By Shari Levine
By the time Hurricane Sandy landed on New York City it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. I knew the moment this happened, because at the time I was glued to my laptop, following coverage from various local-to-NYC news outlets. While my friends and family were waiting out a huge storm, losing power and heating and avoiding getting their cars crushed by telephone masts, I was trying to experience the storm from my bed in calm, quiet Oxford, England.
I felt incredible amounts of guilt for not being in New York at the time that I had not expected to feel.
I was born and raised in south Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island, but have chosen, for better or for worse, to live in England. It has now been eight years since I’ve moved here, and on the whole, the choice has not only been a good one, but the right one. To try to explain how I feel about living abroad I’ll use an extended metaphor.
Imagine you’re in a relationship. The person you’re with is lovely: quirky, energetic, full of love and life and laughter. You think to yourself you could be quite happy spending the rest of your life with that person. And then, unexpectedly, you meet someone else. This other person is not as young, not as spontaneous, but possibly more enigmatic, and definitely much more charming. Despite everything you try to do to prevent this, you fall in love. You are constantly questioned by your peers why you would choose to leave someone who is so obviously incredible. And, sure, as a reply you could list all of the qualities you love about your new partner and annoyed you about the old, but this list is pretty much irrelevant. When you’re in love, you’re in love. You know deep down inside, from the top of your head down to the soles of your feet, that this other person is the Right Person.
That is how I feel about living in England.
Now that is not to say I have an unrealistic view of England. I am keenly aware of its flaws. But I am happy to deal with them, because I think, somehow, it’s worth it. There has been, however, one unintended and painful consequence of this move. I have begun to lose my identity as a hardened New Yorker. And every time I go home, I realize just how much less of a New Yorker I have become.
One of the most recent times I went home, the format of NYC metrocards had just changed yet again. After embarrassingly asking to put £20 on my metrocard, I finally managed to get onto a train. A friend who I was meeting asked me which stop I was coming into. I called it Newark instead of Newkirk, unaware of my flaw until we stopped there several moments later.
I eventually got off of the train and stepped foot into the shopping area of my neighborhood. Many places looked new, and I didn’t recognize them. One place we used to frequent had recently closed down. And yet again, I had to take this all in within a space of moments, while trying to keep up a conversation with my best friend about what we had missed from each other’s lives.
Maybe, for the most part, these are small changes, but the sum of them over time add up. There is a new mayor, there are new bike lanes, there are new busking laws. I have forgotten how large of an effect marketing has on the daily lives of Americans, and I experience culture shock when I open the local newspaper. I do not get the daily dose of politics and social cues that my friends do; my cultural references are nearly eight years old; I don’t know who the current cast of SNL is. I worry that people will see me for the imposter that I feel I am. How can I really call myself a New Yorker when I’ve stopped yelling at people for improper driving and cycling habits? When I, the native Brooklynite, now find some people unnecessarily rude?
It’s like being stuck in a paused video while the rest of life moves. No one seems to acknowledge how disorientating it is. It makes me feel like maybe nothing is different and I’ve just imagined it all. How can we all pretend nothing has changed?
I acknowledge I have made a choice. I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to accept the consequences of my choices, and that if I feel I have made a wrong decision, to try and fix it. So in this context, I have to ask myself, is it worth it? Is losing that cultural link worth living in a different country, one that I love at least as much, if not differently?
On the whole, living in England has—thank goodness—treated me very well. I have learned a new vocabulary (including what “pants” actually are), adopted all of the current cultural references, and can navigate the Tube like a pro. I have taken up playing in a ceilidh band, and take as many weekend trips to continental Europe as I can. I am still seen as the loud and proud New York girl, unafraid to speak her mind and completely oblivious to the use of sarcasm or subtlety. I’d like to think, however, that my behavior is a refreshing change from the normal. Although my boyfriend still (seven years later) makes fun of my accent. (Seriously, it’s not that funny; yes, I know I’m American.)
Despite the fear, despite losing a part of myself, despite my identity subtly changing and shifting over time, the answer is still a resounding yes: Living in England is worth it. I remind myself that there will always be pain associated with leaving behind what I used to take as comfort. But there will be joy, too. Experiencing England in the autumn. Going for hikes in the countryside. Strolling through a castle, or a country house, several hundreds of years old. Snuggling up with my boyfriend on a cold evening and watching “Doctor Who.” Many times I take solace in the saying that you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but you can never take Brooklyn out of the girl. I guess I just wonder, if I spend the remainder of my life in England, how long that will still be true.
Shari, originally from NYC, currently lives in England, educating the youth of today in mathematics. When she’s not in the classroom, she enjoys reading, writing, improv acting, and Netflix bingeing. She has come late in life to Irish and Scottish folk music, and is now trying to learn all the instruments necessary to create a one-man ceilidh band. Sometimes she even gets to bed at a reasonable hour.