We’re sitting down to an Indian buffet, tucked away on a side street in Chester, England, when the manager comes over to us. He’s got a sheepish look on his face and I already know what he’s going to ask. “So your accent,” he begins. “Are you from… the USA?” Dan and I make eye contact and I smile, before nodding, and clarifying “Michigan.” I’ve only been back in the U.K. for a week, so the questions like this don’t bother me yet.
As this post is published, it is December 12. A normal day for most folks, apart from some heightened holiday cheer and gift-giving stress. Maybe you had to scrape ice and snow off the car windshield before work (Michigan), or maybe it’s drizzling outside your bedroom windows as the radiator hisses (England). For me, though, December 12 isn’t a normal December day. It will forever be the day that my visa expired, and I had to move away from my adopted home of England. It is the day I transitioned from being an ‘expat‘ to being a ‘repat.’
I am very lucky (in a lot of ways) but here is a big one: When I was an expat in England, I didn’t have to do UK taxes because I was a student on a Tier 4 Visa. However, I did have to do my US taxes. Even though I wasn’t living in the US! Many people from the US don’t know that when you live abroad, you actually still have to file US taxes on your worldwide income. That’s a pretty important wakeup call because you do not want the IRS hunting you down, my friends! Think how complicated doing taxes for expats is: You have income in multiple countries, bank accounts in multiple countries, multiple jobs (hello blogger life), and more. Taxes for expats is no mean feat.
Rain is streaking the kitchen windows and I’m surrounded by the rumbling of an early April thunderstorm. I’m writing this as I eat a salad pieced together from leftovers – a late dinner because I went for my training run after work. The dog snores at my feet. Various to-do lists lay crumpled on the counter. These moments are mundane, normal, domestic, and…sweet.
I now live a life with a job, to-do lists, a kitchen table, a dog to walk, and a car to pay for (as of last week!). But these moments also feel bizarre, when I think back on where I’ve been. Four months ago I was driving out into the wilderness of Iceland with a guy I’d just met that morning. And before that there were the refugee camps, my graduation, countless flights and cross-country buses. Life was wild and anything but normal. When I moved back to the United States and gave up my expat and nomadic traveler titles, I thought I’d be giving up my freedom. I wasn’t thinking about what I would gain: A home base, a routine, a schedule, an income, and more.
One thing I’ve noticed about repatriating to the USA is that people are always asking me, “Are you okay?” Like they are so concerned about me, like they assume I hate being back in the USA. I do appreciate the concern – it was difficult to leave England, and I would rather have some acknowledge culture shock than ignore it! But on the other hand, it was my decision to move back to the USA. I wanted to come back for multiple reasons, and it’s definitely been the right decision for me.
It feels strange to longer be an “expat,” but in some ways I think I will always identify as an expat. Take, for example, how I perk up when anyone mentions they are planning their own move abroad. I love to give advice, hence the blog (or maybe this is one of those chicken and egg situations?), so I’ve been gradually compiling a list of practical tips for new expats in my head.
Add into the equation that one of my best friends from growing up in Michigan is imminently moving to Australia, and my head has really been buzzing with ideas. Over brunch the other day, Sydney (my friend) mentioned to me how she is wiring her money to her new Australian bank account, and all of a sudden all these alarms started going off in my brain. Like, Inside Out style. Imagine little Mindy Kaling-voiced elves storming through my frontal lobe with “practical tips for new expats” files under their arms.
4 months ago I clicked “submit” on my Masters dissertation, stuffed every single last belonging into the trunk of Dan’s car, and…became a nomad.
What happened next was an adventure in living a nomadic lifestyle: no home, living out of suitcases, and no firm plans further than a month out. For a generally type-A planner, this was a shock to the system to say the least. But it was the adventure of a lifetime, including both the ups and downs, and I would do it all over again!!
I felt a click the moment the wheels lifted off the tarmac. As in: it’s too late, there’s no turning back now. The frost on the airplane window is telling me this is no longer your home. I watch London’s close packed grey roofs fade into squares of white, cordoned by dark green hedges. All of England seemingly covered in crisp snowflakes, never more beautiful than in this exact moment, gazing down from my window seat. Beautiful because it’s no longer mine. It is like the country I love so dearly is sending me a white flag of surrender, offering up a final goodbye. Or maybe the snow is a celebration (of me leaving? or of my years here?).
This Thanksgiving was the fourth Thanksgiving I’ve spent living abroad, far away from my family and the traditions I grew up with. Far away from Turkey trots, canned cranberry sauce and anything resembling a pumpkin pie. Every year abroad I’ve made some kind of lackluster attempt at replicating Thanksgiving – a turkey burger one year, a cranberry cocktail at a conference last year, a sad attempt at a pumpkin pie in which I forgot the sugar (mmm let’s not talk about that one). It’s not that I’m not grateful to live abroad (because I am so so grateful), but it can be difficult to spend most major holidays feeling like you are missing out. However, this year was different. This year I celebrated American Thanksgiving in Germany, with my childhood best friend who flew all the way from Michigan! It was one I will never forget.
Autumn has well and truly rolled around, and I’ve found myself in Dorset, recuperating from three straight months of travel, volunteering, and a rather nasty cold. I’ve been spending my days catching up on work on my computer and planning upcoming travels (!), sitting at the wooden kitchen table by the tall glass French doors. Outside, cooking apples and a rather large zucchini (or, “courgette,” I remind myself as English-English and American-English mix together in my brain) lie on the porch. The leaves are yellowed and drift off with each gust of wind. Autumn (or… “fall”… this is another funny word that my English brain and American brain argue over) always reminds me of change. It also reminds me of new beginnings, and, of course, my two year expat anniversary. What a journey it has been!