Full disclaimer: I am not technically Canadian. Canada is my adopted country of choice that I now call “Home”, the way a foreign student calls their home country “home”. It is the home people instantly understand when you say you are “going home for the holidays”. I’ve spent over a decade in Canada, and basically my entire adult life, and that makes me feel very Canadian. Having said that, I am also most definitely a serial expat. Canada is as close as it will ever get to me feeling I have a home, and it has to compete with my ‘real home’, which is Holland.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way. Moving to London has taught me a few things about Canada, and about the United Kingdom.
Funny things about London, from an expat perspective
1. Your city is very small
Toronto, or whatever major Canadian city you are from, is very very very small! Nothing quite compares to London in size as far as my experience goes. Toronto felt big after living in Amsterdam, and now Toronto feels like a village to me.
2. Washing your hands can be weird
Hot and cold taps are separate in many old, and some new, buildings in Britain. As in; not touching and no chance of the water mixing. One tap produces scalding hot water, the other chilling cold. Water in Canada is delightfully temperate when it comes out of the taps. Although apparently there is a reason for all this nonsense.
3. You will always be a foreigner in the UK.
Until you can produce a perfect British accent, you are an expat. You may adopt some British expressions, but that’s generally as far as it goes. In Canada, no matter how thick your accent, you are considered (mostly) Canadian.
You can drink anywhere anytime. Here is a positive: where in Ontario the government controls when you can buy your bottle of wine, in London you can get some wine or something stronger at anytime of the day or night. Just find an ‘off-license’, and you’re all set. They also sell wine and beer in grocery stores. A huge improvement from lining up with all other 100 people at the local LCBO at 5:50pm who all discovered the night before Christmas that they needed an extra bottle, or ten.
5…. and more Drinking
Slightly less positive, in London everybody drinks. All the time. Expect business to be conducted partially in the pub. If you are not into alcohol, don’t fret, it is OK to drink something non-alcoholic. But if peer pressure sways you, expect to gain 10 pounds of just liquid alcohol weight in your first year in Britain.
6. British expressions
Baseboard is not called baseboard. Just like apartments are called ‘flats’. When I had to install some new baseboarding, it took days of Googling before I figured out the British word for it, and it turned out to be called “skirting”. Expect a number of words to be completely different from your version of English.
Traffic in London, and trying to get out of the city, is what Toronto will be like in a few years if they do take down the Gardiner expressway. Anyone in favour of taking down the Gardiner needs to try and make their way in a taxi from Heathrow airport to East London, then see how you feel.
8. If there is sun, it’s considered a valid topic of conversation.
Canada is very very sunny. I might have used my sunglasses twice in my year and a half in London. If the sun does come out, people seem happier and actively comment about the weather.
9. Not all socialist health care systems are created equal
Some expats have good experiences with the NHS. Granted that anyone coming from the USA will feel relieved not to fill out hundreds of forms to see a doctor. Coming from Canada however and being used to OHIP in Ontario, I have to say at least in Canada I was able to easily see a specialist. Also sans-forms. The challenge with the UK, and something I knew only after signing my lease, is that depending on your borough you have less medical resources available. Just depending on how the cookie, or funding, crumbles. My experience is vastly most negative than some of my colleague’s who live in more affluent neighbourhoods, compared to my ‘up-and-coming’ area.
10. Everything is smaller
There are no walk-in closets. Unless perhaps you are living in a million pound home. You get a wardrobe and if you are lucky that is the best you can fit in your tiny flat. Take it as an opportunity to dial back the consumerism (London is expensive anyways), and invest in some quality pieces that will last you for a number of years. A small closet can still be a fabulous closet.
What have you noticed about living in the UK, or in Canada, as an expat?
Hi Dr. Chris I was interested in some of the points you made in your article which is very interested to read. I agree outsiders will always be outsiders but so is the same with ppl living in other areas of Britain such as an Englishman in Scotland but most British ppl are very welcoming of you and me whatever the background as long as you are a good neighbour and intergrate into British society. As for the comment on taps and separate hot and cold taps, the reason is us Brits like to drink cold water from our taps rather than drink water from a hot tank esp. If you have had a few beers! I would be interested in knowing what you think to the cultural scene in London compared to Holland and Canada ? Cheers SK
Interesting esp re the taps
Very nice post! keep writing!