When Jody moved with her husband David from Seattle to London at the very end of February this year, they were fulfilling a longstanding dream of living and traveling abroad. “We were going to be jet setters, travel off the beaten path, and get a view of the world through a different lens.” A couple of weeks after they arrived in the UK, the country started shutting down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. For Jody and David, this meant that a completely different kind of adventure was in store than the one they had imagined.
Jody and David had spent the past 19 years in Seattle, raising three children, traveling when they could, and dreaming of one day living abroad. It was no accident that they chose this year for moving — their kids were all independent with the youngest about to finish his junior year of college at a school he loved and where he had a big network of friends, and the two older kids settled in their careers. Both Jody and David had had health scares recently and felt keenly that it was now or never.
But the ripple effects of the spread of the coronavirus and subsequent shutdowns across the world turned everything upside down. For starters, their youngest had to leave his college campus, and because Jody and David had just rented out their house, he could not move back home. “We’re lucky that our kids are close and that he could move in with his older brother.”
The kids’ plans to come visit in London have all had to be put on hold, with no way of knowing when they will be able to travel again. The uncertainty of when she will next see her kids, and the feeling of not being there for them, has been one of the most difficult things to bear so far. “Had I had a crystal ball, I would have never moved,” says Jody, adding that she also feels like she is missing out on quality time they could have spent together during the shutdown.
When I talk to Jody, in mid-June, via video conferencing, it’s clear early on in our conversation that the through-line of the decision to move was their deep desire to travel and explore. They were willing to make big sacrifices in order to make it happen — Jody and David took a financial hit as David opted to stay with his current employer Facebook, but without the perks of an expat contract. They thought long and hard about the decision as they also had aging and medically fragile family at home. In the end, they figured it would be easy enough to make regular trips back home to visit.
Of course, in the age of the pandemic, nothing has worked out quite like expected. Jody has found herself navigating life in a new place during a pandemic that ground most everything to a halt, complicating the most basic actions, and putting all her pre-move logic and plans to the test.
The first task to tackle upon arrival in London was to find housing, as they had decided to wait with renting a place until they could see it in person. Knowing that their furniture would be delivered shortly, they looked at 18 rentals in two days and found a place they liked — it had much of what they were looking for — an extra bedroom for guests, the right location, a short commute for David, and something they didn’t know they wanted but really came to appreciate — an outdoor patio.
As this was pre Covid-shutdowns, they signed a two-year lease in accordance with their original plan to stay for at least a couple of years. Little did they know that the extra bedroom wouldn’t see a single guest but rather would become David’s home office, little had they expected that the patio they didn’t even want would become a treasured hangout spot.
The furniture ended up being two months delayed because of Covid-19 — Jody and David spent those first couple of months sleeping on mattresses on the floor. And had it not been for some lucky breaks they would not have had much of anything because as they were about to move in, London was completely shutting down. An American family going back home gave them some of the basics, including various electrical equipment.
The move to London meant that Jody had quit her job in Seattle. When asked what her thought process was regarding work, she said she was not planning on working in a traditional sense. However, she did have ideas for how to use her travel insights to start something catering to those looking for unique travel experiences.
Jody says the idea stemmed from her friends always asking her about her travels and the experiences her family had when traveling — what their “secrets” were. She says “my friends encouraged me to start a blog and to record what we were doing. I was hesitant at first but decided to do it. And I was thinking of other ways I could use my knowledge of travel to build something of my own. Of course, right now, there isn’t much traveling happening, so I have had to reevaluate what to do with that.”
An aspect of life abroad that has not been as expected is making social connections. When we talk about what it’s like to try to get settled in a new location during a pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Jody starts by pointing out that she is very social. As an illustration of just how social she is, she says, “we had planned company coming for nine weeks straight and had only two days to ourselves during that time, that’s how busy we were going to be.” None of the visits ended up happening of course, and in addition, all the outings Jody had booked had to be canceled.
Since no one’s been able to visit, and social life, in general, has been difficult, Jody explains that she and David have had to rely more on each other than they have in a long time — probably since they first got married. She says: “It helps that we’ve been married for so long. We can give each other space and permission to do our own things while also being there to support each other. This time period of lockdown has reinforced that I’m really glad I’m married to him. I think it’s actually been good for our marriage.”
While Jody chalks up most of what has happened since they moved as part of the overall experience, she does feel like Covid-19 and the consequences it has brought, has made many things more complicated — not just the social aspects but all the little practical things that have been impacted — from not having any of their furniture for such a long time, to the difficulty of connecting with people to get basics taken care of such as banking, utilities, and phones. She gives the simple example of clothing: “Because our stuff didn’t arrive on time, I didn’t have any spring clothes, and because stores were closed, I had a hard time buying anything new as I couldn’t try on — I got a few things but nothing really fit as I was not sure of European sizing. So when a spring heatwave arrived, I was stuck with winter clothes.”
Jody shares another example of just how complicated it is to get things done during Covid-19. She says: “I’ve been trying to go to the US Embassy to take care of a real estate transaction, but they are temporarily closed for any non-emergency services. After hunting around, I found a notary that was wicked expensive that does this international seal that is supposed to be recognized everywhere. We paid and then got the document overnighted to the States, but, in the end, the lender won’t accept it. In today’s digital world, who would have thought this to be such a headache. We started the transaction at the end of July and still don’t have it completed. I wonder if we ever will. There is nobody to help you navigate through this, you learn by falling on your bruised face over and over again.”
Staying positive has been a challenge. Jody says, “I have had to dig deep not to sink deep”. Part of digging deep has meant that she started working out every day as well as doing yoga with her husband every morning (something she says that people who know them well would never believe). And, the blog has been cathartic. She may not be documenting her travels through Europe in her blog right now, but there are plenty of other things to write about — discoveries in and around London, for example.
Volunteering has been yet another way Jody has stayed positive. It has given her a purpose, and it’s been a way to get connected to her community. She got in touch with a group that runs a hotline for people who needs help with grocery pick-ups, and she was paired with an 89-year old man who lives a block away. As Jody describes it, it has been mutually beneficial, and she feels like she has built a friendship with this man that she has never met. She picks up his groceries two to three times a week, and over time, it’s become more than that: “We talk to each other. Mostly we communicate via email, but we also chat on the phone. I have learned things from him, he has told me about places I would never have found on my own. I can’t wait to meet him.”
Another volunteering job has led to more friendships. Jody works with a group that targets disadvantaged kids who need books. She helps with sorting and packaging books to be delivered, and the people she works with have become her friends. She says “it just goes to show that you have to try different things before you find the ones that fit. I tried other volunteering jobs here that did not work out, for various reasons. And now, here I am with what’s turned out to be a really nice experience.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask Jody about what has been the hardest and what has worked the best. As is easy to imagine, being away from family without the option of traveling freely to see them has been the hardest by far. When it comes to what has worked the best, Jody says, “To force myself to do something for someone else and getting out of my comfort zone — being comfy doesn’t lead to change.”
Jody’s blog: www.undercoverexpat.com
By: Felicia Shermis