American abroad

Dear Meghan... (Open after the honeymoon!)

I heard a reporter say recently that he was looking forward to the graciousness Meghan Markle would bring to the royal family. He said Americans use and understand the word "gracious" more than the English do. I don't know if that is true, but as an American living in England, I am enjoying the positive press an American is getting. Walking my dog on the day of the Royal Wedding, I passed a house with a photo of Harry and Meghan hanging outside. Next to Meghan was a small American flag. Proudly displayed on my neighbors' fence. 

So I would like to say thank you to Meghan Markle for representing. And I would graciously like to offer some words of advice and encouragement to the new wife of an Englishman:

Dear Meghan, 

I came to live in this beautiful country under similar circumstances to your own. Perhaps with a little less pomp and press, but the basic story is the same. Just instead of a prince, I married a professor. It's been nearly 9 months since my arrival as a new bride in a foreign land. There are a lot of things I am still getting used to here. I still find it awe inspiring when I hear the age of some of the everyday buildings I am surrounded by. Just last week I was at a work meeting in a coffee shop across the street from a Church built in the 1300s! Before 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, people were worshipping in a building that I can just casually walk into after my coffee! I can't even imagine the awe-inspiring buildings you will be able to walk into with your royal credentials! Although our lives may be really different in grandeur and scope, I thought I'd share a few observations from my own transatlantic transplant you might find helpful. 

There will be a lot of small changes to get used to in the vocabulary of everyday life. Words that didn't come up in the courtship period will start popping up all over the place. Like they call all vacuum cleaners "hoovers" and outside trash cans "wheelie bins" and spell car tire with a "y"- tyre. Shortly after I arrived my husband asked if I'd gotten a rubber for my pre-teen's pencil bag. I thought, "wow. I knew it was more secular and progressive here, but I'm surprised they need condoms for school." Of course he meant an eraser... 

And I'm not sure what the household chores will look like when married to a prince, but sometimes here I feel a little like I'm living in the Little House on the Prairie. It's a different pace of life with a smaller environmental footprint. I'm still getting used to seeing laundry hanging out on a line in my backyard. 

Ron Weasley the rabbit enjoying our "garden" last fall.

Ron Weasley the rabbit enjoying our "garden" last fall.

Which btw I should call a back garden. A yard is paved. A garden is the green behind your house. And you might grow vegetables in an allotment. Or the palace might have a vegetable patch they'll allow you to use on the grounds. But anyway. 

In the beginning all these small differences might start to add up to make you feel a little alien. When you have to learn 5 new things just to go the grocery store by yourself, you might start to feel overwhelmed. Or you might have servants to go shopping for you... I'm not sure how it works when you're royalty. But for me, I did find myself starting to feel frustrated with the sheer amount of small things I didn't know. Things that I might have found interesting or endearing as a tourist, made me feel foreign and incompetent as a new resident. I can't tell you how many times I've thought, "it never would have occurred to me to..." For example, I tried for days to figure out how to lock our back door before I asked my husband. You lift the handle up. Ah. It never would have occurred to me to lift the handle up! 

These might seem like small things to point out just after you've made such a large move. And they are. But these small things can contribute to real culture shock. And so when the honeymoon finishes, and your life begins here in earnest, and it sinks in that you've left your community, your career, and even your country- remember that you are not foreign to yourself. Everything around you will be slightly different, which might leave you feeling disorientated. Like you don't know who you are. In those moments, try to remember that you are the same person you were before- you just need to find a way to manifest that self in your new surroundings. 

Shortly after we moved here, my pre-teen with the rubber in her pencil case started to mourn the loss of her identity at her old school. She said everyone knew her at the old school, and here she felt like play dough that had been smushed back into the can. She'd lost her shape. Her sentiment was both heartbreaking and familiar to me. Because I knew how she felt. And hearing her put into words how I was feeling, helped me. 

Recently I had a 90 day review at work. My boss wrote under my strengths, "A genuinely strong desire to see others succeed before herself." And I started to cry. Right in the middle of the review. Because I hadn't been sure how people were seeing me here really. What shape I was presenting. When I read those words, I knew that somehow I had been displaying what was important to me all along. I might have been smushed into a slightly different shape, but I am still made of the same stuff. 

Any new life change can be hard. A new home, a new marriage, a new job. When you have all that at once and add a new country, it can be really disorientating. That's not to downplay for a minute all the wonderful things and the new opportunities and the happiness of our love stories. But I want you to know if you start to lose yourself a bit, I've been there too. And it does get better. Writing this blog today in fact is a step for me in finding my voice again. Opening back up my play dough can. Reminding me that I have always formed my best shapes through sharing with others. That's who I am.

So I wish you all the best this beautiful life can offer. And if you'd like to form an American expat wives club, I will graciously offer to host. 

Warmly, 

Angel 

 

 

 

 

Must be an American

Sitting in JFK a few hours from boarding a plane to move to England. The last few days as I've packed up all my belongings, I couldn't stop a flood of emotions and thoughts about my American identity and who I'll be (and how I'll be seen) when I'm no longer living in America.

I visited England for the first time in December of 1992. I have a vivid memory of attending a holiday service in a beautiful old church in Cambridge. A woman was walking around near the worship area with a video camera. (In 1992 those were bulky and conspicuous) A lady sitting in front of me said in a disdainful tone, “she must be an American.” I immediately slid down in the pew, lowered my head and made sure to not speak so my accent wouldn't betray me. 

I’m not sure what message was delivered from the pulpit that day. But the message my 18-year-old self received then was that being an American was something to be embarrassed about…that my people were unrefined and out of place in such a dignified setting. Who knows if the woman in the church with the camera was American. And certainly that judge-y woman was not the best representative of the English... But I did carry that insecurity about how people (especially maybe educated, fancy people) see Americans. 

Fast forward 25 years, and I now find myself moving to England and married to a British citizen. The same one I visited 25 years ago. But that’s a different story. This is the story of me leaving my homeland. And my feelings about it. 

I know sometimes Americans are a seen as a joke. I remember backpacking through Europe and meeting Americans who had put Canadian Flags on their bags so people would like them more... And truthfully, I’m not always proud of American policies and practices. And some of our history is indefensible. Sadly, I’m certain future politicians will make mistakes as well. But my story is distinctly an American one. Good, bad and ugly. I am who I am today because of my American upbringing and lifestyle. 

I am the granddaughter of Appalachian people from West Virginia and Kentucky who moved to Ohio for industrial jobs. My grandparents married in their teens. As a child, I watched my paternal grandfather struggle with his own racism when my father married an African-American woman. I watched my maternal grandmother dance to Rocky Top on top of the bar in the bowling alley lounge. I grew up in a rental community in Ohio’s most dangerous city. I played t-ball. I went to vacation bible school and church camp every summer. I was a girl scout. As a teen, my social life revolved around Youth Group and Marching Band. I took family vacations in cars to the Smokey Mountains and DisneyWorld. 

I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My dad retired from the Air Force. My first husband was a Marine. I taught high school near Yorktown, Virginia. I taught English to international students in LA. I opened my own business in Alabama. I was a PTA President and a Business Coach of the Year. I shuttled kids to play dates and after school activities. I started a somewhat self indulgent blog… 

I love country music. And Bon Jovi and Madonna. My favorite holidays are the 4th of July and Halloween. I believe you can make your dreams come true. I was taught to stand up for what you believe in and to fight injustice anywhere. And like my American idol, Dolly Parton, I know it’s okay to have a big, flashy personality if you have a big heart and generous spirit to go with it. 

So after reflection, my 43-year-old self has internalized a new message. I'm not leaving my identity behind at all. I'm taking my Appalachian ancestors and their dreams with me. I'm representing my people and forging a new future for myself. I'm engaging with the world the way I was brought up to- with curiosity and hope. And if I overhear someone in a my new hometown of Manchester referring to me with a, “she must be an American”, I am going to hold my head up high and say proudly, “she is…” 

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