Expat Chronicles: Cultural Immersion

If you’ve ever spent much time watching “House Hunters International” on HGTV a show about people finding new homes in new lands — you might have noticed a pattern. First, we learn the backstory of a couple moving from their homeland to someplace overseas. Then we see them meeting with a realtor and discussing their budget, needs, preferences, etc.

One person invariably wants to find a house that’s familiar and comfortable, similar to what they had back home. The other wants to dive right into the new culture by living in a traditional home that’s representative of the country, whether it’s a medieval cottage in England or a bamboo house on stilts in Thailand.

The latter camp usually makes the argument that if you are going to live in a new country, you should enjoy the full experience. What’s the point of living in the same type of place you had back in the States?  You have to immerse yourself in the new culture to truly experience it. Living in the remains of a stone castle in the countryside means you’re soaking in the culture, even if you have to sacrifice a little warmth and comfort.

Personally, I always fell into the other camp – the one that prefers a cozy and familiar home. The way I figured it, you’re already living the international experience just by being there. You can immerse yourself in the culture just by stepping outside. Your home might as well be something you can relax in.

When we went house hunting in London, my first choice was a late 1980s-era townhome with modern(ish) appliances, plenty of space and a small back yard. We were lucky it was available so we hopped right on it. It’s really about the same as the condos you find back in America. Pretty standard and generic.

But: You can step outside and see the Thames, the Tower Bridge and the Bermondsey wall. Walk about a quarter mile and there’s a pub that dates back at least to the 18th Century, and probably earlier. Across a stone road from the pub are the remains of Edward III’s mansion. Walk a little further and you can find the Mayflower Pub, which sits just beside where the actual Mayflower once docked. The house might be instantly familiar to Americans, but not the neighborhood.

We’ve been here for about 21 months, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of living the London life. We try to get out and see the city most weekends. We’ve visited many of the museums and parks. We’ve tried lots of different foods and explored many different neighborhoods. We’ve taken a couple of long day trips outside of London, to Brighton Beach and Canterbury. We’ve hopped about Europe: Brussels, Paris, Strasbourg, Zurich, Milan, Amsterdam, Barcelona. We’re getting our money’s worth from this move to England, knowing it will only last a few years.

What we haven’t done, until recently, is live the tourist experience – the one where you see the city through the eyes of someone who comes here for a short stay and wants to cram in as much as possible.

When you actually live in a place that millions of tourists visit each year, you tend not to do touristy things. At least that’s been the case with me, anyway.

When I lived in Los Angeles and New York for several years last decade, I hardly ever visited any of the tourist destinations. I’m not sure I ever visited Griffith Observatory while living in L.A., or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The only museum I remember visiting was the Getty.

When I lived in New York I never visited the Statue of Liberty, or saw a Broadway show, or took a boat ride around Manhattan. Before we left the Big Apple for another city, I finally bought tickets to a Broadway show, figuring I should at least do that. The show I booked was scheduled for a few nights before we were due to move. The week we were supposed to see it, the actor’s union went on strike, and the show was canceled.

I’ve still never seen a Broadway show. I regret not seeing more while I lived in those places, but I guess I was pretty busy just living my life.

As for London: I’m happy to report that we recently lived the tourist experience here, thanks to a visit from one of my nieces in the States. I asked her what she wanted to do here, and she said, “Oh, just the touristy things.”

So one day she, my wife and I took a tourist bus ride through parts of Central London. It was our first tourist bus experience. We sat on the top deck with the rest of the Instagrammers. We listened to the headphones as we slowly crept pass the horses heading toward Buckingham Palace, the Marble Arch, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, the London Eye, Big Ben. We got off and saw the House of Commons and Westminster Abbey. We walked past statues of Mandela, Gandhi and Churchill and took the time to look at them. I’m sure I passed those statues a dozen times before, but never even noticed them. We used the public restrooms at Westminster Station, which is an experience in and of itself (hint: bring coins and close your eyes). We took a boat ride along the Thames. We kicked around Greenwich. We shopped along Kings Road.  

Our family had seen some of these things before. But it’s amazing what you actually notice when you’re seeing them through the eyes of a tourist. You get a real sense of the vastness, history and pulse of London. It’s a very big, old and busy place.

I’d recommend doing this, no matter where you live. Take a day or two to be a tourist in your hometown. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the culture, it’s a surprisingly effective way to do so.

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