Latest posts by Sara T (see all)
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- Why I Marched: Women’s March on Washington, 21 January 2017 - February 10, 2017
- Music on the Brink of Destruction at Wigmore Hall: A Review - February 9, 2017
Sitting in a cozy Costa café in north London, I hear a blend of different accents beneath the folky acoustics of George Ezra’s ‘Budapest’. I love the diversity of this little corner of the big city, as a mixture of Polish, Romanian, and Arabic voices fill the background, chattering away in their shared caffeinated contentedness. Sipping my own cuppa, I find myself wondering if I’m the only American here. I feel a sense of quiet camaraderie with these foreign strangers, having travelled thousands of miles away from my native country to live on this charming little rain-soaked island. Yet, as a native English speaker from a country with such an internationally pervasive cultural presence, I know that my experience is intrinsically different, both because of how I am perceived, and the accessibility of the culture and resources around me.
When I first moved to England from small-town America several years ago, I never imagined it would become such a part of me. And yet, here I am. It is impossible to sum up my entire experience in a single post, so I will leave you with my condensed list of pros and cons of life in London as an American:
- There are many other Americans in London. The expat community is strong in the city, and there are many groups for American expats to join to meet one another, if you are so inclined. It is also easy to avoid other Americans if you are less inclined, but its good to have the option to meet others with a shared experience. You never know when you might get a hankering for American pancakes and need suggestions for where to find them, or want someone with whom to share a Thanksgiving dinner.
- London is a hub for world travel. The city contains five international airports: Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted, City, and Luton, hosting quite a few budget airlines. The Eurostar also runs from St Pancras International, and you can find yourself nibbling a French croissant with a great view of the Eiffel Tower in just a few hours. This is an experience an American with a passport should not take for granted.
- London is brimming with culture. This is my favourite thing about the city by far. As an amateur violinist, I have had the fortune of playing in several different orchestras and small chamber groups, and meeting some incredibly talented people along the way. I also take advantage of the (often reasonably priced) concerts throughout the city, in world-class venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, the Southbank Centre, the Royal Opera House, and the Barbican, to name a few. If you’re looking for something other than music, try visiting one of the many free museums throughout the city (my fav is the gorgeous Natural History Museum), drop into a life drawing class (I recommend Covent Garden Life Drawing) or a dance class. Not to mention the fairs and festivals throughout the year: Notting Hill Carnival, Southbank Festival of Love, Chinese New Year in Soho, and Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.
- History on your doorstep. America is an infant compared to the UK. Every corner of London has deep history attached, and I love how the city works to preserve this history with listed buildings, the National Trust, and the many blue plaques affixed to historic buildings, supported by the Heritage Foundation. Visit the Museum of London to learn about the city’s rich history from prehistoric to modern times, and then take a walk into the City of London and discover what happened hundreds of years ago in the very place where you are standing. It puts your own place in time and space into perspective, and makes you feel connected to something greater than yourself.
- Safety. London is a relatively safe city, for its size and location. Compared to the United States, gun crime is practically unheard of, and the murder rate is relatively low. This can be attributed in many ways to the proactive British government and police force both keeping firearms out of the hands of civilians and taking crime and the very real threat of terrorism seriously. In places of international transport such as St Pancras International and Heathrow Airport, you will find a visible armed police presence patrolling the area and ensuring the safety of both citizens and foreigners alike. It is something I do not take for granted.
- High-density population. There is no way around it: London is overpopulated, and this can make day-to-day journeys and errands stressful. Londoners are forced to contend with public transport and find themselves at the mercy of TfL. Commuting to central London on the tube every morning involves standing on a crowded train platform with a bunch of other tired, grumpy passengers, all vying for a spot closest to the train doors. Once the train arrives and the red doors open, you are often confronted with a wall of humans dressed in black coats, half asleep or trying to read the Metro or the Evening Standard without elbowing the person next to them with each turn of the page. If you are lucky enough to find a space to squeeze in just before people pack in behind you and the doors close, you will then have to crank the music in your earphones to max volume (ignoring your phone’s volume safety warning) in order to drown out the horrid screech of the train as it lurches forward, and the uncomfortable jostling of people from all sides. It is a far cry from the cushy car rides and wide-open spaces of the American frontier.
- Urban sprawl. Unlike many American cities such as New York, which are built from the ground up, London is very spread out. It can take well over an hour to travel from one part of London to another. This might well mean that you end up taking two trains and a bus to get to where you need to go. You might also spend a lot of time underground. Luckily, the city is very well connected, and though it might take all morning to visit your friend in Brixton from Edgware, there is usually a way to get there.
- Don’t forget your brolly. Once you finally make it out of the underground, you must then learn the art of fast-paced walking through crowds with an umbrella in the wind and rain. The trick is to stay dry and keep your umbrella from turning inside out while keeping your elbows in and not stabbing anyone you bump into in the eye with the corner of your umbrella. Yes, it rains a lot in London, and umbrellas are a must-have. Sometimes, I find I spend so much time under ground travelling around the city, that when I finally make it out of the tube, I never know if I will need a coat, umbrella, mittens or sunglasses, so I just carry it all with me, all of the time. The weather report is just a guideline anyway. I suppose the one upside to the rain is that it pulls the pollution out of the air, in a city that has one of the highest rates of air pollution in the world.
- Social struggles. For a city of 8.7 million people, London can be a very lonely place. My first year in London was one of the hardest years of my life, if not for the fact that I found it so hard to make lasting connections with people here. As it turns out, Londoners are very friendly individuals, but not trusting of people in public spaces. When you walk through thousands of people everyday to get from point A to point B, you must develop a sort of protective tunnel vision, otherwise the masses can become overwhelming. People who tend to approach individuals on the street invariably want something from you, and this is a less-than ideal way to make friends. I’ve learned to mitigate this by attending classes, workshops, day trips, and meetup groups, as Londoners tend to let their guards down and open up in small, organized spaces. As an introvert, I’ve also found I have to push myself to make the first move in talking to people and inviting them to hang out, because it rarely happens on its own. Unlike Americans, the British are more reserved and less likely to open up to strangers, and Londoners even less so.
- It’s not cheap. I know this a consequence of living in any big city, but it’s certainly hard to ignore in London. Even with salaries adjusted for the cost of city living, your bank account will take a hard hit by rent, utilities, transport, food, clothing, and activities. Londoners tend to socialize outside of their houses because they are forced to live in such small spaces to save money. On the upside, this has forced me to take a hard look at what is important and worth investing in in my own life, and I’ve started working toward a more minimalist lifestyle. I grew up surrounded by an American culture is so inundated with consumerism, that this is a drastic change for me. On the one hand, it is fun to have more ‘stuff’, but on the other hand, I have to ask myself, does this ‘stuff’ make me happy? And how many ‘things’ do I really need? In the end I decided to downsize my flat and spend money on experiences and travel rather than physical things, and I am happier for it.
I hope you’ve found this list insightful. Please leave a comment with any questions and let me know what you would add.