Should I move to Memphis?
May 25, 2011 4:44 AM   Subscribe

What is life likely to be like in Memphis for a left-wing, geeky Limey?

I (a Brit) have spent the last few years in London (UK) and have been spoiled by the things that the high population density makes possible: quirky bars and cafes, unusual theatre and music events, thriving clubs for obscure hobbies/interests and, above all, a decently-sized community of geeks and oddballs to call my friends.

I'm being asked to consider a job in Memphis, TN. The job itself sounds fantastic. My only worry is committing myself to moving halfway around the globe to live for two or three years in a tiny city (10x smaller!) whose culture I know nothing about.

How does Memphis compare with London, Cardiff or other British and European cities?
Am I -- left-wing, geeky, non-religious -- likely to be able find a welcoming community there?
What resources (craigslist? would you recommend for finding out about hobby groups/clubs, community events, etc?

Don't be afraid of appearing to insult my intelligence: I've never been to the US except for a 4 day stay in a conference centre and know literally nothing about the city or state beyond what's in their wikipedia articles. So the bar here is really, really low.

Bonus question: Do you know of a juggling / circus club or community in Memphis? IJDB doesn't list one, but maybe MeFi knows better?
posted by metaBugs to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Cities in the US, in general, are fairly cosmopolitan. Assuming you move into the actual city, that is. If you move to the suburbs, all bets are off.

Also, if you have an English accent, you'll probably be a big hit with the ladies.
posted by empath at 5:39 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Memphis does have quirky places, museums, theater, music, good food, and left-wing oddballs -- but you won't find them in anywhere near the density you're used to in London.

For resources I would look at the Memphis Flyer, it's the weekly free paper that lists most of the community stuff you want to know. The Cooper-Young area is artsy and enjoyable, but also very small compared to a big city.

Juggling club, I don't know, it sounds like a tall order but maybe we're waiting for you to come and start one!

I am from New York. When I was considering moving here, I was able to visit first. I found a place that's like a cross between a city and a small town. So many trees!

Oh, we also have an amazing public library.
posted by tomboko at 5:40 AM on May 25, 2011

Well, I'll be happy to take you out for some pints, so there's that!

How does Memphis compare with London, Cardiff or other British and European cities?

It won't. Population-wise it's around the Cardiff level. But, there's a lot of sprawl for that amount and unless you live in one of a few areas (Cooper-Young, Midtown, Downtown), expect to do a bit of driving to do anything interesting.

Am I -- left-wing, geeky, non-religious -- likely to be able find a welcoming community there?

Absolutely. I mean, the south has a well-earned reputation for being chock-full of religious nutters, right wing nutters, and yokels of all stripes, but there's always a community of the sorts I think you'd get on with. I could even introduce you to some.

What resources (craigslist? would you recommend for finding out about hobby groups/clubs, community events, etc?

Our alt-weekly is the Memphis Flyer, which lists shows, community events, etc.

Do you know of a juggling / circus club or community in Memphis?

No, but you might check the notice boards at some place like Otherlands and, if still not luck, start your own in the same manner.

Feel free to MeMail me for follow-ups, or post them here. You know, whatever.

Good luck!
posted by absalom at 5:42 AM on May 25, 2011

My sister in law and her husband live in a hi-rise in downtown Memphis. My wife and I (both lefties) visit once or twice a year and are always impressed.

If you like the blues and/or barbeque, you owe it to yourself to try for a couple years at least. Warning, though: you'll likely put on a stone from the rich food.
posted by notsnot at 5:47 AM on May 25, 2011

Having spent some time in the UK and Ireland, I'm reminded of a saying: "In the US, a hundred years is a long time, but in the UK, a hundred miles is a long way."

You say that Memphis is 1/10 the size of London. Well, sort of. Population-wise, within city limits, yes. But said city-limits encompass slightly more than 50% of the land area of London. It is, in other words, a lot more spread out. More than that, it's in a pretty sparsely-populated area of the country. The next real urban areas of any size are Birmingham and Nashville, which are as far from Memphis as London is from Leeds. In London, if you're tired of your neighborhood--which could have almost as many people as Memphis does--jump on the Underground for a few minutes, and you're in an entirely new place. In Memphis... that isn't gonna work. Getting from Memphis to a large city--Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago--is a full day's drive. There are probably a handful of decent bars to choose from, but it isn't going to be the kind of place where you could go to a different one every weekend all year.

Second, Memphis is definitely in the American South. This matters a lot, culturally speaking. Memphis proper is pretty progressive, especially by Tennessee standards, but that may have as much to do with the fact that the city is over 60% black as it does with political ideology. The statistical area is majority white, and that majority is likely to be pretty damned conservative on balance. You're a morning's drive from the capital of pop country music. Think about it.

Still, as others have said, and as with any American city, there is going to be a group of progressive people, if you can find them. It isn't going to be very big, and there may be a kind of "siege" mentality given their contrast with the rest of the city, but they're there to be found. As far as an arts scene, as others have said, there is one. Most American cities above about 50,000 will have one. But like with the progressive community--and there's likely to be a lot of overlap--it isn't going to be huge, nor particularly varied.

But Memphis isn't exactly a major destination city for young, single professionals. It has more single people than the national average, but more kids, more senior citizens, and fewer people from 25-49 than Chicago. It's got several universities, including the University of Memphis, but isn't exactly a college town, and I don't get the impression they dominate the landscape or culture the way they might in smaller towns.

On the other hand, living is going to be cheap compared to what you're used to. Rent? I mean, you can spend more than $1000 a month, but you'd wind up with a 3-4BR house with over 1200 square feet, in all likelihood. Even swank 2BR apartments right downtown are going to be well under $2000. Booze is gonna be cheaper too. Good beer can probably be had for less than $5, and even a mixed drink at a nice restaurant is going to be less than $15, I'd wager. A meal at one of the nicest restaurants in town, with wine, can easily be had in the $50-75 range. I don't know how much you're going to be making, but I'm pretty sure you'll be surprised at how far it goes.

There's also going to be a lot more to do outside.* Memphis is right on the Mississippi, and you'll be within an hour's drive of several state parks and national forests, plus a handful of lakes with ample recreational activities.

Of course, Memphis is probably going to be undergoing a bit of a transition for the next few years, considering that significant portions of it were underwater a few weeks ago.

*Assuming you can stand the climate. Memphis is going to be a lot warmer and muggier than London.
posted by valkyryn at 6:09 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are probably a handful of decent bars to choose from, but it isn't going to be the kind of place where you could go to a different one every weekend all year.

That's only 52 different, interesting places. I think that's probably within the realm of possibility. Cooper-Young, Madison Ave., Midtown, and Downtown are all loaded with a variety of bars and eateries. I mean, it's not NYC or Boston, but there's a thriving bar and restaurant community here.

But like with the progressive community--and there's likely to be a lot of overlap--it isn't going to be huge, nor particularly varied.

Yeah, this isn't exactly correct.

Of course, Memphis is probably going to be undergoing a bit of a transition for the next few years, considering that significant portions of it were underwater a few weeks ago.

Well, not so much this, either, really.

On the other hand, living is going to be cheap compared to what you're used to.

Absolutely. I have a 3 BR, 1.5 Bathroom on a quarter acre and my note is ~850.00 a month.\

Memphis is going to be a lot warmer and muggier than London.

Also, this. Thanks to the new Freaky Weather, things stay pretty warm and beautiful through Mid-May. June, July, and August? Expect weeks straight of 100+ degree days with high humidity but, somehow, no rain.
posted by absalom at 6:23 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I want to second what valkyryn said -- Europeans often have some trouble adjusting to the idea that the U.S. is REALLY REALLY BIG. "Nearby" cities are REALLY REALLY FAR AWAY by European standards. It's not a good or bad thing, it just IS. But don't think in Memphis you'll be frequently hopping up to St. Louis or down to New Orleans -- both are totally doable, but longer trips than you may realize. You also have to develop a long-distance driving mentality in the U.S. to do road trips, where you enjoy or at least find soothing long hours of driving through farmland. Europeans are often surprised by how little THERE there is between here and there. Some of my foreign-student friends were pretty frustrated in Durham (NC) because it looked so close to DC on the map ... they hadn't realized how far it was, and how they'd have to drive to get there. As long as you're aware of how far away the cities are from one another, you won't have the same shock.

Both a benefit and a detriment of smaller U.S. cities like Memphis is that culture is participatory. There is a cultural life you can go and watch and enjoy, much like in New York or London where cultural can be an entirely spectator sport. But there probably won't be your particular thing every weekend (let alone every weeknight), and much of the time, if you want more of your thing, you are going to have to create it. I'm in an even smaller city than Memphis; my husband's boss (a lawyer) is the concertmaster in the local symphony orchestra. My friend's teenager makes spending money as second trumpet in the pit orchestra for local theater production. The community opera brings in opera singers from the big companies to do main parts but fills in the rest of the production with college students and local singers. It is not going to be the quality of production you are used to, nor will there be as much of it, but if you've always wanted to play Falstaff ... here is your chance.

And if you start up a juggling or circus club, you will get invited to every community festival in the area to perform, and you will be able to teach community rec classes for interested kids and adults through a variety of venues (park department, community college, etc.), depending on what there is locally. And you will meet a LOT of fascinating people.

I've told this story before, but a friend of mine who's really into indie music started a local group to bring indie bands to our town. He went to the city council and park department and said, "You have this park area that's doing nothing on Friday nights in the summer, I want to do an indie music series." They were all like, "We don't know what that is, but okay, it will be good to have something going on in that space." They even gave him some money to do it. So he gets to bring these AWESOME bands to town and meet musicians who are his idols, and run this indie music series for 8 weeks in the summer. And tons of people go who, in Chicago, would be like, "Meh, tonight I'm going to [subgenre of music that interests me more]" but here they're like, "There's nothing else going on, I should go check out that indie concert," and as a result he's managed to grow the local scene and fanbase considerably!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:37 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I was going to say something similar about small towns -- pick your scene. In 2 years, you'll know every important person in it, if you want. There are both good things and bad things about this.
posted by empath at 6:58 AM on May 25, 2011

Thank you, Absalom, for that rebuttal! Like many American cities, we have a very diverse center surrounded by a conservative ring of suburbs. Your choice of neighborhood to call home is going to be a huge factor in whether you end up happy here. Downtown, Midtown, and Cooper-Young will fit your requirements just fine, where a large number of left-wing geeks call home. Also, a thriving music community, plenty of bars and restaurants, and the religious thing is easily avoided, especially if you stay out of the suburbs. Memphis is an incredibly friendly city, conversations with strangers is the norm here. The weather is actually wonderful for nine months of the year. July and August can be pretty miserable, but spring and fall are really nice.

For the juggling, we do have a unicycler's club and I've seen some of them juggle while riding in parades, so there's a start.

If you take the job, memail me for specifics. I love my city, great things are happening here and I really wouldn't consider living any place else.
posted by raisingsand at 7:13 AM on May 25, 2011

I have a left wing, some-what geeky friend who has been keeping a blog since he moved to downtown Memphis- Bluff City Roller last year. He's into food and drink, so there are reviews, as well as other general stuff about living in Memphis. You might get some insight there.

I was born in Memphis, and have lots of family and friends there. The city has certainly experienced a revitalization in the last decade, and my friends who live there love it passionately.

The only thing I would add is that that there is still a very distinct, palpable sense of segregation- one that is largely self-enforced. If you aren't familiar with the history of Memphis, you might want to do some research because Memphis is still shaped by it's civil rights legacy for good and for bad. There are crime issues, school issues, and political corruption that may or may not play into your decision.
posted by kimdog at 7:35 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

A Brit moving to Memphis, I'll have to alert my friend Elizabeth to your arrival. She's from Memphis, but spent two years in London for part of school and a job. Pines for the fast times of London often.

I think you'll find what you are looking for there, and I'll even drive the three hours to share a beer with you if you'd so desire. I need to explore Memphis one good time.

And do not underestimate the heat and humidity you will get from this place. It will be unreal.
posted by deezil at 7:40 AM on May 25, 2011

(Side note, many of my European friends who moved to the US for school or work got a great deal of enjoyment out of reading the classic American novels that are on many high school curricula but aren't as often read outside the U.S. It gave them interesting conversation starters with natives -- "So I've been reading Huck Finn ..." "Huck Finn? Man, I must have been fifteen when I read that!" followed by discussion of either amusingly stupid life choices made at 15 or the book itself -- and they learned about some of the underlying culture and gained some shared cultural knowledge. I thought of it because Twain wrote so much about the Mississippi and kimdog mentioned the history of Memphis.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 AM on May 25, 2011

My hometown!

Yes, Memphis is definitely in the American South. There will be more churches crammed into a few blocks than you would have ever thought possible. People will say "y'all" and "God bless." A whole lot of them have lived there for generations and generations - Memphis is the kind of place where people stay, or, if you're my dad, come back to when you're ready to raise a family. You WILL run into someone you know at the grocery store, at the doctor's office, even when driving on major highways. People will often smile and be friendly and mean it, something I'm starting to miss now that I'm above the Mason-Dixon line. (However, as has been discussed extensively on Metafilter, when someone smiles and says, "Why, bless your heart, isn't that interesting!" it is NOT a compliment.)

Memphis is a very small city, especially compared to somewhere like London. Having a car is, I would say, a necessity (this coming from someone who grew up there who still doesn't have one). It is in the very western part of the state, which means it is closer to parts of Arkansas and Mississippi than to Chattanooga or Knoxville, at the other end of the state. (In fact, those cities are in Eastern time, whereas Memphis is in Central time, a full hour earlier. Just to put things in perspective.)

Nashville is about a 3-hour drive away (quicker if you are my father, who has trouble still with the concept of "speed limits.") St. Louis is 5. New Orleans is about 6. Chicago 10. These are considered doable road trips by Memphians, which is what we call ourselves.

However, Memphis is a CITY. Especially in midtown and downtown Memphis, there is a small but surprisingly thriving arts scene - probably all the more tight-knit and friendly for being so small. There are coffee shops like Otherlands, venues like the Young Avenue Deli and the entire Cooper Young area where left-wing geeks congregate (some of whom are my relatives, actually). There is a theater (the Orpheum) where Broadway shows stop on their national tours. There are a few art museums - again, nothing on the scale of anything in London, but quite enjoyable. There is a really great zoo and a fabulous library. There are two beautiful botanical gardens, across the street from each other. The downtown South Main district is becoming almost hip, with trendy lofts and small quirky galleries. In no way a desolate cultural wasteland. We have our University of Memphis Tigers (GO TIGERS GO), our pro basketball team the Grizzlies (who just had an amaaaazing season), our minor league baseball team the Redbirds. I am not really a sports person, but it is hard not to be proud of your teams in Memphis. :)

And the MUSIC. Nashville is for country, but Memphis is for the blues, the REAL blues. The kind of place where the guy sitting and playing sax on the sidewalk might be Rufus Thomas's best friend or something. There is such a rich cultural and historical tradition that is there for the taking. The Beale Street Music Festival that happens every May attracts a lot of big-name bands and draws a huuuge crowd.

Downsides: Memphis is not really an ideal place for young urban singles the way many bigger cities are - it's better for families. As someone mentioned above, it The weather is beautiful in the spring but the city is prone to weird tornado-like storms that can knock out power and trees. And it's HAWT in the summer. Seriously. You have never been anywhere this humid, I promise.

I will also say, quite honestly, that Memphis is a troubled city, with quite a bit of gang violence, and that a lot of it is inextricably intertwined with race relations. Every Christmas day, my family and I deliver Meals on Wheels to some of the poorest areas of the city (haven't missed a day since I was a little girl), and I think it's getting worse. I'm starting to feel unsafe, which makes me so sad and sometimes makes me think about ending the tradition. But I haven't yet - I think it's too important.
The city sometimes feels like it's teeming over with an explosive combination of poverty, self-enforced racial segregation, extremely corrupt city and county politics. (Although this is like many US cities.)

Race is the subtext- hell, the text - that shapes this city's narrative, the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. One thing I've noticed is that, up here in NYC, people don't quite FEEL issues of race in quite the same, pervasive way that Memphis does, where there were "colored" water fountains not all that long ago and where a lot of schools are basically still segregated - just now by choice. (Not that those issues don't exist up here, of course. But it is different.) To paraphrase Faulkner, in Memphis, the past is not even past. It is a visceral, living, breathing, sweating present. I think it's something that often surprises people who are new to the city, so fair warning.

Sorry for the essay! Clearly, Memphis is a place that has gotten under my skin. I don't live there now, but I will always love and be grateful for its unique gifts and opportunities. It inspires some of the most fierce, dogged devotion and loyalty in its residents that I have ever seen. I am so glad I grew up there, and I eagerly await the next chapter in its story.
posted by bookgirl18 at 8:32 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Also, I forgot to mention - if you can avoid being vegetarian (or kosher, like me) in Memphis, do so. Every time I'm home, I stare longingly at those ribs and start rethinking my decision. (In fact, I'm about to go home again this weekend and already feeling the pangs. Dammit.)
posted by bookgirl18 at 8:37 AM on May 25, 2011

n'thing everyone else that says to mostly stay out of the suburbs (i.e., Cordova, Germantown, Bartlett, etc.) - they're not bad (as in crime, etc.) but it seems there's just a lot more going on in Midtown and Downtown. (and, FWIW, Cooper-Young is in Midtown. it also houses Overton Square/Overton Park - which is pretty much just up the street from CY - and there's a new arts district on Broad Ave. that's supposed to be pretty good.)

some resources that you might find useful that haven't been mentioned yet:
  • the I Love Memphis blog has gotten pretty popular lately and for all the right reasons. lots of good stuff in there on stuff to do (there's an events calendar and she does writeups and stuff) and all that.
  • additionally, the the I Love Memphis blog twitter account. (this is all run by one person and she keeps a pretty steady stream of stuff going on in both places.)
  • for a more downtown-centric view of things, check out Paul Ryburn's blog. lots of good stuff to do there too.
  • there are websites and whatnot (with varying levels of activity) for some of the community associations - for example, Cooper Young CA has a blog, and South Main (downtown) has a pretty decent site too. also, the Center City Commission has a good site focused on downtown.
you can also look at the Wikitravel page for Memphis, which hits the big touristy highlights.

that said, you can get a lot just by getting out and doing stuff. Otherlands has a pretty good message board type thing but there's also places like Bluff City Coffee downtown, Republic Coffee more easternly (near the main branch of the library), and Java Cabana in Cooper Young. there's also tons of bars and parks and stuff with message boards and whatnot too. and, actually, I find out about a lot of stuff via Twitter - start with @ilovememphis and go from there.

there's also stuff to do around here too; Oxford is easily day-trippable and is pretty neat in its own right, and we're not that far from St. Louis and Nashville (about 5hrs and about 3hrs respectively).

and, as far as left-wing, geeky and non-religious - yeah, that's pretty much everyone I know. and the people I know who aren't really more or less just fall into the "religious" part and are the good kind of religious.

maybe it'd be a good idea to have another meetup too.
posted by mrg at 9:02 AM on May 25, 2011

also, fwiw, about things to do - as an example, I live in Overton Square (in Midtown) and within a short walk of where I am (max maybe 20 minutes) there's a 342-acre park (with an old growth forest, concert shell that's currently running their summer series of free concerts, and a full-on zoo), Memphis College of Art, two theaters - Playhouse on the Square and Circuit Playhouse, and around 16 local restaurants and bars and whatnot, and a few interesting shops and record stores. and actually probably a bunch of stuff I missed. (you can get close to being walkable if you pick your area carefully - I can technically walk everywhere I need to get, with one exception, but I tend to want my car for grocery shopping. I did very specifically choose where I live now to be able to do this, and I see lots of people on bikes and walking around here. that said, a car is still very useful - we have public transport but it's kinda odd.)
posted by mrg at 9:39 AM on May 25, 2011

Now that we've settled down a little from jumping to the defense of our wonderful little city, there are a few other details you might need to know.

We don't do public transportation very well, AT ALL. You will need a car, period. We have a thriving scooter commuter group, and the bicycle folks are really making huge strides with commuter bike lanes these days.

Our lifestyle is very much slower than what you're used to, I would imagine. This could drive you crazy in the grocery store line or while sitting in traffic, or any time you're trying to get something done. If you feed off the energy from your surroundings and depend on your environment to help you get moving and motivated, then Memphis might be problematic. We can be a sleepy little river town, but that's also part of our charm. The pace of daily life is much slower here, which does appeal to many of us but may not be something you like. While there are lots of things to do, in general it's pretty laid back.

The heat, humidity, and general weather patterns can be extreme here. That car I mentioned earlier? Air conditioning in it is a necessity. Same for air conditioned living quarters. Necessity.

I think bookgirl hit it pretty close.
posted by raisingsand at 9:39 AM on May 25, 2011

Response by poster: These are all fantastic, thanks you so much for your answers. I don't have time to type a proper reply right now; I'll check back in tomorrow evening. You are definitely doing a great job of selling the place, though!

I saw the mention of bikes: Assuming that I can sort out somewhere to live within a decent distance (be assured that I'll be back on AskMe when the time comes for that!), is commuting by bicycle practical on most of the road network? I cycle a lot around London, so I'm generally not too bothered by what I'll call "assertive" driving styles and the occasional pothole.
posted by metaBugs at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2011

Response by poster: Er, not tomorrow evening. This evening. Not sure how that crept in.
posted by metaBugs at 10:07 AM on May 25, 2011

Assuming that I can sort out somewhere to live within a decent distance (be assured that I'll be back on AskMe when the time comes for that!), is commuting by bicycle practical on most of the road network?

By and large, as stated above, this is a car city. But, answering this question depends on where the work is located as much as where you are located. As stated above, the city is doing some pretty great things (finally) in regards to bike lanes, etc. But, that being said, bike lanes are still kind of rare, memphis drivers are still kind of shitty, and and the bike lanes are not at all distributed evenly: there's a high concentration of them in a small area, and pretty much none elsewhere.

If you work and live in midtown? No problem. Otherwise, sort of a problem. The goods news is, as long as you don't need interstate travel, there are about 100 ways to get from A to B, so the lack of bike lanes in, say, east memphis is not a big deal because there are a hundred different streets you could take. If you're working some place on one of the two or three major arteries (the interstate, Germantown Parkway, Walnut Grove, Summer Ave.) then you're not going to want to bike AT ALL.

I'm lucky enough that I can actually walk to work (!!), but I think I'm the only professional in the city so blessed. Of course, there is middle ground to be had - if you like your neighborhood, then you may only need to drive to and from work and can bike to all your recreational hangouts.
posted by absalom at 10:09 AM on May 25, 2011

About bikes... with the exception of a few places like New York, DC, and Chicago (and similar major urbans), US cities do not tend to be particularly bike friendly. Hell, a lot of US cities aren't even all that pedestrian friendly. A lack of bike lanes isn't necessarily the only problem: even if my commute had a bike lane, I live seven miles from the office, and the roads just aren't designed for it. Four or six lanes of traffic, speed limits in excess of 45mph, concrete barriers dividing travel lanes, bridges with no shoulders, etc. Which is part of the reason a lot of cities don't have them: they don't always make a lot of sense.

Yet if I lived somewhere other than my current apartment complex, which is located in a uniquely dreadful place for biking, I'd probably be able to bike some places I go on a regular basis. Just not all of them. So I could live close to work, but I'd have to drive to the store, or close to the store, but drive to work, etc. And the malls, where most of the shopping and a bunch of the better restaurants are, is completely inhospitable to bike traffic, not to mention being located a good ten or fifteen minute drive from anywhere else I'd want to be, are other points on this polygon, which is big enough that even living in the middle wouldn't enable to me to bike anywhere on a regular basis. Stuff really is pretty spread out, even locally.

Memphis doesn't strike me as being all that different, though others may correct me on that point. So if you want to make a bike part of your regular transportation arrangements, you probably can, but you'll need to deliberately pick a single set of destinations to which you're going to bike and then drive to the rest of them. Walking to work and driving to the store is probably optimal for a number of reasons, but depending on where work is (and what you do), that may or may not be an option.
posted by valkyryn at 11:56 AM on May 25, 2011

Hi. I'm an American expat. I've been to Memphis and I like Memphis just fine. I lived in London for 10 years before my husband and I moved to Ireland.

What I am here to say is that you are asking this question wrong. You are asking how Memphis compares to London. This is exactly and precisely the wrong attitude for successful expatriation or even temporary relocation. I absolutely understand why you're asking it, but the better question is "Tell me about Memphis!"

Really, you can't compare Memphis to London, or actually anywhere in the UK. They are entirely different kettles of fish. More than it's size or geography, Memphis is in the south, for which there is zero equivalence in the UK. While you will be able to buy a latte in both places, they are otherwise pretty much different planets. My concern is that while all of these people are giving you good and valid reasons in which bits of Memphis are like London, you will arrive and expect that it feels and operates in ways that are also like London. It absolutely will not.

If you have not travelled in and developed a fondness for the US, you are likely in for some culture shock. The best way I know to pad against this is to have no expectations at all of what the new culture will be like. Don't compare. Assume the new place will be wildly different and will have merits you will discover as you go along.

If you're looking at 2 - 3 years this is all much easier because you don't have the panic of having "given up" your native culture and amenities. Treat it as an adventure. Arrive wide open to new experiences and different ways of doing things and a readiness to learn a lot very quickly. Dispense with ideas about whether these things are better or worse and it all becomes a lot easier to acclimate.

I'm sure your job opportunity will be awesome but that's where my only caution is. Make sure your new gig includes health insurance and ask MeFi if you don't know if the coverage is good or not. Also make sure you are clear on holidays. 2 weeks is standard in the US and that is justifiably horrifying for a lot of Europeans. You will both want to go home and use your relocation to see more of the world so do rate the holiday entitlement highly on your list.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:26 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: So the consensus seems to be that it's very different from what I'm used to -- which is expected and the main reason that I want to travel at all -- but not quite the cartoonish bible-thumpin' conservative picture of the deep south that I've picked up over the years. As insights go this isn't a great one but, seriously, everything I know about the US comes from Hollywood* and a handful of left-leaning sources that really don't paint a great picture of this chunk of the continent. So thanks for dragging me slightly closer to reality.

I'm not too worried about the religion aspect. After reading a few Mefites' reports of (mostly rural) places in the South where non-churchgoers have a hard time being accepted into communities, I just thought it was worth checking. Looks like it probably won't be a concern though, as long as I pick my neighbourhood.

The race relations stuff has me a little worried; I've always been slightly baffled by US attitudes around race, which seem to be very different to what I encounter around the UK and Europe. Time to crack open some local history books and prepare to tread carefully with my ears open, I suppose.

I'll take my bike, but it looks like I'll almost certainly need to get a car to explore the city and for occasional trips to neighbouring cities. The airport looks pretty good, so occasional travel within the US looks achievable. The scale of the USA is very, very different from what I'm used to; I can never quite wrap my head around the amount of empty space between settlements and the low population densities in them.

The likely drop down to around 2 weeks of holiday sounds survivable. It'll be inconvenient to explore as much as I'd like, but I love the stuff I work on so it's actually not a huge drop from what I typically take. I'll see what happens around this in negotiations. I do know that the place I'm going has a culture of actually using their holiday allotments.

The healthcare provision is something I'll look at very carefully, and probably bring to AskMe when I learn more about it. Call me a filthy lefty, but I love the NHS and the US system scares me a little. I'll be working at a hospital though, so maybe it'll lean toward the OK end of the spectrum?

I'm unlikely to have the time to start a juggling club from scratch, but the unicycle club is probably a good place to meet people with that sort of mindset, so a potential social scene to connect to at the outset. The other social stuff on the linked websites looks like I'll have a good jumping off point to start exploring, too.

I'll definitely come along to a MeFi meetup when I get there, thanks! It'll be great to meet you all y'all.

DarlingBri - Thanks for the insight. I have some appreciation of what you mean by culture shock, on a very minor scale firsthand (moving from a quiet rural village to the middle of the capital city) and at a more realistic scale secondhand, from my friends and colleagues who aren't from this country originally. I'm expecting the culture to be very different, somewhat confusing and to demand a degree of adaptation, not just London with some narrowly-defined tweaks. This is part of why I'm interested in living abroad in the first place. I'd just always expected to be heading to Europe, which I have some familiarity with, rather than the southern US, about which I'm totally ignorant.

I didn't want to just ask "Tell me about Memphis" because I know that asking the same question about London would produce wildly different and contradictory answers depending on people's frame of reference. E.g. I (from a rural British village) think London is huge, chaotic and sometimes oppressive, while an an ex-SO (from central Hong Kong) thinks London is relatively small, friendly and chilled out. So mentioning London and other European cities as comparators was just intended to establish a common frame of reference for the descriptions, not to start a map of exactly how the two cultures deviate from each other. I didn't make that clear though and it's an important point, so thanks for raising it.

*And after spending four days in Orlando without seeing a single alien invasion, car chase or implausibly attractive pair suffering a humourous pitfall in their courtship, frankly I'm beginning to doubt about the accuracy of their reporting
posted by metaBugs at 5:04 AM on May 26, 2011

metaBugs: Call me a filthy lefty, but I love the NHS and the US system scares me a little.

Heh. I am also a filthy lefty, and going from the US system to the NHS scared me a bit. I thought it was going to be all trolly horror and wait lists. (It was not.)

Very important thing to know that it took me AGES to understand: looking only at the platforms of the various political parties, "left" in the US is to the right of the Tory party. That is an oft-overlooked but nevertheless completely true fact. Interesting, eh?
posted by DarlingBri at 11:52 AM on May 26, 2011

I suspect one thing that will really strike you immediately when you get there is how friendly people are in the American South. There is no such thing as a "quick stop for X"; every interaction involves the "hi, how y'all doing, oh, where y'all from" thing, which can get tiresome after a while. Living in Tallahassee, I sometimes got frustrated with it; why can't we just do this quick business transaction and not have to bond over it! That will be especially noticeable after the fast pace of London, I bet.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 3:02 PM on May 26, 2011

The healthcare provision is something I'll look at very carefully, and probably bring to AskMe when I learn more about it. Call me a filthy lefty, but I love the NHS and the US system scares me a little. I'll be working at a hospital though, so maybe it'll lean toward the OK end of the spectrum?

Don't bet on it. These days, hospital employees can't expect to do any better in terms of health benefits than anyone else.

I'm going to recommend that you look pretty seriously at getting a high deductible plan with a Health Savings Account. Basically, the first $3,000 or so of medical care per year is on you, but you've got this account into which you can contribute $3,000 a year tax free. Most employers contribute a little something into this account directly. If you don't have any ongoing health issues and aren't likely to get sick, this really is the way to go.
posted by valkyryn at 8:51 AM on June 1, 2011

Response by poster: Minor update: Assuming that my visa comes through without any hitches, I'll be joining you there in early November. Thanks again for all of the responses upthread, you do a good job of selling your city!

When I have a more concrete date, I'll try to organise a meetup and thank you personally.

Very important thing to know that it took me AGES to understand: looking only at the platforms of the various political parties, "left" in the US is to the right of the Tory party. That is an oft-overlooked but nevertheless completely true fact. Interesting, eh?

Hah, yes. When Obama was here recently, it was really striking and quite funny how much Cameron obviously wished that he was allowed to be as right-wing as the leader of the American left.

There is no such thing as a "quick stop for X" ... That will be especially noticeable after the fast pace of London, I bet.

Yes, I actually have no idea how I'll react to this. That's closer to what I grew up with than London is, and I complain about London's relative unfriendliness quite a lot. But I do admit that being able to buy some cereal without it becoming a huge social occasion is very convenient. I'm sure I'll adapt.

posted by metaBugs at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2011

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