Christmas Already?

Christmas already? Well, all the big London department stores have opened their Christmas shops, so clearly I’m not the only one. Plus, starting June 25, my husband usually begins counting down the days making for plenty of Christmas discussion in our household. Finally, no other major city in the world does Christmas better than London, so it’s easy to get excited about the holidays early.

The festive season begins November 1, which for my American friends presents a bit of a quandry because we all know Christmas doesn’t really begin until after Thanksgiving. But given the lack of my favorite holiday in my new homeland, I’ll happily roll with it. London makes it easy, as the city becomes so festive with lights twinkling everywhere – a huge bonus when it’s dark by 4:00pm in December.

If you are planning a trip to London over the holiday season, what should you do? Here are a few of my favorite things:

Christmas Lights

The displays change from year to year, but without a doubt they will be bright and sparkly and you won’t be able to help but get into the Christmas spirit. The entire city lights up, but here is my suggested route for maximizing light viewing over a leisurely evening stroll.

  • From Green Park Tube Station walk down Berkley IMG_0132Street towards Berkley Square. On the western side of the square there is an exclusive member’s only club called Annabel‘s that decks out the front of their building in a massive light display. In 2018, it was an enormous Christmas Tree that took up the entire front of the building and then some.

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  • From there you can cut across to Bruton Street that takes you to New (and Old) Bond Street. The luxury stores spare no expense in decorating for the holidays and it’s a really fun way to window shop.

 

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  • Take a left onto Burlington Gardens and you can make your way past the Burlington Arcade. Lots of lovely boutiques, but more importantly the Christmas lights make the centuries old shopping street sparkle like snow shimmering on the tree branches.

 

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  • Keeping walking straight ahead to Regent Street. This and Oxford Street are at the heart of London’s Christmas light displays. They go up and down the entire street and the glow of the lights shimmers across the shoppers bringing home their shopping for the night.

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  • From Regent Street, take a right onto Beak Street and you start to come across the funky, festive nature of SoHo. Bars and restaurants line the streets throughout this entire part of town, but there is one final stop to make along this walk. On your left you’ll come to Carnaby Street which is always glowing with a fun and unique take on the Christmas theme. In 2018, it honoured the Bohemian Rhapsody movie with a full-on Queen and Freddie Mercury splash.

Kew Gardens

If you haven’t had enough of Christmas lights on the streets of London, then be sure to check out Kew Gardens. Tickets for this sell out EARLY, like it’s hard to find tickets by October 1. There are light and music displays all around the gardens, along with food trucks to get a bite to eat and a bit of hot cider or mulled wine to warm your hands in the cold air. It’s a great family activity and there is enough to keep young kids, teenagers, adults and grandparents entertained all at the same time.

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Theatre Shows

Each year there are performances of The Nutcracker put on by the English National Ballet. It’s a Christmas classic performed by one of the world’s pre-eminant ballet companies. Get tickets if you can.

Also, be sure to check out A Christmas Carol – after all, you are in the birthplace of Charles Dickens! There are different performances every year, so you’ll need to do a search to see who is putting on the show. Even if you have seen it many times before, you never know what you might experience. We caught the Old Vic’s performance a few years ago and it was by far the most uplifting version I had ever seen.

Finally, another not-to-be missed English Christmas tradition is a Pantomime performance. I’ll be honest, we haven’t tried one yet, but they are a tried and true family tradition for most of the British population. These are family-friendly, interactive, slapstick, over-the-top theatrical performances that have been happening for hundreds of years. Many are based on children’s folk tales, so the stories are familiar to everyone in the crowd. A good time will definitely be had by all.

Carols at The Royal Albert Hall

In the final run up to Christmas, Royal Albert Hall puts on a Christmas extravaganza like no other. It’s one giant sing-along Christmas carol experience that would put even Ebenezer Scrooge into the Christmas spirit. Join the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for two hours of pure holiday magic. We did this last year on Christmas Eve and then went to lunch afterwards. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday.

Boxing Day Football Matches

If you have a football/soccer fan in your life, make sure they get to participate in the biggest day of the Premier League season. All 20 teams play on December 26 – Boxing Day – in matches up and down the country. The Premier League season goes into overdrive over the holidays, but the game to be at is a Boxing Day match. Tickets are hard to come by, but check out Viagogo (the UK’s version of StubHub) to see what is available for individual matches. The other alternative is to look at each club’s hospitality packages. You pay a bit more money, but are guaranteed a ticket along with a meal and a few other perks.

One Year On . . .

July 11. One year ago today we landed at Heathrow airport. The mix of emotions we were feeling at the time – fear, excitement, exhaustion (!) – were only a precursor to what we would experience over this past year. Moving to another country changes you in ways you could never anticipate.

It’s not just because things are different. Yes, even in a country where we share a language, the differences can be pronounced in good ways and bad. (For a great list of observations between the US and UK, check out this blog post – it sums it up brilliantly.) Fundamentally, though, those are just hiccups along the way. You get comfortable driving on the opposite side of the road. You expect to pay for parking everywhere you go. You bag your own groceries without even giving it a second thought.

What you don’t expect is how your world begins to shift on its axis. When you get to experience things others only read about, you can be boastful or you can be grateful. When you see family and friends struggle with your departure, you can be hurt or you can approach them with love and empathy for being in the place they are. When you see the turmoil your home country and locals ask “why”, you can be defensive or you can simply say “I don’t know”.

It’s subtle. The changes happen slowly and sometimes unexpectedly. All of a sudden, you realize how comfortable you are in your new expat skin and how joyful this journey makes you. You see your kids get amazing opportunities and you know this journey wasn’t about your job or your career move, but really was about giving them this life experience they never would have had otherwise. You feel the quick and strong embrace of new friendships that are different than others because no one takes their time for granted in the expat world.

We said “yes” to everything this first year and it was fun and exciting, and truthfully more than a bit exhausting. An experienced globe trotting friend told me before we left, the first year is exciting because everything is new; the second year is hard because the novelty wears off; and the third year it begins to feel like home. He was right about the first year and knowing the second year can be hard, I’m going to be mindful in how I approach it.

Even with that said, the gratitude I feel today one year later is immense. I am so glad I took this leap of faith to try something new. My family is fuller, emotionally richer and closer than we have ever been. I am a more complete version of me than I ever thought I could be. For that, I couldn’t be more thankful.

The New Normal

One of the expected pleasures of being an expat is the travel. When you sign up for this gig you anticipate the adventure of exploring new cultures, cities and countries. What I hadn’t really thought about was the fact all of my expat friends would be doing the same. This means everyone is going to a dozen different countries all at the same time.

Back home, planning a vacation to Europe is a big deal. It’s something you do as a special trip – a significant anniversary, a big birthday, a major milestone. When you go, you try to see and do as much as you can because you don’t know when you’ll have the opportunity to come back.

Now as school breaks approach, the conversation begins with a simple “where is everyone off to?” and the answers are as varied as people themselves. In six months, my friends and I have been to Amsterdam, Rome, Croatia, Paris, Malta, Spain, Tenerife, Lanzarote, Greece, Madeira, Scotland, Brussels, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Mallorca, Lisbon, Sicily and many, many more. As my 18 year old back in the US said as we landed in Florence this week, “you make this sound normal”.

You know what, he’s right. This is what becomes the new normal. If you are a traveler, like I am, it feels amazing. Knowing the thrill of exploring some place new is always around the corner and won’t – necessarily – break the bank is an incredible feeling. Knowing others and building friendships with those who get to live this life too? In some ways it feels as though I’ve found my people.

You give up a lot living 3000+ miles away from your friends and family. You aren’t there when tragedy strikes or loved ones fall ill. It’s really hard being so far away when these things happen and you can’t be there in person to offer a hug or a shoulder to cry on. You miss those conversations and laughter with people who know you best. Sometimes the travel feels like a small consolation for all you are missing out on.

In those moments, however, the biggest thing I take away is you have to live life to the fullest every day. You never know when a moment will come that will rob you of your ability to do the things you want, when you want to do them. Right now, I have an amazing opportunity to feed my travel soul. It’s such a strong part of who I am and I’m so thankful for this chance to explore it more. This new normal is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

100 Days of Darkness

Upon our arrival in the UK, our son’s school held a new parent session. It was very helpful and quickly put my mind at ease that a lot of what I’d been feeling during the early weeks of the move were totally normal.

One of the casual comments made during the session was about the “100 Days of Darkness”. I’ve been coming to the UK pretty regularly for 25+ years, but this was new to me. During Christmas visits in the past, I’ve noticed it was pretty much dark by 4:00pm. As a tourist, though, it’s something you just accept as a quirk of the place you are visiting and move on.

The “100 Days of Darkness” was defined as Halloween through Valentine’s Day. Turns out the lead up to Christmas wasn’t too bad. You have Guy Fawkes night in early November with giant bonfire celebrations. For Christmas, London does a spectacular job with thousands of festive lights decorating the streets of the city.

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Now, we are in the middle of January. As with most places in the northern hemisphere, January can be pretty grey and gloomy. Everyone tells me that this is crunch time during these days of darkness.  On one hand, I get it. With the sun hidden behind the clouds for days on end, it can get a bit depressing. When you don’t have a Christmas tree to light up your living room, twilight at 4:00 makes for a really long night.

But, there is also a subtle beauty to these days. The grey skies cast an Instagram-worthy filter across the beautiful landscapes. The structure of the trees without their leaves pop against the neutral sky. Tourists attractions are essentially empty. If you really want to explore a place, now is the time to go.

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There is one final upside. The sunny days literally make everything brighter. You appreciate the brilliance of the sunshine in a whole new way. Squinting at the golden orb in the sky is done with pleasure rather than annoyance. While it may be chilly, the brightness of the day makes you eager to be outside.

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So, overall, I’d say this first “100 Days of Darkness” isn’t as bad as I was expecting. That said, I will be happy to see the return of summer and 16 hours of daylight!

When It’s Not Your Holiday

Sitting here in the U.K. on a wet, grey Monday in January, it’s just another day. Another start to a work week that contains the usual mental preparations for all that needs to be done in the days ahead. Without a day off of school, media news stories or commercial reminders, it’s easy to forget today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. In fact, if it weren’t for posts by friends on social media, it would be far too easy to not remember it at all.

This isn’t a commentary about the holiday itself. Dr. King’s life deserves every ounce of honor we can bestow upon him as a freedom fighter for racial and social justice. I’d highly recommend a post I read yesterday that eloquently sums up the struggle many Black Americans are feeling right now. Chelle Wilson’s words reminded me how, more than any point in my life, we desperately need Dr. King’s legacy. We are struggling to find a way towards building a more perfect – and equal – union and we need the great leaders of our past to guide us.

As a new expat, however, I wasn’t prepared for the empty feeling this left behind. It’s a stark reminder of how I’m not in my own country anymore. Most Brits seem to be well versed in American history and current events. I have no doubt the vast majority know who Martin Luther King is and his role in the American civil rights movement. But the reality is, this is not their fight and there is no need here for a holiday to commemorate Dr. King.

It’s also a reminder to choose how you honor your own country and its holidays and traditions when you don’t live there any more. Today, I’m going to take Chelle’s advice and listen to the stories Black Americans want to share about Martin Luther King. I’m also going to learn more about race relations here in the U.K. I want to understand how similar and different we are as two countries that have much in common.

In true British style, I think I’ll get started by making myself a cup of tea and settling in on this rainy afternoon.

Adventure

It’s Tuesday night and as I channel surf, I come across U2 on the BBC. Being the fan I am, of course I have to watch. As I do, I marvel at the power of music to transport you to another moment in time. Hearing “With or Without You” I’m instantly taken back to a beautiful summer evening a mere five months ago in Dublin listening to this song live in front of U2’s hometown crowd. All the emotions I felt in that moment came rushing back to me.

Now maybe it’s because of my love for the band, but I think it’s something more. After all, I’ve seen them in concert many times before. What was different this time around? This concert in Ireland was a Bucket List event. A “pinch me” moment. An “I can’t believe I get to do this” kind of night.

One of the things I’ve learned in my first six months of living abroad is life as an expat is filled with a lot of these kinds of moments. Not just for the big trips or weekends away – because they are certainly fertile ground – but also the daily experiences as you wander the streets discovering something new at every turn. The high I used to get from trips abroad once a year happens all the time right now. It is absolutely addictive.

This brings me to “Adventure”. The last few years I’ve adopted a word for the year. Brave two years ago. Fearless this past year. Ironically, they seem to lead into one another and Adventure seems to fit the same pattern. Sometimes the words require thought, but other times it’s totally obvious. This is one of the obvious times.

Why Adventure? Well, this expat experience is certainly an adventure in and of itself. One of the pieces of advice I heard early on was to say yes to everything. Knowing what I know about how these manifest themselves over the course of a year, I knew “yes” would probably be too big of a word, but I also knew I wanted to say yes to the adventures.

Through this experience, I’ve also had people tell me I’m adventurous, which kinda stopped me in my tracks. It’s not how I’ve traditionally thought of myself, but in my heart I know my true self is an explorer. I want to embrace that even more, so Adventure it is.

As part of this journey, I’ve also made a promise with myself to blog more. I love telling my travel stories, so for 2018 I’m going to write and share more. #52WeeksOfAdventure begins now!

 

T-Minus Two Months

How are we at this point already? Two months from today the Wady family (including Henry) boards a flight from DC to London to begin our new adventure in the UK. I’m kind of shell shocked. The move seemed so far away when we first made the decision back in February. Now it feels like time is racing by. I’m scared to blink because I don’t want the last two months here to disappear.

This is a very surreal stage in the international moving process. When you first make the decision, there is a massive wave of emotions. Apprehension and excitement hit you as you begin to realize the magnitude of the decision you just made. That is quickly counterbalanced by the anticipation and possibilities awaiting you in your new country. Sadness definitely creeps in next as you start telling friends and family about your move. There were many tears shed in those early conversations and it was overwhelming at times. Luckily, though, the people closest to you seem to come to terms with it pretty quickly. While they may be sad for themselves, your true friends are excited for you and the next chapter in your life.

Now, we are at the point where the move is both mundane and overstimulating. There is so. much. paperwork! Immigration forms, legal documents, transportation papers, rental agreements (both here and there), bank account details – you name it we are currently filling it out. It’s a lot to keep track of and there is the constant worry that something is slipping through the cracks. The most frustrating part comes when one document (i.e. my immigration visa) is beginning to hold up two or three other critical steps – and there is NOTHING you can do about it. It’s testing every fiber of my control freak being.

The pressure is not just on me. I have a lot to do on the home front, but my husband is the feet on the ground in the UK and he is just as busy as me. He’s re-learning how to open a bank account in the UK, which is not as simple as it seems. Apparently, the old formalities and pleasantries of banking still exist in England and opening an international account requires an appointment to be made three weeks in advance. We’ll just consider that charming, right?

He’s also dealing with neither of us having a credit history in the UK. If you are lucky enough to not give your credit rating a second thought day in and day out, then having to go back and prove your credit worthiness is an eye opening experience. Add to it the complication that our bills and expenses in the US won’t necessarily be the same in the UK, so it’s not an apples to apples comparison. All of it can be pretty intimidating. Luckily we have a really good relocation agent guiding us step by step. She is worth every penny Cisco is paying her!

I know we are heading into the home stretch of the move. There will be lots of balls in the air for quite a while and we will make it through with flying colors. With so much happening, it’s easy to push aside the emotions of a move like this.

Outside of the initial sadness I described above, most days I’m too busy to really think about how I feel about this move. I know that’s not healthy. I don’t want to think too hard about saying goodbye to my friends who have become our family in North Carolina. I love our house as it’s been a beautiful home to raise our family in. I’m nervous about completely uprooting our lives, when, as a certain 15 year old likes to remind me, we have a pretty good life here.

But then, I think about how comfortable I’ve gotten and how it’s time to shake things up. I think about how it feels when I travel to another country and see and experience things for the first time and feel my soul just sing. I think about the opportunities in front of my kids and the joy I have in knowing their world view will be forever changed because they tried something different. When I think about those and so many other things, I know this will be a great move for our family.

So, we’ll make the most of these next two months . It’s time to embrace the possibility of what comes next.