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Top Ten Things I Learned During Our Major Renovation

We recently completed an extension on the back of our house which has allowed us to have a much expanded kitchen, dining and sitting area. The project took four months -- from June 19th to Oct 21st (not that I have been counting).

I know my renovation project is not of interest to everyone, so to try to make it more universal, here's what I learned throughout the process. Just in case you are going through it too, or might someday.

10. Know that you will lose it a bit. I wrote previously that I don't know how people do jobs where their clients are going through something that is emotional, life-changing or something they may just do once and therefore have very little experience of. You can read the entire post, or I can just tell you that at one point the Hub hit reply all, instead of just replying to me, so our kitchen designer got to see him say: "Can't take this anymore..."

9. If you are doing the renovation with a partner, you will worry about completely different things. The Hub worried that the house would fall down -- literally. So the early stages where the steel was being put in to support the upper stories of the house and the walls were being knocked down made him incredibly anxious. For me, it was having people in my house all the time that drove me crazy. And the mess and the dust. I felt claustrophobic. If the house had fallen down at least I would have felt less hemmed in.

Top stories of house held up by steel
8. Keep the neighbors onside. Make sure your neighbors know what you are doing and when. If in the U.K., you will need to let them know when it comes to third party wall agreements anyway. But do whatever they ask -- even if it is something that costs extra money. Do it, and do it gracefully. These are your neighbors for a lot longer than the project lasts.

7. Be bold. I wanted to paint the kitchen cabinets a really bright blue (Deep Space Blue by Little Greene if you're interested in the detail). The Hub and I had decided blue would look good, but the other choice was a more sensible classic Royal Navy. I wanted Deep Space Blue - it was the color that made my heart lift. But our kitchen designer told me he thought I was "bonkers" and I worried it was too bold. I asked nearly everyone I knew (and probably drove my colleagues a bit mad). Views were split, however. At the end of the day, I had to go with my gut. I don't regret the decision though - I love it. It makes me happy every time I see it, and that's what's important.

6. Just make a decision. Even if you have professionals doing the heavy lifting on a project, they can't do anything unless you've made a decision -- about the tiles for the floor, the splashback, the kitchen handles, the lights, the door knobs (I could go on. And on.) There were so many choices to make and my natural inclination was to want to wait to make decisions -- because next week I'd probably make a much better decision. But I fought this instinct tooth and nail and we became very disciplined about just making decisions quickly. And that really helped keep the process going quickly, which I think is one reason that our project actually kept to schedule. You won't make a better decision tomorrow than today!

5. Pay up. We hired a building and design company to source the sub-contractors for us and to do the project management. It seemed like the more expensive option, but we knew nothing about how to do a renovation and felt it would be safer to do it this way. I think actually in the end this saved us money -- and a lot of worry.

4. Ask everyone you know. All that said, it also helps to get as much input as possible. Throughout the process there were moments where we talked to friends who made absolutely crucial suggestions. One of my friends is a designer and we bought her wine and pizza and she looked at our designs -- literally days before we were scheduled to begin -- and she influenced substantially the final design of the kitchen. Another friend suggested we paint the larder and cabinet housing the refrigerator the same color as the wall to break up the blue, which really worked. And another friend solved my double-oven dilemma (a story for another day). There is great knowledge in people all around you -- sometimes you only have to ask to find out!

3. Don't panic! There were a few times when one of us panicked. And I certainly panicked when I saw the color of the cabinets for the first time. But the crises never lasted too long and we had some very good professionals on the job, so everything always got sorted out in the end. You may be spending a lot of money, but at the end of the day everything doesn't have to be perfect, just good enough (this attitude may also be why our project got done on time).

If all else fails, have a drink!
2. I have got the bug. I am surprised by how much I actually enjoyed the process. Not just the finished product, but watching it all happen, learning about how it got done and yes, actually making the decisions. I really like the idea of space and how people live in it. I liked it so much that we might even be embarking on another renovation project... so watch this space.

1. It is really worth it in the end. The times when I did get stressed and annoyed, everyone would say to me, "Don't worry, it will all be worth it in the end," and to be honest, I wasn't sure that I believed them. But it's true. The project has been done for over a month now and every time I walk into our new kitchen it really still does feel like Christmas morning. I love sitting in that room and remembering making all the decisions and what it used to look like before. I have to say, I feel much more attached to that room than anywhere in the house.

(P.S. If you are so inclined to have a poke around, click here to see all the photos from the project -- before, during and after. And let me know what you think of the bonkers blue!)

There's No Place Like Home?

People often ask me whether or not I think I will ever live in the U.S. again.

It's not an easy question to answer because as I tell people, in all these years I've lived here, it's just never really come up. There has only been one situation when I pondered moving home. It was the week that the Hub and I broke up, before we were married, after only eight months of dating. I was so angry at him that I was planning to leave the country, like, immediately. I blamed the entire country for our temporary troubles.

In all seriousness, I tell people that it would feel strange to me if I never lived in the U.S. again, and I think I would welcome the opportunity to move to the States for a few years -- to give the Hub a chance to experience life there, and for me to see what it would be like to go back again. However, I always feel like I would need the safety net of thinking I was coming back to the U.K., because at the moment, this is really home to me.

Also, there's the fear of repatriation. You see, I have known many expats over the years who have gone through the repatriation process -- in both directions. Everyone knows about how difficult it is to move away, but no one really anticipates how hard it is to move back. When I tell people about this phenomenon, they are always surprised. But why? they ask.

So I'll tell you why. I've recently talked to a lot of expats about this and thought I'd share what they have to say.

The expectation factor. When you go abroad, you expect it to be hard, but going home, you don't. It's home, after all, the place that felt familiar and you knew so well. How could it possibly be harder than moving to a foreign country? As one of my friends who moved from London to California after five years said to me: "I just wish I had known how hard this was going to be." No one likes to be blindsided.

Everything's different. You've changed. Home has changed. Once you take the plunge and become an expat, there's no taking it back. You'll never be a person anymore with one national identity. Personally, I think this is a very good thing. It makes you more empathetic, and more ego-detached as well. What is nationality anyway? Aren't we all just human beings? Sometimes you're confused about when to serve the cheese course, but I think these sacrifices are worth it. Still, it means when you return home you feel a cultural separation from your former identity that you never thought possible.

Your friends have moved on. When you visit home as an expat your friends are always super happy to see you. They make room in their busy schedules, they come into Manhattan from the suburbs, they cross London when they never would otherwise. But it will never be the same when you are actually living in the same city again. I've had glimpses of this when I stayed in New York over Christmas for lengthy periods of time and friends go back to their "normal lives". It was almost an imperceptible shift, but it was a little like, "oh, you're still here?" They weren't used to having me around for so long and were just back into their normal routines. I've done it to expats too when they repatriated -- I forgot they were even back. You have to re-establish your friendship again, including the routine of when you actually see people.

No one gives a sh*t. I have a friend who moved back to New York, and she perfectly described it this way. It's so true. When you're an expat, no matter for how long, you do get treated specially. I forget I have an accent, but I just bought a piano and the guy threw in the stool for free because I was a "New Yorker". Dude, I'm not a New Yorker. I live in Streatham. I just did the side-return. Still, people are curious, interested. My friend said when she went back home after many years of living here, no one cared. You have had a life-changing experience and no one gives a sh*t. They want you to move on.

So there you go. That's the result of my research. Please let me know if you've repatriated and if you agree with me, or if I got it wrong. The thing is, if you're repatriating or you're going to, you have your reasons. As hard as repatriating might be, I still feel the pangs of jealousy when my friends talk about seeing their parents for lunch over the weekend, or when I think about the fact that the toddler members of my family think that I live in a computer screen. Still, I live by Bill Bryson's eloquent summary of life as an expat: some things are better, some things are worse.

Photo credit: Close to Home twinkle toes: 10 of 365 via photopin (license)

The Artful Jammy Dodger

One thing I love about being an expat is occasionally you come across something completely new -- even when you have lived in your new country for a very long time.

Having watching the movie Oliver when I was a kid, I knew a lot about the Artful Dodger, but not so much about the Jammy Dodger.

In the new role I took on at work -- now not so new as it was almost a year ago -- I am now working in a U.K. team of all Brits (with the exception of me and one other expat from Ireland). These work colleagues -- well actually one particular work colleague -- are really into biscuits and we were discussing my new-found love for jammy dodgers. It then transpired that I had never had a Penguin, a Trio, a Wagon Wheel, a Gold Bar, an Orange Club or a Breakaway. I mean, what have I been doing the past 15 years in the U.K.?

You would think that we lived in a very global world, but the truth is, it really isn't always so global. I often find that the Brits I know here (including the Hub) grew up eating very different food, watching different T.V. shows and now we know, eating very different biscuits!

The first thing we should get clear is exactly what I mean by "biscuit". As my sister-in-law asked me after watching Bake Off from the U.S., "So, what is a biscuit?" (She also asked me why Bake Off takes place in a tent, which I feel is a question that could fill a whole other blog post.*)  

It's very complex, my friends. A biscuit can be either sweet or savory. If it is sweet, it is what an American would call a cookie; or if it is savory, it is what an American would call a cracker. The confusion lies in the fact that Brits will call one kind of biscuit a cookie: a chocolate chip cookie. I think this is because they consider this to be strictly an American thing. 

As for what Americans call a biscuit, they just don't understand this. I have tried to explain what an American biscuit is, but I can't communicate it at all. I think they will just have to go to America and try one. Maybe one with gravy and one with strawberries. 

Anyway... so I got to play guinea pig, and it was fun. The verdict is that I loved the Penguin and thought the Breakaway was O.K., but the rest I didn't really like (caveat: I haven't tried Wagon Wheels yet. I think we still need to secure some). But nothing could compete with the Jammy Dodger. I am pretty picky when it comes to food -- particularly sweet things. We're talking about a child who didn't like cake, only pie, and so had to have a birthday pie. Which really could go some way to explaining why I like Jammy Dodgers so much.

There are many great things about being an expat, as well as some not-so-great ones: you win some, you lose some. But getting to sample a parade of new biscuits in the office is definitely a win.

*The short answer to this question is: it is not a tent. It is a marquee. The Brits just love their marquees. I will write a blog post of this soon. Watch this space.


I had an editor in the early part of my career who would get things done really fast. You would send him a story for editing, and in a flash it would be back in your inbox, with the body of the text saying "Done!"

Or he may have just used a period (in British English, a full-stop). Or maybe there wasn't any punctuation at all, just: "Done"

But no matter what, that man was efficient. And at the time, the opposite of me -- a chronic procrastinator.

I'm less of a procrastinator now, but I still am constantly looking for ways to motivate myself to just get things done sooner rather than later, a constant challenge for me. And probably part of the reason I've always been a to-do list maker. Far easier to make lists of things to do, than actually do them! But then they would make me depressed about how much I have to do. So instead, I've started keeping a "Done" list.

How much better is it to think about all that you've actually accomplished, instead of all you still have to do? Because the list of things one has to do -- or wants to do -- never really gets shorter, it's much more satisfying to see what you have accomplished during the day. You can also add those things that cropped up which you didn't know you'd have to do, and even better, you can also put fun or really rewarding things on the list that you did.

I really like sitting down at the end of the day and jotting down what got done (although to be fair, I have always been a diarist, so this may not be for everyone). I keep my lists in a nice notebook. It's kind of my version of a bullet journal -- literally -- bullet points about my day. I keep everything together too -- no separation between work and home life, as that would be too complicated.

This also helps me to practice gratitude. We're often so caught up with all we have to do, all there is we haven't done in life, and all that we think we need, or want. There are a million ways to be unhappy and there are a million things to feel inadequate about. But I think that there's only one way to be truly happy: to be grateful for what you have already -- and to feel like you have just enough.

For those who love the nitty gritty detail, I do still have to keep a sort of list of reminders of what does need to get done unfortunately. Just because I can't possibly remember everything I'm working on. I have an ongoing list of projects and reminders and each morning I look at that and jot down what in particularly needs to get done that day on a sticky note. Then I use that note to help me remember everything I did. (So I suppose I technically still have a to-do list. But it doesn't make me feel bad anymore because I know it will eventually become part of my "Done" list.)

I have been meaning to write this post for ages, and was annoyed with myself for not doing it sooner when I found a very similar article on Apartment Therapy recently -- and strangely written by someone called Taryn! And then on Gretchen Rubin's podcast it was also mentioned just this last week -- they called it a "Ta Dah!" list though. That seemed a little grand for me. I guess it's not a bad idea if some other people are doing it too. Either great minds think alike... or fools seldom differ.

Do you use a to-do list or something of the sort? Have you tried making a "Done" list?

Photo credit: Day 092/366 - To Do List via photopin (license)
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