• October 31, 2014

The Simple Gets Complicated in an Overseas Move

Subtle differences between your port of origin and your new country require constant little adjustments

Overseas Careers Illustration

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

As a Ph.D. who has taken a faculty job overseas, I haven't had to make the adjustment from teaching my own history classes in the United States to teaching them in England. I'm starting from scratch over here, because this is my first academic job.

The move, consequently, hasn't been an overwhelming adjustment professionally. Instead, the challenges have been of the everyday variety—cooking, shopping, banking, finding a place to live.

For example, each week I stand in the grocery store and Google for about 10 minutes. Such research is essential in order to find the English counterparts of products I'm familiar with in the United States. And it's easy to be confused: I've nearly used dishwasher soap in my washing machine because both cleaning products come packaged in dissolvable pods. (I don't even know if it matters.) During another trip to the store, sussing out the difference among various versions of yeast here took an additional 10 minutes beyond my weekly Googling quota.

I've located almost all of the cooking supplies I need to make my favorite dishes, although some culinary endeavors have demanded modification. Commenters on a previous online column ("In Defense of Stuff," June 3) I wrote for The Chronicle were kind enough to offer advice regarding what I should bring with me. I knew, for example, that my cookie sheets would not fit in my smaller oven here. I also anticipated having to convert my baking recipes from Fahrenheit to Celsius, but I remained mystified when my popovers baked 20 minutes faster than they were supposed to (and almost burned), until I realized that my British oven was a convection oven. Finding oxtails to make pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, took far longer than it had back home. And a grocer I asked about cheesecloth had no idea what I was talking about; I ended up using a tea strainer.

Subtle differences between the two countries remain—the kind you don't really think about until you've made the move. I traveled to England with cash because I've had trouble using traveler's checks in the past. Once I arrived, the agent at the bank where I'd opened an account warned me against depositing any significant amount of money at one time because that sort of activity might appear too similar to money laundering. So for a good amount of time I had a bank account without much cash in it.

Not having enough money in your bank account is a bigger problem in England than in the United States, because many major payments must be made using a bank transfer rather than a credit card. I couldn't buy a cellphone, because the phone company wanted to be paid by bank transfer and wouldn't set up an account unless they could double check my nonexistent credit here. Without a cellphone, housing proved difficult to find because realtors wouldn't email me back.

I solved these problems only with the help of my boyfriend, who has started a teaching job in a city a couple of hours away. He had the foresight to open a bank account while he was visiting Britain for a conference in May. So I ended up giving him cash, and he bought my phone for me.

Thereafter I split my time between making cash deposits that I hoped were small enough that they wouldn't draw suspicion, and persistently calling brokers to ask about apartment listings. (I would urge anyone making a move overseas to make an extra trip to set up a bank account ahead of time. When you open the account, have your foreign debit card mailed to you in the United States. Some banks will allow you to do that as long as you change the address on the account to a British one within three months. Alternatively, see if a colleague in your new hometown is willing to receive your mail for a while.)

The quest for housing turned out to be quite different than in the United States. Leasing agents in Britain seem to excel at an approach I've come to think of as "the undersell." They prefaced multiple showings with warnings about how "basic" the apartment was, as if to caution me that I didn't really want to live there.

In some cases, they spoke truthfully, but in all of my encounters, I wondered why these brokers weren't trying particularly hard to sell me on something. They didn't seem to know very much about any particular apartment; they couldn't tell me approximate gas or electric bills, or what appliances the tenant was leaving in the apartment. It was a relief to finally find a place and move in.

Now that I'm settled, I'm feeling better about lots of things, including my health. I walk to and from the office, so I'm getting more exercise (and finding time for more-vigorous excursions, too). I know health care here really isn't free, because it automatically comes out of my paycheck, but I decided that if I was already covered, I was going to take advantage of it. I experienced a bit of a scare during my routine checkup, when the nurse informed me that my blood pressure was too high.

Apparently, having your blood pressure taken during your first week on the job might not yield the most accurate result. It turned out to be a blip, but the high reading meant that the doctor required me to take a 24-hour blood-pressure-monitoring test, for which you wear a blood-pressure cuff under your jacket, and it inflates twice an hour and records the results. The machine that records the readings is attached via a cord, and fits in your pocket like a large, old-fashioned cellphone.

It was hilarious having the cuff inflate and deflate twice while I was running my first class.

I now have an actual record of just how high my blood pressure spiked during my first real hour of solo teaching.

To ward off future blood-pressure issues, I keep calm by traveling every other weekend to see my boyfriend. When I'm on the move between our two cities, I vacillate between delight and annoyance with public transportation. On the one hand, compared with living in the middle of Texas, it's easy to get anywhere in England. I am used to needing eight hours to leave the state, but here I can travel by train to conferences all over the country within a couple of hours. On the other hand, Americans can get pretty fanatic about proper etiquette on the quiet car of a train, and here in England the quiet car is not really the quiet car. I sometimes find children amusing—particularly those belonging to my friends. But I submit that the quiet car is there for people who would like to escape from those sometimes shrill voices.

A less practical, but equally important conundrum: Living far away from the States means that some of the American-history books I need are not readily available for my research. I've been lucky that my library has received some money to set aside for the purchase of such books. But that money will run out, and I'm a little nervous about the annual limit on my interlibrary-loan requests. I've been told that there may or may not be a black market in such requests. I sort of want to use up my quota just so that I can say I've participated in the nerdiest enterprise ever.

In short, I like it here.

Although I regularly stop traffic in the aisles of the supermarket, fight with my office computer over its insistence on using a British English spell-checker to assess my work, and silently grouse at people talking in the quiet car, I'm finding that the adjustment has prompted few causes for complaint—or "whinging," as they say here.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. lecturer in American history in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton.

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