Looking back to when I first moved to the U.S., it’s now clear that I knew almost nothing about what day-to-day life in America was like. But over the years, you pick up clues and adapt accordingly. Some things you learn to love; others require you to develop some serious coping strategies. This is the stuff I wish I’d known before signing those visa papers.
America is BIG
No really, it’s gigantic. It’s an odd feeling to be in a car for six hours and get precisely nowhere—and not because you’re stuck in M25 style traffic. It’s just that this country you’ve moved to is preposterously vast. Real Americans, who’ve never known anything different, aren’t in the least bit intimidated by having to drive a full day to reach their vacation spot. To give you an idea of scale, you could travel from one end of the U.K. to the other in roughly the same time as it takes to traverse Texas.
The climate can be harsh
Even if you’ve been on holiday in the U.S, you won’t know what to expect as a year-round resident. I’d visited NYC at least five times before moving here and still had no idea how exhaustingly hot the summers can get and how the city basically morphs into Winterfell between January and March. Of course, these seasonal extremes vary across the country, and you should research your new home’s weather before moving here so you can fashion your wardrobe—and your lifestyle—appropriately.
You’ll pay more attention to U.S. current affairs than British issues
It’s a strange transition but one that is, alas, unavoidable for long-term ex-pats. Though, surely caring more about what’s happening in the place you live than the place you used to live in the appropriate human response. At least, this is what I told myself when I was back in Blighty for the last general election and couldn’t persuade myself to give two hoots.
No one carries or pays for stuff with change
In Britain, it’s normal to lug around a pocket or purse heaving with coins, like a medieval landlord who’s just collected rent. We painstakingly count it out onto shop counters so we can buy stuff. In the U.S, change is all but worthless. Having coins about your person is the irritating repercussion of not paying for your goods on a card. If you plan on dealing in cash, you’ll want to get yourself a change jar so you can dump your shrapnel at the end of every day. Don’t, whatever you do, try to use it as currency. (Note: exceptions include casinos and Laundromats.)
Navigating all that bureaucracy is hard work
Nearly as hard, in fact, as spelling “bureaucracy” correctly. Before moving here, I assumed Americans, famously good communicators and straight-talkers, would have found a way to cut back on paperwork and officious procrastination. But the opposite is true. If you ever find yourself at, say, the DMV, prepare for a long wait in multiple lines and lots of cheerless stamping of documents with memorable titles like CCRP-1EDL. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally emigrated to 1970s Russia.
Your accent and expressions might start to change
Even if you’re committed to keeping your native drawl in pristine condition, you’ll probably find yourself slipping from time to time—either to make yourself understood, or because you can’t help but mimic the people around you. And it’s not just your pronunciation that’ll evolve; your go-to vocabulary will also get an American makeover. You might start by swapping “I’m very well” for “I’m good,” but before you know it you’ll be rattling off phrases like “You do the math” and “I could care less.”
Skip the trains
American locomotives are good for nothing, apart from taking you the long way round for three times the price of a plane. Trains here might look nicer and smell better than their British counterparts, but that’s it for plus points. The price is way above what you’d reasonably expect, and delays are frequent and brutal. If you insist on taking the train (some routes are, I’ll admit, enchantingly scenic) book as far in advance as you can for the best deals.
You’ll never feel comfortable in the presence of crushing sentimentality
However hard you try to acclimatize, as a stuffy Brit you’ll feel always awkward around an American pouring his or her heart out. Many—but thankfully not all Americans—do this quite a lot. You’ll try to keep your scoffing on the inside, but it will occasionally leak out. Have an apology or excuse prepared at all times. Even if you’re not exposed in person, your Facebook newsfeed will likely become populated by these over-sharers, a.k.a. your new friends. “Did I really need to know that?” you’ll think several times an hour. “Couldn’t you have texted your husband to tell him he’s the wind beneath your wings?” Just take a deep breath, and move down to the next status update.