Transatlantic drift

Moving abroad isn’t for everyone. But there are lots of people who do it and find happiness. And as the article below points out, the reasons can be quite varied.


Transatlantic drift

By Richard Tomkins

Published: Financial Times, April 8 2006
A lot of people ask Pattie Jenkins why anyone like her, American born and bred, would want to become a British citizen. Here, just quickly, is the story of how she left her home in Atlanta, Georgia, and ended up living in south Wales.
In 1994 Jenkins picked up a novel called Outlander, a historical romance about an American nurse in 20th-century Scotland who found herself thrown back in time to 1743, shortly before the Battle of Culloden. The book had such a powerful impact on Jenkins that she became obsessed with Scotland and decided she had to go there. Soon after, she joined an international pen friend club in the hope of making contact with Scottish people.
Unfortunately, of all the pen friend replies Jenkins received, not one was from a Scot. But she did get a letter from someone called Gary in Wales. After writing to each other for 19 months and exchanging visits, they eventually married and Jenkins felt they should live in Britain to be part of Gary’s close-knit family. Now they live in Pontypool, where Jenkins has found her vocation as a mental health support worker and their five-year-old son is growing up bilingual in Welsh and English.
Oh, and they did at least spend their honeymoon in Scotland, so Jenkins’ ambition was fulfilled.
You might say it was an odd turn of events that brought Jenkins to Britain. Perhaps more surprising, though, is that she is far from alone. It is well known that Americans visit Britain in large numbers – each year they greatly outnumber visitors from any other country outside Europe. What is less well known is that thousands arrive and never leave – so many, in fact, that they constitute one of the biggest groups of immigrants to the UK.
In 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, the 4,120 Americans given indefinite leave to remain in the UK easily outnumbered the 3,115 Bangladeshis granted permanent residence, even though Bangladesh has long been seen as one of the biggest sources of immigration to Britain. Americans also outnumbered the 3,825 Somalis, the 3,240 Australians, the 2,930 Jamaicans, the 2,315 Chinese, the 1,725 Iranians and the 1,720 Iraqis.

According to an analysis of the latest available census data by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a London-based think-tank, there were about 155,000 US-born people living in Britain in 2001, outnumbering all other migrant groups except those from the Irish Republic, India, Pakistan, Germany and the Caribbean. If the German figure excluded children born to families of British servicemen on the Rhine, the US would rank even higher.
Now, we do need to be a bit careful here. According to the latest US immigration statistics, 14,915 Britons were granted permanent residence in the US in 2004, so there are still a lot more Britons emigrating to the US than Americans heading in the opposite direction.
Yet the surprise, surely, is that any Americans move to Britain at all. While American brides may have a long tradition of settling with British husbands – Nancy Astor, Wallis Simpson and Madonna, to name a few – why would other Americans want to leave the land of plenty for a grim, drab and relatively poor little island with leaden skies, high prices and appalling food?
Well, we know what attracts the tourists. Exasperatingly for those trying to reposition Britain (or at least London) as cutting-edge, fashionable and cool, research for the non-profit European Travel Commission, a Brussels-based tourism body, shows that North Americans still associate the UK with “pubs, castles, lush fields, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, bobbies, the changing of the guard, royalty, the colour green and historical ties to the United States”.
But Americans who choose to settle in the UK have very different reasons for staying. They like the schools, the long holidays and the multiculturalism. They like Britain’s proximity to other countries and the sense of being connected with the rest of the world. Some even like the weather (but not the food – “bland, tasteless and boiled or fried to death”). And, at least for those outside London, one of Britain’s biggest attractions turns out to be the National Health Service.
Within London, the stereotype of the American expatriate is the investment banker, lawyer or accountant who is sent by his or her firm to work inthe City for a few years and ends up putting down roots. Peter O’Driscoll, a partner in an American law firm, arrived from New York with hiswife Carolyn 15 years ago. Since then, they have had two children in London and are now applying for British citizenship.
“For the kind of work I do, I could be in Hong Kong, London or New York but, of those three cities I would probably prefer to be in London just because of the work-life balance and the overall quality of life,” O’Driscoll says. Although the gap has narrowed, he feels London is still less aggressively workaholic than New York and he likes London for its parks, its sense of space, its easy access to the countryside and its arts and literature.
As O’Driscoll points out, not all Americans come from New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, and for those who do not, London may be a more interesting place than home. He cautions, however, that London’s high cost of living and rising taxes are in danger of reaching a point where people question whether the quality of life justifies the London premium “because in most American cities, with the exception possibly of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, you get a lot more for your money”.
Still, expensive as London may be, census figures show that London’s American-born population shot up by 37 per cent to nearly 45,000 in the 10 years to 2001 – good news for Karen Phillips, a property consultant specialising in rentals to Americans in north-west London. Many US expatriates like to live in Knightsbridge or Kensington and Chelsea, Phillips says, but Hampstead, Belsize Park, Primrose Hill and surrounding areas are also very popular, especially with families wanting to be near the American school in St John’s Wood.
Phillips, a former New Yorker, says she came to London on a visit 30 years ago and ended up staying for good. “At first it’s the charm of the place, coupled with the uniqueness. People say ‘Oh, are you American?’ and you’re in the limelight a little. Then things happen: you get a job, you get married, you have children, your husband’s English family becomes your family and, before you know it, you’re ingrained.”
One sign of assimilation: while Phillips retains her broad New York accent, she says her two daughters, now in their 20s, speak “totally like the Queen”.
Often, like Phillips, Americans turn out to be living in Britain by accident more than design. Take Lucy Marcus, founder and chief executive of Marcus Venture Consulting, a global company that specialises in the structuring and restructuring of private equity firms. Why has this native New Yorker settled in, of all places, the Somerset market town of Frome?
The answer, in part, is that she met the man who was to become her husband, Stefan Wolff, while in Britain doing a master’s degree at Cambridge University and Frome is convenient for the job he now has as a professor at Bath University. But the point is, Prof Wolff came from Germany and, for two people from different countries, Britain represented neutral territory.
“For both of us, it was an adventure. We learnt a new place and made it our own,” Marcus says. “I love the fact that it’s easy to travel to other places and that you meet people from many different cultures who still embrace the cultures from which they come. I think when people go to America they very quickly adopt American culture and lose some of their old identity in the process.”
For Americans in London, it is typically work that brings them to Britain. But for those outside the capital – surprisingly, the majority, accounting for 61 per cent of US expatriates tracked by the last census – romance is often the cause.
Marci Tapping, living in Plymouth, Devon, met her husband Mark, a Royal Marine, when he was on manoeuvres with the US Marines at Camp Lejeune outside her home town of Jacksonville, North Carolina. Aimee Hackett, a New Yorker living in Lyme Regis, Dorset, met her British husband Pete, a carpenter, at the airport bus stop while travelling to Britain to visit a friend.
Perhaps not surprisingly in the digital age, internet romance is bringing Americans to Britain too. Paula Gillen, who moved from rural Michigan to urban Leeds, had never imagined she would live outside the US until she met Steve, her British husband-to-be, in a chat room for the over-40s. Katy Radcliffe, from Cincinnati, Ohio, met her British husband David, a Gloucester bookshop owner, on www.catholicmatch.com last year, married him in February and now has a view of Gloucester Cathedral from her kitchen window.
For sure, these imported American brides can see the downsides of living in Britain. “There’s a sense of meanness when it comes to energy. And that’s ecologically great but, to me, it’s just bizarre,” says Radcliffe. People hang clothes out to dry instead of using a tumble drier, refuse to turn on the heating unless the temperature is below freezing and will not rinse the soap suds off the dishes for fear of wasting hot water. “I think it’s a sense of poverty that originated after the second world war and is still in people’s minds,” she says.
Tapping says it feels much more crowded in Britain than in the US. “And everything seems to be smaller, like jars of things, bottles of things and the refrigerator, the washer and the drier.” Like many others, she bemoans the lack of closets in British homes. And she shares the universal American bewilderment at Britain’s lack of mixer taps.
But there are upsides, too. Gillen says: “I like the fact that mainland Europe is so close. You can travel from country to country like we used to travel from state to state.” Hackett feels her daughter is getting a more rounded education than she would in the US. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that some Americans have no idea about general stuff like geography,” she says.
What of those who settle in Britain for reasons other than marriage? Some, you might say, are political refugees. Paula Higgins, a noted musicologist, gave up a tenured professorship at the University of Notre Dame to take a chair in music and become head of department at Nottingham University. An avowed feminist and far-left liberal, she says a big factor in her decision to move was “the almost intolerable political climate in the US, as well as the increasingly oppressive infiltration of rightwing conservatism into the university I was working at, which was at one time a citadel of left-wing concerns with social justice issues”.
Others, however, simply weigh up the American way of life against the British way and decide they prefer the British one.
“I think people have a misconception about what it’s like to live in America,” says Tracy Abrusci, a nurse and single mother from Chicago who now lives and works in Birmingham. “People think the streets are paved with gold and everybody lives in these big houses and drives these big cars and nobody has any worries, when the reality is a lot of people are struggling.”
She says people work far harder in the US – more hours per week and more weeks a year, plus they have a heavier workload. And life is much more precarious. “If you lose your job, there is nothing to fall back on. If you’re a relatively healthy, middle-aged man, you’re not going to get any benefit at all. They just give you a list of shelters.”
Abrusci also thinks Britain is a much more tolerant society than the US. Where she lived, she says, she was often made to feel uncomfortable about being divorced with children. “Here, I feel it’s much more acceptable. And gay issues are really bad in the States. The other thing people don’t understand is that there’s a very clear line between black and white. For instance, my sister is married to a black man and there’s only certain places they can live because they would fear for violence against them. I can’t see that happening here in such a blatant manner.”
Sean Aaron, an information technology consultant who moved from Oakland. California, to Stirling in Scotland with his wife, Michelle, says one thing he likes about Britain is the way diverse views are tolerated. If anyone revealed communist leanings in the US, he says, people would call them insane. “But here it is like, hey, you can have the Scottish Socialist party calling for Scotland to become a socialist republic and they have six seats in the Scottish parliament. Regardless of what you might think about the Scottish Socialist party, I think that says a great deal about tolerance and diversity of viewpoint. I find it very reassuring.”
Meta Jamison, who moved with her husband Brian from Orlando, Florida, to Southampton, Hampshire, where they both work at the university, says: “I think the way of life here is a bit more real; not quite as work-driven and consumerism-driven. In the US I felt like my whole life centred around working, working, working, knowing that if I worked at the same job for one year I may get a week off, whereas here there’s more of a sense that work is not everything.”
She says Britain also seems a more caring society. “In the US, it was just afact of life that if I didn’t have a job and I couldn’t pay for my health insurance,I’d better not get sick. Here, I know that, no matterwhat, I’m going to be OK and my daughter will be cared for, at least in the most basic respects. I feel like, as a society, people look out for each other a bit more.”
Back in Gloucester, with her kitchen window view of the cathedral, Radcliffe strongly agrees. In the US, she says, she had a pre-existing medical condition and could not get health insurance. But thanks to the National Health Service, now she gets the healthcare she could not previously afford.
“The norm in America is a fully detached house with grass on all four sides and that might seem a better quality of life,” she says. “And gasoline is cheaper so people drive more. But you have to drive everywhere in America unless you live in the big cities. I don’t know how that’s a better quality of life. And I don’t see how there’s any quality of life at all when you can’t even go to the doctor.”

2 Comments
  1. I’d become an ex-pat in a Chicago minute.
    There are no closets? What are mixer taps?
    I know you’ve written about some anti-American attitudes you’ve encountered, but what about this attitude that American streets are paved with gold? Is that prevalent? I’d expect that misconception in 3rd-world countries, but not the UK.

  2. You should explore becoming an ex-pat — if even for a short while particularly since your current company is global.
    As to your questions:
    Closets (Cupboards) in a lot of the older properties are almost unheard of. Most people usually end up buying wardrobes (think a large chest) to put their clothing in. However, with modernization, these are now being built in. Unfortunately though, this might usually mean that a small room ends up being even smaller.
    As for mixer taps? I have no idea what that is. I’ll research and get back to you.
    As to your broader question about the English attitude to Americans, most are friendly and quite welcoming. More importantly, most are smart enough to recognize that American streets are not in fact paved with gold. Particularly since there are so many American television shows and documentaries being broadcast. However, some do still wonder why an American would want to settle in their country. Particularly since London with all its charm is quite expensive, is known for its terrible weather and also at times not the friendliest place in the world. However once I then point out all the good things of the city (the culture, easier access to rest of Europe, leading financial market, etc.) most then seem to understand.

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