Coming up to my four year anniversary (sorry mum!) as a resident of Old Blighty, I wanted to take the time to reflect on what I wish I’d known before I got here. An ex-pat from a far away land (Australia…), I’ve got a lot of complicated feelings about the town I call home. It’s a marvellous, difficult, unrelenting, awe-inspiring place to live. Here’s what you should know about London before you move here:
Everyone’s here to ‘be a creative’
Oh man, if I have to hear one more time… Basically, everyone’s here to do something ‘creative’, myself included. It’s a good thing to know before you get here: most people come for the promise of exploring their deepest hidden talent, in the hope they’ll finally find their niche. Competition is fierce, so get ready. I am absolutely just one of those hipsters, typing away at my computer in the corner of a faux-independent coffee shop in Soho. Practice your ‘I’m really interested in your artistic pursuit’ face too, because you’re going to need it.
This is not the town of romance
Although I have found love now after four years, let me just warn you: I was single in London for 2+ years, because almost everyone here is an absolute douche-crumpet when it comes to relationships. Most people are here to ‘discover themselves’ or ‘have a good time’ and that usually means sleeping with as many people as possible and never talking to them again. Fine for some, but not a romance novel ending. There are more fuckboys than pigeons, and it’s a problem. Swipe left.
I’ve ended up with a wonderful partner now, but we didn’t meet through a dating app, and I think that’s the thing: finding yourself a Prince Harry lookalike on Bumble in London is going to be tough. Because they basically 1. Don’t exist and 2. Will not be looking for a relationship. London is the city of the wilfully single, so if you were dreaming of a Notting-Hill-starring-Hugh-Grant-and-Julia-Roberts style encounter, you’re going to be disappointed.
Brexit confuses everyone
Nobody knows what is going on, so it’s basically pointless to ask. Every day I feel a little less welcome when I listen to nation-wide politics, but chances are your London buds didn’t vote for Brexit, so don’t hassle them about it. They’re also in the 9th circle of hell every time a headline on Brexit appears, to the point where many have lost the will to discuss it.
Forever an ‘acquaintance’, never a ‘friend’
London is one of those cities where nobody has time, everybody is rushing around, and the British are masters of maintaining the acquaintance. There are lots of levels of acquaintance — like, say, 10 levels? From ‘person I would talk to in a queue if I had to’ to ‘person I would not ignore on a tube platform’ through to ‘person I’ve exchanged occasional life information with’ etc. The steps are so incremental. Pushing through to actual friendship can feel tough.
It’s not a slight against the British, it’s just really not like showing up in other, more extraverted cultures, where you’re immediately invited to dinner and a party with their closest friends. In Britain, you’re just as likely to know someone for years and still not really penetrate that layer through to friendship. I have a British friend who I have literally known for 5+ years, and only recently did I meet their partner for the very first time.
But what I would say is that when you do manage to get there — to achieve the mythical status of friends — you’re likely to be friends for life. Once you’re in, you’re in. It just takes a tonne of time to get there.
There is a lot of necessary bureaucracy… no way around it
As with moving anywhere, there’s a bunch of bureaucratic stuff you need to get in place. It always kills me when I hear of people who just up and randomly moved here and then were like ‘oh, what’s an Oyster card?’ Because seriously, how will you survive?
The UK is a place where your address unlocks everything. The catch-22, of course, is that if you have never lived here or don’t have a bank account here, sometimes it’s quite difficult to get a place to live. You often start with a dodgy room in a random place that asks for a deposit in cash, just to get on the map… And while I really do not advise this, many people do it — without the sacred UK address, everything else is impossible. So:
- Secure an address
- Open a bank account. You can only do this with an address…
- Get a National Insurance Number from a JobCentre (if you intend to ever work here). Book ahead of time, as it takes a while.
Figure out the earliest date you can start to do things like register for the electoral roll, open up any bills in your name, etc. Anything you can do to get a paper trail with your name on, connected to a UK address, the better off you’ll be long term. Then you can enjoy the fun times that is changing every single address on every bit of paperwork ever, every time you move house (and it being London, this might be often). Welcome and enjoy.
Everybody’s hustling, so get ready
Unless you’re coming here to be a banker, you’re going to notice the cost of living take a sharp upturn. Most people I know do a job and about a thousand side gigs, because of the whole I’m-here-to-be-a-creative thing, which usually means they have a main source of income and lots of hopeful side projects. I am one of these people.
It’s exhausting, but rather satisfying as well. And there are lots of ways you learn to cut costs (article coming soon, hah). Be reasonable in your expectations of what you will get for your cash in this expensive city. There’s a tonne of great free entertainment, which is helpful, as the essentials can get pretty steep. Do some research and please, please, come with some savings. The horror stories I have heard of people who arrive with nothing but a dream are utterly terrifying… Please do not do this. Please.
Nobody is going to just offer you help
Sounds harsh but it’s true. Nobody just offers up help, if they don’t have to. If you really need something and you make it known, help will be given to you. But nobody’s going to just offer it up. You’ve got to fight for that, too. Make it known, seek out services. Helpful links as follows:
Welcome to GOV.UK
GOV.UK - The place to find government services and information - Simpler, clearer, faster
23,000 highly trained volunteers support the delivery of our work. Our volunteers come from all sorts of backgrounds…
It can be hard to get answers from certain services straight away. Practice patience and have that money ready for emergencies.
On the up side…
There are all kinds of people to meet
While it can be hard to really get to know people well, the fantastic thing is that all kinds of people are here. It’s so incredibly diverse and interesting, so as long as you have the energy to keep looking and keep meeting people, you will eventually find just the kind of people you are looking for.
There’s a lot of passion in this city too, and passionate people are my favs. So get on the bandwagon: there are so many random hobbies and interests to explore, so why wouldn’t you? Your world will expand so quickly living in this town.
The travel opportunities are awesome
You’re right here. I mean… I’m from Australia. So I’m used to being about a billion hours away from anywhere that isn’t still Australia, so living in Europe is brilliant. I’ve travelled all around the continent and beyond and it is basically amazing and excellent. Long weekend in Prague? Quick trip to Paris? Nip over to a beach in Spain? Please and thank you.
Every part of London is unique
The vibe around town varies a lot from one part to the next. Get acquainted — the most fun can be had just walking London, piece by piece. Get to know the greenery of the north-west, the fancy shops in the west-west, the incredible red-brick structures of north London, the endless coffee shops of the inner east, the markets dotted all over town, the hum of the Southbank… Basically every bit of London offers up a new and exciting thing, and people soon find their favourite haunts that help to express exactly what they always felt was true about themselves.
The food and the coffee is a lot better than you’d think
The great benefit of such a mixed and diverse city is the sheer amount of culinary and coffee experiences on offer. It’s true that this wasn’t the case until more recently — British cuisine leaves a little to be desired, and you don’t need me to make any jokes about this. They’ve all been made already. But the great news is that everybody’s brought their fab cuisine to this town! So now, it’s awesome.
You will not be as stimulated anywhere else — and much of it is free
Are you into post-feminist installation art that integrates VR? Then you’re in luck. Whatever stuff you’re into, it’s here. The best of the world’s culture, art, music, film — whatever. A cultural delight at every turn. If you’re an art fiend like I am, the Barbican, the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, the National Gallery are a few places to start… They all have a mix of free and paid cultural things to enjoy. I’ve got an article dedicated to all the ways you can get cultural stuff on the cheap in London coming soon.
Even if yours are slightly less ‘cultural’ pursuits — basically whatever it is that takes your fancy — you can find people putting on an event to suit. The variety is endless. In any given evening you can find the best of the best, all gathered here and on display.
The chance that you will get to do what you want to do is very possible
Yeah, okay, every man and his dog wants to be a creative here. But the amazing thing is that you’re pretty likely to be able to actually do it in London. There’s no way I would have had the opportunity to do half the amazing and crazy things I have been able to do here, back home in Sydney.
For one thing, I’m a regular theatre reviewer — I’ve been privileged enough to see some of the best theatre, both in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe, as a result of my getting to know the arts industry here. I’ve interviewed some amazingly talented people, and I’ve finally pursued my dream of being a writer in a way that has brought me a lot of joy so far. I probably would never have done any of this had I just stayed home.
I have done yoga at the top of the Shard, I’ve experienced immersive theatre in the Vaults under Waterloo station, I’ve trudged through artist studios and helped on film sets, I’ve been filmed talking feminism and art in a disused cinema… You just never know what will happen next in this town, and it’s brilliant.
Some final words of advice…
Come here with the expectation that you’ll have to work hard. At people, at finding a job, at carving out your niche. Come ready to give up on whatever you thought London would be. Be open and ready — it will surprise you, it will challenge you, and you will grow as a person. It will test your resolve and your patience. But if you are willing to stick it out, it will reward you. London doesn’t care about you as an individual. That may sound harsh, but it is also quite freeing. You can be anyone here, and do anything.
London continues on, through everything.