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Brian: Colouring without Borders

In our InterNations Recommended Blog section we let you take the spotlight! Expat life in general is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for great, user-generated reads, and life in the UK makes no exception. Take your time and browse the great blogs showcased in this article!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Great Britain, etc.

My name is Brian. I’m an expat from the United States. Along with my wife, Kate, and toddler son, Jackson, I moved to Glasgow in June 2013. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia, but before Kate and I moved to the U.K. we spent our last twelve years in and around Raleigh, North Carolina. At various points in my life I earned degrees in music education, air war campaigns, and law — oddly enough, they all take similar skills. I’ve worked as a teacher, as a Congressional staffer, and as an attorney.

My favorite sport is basketball; my favorite book is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco; my favorite composer is Beethoven; my favorite current television show, even though I hate hate hate the horror genre, is The Walking Dead.  I’m an ever-striving but ever-failing polymath. If I had complete freedom and no responsibilities, I’d probably spend the rest of my life traveling the world.

When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?

Kate is a veterinary anatomic pathologist. We moved to Scotland when she accepted a position at the University of Glasgow as a professor at the veterinary school. My job, at least for now, is to stay home and take care of the kid. A few months after we moved to Glasgow, I started Coloring Without Borders. At first, I was a bit reluctant — I don’t even like to post on Facebook — but blogging has grown on me. In part, the blog is a good way to stay connected with friends and family. Ideally, though, I’m providing some information or insight or inspiration to travellers and expats, whether they come to the U.K. or go elsewhere.

Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?

Here are two favorites about our travels:

Here are two favorites about life with a toddler:

Here are two favorites about Scotland:

Tell us about the ways your new life in Great Britain differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?

The biggest transition to my expat life has not been moving to a foreign country. Rather, it has been going from full-time work to being a stay-at-home dad with a toddler. I love my kid, and I love being a stay-at-home dad, but for me being a full-time caregiver is tougher than having a job. Also, while stay-at-home dads are rare in the States, you can definitely find some. Here, I’m a real oddity. People don’t know quite how to react to me.

Living in Scotland has changed some aspects of our daily life. We walk more and have only one car instead of two. Our house and yard are smaller. Food and petrol cost more, but our health care is (mostly) free. That said, there are a lot more similarities between living in the U.S. and the U.K. than there are differences. We don’t experience much culture shock, because in the big picture the cultures are fairly similar. It’s fun to note the differences, though.

Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Great Britain? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?

I don’t know if you can ever be fully prepared for moving to a new country. But we were decently prepared. If you look for it, you can find all sorts of information from books, magazines, and the internet. Indeed, I think the bigger danger is information overload. For me, reading some expat blogs about Scotland helped me a great deal: things to know; places to see; deadlines for forms; items to pack; products to avoid; and so on.

If we did our international move again, we would bring less stuff. That’s standard expat advice. As it was, we did a good job of selling or donating some of our belongings, and storing other things in the States. But even so, we probably moved more than we should have. Of course, once you’re moving enough stuff that you need a shipping container, you spend the same amount whether the container is full or not. In some ways, if you’re gonna pay X for a shipping container regardless of whether it’s full, you lose the incentive to ruthlessly cut out items to move. We filled 16 feet in our 20-foot container, but we probably could’ve gotten by with only 12 feet or so.

Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?

Living in Scotland, an occasional challenge for expats is understanding what is being said through thick accents. Scots know their accent can be a challenge for other English speakers. Every so often, however, I come across someone whom I find almost indecipherable. It’s not just a grizzled highlander who might leave me befuddled. The local Glasgow accent is sometimes a challenge even for fellow Scots. If I ask nicely, I can usually get a person to say something with their accent toned down, or perhaps rephrased.

One day at a grocery store, a man came up to me and said something that I didn’t understand at all. I looked at him blankly. He repeated it. I smiled and said I was sorry, I was new here and couldn’t understand his accent. “I was nae speakin’ English!” he said, and walked off in a huff. Apparently, he had been speaking in Gaelic. Which means that almost no one in Glasgow, even the other Scots, would have had any idea what he was saying. Umm, my fault?

Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Great Britain?

  • Gather as much information as you can before you move. Ideally, that would include visiting your new city and potentially finding a place to live. But there are all sorts of things to be prepared for, e.g., how to get set up with the National Health Service, best places to buy a new television/electric razor/microwave/etc. (since your foreign electronics may not work without cumbersome adapters), where to find renter’s or home owner’s or car insurance, and so on. The more you know before you move, the easier you’ll get settled in and the fewer problems you’ll have.
  • Travel as much as you can. What’s the point of moving to a new country if you’re not going to see and experience it? You’ll learn a great deal about the U.K. by traveling. If you can, before you start work or school in the U.K., allow yourself a few weeks to not only get yourself settled, but to do some tourist activities. And once you’re here, take advantage of the cheap and easy travel throughout Europe.
  • Get to know the locals. If you don’t immerse yourself in the local culture, you’ll never feel like you live in the country. Instead, it will feel like you’re merely a visitor. Meeting your fellow expats can help ease your transition and may become some of your close friends, but make sure you meet and befriend the Brits, too.
  • As a bonus point, maintain a positive attitude. You can choose to focus on little differences or small snafus, or you can choose to love your experience and the country, its people, culture, and history.

How is the expat community in Great Britain? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?

There’s a robust expat community in the U.K., especially in London but also in many of the larger cities around the island. In Glasgow, it hasn’t been hard for us to find fellow expats because my wife works at a university with an international staff and many international students. Also, since we live within walking distance to the veterinary school, we have a good number of expat students living nearby, so we occasionally have group dinners, go for hikes and dog walks, and make use of willing babysitters.

Having access to a group like InterNations helps expand our circle from colleagues and neighbours to expats throughout the city. If you take advantage of it, InterNations is a fabulous tool for networking and socializing.

How would you summarize your expat life in Great Britain in a single, catchy sentence?

I’m committed to making the most of this fantastic opportunity.

Jan-Peter van Tijk

"I wish I'd found InterNations sooner: It would have made my first few month as an expat in London much less overwhelming."

Therese Yeboah

"For me, the InterNations events are the best part. I attend almost every get-together and always get to know lots of friendly fellow expats."

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