1st Contact with Kristina Smith

1st Contact meets and interviews Kristina Smith – an American expat living in London. Kristina takes us through her journey of settling into the UK.

Kristina Smith

Kristina Smith

Kristina, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how do you find yourself in London? What passions do you have and what do you do for a living?

Most recently, I’m from Seattle, WA-on the NW coast of the US. My last job while there was for a large, online retailer. After working at this company for a year, I was presented with the opportunity to transfer to the UK office. It really didn’t take much to convince me to make the move-I’ve known for ages that I would work and live outside of the US someday-I was really just waiting for the right opportunity!

Though I’m no longer with the company I transferred over with, what I did in Seattle is still what I do here-Search Marketing-SEO, SEM, PPC…pick an acronym!

Passions?…First and foremost, travel. I’ve often said I’d eat dog food if it would mean I’d have more money to spend on travel. Fortunately, now that I live in London, I don’t exactly have to do that! London is in such an awesome location for easy and fairly inexpensive travel to the Continent- and I take advantage of that at every opportunity I get. I also love to cook-and with such great food markets, and locally sourced-high quality produce so easily available, that’s an easy habit to indulge. I also love to play sports and be just be active.

So, how does an American girl adjust to life in London? Did you move alone or with friends/family?

I make no bones about this. Moving to and living in London has been a difficult adjustment for me. I personally believe the adjustments had nothing to do with the ‘British-ness’ of things as much as the size of London. Aside from 2 years in Atlanta (a city of about 4 million…), I’ve never lived in a city this size-and without a car-and that has certainly taken some adjustment.

I moved by myself, and as such was fully responsible for my ‘settling in’-from the big stuff like setting up utilities and getting a current account (though I did have some assistance with my company, the legwork was still done by me), to the small stuff-like finding a grocery store, and a gym. The first few days here-heck, who am I kidding-the first 2-3 months here, were some of the most frustrating months I’ve ever had. It seems like it took longer than I thought it would to get sorted on these things-and with more effort than I would have liked to spend getting sorted. Unfortunately, this experience isn’t just limited to me-every expat I know has experienced this. In fact, due to some of the transfer benefits I had with my company (banking-and assistance finding my first flat), my settling in effort was actually considerably easier than most people. So, I can’t stress this enough: if you are transferring with your company-make it a condition of your transfer for assistance on this type of stuff-especially the banking and flat search.

You wrote a funny post the other day on BBC’s ‘Lambing Live’. What other Brit shows do you follow? Are you into ‘Enders or Coronation Street yet?

Hehe. I *loved* that program! I just couldn’t get enough of those cute little lambs! I really hope they run the show again next spring.

I did watch East Enders when I first arrived here, but just couldn’t get into it. Otherwise, I enjoy watching other Brit shows-QI and Mock the Week are two of my favourites-honestly, some of the things that Frankie Boyle says make me cringe and laugh out loud at the same time.

Harry Hill is a hoot, and if I’m in, I’ll make an effort to watch Jonathan Ross on Friday nite; I’m really going to miss his show when it’s done. And, as I’ve alluded to in my blog on more than one occasion, I love watching the cooking/food shows that really celebrate British, local, sustainable cooking-Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall’s River Cottage series is one of my favourites.

Was it a scary prospect finding work in London or did you hit the ground running?What advice do you have for people relocating and who are looking for work?

Well, since I transferred here with my old employer, finding a job at the time wasn’t an issue. That being said, I have been out on the job market since I arrived-and successfully found another job, so I can still relate.

Particularly in comparison to the US, I find that folks are much better about using LinkedIn here. So, if you aren’t active on it, you’ll become active! Also, unlike the US, it seems as if very few companies hire directly-most use recruiting agencies/head hunters. So, spend some time finding out which agencies are active in the industry you want a job in, and reach out to them.

If you would have asked me 2 years ago if moving to London without a job-as an expat- was a bad idea, I would have said no-piece of cake. Worst case, you’ll be here on a tourist visa for 90 days, and that should be plenty of time to find a job. However, with the economy, not only are the jobs a bit more difficult to come by (as they are everywhere), but I have noticed that changes with the UK Visa system (particularly Tier 1 and Tier 2) are making it more challenging for expats to get jobs-not impossible, just a bit more challenging. So, if you’re still dead set on moving here without having a firm job offer in hand, I’d strongly encourage anyone to do your legwork/networking on the US side of the pond before coming over. And, in a perfect world, you’ll have some *very strong* leads before coming over. Obviously this will be more difficult, but the expense of living here without a job-and with it being as hard as it is to find employment…I don’t think it’s worth the risk.

You recently blogged about Canterbury. Where else in the UK have you been? What’s your favourite place you have been?

Let’s see….In the UK-as a ‘tourist’, I’ve been to Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Bath, Oxford, Canterbury, and Windsor. For non-tourist travel (my boyfriend’s family…), I’ve spent some time in Leeds, Liverpool, and Norwich. Really, I’ve just scratched the surface! There’s still plenty of other places I want to go-and with the performance of the pound to the Euro or US Dollar, will probably be doing even more travel in the UK this year!

I also play tourist quite a bit in London. I try to make a point of going to a new place/area once a month to just check out what’s in my own backyard-whether it’s out East to the Columbia Road flower market on a Sunday or for a wander on the Heath in Hampstead on a Saturday morning, I think there’s enough here in London to entertain me for years.

My favourite place is actually in London-Borough Market. The first time I went there was about a month after I arrived-and I went there thinking I’d just go there once and cross it off the list. Well, two years-and gallons of Monmouth coffee, pounds of Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese, and who knows how many pots of yogurt, apples, spelt bars, olives, and everything else later…I still think it’s the most amazing place. It’s where I do my weekly food shopping-even though I spend more time on the tube in the commute going & coming than I do in the actual market-and it’s the first place I tell anyone about if they ask me where to go in London as a tourist. I love, love, love Borough Market, and it’s totally changed the way I look at food-both where and how it’s sourced, and how to prepare it.

You mentioned that you spotted quite a few boutique shops in Brighton. Would you describe yourself as an avid shopper? What should a foreigner know about shopping in London?

Oh yeah, I love to shop! But…not here in the UK. Honestly, my style is just too ‘American’ for me to wear what’s sold here-I like the clothes here, but they’re simply not my style. And to tell the truth…I simply can’t bring myself to pay £50 for a top-and know that I can get a similar top (or in some cases, the same top…) in the US for less than $50. I’m just too cheap to do it. J So, I always take an empty suitcase with me any time I go back to the States, and (ahem) fill it up before I return to London.

As far as general ‘house-stuff’ is concerned…I do enjoy hitting the house wear shops here like Habitat or Heals. And, I am a bit obsessed with Boots; their private label products are fantastic!

The summer sales are a great opportunity to pick up things at good prices, and the sales leading up to Christmas-and the Boxing Day sales are also good. Though-going back to the statement I made about buying clothes in the US…this holds true about other things as well. There are a few brands of things that I like that I can only find in the States-and there are a few global brands (my shampoo and some of my makeup come to mind) that I’ll actually comparison shop the US & UK on to determine where it’s cheaper for me to buy. I don’t do it with everything, but like I said…I’m a bit cheap! And, in speaking with my expat friends, this seems to be a common occurrence.

Oh, and one last thing-avoid Oxford Street at all cost! It’s just such utter insanity, and except for Selfridges (which is a lovely department store), most of the shops there can be found elsewhere in the city-and with fewer crowds and stress!

Are you planning on moving back to the States anytime soon? What do you miss about the US most?

That is certainly the ten million pound question! My boyfriend is British-we met after I moved here. And, though he would be keen to live in the US, for the short-term we’re going to stay here. There’s a part of me that wants to be here thru the 2012 Olympics-and a part of me that says, ‘Run! It’s going to be crazy!’ In truth, we’ll probably just play it by ear for a bit, and see what happens with our careers-London is a *great* place for what we both do, but if the right opportunity came up for us back in Seattle?…

First and foremost, I miss being in the daily lives of my family and friends. I’ve been fortunate enough to make some really great friends here-and I couldn’t feel luckier for that-but there are still some days that I’d like to be able to pick up the phone and call someone back in the US-without having to take the 5-8 hour time difference into consideration! J

Aside from this-and though London feels like home to me in many, many ways-I miss the feeling of the ‘familiar.’ Though I’ve lived in some very different places in the US (big city, small town, South, North West), they all felt familiar to me. I’ve lived in the same part of London for 2 years, and there are days it still feels unfamiliar to me. I can’t explain it, and I don’t know if this feeling will ever go away, but I’m not complaining-it’s merely an observation.

Do you have any parting words of wisdom for those moving to the UK? What can they learn from your experiences?

Jump in with both feet! Get a membership to a museum. Get to know the bartender at your local pub-or better yet, become a regular at pub quiz nite. Try the bangers and mash or the toad in the hole, or if you’re feeling really adventuresome-the jellied eels. Pick a football team to support. Whatever you do, you’ve got to seize the opportunity!

For all of the ‘American-ist’ commentary I may have made, I have tried very hard to become a local (though, admittedly, having a British boyfriend has certainly made the road much easier)-and do genuinely enjoy living in London.

Embrace and celebrate living in the UK! It’s the only way you’ll be able fully appreciate the amazing experience you’re having. Though there are some days I’d like nothing better than to be living back in the US, I know that my life is sooo much richer for having lived here.

Kristinas Blog: http://anexpatinlondon.blogspot.com/