Monday, 5 May 2014

5 Ways Expat Life is Like Moving into Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey aka Highclere Castle
Photo Credit: Darren Deans
I'm currently watching the latest series of Downton Abbey, sneaking in an episode here and there after the children's bedtime routine is finished. It struck me watching Tom Branson, the chauffeur who marries into the aristocratic Crawley family,  and his eternal and internal struggles to fit in with his in-laws, that expat life is a similar experience. Here's how.

1. Thinking Before Speaking
Tom speaks English, but not the same English as his mother and father in-law, Lord and Lady Grantham and their offspring. He needs to mind his p's and q's, think about his word use and his inflection. Like us expats, he needs to think about everything that comes out of his mouth if he doesn't want to stand out, make a show of himself or make himself a target of ridicule. When you live life in a foreign language you truly know how it is to think before you speak.

2. Testing Beliefs
An Irish socialist in the ranks of the English aristocracy is hardly a match made in heaven. He desperately wants to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, is anti-British establishment and holds left wing, republican ideologies. However, his survival at Downton means watering down his own beliefs and political opinions, or at least how he expresses his views. He learns over time to keep his mouth firmly closed or risk stirring up animosity, putting his wife in the middle of unwanted family conflict. He has to learn to balance his political views and Sybil's happiness. In his own words,

"Sometimes a hard sacrifice must be made for a future that's worth having."

Many expats find their belief or ethics systems or values tested to breaking point when they move to a new country. The status quo in a foreign country often presents a personal or cultural conundrum. Ideologies, political beliefs, religious views and freedoms differ across the world and expats have to learn to thrive in the face of internally conflicting or unfamiliar laws or norms, even when it goes against everything they believe in.

3. Making New Friends
Tom finds himself in a completely new social circle, one forced upon him by his new status marrying in to Downton Abbey's well-to-do family. They are not people he would normally be dining and exchanging pleasantries with. And so it is too with expats, thrust into a new social circle by default because of a new expat location. Expats often find themselves in a room filled with people they wouldn't necessarily be socialising with in 'real life'. They reach out to people they wouldn't be friends with back on home turf.

Downton's Formal Dining Setting - the Scene for Many a
Discussion on Tom's Evening Attire
Photo Credit: Rachelle Lucas Flickr Creative Commons
4. Adapting to a New Culture
Tom was raised in a different world to that of his wife, Lady Sybil, and her family. He came to Downton Abbey as a chauffeur and we can safely assume there were no maids, butlers or footmen attending in his family home growing up. His background could not be more different than the world of formal dinner jackets, hunting and cricket that he enters when he marries Lady Sybil.

Daily, across the globe, expats find themselves living in an unfamiliar world to the one they grew up in, entirely different to their passport country or the one they were raised in. It means learning how things should be done, learning how others do things and adapting to a new way of living. Just like Tom, who after stoically refusing to conform to formal dinner attire for a long while, eventually gives in so that his attire ceases to be a topic of discussion. He also learns how to play cricket in order to keep his father-in-law happy and make up the numbers on the house team. He adapts to his environment, just as we expats do.

5. Staying True to Ourselves
Despite the changes that Tom goes through in order to fit in to his new home and life, he remains true to himself. He remarks to Matthew on one occasion that even if he learns cricket, goes fishing and hunting,

"I'll still be an Irish mick in my heart."

Tom carves his own role in the household, becomes an accepted, valuable, member of the Downton Abbey household despite feeling in his heart that he doesn't truly belong to the family nor any longer has much in common with the staff he used to serve the family alongside with. He makes himself essential nonetheless as manager of the Downton estate. He adapts, changes and makes a new life for himself, one he could never have imagined when he first arrived at Downton Abbey as a chauffeur.

And so it is with expat life. It changes us, in ways we could never imagine. We learn to adapt to our surroundings, to the people we live with, live with a new culture, a novel way of doing things, learn a new way to live our life. And that is true if we move to Downton Abbey or to a little unknown town in the Netherlands. In the words of Mr Carson, Downton's very loveable butler,

"What would be the point of living if we didn't let life change us?"
What indeed.


  1. Love this Amanda! In the episode we watched recently there were some brilliant scenes with the US characters (Martha and her son Harold) encountering British social conventions. Don't forget the power of humour and being able to laugh at yourself and the situations you end up in -a great asset for expats and demonstrated brilliantly by Martha and the Dowager Countess on a number of occasions.

  2. Yes Trisha - great addition! And the constant negative referrals to British food!! Humour is definitely an asset every expat needs to survive :-) Thanks for taking the time to comment - really appreciate it!

  3. As an expat myself, I am nodding to the similarities. Esp in the part where he is not the same driver he once was and yet he is not really posh yet. I am the not same girl who left my country, but I am not really the saem as the girls here yet. I am in the middle. =) #MBPW

  4. Brilliant comparison, who'd have thought we expats have so much in common with an Irish chauffeur from the turn of the 20 the century! Can't wait for the new series.