by Dave Allan-Petale
I’ve been a Londoner for four years now and sometimes I still feel like I’m finding my feet. I moved to this leviathan of a city in December 2008 from sunnier climes in Australia with my now wife Carmen – just as the ferocious northern winter set in. To make matters worse, the global financial crisis began to bite right when we needed to find jobs and a place to live. But I’d read a bit of Dickens, watched The Bill and knew a few people who’d done a stint in London and I thought I was prepared.
How naive I was.
This city can eat you alive if you let it and it took quite awhile to adjust to all the tricks and traps. If you’re thinking of moving to this concrete jungle or know someone who is, here are my top tips to surviving and thriving.
1. STOP TALKING ABOUT WHERE YOU CAME FROM
I grew up in Western Australia, a stone’s throw from one of the most perfect stretches of coastline in the world. Compare that to London. Crowded, cold and the nearest beaches are at least an hour away with stones instead of sand, along with bone chilling water. It is easy to moan about London’s drawbacks and look askance at things that don’t measure up to what you’re used to. But that can blind you to the amazing things the city has.
Forget where you came from, embrace where you’re at.
You’re in London and no one lives here for the weather!
Locals consider this place to be the centre of the known universe and will only be interested in your point of origin if they are holidaying there. So when your mates post pictures of themselves on Facebook having a barbie by the waves just ignore them – they’ve probably got sunburn and food poisoning anyway. Meanwhile, you’ve got more food, culture, events and history than you can shake a stick at, and Europe’s at your doorstep. If you find yourself saying things like ‘but back home in (insert relevant country)’ all the time you need to stop.
2. WIPE THAT GRIN OFF YOUR FACE
Seriously. Stop smiling. People in London will think you are insane or selling something.
Back where I come from it is considered fairly normal to smile at people in the street, nod knowingly at the other joggers on your morning run and have a breezy chat with the old boy who works at the petrol station. But this small town shtick won’t play in London. I came back from a holiday in Australia and went into a phone shop in Balham with a broad smile on my face. ‘What are you so happy about?’ the shopkeeper spat, one eyebrow cocked. ‘Oh…’ I said. ‘Nothing.’ And promptly reset my visage to Big City Life Mode.
This is not to say you can’t be happy or cheery or make friends in London – people here are usually very friendly, helpful and down to earth. But there is a surface to be cracked. You do that by making a (good) joke or a remark about how crap the weather, traffic or local sports team is. If that is reciprocated then you can smile and keep the banter going. Getting to know people in London is mostly all about convincing them you are not insane – a big smile right from the beginning is not a good way to do that.
3. COMMUTING IS WAR
The last census of London’s population in 2011 showed just over eight million people live here. The real figure is likely to be way higher and if you don’t believe me, try catching the Northern Line on the tube at 8.20am on a weekday. Millions of Londoners commute from home to work for an hour and back again every working day, so you need to be prepared to join those depressing ranks.
Always, and I mean always, take reading material (there are free papers in the morning and afternoon) and plug your headphones in.
Otherwise you will be stuck in a crowded, humid carriage with nothing but your own thoughts for company.
Also, the laws of physics simply don’t apply when it comes to cramming people into the carriages.
I learned very quickly that Darwin’s theory of evolution is proved right every day in London – it is survival of the fittest.
If you want a seat on the tube, bus or train during rush hour, get your elbows out and be quick. Give your seat up to the elderly, disabled and pregnant women by all means, but for everyone else it’s open game. Forget your small town manners, they will only relegate you to the sidelines.
4. ALWAYS ASSUME THERE IS A QUEUE
British author Louis de Bernieres summed up the character of his countrymen by saying:
‘Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum. That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations… We are rigid and formal in some ways, but we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough… Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.’
This notion is best illustrated with the national obsession with queuing. Many, many times I have found myself joining what I thought was a queue for the bathroom, ticket booth, etc. only to find I was standing behind a group of people who just happened to be near the end of the line. Respect for a fair turn is held in such high regard by absoltuely everyone that it pays to make mistakes like this rather than be scolded for cutting in (you will be – or subjected to silent disapproval, which is worse!).
In London you can say what you want, wear what you like and be whoever you want to be.
It is an amazingly tolerant, diverse, embracing place but if you don’t observe the local expectations – be it in a posh shop or a downmarket nightclub – you will probably be snapped at.
This also applies to spitting in public, pronouncing words the American way, wearing shorts and thongs (flip flops) on a cold day (amazing but true), walking around shirtless on a hot day, coughing and sneezing without covering your mouth and openly admitting you vote conservative.
5. QUIT HANGING OUT WITH YOUR COUNTRYMEN
There is a huge Australian scene in London, likewise Canadian, Indian, Brazilian, Chinese… name the nationality and there are bars, restaurants, nightclubs and social clubs catering to that crowd. It can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re missing home and just want to hear some familiar accents and taste some home cooking.
Be warned though, it’s a trap!
I have found that making friends with British people isn’t as easy as back home but that doesn’t make it less worthwhile. As I explained earlier, because there are so many people in London they are naturally a bit reserved. But once you overcome that they can be as warm as the sun. If you leave London without having made any firm friends among the natives then you’ve missed out. After all, you’ve bravely left the safety and comfort of home shores for a couple of years to move to one of the world’s biggest, brightest and craziest cities. It would be a shame if all you had to show for it was a collection of photographs from a pub you could have gone to at the end of your parent’s street.
So there you have it – all the wisdom I’ve gleaned in four years. Not much, but I hope it helps. I love living in London because for all it’s bad aspects – rubbish everywhere, heaving crowds and ccccccoldness – it always balances itself out with something amazing like a wine festival or The Olympics. You’ll be alright mate.