Posts Tagged ‘emigration’

For seven years, I was what I used to call an inadvertant ex-pat. I’d skipped off to the US from London because it seemed like a bit of an adventure and, you know, why not? I was unmarried, childless, in a transferable-enough industry, and the opportunity was there. A few months overseas, then back to our ‘real’ lives in England, that’s what we thought. But then one year turned into another year; Seattle turned into Dublin, and before we knew it, we’d been away for the better part of a decade.

The view from my sofa in Seattle. Look, I never said it was *all* hard...

So, although I’m not remotely Irish, I have huge empathy for the ever-increasing number of emigrants setting off for foreign climes. And in case it helps just one person a tiny bit, here’s what I learned in those years of being the foreigner:

  • Milk the overseas-ness. We got really lucky in the Pacific Northwest, a funky, laid-back region of the country where the Americans go to escape America, but avoided by the Europeans bedazzled by the promise of New York or San Francisco (or, to be fair, anywhere where it doesn’t rain as much as home). People loved to talk to us just because we weren’t American. And that American over-friendly gene? Who cares if it’s skin-deep? You don’t need everyone to be your new best friend, but finding your feet in a country full of cheerful, helpful people is actually really, really nice. I wrote about this my first year in Seattle, and I stand by it. Embrace your other-ness, let people be friendly to you, and suddenly it feels less like exile and more like a holiday.
  • Accept every invitation; and the parent-friendly version of this: Nobody made friends sitting inside. For the first six months in a new place, we made a rule that we accepted every invitation that came our way. I’ve lived overseas four times, and each time, I’ve gone to a country where I’ve known nobody. So when those random hanging-out suggestions come in, I take them. Sure, time alone’s great; but when it’s your only option, it always feels a bit more…naked. Going out, even if it’s to something you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to do, gets you out of the house, provides a focus, and, who knows? Occasionally you might even enjoy yourself. At a barbecue thrown by a gun-toting Republican, I met one of my favourite-ever Americans, still a dear friend years later. You never know what’ll happen if you’re out; but you’ve got a relatively predictable idea of what will happen if you don’t leave the house…. Once kids are part of the deal, this obviously becomes trickier to manage; so I just suggest leaving the house daily, rain or shine. Again, you never know who you’ll bump into…
  • Don’t miss the funerals. Look, you’re Irish. You don’t need an Englishwoman telling you this. But if you’re away for an extended period of time, things happen at home that you miss. I couldn’t make it back to England for half a dozen weddings and countless births, and I was really, properly sorry about that because those were major things happening to my oldest, dearest friends (and however much you make new friends in the new places, it’s not like the old friends are replaced. They still matter). But in terms of actual, long-term regrets, it’s the two funerals I didn’t get to that upset me the most. There’s no chance of a do-over if you miss a funeral; no real way of saying your respects. And nothing makes you feel further from home than sitting at your desk working whilst, hundreds or thousands of miles away, your friends are following the coffin of the person you’ll never say goodbye to.  I’m not saying, come back for the funeral of your Mum’s neighbour’s uncle’s  dentist; but if someone ever mattered enough to you in life that you’ll miss them in death, it’s time to pack your black jacket and get on a plane.
  • It’s often better and worse at the same time. That’s the mad thing about living abroad. There are things you miss so desperately you think you’ll go crazy from it. And then there are the bits that are so, so much better. We all end up with a hybrid country we’d want to live in – the ace neighbour from that life, the eternal sunshine from this one, Mum’s homecooked roast dinner in all of them. And the bugger of it is, none of us would be able to live in the same country. We’d just all have to go visit each other’s private Utopias. Which brings us back to where we started…

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Going Home

I cried when I heard we were leaving, even though I had been suggesting we go for years.

Being English and a contrarian, I had always felt a little on the outside of Irish culture. If people in shops or taxi drivers took to me they would ask if I was Australian, American, Polish? Anything but the dreaded English.

Two years ago I was ambushed live on national radio when I was told I would be on a panel talking about St. Georges day with another English person and an Irish person, only to find myself fecked (thanks for that word – it will never leave my vocabulary) on air with the Trinity professor of Irish history. I was then forced to sit and listen to his idea of a brief run down of “the 8000 years of oppression”. Not being a history professor and not being prepared for this, I struggled to find the right tone – apologetic, but not responsible.

Ten years ago, when the Queen was giving out medals to the RUC for bravery, some of my office colleagues got quite cross with me. I understood their anger, which was verbally directed at me followed by them storming out of the office, but they hadn’t stopped to check whether I was a royalist, a republican or anything more deeply thought out.

My Irish ex-boyfriend, with whom I had a tempestuous relationship – to put it mildly – would often in a fit of rage tell me to go home to England.

It was often assumed, along the way of my 11 years in Ireland (from the age of 21-32), that sooner of later I would bugger off back to where I came from taking my plumy accent and ideas for women’s equality with me.

After this it will come as no surprise to anyone that I married an American.

Though we continued to live in Ireland we were both outsiders, him less of one than I.

I could go on with the woe is me stories but I loved many things about living in Ireland. The friends I made there are amazing. The schools my children went to were excellent. The lifestyle was easygoing and lots of fun. My neighbours were amazing people, who immigrated four months before we did, leaving our two sons hanging over the garden fence, looking in vain for their two children.

As soon as I had our children four and a half years ago, my homing instinct kicked in and I started on about moving back home, but my husband was having none of it. That was before the economy crashed and there became little option but London.

Only then did I realise how rooted I had become in Ireland, how much I loved the family home we had struggled to buy in 2007 and done up slowly since. How much I loved the fact that we knew all the neighbours and the kids could wander into their houses and how everyone helped each other out. The network of friends who did so much to help me and put up with me and socialised with me and read my children stories.

But I knew I was going home. I was going back to live 20 minutes from my parents and five minutes from my brother and sister-in-law. I was going back to the education system I went through, the working culture I understood and the pretty, affluent, towns and villages in which I grew up.

On my second day in Tunbridge Wells I walked into town to invest in some good shampoo. The day before some miserable old bag in Sainsbury, clearly a local, had spotted my three-year-old eating a bag of raisins and out the side of her mouth said “Hope you paid for that”.

The shampoo saleslady was much more pleasant. Over a cup of free tea (it had been -1 Degrees C outside all day long) we got chatting. I mentioned we had just moved from Dublin.

She lit up, “My whole family is from Cork”, she said. I lit up too – someone who understood.

And there it was. Finally, now I’ve left Ireland, I belong to the clan.

I’m not sure if it was because, in the end it was the Irish economy that forced me along with so many Irish people out, or whether it was that this girl, who had been brought from Macroom to Tunbridge Wells as a six month-old baby in the last bad Irish recession, also had a south-east English accent.

Whatever the reason, I suddenly felt at home for the first time since I moved home.

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