Three months ago, after seven and a half years in London, I left. With nothing but a laptop and a suitcase of clothes, I flew to Berlin to start a new chapter in my life. Last week marked three months to the day that I arrived in Berlin, not a milestone by any means, but the gravity of it has made me somewhat homesick for the past week or so. When I lived in London, I rarely got homesick. It was still Britain, everything was familiar, I had friends, and I knew that if/when any pangs for the green, green grass of home kicked in, I could jump on a train or a coach and be home in under three hours.
This homesickness however, is different. Home is now a two hour flight then a three hour drive away, and because of that, I've been reflecting a lot on my time in London - the good, the bad, the incredibly ugly, but also the rewarding, the educational, the life-affirming and character-building things that have undeniably shaped and formed who I am today.
I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 18 year-old from the Welsh valleys when I arrived in London, having never been away from home for longer than a week. Yes I was terrified, but my fear was overruled by excitement. I left London a more confident, determined and self-secure 26 year-old, and I can confidently say that I'd be a completely different 26 year-old now had I not done it.
So with that in mind, (and seeing as I'm in a reflective mood) I thought I'd tell you a little of what I learned in that time. Whether you currently live in London, used to live there or are planning to live there, or any city really - I hope this is of some use!
1. Everything is more expensive than anything anywhere else and you quickly just get use to it
When I first moved to London it was my first time living away from home so my every day costs were normal for me. £4.00 for a pint? Sure, sounds about right. £10 to get into a club? Ok then... £35 for a week's travel? Why not. £600 a month to live in an ex-council house with three other people? Sure. Of course when friends came to stay, my daily life (which to me seemed so ordinary) was met with a lot of "HOW MUCH?!" and "Oh my God..." and "How do you do it?!". Similarly, going back home to visit, I'd weep at how little rent everyone was paying to live in "pretty nice" flats and houses in super central locations (and snort-laugh when they implied it was expensive) I'd also get far too excited about drinks prices in clubs and bars and ultimately get obliterated, taking everyone else down with me in a blaze of "£1 a shot" glory.
As the Independent reported back in April (http://ind.pn/2c9ThTK), it is now cheaper to live in a 4-star hotel in two-thirds of European capitals than it is to rent the average London flat. Latest figures show that the average rent for a London flat is now £1,676 per month - or £55 a night. For the same amount of money you could live year round in a hotel in Dublin, Rome, Paris or Brussels. Yes, that's right, it would be cheaper to just LIVE IN A HOTEL. But aside from the "big" expenses like rent and travel, every day life in London is just more expensive. In London you'll pay more for every day needs in Tesco, more for a drink in your local pub, more for clothes (unless you frequent Primark and if you've ever been to a Primark in London, you'll know why no Londoners actually shop there) oh and at an average of £12 a ticket, you can forget going to the cinema, not to mention that even a bloody Boots Meal Deal is more expensive in London!
With daily expenses looming over you, you'll undoubtedly ask yourself "Why am I doing this?!" but eventually, you really do just get used to it. It becomes normal, and not only that, it makes you reeeaaaallllyyyy appreciate a bargain. Living elsewhere can lead to you almost expecting things to be super affordable which can result in disappointment when something is less than dirt cheap. Living in London however, you immediately expect everything to be expensive, so when something (anything) isn't "too bad" - my God... that feeling of relief is unrivalled. Oh and did I mention that even though you're paying a fortune just to exist and that you can barely have an actual life, you are living in one of the best cities in the entire world so you know... don't complain too much, you could be living in Hull.
2. You'll initially complain about rude, angry Londoners - and then you'll become one
Ok so maybe you won't become rude, but when you're rolling on about six hours sleep, you're probably a little bit hungover, it's 08:19am and you've got to be somewhere for 08:30am, there's approximately 83 million other people all trying to get somewhere and then a gaggle of Japanese tourists consider the bottom of an escalator to be the perfect place to stop and contemplate life's complexities - YOU try to keep calm.
Growing up in the countryside where everyone knew (or at least recognised) each other, where people held doors open for each other, apologised for a mere brushing of elbows, where it's acceptable to start a conversation with anyone around you, where you can smile and greet complete strangers in passing without being considered a rapacious psychopath, it became apparent very quickly that life in London was going to be different.
Even now and then when I visit home and an adorable elderly woman nods and smiles as she walks by me, my thought process goes a little something like this -
"... the fuck is she looking at? Is she senile? Oh God, do I know her?! Maybe she's a friend of my mother's... or a neighbour... does she know me? Should I stop and talk? What if we don't know each other and then I'm stood there making small talk with a complete stranger? Just smile back and see what happens... it won't look like I'm coming onto her will it? Oh God, is she flirting with me? Poor thing... Oh wait she's about to pass, ummm... ok, just smile and say hello and see if she stops, then if she stops, you stop, ready? Go.... 'Hi'.... Oh she said hi back! THANK GOD, I don't know her at all, she's just being friendly... I'd forgotten about that... phew.... well done Jack, another successful human interaction under your belt... oh look, a group of youths... best put your head down and cross the road..."
City people are just ruder than others. They're busier, under more pressure, more stressed, and they just want things to be easy, to go smoothly and not have the inconvenience of a delayed train or a yummy mummy with a twin stroller trying to get on the tube during rush hour. Is that so much to ask?! (Aware that aforementioned mummy is probably a lot more inconvenienced, but neither empathy nor sympathy exist in pre-9am-sans-coffee London). Take the Canary Wharf crowd for example, I feel for them, I really do. They've got deadlines, targets, they probably work 14-hour days for little thanks and all the while they're trying to remain polite while being pushed, shoved and smooshed against the tube door, forced to wear a suit and tie even though they're on the eastbound Jubilee line at 07:45am and it's hotter than the blaze of a thousand suns. And even with all that considered they still get branded "banker brats", "finance twats" and/or "city wankers". But let's not dwell on pitying the privileged white men and they're six figure salaries. Pricks.
As alien as everyday friendliness now seems to me, I have to say, I'm getting better at recognising it and I think London generally is getting better at it. So, when confronted with a rude, seemingly grumpy Londoner, just know that deep down, there's probably a sweet country boy just wanting to be smiled at.
3. Comparison is your nemesis
Allow me to put this bluntly - there will always be someone who's better than you; or at least, you'll think they are. More successful, richer, better looking, more popular, friendlier, better at their job, they have a great love life or are generally just better than you at life. While you're trying to do well at work, pay all your bills on time, work out regularly, eat healthily, maintain a social life (not to mention some form of a love life), find time to relax, and just generally keep your head above water, there will be people out there doing it all and looking completely at ease while doing it. Similarly, there'll be people your age and younger living outside of the city buying houses and cars and having babies while you're trying to decide whether or not you really need to add guacamole to your burrito for 80p extra.
But, after some time, you'll slowly start to realise the all-too-comforting truth - no one else has really got a fucking clue what they're doing either. The girl with the love life that looks perfect on social media probably hates her job, the guy who's shooting up the ranks at work is probably a lonely serial dater, looking diligently to settle down. But of course, we don't see that. We focus on the negatives in our own lives and the positives in the lives of others. We take what we see on Instagram for gospel, ignoring the fact that the steady stream of sunshine and smiles we're faced with on a daily basis is in fact a cleverly edited highlight reel of a life, not the "warts and all" reportage we consume it as.
The best advice I can ever give anyone is to stop giving a shit about what other people are doing. Honestly, it is so freeing. Of course you can look up to and admire people, but don't let their success overshadow your own. Jealousy is natural, someone will at some point get the promotion over you or be able to afford designer clothes or live in a nicer flat, or in a nicer area, but don't let yourself focus on it. Easier said than done I know, and it will take a while. Be patient, run your own race, focus on yourself and what makes you happy, don't feel egotistical about patting yourself on the back now and then and don't beat yourself up over making mistakes (everybody does!). Don't feel guilty about being selfish from time to time and doing things just for yourself. Be the best version of yourself you can be and allow absolutely no one to dull your shine.
Side note: If you're unfamiliar with "Impostor Syndrome" then read up about it - I find that noticing the signs of it, really helps with getting over things.
4. Alcohol solves NOTHING (but it might teach you a thing or two)
Drinking. Our drinking culture is distinctly British. Had a good day? Let's celebrate with a drink. Had a bad day? Let's go for a drink and talk about it. It's sunny? Best grab a bottle of something and go to a park, or find a beer garden that isn't too crowded. It's raining? Quick! Take shelter in that pub! It's Friday? Cut to us drunk tweeting on the night bus at 5am, Big Mac-in-hand. Even when we say "Let's just go for one" we all know it is never, ever just one. With the pressure and pace of life in London, it's easy to turn to drink to try to solve pretty much anything. Borderline alcoholism it may be, but everyone else is doing it, so it's fine.
While completely shitfaced I have done the following -
Left my wallet on a bus (three times)
Left my keys on a bus (twice)
Given all the the money in my wallet to a Spanish woman who told me she couldn't feed her children
Left almost all of my belongings in the club cloakroom because I couldn't be arsed to queue to get them back
Left the bar/pub/club without telling anyone, resulting in numerous search parties
Left my bag in the back of a cab
Left my phone in the back of a cab
Ordered a fast food feast Henry VIII would have been proud of, and then fallen asleep as soon as it arrived
Woken up covered in grated cheese
Woken up with a neighbour's cat in my room
Withdrawn £200 from an ATM for no reason whatsoever
Fallen asleep on the wrong night bus and ending up on the outskirts of Middlesex
Fallen asleep on the right night bus and ending up in Leyton
Tripped off and out of a bus, landing face-first into the pavement
Thrown up in a bin in Soho on a first date, with date as witness
This, I must add (as I know my friends will be reading this) is a very PG-rated list of things I've done whilst inebriated. I have without question done a lot more, and far worse.
While this accomplished nothing (each time resulting in an head-bursting hangover and me being late for work countless times) I kept going back for more and it has taught me a lot about myself - mainly, that I probably shouldn't drink or be left alone at any point in life. But also it has taught me to be more responsible, to pace myself, to take care of my belongings, to be less frivolous with money and to generally get my shit together. I figuratively stand before you a more responsible drinker and a more reasonable person because of these experiences. So yes, some of these things may happen to you, but they (and worse) happen to the best of us, so don't hate yourself. Put it down to foolish youth, an unquenchable thirst for escapism and repeat the mantra "I've learned from this and it will ultimately make me a better person"*. Also, learning to say "No" is key, don't be guilted into drinking because everyone else is or wants you to. Classic peer pressure, does it ever end?
*Not a guarantee.
5. Dating in London is basically a wildlife documentary
Well I can't mention excessive drinking without mentioning another popular London pastime with which alcohol goes hand in hand - dating. Aside from the M.O. of wanting to get laid, dating in London is quite honestly a fascinating education.
No really, think about it - there are millions of people in just one city, all from different backgrounds and places, all doing different things, with varied interests, and people in London are just better looking... Ok, not necessarily, there are just more people, which means more good-looking people. It also means more dickheads. Basic maths that is.
While dating in London. you'll learn more about yourself (and others) than you can ever imagine. On a date you see how people react to being nervous, vulnerable, how they present themselves and what they consider to be their USPs. You will also learn this about yourself. You will see how you react to being completely out of your comfort zone, how you present yourself to a complete stranger and what about yourself you deem worthy of revealing. With so much variety in people to date and things to do/places to go on a date, it can be overwhelming, the trick is not to take it so seriously, but not to take it as a joke either (you are both after all investing time and money into this and no one wants to walk away from a date feeling like they've wasted valuable Netflix time). Always take something away from a date, I don't mean rob them, just ensure that you've come away having learned something (anything) and had a positive human interaction.
Bad dates are unavoidable, they happen to everyone and you never see them coming, which is quite empowering. You're next date might be a compulsive liar with a secret boyfriend or a thief who still lives with his mother or an intellectual with absolutely zero social skills (I've had all three). Why do bad dates happen to good people? Who knows. But use these experiences to learn about your own likes and dislikes, to figure out what you're looking for, and to get better at looking for the warning signs of an impending bad date, as this will ultimately result in you being a good date yourself, and not wasting anybody's time. Be up front about what you want and always, always, ALWAYS be yourself. If you're worried they won't like the "real" you on date no.1, I can assure you they won't like to the real you on date no.17 either.
Learn from dating, master the craft, and eventually your next first date could be the last first date of your life.
6. Your "work friends" are important, and will ultimately become your "friend friends"
If it hasn't already, it will soon dawn on you that you spend more time with your work colleagues than you ever have with your family or your best friends and so, it's important that you get along with at least one of them. Consider this when looking for a job too, when you go in for an interview, get a feel for the atmosphere, will you be a good fit? Is there even time or space in the role for you to socialise with your colleagues? All too often I've met people with a slight "I'm not here to makes friends, I just want to get my job done so I can get paid and go out with my real friends" attitude. Similarly, I've worked with people who are just AWFUL and have no interest in being nice to anyone and I'd just sit at my desk bemused and think "You know, all of our days would be so much easier and more enjoyable if you weren't such a prick. Also, people will be more willing to do a good job for/with you if they liked you."
So, the lesson here is - make friends at work! I've had loads of jobs over the years, some really shit, some a bit less shit, and to this day some of the best friends I have are people I once worked with. Regardless of how much I liked or disliked the job itself, I managed to find someone (sometimes even several people) I absolutely adored. Having work friends makes life easier, it makes work easier, it broadens your social circle and gives you someone to go into the kitchen with to bitch about everyone while the kettle boils.... or you know, whatever... and over time, if you're lucky, your work friends will become your friend-friends too.
7. Not everything is as shit as you think it is...
Listen, I really don't want this post to seem too negative, but what I will say is that spending a great deal of time living and working in any city can sometimes get you down. It becomes really easy to complain about how poor you are, how shit the weather is, that the next tube isn't for another NINE WHOLE MINUTES but what I learned over time is that I really didn't realise how good I had it.
I got used to city life really quickly and seemed to have had a complete loss of memory of what living outside of a major European capital city was like. The old adage "You don't know what you've got til it's gone" is never more relevant than when a city-dweller leaves the city.
Not being able to drive, there is one clear thing that I'm astounded by when I go literally anywhere other than London - public transport outside of London is absolute horse shit. I'm going to use south Wales as an example, as that's where I've spent most of my life. Firstly, the nearest train station is generally a 20 minute walk away (which is great in winter). Then, trains are every 15 minutes, meaning if I miss my train by even 30 seconds, I've got a 14 minute 30 second wait for the next one which will, undoubtedly, be late, because this is the country and urgency doesn't exist. Oh also, after 7pm the trains shift from being every 15 minutes to being HOURLY. So, miss your train by a fraction of a second and you've got a lovely hour-long wait for the next one. And get this - on Sundays, it's every TWO hours - ALL DAY - FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER. I don't mean to be completely condemning of Welsh public transport, but I do remember asking a member of staff at Cardiff Central station exactly why the trains were every two hours, he looked at me bewildered, shrugged, and said "Sunday innit", because that justifies everything.
Even now living in Berlin, literally everything is closed on Sundays. Everything. The city is nigh on silent every Sunday. Supermarkets even! Closed every Sunday! Everyone's out here stocking up on food every Saturday for their weekly lock-in as if there's hurricane en route. It's weird. And 2016. Not 1066. Some people work in the evenings, some people even work on Sundays, some people may even need to eat on a Sunday.
What I'm fairly inarticulately getting at here is that city life will make you a complainer, but please be sure to consistently remind yourself of how good you've got it. We complain about TfL delays and yet the London Underground is probably one of the best working transport systems the world will ever see and it rather efficiently carts around millions upon millions of people every single day. The convenience of city life is breathtaking and can easily be taken for granted. Whether you want a suit dry cleaned on a Sunday morning, need a midnight cab home for under £20, fancy going clothes shopping for a few hours after work or have a craving for Vietnamese street food at 11pm - it's all available to you. So please I implore you, next time you go to complain about city life (which I frequently did) just remind yourself that your life is actually pretty great - and if you need proof, go elsewhere and merrily spend three hours looking for a place that has Wi-Fi, then maybe it will all become clear.
7.5 You will inevitably, at some point, step in a puddle of sick
It happens you guys. Even in the best cities in the world. Just embrace it.