Expat Chronicles: Three Years in London, And Safe at Home

Comedian George Carlin once said that home is just the place where you keep your stuff. It’s hard to argue the point. You need a place to keep your stuff, so you find a home to put it in. First it’s in this home, and then you move to another home, and your stuff follows you there. You might own a 50,000-square-foot palace or rent a tiny room, but either way, it’s where your stuff is.

I happen to be an expert on this topic, by the way. Since graduating from college 39 years ago, I’ve lived in 24 different homes in a dozen different cities or towns, across seven U.S. states and two continents. I actually did the math and double-checked it. That’s a pretty high number. According to the FiveThirtyEight data analysis website, an average person in the United States is expected to move 11.4 times in his or her lifetime.

Every time I moved, I carted stuff around with me, all the way up to the here and now. Some of my stuff dates back to when I was in college and high school. Mostly books and record albums. I even have baseball cards I’ve carted around since I was a kid, from one place to the next. They’ve all made the journey through time and space, through thick and thin, from youth to retirement age, from one home to the next, decade after decade.

We recently passed our three-year anniversary of living here in London. Three years is about the time it takes to grow totally, boringly comfortable in a new home and a new city. The first year is all about adapting, learning your way around, and living the new adventure. The second year you begin to find your footing and blend into the crowd. At the end of the third year, you’ve seen most of the city, you’ve established your routine, nothing much surprises you anymore, you start using terms like “mate” and “from Thursday,” and all your stuff is arranged pretty much the way it will be arranged until you move it again.

I feel at ease here now, quite Londonish. Not that it was ever a huge problem, moving to a city that speaks the same language, watches the same TV shows, listens to the same music, etc. I stopped thinking of myself as an American in a foreign land a long time ago. I figured out that most people didn’t care anyway. London is a big, international city. A large percentage of the population is from somewhere else. America, Albania, Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan. Makes no difference, you’re all the same. Just order your bloody pint and don’t crowd the bar, mate.

A Londoner is not that different than a New Yorker, where I’ve also lived. You become a Londoner just by being here awhile. You’ll never be a native, and London will never mean the same thing to you as it does to those born and raised here. But you’re a Londoner, because most of London doesn’t have the time or the desire to sort through who belongs here and who doesn’t.

So, I’ve grown comfortable. I’ve learned the rules. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that you can’t sit at bars here. You order at the bar and then shuffle somewhere else. I miss sitting at bars, but whatever. There are worse problems.

I’ve resigned myself to knowing that it takes work crews here 8.5 years to do jobs that would be done in about a month back in the States. We live in a nice townhome complex in a reasonably quiet neighborhood by the Thames, not far from Tower Bridge. Back in August or thereabouts, a small crane vehicle showed up at the complex across the street. It’s parked in the parking lot (or “car park,” as they say here).

Every so often, some dude drives the crane around a little bit, and him and some other dude do a little work around the complex. I think they’ve been scraping old paint off of shutters or something. They’ll do that for a couple days, move the crane around, park it, and disappear for a week or two. Then they’ll come back and do the same thing – piddle here, piddle there. This has been going on for months. I don’t even know what the f**k they’re supposed to be doing. I’m not sure they know. Painting shutters? Sanding wood? Turning screws? No idea. Virtually nothing has changed at that complex in the ensuing months. I’m convinced they, and the crane, will be here for the next decade or so.

The people in London are nice enough, in a reserved, world-weary Brit way. They don’t come chat you up and ask how you are, or start blessing your heart or slapping your back like the folks back in America. But if you say hi, they will say hi back. I say hi to my neighbors, and they say hi back. I say “how are you,” and they say “good, thanks.” Then we scurry on before we get stuck in another pointless conversation.

Our direct neighbor is an elderly gentleman who has lived all over the world – Iran, Indonesia, Ireland. The “I” countries. I’m convinced he used to be an international spy or something. He has another house in Ireland that he used to stay at most of the time, before settling next door for most of the last several months, maybe due to the lockdown. I used to chat with him occasionally, until I learned he likes to chat and chat and chat and chat and chat some more. And now – God help me, I’m ashamed – I sometimes try to hide when I see him, because I am not the world’s greatest chatter.

Still, it’s hard to avoid him. I go to the garage a lot, and you can only access the garage from the outside. There is not a door from the inside – EVEN THOUGH THE GARAGE IS ATTACHED TO THE HOUSE. You have to physically walk outside through the front door to access the garage. So, I go to the garage to get my bike or do the laundry, because the washer and dryer are in the garage. And I’ve noticed my kind, chatty neighbor lurking outside lately. It’s hard to avoid him. Sometimes I spot him out of the corner of my eye, and so I slink into a dark corner of the garage and try to hide.

I feel bad about this. I feel shame. I really should be more neighborly. I WILL be more neighborly. I will will myself to be more neighborly.

Just not right now.

I’ve become an expert at watching American sports here. Most of the games come on in the wee hours here in London because of the time difference, so I have to record them. Then I have to speed-watch them the next day so I can see them before Facebook and the rest of the internet have a chance to spoil the ending for me. If you ever find yourself in this predicament, here are some helpful tips:

Baseball: This is a sport that takes forever, so just watch your team bat, don’t watch the other team bat, and fast forward between pitches. You can see a game in under an hour.

Football: Fast forward between plays. Fast forward through the time-outs and interminable delays and replays. You can even fast forward through the first half and just watch the second half.

Basketball: Just fast forward to the last quarter. If the game is a blowout, you didn’t miss much anyway. But even a 15-point fourth-quarter lead in the NBA is not necessarily out of reach.

Golf: Don’t even watch it until the leaders are on the back nine on Sunday. That’s the only part that matters, and you can watch it in a couple hours.

Tennis: This is the sport I watch for the sheer athletic beauty of it, so I tend to watch full matches. But when you do need to speed through, wait until there’s a break of serve. After that, just watch when the player who’s been broken is returning serve. If he or she doesn’t break back, the set is over.

Soccer: We get the Premiere League over here, so why would I record MLS games? And anyway, it’s “football” innit? – no matter what you rotting wanker Yanks call it. Whenever I’m in a pub and a Premiere League match is on, and some diehard, drunk Arsenal hooligan comes up to me demanding to know which club I pull for, I tell him I’m American, and he just laughs and says, “Never mind, mate. Enjoy the soccer.”

That’s not happening now, of course, going into a pub and watching the Premiere League. Not with the latest lockdown. We’re pretty much stuck at home. The kids are home schooling. My wife is home working. My once private, personal, stay-at-home Daddy domain has been invaded.

The pubs and restaurants are closed, and so are many of the shops. Lord, how I miss them.

But we’re safe and secure here. Safe at home, just like in baseball. And my baseball cards are here. And the rest of our stuff.

Our stuff is here, and we’re here, and it’s home.

Note: The photo is not of our home in London, but someone else’s home in Edinburgh. My wife took it while we traveled there over the summer. But whoever’s home it is, their stuff is in there.

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