[“What is it like to move to England from the United States?” Dawn Rutherford Marchant let us republish her answer to this question from Quora.]
It is hard. Just because people speak English, do not be deceived. It is an utterly alien place from America culturally, and I found (and still find) the adjustments frustrating and I sometimes still get furious by the difficulties.
One of the biggest realities is the drop in the material standard of living. British wages are not as high as in the US and things are more expensive. Obviously, this impacts on lifestyle.
Houses are very expensive and you will live in a house half the size you’d expect in the US, often attached to your neighbour and with a one car garage (if you are lucky). There are no basements, so you feel cramped and everything is cluttered — I’ve never seen a walk-in closet to date. You will cram everything into a ‘wardrobe’ the size of your coat closet.
My friends living like this are Oxford and Cambridge grads in IT in London, teachers, engineers, journalists — all university grads. There are, of course, higher levels up from this but it is generally those connected to the City, oil executives or high flyers. Doctors will live higher up the scale, but not to American standards. Pharmacists have low 5 figure salaries, even though they hold chemistry degrees – a huge disparity, same with nursing.
You will eat sandwiches in your office, not go out for lunch as is done daily in the US. You will not have a garbage disposal, and will be expected to hang your laundry out to dry (fighting the rain the whole time — having to check weather reports, can you believe?). Household work is more time consuming as the conveniences built into newer housing just aren’t there.
But there are pubs! Pubs are an Englishman’s refuge and the place where you meet up with mates for a quick pint – guys and gals – as a routine part of ‘friend maintenance.’
Our groceries are ordered on the internet and delivered to our front door — as is typical for all supermarkets. We live on the ‘High Street’ in our village — bakeries, cafes, barber, grocery store and bus stop are located there, and three pubs of course. The train station to London is an 8 minute walk.
My daughter is 14 and has 11 subject areas: Latin, Greek, French, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Advanced Maths, History, English, English Lit and Music (theory, performance and composition). She anticipates fluency in French at 17. The education system is exam based, there is no GPA. She wants to study medicine and as med school begins freshman year, she has already begun pre-med coaching sessions at school.
Brits get a lot more time off — 5 weeks as a rule — and travel is a priority. The cultural aspects of the country are fascinating – tiny it may seem, but it takes a lifetime to know this place, and with Europe so close it is expanded even further.
A massive advantage of living here is the National Health Service. If an American could understand it, they would be amazed by its magnificence.
In this past week I have seen an ENT consultant surgeon and have had surgery scheduled in a few weeks’ time. There was no direct cost to me.
Tonight my GP (family doctor) rang at 8pm to check in on another health issue. She is chasing a consultant to authorise a new medication and will ring me back next week. This did not cost me a penny.
So, three doctors and one medical procedure without a form to fill in or a bill to pay. Pretty damn impressive stuff –yes, I know it is in our taxes but the system works well. It is ‘from birth to grave’ care all woven together into one service — ambulance to GP to hospital to nursing care. There are all kinds of synergies created by such a system. It is to be deeply respected, emulated, and not feared.
Another advantage is the lack of gridlock in politics — we are being spared the current ugliness in the US, and the safety nets of good employment law, disability rights and maternity/paternity leave are reassuring.
The infrastructure of the country is in a much better state…there are no derelict buildings or crumbling roads. There is greater acceptance and less stigma in being a racial minority (although still far from easy). Gay marriage has been in place a long time and is a non-issue.
And best of all (to me): the deeply inbuilt intellectualism — world class museums, theatres, concerts, bookshops, lectures everywhere.
People jump to conclusions about Brits being unfriendly but this is simply an American reaction to the British cultural norm of avoiding relationships that are superficial. Once you are a friend, it is sincere and has a depth and permanence that outlasts many of those I had in the U.S.
I do miss the affiliation to college sports, as my friends all gather for all the big football games at our university and have a great party — there is no such culture here. There are the big football games — but it’s professional sport just like the NFL. The World Cup rivals the Super Bowl, however.
I would give my right arm for an American washer and dryer, and you won’t understand this unless you’ve seen the laundry situation here. As I type this, our laundry is hanging in the family room, damp, and when dry must be ironed. All Brits iron, or hire someone to do it. This is a personal ‘I hate Britain’ rage issue for me. No place is perfect, I know. But having to hang clothes out to dry in February?
In spite of this, Britain is a place that you can come to love as your own. The countryside is stunningly beautiful and I am grateful for the hours I spend driving in it. Bunnies hop, pheasant fly and fox dash around me every day. Yet London remains close at hand.
The Brits have extremely strict zoning restrictions and there are no ‘strip malls’ — not anywhere. So you drive for an hour straight and won’t see a petrol (gas) station or any commercial building sticking out like a sore thumb.
There is a deep love and care for the countryside that makes it compelling, and you can never tire of it. It is the work of a thousand years — a landscape built by man, layer by layer. A masterpiece.
When you watch Downton Abbey, you are seeing the actual house and landscape of an aristocratic family in Hampshire – one hour from where I live. Just look at the size of those cedar trees outside the front of the house. All the rooms and lands you are seeing are real without alteration (except for the downstairs servant quarters).
I live minutes from Petworth House – a house of equal magnificence, built in Palladian style with a 1000 acre deer park. It is breathtaking to behold, landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown. The inside is just as amazing, filled with paintings by Turner, Van Dyke and endless architectural treasures. These houses span across the countryside.
There is so much the British have to be proud of – and the subject of ‘the’ War has an awesomeness all of its own. Brits are stubborn and won’t be beaten — the Nazis discovered that one! Ugly cement blocks plonked around my street are leftovers of a planned blockade against Panzer tanks — the sheer balls of a small village readied to resist such a massively dangerous foe is, to me, stunning. The military has a proud heritage and is so highly regarded that the Royals feel a deep attachment to it — including Princes William and Harry.
The weather… it does drizzle here a lot but it doesn’t get very cold. People get on with cycling, hiking, and pretty much everything but it can mess up summer weddings. It certainly is not a Californian sun zone . .people go to Spain.
I have found the financial drop in living a lot harder than I thought it would be. The differences between me and my American friends in terms of material possessions is large. They are better off in all financial areas of their life — except property prices*. However, a lot of the feeling about financial difference is lost over time — we now tend to reference our lives with our British peers.
When we go back home there is a massive shock and whoops of laughter at the bigness of everything. Yes, I do envy those closets and everything being on sale. Yet it also brings awareness of the wastefulness of American culture — those gallon size soft drink containers and 100 other excesses are fun for a few weeks’ holiday, but then we’ve had enough. Being in England teaches carefulness with resources (gas $US8/gallon), and I am happy my children live within these constraints.
To make a move here you should be fully prepared for how expensive it is, the lower wages, and the resulting drop in your (material) standard of living. If this is not of concern to you, and you want all the gains outlined above, then living here is quite good.
Britain has afforded me a window into a world beyond my wildest Midwest imagination. For this I am grateful. I don’t know if I could happily re-integrate into America now. Perhaps on the coasts. Saying that, I hold America dear and defend it daily. It was once explained to me by another ex-pat that I am ‘Mid-Atlantic’ — caught in the middle of the ocean, unable to decide which direction is home.
*if you work in the City, you will find things comparable to Wall Street. It is a separate world – entirely – from how normal Brits live.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.