Gratitude

I haven’t written anything on this blog for 2 years now and I thought I was done for good, but things change and here I am.

There are two things to say upfront:

  1. Moving back home has been, without a doubt, the right decision for me.
  2. That doesn’t mean life is without its problems.

These two ideas came together for me today when I read an article about how gratitude may be the most important emotion we ever feel. It seems to affect our brain chemistry in amazingly positive ways, and it got me thinking.

Thinking about how, when we first moved back, I was filled with gratitude every day, but how, as time went on, the strength of that feeling faded and just became part of my mental furniture. Other issues and problems emerged and moved to the forefront. Some longstanding, some new (like almost daily migraines) but all jostling for attention and pushing happiness out of the way in order to get it.

But being here in England is a joy. Every day. And if that joy has faded into the background and become just another aspect of who I am, I want to grab it back. Paying conscious attention to the good things seems to be the way to do this. As the article says:

[gratitude] boosts our wellbeing, and even our health. In one experiment, three sets of participants were told to write either about their problems, things they were grateful for, or neutral events, once each week for 10 weeks. Subjects in the second group felt better about their lives as a whole and reported greater optimism. Extraordinarily, they also had fewer physical complaints and spent more time exercising than members of the other two groups.

So I’m reviving the blog for selfish reasons: I want to remind myself of those things – big and small – that make living back home such a joy. But I also want to share this amazing place with others – and maybe to help a few ex-pats to make the decision to move home. I truly believe there’s no place like it 🙂

So, as a start, today I’m grateful for the walk I took in the late afternoon sunshine, and especially for these sheep who all came to greet me (thinking maybe I might have some food). Look at their lovely faces!

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Should You Move Back to the UK?

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A few days ago, someone on an Expats forum asked the following question: “what makes the difference between being happy with your return to the UK and being miserable?”

As regular readers know, Phil and I have thoroughly enjoyed our first year back and with the exception of a few niggles (why ON EARTH are all kettle leads only about a foot long?!), we have loved every minute of being back.

After much thought, here’s my answer to why it has been so easy for us to fit right back in.

The stuff that’s just the way it is:

  • Not having to find work as we work for ourselves
  • Not being broke
  • Having friends and family welcome us back
  • Not having any kids to worry about (not saying it’s necessarily good not to have kids, but it does mean that stress isn’t there for me).
  • Husband is just as happy as I am back here (this is a huge relief).
  • Never had a big social circle in America, so no one much to leave behind

The stuff we’ve made happen:

  • Making a real effort to connect with friends as they have busy lives now and we’ve been gone a long time. And accepting that we are not as important in their lives as we once were and thats OK.
  • Carefully researching where we wanted to live rather than just going back ‘home’
  • Planning, planning, planning – especially things like banking and credit so that we experienced very few problems in this area when we arrived back.
  • Getting out to enjoy the country every chance we get. This means not slothing round at home but spending weekends and summer evenings out and about sightseeing or just walking and going to shows and concerts whenever we can.
  • Not getting hung up on the things that aren’t as good here as they were in America (Kettle leads for example!)
  • Going out and doing things no matter what the weather. And perhaps even more important, accepting the weather for what it is.
  • Never looking back or considering that ‘this is only temporary and we can go back if we want.’ I think it’s important to make the commitment and then get on with it.

Above all else, I think the secret to our success is a lot of careful thought about what makes us happy, and a very realistic approach to what life back here would be like. We spent so much time analyzing and in the end we realized that everything we needed and wanted was in England, not America. That’s not true for everyone else.

If you live in California and love being out in the sunshine, for example, don’t kid yourself that the weather won’t be really hard to deal with. If you have a spouse who really doesn’t want to return, but you do and he/she has agreed for your sake, be aware that this may cause real issues. And if financial security and stability is important to you, but coming home means giving that up, think very carefully about what you’re doing.

All too often, a returnee will come home filled with hope only to realize that they have minimized the difficulties of their return, not really understanding how much they were leaving behind, or how little they had to come back to.

Whatever else you do, don’t romanticize England in your mind as you plan your return. It’s not perfect. Being back here won’t cure all your problems. You will see a lot of grey skies and in winter it will be damp and cold for months on end. Houses are generally smaller (we have a garage full of stuff that won’t fit in our new house) and may be much more expensive than where you’ve been living. Your friends will have moved on with their lives and may not welcome you back in the way you hoped. And even if they do, you may find that you don’t have as much in common as you once did. You won’t be able to get credit for the first few years. Depending on where you’ve been living, you may experience serious culture shock – sometimes made harder because you were expecting to slip easily back into your old life. Even if you settle back easily, other members of your family may struggle. It may take months for you to find work and during that time you’ll have to manage on whatever money you have saved up. And perhaps worst of all, you’ll have to get used to bathroom sinks with no mixer taps (quelle horreur!)

If you can face all of these negatives – and I mean face them, not just quickly dismiss them without really considering the reality – and still know in your heart of hearts that being in England is what you want, then you’ll be well-prepared to make a success of your life back in Blighty. Coming back here was without a doubt the best decision I ever made. I hope the same is true of whatever you decide.

What about you? Can you think of any other possible negatives that people should consider? If so, leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

And to those planning the big move, I wish you the very best of luck.

How an Ex-Professor was Right About Emigrating

On Saturday, we visited a wonderful ruined abbey called Fountains Abbey and took a long walk round the grounds. (Click the first picture twice to view full size)

Once we were done, hunger struck and we headed for the nearest town to look for food. Almost as soon as we got out of the car in the little town centre, we smelled fish and chips and both made like homing pigeons in the direction of the smell.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a more enjoyable meal than that one, even though we ate sitting in the car, using our fingers as cutlery and spare tissues for napkins. But there are so many simple pleasures that I appreciate now.

When I was planning to leave England, I wrote to Maureen Lawrence, an amazing and life-changing professor at my college. I was only a few years out of college and still needed her approval I suppose. She was full of enthusiasm for my plans and shared them with her husband – another professor at the same college. “Brian says to tell you,” she wrote in her next letter, “that if you’re bored here, you’ll ultimately be bored there.” But, she went on to say, she thought her husband was wrong. She thought varied experiences were inherently valuable, however they turned out. From which I surmised that she also thought I’d grow bored with America, but that she didn’t think that was the point.

And while they were both right about the boredom – I did eventually grow bored with my new life – only Maureen was right about the decision to emigrate. Because the fact is, had I not left England for “a better life” I would never have realized that there isn’t one. I would have spent my whole life wondering… should I have just gone for it? How fantastic must it be in New York? How glamorous must the lives of Americans be?  Whatever possessed me to stay here living my humdrum existence as if there were no alternative?

But I did leave and I had fun and I saw a lot and I learned a lot and the most valuable lesson of all was that I belong here in England. And as a result of that lesson, I can be here now enjoying every second and appreciating everything in an entirely new way. Things I previously took for granted now seem like little miracles.

I know people, both here and in America, who never have to leave their birthplace in order to appreciate it fully, but I wasn’t one of them. I took things for granted before like how green the grass is, how joyful the dawn chorus is, how comforting it is to hear church bells mark every hour as they have for centuries, how history seeps from every pore of every place you go, how the many cloudy days make the sunny ones feel like a wonderful gift, how it feels to wander through the ruins of an old castle or abbey and imagine the lives lived there before, the way no one ever offers to pray for you but instead keep their fingers crossed, the way people laugh constantly and tease each other as a matter of normal conversation, the fact that you can listen to radio all day and never hear an ad, how nice it is to be able to see friends and family whenever you want, the free healthcare, the FA Cup Final, being called ‘love’ in a shop, custard tarts, British chocolate … oh and new discoveries like Marmite flavored cashews (Heaven.In.A.Bag).

I bet Americans living in England could write a similar list about their home and would have a newfound appreciation for all kinds of things they didn’t think about when they lived there. It’s the act of living in an alien environment for so long that helps you appreciate what matters.

So while Brian was partly right all those years ago, he was ultimately wrong to be so discouraging. Had I not left, I would never have found such pure happiness in something as uneventful as sitting in a car park eating fish and chips and drinking tea out of a paper cup.

Knaresborough Castle

Today, after doing a bunch of chores (mainly figuring out how (and what) to recycle, something the entire country is involved in to a complicated and confusing degree), we went for a walk up to Knaresborough Castle. The sun was shining – and when that happens here, you make the most of it because half an hour later it might be raining – and it’s a little warmer than it has been.

The walk up to the castle literally isn’t for the faint-hearted … steps run up the side of a hill and wind back on themselves several times, but you’re rewarded all the way up by the most amazing views and when we got to the top, it was all worthwhile…

The earliest castle at Knaresborough was established after the Norman conquest although the current remains were not built until the 1300s. Apparently, the first documented reference to a castle at Knaresborough is in 1129 when £11 was spent on “the King’s works at Knaresborough.” In 1170, when Hugh de Moreville held the castle, he and his followers took refuge there after they had murdered Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury.

In the early 1300s, King Edward II had major work done at the castle and during the reign of Edward III, the castle became established as an important royal residence – a status that was to cause problems 300 years later during the English civil war when Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians took the castle and ordered it demolished. The only reason it survives to this day is because the townspeople asked for the King’s Tower to remain standing so it could be used as a prison. Apart from that structure and a few chunks of wall, everything else has long gone.

It’s an absolutely gorgeous setting though, as you can see, with views extending for miles. I’m thinking the walk up to the castle will be a good start to every work day, or a nice break when things get too busy – it would be hard to take my work worries too seriously when surrounded by hundreds of years of history.

It’s Not Until You Stop That it Hits You

Moving countries is an experience like no other. Imagine all the stress and upheaval of moving house and then multiply it by 10 and you come close to our last few days. Every time I’ve considered writing this post, I’ve been overwhelmed and put off – how can I go through everything that’s happened and do it any justice? Then I realized I can’t, so I’ll just summarize the best I can.

We woke up early on Friday morning because we had to get the cats out of the house before the clearance people came to empty it. After a military operation worthy of the navy seals, they were both driven away crying and the move was on. Junk removers came, took the rubbish and helped our friend Bob load the good stuff into a rented van. They were done by 4.30 which gave us 15 minutes to have a shower, look round one more time and rush out the door. Traffic, stress, late arrival at airport…. Made it! Looooong flight. Arrive on the other side of the ocean without any sleep. Find rental car place – it’s shut! Call number on door and find out they have to drive us to other side of airport to pick up our car – all the while panicking because we need to get to the new house before the cats arrive. Finally get on the road. “International” cell phone doesn’t seem to understand the words “international” or “phone” so we struggle to find out what’s happening to the cats. Finally hear that they’re OK but close behind. Stop at pet store and buy “cat starter kit” of food, litter, tray, bowls etc. and rush to short-term renatl place. Hardly have time to look round before cats arrive. They’re dazed at first and then, when they do emerge from their carriers, they panic. One races round looking for an escape route – and even jumps up the chimney before falling back down covered in soot. The other wedges himself into such a small hiding space that we genuinely think he has somehow escaped and spend a miserable 2 hours wishing we’d never tried to move him, before joyfully finding him and breathing the biggest sigh of relief ever known to man.

We’re two days in now and while minor things have gone wrong, all the important stuff is good. The temporary rental is lovely, if a little quirky. We’re doing OK driving on the wrong side of the road. We got the keys to our new longer term rental yesterday and it’s beautiful. The cats are slowly settling in. We have a fridge full of food (and wine!). Our business is back up and running. And as I write this, I can see the sun is glinting on the river across the lane.

On the evening of our first day here, after all the madness, I went for a walk by myself down by the river. It was cold but sunny and the air smelled of English Spring. As I was thinking back on everything we’d gone through, a woman stopped me and asked what time the park closed. I didn’t know, but we fell into a conversation – an easy, friendly, Yorkshire conversation. And I had to cut it short because my eyes were welling up. Because that’s when it hit me – that meaningless chat with a stranger was the exact moment I knew that I had made it. That I am really home.

So Now I Know What a Murmuration Is

Apparently a collection of starlings is called a murmuration and it’s something to behold. I have no idea where in Britain this video was taken, but I know I want to go there.

Absolutely amazing!

Edited to add: This is the website for the young women who shot the video – apparently it was on the Shannon River in Ireland.

I’d Rather Be in Yorkshire

Phil and I were talking about belonging last night. We watched an episode of Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary on language and towards the end he went to a Norwich City match, all decked out in his Norwich City gear, and talked about how important it is for him to feel as though he belongs to that particular ‘tribe.’ He commented that while many people say they don’t feel any special pride in, or attachment to, the city or country in which they were born, he feels it very keenly.

Phil has always said he doesn’t feel particularly English, while I always have. But more than that, I’ve always felt I particularly belong in that part of England in which I was born and brought up. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a Londoner. Or to have grown up in Manchester (God forbid!). I feel a deep connection to Yorkshire, even when I am far away from it. And when we go home, that feeling is always there whenever we drive into the county. It’s not even something conscious most of the time, just a kind of settling deep inside me, a sense that this particular light and this particular sky and these particular types of stone are somehow made from the same stuff as me.

I always felt it on trips home in the past, but it didn’t have the same significance to me that it does now. I don’t know why, but that sense of belonging has become much more important to me as I get older. Is that the same for us all, I wonder? It doesn’t seem to be for Phil, who feels much more at home here than I do.

I don’t see Yorkshire as much as I used to on trips home, because mum moved from there after dad died. Someone else sits now on the back step where I used to sit and smoke cigarettes when I came home from college. Someone else enjoys the click of the latches on the old doors throughout the house. Someone else looks out over the old church opposite the spare bedroom window, in the room where mum and I waited with dad on the night he died. None of that is in our family now.

So now on my trips back, I experience the first layer of feeling I belong – the layer that comes with being in England – but only occasionally that deeper connection that comes when we drive into Yorkshire and the air smells a little different, and the color of the stone changes, and the accents get more familiar, and then I know that I’m truly home.

(My old friend Ruth was here last week and she brought me the cup in the photo. It instantly became my favorite, for obvious reasons).