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Interview with Emma Smith – a Welsh expat in New York City

Updated 21 Jun 2010

Photo of Emma smithBrit Journalist Emma Smith married The American and moved herself and her Meanager to the even meaner streets of New York City. When not feeding her twitter addiction, she enjoys the dark arts of procrastination, vintage shopping and sniffing things she can't afford in Manhattan department stores. 

For more information about expat life in New York City, see the Expat Arrivals city guide to New York or read more expat experiences in the USA.

About Emma

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: Cardiff in Wales. The next question from Americans is usually “That's in England right?”

Q: Where are you living now?

A: New York in the West Village.

Q: How long you have you lived in New York?

A: Since September 2009.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?

A: Yes, I brought my delightful 16 year old daughter Amber, commonly known as 'The Teenager'.

Q: Why did you move to New York; what do you do?

A: I moved here to marry my American boyfriend, who's referred to as 'The American' on my blog (you can see a lot of thought went into the monikers for the family). We'd been having a long distance relationship with for the past three years. I am a journalist and left a job in television at the BBC to come here. Now we all live together in our expensive shoebox and the neighbours hate us because we are loud and argue quite a lot.

About New York City

Q: What do you enjoy most about New York City, how’s the quality of life?

A: New York is like an experiment in American democracy that began and ended in the city. Anything goes here, it doesn't matter what you look like or what you're into-there is a place for you here.

It's the perfect city for someone with a low boredom threshold. There is everything from poetry and book readings to Drag Queen bingo, rooftop bars, beautiful parks and libraries with free Wi-Fi, fashion shows, sample sales, boozy boat cruises-and it goes on. The choice makes my head spin. One of the most glaring fallacies is that you need a lot of money to enjoy the city; you can have a hell of a lot of fun for free or on the cheap. It's also very easy to get around – either by walking, taking the subway or hailing cabs.

As a journalist and blogger it's the perfect place. You can't walk out of your door without seeing something that begs a story.

Q: Any negatives about the Big Apple? What do you miss most about home?

A: Manners aren't deemed necessary here. I waste a lot of time with “please, thank you, excuse me”, sometimes the rudeness really gets to me, but I'm learning to laugh it off – at the advice of “The American”.

The cost of living in Manhattan is crazy; the apartments are tiny; the kitchens are not designed for anyone who cooks; and the food shopping is insanely expensive. I miss Cadburys, Coronation Street, Tesco, High Street shopping and the space and greenery of Wales.

Q: Is New York City safe?

A: I have never felt unsafe here. Apparently it's very different to how to the city used to be in the 80s and 90s.

About living in New York City

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in New York as an expat?

A: The West Village seems to be popular. It reminds me of some of the nicer parts of London quite a lot. There’s lots of old townhouses with glossy coloured doors, tree lined streets and pavement cafes. Lots of Brits are in Brooklyn too. I'm tempted myself; the rents are lower and you can get a lot more space.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in New York city?

A: How much money have you got? That's what it comes down to here. The more you pay, the better it is. It's all about the $$$.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: Insanely expensive. As I was moaning about earlier, rents and groceries are pricey. Also mobile phone deals here are rubbish, they seem to be about 3 years behind the UK.

On the positive side, food and drinks can be cheap in the right places and there is a lot of great discount and vintage shopping. And as I mentioned, it's cheap to get around. A one-way subway ticket anywhere is just $2.25. Or use your legs, which are free.

There are some people in New York that don't ever need to ask 'How much?” There are places that cater to them and then there are places where normal people on a budget go.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A: I have failed to make any real American friends so far. My two "besties" here are both Brits. They 'get' my sense of humour and they know what a 'wanker' is. I think it's natural to gravitate towards your countrymen when you're in a strange place. And boy, can New York be strange.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in New York City?

A: No. I had to really put myself out there. I came from having loads of friends back home and I really missed female company. The best thing I did was joining The Big Apple Brits group. They run lots of events and they also feature my blog on their site. I think if I'd been working from the start it would have been easier. In the early days my best friend was my Swiffer Sweeper mop.

Oh and get a dog! I have friends with them now and it's amazing how many people talk to you. If you're single, I'd say it's essential, cute puppies even make straight men do gaga eyes. Admittedly they're making them at the pooch, but it's an opener nevertheless.

About working in New York City

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for the USA?

A: I have just received mine now; things are easier when you're married to a U.S. citizen. That being said, we didn't use an immigration lawyer to save money and there were a few hiccups on the way. The 'helpline' is staffed by robot humans who repeat themselves over and over, rather than answer any actual questions.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in New York, is there plenty of work?

A: Well, I'm about to find out. I have been doing some freelancing for media outlets back home up until now, but I've just started looking for work with American companies and by all accounts, it won't be easy.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: If Americans are the workaholics of the free world, then New York is the boss. I hear horror stories of 14-hour days and just 2 weeks' holiday a year. It makes me want to give up the media and work behind a bar.

Family and children

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A: “The Teenager” really struggled when she arrived. She hated her school and didn't make any friends. We had to change her school, moving her to a more liberal, smaller place that appreciated her differences as a British girl. Fifteen is a difficult age to move a child; they tend to be less adaptable than younger kids. Only now (10 months in) is she starting to feel happier and more settled.

Q: What are the schools in New Yiork City like, any particular suggestions?

A: New Yorkers take their public education very seriously. If you can get your child into the right public school the standard of education can be as good as or better than that found in private schools. The Teenager now attends School of The Future in Gramercy. It's a small, progressive school that has done away with exams and sets University type essay projects for the pupils. I have never known anything like the teachers at the school; they have all come from top colleges and are really passionate about learning. The Principle has sleeve tattoos, which I think tells you enough about the kind of place it is.

If I say anymore, I'll be tipping into 'gushing' territory, but I love the place and it's great to see my daughter so enthused about her education. She's doing great there.

My advice would be shop around for the right school for your child. There is as much choice as there is elsewhere in the city. Embrace it. Just be prepared for some strict entry criteria for the most popular places.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in the USA?

A: Uggh. I am not a fan. It's made me really appreciate the NHS being here. I had an image of private healthcare as glossy, but some of the places I've been to are quite grotty. You get a 'Primary Healthcare' doctor, who as far as I can make out is the equivalent of a British general practitioner. The problem is they just farm you out to various specialists for anything. Recently, my husband's doctor tried to refer him to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist for and ear infection. I mean, c'mon?

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: Be patient. I wanted my new life handed to me on a plate but you have to really work on it. I think it takes at least a year to even begin to feel settled. Also, expect a culture shock, even if you're moving to an English speaking country. I think I underestimated that and there were quite a few tears before bedtime as a result...

– Interviewed June 2010

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