"How do I navigate an entirely new public transport system? What do I do when nobody seems to be able to understand my harsh Melbourne vowel sounds?"
When you tell people you’re moving to a glamorous city like Los Angeles for work, chances are they have visions of you swanning around The Grove alongside all the famous people, laughing uproariously over your flash lunch like a less infuriating Yalumba ad.
The reality, on the other hand, may well involve your sobbing into a jar of Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter while listening to A Man Has Dreams from Mary Poppins. If so, don’t be surprised to find yourself wondering if you’ve made a terrible mistake.
The author with a new friend at The Blessing Of The Animals at Olvera Street.
And don’t be surprised to find yourself desperately treading water to avoid “the folks back home” thinking you’re struggling. In which case, er, perhaps think of a slightly less specific scene of woe than the one above. Excuse me, I will just put the Cookie Butter back in the cupboard... right, let’s continue.
The view from the author's new house.
According to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, “change in living conditions” will give you 25 points toward your cumulative score (which is used to assess the likelihood that your personal stresses will increase the risk of illness).
It’s not quite at “death of spouse” levels (100 points! Do not pass go!), even though we all like to say it is whenever we lug a removalist box through our emptied living room, but there’s no denying that a big move can seriously throw you out of your orbit.
Pounding the pavement on Sunset Boulevard.
In this modern, new-fangled, internet-enabled era, it really is possible to work anywhere around the world. For this reason, where once people might have considered a job opportunity in another country little more than a pipe dream, now we’re much more likely to jump on the plane and seek our fortune elsewhere.
Some subtle bits of Americana at the local car shop.
I have a number of friends who’ve moved overseas, both permanently and temporarily, to pursue career opportunities. They’ve gone everywhere from New York to India to Amsterdam, and have all experienced the same sort of relocation anxieties:
How do I navigate an entirely new public transport system? What do I do when nobody seems to be able to understand my harsh Melbourne vowel sounds? What on earth am I doing with my life??
My dear, wise friend Elizabeth moved to London for work a few years back and has been my Yoda as I flee from the Metro every day, convinced my fellow commuters are laughing at me and not the funny book they are reading.
“Not knowing a city is like suddenly not knowing how to read,” she told me in an email (after I sent her one no doubt featuring a sad-looking animal). “An easy mastery you took for granted disappears and even tiny things like finding basic cooking ingredients are almost impossible. It feels like every day is a struggle.”
Paramount among the symphony of feelings that assault you as you attempt a relocation is the sense that you should just shut up and get on wit’ job (“In mah day, we had to walk barefoot across the ocean, in the snow, to get to work overseas...”). This is because most people think you are on an exciting holiday, not simply transplanting your existing work situation into a different city.
And when some days you wonder if you can even step on to the light-rail carriage without having an anxiety attack, you’ll wish it was an exciting holiday. Once again, Elizabeth had some sage advice for me (and everyone): “Forget knowing the whole city well. That takes years, even decades. But if you focus on knowing your street, then your block, then your neighbourhood, you can build up enough strength to explore anywhere you want.”
It’s been two months now, and I’m here for another three before a brief stop back in Melbourne to have my wisdom teeth yanked, and then I will stare down the barrel of a year or more in this weird city. Some days I love it, and some days I wish that Battle: Los Angeles were a documentary. Hopefully, I’ll get to the point where the former is my natural resting state.
I had a brief moment of respite from the relocation anxiety this week, in all places, at Immigration Control. I was returning from a junket in Vancouver, and the cheerful New Jersey type looked at my visa and exclaimed, “Whoa, this is the visa that everybody wants to get!” Really? I asked, in that measured tone you learn to adopt while talking to US immigration officials who hold your life in their hands. “Yes,” he beamed, pointing to the “D/S” scrawl on my Departure Record. “‘Duration of Stay’. That means you can stay foreverrrrr!”
On a day when I was wondering if I could make it through another week, the kindness of a stranger made me feel like maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t making a huge mistake after all.
When I got back to LAX, I looked around that dump of an airport and thought, well, home again; it was a small victory, but one that resonated.
And then I went home and ate some more Cookie Butter.