Making you realise, the UK’s not all that bad.
I like the outsider’s perspective that comes with being exiled overseas. Getting to know a foreign place well but not being fully part of it. Paradoxically, feeling a strong sense of belonging is what I miss about my hometown. Abroad, I am a fascinated observer looking in. But at home I sense everything instinctively because Hull is part of me. I carry its laid back warmth and mickey-taking wit with me everywhere. That and a constant craving for decent fish and chips.
Paul’s book The Accidental Diplomat is here.
For nearly seven years I’ve lived in Rome, the capital city of a country famous for what it eats, but the stuff that I hanker for – aside from friends, family and going to Chelsea – is the food and drink. I miss decent curry, I miss being able to get a good cooked breakfast that isn’t at a €25 a pop brunch place, I miss fish and chips, despite almost never eating them when I actually lived in Britain, and on occasion I even miss the reckless, aimless binge drinking that coloured my youth.
But most of all, I miss being able to get a decent cup of tea. Here, skilled baristas knock out hundreds of punchy, aromatic coffees a day, but ask them for a cuppa and the best you’ll get is some warm water poured into a metal pot, with a Sir Winston teabag placed beside it. If you’re lucky you won’t get a slice of lemon in your (glass) mug. There’s little relief at home either; a box of 50 PG Tip teabags will cost you upwards of €5 in specialist ex-pat shops, so you’re stuck with bulk buying those loose leaf imposters Assam or Darjeeling or dishing up €3 for a pack of 20 organic English Breakfast teabags. What Italians don’t understand is that there is one type of tea: it’s called tea, and it tastes like tea. Anything that does not taste like tea is not tea, especially that flowery fake aristocrat Earl Grey. If only they’d learn.
Nearly 20 years have passed since I first moved to America eager to shake up my life with a series of sun-kissed adventures. My first LA flat-mate was Baywatch bad boy Jason Simmons, I then lived with a lounge musician in Las Vegas and a few years later married a US Navy sailor and moved to the swampland of Virginia. Mercifully I now live in San Diego. I would say that the thing I miss the most about Britain is my friends but, with the exception of Virginia, they always seemed keen to visit and get their fix of sunshine and/or neon. The number one thing I miss about England is being understood when I say the word ‘water’. Other than that it’s the classic oh-so-cosy English country pubs with a roaring fireplace and roast pork with crackling on the menu. I particularly love the food and the friendly Boxer at the Somerford Arms in Wiltshire and have an almost constant craving for the fish & chips at Chippy Chaps on Dawlish Warren. Sitting on the seawall feasting with my mum and brother Gareth is always a moment to treasure.
Image by eefeewahfah
I came to Australia eight years ago and what I’ve realised is that this is a great place to visit but London is my home and it’s where I would always choose to be. I find I miss Radio Four and Match of the Day more than ever, I miss intelligent broadcasters – Humphrys, Paxman, Clarkson. Aggers and Blowers in the summer. I miss the thwack of a weekend newspaper, the escalator on the Underground, Portobello and Caledonian Road, Brick Lane and Borough markets. I miss the throng at the football, the humour and invention of a song from the crowd. I miss the weather, the proximity to foreign climes. The knowledge that this remains a nation that punches above its weight. I miss a log fire in winter, the fog on an autumn morning, the sounds of birds on a summer’s day and the voice of a travel announcement at London Victoria. And then there’s the little things, rush hour traffic, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Marks and Sparks and the smile from a British passport officer saying ‘welcome home’ at London Heathrow.
There’s not a lot I miss, but: I do enjoy the first day or so of returning from India to UK, and marveling at the general sense of order and cleanliness. Also the fact that one can walk unrestricted on pavements along a street, rather than dodging along the roadside, avoiding cars, scooters and of course cows (but they’re lovely too). It’s great too, to be able to call a plumber say, or electrician, make an appointment – and have them turn up and fix something, albeit costing ten times as much.
I have to say though, that after a few days I do start hankering for some chaos and I have an urge to spray paint the sterility away. My husband Bo says he misses great British radio, and easy access to really good wine.
New York via Shanghai
You leave your home, your friends, your family for a reason. Maybe you have an exciting job opportunity; maybe you want to see the world. Or maybe, like every other expat, you got dumped and need to ‘do a geographical’. But now I’m out. I bailed to Shanghai. I started to miss things. Family and friends obviously. Then other stuff. Crisps. Cheese and Onion Walkers. Chinese Spicy Eel crisps are the devil’s work. TV. Even shows I never watched or liked but now would give my right arm to settle down in front of Come Dine With Me. Accents. A British voice enters my ears faster than the speed of sound. And it makes me smile. Regardless of where you are in the world, you can’t fight who you are and where you are from.
Image by Ben Sutherland
I’ve lived in Australia for almost two years now and there are a few things that I miss and at the risk of sounding like a typical ex-pat, most of them are the obvious stuff. Good fish and chip shops (Toff’s Of Muswell Hill in particular). The chips here are always too dry and they eat a fish called Flake, which is actually shark. Could be any type of shark – when you ask the chippy what sort of shark it is, they never seem to know themselves. Anyway, its really dry too. Radio 4 – luckily I can catch a lot of stuff via podcasts, but not the Shipping Forecast. I suppose I could listen to it on the World Service, but it’d be the wrong time of day. Fortunately, someone has put a recording of it on YouTube, so I can be lulled to sleep by playing that but I’ve learned the YouTube version parrot fashion and its not quite the same. Decent Indian restaurants – this is the biggest problem. Last time I was back in London, I visited four Indian restaurants in a month – couldn’t get enough of it. Like I said – a bit of a stereotypical list, but these are the things you miss. Oh and the Tube. I miss not having to consult a timetable to get about.
We sometimes kid ourselves here in Bangkok that the city has a fairly vibrant cultural scene because there’s a few new art galleries, a growing contingent of hipsters and a decent band drops by once in a blue moon. In truth, though, the absence of anything that really stirs the intellectual juices or provokes any kind of passionate debate — even if it is ridiculous and rubbish — is what I miss most about the UK. There’s an idea here that because Thailand is a developing country that any old rubbish should be encouraged even if it is subpar. As a result most of the club and music nights get by despite being very tepid affairs.
Verona, New Jersey
Sometimes I think emigrating was the best choice I ever made in my life, though, if I’m totally honest, moving to New York felt just like that, moving. People immigrated to Australia didn’t they? Australia sounded fantastically complicated and final. I just got on a plane in Manchester and eight hours later arrived at JFK. It all seemed so easy. As long as I had the money, I could catch a red eye anytime I wanted, sleep my way over The Atlantic and be sat in my Mam’s kitchen eating bacon sarnies and drinking tea for breakfast the next morning.
Aside from the obvious, my family, friends and football team, there’s really nothing I miss about ‘home’. America’s easy, there’s no new language to learn; you’ve just got to remember to drive on the right side of the road and that’s about it. You’re not expected to live off roots and berries; they do spuds and roast beef and with import stores like Myers of Keswick, Butcher Block, Brooklyn’s Chip Shop and Montclair’s Pie Store on hand, any Jonesing for a taste of home can be quickly assuaged.
There are so many English and Irish people out here you don’t even have to mix with the locals, though I suggest that you do. There are football leagues to play in, rugby clubs, bars where supporters of any given football team congregate to shout at the TV and have their hearts broken on a regular basis by their respective teams back home, there are gigs to go to every week should you choose. Bands want to play New York, it’s not Cleethorpes.
There are also US sports teams to get into; NFL, NHL, NBA and Baseball. And there are art galleries, cutting edge cinema and museums and things I’d never have gotten into back in Leeds. No knock on my hometown; it was me who was narrow-minded. I’ve been more receptive to new things over here than I might have been back in England given that my life revolved around the local pub and my idea of culture was buying the 12 inch version of a single.
Sometimes, however, I question my decision to emigrate, move, leave Dear Old Blighty and all her many charms – and she does have many charms. Sometimes the intangibles, the things that aren’t easily expressed, the things you can feel as a dull ache rather than as a sharp stabbing pain, the things you can usually suppress, keep down, once in a while they manage to force their way up to be dealt with.
The tradeoff between the hope of a better future – for me, one of steady employment versus the endless wheel of crap jobs and bouts of unemployment that had become depressingly typical in the UK – and the things you give up; the contact with your family (maybe not a bad thing for some people but for me, well, I love my family, I love knowing the tea never runs out and there’s always another box of Jaffa Cakes in the cupboard) and the lifelong friendships put on hold, the friendships with history, the friends you grew up with, the friends who know you well.
Sometimes you do question yourself; Christmas; the fact my Mam doesn’t see her grandchildren regularly; missing out on my niece growing up. Sometimes I wonder was it worth it? I balance that against the life I would most likely have had back in Leeds. There have been opportunities here that either didn’t present themselves or I missed completely.
Right now I’m taking stock. I know I’ll never go home. This is my home now, I’ve built a life here and it’s not bad. My kids were born here and, while they are aware of their Yorkshire (Me) and Irish (Mum, or should that be Mom?) roots, they are 100% American kids. Sure they’re in tune with the humour of their parents, they get sarcasm, for example and their musical tastes extend a bit beyond that of many of their class mates (Taylor Swift!), class mates who, I imagine, would never sing Dirty Old Town for their Grandma, or have Rock The Casbah on their Ipods. But their lives are fundamentally that of Americans. They play basketball for their school teams, they love going ‘Down The Shore’ in summer and like nothing more than tucking into pizza at Grimaldi’s over the Brooklyn Bridge. I know I’ve made the right decision. I have a decent job, something, for one reason and another, I never had back home, we live in a great little town, our kids go to good schools, the really important things are all in place.
I have some good friends, both American and Ex-Pat, not as many as back in Leeds but then again, that would be an unfair expectation. I have friends I can depend on; friends who make me laugh, who I enjoy going for an occasional drink with; or to a Ranger (ice hockey) game with; or to a concert with; or, inevitably, to stand in a bar early on a Saturday morning and scream at TV while watching a Leeds United game with! The key difference though is that a lot of these friendships are transient in nature. People come and go, some return to England, to Ireland and numerous other points around the globe, others move deeper into America (much as me and my wife did after 10 years in New York when we moved out to the suburbs), putting down roots. That’s something I’ve come to terms with but it’s still quite sad in a way.
The one big thing I miss is the dry somewhat sarcastic humour of home. There are times I have to watch myself so as not to offend, times I maybe cannot be myself. It’s no knock on anyone it’s just a slightly different culture.
Lead image by Andrei Dimofte