When expat Claire and her husband of over 10 years split up in 2009, she decided that she wanted to move ‘back home’ to be closer to her family following the breakdown of her marriage. She’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but says she didn’t even give repatriation a second thought.
Having been a serial expat, and having lived in many different overseas countries back to back, Claire discovered the UK she returned to much changed, and says that today’s Britain is now somewhere she’s very keen to escape from once more.
Claire has shared her story with us for the benefit of all expats out there contemplating a return to Blighty. As her story will show, there are elements of a return home that anyone would do well to plan for, whilst the realities of today’s UK may need to be faced up to with realism rather than hope and a selective memory!
Claire’s story: -
I left UK in 1999 without a backward glance or much of a plan; I was immature and had the over-confidence that comes with youth! I just knew that things would work out, I’d find a job, a place to live and that everything would fall into place for me. I was accompanying my husband who had a job offer and that was enough for me.
Initially things did work out just fine – I was well organised and focused my attentions on the elements that make up a new life, and I got things done. Over the years of having to do this repeatedly in new locations however, some of the shine wore off my glossy expat life, and eventually when my marriage broke down I was absolutely certain that I wanted to return to the UK. I had no energy left and no appetite or enthusiasm for being a foreign face in a foreign land.
I asked my parents if I could move back in with them temporarily whilst I basically sorted my life out. They said ‘yes’ and suddenly I was so happy and excited to be embarking on a new chapter of my life – one I was 100% responsible for and one I could make all the decisions about. In fact, I felt like I’d felt when I’d left the UK for the first time all those years ago! I had optimism and hope…
However, I quickly came unstuck! In the UK there are more rules than I ever remember there being, and the people are bound by them in a way they never were before. Health and Safety? Public liability? No win no fee? Where there’s blame there’s a claim? These seemed to be the mantras in the back of people’s minds when they constantly refused to be flexible. I didn’t recognise the country and I couldn’t associate or connect myself with my fellow Britons. Ironically I felt very foreign!
The first thing I wanted to do was find a home of my own – you can’t be a thirty-something still living with your parents if you want to be able to take yourself seriously…or so I thought. I soon realised however that that wasn’t unusual anymore as the house prices in the UK had shot up so far that no one could get near the housing ladder anymore, let alone get a foot on it!
This was new to me – when I left it seemed to me that you left home at 18 to go to work or university, and whilst you might house share with friends before you got your own place, you wouldn’t dream of living with your parents beyond your early twenties.
Because there was no way I could afford to buy a property I decided to enquire about a place to rent. I discovered that I was required to provide evidence of my financial standing, my good character, bank references and proof of former residences. And as someone who’d been out of the UK for so long and who had no credit history or ranking in the UK, no assets in the UK and no idea of how things now worked in the UK, I quickly discovered I couldn’t even get a flat to rent despite the fact I could afford one!
I spoke openly and honestly to more than one estate agent in a bid to get them to see sense, to be flexible, to bend the rules because I didn’t fit into their pre-conceived tick boxes – but to no avail.
Now did you know this? All you out there who are perhaps believing that as things worsen overseas with a weak pound, high inflation locally, and all the other issues and impacting problems we hear about on expat forums and websites, you should return to Blighty – did you know that you might not be able to find somewhere to live if you do return to the UK?
There are few mortgages available thanks to the banking near-collapse – and where lenders are willing to offer one you’ll need a hefty deposit and your expat status could leave you really unstuck as once again, you won’t be ticking all the required boxes the mortgage adviser needs you to tick in order for his computer to say anything other than ‘no!’
And if you want to rent – you will need to provide references, have a credit history, have an address history that can be searched for evidence of your good character and rent payment history…and without all of this you really could fail to find a home back in the country of your birth.
The ridiculous state of affairs in bureaucratic Britain can impact multiple areas of your life. For example, even getting a mobile phone proved tricky for me because I was asked for my home address and whether I’d lived there for the past three years. I started to lie in the end, and I started stating that I’d been living at my parents’ address for the past 10 years.
If I hadn’t kept my UK bank account open the entire time I was away (I actually kept it open because it was so much easier to use my British credit card to buy flights, books from Amazon and fund my PayPal account etc.,) I wouldn’t have been able to get something as simple as a mobile phone.
I have heard from other ‘repats’ that if you return to the UK and you want to open a new bank account it is exceptionally difficult as the British banks are obsessed with the ‘know your client’ due diligence, and once again the tellers and staff are wholly inflexible and unable or unwilling to bend any rules as they fear losing their jobs - or else they love the officious nature of their work!
I continued lying until I found a place to rent, and I went on lying to get the utility bills transferred into my name. Fortunately my parents didn’t complain when I constantly stated that I’d been living at their address the entire time I’d lived outside the UK…
In terms of the positive aspects of my return – they have been limited. I appreciate the public services such as the library, heavily subsidised local leisure centre, the parks and flower filled roundabouts – but I fear that these will fall apart now that Britain is facing up to the fact that it’s basically bankrupt.
I hate the state of the NHS and I fear for any patient who needs critical assistance and who can’t afford to pay to go privately. It is over-run with managers and staff who just don’t seem to care.
Politically the UK is in a mess, financially it’s in dire straits, antipathy is growing among the people as they face massive job insecurity, limited alternative employment options, a lack of affluence and a restrictive society where critical elements that in some way once defined Britain as great – such as its social system and its NHS – have been eroded and undermined to the point of ineffectiveness.
I had to lie to make my way back into British society, and once in I discovered that it didn’t offer me any of the comforts, familiarity and positive aspects I believed it once did. I was guilty of donning rose coloured glasses about the state of my old home nation – something many expats do. British expats abroad can generally be divided neatly into two camps - those who slag Britain off and vow never to return, and those who have forgotten what the UK is really like and who speak about it fondly, and with hope and unrealistic memories!
I definitely don’t feel ‘at home’ in the UK – and I wonder if any expat can ever feel at home ‘back home’ again? Having seen many different ways of doing ‘things’ abroad – from bureaucratic elements of life to the influence the media has over people, from the ways people celebrate and socialise to how the business environment works – I am ever-critical of everything in the UK that doesn’t work as well as it should!
I think that everyone could do with a good dose of living abroad to see that there are alternative ways of thinking and doing, and that if British politicians, managers, movers and shakers got a decent level of exposure to internationalism, Britain wouldn’t be so crippled by its insular nature.
If you are thinking of repatriating you need to look at Britain with clear sight and take a cautious and realistic approach to your return. You need to look into everything from housing to healthcare, and plan carefully. Don’t assume you know how the UK works anymore, you should treat it as any new and foreign nation.
Finally, I am currently looking around and trying to plan where to go next. I don’t feel at home in Britain and I don’t like the state of the nation – I also don’t see how it can and will improve in the near-term, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t look around overseas for somewhere better to live!