Expat life took me by surprise but it’s only because I wasn’t paying attention. It was probably an obvious destination all along. Some people are expats because they fell in love with a person from another country and followed them there. That’s part of my story, but not all of it.
When I was very little I remember staying with my grandparents for a while. Then my dad returned home from somewhere and showed me a thousand slides of misty far away places with pretty flowers, stone houses and sweeping hillsides criss-crossed with stone walls and hedges. A red phone box punctuated the blues, greens and greys. That was my first glimpse of Britain.Growing up I watched hours and hours of All Creatures Great and Small, Fawlty Towers, and Masterpiece Theatre (remember that epic, The Jewell in the Crown? Not set in Britain, but British. I had a crush on Art Malik.). In high school we created elaborate in-jokes around Monty Python.
I read my grandma’s long collection of Agatha Christie, I studied Virginia Woolf, and I listened to Duran Duran and the Police.
None of that was on purpose—I wasn’t smitten by Britain as some people are, these things just coincidentally all had to do with Britain. I joined the drama club so I could go on the drama trip to Britain the summer I graduated—it was the only international trip on offer. If it had been to China or Peru I still would have gone. I was living in a small town pre-internet and I loved travel so it was sort of a given that this kid would do what she needed to do to get out. That the trip was to Britain just meant I was more familiar with some of the culture.
I ended up enjoying drama quite a bit, but probably frustrated the teacher immensely as I was not your typical drama club student. She was tolerant.
After graduation but before I went on the drama trip I met an English boy who lived near one of my best friends in another state. It was an instant crush between us both, a sweet and intense holiday romance. It didn’t last long but before it finished I had already decided in that determined/vague way kids do, that I would go to England to live for a while; kind of to meet up with him again and kind of just because it sounded like a Great Thing to Do. I knew the university I was about to attend had a study abroad programme and in fact that programme had been one of the attractions when I applied. I would sign up for the England programme. I hadn’t even visited Britain yet, but this just sounded like an excellent, if vague plan.
Then came the drama trip. I was about the oldest on the trip and having graduated from high school and being of an intensely independent disposition, I was frustrated with the tight hold the teachers had on me. I must have been a tiresome member of our otherwise well behaved group. Perhaps my enthusiasm made up for it. I loved being in Britain, even though it did that misty rain thing that it does so effectively for most of the two weeks we were there, I was consumed with excitement. Except for when we went to Shakespeare’s house. I was not overly excited then as I hadn’t discovered Shakespeare properly yet and we had just been to Anne Hathaway’s cottage (Who? I wasn’t even a real drama student; it was overkill for me). But when I learned there was a Laura Ashley nearby I skipped the house and went shopping. Laura Ashley in 1988 was good stuff to be bringing back home to the Minnesota Northwoods. I would look exotic back home from my travels wearing clothes no one else had.
One day at Windsor Castle, fed up with the immature squealings of the other students (oh, the arrogance of one just graduated), I was standing by a parapet with hands thrust in pockets staring morosely out over the misty countryside at the green hills, hedges and stone buildings down towards the river and Eton School. My tolerant drama teacher came up to me and said, ‘You’ll come back. I can see it. I see these things and I can see you’ll be back here. And I think you’ll stay.’
And now, 25 years later, I wonder if it that obvious even then, or was she really psychic?
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.
Read more of Michelle's Expat Focus articles here.