Life As An Expat: The Return Trip

The idea of home is a funny thing.

We all think we know what 'home' is – a place in our hearts, minds, and memories where we feel comfortable, warm, and closest to the truest, most original version of ourselves.

But as the people and places that formed our individual manifestation of home grow and change, that idea of home and what it means is bound to change along with it. It can become something, or somewhere, else, or turn into an abstract idea that presents itself in multiple people and places rather than one singular address. It can become something too big for a single house, city, town, or even country.

Being back in the U.K. for the holidays brought this all forward.

It was the first time we'd returned after moving to the States last summer and I was taken at how natural I felt in London, a city I lived in for a solid three years, and spent half my time in for the last six years. Despite spending so much of my time there, our long, expensive, and generally awful green card process had left me feeling frustrated, ready to move back home, and almost (almost) wishing I'd never moved abroad in the first place. It's funny how we can take our inner angers, frustrations, and insecurities and pin them on the people and places that surround us. During our never-ending, "should be moving soon!" phase, I felt trapped outside of my home country, and stuck in the grey chill of London. 

But one quick and very mundane stop in the grocery store on the way back from the airport and my feelings changed. Upon landing, I felt the damp air that always left me feeling chilly, and saw the countless neat and tidy homes and gardens. The familiar grey, my favorite instant coffee, brands, labels, and ordinary, everyday items that were comfortable and close. They all felt familiar, and kind of like home.

necklace by favor jewelry; available at fine life co

All this is to say that over the last year, the idea of home has become malleable to me. I've learned that for some of us, where we come from is a part of who we are, of course, but it may not be all that we are. 

Just like friends can become family, new lands, countries, places, languages, and local haunts can become versions of home. An extended home, if you will, just like an extended family. And just like people surprise us, places can have the same effect – they can show up at your doorstep and feel so familiar, close, and gentle that you wonder why you were even angry with them to start with.

And for me, now, that's what home is now – it's represented by people in one regard, and by a collection of cities in another. It's not clean, perfect, or easy to sum up over cocktail chatter but then again, what that's true and honest and important really is?

That home, that heart, that untouchable and indescribable feeling of familiarity and comfort. It's where the heart is, as it goes, and in this case, my heart is split over a few places.

That's just the way I like it.


How To Use AirBnB Like A Pro

In the past five months, we've stayed at six AirBnB apartments. Sometimes for beach weekends, sometimes for Euro city breaks, sometimes to live.

Add that to our annual balance, and we've stayed in an AirBnB for what would work out to be the equivalent of one a month for the past twelve months. 

You could say we're fans of the service.

We're all familiar with AirBnB, its competitors, and the way they work. But after the year we've had, staying in ten AirBnBs in five countries, I would almost (almost) call us experts.

Our AirBnB stays have not taken place in incredible villas or penthouses. There have been no infinity pools, castles, mansions, or teepees in our travels. But we have figured out a formula that works for us when choosing accomodations for travel, as well as a few principles that will apply to all travelers regardless of interest, destination, and general level of pickiness.

Whether you're a shared economy newbie or are a tried and true AirBnB junkie just looking to improve your experience, here are a few things to consider when gearing up for your next stay:

Know what you want out of the experience

When it comes to travel accomodations, it's (really) important to know and understand your preferences well before you even think about searching for accomodation. Think about what you consider to be important when it comes to travel – are you willing to sacrifice certain parts of your experience to improve on others? 

For example, both D and I are pretty low key, but there are certain things that we're not willing to sacrifice. Location is one, and we're willing to bypass some frills if it means improving the location of our AirBnB while staying in budget. Otherwise, all we really want out of an AirBnB experience is a clean, quiet, private space that feels safe, a host that's easy to reach (more on that below), and solid, reliable Wi-Fi. Knowing these priorities upfront has helped us choose properties that we've always been happy with. Actually, I don't think we've had a bad experience – and that's saying something.

 

Finalize a budget before you begin looking

AirBnB, VRBO, onefinestay and the like can be crazy overwhelming. Before you even start searching, I would recommend setting a budget and sticking to it. That way you can set a cap on your search and filter out any of those dreamy teepee or penthouse-type places that may be out of reach. Cut the excess results, and your accomodation search will become much easier.

Note: When searching for travel accomodations on AirBnB or a competitor's site, make sure you search for the exact dates you plan to stay, and keep in mind that there will be a few fees tacked on to the final price (a service charge from AirBnB, other potentials charges for cleaning, etc.).

Paris, France

Barcelona, Spain

Location, location, location

As with budget, you should go into any accomodation search knowing exactly where you want to stay. If you're headed to a big city, search by the specific neighborhood you want to stay in if at all possible. This will make your searching experience much easier and less overwhelming overall. Pro tip – staying sane when planning a trip tends to be helpful.

 

Communicate, yo

Put yourself in the shoes of the owner. How would you feel if you were renting out your property to a total stranger? I owe the success of our AirBnB stays to clear, regular communication – you need to be available and quick to respond. Being friendly doesn't hurt either, in this case or ever. After all these are people just like you who are a part of the same community, and there's something about that that's kind of cool, don't you think? (It certainly helped when we were temporarily homeless in London.) 

Treat the owner and their property with respect, and they'll do the same for you.

East Sussex, England

Don't get me wrong – I still love a good hotel stay. You can't beat the experience of staying at a hotel – the crisp sheets, room service, and the pure luxury of it all. But when it come to regular travel, AirBnB just feels like a better fit. I like being able to make coffee at home and get recommendations for restaurants from hosts and those who have stayed before me. It's cool seeing old European apartment buildings and understanding how people really live in the city you're visiting. It also tends to get you more bang for your travel accomodation buck, which is something I think we can all appreciate.

That's my experience, but what about yours? Any horror stories, or 'best practice' tips you've learned in this shared economy of ours? I'd love to hear!

 

All photos by D. Watterson III

P.S. – Yeah, so what if I used an affiliate link in this post? Other than that, this post is not sponsored by AirBnB in any way – like, at all. AirBnB doesn't even know I'm alive. Instead, I just genuinely like the service and use it far too often. That's pretty much it.


A Forever Homesickness

Sometimes I feel like I've been crying since I was 19.

Out of love, fullness, gratitude, and mainly the woes of location, location, location.

19 was the age I began semi-living in New York. I went to school in Atlanta, near family, but thanks to my college's quarter system scheduling, I was able to spend small chunks of the year interning in New York.

It was then that I got my first taste of homesickness, which could be muffled by my love for the city. This carried on for years. I'd miss my family more and more each time I left them at the airport, but I'd then arrive in the city and get straight back into the groove. Have some wine with my roommate, see our cats, and all would be well.

Then I met my would-be husband in New York and, as luck would have it, he lived in London. We spent three years in an international long distance relationship, and each month and year got harder than the one before.

Eventually I moved to London. My husband and I were (finally!) together and Europe was at our fingertips, but friends and family were far for both of us. We were, and still are, spread over three continents and many more cities. During that time, the tears seemed to flow endlessly.

And now, we're in Durham. I'm closer to my entire family than I've ever been before, and after a long immigration process I've got my husband here with me. I'm happy as a clam, and feel at "home" being back in the South.

But after a weekend in New York, my heart is crying out for my friends and the big piece of my identity that's tied to that clingy ex-boyfriend of a city. New York also feels like home, and the older I get, the more I realize my friends are home to me as well.

This was the first time I'd been back in New York since I moved to London over three years ago. I was nervous to return because I knew it would hit me hard, but it was still a harder, more solid hit than I expected. While I was there, I saw some of those same friends, my cats, and ate the same dinner at the same table with the people who know me so well it almost aches. And when I left, that ache set in.

This is the heartbreak of having those you love scattered across cities and countries. I feel incredibly grateful and lucky knowing that we have so many loved ones all over the world, but it's hard to live with the sting of knowing that everyone won't be in the same place, ever.

So it's out of the incredible joy and appreciation and fullness and the forever homesickness that I've cried over these years. The confusion and cruelty of knowing that, in some way, the ones you love are both with you and forever elsewhere. That's why I cry.


Life As An Expat: Things That Surprised Me About Living Abroad

It's been about ten days since we got back to the States. Do the math on that and you'll see that we arrived on the Fourth of July. An epic start to a new life if there ever was one, wouldn't you say?

We were in Atlanta for a few days seeing family, then made our way to North Carolina. We're now staying at my dear momma's house for a few months until we're ready (aka financially able) to buy a home. Big, awesome, really fun stuff is in the works, that's for sure. 

Not that enough time has passed since I returned to the States after living abroad to learn all I have to learn about the experience, but I've begun the process of reflecting on my life in London from the other side. Ten days in and looking back, there are several things that came as a total surprise to me about living abroad. Here are a few of them:

It Was An Instant Shot Of Perspective

Living in London for three years gave me an incredible, unexpected amount of perspective. That's something I gained a little bit when I moved from Atlanta to New York and spent many a late Sunday afternoon holding back tears at city-bound airport gates. I was in my early twenties and doing my regular return to the city and its nausea-inducing cab rides to the West Villlage or Brooklyn. The other end promised a dinner of cereal, peanut butter, and/or tortilla chips and a quick scan of The New York Times before heading to bed and getting up the next day for another big week of big city work. Do that for a few years, as many of us have, and you'll learn a thing or two about missing the ease of a life you know.

But living outside of your country for an extended period of time will show you things about yourself (and your country) that you never knew and never would've guessed you'd find out. It's almost like the three years I spent in London sped up any sort of quarter-life crisis I would've had at home. Living far away was a crash course in figuring out who I was, and I know it would've taken years for me to get to where I am now if I hadn't left home.

Yeah, perspective has been a bonus.

 

Feeling Like A Kid Again

And not in a good way. For all the perspective gained and personal growth that's done, one thing that always frustrated me in a maddening, eyes-spiked-with-tears kinda' way was the loss of the really everday knowledge that make you feel like an adult. I've mentioned before the frustration that comes with moving to a new country and not knowing any of the brands in a grocery store, not to mention which grocery store you should even go to.

It can be equally frustrating to live in a state of transition where simple questions like "What's your phone number?" leave you without much to say. More often than not, I find myself going into explanations about having just moved, changing numbers and addresses, etc. probably as some defense mechanism to prove to a total stranger that I'm usually more independent and better off than I am right now.

 

The Legitimate, High-Quality Friendships

Who would've thought that moving abroad would grant me access to such incredible friendships? Before I left, I didn't know about the "expat community" or really care to get involved but man, am I glad I did. These are your friends and allies, and the only people who will really understand what you're going through and will be eager to talk to you ad nauseam about visas. Since leaving home, I've made friends all over the world who I came to know in an instant, very real way purely because of our shared experience. Feeling vulnerable far away from home has a way of turning strangers into friends. It's pretty incredible.

 

Homesickness, And What It Becomes

This was something I struggled with more than I would've ever guessed. Living in London, I was homesick for my family, friends, climate, and scenery – not to mention any and everything American. Even the smallest things, like seeing an American brand or overhearing another North American accent on the street would make me feel so much better. As bad as it was, eventually it was something that I (and I'm assuming most folks who leave home) got used to. Even unusual situations start to feel normal after a while, and my experience with homesickness was no different. You get used to living your life away, and that's all there is to it.

But then – what's funny – is that when you do come back, no matter how much has changed at home, it'll feel like you never left at all. Life can change a lot in a few years, that's for sure, but it's also amazing how much stays the same. It's almost like you never even left.

 

Patriotism

It's a weird feeling to be elsewhere in the world and feel like, somehow, an entire country of people that you know back home may know you better than the community around you. It's a false feeling, of course, but it's one that I think most anyone who has left their home country even for a short while would recognize. This feeling gave me a strong, sturdy allegiance to my country. Of course it was always there, but I think patriotism and a love for where one comes from has a way of showing up the further you're away from it. You don't know what you got 'till it's gone, you know?

Anyway, I never would've thought I'd so thoroughly enjoy hearing The Star-Spangled Banner at a baseball game, but here I am.

There will be plenty more to say as time goes by, of course. Overall though, things are feeling pretty good. Comfortable, slower, friendlier. Just right, you know? I'll keep you guys posted – after all, it's just been over a week.

Oh – and if you've ever lived abroad or even thought about living abroad, I'd love to hear about your thoughts. This is an experience that's different for everyone so I'm eager to hear what others have to say on the topic. Let me know!



We Moved!

Fifteen months after we began our process of moving from London to the States, it finally all came together and we moved. We moved, y'all. On Saturday, just in time for the 4th of July. 

We got to Atlanta, saw the fireworks, and ate all of the barbeque and baked beans and brownies our tummies could take. It's been absolute paradise!

We're staying in Atlanta to see family for a few days before heading up to North Carolina later this week, so needless to say it's going to be a tad on the busy side trying to get things settled after three years living outside of the country.

I'll be back either later this week or early next, and in the meantime you can follow along on Instagram as we (re)acquaint ourselves with American snacks and warm weather.

Hope you had a great weekend and have an even better week! See ya on social media.

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Life As An Expat: On The Move

Twice in six days.

That's how many times we've moved over this last week.

See, since our move abroad has ended up taking longer than we expected, we got a llittle optimistic and gave notice on our second floor flat too soon. We were able to stay a bit longer, then a bit longer, then further still, and finally, on the eve of the arrival of new tenants, we had to leave.

Moving, right? It's always a sweaty, stressful mess no matter how much preparation you put in. And also, don't listen to anyone who says that things get boring after you get married. Three and a half years in and I'm here to tell you that our lives have been anything but boring lately. Moving around a city and then across an ocean will do that for you.

But thank god for AirBnB and our "sharing" culture. I could write a whole piece about the kindness of strangers that's revealed in the culture of Uber and AirBnB and the like. It really is incredible. Two honest, regular folks living in North London suddenly found themselves with piles of luggage, shopping bags full of organic groceries too yummy and pricey to throw out (of course), but with nowhere to go. There was and is beauty in being able to stay at the flat of a complete stranger down the street who will not only be kind and interested in your story, but will also allow you to stay at their home for a mere fraction of what you would pay in a hotel.

There are horrible, frightening stories associated with doing business with a complete stranger in this "sharing" world of ours, but I've had nothing but good experiences along the way. It's been a lifesaver during our period of transition.

I've just about made real friends wtih kind, generous Uber drivers in Salt Lake City and Durham, and loved our experiences using AirBnB, always – it's the only thing we use when we travel.

But anyway. Our madness has died down slightly for now, and while I'll post some updates on Instagram related to our move, I'll tell you right now that I probably won't announce that we're leaving London until we're basically on the plane.

At this point, I'm too afraid of jinxing anything to say anything sooner. So...stay tuned! Update coming soon.



UK Bucket List (Plus Tradlands Discount!)

You know, the moment you decide to move the questions come out. Aside from the standard what/when/where variety, the most common question I've been asked on the eve of every big move is this:

Is there anything on your [CITY] bucket list?

I'd been saying no to this question for months in relation to London and the UK, mainly because once I've decided I want to move or do something I'm really ready to do it. Maybe it's a Scorpio thing, or maybe it's because I analyze every decision so greatly that once I've made it, I tend to stick to it. 

Not so in this case. 

For months I told everyone that there were no items left on my UK bucket list because I'd pretty much squashed it within the first few months of arriving in 2012 – just in time for the Olympics. There were weekend trips to Cambridge, picnics in Greenwich, London Eye, Borough Market, obvious tourist things, neighborhoods to explore, etc. etc. etc.

Then I came across a photo of cliffs lining the English Channel, courtesy of a friendly reminder on Instagram. I remembered I hadn't seen England's famous chalk cliffs – either those of Sussex or of Dover. And so, a weekend visit to Seven Sisters (filming location of Atonement, thanks) was planned.

Seven Sisters Cliffs | Second Floor Flat

The Seven Sisters chalk cliffs sit along the southern coast of England, just about an hour and a half outside of London. Despite their relative closeness, the difference is shocking – it's quiet, spacious, and stunningly beautiful.

We spent a few hours exploring around the cliffs before heading off for a pub lunch (as you do) in the nearby village of Lewes.

Despite its slightly more southern location and the sunshine that showed its face during our visit, overall it was pretty cold. And as beautiful as the English Channel may be, the wind that comes off of it is no joke – layers were absolutely necessary.

Park Lane Button-up from Tradlands, straw bag from Fy, striped tee from Chance

Sadie at Tradlands sent me a Park Lane polka dot button-up a few weeks back and I took the opportunity to try it out on our trip to Seven Sisters.

You guys know I love me a good button up, and that I love Tradlands, but I now own three of their long sleeve button-ups and am continuously impressed by the quality. Before I came across brands like Tradlands and California Tailor, I wasn't completely sold on the idea of a high quality button-up. My shirts from Gap, Uniqlo, and the rest had always worked fine and I couldn't quite get the need to spend more money on a product that I assumed was equivalent in quality.

I stand corrected 100 times over. The fabric is noticeably different (the Park Lane is crisp, mid-weight Japanese Cotton) and the attention to detail is remarkable. You feel it in the thick, pearlized buttons, and the tailoring in the cuffs and collar. Not to mention the fit which assures no boob gap – something that's always, always appreciated.

Because Sadie and Jeremy, the husband and wife team behind Tradlands, are so lovely, they're offering $25 off all orders over $100 with the code summerready PLUS a free Ferry Plaza Tote (which I have and use every weekend) with every order placed – no code necessary. Offer expires at 11:59 PM PST on Tuesday, June 30.

Act fast, y'all. As you know, I only share products from designers and brands that I genuinely support and believe in, so I wouldn't even consider working with Tradlands if I didn't love their product, their mission, and didn't know for a fact that Sadie and Jeremy are some of the nicest, hardworking people out there.

Shop Tradlands here (their summer collection releases next week!), and follow them here, here, here, and here

 

Photos by D Watterson III; poor editing job by me

I received product from Tradlands though this is a business I love and support – which you know because I just said that. Thank you for supporting the businesses that support Second Floor Flat. Have questions? Let me know!