Sunday 15 September 2019

Katie Byrne: Why a big city move does not always equal glamorous life for our expats

Why a big city move does not always equal glamorous life for our expats

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

My aunt used to send us letters from America. She was a 1980s emigrant - one of the thousands that sent home handwritten chronicles from the land of opportunity.

She often included photographs in the envelopes, one of which is seared in my memory. It's a solo shot of my aunt wearing a string bikini and sitting in a white open-top car. Her hair is blonde and permed; her teeth are obnoxiously white and her stomach is so flat that her ribs are exposed. America!

That photograph represented the American Dream for the better part of my childhood. It was picture-proof that I too could go to America and get a perm, a bikini and a convertible. All I had to do was work hard and floss daily.

I should add that this was during a period when we had a peculiar patriotism to a country that we could only visit for 90 days at a time. Brands like Levi's and Nike were particular status symbols back then, largely because they often indicated that you had a stamp from the Department of Homeland Security on your passport. But I digress…

In later years, I began to realise that my aunt's photograph wasn't a completely honest portrayal of life for a young woman in America. My own ascent into womanhood taught me that a stomach has to be determinedly sucked in to look that flat. And the convertible? It belonged to a friend.

I think of this photograph whenever I hear of people emigrating to certain cities. We know all about the anguish of emigration and yet we can't help but assume that people have 'made it' when they venture to locations like London, Rome, New York and Los Angeles. The mythical reputation of these cities often interferes with our common sense. London, for instance, is known for taking one's career to the next level. It gives edge and polish and, by all accounts, it looks great on a CV.

Less is said about the lonely Tube journey back to Hounslow and the lobotomising nightly visit to Sainsbury's Local - perhaps the only place a London denizen can spend money without experiencing a mild panic attack.

As for the unrivalled career opportunities, remember that people tend to omit the 'unpaid internship' aspect when they brag about the job they landed on that cutting-edge street style magazine...

When we hear of a fellow Irish person in Rome, we immediately assume that they are impeccably cultured and/or creating something of major importance. The postcard home fails to mention that the "charming appartment" is also home to a family of mice and that they spend more time staring into the middle distance in coffee shops than writing their debut novel.

Venturing further, we generally think of the buzzy bar scene in the East Village when we think of New York - and less about the fact that it's the city that never sleeps because émigrés are working double shifts to pay their rent...

Things aren't always as they seem in Los Angeles either. Vaseline is almost always smeared on the lens in a city that is built on hype and hustle. Hence when we hear of someone moving to the City of Angels, we see them sneaking out the back door of cosmetic surgery clinics and sunbathing alongside celebrities at Chateau Marmont. To give this one some perspective, the last time I based myself in the city I bought a GroupOn voucher for a blowdry and I met Jedward in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel…

We forget that while some émigrés really are living the dream, many more are not. Worse, they feel the pressure to live up to the postcard portrayal of the city, even if their relocation is literally nothing to write home about. In a study of 500 recent emigrants, 64pc of them said they found the experience harder than they anticipated. Homesickness was oft-cited as the reason. Yet homesickness is generally a euphemism for loneliness. And nobody wants to admit to be being lonely in the most energetic/romantic/industrious city in the world.

I took on Buenos Aires on my own a few years ago. It was exhilarating and empowering… for about six hours. After that it was just me and the relentless whurr of the air-conditioning unit in the tiny studio apartment I rented.

I learnt some hard lessons on that trip: 1) Never live on your own when you're new in town.

2) Say yes to every social offer, even if you strongly suspect that your new best friend is the local lunatic.

3) Don't go to the same café twice, or three times a day, as in my case.

The fourth lesson I learnt was to always be honest in your postcard summation. Life is too short to stay in a country for a year when your intuition tells you to get out of there after a month. More to the point, there's no such thing as a tail between your legs when your head is in your hands... Some emigrants don't have the option to turn back. If you have a choice in the matter, use it.

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