expat life

An American buys a house in England

24 Comments 12 April 2012

A kitchen diner. Not so bad! (I know, I seem kitchen obsessed right now. I'm not really.)

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.

Your Comments

24 Comments so far

  1. Mari says:

    I saw that episode and I felt for her too, I was a Brit Expat living in Italy for 20 years, I learnt a lot quickly and not just the language! I actually fell in love with kitchen-diners out there as EVERYTHING happens in the kitchen.

    I love watching the relocation shows when Brits decide to go to the States, my jaw is on the floor at the beautiful homes and the s p a c e

    Yep, I could move out there tomorrow…can you fix that for me?

    • Michelloui says:

      Interesting to hear about your expat experience in Italy! The space in the States, I know, it’s wonderful especially if you’re from some of the less crowded states. Mari, if I could fix that for you I’d be fixing it for me as well! I miss that part, but I am fortunate to live in a pretty part of the English countryside so I don’t crave the space like I did when I was living in London.

  2. Michi says:

    I’d love to watch this show, Spain version! For now, I’ll look up Location, Location, Location on YouTube. :)

    I, too, moved abroad right after college, and was over-the-moon at being able to finally afford my own bedroom in Spain (I was used to California’s steep housing prices). I still had to share the bathroom with roommates, but it was no biggie.

    Now I’m married, and hubs and I live in a cozy (read: comfortably small) apartment. We have a guest room for visitors, and one bathroom total. A friend came to visit last summer, and told me (while we were putting make-up on in the bathroom) that she liked having her own space, and that she and her husband always look for places with TWO bathrooms (one for her, one for him). She wanted to know how we did it – living in such tiny, tiny quarters!

    I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but in a way I’ve always appreciated smaller spaces (as long as there’s good, natural lighting), and the cozy feel they bring. You also minimize more, which is nice for the wallet. ;)

  3. heather says:

    I can totally relate. We moved to The Netherlands-a country in which almost every house is “cozy”-yup, small. ”

    But oh where will I put my American sized stove and double door refrigerator (my two requirements for moving)? We ended up with a kitchen/diner also.

    But, as an American, I’ve lived in bigger houses-with two car garages and a basement. Sigh. To Dutch standards our house is quite large. To American standards…ehhh. When people say, “oh your house has so much space!” I have learned to smile and nod…and offer a cup of tea. I am grateful for what is good.

    My bemoaning sounds a bit princessish. Perhaps it is. But we are in it for the long haul and making it work is our priority. I think part of making a successful move is knowing when to draw a line in the sand and when to go with the crap yard. Good for Alissa and Paul! And good for anyone who has the courage to try life anew abroad.

    And I’m going to so look up this show on-line! Thanks!

  4. christopher says:

    I have never seen the show…though your summary paints a clear picture.

    As you eluded to at the end of the post…I guess the disappointment is about a lot more than kitchen/diners.

  5. Jessica says:

    As an American who had lived here in England for 10 years and watched a lot of “Location, Location, Location” before my husband and I started looking for a flat to buy, I should have been prepared – but even I went through that disenchantment (and, yes, anger) all over again.

    Flats with no central heating. Flats with a “kitchen” consisting of a stove pushed in the corner of the living room. Flats with ancient plumbing, drafty windows, damp walls, no outside space – and all for a price that would make your eyes water. I definitely had those moments of “What is WRONG with this COUNTRY and WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” I guess no matter how “settled” you are in a place, there will be times when everything seems better everywhere else – and when, as an expat, you wonder why you ever left “home” in the first place.

    But two years on, we’re comfortably ensconced in our “cozy” flat and couldn’t be happier. Yes, it’s the size of a closet by American standards (and no, we don’t have closets). We don’t have a giant fridge/freezer or two bathrooms or a bedroom big enough for a king-size bed – but we do have a lovely garden, and a proper kitchen, and endless cups of tea to remind us that life in England can be pretty good after all!

  6. John Cowan says:

    Those of us Americans who live in New York City would experience little or no flat-based culture shock. I admit it would be hard to give up our HUGE apartment for a family of four: two bedrooms with windows, each large enough to hold a queen-sized bed and a walkway around it; one bathroom with shower bath; kitchen as a wide place in the hall with minimal counter space; a combined living/dining room with windows at one end; 800 square feet total. But I’m sure we could manage somehow.

    • Michelloui says:

      Yes, I’m not sure where Alissa was from but clearly somewhere with more living space! I’m sure you would manage. The three people I know who have moved to London from NYC have not complained once about space–other things, but not space.

    • Uly says:

      My thoughts exactly. My mother is obsessed with real estate shows, and every time she is scornfully amazed at how much space people in the rest of the country think they need. Two bathrooms for two people (or, worse, one person)? A three bedroom house with an extra office when all your kids are grown? A kitchen, living room, AND dining room? Why would you want to spend your life moving food around?

      If that’s not entertaining enough, she criticizes how spoiled they are with expecting the house to be painted in all the right colors when they move in. “Haven’t they heard of buying paint?”

    • Alex says:

      An 800 square foot 2 bed?? That might not be huge, but it’s a good size, relatively speaking! I grew up back and forth between a tiny apartment in Midtown Manhattan and a house in Fairfield County, Connecticut, so I’m familiar with NYC living spaces (a “kitchen” is actually a “slot” you have to edge into sideways…). However, my husband and I have been looking for a flat to buy in East London for just over a year, and most 2 beds here are between 500 and 700 square feet (for eye watering prices…most in our local area of “up and coming” [read: dirty, crime ridden, and not on the tube…but artsy!] Central Hackney and Clapton (priced out of Bethnal Green, “innit”) are going for north of half a million dollars), so consider yourself lucky to have 800 square feet!

      The things developers are doing these days to squeeeeeze more money out of a property are disgusting, too. No, I don’t really want my “open plan kitchen” to in fact be one wall of my tiny wood laminate covered lounge, thanks. This is why we’ve ruled out new builds and most new conversions (and also why we’ve been looking for so long)!

      As much as I love whining, I also really do love London and my grimy, crime ridden, inconvenient neighborhood over east. It’s actually super creative and buzzy.

      Now where did I put the Marmite? :)

      • Alex says:

        BTW, my husband is from Sunningdale :) Absolutely lovely little village – was just there this past Sunday. Will have to look up that episode!

        • Michelloui says:

          Yes, look it up (I think it’s easy to find) as I imagine it will be interesting for you if you know the area!!

      • Michelloui says:

        LOL! My first flat in London was in Bethnal Green, then we bought a flat in Whitechapel–as both areas were ‘about to be’ up and coming, so well before the price hike! But while living there we did enjoy a very nice return on our investment when we later sold up. I loved living in the East End for all those years but when I had my daughter that changed a bit, and I was glad to move out to Essex countryside.

  7. Mother Hen says:

    That was a great ” L,L,L ” I felt for Alissa but more for her husband. My husband had to put up with a lot of “But why isn’t it bigger ” and “Can’t we just knock it down” and ‘You call this a garden?” sort of comments.
    It’s hard but after a few years here, I have learned to just adapt and now I have a kitchen dinner thats 60 feet long and 19 feet wide! Life is good after 23 years.

  8. The Fool says:

    I love a kitchen diner as it’s really the heart of the home, but I totally related to her horror at new builds. These apparent family homes with tiny kitchens, small rooms and no garden. It depresses me that those houses are the future of such a large part of Britain.

  9. AHLondon says:

    House and storage shock. I know it well. I too am glad I didn’t have a camera on for my early shocks. That would have been embarrassing.
    I’ve imported some of the short storage mindset though. Our house in Houston is not the type friends and family expected us to purchase–too small. I went for a yard instead. And I’ve helped more than a couple friends arrange their closets and cabinets when they figured they needed to do some remodeling to get more storage. Since it is usually easy for us to expand, we do.
    Anyway, poor dear. That remodel was probably no fun. And as everyone here noted, if you go the cozy route, it only takes a few years to adjust.
    In case anyone is interested in an American trend, about 15 years ago some architects lamented the American trend of bigger-because and wrote a book all y’all would like: The Not-So-Big House. I think it has sequels now.

  10. farfromhomemama says:

    Poor Alissa, it’s so hard to find and feel at home in another country where everything is so vastly different. Five years abroad and I think a culture shock has recently hit me. I was fine for the first few years when occupied by work but since having my son the isolation has kicked in. You’re right, Michelle, blogging is a huge help. Thank you for a really interesting post.

  11. Jean | Delightful Repast says:

    Kitchen-diners are actually quite the usual thing in the US. And a dining “area” is more often seen than a separate dining room. I had a dining room in just one house in my entire life and, while I did enjoy it (and used it every day) and thought I’d miss it when we bought a house with a kitchen-diner, I found I actually prefer the kitchen-diner. This way I don’t miss the party! And, have you noticed, very few people who have a separate dining room actually use it for dining. I hope a growing concern about the environment will lead to a growing appreciation of smaller houses.

    • Michelloui says:

      Do you know, with all the open plan styles of American houses, I was surprised that she was so focused on the separate rooms. but maybe where she comes from it was like that. I love having the kitchen/diner together because as you say, I don’t want to miss the party!!

  12. I lived for 12 years in England in both flats and houses. I was blessed to always have outside space but never closets. It was mostly a great experience and now living in Latvia I miss England more than my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I now have an English husband, 16 sheep, 3 turkeys, a Border Collie, a cat and 15 acres. House? nope an English holiday caravan that looks like a house, now. It is the smallest place I have ever lived but we cope with temps from -36 C to +40 C. We both complain but find it a waste of time so as days pass we look for the blessings.

    • Michelloui says:

      Wow, what an experience!! Yes, a bit of complaining just has to happen but it’s mostly better (and more fun!) to focus on the blessings. Thanks for your comment, Kathleen.

  13. Angela says:

    Great post. I can totally relate. Nearly six years after my move to the UK, I still find myself having difficulty adjusting to certain things, like washing machines in kitchens and the idea of a “family bathroom” (i.e., the ONLY bathroom). Aside from the obvious — family and friends — I think space is the thing I miss most about the US.

    • Michelloui says:

      LOL! Yes, the family bathroom. I think for Americans (depending on where you come from in the States, of course) space seems to be the number one issue with the homes here.

  14. mmm.. says:

    Well, speaking as one who grew up in central London and now living in big sky Colorado country, I have to laugh as I live in a 600sq. ft studio apartment, far smaller than the places I grew up in and lived in UK! And no cups of tea as that ritual is just not here with others. But hey, no rain, just fires. LOL. But, best part, have to admit, things are a HECK of a lot cheaper here. Can not even imagine having raised a family in UK as my sis has. As much as I love London ad the countryside, it’s just was way way too expensive. I suppose it’s the price on e pays.

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