A New Yorker in London - it's a steep learning curve

By Meira Drazin, March 7, 2014
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GPS is my frenemy,” I posted as my Facebook status a month after I moved to London from New York with my husband and three children. I felt stranded in an unfamiliar city, piloting an SUV that drove like a tank with three carseats on London’s narrow roads, blindly following a disembodied voice. “Does she have an English accent?” a friend gamely commented.

She does. And all that day as I drove around listening to her clipped instructions, thinking of her as both a cow and a godsend, I kept fixating on the metaphor. She’s very demanding: “In 200 yards, turn left, TURN LEFT!” She never admits when she’s wrong, like when leading me into a footpath through a park. And she’s never happy for me when I get it right: just once I’d like to hear her say, “Well done, you clever girl!” instead of “You have reached your destination.” But without her I’d be lost.

My move to London had left me adrift. Despite being with my husband and children I felt like someone vacationing alone, guidebook in hand but still wandering cluelessly from one site to the next, talking to people only for necessities or pleasantries without any meaningful conversation— at moments needing to remember there is a life back home, a reality that isn’t unmoored from familiar places and people.

Except I wasn’t in London on vacation: this wasn’t an interstitial time, a break from my normal routine, a routine that would be restored when I came home from my travels. Northwest London was now my home and this was my life. I realised the morning I wrote the Facebook post that not only was I beholden to a non-human for advice, but that my lack of sense of direction was quickly becoming a lack of sense of identity.

I was disoriented both physically and emotionally and driving was becoming more than just successfully getting from point A to point B, but also navigating dangerous emotional terrain that was threatening to spin me off the road and back in time to my other big move.

At 19, for university, I moved from Toronto to New York, a wildly unfamiliar city where I pretty much knew no-one and no one knew me. I felt perpetually lost, often running to catch the train in the subway station and hopping on breathless, just as the doors shut, only to discover it was the wrong train taking me to an unknown neighbourhood. With anyone familiar far away and unable to help, I made mistake after mistake. It seemed everyone in New York knew how to do things better than me, was savvier, and more efficient.

But even in those first difficult, bewildering and homesick months, there was not a moment that I wasn’t thrilled to be in New York, that I hadn’t felt that I’d escaped Toronto, with both weather and a Jewish community I found dreary and limiting. In New York I became an adult. I made choices about who I wanted to be, how I wanted to dress and who I wanted to be friends with. I spent 18 years there, learning from my mistakes and figuring out how to do things better, savvier, more efficient. I not only learned the subway system (and to check which train had pulled in before I got on) but how to make sure I got a seat even during the morning crush, and to ask for help with my stroller once I began navigating the city with children. I arrived a timid teenager without the wherewithal or skills to stick up for herself, and departed a woman who was able politely to tell someone trying to hail my cab, that I had got there first.

If I came to New York feeling like I had escaped, I left feeling I was being exiled. In the months leading up to our move to London, again a city where I knew no-one and no-one knew me, all I could think about was that I was going to be that 19-year-old again. My fear, borne out during those first disorienting weeks, was that by moving to England I would not only have no idea where I was going, or how to do things, but that this directional and practical ignorance would erode the adult life I had created and the person who had lived it. I feared that my constant sense of “where am I?” and “how do I?” would translate into “who am I?”

In London, people say to me all the time: “Oh you’re American.” “Well, actually, I’m Canadian,” I answer. And instead of it being a simple exchange, I feel compelled to go on about how I lived in New York for 18 years, as long as I lived in Toronto. So that while I am Canadian, it’s only half the story. I need people to know the other half, lest the part of my life where I’ve made all the choices —work, friends, style, home, religious observance, motherhood—that are important to me and made me who I am, gets negated, erased from existence.

We came to London for my husband’s job. Although my close friends knew how broken up I was and genuinely felt that my going would be a loss to them as well, many other people told me they were jealous that we were having this adventure and how amazing it would be for my children. Others told me I was a saint and they would never let their husband take a job that would necessitate such a colossal move. Both comments made me want to scream.

I’m no saint. My husband is our breadwinner and to me the bottom line is, if his opportunity for having a rewarding career that makes him happy as well as provides for our family, means uprooting and replanting across the pond, I’d have to have a very good excuse to say no. And I don’t think “I’m scared,” or “it’s going to be hard,” count.

And I felt like the people who said they were jealous failed to acknowledge the difficulties: the massive production of shifting a family of five across the ocean, finding somewhere to live and setting up a home, getting places for the children in schools, dealing with their emotional adjustment, even grocery shop. We are certainly not the first family to move a great distance, but I resented what I saw as a blindness to the fact that while my husband would go off to work every day, I would be left by myself to—literally—navigate my family’s new life.

And indeed, that is what I do. One day, several months into our move, I was driving my kids home from school and my four-year-old son said: “Mommy, where’s the person?” “What person, sweetie?” I said. “The one who talks to us,” he said. Oh, her.

“I don’t always need her any more,” I said. Outside my neighbourhood I do have to let Mrs Snippety GPS say: “Guidance will start when you have joined the highlighted route.”

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. And some of the “routes” I need help with will never be highlighted because they aren’t things I can just ask someone to give me guidance for, like how to move beyond practicalities and pleasantries with new English acquaintances.

But as I drove home in that 4:30 pm darkness, I realized that in the small triangulation of Golders Green, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Hendon, I do know which two butchers I prefer, which bakery has the softest challahs, which fishmonger chops salmon for sushi salad, which market to stop into for produce on Fridays and how to park without getting a ticket.

The tube seems a breeze. My kids have been invited for playdates and if there’s someone they want to play with, I ignore my clenched stomach, check the class list and pick up the phone to call a stranger. I belong to a gym and a book club.

The community we’ve joined feels similar in many ways to the one I turned my back on in Toronto, but as a newcomer I find that the closeness and interconnectedness is comforting rather than stifling.

And as an adult and as a mother, I’m able to recognise that there’s something very basic and confirming about people who don’t know us inviting us for Shabbat meals so that we don’t sit at home by ourselves every week.
Like that 19-year-old newly arrived in New York City so many years ago, I’m still making mistakes. (It took a near-collision to learn that the Give Way road sign is pretty much a Stop sign.) I know that a year from now, and five years from now, I will look back at this time and be amazed at all that I still didn’t know, the friends I hadn’t yet met.

I’m homesick and it’s still not easy. But I also know that even if someone does say to me: “Well done, you clever girl,” and gives me credit for all the small things that I’ve had to figure out that seem like such a big deal until you’ve done them a few times (driving on the wrong side of the road!) or larger things), it doesn’t matter unless I can say that to myself.

Meira Drazin was a senior editor at New York Family magazine and has been published in a number of Jewish media. She is currently writing a novel loosely based on a re-imagining of the biblical story of Joseph about a girl who moves to London and discovers what it means to “fit in.”

Meira Drazin was a senior editor at New York Family magazine and has been published in a number of Jewish media. She is currently writing a novel loosely based on a re-imagining of the biblical story of Joseph about a girl who moves to London and discovers what it means to “fit in.”

Last updated: 6:45pm, March 7 2014