GPS Is My Frenemy: How I Learned to Navigate a Family Life Overseas

“GPS is my frenemy,” I posted on Facebook one month after I moved to London from New York with my husband and three children. I felt stranded in an unfamiliar city, piloting an SUV that felt more like a tank on London’s narrow roads and blindly following a disembodied voice.

“Does she have an English accent?” a friend gamely commented.

She does. And all that day as I drove around listening to her clipped instructions — thinking of her as both a cow and a godsend — I kept fixating on the “frenemy” metaphor. She’s very demanding: “In 200 yards turn left, TURN LEFT!” She never admits when she’s wrong, like when leading me into a footpath through a park. And she’s never happy for me when I get it right. Just once I’d like to hear her say, “Well done, you clever girl,” instead of, “You have arrived at your destination.”

But without her I’d be lost.

My move to London had left me adrift. I realized the morning I wrote that Facebook post that not only was I beholden to a non-human for advice, but my lack of sense of direction was quickly becoming a lack of sense of identity. I was disoriented both physically and emotionally, and driving was becoming more than just successfully getting from point A to point B; it was also navigating dangerous emotional terrain that was threatening to hurl me back in time to my other big move.

To attend university at 19, I moved from Toronto to New York, a wildly unfamiliar city where I pretty much knew no one and no one knew me. I felt perpetually lost, often running to catch the train in the subway station and hopping on breathless, just as the doors shut, only to discover it was the wrong train taking me to an unknown neighborhood. I made mistake after mistake. It seemed everyone in New York knew how to do things better than me, were savvier, and more efficient.

But even in those first difficult, bewildering and homesick months, there was not a moment I wasn’t thrilled to be in New York, that I hadn’t felt that I’d escaped Toronto. In New York I became an adult. I arrived a timid teenager without the skills to stick up for myself and departed a woman who was able to politely tell someone trying to upstream me hailing a cab that I had gotten there first.

If I came to New York feeling like I had escaped, I left feeling like I was being exiled. In the months leading up to our move to London, all I could think about was how I was going to be that 19-year-old again. My fear was that by moving to England and away from New York, I would not only have no idea where I was going or how to do things, but that this directional and practical ignorance would erode the adult life I had created and the person who had lived it. I feared that my constant sense of “Where am I?” and “How do I?” would translate into “Who am I?”

We headed to London for my husband’s job. He’s our breadwinner, and if his opportunity to have a rewarding career that would make him happy as well as provide for our family meant uprooting and replanting across the pond, I’d have to have a very good excuse to say no. And I didn’t think “I’m scared,” or “It’s going to be hard,” counted.

I resented my friends who were jealous of this adventurous move. I felt like they failed to acknowledge the difficulties: the massive production of shifting a family of five across the ocean, finding somewhere to live and setting up a home, finding schools for the children, dealing with their emotional adjustment, even grocery shopping. I saw this as a blindness to the fact that while my husband would go off to work every day, I would be left by myself to — literally — navigate my family’s new life.

And indeed, that is what I do. Last week, I was driving my kids home from school, and my four-year-old son said, “Mommy, where’s the person?”

“What person, sweetie?” I said.

“The one who talks to us,” he said.

Oh, HER. “I don’t always need her anymore,” I said.

We’ve been here for four months, and outside my neighborhood I do have to let Mrs. Snippety GPS say, “Guidance will start when you have joined the highlighted route.”

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. And some of the “routes” I need help with will never be highlighted because they aren’t things I can just ask someone to give me guidance for, like how to move beyond pleasantries with new English acquaintances. But as I drove, I realized that I do know which two butchers to frequent, which bakery has the best challahs, and how to park without getting a ticket. The tube seems a breeze. My kids have been invited for play dates. I’ve joined a gym and a book club. I went for coffee with someone for the first time.

A year from now, and five years from now, I will look back at this time and be amazed at all that I still didn’t know, the friends I hadn’t yet met. I’m homesick, and it’s still not easy. But I also know that even if someone does say to me, “Well done, you clever girl,” and gives me credit for all the small things that seem like such a big deal until you’ve done them a few times (driving on the wrong side of the road!) or larger things (understanding the health care system here after my daughter had tonsillitis three times in a month), it doesn’t matter unless I can say that to myself.

When I made that first big move in my life at 19 years old, GPS didn’t exist; almost two decades later, times have changed and so have I. I not only have external resources, like a disembodied voice giving me directions, but I have inner resources too. And I’ve realized that for better or for worse, I’ve taken myself with me. I’m not a 19-year-old anymore adrift in a big city without any family or friends or a set identity. I’m a woman and a mother and a wife who’s set up a home and can, at times, turn off the GPS. Sometimes we have to put up with frenemies, and understand that you never really “arrive at your destination.” But I’m okay with knowing that I’m still a work in progress. What comes next is up to me, no matter where I am.

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