Two years in the city

On my first night in London, I was followed home. It was November, so it was dark when I was walking back at 6.30pm – and through a really nice area, I might add. I clocked the guy as soon I’d turned off the main road and was starting through the housing estates, and the next five long minutes of panic were an odd mix of fear and palpitations and fumbling for my mobile, whilst also trying to convince myself I must be imagining it, or was somehow over-reacting.

Nothing awful happened. I mean, I did the “wrong” thing – the thing most people would do the first time they experience this – and bolted to the house, locking the door behind me and not telling anyone until it all caught up with me a few hours later. (FYI: You’re not imagining it. Take out your headphones, keep your eyes and pace up, note their description and most importantly, get and stay somewhere public – like a shop – until a friend can meet you.)

But in hindsight, it put me immediately in my place… this was not the Sticks anymore. My expectations and confidence had been completely knocked within 24 hours of arriving, and, feeling pretty alone, I was faced with a choice that I wasn’t expecting to make for another six months – when maybe I’d have the friends, or the job security, or the place of my own to make London the long-term plan: should I stay, or should I go?

I’ve never regretted staying. I only start this reflection of two wonderful years in the city with that story because it gets this out in the open: London is not perfect, and it’s not everybody’s dream. It’s expensive, it’s busy, it can be a bit try-hard, kind of lonely, and yes, scary at times like these. But it’s also full of opportunity and people – brilliant, diverse people who are all kinds of crazy and talented; parts of it are really beautiful, and everything’s on your doorstep. It’s not the only place to be, by any means, but for someone who thought it would only be “a two year thing”… well, I’m not packing up just yet.

So if you’re thinking of moving, here are the main things I’ve learned in two years.

The most important thing is having a home you feel comfortable in.
Let’s be fair – your job is probably going to be intense. You do not need to come back to some dodgy little windowless box you’re paying £600 a month for, nor some passive aggressive/dirty/mannerless housemates. Choose wisely. I’ve always said I’d rather spend a bit more here and cut back on other areas than hate the place I come home to. And on that note…

SpareRoom gets a lot of bad press, but it can pay off.
I was really lucky finding great people, in a really nice apartment – and it worked out that we were all happy enough to renew our contracts for a second year. So it’s not all horror stories, I promise!

It doesn’t have to be expensive. 
I was saving money in London even as a paid intern. Boring as it sounds, you’ve got to be sensible; I didn’t buy into some expensive flat-share, I was a lodger through Room for Tea. I stuck to a maximum of £15 a week on the food shop, traveled cheaply, and yet I wasn’t bored – I did loads of social stuff without breaking the bank. Top tips:

  • Save money on getting around by syncing up your young person’s rail card & Oyster, or walk places, and if you’re not in a hurry get the bus (same price, whatever the journey length) rather than quicker routes via tubes. Night buses, if you dare, are much cheaper than cabs home at 3am.
  • Plan your food; I only had Sainsbury’s and managed at the time but Lidl would have been a life-saver. I never really bought lunches and we always ordered the good wine at restaurants (spoiler alerts: house wine is very drinkable as an intern – and after, if you ask me – but places bank on you ordering the second least expensive bottle)
  • Do free things! Like comedy, open mic nights, exhibitions, park runs. Or cheap things, like pub quizzes.
  • Sign up to every newsletter and network event going. Hello free wine, nibbles and voucher deals 😉

You need the Citymapper app. And Uber.
Download them now.

I feel safe here.
It’s easy for city-dwellers to forget that they might not always have taken this for granted. I’ll admit it: I was scared – and that first night didn’t help. But day to day, it’s just precautions you’d take anywhere; things like being mindful of your bags/drinks, and having a “three rings” system with your girls so you all know you got home OK. Honestly, the most extreme I get is having a tiny attack alarm among my many keyrings (and why should that be laughed at, by the way? That response has bugged me more than once – I won’t apologise for it).
On a personal level, for the peace of mind of other country bumpkins like myself debating a move to the city, I repeat: I feel safe here – whether I’m walking back at midnight, or out and about on public transport, or going somewhere alone.
And on a grander scale? Well, it’s out of our hands, isn’t it… Unfortunately, terrible things happen everywhere. And it is scary. But time and again people prove the you have to be resilient, and carry on with life as normal. Nolite bastardes carborundorum.

Try not to get London lazy.
All that running around you do at the weekends those first two months? Yeah, that’ll change. Once you’ve eaten at Brick Lane market a few times, and you’ve climbed Parliament Hill, and been on a paddle boat in the park, and seen a few exhibitions, the whole tourist mentality will start to wear off. Soon you’ll be saying stuff like “Oh yeah, gotta get out the city every so often” or staying in on a Saturday night and hoping people don’t message to ask what you’re up to.
Staying social is easy – you’ll still go for work drinks, and meet friends for dinner or brunch, or the latest food fad. But try not to forget that you’ve got the best of the best on your doorstep, and an opportunity to try everything from swing dance to cereal cafes. I sometimes get a pang of London guilt after a weekend (well-spent) doing nothing in particular, when you remember you’re in the city that doesn’t sleep… It’s just about finding a balance.

The benefit of being in a big city is that it’s brimming with people; people like you, and people not like you at all. Get to know them. In fact, introduce yourself to them – Londoners aren’t that terrifying (hop on over to my friend Amy’s Commute Blog for proof that you can strike up all kinds of interesting conversations with them). Of course, you’ll naturally meet friends at work, but when I look back I’ve also had some really good laughs, or the beginnings of proper friendships, meeting people in unexpected places like:

  • Park run
  • The gym
  • Dance classes I’d signed up to
  • Free comedy nights
  • Free networking events
  • House parties
  • Open mic nights, or event launches, starring friends or friends of friends
  • On a night bus
  • On the tube, after giving someone directions
  • And in Hyde park, chatting to someone else who was also just taking in the view

Do lots with these people. One day I’m sure we’ll hanker to be 24 and broke in the city. I know I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now.

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