London lessons

28 July 2015

This month marks my fourth anniversary of moving to London. It’s the longest I’ve lived in one place since I was a teenager living with my parents and attending high school in Palmy. Times change.

If I didn’t enjoy living here so much I wouldn’t still be here. In fact, I didn’t realise how much this city feels like my new home until a few months ago when I got a big scare.

Headlines in the UK media suggested that I wouldn’t be able to stay past next year unless I was earning more than £35,000 a year. My career has progressed pretty well since I’ve been here but I’m still a long way from that type of money and for 48 awful hours my future flashed in front of my eyes. Was this government really going to kick me out? What on earth would I do with myself?

Thankfully, it turns out that this was a false alarm. The labyrinth of international immigration law is complex, but it appears that this new regulation only applies to immigrants on a skilled migrant visa. As an ancestry visa holder, it seems I’m free to apply to stay when my initial five-year visa runs out next year.

I sincerely hope that’s the case because right now I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. This city has been good to me and I’m not ready to leave.

Over pints with a friend a few weeks ago,  I started thinking about how I know I’m a Londoner. I’ve spent a lot of my time here looking after new arrivals from NZ (and elsewhere) and sharing some of the secrets I’ve learned about living here in the last four years.

Some are obvious – avoid the M&M World at all costs! – But most take a little bit more experience. Stuff you only catch onto by living here for a while.

You know where pub toilets are
This is what inspired this post. I was at a pub with a mate and instinctively knew where the bathrooms were. It’s an exaggeration but I told him that I knew where the bathrooms were at every pub in Zone 1. It’s amazing how often you find yourself at a pub that you’ve visited once before – even if it was 3-4 years ago. There have been too many times where I’ve walked into a pub and realised that it looked familiar. There are lots of pubs in central London – both good and bad – but often you don’t have a choice where you end up and the law of averages suggests you’ll end up in them all eventually.

Night buses work
When I moved to London, these were something to be feared. I remember being 22 and pumping my IPod Classic up to full volume to prevent me falling asleep. I recall seeing scary guys smoking weed up in the top deck while reading stories about how guys like me got mugged on these buses. Now I couldn’t live without them. And I've never been mugged. London’s bus network is amazing and it’s incredible that everyone can get home at night with a bit of patience. Now we have Citymapper, but I’m still amazed at my ability to get home when my phone is dead. 189, N137, N74. I love you all.

Each neighbourhood has its price range
I’ve lived in enough areas of London that I have a pretty good idea of how much you should be paying for a flat. Prices vary of course, but if you tell me you’ve got a room in a two-bed apartment in Hammersmith for £600 a month I can tell you without hesitation that it’s a bargain. Likewise, if you tell me you’re living in a nine-room shared flat in East Ham for £400 a month I can tell you straight up you’re paying too much. This is one of the biggest traps for London novices. At a certain point you develop a sense for what’s a fair rent and what’s not. And if it sounds too good to be true…

Accommodation scams are real
...than it probably is. It’s sad to say but I’ve seen a few people get scammed when looking for accommodation. My ingrained fear is so bad that when I got my current apartment with friends I was nervous even though the letting agent had an office two blocks from our new place. There are obvious scams – “studio apartment in Westminster for £100pw” – on site like Gumtree but the rule of thumb is that any time someone asks you for money before seeing the place it’s a scam. These guys pray on the desperate, and there are more than enough desperate people in London to make it worth their while. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Know the Tube
We all know and tolerate this giant serpentine beast that lives beneath London. It’s our connection to wherever we want to go. But it takes a few years experience to master it. The first thing you learn is to move down to the end of the platforms so you get on a less crowded train. Then you advance – learning which side of the carriagethe doors open or how to avoid logjam stations. After a few years, you get even smarter and the cleverer tricks become instinctive. You learn where to stand at one station so you’re right by the exit at the next. Or how to avoid the crowds by using the entry steps to exit. You know you’ve reached Master Level on the tube when you can change from one line to another while solving a Sudoku and never looking up.

Learn about Boroughs
I didn’t know what a borough was when I moved to London. I still really don’t but I know enough. I know that when I lived in Wandsworth. I paid the lowest council tax in the country (go Wandsworth!). And then I learnt that when I lived on the fantastically named Shoot Up Hill I was in Brent Borough, and my friends on the other side of the road where in Camden Borough. Our houses were 100m away from each other but we had to enroll at different libraries and pay different council tax. It still seems meaningless, but we voted in different local body elections. There are 32 different boroughs and after four years I’m fairly confident I could place 75% on a map. That‘s progress by attrition.

Black Cabs are awful
Few things are more iconic in this city than the Black Cab. Stick your arm our anywhere within Zone 1-3 and you’ll find one soon enough. But there’s a dirty little secret that few people know. They’re a giant rip-off and the drivers are predominantly dickheads. I’ve been to New York and the cabs there are half the price and just as efficient. Black Cabs are awful. Once you’ve been in a couple, you realise you get thrown around and looked down upon as a matter of course. The drivers are supposed to know exactly where they’re going because they have "The Knowledge," but half the time they’ll take you on a joyride. Whether that’s to bump their fare or because they’re driving around until they find a landmark, it’s still unacceptable. Good London Advice: find a reputable local Mini Cab company which uses GPS and save your money.

Know your parks
As iconic as Black Cabs are London’s parks. I love them – Hyde Park, Regents Park, Green Park, St James Park. All good. But not all parks are created equal. And different parks are better for different occasions. Want to do whatever you want? Want to play touch or Frisbee? Clapham Common. Want to see proper nature? Richmond Park. Fancy a walk interrupted by several coffee breaks? Battersea ParkDrink, barbecue, and smoke, er, something? Go to London Fields. The key thing about selecting a park for a weekend outing is realising what your friends expect and picking a park to suit. Location, facilities and permissions are all key. If you’re expecting a boozy day at Richmond Park (so far away) you’ll be as disappointed as planning a BBQ at Hyde Park (not allowed). Know your audience. Incidentally, the best all-purpose London park, and one of the city’s best kept secrets is Holland Park. It’s central enough for everyone to get to and is the perfect mix between wild and well-kept,

Museums are still cool
London’s museums are huge and there’s a temptation to think that if you’ve visited once you’ve seen all they have to offer. A few years ago I thought I’d run out of museums or galleries to visit in London. I tried to seek out smaller places, and while these are cool, they don’t compare to the sheer awesomeness of the big London places. I realised that 1) you can take a free guided tour of most museums.. The guides are experts and know how to bring things to life 2) If you spend a little bit of time learning about a section of the museum, it really brings it to life. Looking at a Roman bust in the British Museum is far more interesting if you’ve done a bit of background research. 3) You can step back, put things in historical context and appreciate it. How amazing is it that you get free entry to one of the greatest collections of art in the Western World? The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the greatest paintings ever and you can see it for free! Even if you see it every week! There’s an EasterIsland statue at the British Museum. I’ll never go to Easter Island so I should appreciate this. One visit is never enough.

Wi-Fi on the tube sucks
On first thought, this sounded awesome. Reading news underground. Accessing messenger services. Downloading podcasts. But it sucks. It really sucks. There were very few places in this town where you could plausibly claim to be out of reach. Bed. Shower. Tube. They’re a brief respite from the constantly connected world of work and event invites. I fondly reminisce about times where I could relax for 40 minutes on commute and not worry about my phone pinging at every station. I remember when a book was a necessity on my commute. Thanks to Wi-Fi on the tube, I don’t read any more. Instead I’m frantically refreshing my phone to try and hook into Virgin Wi-Fi for the 30-40 seconds I can get on at every stop, refreshing my Messenger or Guardian feed. or, at the very least, claiming I was in the tube when the girl I liked hit me up. Give me back my downtime dammit! Giver me time to think about how to reply!

So that’s what I’ve learned in my four years here. Surely you can’t kick me out now! This is better than knowing all the kings and queens of England! Or what year the battle of Waterloo was! Or how this government makes laws!I know stuff! I’m part of your society dammit! Please don’t kick me out. Please! Please.