), but they are all online!! With all of my friends from home being online, what I really need is a few gals I can go get coffee and go book browsing with. I have done it all- I have apps that are basically like dating apps but for friends, I have looked into local groups and activities that interest me, and even done the old fashioned 'try to strike up a conversation with a like-minded person' approach all to no avail. At this point I am just hoping that when I have kids i'll make friends with my kid's friend's parents.

  4. American taxes. Surprise! Even when you are living and working abroad, the U.S. still requires you to file taxes. This process is wholly complicated and there are a bunch of little things you need to file if you are making over a certain amount, etc. so we took the leap this year of having somebody file my taxes for me. It was wonderful because I didn't have to slave over forums and forms for hours on end, pulling my hair out, and wanting to dissolve into a puddle of mush, but I did have to pay a random fella hundreds of dollars to do this for me even though I am not working in the U.S. Can someone please explain this to me?? I get to do this every single year for the rest of my life. The only way to get out of this mess is to renounce my American citizenship which seems awfully drastic... On top of that, while I know that I signed up for this mess, I am sufficiently stressed out to know that because my kids (automatically being U.S. citizens when born) will have to deal with this as well.

  5. Being away from family and friends. This is arguably the hardest of the lot. While there are very few days that I actually miss America itself, I miss the people within it very much. One of the very few benefits of job hunting at the minute is that I get to video chat with my mom pretty much every day which is usually the highlight of a day in which I am clicking through Indeed and filling in 3 hour-long job applications that I will most likely never hear about again. I miss being able to hug my sister and talk about all her high school gossip. I miss being able to see my best friends' faces because our schedules do not match up enough for us to video chat regularly. I miss having people in my life that have similar tastes and interests to me. I have missed both of my grandparent's funerals, I have missed graduations, I have missed weddings... it's hard. I am definitely more my bubbly wonderful old self when I have an American sleeping in my guest bedroom with a day of activities ahead of us, so if you fit that description, let's plan for you to come on over.

Picture of my mom, sister, and me touring London because I just literally miss their faces so much.

BONUS POINTS I'M MISSING : Mexican food, pretty much any crisp (chip) or cracker that you can think of, cheap prices for groceries and eating out, implemented air conditioning, large houses and back yards for half the price of what a small house and backyard costs here, storage space in houses, dishwashers, the over-the-top friendliness, running into people I know every single time I go to the mall, the mall, Olive Garden, Barnes and Noble, decent-sized public libraries with a good selection of books, snow, Target, going to small-town tavens with my grandpa, the list goes on...

Alright, if you have made it this far through my moaning, I want to note that despite all of the above, I am very happy here for the most part and there are so many wonderful parts about living in England that makes all the icky stuff worth it... so to counteract all my complaints, I bring to you the 5 things that I love about being an expat.

  1. My British family. I had to have pretty much my entire relationship online before we got married, so words cannot describe how grateful I feel every single morning to get to wake up next to the wonderful man I get to call my husband. He is truly one of my favourite people in the entire world and the fact that we don't have to have our relationship through a screen anymore is worth it all. But, on top of that, I have gained his family as my own and I have hit the jackpot. I literally will never understand why people complain about their in-laws all the time, because Jonathan's parents have welcomed me in with open arms. They check in on me all the time and I can tell that they are genuinely happy that I have come into their lives. Jonathan's sister has become one of my closest confidants and I am so glad that we had the opportunity to work with each other for a year and a half because there is nothing like struggling through work together to create a bond, two years ago we made the decision to adopt a little ginger cat named Oscar who is irresistibly adorable and wonderful... and yeah, *sigh*, I just have the best little family here and I love them all as much as my own.

  2. Travel. Living in Europe means SO MUCH TRAVEL. Not only is England an incredible country in itself (i'll go more into that later), but you are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the rest of Europe. In the time that it would take for me to drive across the state of Iowa, I could be in Scotland, or Wales, or France, or Belgium.... it's high school Abby's dream come true. I have had the opportunity to go to Portugal, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, and Russia in my time here so far and I have no doubt that my checklist will continue to grow every year (except this year... 2020 sucksssss). I love that when I have kids, they will grow up getting to experience different cultures and exploring cities.

  3. History and culture and landscapes oh my. Now, back to England itself... it's a pretty dang cool place. Where I live, we are less than an hour away from pretty much everything. Iowa is so in the middle of nowhere, that it shook me to my core that really famous authors and singers and actors, etc, etc, could be so close to me. In less than an hour, I can be in Manchester or Liverpool for book signings or concerts. In less than half an hour, I can be at the beach or I can be up in the Lake District visiting William Wordsworth's grave and eating the best gingerbread you'll ever have in your life. It still makes me squeal out loud in the car (i'm serious.. ask anyone) if we drive past medieval ruins, ancient cathedrals, or REAL LIFE CASTLES nestled into the hills. Also, as an English grad I am just in awe all of the time. Like, I have been in the room where Shakespeare was born, I have been to the Pump Room in Bath where Jane Austen used to hang out and where a lot of her heroines hang out too, I have journaled with the views that inspired Keats and Wordsworth to write their poetry... and on top of that all, i'm never too far from London and have now been multiple times!! It's my definition of magic.

  4. Quality of life. It scares me sometimes when I talk to my friends back in the States who are making more money than me but cannot wrap their heads around owning a home or getting to travel for fun. Everyone always talks about how expensive England is (and it's not super cheap) but people here seem to be making a proportionate amount of money to living expenditure. On top of that, we have the NHS (National Health Service) so having to fund your health insurance is not a thing and certainly not something that keeps you from quitting a toxic job. Also, you are entitled to an entire year of maternity leave, 9 months of that being PAID maternity leave- keeping in mind that you don't have to pay a cent (or pence) to actually birth the child since it's covered through the NHS. I can't get over that! I am so grateful that I will have that opportunity here. Also, the UK has a system set up for university students where they won't have to pay their tuition fees until they are earning over a certain threshold at their jobs afterwards, something I know my husband (and less fortunate households) are grateful for and I am sure our kids will be too.

  5. It's home. While I sometimes feel like I will never fit in here and sometimes like England is rejecting me when I have to apply for so many visas, etc. I have to admit that England is now my home. To keep it short, leaving what you know will always be scary, but it's worth it to find a place where your heart feels settled and you feel like you are finally where you belong.

Being with my husband, travelling to places like the Norwegian Fjords, & snuggling my Oscar are all massive highlights to my life here.

BONUS POINTS I LOVE: Indian food, all of the London museums, Waterstones, all of the stationary stores, the sandwich deals at grocery stores, Cadbury and Galaxy chocolates, EDINBURGH, the copious amounts of little fluffy sheep, the fact there is so much history literally everywhere, all of the public transport, living in a place with so many little paths for walking around, finding an incredible online fitness/health community, having my own little home to welcome people to, getting to share places I love with people that I love, garden centres, Center Parcs swimming and baked goods, getting to do so many different fun and interesting things on the weekend, the list goes on...

If you are a fellow expat, or you just learned something new on here today, i'd love to know! Write a comment or send me a direct message. I love hearing from you. Thanks for taking the time to read about my life.

Happy writing,


A.C. Woodruff

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