I Lived Abroad for 13 Years—I Missed These 10 American Things the Most
As amazing as traveling can be, there really is no place like home.
Sometimes it’s the little things…
Courtesy Jeremy Helligar
There’s no experience quite like waking up in a new foreign country for the first time. I did it regularly for 13 years after leaving New York City and North America in 2006 to begin an expat adventure that led to extended stints on every other continent except Antarctica. Some weeks I’d hit up to three countries—and I made it back to the United States for only three short visits (in 2008, 2010, and 2019) before returning to New York for good last autumn. Between June 2017 and September 2019 alone, I logged quality time in 29 foreign countries, most of them ones where English wasn’t the native language and many where they used different alphabets.
Living abroad was life-changing, and visiting certain countries will change you more than others. I recommend everyone do it for at least one year. But before embarking on a world tour, fasten your seat belt. It will be an occasionally bumpy ride. There will be language barriers, challenging border crossings, and strange customs. You also will have to get used to life without some of the comforts you take for granted back home. Here are ten of the American things, besides family and friends, that I missed most.
Courtesy Jeremy Helligar
Fireworks were never really my thing (too scary!), so when the Fourth of July came without any fanfare abroad, I never felt particularly nostalgic for Independence Days past. Also, many other countries have their own version. In Argentina, it comes five days after ours, and Australians celebrate Australia Day every January 26th. Although Canada and several other places have their own Thanksgiving, the holiday as we know it (complete with turkey, tales of Pilgrims, a four-day break, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving) is a uniquely American experience. It wasn’t until I was living without it that I finally grasped its true meaning. It’s not really about the food—getting a bunch of expat acquaintances together for an impromptu feast never quite gave me that old home feeling—but about family, longtime friends, and being grateful to have had them in your life not just on one Thanksgiving but on all the ones before. Test your turkey-day knowledge with these 15 Thanksgiving “facts” that are not true.
Watching the Oscars on Sunday night…in English
It’s recognized as a global event, and it is. But if you’re in Buenos Aires, the ceremony is dubbed in Spanish. When I spent Oscar night 2010 in London, I missed them entirely because my hotel only had free-to-air channels, none of which broadcast the Oscars. It was the equivalent of the Academy Awards airing on a subscription-only network like HBO instead of ABC.
In Cape Town, they aired live in the middle of the night because of the time difference, which is why I had to wait until Monday at noon to watch them while I was living in Melbourne and Sydney. If you’re lucky enough to get off work for the occasion down under, there’s still a time lag of a few seconds to consider. That means if you’re watching while on the phone with a similarly Oscar-obsessed friend in the United States, she’ll hear “And the Oscar goes to…” while you’re still watching the final nominee clip. Potential-spoiler alert! Because of my similarly Oscar-obsessed friend in the United States on the other line, in 2017, I accidentally found out that Moonlight, and not La La Land, had actually won Best Picture seconds before the rest of Australia did! Find out why the Academy Awards are also called the Oscars.
“Pedestrians have the right of way”
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The rights of pedestrians may vary from state to state, but the old saying is hammered into our heads almost from the moment we begin walking. Because pedestrians have the proverbial “right of way” in the United States, traveling by foot feels a lot safer here than in many countries I visited abroad. In places where they drive on the opposite side, it’s so easy to slip up and look the wrong way before crossing. In Berlin, they drive on the same side as in the United States, but bike lanes often stop foot traffic dead in its tracks.
Meanwhile, in Australia, local pedestrians must push a button to get “Walk” to light up, and they often won’t cross a deserted street until it does. While I was living in Cape Town, wheels always seemed to trump feet, even when the sign said “Walk” and a car was taking a right turn. According to Child Safe South Africa, pedestrians account for 40 percent of road deaths in Cape Town, a figure that’s sobering but not at all surprising to me after spending an entire year negotiating its City Bowl mostly on foot. Did you know that texting and walking causes 11,000 injuries a day?
Over-the-counter medicine on supermarket shelves
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In the United States, you generally don’t have to talk to a pharmacist unless you’re getting a prescription filled or seeking over-the-counter brand advice. In many countries around the world, though, relief from a headache or cold isn’t as simple as walking into a supermarket and picking up your medicine of choice in aisle four. Instead, you often have to wait in line to request over-the-counter drugs from the pharmacist (and in Buenos Aires and Romania, among a few other places, there always seemed to be long, slow lines). That not only took up a lot more time, but it also made comparison-shopping more difficult. Here are some things you should always buy at drugstores to cut costs.
Hulu and other subscription-TV services
I left the United States before the age of streaming when expats were all pretty much at the mercy of local programming, which was often in languages other than English. YouTube and, later Netflix, saved me from a daily overdose of poorly dubbed TV, but homesick viewers beware: Even now, you can’t access many online videos if you aren’t in the United States. Meanwhile, Hulu isn’t available outside of the United States (no reruns of The Golden Girls!), and there’s no on-demand access to the major networks’ app content abroad. In order to keep up with love in the afternoon on the other side of the world, I spent 13 years watching my beloved U.S. daytime soaps via poor-quality uploads on YouTube and Dailymotion. You get used to it, but it’s just not the same.
Ready to do some binge-watching of your own? Here are 9 classic shows you didn’t know you could watch on Netflix.
Metric vs. Imperial? Well, after 13 years living abroad, I have to say I’m mostly a metric person now. Meters, kilometers, liters, and kilograms just make more sense to me than feet, miles, gallons, and pounds, and because everything is based on multiples of ten, it’s so much easier to keep it all straight. Temperature, though, is an entirely different story. I never was able to transition fully over to Celsius. I’d pretend to understand why everyone in Australia was complaining about being too hot when it was only 40 degrees while I secretly consulted Google for a translation to Fahrenheit. Yikes—104! That big number sounds so much more accurate when everyone is going crazy from the heat. In case you were wondering, this is why Americans use Fahrenheit instead of Celsius.
Customer service with a smile
One of the benefits of U.S. tip culture is that it ensures prompt service, along with regular water refills and attentive waiters who don’t disappear once the food is served. While the United States has its share of surly hospitality personnel, you’re more likely to get service with a smile when eating out here than in many foreign countries. It’s not that the locals in those foreign countries weren’t friendly—I met few nationalities as generally cheerful as the people in Thailand and Australia—but the prevalent work ethic seemed to be that they were being paid to offer a service, not to thrill customers with kindness.
Last year, shortly after I stepped on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade, a hotel employee in Nashville nearly knocked me off my feet by greeting me with: “How can I help you, honey bun?” Honey bun? That would never happen in Kiev—not even in Ukrainian. Beware: These are the red flags you’re about to eat at a bad restaurant.
24/7 ATMs practically everywhere
Easy access to their money is a luxury many Americans take for granted, especially since big cities seem to have banks and 24-hour ATMs on pretty much every corner and even in most convenience stores. Alas, instant banking wasn’t always so easy during my decade-plus abroad. In Buenos Aires, a dearth of banks in certain neighborhoods often meant long walks to the nearest ATM and long lines once I got there, and on holidays, machines often ran out of cash. That made the cash-only policy of many businesses even more inconvenient. In Antwerp last September, my fiancé and I spent an hour trying to find an ATM that wasn’t locked up in a vestibule after dark. Suddenly, the influx of major bank chains into gentrified formerly hipster U.S. neighborhoods didn’t seem so bad. Still, you might want to avoid withdrawing money (unless it’s at your bank) in these U.S. cities with the highest ATM fees.
In boiling Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, air conditioning was a given in pretty much every public building. In the high rises of sweltering Dubai, it was life-saving. But as it turned out, the concept of artificially cooled air didn’t travel so well. In many of the countries I spent time in abroad, especially in Europe, complaining about the lack of modern luxuries like a microwave and air conditioning often got me disapproving “How American” side-eye. Although I usually found a way around oven-cooking and other activities that added to the heat, I had to work harder for cool indoor air in summer than I would have in the United States. The effort was worth it, though, to avoid ending up in a sweatbox with an AC blowing warm air or only a tiny fan to keep me from melting.
If you have AC, be grateful—and remember to take care of it properly. Here’s the disgusting reason why your air conditioner might smell bad.