20 months of living in London
In summer 2015, my boyfriend and I decided to move to London. In June 2017 we moved back to Berlin where we lived before. This post is about the 20 months in between and how they shaped my view on society more than I expected.
A big move
Many of my friends went abroad for studying or got sent from their employers. They already knew when the experience will be over and got most things set up on arrival. And the moment they will come back, most things will be the same: the city, the flatmates, the job.
For us this was different. We didn’t go abroad. We changed home.
We quit our jobs, our flat, our health insurance, basically everything and moved over with all our furniture and belongings. I didn’t have a job back then and having only one income is not the best situation to get started in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
As if that was not enough, the pound was extremely strong during that time and we had to pay everything in euro until my boyfriend got his first salary one month later.
So why moving to London?
Well, we both hoped to add another milestone to our lives. Our perfect life in Berlin just seemed too perfect. We needed to get out of our comfort zone.
The problem with high expectations
From the outside, London has a an excellent reputation. As the New York of Europe, it combines tech, culture and economy as no other city in Europe.
Of course I was expecting a lot of London.
I was expecting Berlin, but more exciting, more diverse and more up to date with current trends. I was expecting a cultural hub, that overwhelms me with things to do. I was expecting delicious healthy food because people told me London is a melting pot where all cultures and traditions come together.
A few weeks after moving from Berlin to London, I got asked in a job interview: “Why did you move here? Everyone here is moving to Berlin, it seems to be the place to be right now”. Back then, I didn’t understand how right this person was.
Starting the list
I had to accept quite soon that most of my expectations about London are not going to be met. At the same time, I got terribly home sick.
When you come from another cultural background, you inevitably notice things that are different from what you know. It’s tempting to compare these new things with what you’re familiar with. And since we humans are creatures of habits, the new and unknown is usually scary and negative while the old and known is nice and pleasant.
Eventually I found satisfaction in exploring what’s different (a.k.a. bad in most cases), so I started to collect a list of things about London that most surprised and confused me. I divided my discoveries into two groups:
What I will miss and What I won't miss about London.
I wanted to give things the chance to make it on the miss side, so I let some time pass before writing this post. Because usually you miss something when you don’t have it anymore, right?
Let's start with the positive side.
What I miss
My job at Sofar Sounds
- Our flat with little balcony and park view.
Paying contactless or with apple pay EVERYWHERE. At a coffee truck, on a flea market, at the bus.
Meeting bright people and inspiring companies at meetups.
- Seeing independent musicians playing in shabby pubs or churches.
Browsing books in Tate Modern’s museum shop.
Strolling over vintage fashion markets in Camden and on Brick Lane.
Eating crepes and chatting with the owners of Crêpes à la carte in our neighbourhood.
- Streets over streets of old, cute brick houses.
Now the negative side. As this list is quite long, I grouped items by topic to support readability.
What I don’t miss
Justifying myself being vegetarian. (In Berlin people tend to excuse themselves for eating meat.)
Having the option between chain restaurants in the city centre or chicken huts in the suburbs.
Waiters who assign you to a specific table although the whole restaurant is empty.
Standing in the queue for breakfast at The Breakfast Club. (I have to admit that there’s some irony to it.)
Having only one vegetarian option and it contains beetroot or mayo. (I don’t like both.)
- Ordering a main course salad for £10 and get a side salad without dressing.
Eating your lunch at your desk. So sad.
Even more sad: Eating crisps for lunch at your desk.
- No socialising during lunch breaks (as everyone has lunch at their desks).
Not being able to pass people on the sidewalk because it’s too busy.
Buses skipping the bus stop where you’re waiting and waving.
Having to cover your ears to protect them from ambulance siren that needs to drown out traffic noise. (My ears felt deaf when coming back to Berlin because suddenly everything was much quieter.)
Not finding your Oyster card in your bag when you're about to miss the train.
Being underground during a 1 hour commute.
TfL staff that shouts instructions through a megaphone in the early morning when you’re still sleeping.
- Sweating in an overcrowded tube.
School girls wearing tons of make up and 2 cm thick eyebrows.
Going to cinemas where the aisle is in the middle of the theatre. (Why not put aisles at the sides and let people sit in the middle instead?)
Burning your hands when washing them in public restrooms because the water is always way too hot.
Clubs closing at 4 am directly after the main act.
- Diversity of evening activities: Pub, pub or pub.
Single glass windows which turn down the temperature in your living room from 20 to 14 degrees in 2 hours.
Picking up rubbish from the foreyard.
- Stumbling over letters which are thrown through a gap in the door and then land in the hallway.
No rubbish bins in central places.
Traveling for 2 hours to see a tiny forest.
People letting the car engine running although they are parking.
Gasoline smell in the streets.
- Unforeseeable weather.
So what's the takeaway?
Seeing this list as a whole made me think a lot: What made London to what it is today? Is it only me who feels this way? And what makes a great place to live?
A city is defined by its people
From a small village to a metropole, a city is made of its inhabitants. They make a place what it is.
Not everyone can be a local hero, but in some places you feel that people take care of each other and their environment. They create public spaces where neighbours come together and talk to each other. They are aware of the environmental impact their living has on the city. They have a strong interest in the city’s future and form groups and initiatives. They demonstrate for their rights and complain not for the sake of complaining, but to change things for the better.
When people stop caring
Taking care of each other and your surroundings is the most basic principle for well-functioning societies. However, my experience in London told me that this principle can get lost in places with a high fluctuation, where people come and go.
Many people come to London with the intention to stay for only a few years. Most people I met chose London as a place to work rather than a place to live. And even locals mostly leave London after they get kids and get settled in England’s countryside.
It seems that when people come and go fast, they stop caring.
Falling victim to the collective disinterest
The problem is, if you care but the people around you do not, taking care becomes an exhausting and non-rewarding endeavour. You’ll stop believing you can compete against existing habits until you ultimately stop caring too.
But in your heart, it doesn’t feel right. Maybe you just want to get rid of the rubbish in your foreyard. Maybe you’re worried about the impact your behaviour could have on the planet. And then there are things you simply can’t ignore like air pollution.
It matters where you come from
I talked to people from different backgrounds and cultures, and more or less surprisingly, other Germans or German-speaking people shared similar opinions on the points in my list.
Where we grow up and spend most of our living inevitably influences our values and opinions. Hence, we start seeing the same problems, not always because they are real problems, but simply because they are different from what we know and what we value.
Finding where you belong
Being surrounded by people you can’t identify with, who have different values, is probably the hardest part of living abroad. But it’s also a rewarding experience because you start realising your own values and where you belong.
For me this is Berlin.
Many people say Berlin will become like London. Even if this will be true some day, it will take a few years. And in the meantime, I’m happy to be here.
Thanks to @analogmaxe for some of the photos.