Meet my friend Michael Altman! I met Michael at NC State University. We were in Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity together along with his roommate, Erwin Lewis who was featured in my previous Expat Chat, Living Abroad in Okinawa, Japan. Now, Michael works as a Mission Support Engineer for Collins Aerospace in Osan, South Korea which is actually only about a 2 hour flight to Okinawa (of course he has already visited!). It really is a small world after all! He supports the US Air Force and Republic of Korea Air Force with mission critical aerospace systems. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, drones, rock climbing, and video games. I am excited to share his story of living abroad in Osan, South Korea with you!
Original Home Location: Thomasville, North Carolina, United States
New Home Location: Osan, South Korea
About the Move to Osan, South Korea
When did you make the move? Michael: February of 2020
Why did you decide to make the move? / What motivated you? Michael: I was lucky enough to have positioned myself at my company that when the job came up I was able to take it. Living here previously during my time in the military made me want to return.
How many times did you visit your new country and city prior to your move? Michael: I lived in South Korea for 2 years before I recently moved back and had a few small work visits with my company.
How did you break the news to loved ones? Michael: There really was not much change, I already lived a significant distance from the family before this for work. I told them my interest in the job and made sure to visit a few times before I made the jump. We still FaceTime a lot.
What was the hardest part of moving / what did you find frustrating during your move? Michael: Packing up my entire life into a few boxes and then waiting on it to arrive. Due to moving with a military team there was a timespan of about 3 months where I had no furniture but I did not want to buy any since I knew it was arriving soon-ish. Due to Coronavirus, my shipment was delayed by a few more weeks. I had to survive with a lawn chair and a camping table.
Did you decide to ship your belongings or to store your belongings? Michael: I chose to ship everything since I am shaping my life to be out here for as long as possible. Also being a single man, I do not really have a ton of things, so the packing is not too troublesome.
Do you have any pets? If so, did they make the move with you? Michael: The only pets I have at the moment are house-plants. I shaped my life a bit to be ready to move out here when my work offered so no animals as of yet.
About his Home in Osan, South Korea
How did you find your current home? Michael: A few of my coworkers recommended a realtor that worked with me to find a place that met all my needs and I was lucky to find something I really like. Many of the realtors speak great English from working with tons of expats so there wasn’t much of a problem at all.
Describe your home – apartment, house, etc: Michael: High-rise apartment
Did you buy or rent your current home? Michael: Rent with the idea to eventually own
Lifestyle Abroad in Osan, South Korea
Why did you choose your current country and specifically, your current city? Michael: After falling in love with the culture and everything in South Korea for 2 years in the military I just knew I had to find a way to come back here.
How long do you plan on living an expat lifestyle? Michael: As long as I possibly can, I love my job and the country and plan to stay as long as possible.
What have you missed the most about the city that you used to live in? Michael: The fast food, no matter how much I love trying new and interesting foods I find myself missing some of the basic biscuits that I grew up with.
What was the most surprising thing to you? Michael: How so well developed the public transit is. Public transportation in Korea is wonderful and is super easy to use, even for someone who does not speak any Korean. You can be anywhere in Korea on a train in half a day with no problems at all.
What do you love about your current city? Michael: The ease of access to small markets and stores. It is wonderful to be able to walk 100 meters and have a bakery, butchers, and coffee shop right around the corner.
What was the hardest thing to adjust to? Michael: General differences in things like how to pay bills and how to conduct yourself in an office setting have probably been the trickiest so far. Many places are still very old fashioned and don’t allow bills to be paid online so you have to go in person. Places that allow you to pay with card sometimes only accept domestic Korean bank cards as well. Getting a Korean bank account is very important.
Korean work culture is a big change too, with many Korean companies trying to foster teamwork and sacrifice to the company. Usually extra hours that are outside normal working times can be expected, and team dinners happen quite often. Don’t expect to get home until late some evenings, but this is not an everyday thing.
What did you have to sacrifice to make living abroad come true? Michael: I had to adjust my lifestyle to better fit what my company needed and became someone who could move quickly. I chose to not have any animals and to live in an apartment month to month to make moving that much simpler of a process.
Have you ever lived outside of your home country before? Michael: Yep, I have lived in South Korea for 2 years previously but nowhere else so far.
What do you do for fun in your new location? Michael: I rock climb and hike with an expat club here in Korea, play board games with friends from work, and fly my drones when I take a trip to the mountains or the beach. Sometimes I go exploring in the small section of my city that is being built up. There are always new restaurants or shops being opened.
What do you like/dislike about your new location? Michael: I really like the quick access and the small city vibe that my area has. It is easy to grab tons of different food or go to tons of different venues within walking or a quick train ride.
One of the downsides is I am a bit further outside of the major Seoul city area, so to meet with friends who live there can be a bit of a process. It is not difficult, it can just take a bit longer due to having to grab a bus or train and ride it into the city. I could move closer but with that comes much higher rent for a much smaller place.
What are your favorite spots in the area? Michael: Suwon Chicken Street – a famous street within the city of Suwon that is totally devoted to my favorite Korean snack – Korean fried chicken, it is absolutely incredible!
Korea has some of the best mountains for hiking I have ever done. Hallasan / Buraksan / Seoraksan – are all amazing hikes that are worth the views at the top.
Do you have your own mode of transportation, a car, bike, etc in your new city? Michael: I use a car to get to work – but I could easily take public transport to my office.
Advice and Benefits of Living an Expat Lifestyle Abroad
Is there any advice or anything that you wished you would have known before your move that you would like to share with someone who may be considering an international move? Michael: Keep all of your paperwork involving immigration and customs, you will always need a few more copies and always make sure to have two forms of photo ID. Having extra copies of forms has saved me multiple times from having to reapply for residency and customs paperwork.
Are there any items, apps, or tools that you have found to be helpful when navigating your new lifestyle and city? Michael: Cellphone apps are your greatest tool in Korea – Kakaotalk is the best messenger app / Kakaometro is the best for checking train times.
Food delivery apps are critical as well –Shuttle is an English food delivery app that delivers near big American hubs of the military bases.
Yogiyo – All Korean delivery app but delivers anywhere.
Any other recommendations or words of wisdom? Michael: The country isn’t very big but has so many different things to see and explore. You can be in a thousand year old castle and then be in a coffeeshop in 10 minutes. Go out and see things!
Joining online groups work really well for meetups here in Korea. Hiking and outdoor groups are plentiful.
Getting lost in the city is a great way to spend the day and do not be afraid to speak to people, many Koreans know at least some English and they have always been super nice and helpful when I need it.
I want to thank Michael for sharing about living abroad in Osan, South Korea. Unlike my husband and I, he was able to make the move right before the Covid-19 pandemic struck so it’s nice to share his success story. Now I’m definitely craving some Korean Fried Chicken and want to visit some of these beautiful natural wonders!
Erwin, Tara, and I go way back – we all met in college at NC State University. Like Sean and myself, Erwin and Tara are another married couple who were in the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity together. We definitely have that and a love for adventure in common. I think that I see an international double date in our future!
I am really excited to share about their move abroad to Okinawa Prefecture, Japan for two main reasons:
They currently live there (all of my previous Expat Chats so far have been with people who moved abroad and have since moved back).
They have both contributed their perspectives – it’s a two in one!
Erwin works abroad as an aerospace structural engineer and Tara as a merchandise manager. As a couple, they also have some really unique hobbies and special interests ranging from scuba diving, dragon boat, hiking, taking cooking classes, traveling, trying new things, meeting new people, and eating their way across the globe.
Yes, yes, yes to trying new things! Let’s dive in (see what I did there?!) to their adventures living abroad in Okinawa!
Original Home Location: New Bern, North Carolina, United States
New Home Location: Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
About the Move to Okinawa, Japan
When did you make the move? Erwin and Tara: We made the move to Okinawa at the beginning of 2019. Erwin arrived in January 2019 with our cat (Dexter) due to work requirements and Tara arrived in March 2019 in order to secure transportation for our two dogs (Peter Barker and Einstein).
Tell me about your experience moving your pets. Erwin and Tara: Getting all the animals over to Japan was probably the most stressful part of the move because of the required rabies vaccines and 180 day quarantine period specific for Japan as well as securing transportation.
Why did you decide to make the move? / What motivated you? Erwin and Tara: We moved because Erwin had the opportunity for a promotion at work. This position was something that he had talked about for a while and was the type of engineering that he loved doing. During the summer of 2017, he was given the opportunity to do this exact job for 5 months (April – September) in Okinawa, Japan. During that rotation I was able to come out and stay with him for 3 months and we fell in love with the island, the Okinawa/Japanese culture, and the lifestyle associated with the job. When the opportunity to move out to Okinawa “permanently” (rules limit the amount of time Erwin can hold this position, maximum 5-7 years) presented itself, Erwin competed for it and was selected. We were very excited to return to Okinawa and all the opportunities it offers.
How many times did you visit your new country and city prior to your move? Erwin and Tara: We had visited Okinawa just once prior to moving here (April – September 2017 for Erwin, June – September 2017 for Tara) but since we had spent several months here during that trip, it allowed us plenty of time to get to know the island, its culture, and narrow down spots/areas where we would like to live.
How did you break the news to loved ones? Erwin and Tara: Erwin found out he had gotten the job in July 2018 so we had several months to meet with friends and family prior to leaving. We spent most of that time with as many friends and family as we could and savored a lot of “American” things that we knew we would miss/wouldn’t be able to participate in while in Japan. Both our families were sad that we were moving so far away but were excited for us at the same time. The same with our friends, many of whom have planned trips to come visit us while we are here. We got to spend both Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families and friends and met up with some people we hadn’t seen in a while too prior to leaving so while difficult to say goodbye, we didn’t feel rushed doing so.
What was the hardest part of moving / what did you find frustrating during your move? Erwin: Since my job is associated with the US Military, there was a set process for how to conduct the move; however, since we are civilians and not active duty service members, that process is a bit different so we had to figure out how to do it all. It was a lot of work identifying what paperwork needed to be processed, who needed to be contacted, when stuff needed to be submitted and tons of other things that you don’t even think about until you have to do them (Will my phone plan work overseas? Do I need new bank accounts? What do I need to do to get my pets there? Should I sell or store my American car? Etc.) Also since this was a brand new position that didn’t exist before, we had to be the trail blazers in figuring all of this information out.
Tara: The hardest part of the move for me was giving up my job and becoming unemployed with no job prospects lined up. I am a very career driven person so giving up everything I had worked for the last five years was extremely hard. Another hard part as with most people in our situation is missing my family and friends. We were fortunate enough to only live a few hours drive from both of our parents so not being able to see them over holidays and long weekends is tough. We also had to leave our very tight knit group of friends and not being there for their big life moments (buying homes, having children, etc) has been a challenging thing to go through.
Did you decide to ship your belongings or to store your belongings? Erwin and Tara: Both, we shipped most of our belongings but since we know we will be returning to the States in a few years we did leave some things behind in storage (items we didn’t want to get damaged or wouldn’t really need over here). Also Japanese homes are much smaller than American ones so all of our stuff from our house in America would not have fit in the house we have now. We also sold and donated several things that we no longer needed before moving.
About their Home in Okinawa, Japan
How did you find your current home? Erwin and Tara: We found it through a Japanese rental agency in Okinawa after searching for countless hours on Facebook. When Erwin arrived in Okinawa, he stayed in temporary lodging for 2 months and worked with this rental agency to find the house (visited multiple homes and facetimed with Tara at ungodly hours). By the time Tara arrived, he had already moved into the house.
Describe your home – apartment, house, etc: Erwin and Tara: It is a two story home in a town in Okinawa called Chatan. All the homes in Okinawa are solid concrete to help withstand typhoons and earthquakes. It is about 1300 square feet with three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, good storage space and a spacious backyard and carpark. In Japan they do not have central air so we have an air conditioning unit in every room. We also have three large dehumidifiers that we have to run year round. This house is “Americanized” to appeal to the many Americans who live in Okinawa due to the US military presence here so it is similar to what you would see in a typical American home as opposed to what you would find in a typical Japanese home (kitchen and bathrooms specifically, also much larger than a typical Japanese house). We selected this house because of its location, the backyard, and its size.
Did you buy or rent your current home? Erwin and Tara: Rent
Lifestyle Abroad in Okinawa, Japan
Why did you choose your current country and specifically, your current city? Erwin and Tara: Specifically for Erwin’s work, the job was located in Okinawa, Japan. We chose to live in the town of Chatan in Okinawa because it is close to places and restaurants that we frequent as well as essential services and is not a long commute from both our workplaces. It is a short ride to the seawall which is a popular and easy place to scuba dive. We also love Asia and what to learn more about its countries and cultures so when the chance to live in there in a place that is centrally located for travel, we were happy to go.
How long do you plan on living an expat lifestyle? Erwin and Tara: Several years, Erwin’s job has a maximum limit of 5-7 years before we are required to return to the US.
What have you missed the most about the city that you used to live in? Erwin and Tara: Our friends and Mexican food.
What was the most surprising thing to you? Erwin: Since we had been here before for an extended period of time I kind of knew what to expect when we moved here. I guess the most surprising thing about Japan that I have found out so far is how much plastic they use. Everything comes in its own individual wrapper (chopsticks, toothpicks, individual pieces of food) so there is so much plastic trash. The Japanese are super clean so you never really see it in the streets as litter but it’s still a lot of plastic that is bad for the environment.
Tara: The roads here. It was already a struggle to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road but a lot of roads here are two way but only large enough for one car at a time. You have to decide who has to back up all the way to the end of the road and try again. I’m also surprised at how different our versions of knowing “a little” of the other language is. I have learned enough Japanese to get by and consider that as knowing “a little”. So basically when I speak I sound like a toddler who is just learning to speak. When at stores or restaurants if you ask “Do you speak English?” they respond with “Only a little” but can hold an entire conversation fairly well.
What do you love about your current city? Erwin: Is everything an acceptable answer? In terms of “city” I kind of feel like Okinawa itself is one “city”. Our town of Chatan is nice and has its own things (town mascot, mayor, community centers, etc.) but because Okinawa is so small the towns mostly seem to blend together. As a whole, I love the laid back Okinawa culture, the numerous delicious restaurants near our house, and the sunsets and ocean views.
Tara: I love the people here. The entire attitude of Japan is trying to do what is best for everyone not just yourself. For this reason people are extremely friendly here and always willing to help you to the best of their ability which is often when you can’t read a majority of the signs, menus, labels on food in grocery stores, etc.
What was the hardest thing to adjust to? Erwin: The language. Japanese is hard and while I have been pretty good a picking up languages, learning three alphabets and trying to figure out spoken Japanese has been very challenging. Since there are many Americans here, a lot of people in the area we live in speak English, but I feel like we miss a lot by not being able to read or speak Japanese well.
Tara: The language 100%. I was shocked when I learned that the only way to learn Kanji is just to memorize, and there are over 3000 commonly used characters! (Over 30,000 exist) Learning Hiragana & Katakana was fairly easy but with those two we are basically reading at a elementary school level so we still can’t read most things we encounter. Thank god for Google Translate!
What did you have to sacrifice to make living abroad come true? Erwin: I don’t necessarily feel that it is a “sacrifice” but I am sad that we don’t get to participate in the big events of our good friends and family back in the states (births, weddings, even just dinners together). I certainly don’t have any regrets moving here.
Tara: My job but looking back I don’t regret it. I was working 50-60 hour weeks prior to moving and was missing out on a lot with family and friends. Coming out here has given me the opportunity to step back and see where my real priorities are in life.
Have you ever lived outside of your home country before? Erwin: I have spent a few months outside the US before either visiting family in the Philippines or when I studied abroad for a summer in Europe, but this is the first time actually living overseas for me.
Tara: Only for a few weeks studying abroad in Europe.
What do you do for fun in your new location? Erwin: I love to scuba dive, some of the best diving in the world I here in Okinawa. I also have taken up running was well as joining a dragon boat team. I also love trying new restaurants in the area and attending local festivals and other cultural events. During the summer months there is a different festival almost every weekend so there is always something new and exciting to do.
Tara: Dragon Boat, Scuba Diving, culture classes, festivals. I want to make the most out of the time I have here because I know a lot of others are not fortunate enough to have this opportunity.
What do you like/dislike about your new location? Erwin: Honestly, I like most things about Japan. The culture is not centered on the individual like many Western countries so the people are very family and community centered and you can see that in the festivals and everyday interactions with the local population. Okinawa is a beautiful island with a long and interesting history. It is also very conveniently located for travel through Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and Australia. I guess the only real disadvantage is we have to fly everywhere so no road trips.
Tara: I love most things about living on this island. I am in a great location that makes traveling around Asia fairly cheap and simple. The food here is AMAZING. I already mentioned how great the locals are here. There are always weird new snacks & candy to try. Arcades!
Things I don’t like: Typhoon season, Earthquakes, Humidity, Tiny Roads, Huntsman Spiders, Natto, Floor Toilets
What are your favorite spots in the area? Erwin: There is an area near us called the Sunabe Seawall. It is an excellent scuba diving location and also a great place for walks and runs. There are also several really good restaurants and cafes there and it is one of the best places on the island to catch one of Okinawa’s famous sunsets.
Tara: One of my favorite places to go is called Seaglass Beach. It was a glass dump many years ago making it now a hotspot for beautiful seaglass. It’s a great place to go alone or with my dogs for a few hours to get some sun or to swim around and I always come back with my pockets full of glass and a few other treasures.
Do you have your own mode of transportation, a car, bike, etc in your new city? Erwin and Tara: We both have cars, Okinawa is not like the rest of Japan and does not have a good subway or train system so the only real convenient way to get anywhere is to drive. The Japanese drive on the left side of road so it took us a while to get used to that. We also walk a lot more here because there are restaurants, convenience stores and other shops that are close to where we live and we often have to park at central location and walk to an area due to the limited availability of public parking in some areas.
Advice and Benefits of Living an Expat Lifestyle Abroad
Is there any advice or anything that you wished you would have known before your move that you would like to share with someone who may be considering an international move? Erwin: Overall I felt we were pretty prepared for the move. We did our research, had visited the area before and heard from multiple sources before deciding to move to Japan. Each move is different so I would just encourage everyone to thoroughly research everything and fully understand what your company (if moving for a job) or situation (if moving on your own or through some other program) will provide for you before committing to leaving the US.
Tara: We were very fortunate to have people in similar situations that we could ask questions. There is also a very active Facebook page here for questions where we got a lot of our information. Reach out to as many people or resources as you can, you can never have too much information when it comes to moving internationally. The big thing for us was that we knew we probably wouldn’t have this opportunity in a few years after we started a family so if we wanted to experience it we knew we needed to take the leap.
Are there any items, apps, or tools that you have found to be helpful when navigating your new lifestyle and city? Erwin and Tara: Google Translate has been a (sometimes hilarious) lifesaver when it comes to navigating Japanese stores and communicating with others who do not speak English. Facebook is a big resource here, a lot of businesses use Facebook Messenger or their Facebook pages to communicate with customers since there is a mix of foreign and Japanese phone numbers and different phone platforms (iPhones vs Android). Message Apps like Line, Whatsapp, and others are also big because of the phone situation as well. I also have an app called Japan Transit Planner for train schedules for when we travel to mainland Japan. Uber is not as popular in Asia but they have an app called Grab that is similar and allows you to find rides. We also use the Sky Scanner & Hopper website to find cheap flights.
Any other recommendations or words of wisdom? Erwin and Tara: Living overseas is not for everyone. You more than likely won’t be able to visit your friends and families as often as you do now, you won’t have all the items or services that you are used to and depending on where you go you might not be able to communicate as effectively with people as you do now. Really evaluate your goals and what matters to you before deciding to leave for an extended period of time or forever. If it is your cup of tea, and you do move to somewhere different, really try to embrace it. Learn about the culture and participate in it. Learn some of the language (even just basic phrases), the locals with appreciate it, (even if you are bad at it) it shows you are trying. Try things out of your comfort zone and go places you didn’t think you ever would. Eat the local cuisine and then learn the recipes so that you can make it even when you leave. Make memories through experiences and take home the photographs more than buying things. Make the most of it so when it comes time to leave you look back with no regrets.
Is there anything extra that you would like to add? Erwin and Tara: Always choose the adventure; it also helps if you have an amazing partner to share in that adventure.
There you have it! Erwin’s job took the couple abroad and you can tell that they are really embracing the culture and loving it. I know that when writing this post, it was hard to not book a flight to Okinawa on the spot! I even managed to stumble upon this list of the 20 Top Things to Do In Okinawa. I hope to be able to visit someday.
However, making a move abroad to a country where they speak another language is challenging and is easily one of the biggest deterrents for someone deciding whether or not to make the move. It’s a good thing that Erwin and Tara were up for the challenge! Tara also expressed the initial difficulty in giving up her job in order to make the move. I know the feeling! But ultimately, the discomfort is worth experiencing another culture and chasing the adventure.
Thank you Erwin and Tara for both taking the time to share your story! You can follow along with Erwin on Instagram at @erwin.lewis and with Tara at @tara_lewis12. Sean and I hope to connect with them abroad once we are able to make our move!
Do you know a couple who is living as an expat abroad? Let me know so that I can feature their story in a future Expat Chat!
When I heard that Gretta Nance had previously lived abroad in Solihull, UK, I knew that she would be a great person to interview as she always gives honest, transparent feedback.
Gretta Nance is well known in the Raleigh area as the Brand Director for Amelia Aesthetics. Along with the @amelia.aesthetics Instagram account, she is very active on her own personal account, @grettanance. She always tells it as it is and is great at engaging with the community.
Gretta loves traveling (I have found that this is a common theme for people who have lived abroad!) and to this day, her family tries to take at least four trips a year.
So let’s jump right in and hear Gretta’s story about her move abroad to Solihull, UK!
Original Home Location Before Living Abroad: Raleigh, NC, USA Abroad Home Location: Solihull, UK Current Home Location: Raleigh, NC, USA
About the Move to Solihull, UK
When did you make the move to Solihull, UK? Gretta: January 2005 the offer was presented to us and by March of the same year we’d rented our house, gotten our Work Visas and were living in the UK!
Why did you decide to make the move? / What motivated you? Gretta: We’d always known we would have to move around a little bit for our jobs to continue advancing in our careers. One night we started looking at locations that had offices we could actually apply for and found a job opening in the UK. We literally had to Google where that was and what the difference was between the UK, Great Britain, and England was! (still confused lol)
We truly thought it would be similar to just moving to another East Coast city… I mean, they speak English, how different could it be!? We didn’t have children at the time and thought, let’s at least explore this opportunity.
How many times did you visit your new country and city prior to your move? Gretta: The hiring manager in England was also American and we all had some great conversations about the job and his move which made it seem more feasible. Almost immediately they’d booked us flights and accommodations for a 4-day trip. We were embarrassed to tell them we didn’t even has passports! We’d literally never been out of the country! I remember what a cluster it was to look mature and professional for this interview while scrambling to get emergency passports sent to us in time to actually fly over there for the interview.
We managed to make the 10 hour flight and arrived in Birmingham England in mid-January. In hindsight, I can’t believe we agreed to move there after visiting England in January… what miserable weather! We basically stayed jet-lagged for entire 4 days but really enjoyed the hospitality of the expat couple who were interviewing us.
Within 4 days we’d accepted the job and actually put an offer on a 2-bedroom ‘semi detached’ house in Solihull (about 20 minutes outside of Birmingham.)
In hindsight, this was an insane move. We had no idea about home ownership in another country or the cost of living! But I was just so excited to really live like a local.
How did you break the news to loved ones? Gretta: I don’t remember this being incredibly tough. We had planned on being there less than 2 years and we didn’t have children yet. I think some of them were excited to come visit!
What was the hardest part of moving / what did you find frustrating during your move? Gretta: Our company was very generous with helping with the move, which was amazing. Since they were paying, even though we were moving from a larger American home to a 900 sq ft flat, we (stupidly) moved everything. EVERYTHING. What was I thinking? I even bought new furniture before we moved because I knew it was cheaper in the US. They fill a shipping container and it takes 2-3 months to cross the ocean and go through customs before we would see it all again. So we had to pack for living out of a suitcase for a solid 3 months. Not easy.
It was in a great little village though, which was so cool to me. We had a pub, grocery store, Indian restaurant and even a hair salon within walking distance. I do miss the village mentality England has.
Did you decide to ship your belongings or to store your belongings? Gretta: We actually couldn’t move into our new home until 2 months after we’d arrived in the country. So the company put us up in a 1-bedroom efficiency in the city center where we lived out of our suitcases. In March. In England. I seriously think I lived the first 2 months in a fog of ‘what the hell have we done?’ Knowing our stuff would arrive eventually and we’d be able to move into our own home kept me going!
Did you have any pets? If so, did they make the move with you? Gretta: We had 2 dogs. Lo and behold, the UK doesn’t have a rabies problem and wants to keep it that way. At the time they required all dogs coming in from the US to be quarantined for 3 months! This was a MASSIVE debacle and very stressful to get someone to keep them for us at home and go through the documentation process of multiple vaccinations for the chance the could be turned away at the airport or not let into the country. I had to fly back and get them and turn right back around and fly them back with me. I had read horror stories of animals dying in cargo on long flights (they were 14-lb rat terriers) and it was one of the most stressful and exhausting days of my life. All went well though and they adapted to UK living well.
About her Home in Solihull, UK
How did you find your home when you lived abroad? Gretta: I so wish we’d just rented instead of purchased. I had NO idea of the town and where I’d actually WANT to live before pulling the trigger. I think we maybe toured 3 homes in a single afternoon and I just picked the best one. They were all so different than what I was used to! The cost of living was so high, even for something we thought was so expensive everything was soooo tiny! Tiny kitchens, postage stamp sized backyards and no closets were the norm.
Describe the home – apartment, house, etc: Gretta: We paid 250,000GBP at the time for our 900 sq ft townhouse. It had a ‘conservatory’ on the back, which is pretty common over there. I guess we could call it a sunroom. It had the tiniest backyard but with 2 little dogs, that was all we needed! It came without appliances (which apparently is common) so we immediately had to buy a fridge, washer dryer, tv, microwave, etc. Everything was so small! We quickly realized as well that it could only accommodate a combination washer dryer. LIKE TOGETHER. You put your clothes in, it washes them and then dries them – all in one machine. It was in the kitchen and so strange.
Lifestyle Abroad in Solihull, UK
Why did you choose the country and specifically, the city that you moved to? Gretta: We knew absolutely nothing about the area so just took recommendations from the expat-couple we’d met. They helped us choose the ‘suburb’ of Birmingham called Solihull – which is where they lived.
How long did you live abroad? Gretta: We ended up being there for just shy of 4 years!
What have you missed the most about living abroad? Gretta: I absolutely miss the ease and convenience of traveling so easily throughout Europe. We could snag a 45GBP flight to Rome or Paris or Spain and be there in an hour or 2. It’s necessary when you need sunshine!
I do miss the ease of walking. Everything was so compact you could truly walk almost anywhere. I lost almost 15 lbs the first year just due to walking so much!
What was the most surprising thing to you when you moved there and then when you moved back? Gretta: Everything felt so hard the first 6 months. Figuring out the currency. The train protocol. Buying a car. Driving was IMPOSSIBLE. Even understanding the language that I thought would be so similar. It drizzled everyday and never was sunny. I had a really tough time at first. I had always had a fairly easy time meeting people and making new friends, but the language barrier and background differences often seemed to make it tough to find connection with others. I felt very isolated in the beginning until I really started working.
I also was surprised by how many other expats there were! I found an expat women’s group called NAC (North American Connection) and we had 75 of us in town! When I needed to commiserate about the lack of Mexican groceries available to the lack of Thanksgiving and had a place to turn.
Moving BACK from England was an absolute breeze compared to moving there. Well, actually not exactly a breeze. Even though we’d only planned on living there for 2 years, it ended up being closer to 4 thanks to 2007 and the economy. The uncertainty and the feeling of being somewhat trapped with a newborn baby was stressful. When we finally sold our UK home for exactly what we owed (phew!) packed up our pups and now 1 yr old son I couldn’t have been more excited to hit US soil again!
What do you love about your current city? Gretta: I absolutely LOVE Raleigh! I’m from the DC area and i’m so grateful for the more affordable cost of living, less traffic and close proximity to beaches and mountains – while still having access to amazing restaurants and culture.
What did you have to sacrifice to make living abroad come true? Gretta: We definitely missed out on some important big family moments. And it was tough not having more support after our son was born in the UK. But I’d do it all in again in a heartbeat.
Had you ever lived outside of your home country before? Gretta: I had never.
What did you do for fun in your city abroad? Gretta: I feel like there was SO much to do! The ‘pub culture’ and beer gardens were so fun and different than what we were used to. There was always some sort of unique place to visit! We got into exploring castles – there were hundreds within just an hour or 2 drive. Or we could be in London in just 2 hours by train.
What did you like/dislike about living abroad? Gretta: The time difference actually made it surprisingly tough to easily and regularly talk with friends and family. When I needed to chat – they were asleep or at work and vice versa.
Personally, the weather was tough on me too. I didn’t realized how much I craved the feeling of warm sunshine! The few days out of the year that would happen in the UK were few and far between.
What were your favorite spots in the area? Gretta: Warwickshire Castle was a fave of mine. One of the most complete castles in all of England, it was only about 20 minutes from our house and I took everyone who came over to visit! I easily went 15 times. Same with the Cotswolds. Wandering through villages who’s homes still had thatched roofs was amazing.
Did you have your own mode of transportation, a car, bike, etc? Gretta: You do so many things just because ‘well, that’s what I did at home.’ So I bought a car. I ended up selling it about 14 months later because I rarely used it. Driving was difficult and parking was crazy expensive. It was easier to use the train most of the time!
When you moved back, what do you feel like you gained from living abroad? / How did the experience enrich your life? Gretta: I swore multiple times a day I would never take the conveniences of living in the US for granted EVER. AGAIN. I truly felt like I came back a different – a better – person. With more perspective. More grit.
Advice and Benefits of Living an Expat Lifestyle Abroad
Is there any advice or anything that you wished you would have known before your move that you would like to share with someone who may be considering an international move? Gretta: I definitely wished we’d spent the first 6 months or so there just getting a feel for it. Not diving headlong into home and car ownership. I spent quite a bit of time with other woman living the expat life and they had nothing but incredible stories to share about it. I’m so lucky I had the opportunity so many will never have.
Are there any items, apps, or tools that you have found to be helpful when navigating your lifestyle and city abroad? Gretta: Ha! This was 2005 baby. Apps weren’t a thing. I remember using the website TripAdvisor A LOT when researching our trips abroad though. And we used VRBO to rent most of our European accommodations when we vacationed.
Any other recommendations or words of wisdom? Gretta: I would talk everyone into diving into this adventure if they have the opportunity! It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life – yet hands down the most life-changing and memorable.
Is there anything else that you would like to add? Gretta: The UK is an incredible base to hop to France, Italy, Spain – so much of Europe! We even took a 7 days trip to Egypt while we were there.
Put your hands together for Gretta! I want to thank Gretta so much for joining me and for sharing her story about her move abroad to the UK!
I love how Gretta went all in – bought a house, a car, moved all of her belongings, and her two dogs with her. Sean and I planned on quite the opposite – renting an apartment, not having car, storing all of our belongings, and not bringing our cats with us so this was a very interesting story and perspective.
On the other hand, Sean and I are planning on traveling to nearby places like Gretta did. I love how she got to see so much of Europe!
To keep up with Gretta Nance’s current travel adventures and Raleigh lifestyle, follow her on Instagram at @grettanance!
Want to read more? Visit Expat Chats to read all of my interviews with people who have chosen to live internationally and to lead an Expat lifestyle.