I get asked the question, “have you settled in?” a lot, and trying to answer it has caused me to realise there are multiple levels of settling, like some old style super mario computer game. So just for fun, I tried to figure out what level I have made it to…
You unpack the key boxes, such as clothes (the ones you wear on a weekly basis) and cutlery and something to keep the toddler amused.
You also spend an unreasonable amount of time organising your books into categories and by height (or perhaps by colour or alphabetised?) because this feels incredibly important in the moment.
You find the nearest shop selling food (hello Tesco Express) and feel proud to have milk and bread and cheese in the house. You will survive.
You venture outside. But only after consulting google maps for approximately 90 minutes to locate what looks like the safest nearby playground and the easiest probably-won’t-get-lost route there.
You make a list of all the vendors you need to contact. Electricity, heating, water, council tax, bank account, TV licence, phone contracts, and the all important internet connection of course. You put the list somewhere prominent and then proceed to ignore it for the next few weeks because you hate hate hate to use the phone. Even to call people who will probably be thrilled to take your credit card details.
You rearrange some furniture and unpack the throw blankets and feel immeasurably satisfied with the result. Throw blankets make a home.
You locate the nearest library and make it there with only one wrong turn. You sigh with deep happiness upon entering and seeing all those hundreds of books. In English. Free to take and read. Then you realise you need at least two proof of address before they will let you take anything, and that list of vendors is still glaring at you from the sideboard at home. So you longingly run your hands along the rows of books, take a few deep breaths to inhale that glorious musty book smell, and leave again.
You unpack some more boxes and convince your husband to spend his afternoon putting everything you don’t need up into the attic. Which he does because he hates clutter as much as you do.
You call one of the vendors from the list and they are surprisingly pleasant. Then the first bill arrives with your name spelt entirely wrong. This continues to happen with every new account you open. You get used to pronouncing your name wrong in an attempt to get it spelt right.
You do an online grocery shopping order (because no car + pregnant + toddler = no thank you) and feel like a proper adult when it arrives.
You go on a blind-friend-date with someone your landlord set you up with. She has little ones too but the first half an hour still feels entirely awkward as you do the get-to-know-you-chat and try and figure out if you have anything beyond offspring in common. (You do. Big relief).
You find yourself a local cafe, complete with adorable deli selling overpriced goods and cafe lattes in teeny glasses. But they have space for the pushchair and highchairs so you count it a win. Because now you have a “favourite” (read: one) local cafe so you must surely be a local? Kinda?
You venture further afield, setting yourself the challenge of never coming home the same way. Your toddler finds this mostly entirely tedious but you do discover a new playground, a Victorian cemetery and a shortcut to the main shopping street.
You go to an event in central London and when you tell some friendly strangers that you’ve just moved to Peckham they look slightly shocked that that’s where you ended up. You feel both nervous and vaguely superhero-ish.
You count up the number of new friends you have made in the last three months (five) and feel pretty happy. Then you realise two of them finish maternity leave right after Christmas so you’re down to three who will have time to see you. You cry.
You sit down to do a proper budget now that you’ve been here a little while and know what everything costs. You check your figures multiple times before concluding, no, they are right, you really cannot afford to live in London. Well, bugger. You cry a little and then convince yourself that vacations are for people who are just trying to escape their life anyway so why would you want to do that?…
You go swimming with your toddler and manage to successfully find your way from the changing rooms to the pool without having to ask for directions (it happened once. True story). On the way home, your realise that trying new activities and places like this is not the overwhelming terror it was a couple of months ago. The surprise of that thought nearly makes you cry (lots of crying at this level apparently).
You become accustomed to shopping in pound stores (hello Peckham) but still feel completely out of your depth when you enter any of the African-Caribbean stores. You are pretty sure you have a sign on your forehead declaring your entire ignorance of all those enticing but completely foreign-looking vegetables.
After two frankly rubbish church experiences that make you vow to spend your remaining Sundays eating pancakes in your pyjamas and going for long walks in the park instead of submitting yourself to an event that makes you want to yell, you finally try out another church and everyone is so very lovely and the service is so wonderfully imperfect that you start to rethink the pancakes option. (a church with pancakes. that would be awesome).
You plan a trip avec le toddler into central London, researching the route meticulously so that it is pushchair friendly. But both tube stations you need to change at have out-of-service lifts. You fear you’ll have to live on the Northern Line forever but multiple helpful Londoners stop to insist on carrying everything you have with you up multiple staircases. You’re surprised someone didn’t suggest giving you a piggyback, they are so enthusiastic. You realise every city stereotype you’ve carried is probably rubbish – Londoners are lovely.
That cafe you love that made you feel like a local? Closes down. Bugger.
You get to within a month of your new baby being born and realise you need to start stockpiling meals in the freezer because you don’t have the community of friends who fed you for a crazy six weeks straight last time around. This thought coincides with the arrival of photos of a baby shower for one of your old friends and the combination makes you sob. You contemplate quitting the whole “new adventure” thing and moving back.
Your parents come for the day again, greeted with big smiles and cuddles from their granddaughter. You make orange marmalade with your mum and realise this time together is one of the biggest benefits to this move.
You go for a walk and start to do your normal “find a new route home” habit before realising you know all the routes home. You also now know of multiple cafes that have space for the pushchair, including that one where they say hello like they know you, and adore your little girl. You have been asked for directions and able to answer confidently. You recognise multiple people who live on your street, including the old man next door who you only understand 1/3 of the time but he seems to like talking to you. This makes you happy.
It’s becoming home…
Level eight? I’ve no idea what’ll come next. I feel both settled and profoundly unsettled. Some days I think I could live here for years, other days I want to move back to somewhere I know and I am known. There’s no linear path to making this house, this neighbourhood, this city, into a home. It often feels like one step forward, two back. But I don’t regret that we’re here.
I think back over all the reasons we chose this option, picked this path – and all the ways the path was decided for us – and I’m confident that whether this is for six months or six years, we can make this work. I can chose to embrace every challenge, every confusion, every moment of discomfort or loneliness. As an expat, I used to always advise friends to “live as though you’ll be here forever”.
Meaning: Dive in.
Live your life fully present here in this time and place.
Don’t hold back any of yourself.
What I realise now that I’m back in my ‘home’ country, is that it counts just as much now as it ever did. Lean in. Be all here. Even when it’s hard.
What about you? What have you learnt most from the experience of moving or transitioning?