It was always going to be a classic culture shock scenario. Cute American girl Alissa marries handsome British guy Paul and because he already has a good job in the UK or because she thinks it will be ‘neat’ to live in England or because of something else they start househunting on this side of the pond.
This is where TV show Location, Location, Location steps in, hosted by British TV’s Nice 1 and Nice 2, Phil and Kirsty. I like them. I think they’re the right mix of pithy, diplomatic and very patient. Very VERY patient.
Just so we’re all up to speed, Phil and Kirsty are property experts and they help couples find a home they’re happy with, within their budget. It’s not reality TV at its worst, the hosts are nice to the people and even though they do gently point out problems with the homebuyers’ original plans, they don’t try to make them look like idiots like a lot of reality TV shows do.
So here we are, Alissa and Paul househunting in a pretty part of Berkshire–Sunningdale, Ascot, Windsor. If you don’t already know, they have chosen one of the most expensive parts of England to live.
‘What are you looking for?’ Phil asks Alissa.
‘I’m looking for a bigger house than England probably has to offer,’ she says with a slightly nasal twang and a really gallant attempt at self-knowledge. It’s how most of us American expats start out. Eventually the twang leaves and we gain a heck of a lot more self-knowledge than we ever wanted. We realise we need to change our expectations to survive–and to thrive. I love living in Britain but I too had the househunting culture shocks at the beginning.
Although Alissa has clearly learned in her brief time in the UK that homes in England are Cosy (read: Small), she has not yet applied that to her reality in England. She thinks she has, but she hasn’t. Because when she is shown a place on a pretty street in Sunningdale–her ideal location, she walks around the house with a grimace.
‘No.’ She says. It’s too small. Phill admits that it is small, but she wanted a good location. Alissa admits that the location is good but she would rather have a larger space and less prime location. This is how Phil works, he gets the people to slowly make the decisions based on what they’re learning through this experience, rather than telling them what he thinks they need. He’d be great as an expat facilitator.
Ok, next they go to a couple of new builds. One is so new the garden is still lumps of mud. She hates it. It makes her angry, she says. Yes, she really hates it. She wants to tear it down she hates it so much! (Can anyone hear the culture shock sirens going off?) She stares in disbelief at the monster and grimaces again. One thing she can hardly believe is that kitchen/diner thing going on. Where’s the separate dining room? It’s like buying a car with a shower. Just, why would you?
The final new house is not a brand new house but newish. AND IT HAS ITS OWN DINING ROOM! She loves it. Yes, hurrah! But I know Phil’s tricks and I shake my head knowingly as I wait for him to deliver the news. Once they get outside and everyone is looking at each other in triumph, Phil says ,’but it’s £X over your budget.’ Sag. I can see it in her eyes. Her gaze flits off somewhere in the distance as she runs through a conversation in her head. She knew it was too good to be true. If only she were English, Phil could put the kettle on and they would all commiserate on the state of things. Instead, she just looks defeated.
What will Alissa and Paul do? I shake my head again, this time in sympathy. They joke about moving back to the States. I know what she’s doing. That’s called ‘testing the waters,’ it’s not a joke. Paul, her husband, either doesn’t notice or decides not to comment. He laughs at the joke.
I was fortunate to move to London immediately after uni–from a dorm room to a flat in the top of an old block in Bethnal Green and I didn’t complain about space. I had my own bathroom! Olympians can long jump further than my flat was big. Sixth graders could probably long jump further. But I had a great view across a park and towards the City of London.
My main culture shock experiences to do with the flat were a) no freezer. Where would I keep ice cream??? b) The world’s tiniest fridge. No, everyone has one like this, so mine wasn’t actually record setting after all. c) Four flights of stairs–no elevator? Why? Incomprehensible. d) No shower, only a bath. Ugh. e) Waking up one saturday when my windows rattled so hard I thought they would fall out because an IRA bomb went off a freaking mile away. Alissa would have been very angry about my flat, and she would have done a lot of grimacing.
I kept shaking my head every time Alissa made another disparaging remark. Thankfully she never said ‘this freaking country and it’s kitchen/diners!’ She might be cute but she was also smart and she would have lost all sympathy from the audience. Except maybe the expats. Or it was edited out, but I doubt that knowing how reality TV loves to make people look awful. And if what we got to see was Alissa being awful, then I thank all my ancestors I didn’t have cameras on me in my early expat years. I would have lost a lot of sympathy.
‘I guess I don’t understand this country at all…’ Alissa concludes sadly. And I wish again that she knew about the British Tea Ritual.
Alissa was also a quick learner. This episode was a Revisit show so after we watched Alissa and Paul’s disapointment, we also got to see Alissa and Paul a few years later. They bought the house that made her angry. I know! They used the extra money they saved by buying it to do it up exactly how they wanted, the kitchen/diner looked quite usable in the end and they had settled right in with a new baby and another on the way. Happy families, after all. To be honest, I kind of like open plan kitchen/diners.
But I felt for her. I saw it in her eyes again. There was a look of defeat that happens to expats a few years in. It’s a sort of second wave of culture shock, the realisation that one may be here for the long haul, enduring the sympathetic looks of American visitors when they see the kitchen/diner.
I really wanted to reach out to her. She seemed like a really nice person. I was hoping it was just a bad day and that she has a really nice group of friends–expats and Brits and that she really loves the little cul-de-sac where her lovely little home is sitting with it’s nice lawn and really quite nice kitchen/diner. I admit I also wondered if she blogged at all because I know if I had the blogworld when I first moved to the UK my life would have been very different. As an expat not connected to a company, and with a British husband who wasn’t really that connected to me, I felt very isolated. Even moving to a house with a separate dining room and a freezer for my ice cream didn’t help that isolation. Time, good friends, and lots of effort were the only things that helped.
And strangely enough, even though I had been here 20 years before I started blogging, the blogging has also helped because it has shown me that there’s others like me out there, who still feel the pangs of homesickness even after all these years.