I wish I could tell you my moving to the UK was all sunshine and joy from day one. First of all, it wasn’t going to be sunny. I arrived at the beginning of December 2002. The day I stepped off the plane, the newspaper headline was “coldest day ever in London.” Right, so sunshine is out of the question. And, well, joy took a while too. This is my story of my first 48 hours in London, that ended in tears, and how 15 years later I look back and laugh at my wuss of a self and wonder where I find the gumption to stay. Read on, dear reader.
When I first moved to the UK, 15 years ago last month, I didn’t know a soul, had no place to live and no job to pay the rent for the eventual place I would hopefully call home. I still have no clue what I was thinking, but I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of “I have no earthly idea what I’m doing with my life after university, so this sounds like a good stopgap.” I came over on a BUNAC visa, which would allow me to live and work in the UK for up to six months, with $3,000 to my name. Today, I think BUNAC have changed their requirements, most likely after learning that certain things actually did have to be in place to make this successful for new graduates. For example, now you have to have an offer of employment or internship in order to come into the country. Way back in the day, there was no such thing needed. So there I was, 22 and completely lost as to what the next six months would hold, and the first day did not start out well.
Flashing back to that fateful day in December, I can still remember my first ever moment on UK soil like it was yesterday. My parents had very kindly offered to pay for me to take a car from the airport to the hostel we had booked, as I had two massive duffel bags of luggage with me for my six month stay. I had never navigated the tube before, and doing so with so much luggage seemed like a pretty bad idea at the time. I walked out of customs, with a trolley and a forced smile on my face. I hadn’t slept the entire flight on the way over and I was scared out of my mind. Knowing there would be a driver on the other end seemed to comfort me somewhat.
Only there wasn’t a driver. I waited half an hour and no one turned up. At this point, this wuss (me) sat down and cried. What had I done? I wasn’t a traveller. I wasn’t into adventures. I was a homebody that just wanted my mom. I kid you not. Those were my thoughts. I had made an epic mistake. I finally found the strength to get up and step out of my misery for five minutes. I fished the car company’s number from my passport wallet and visited the Gatwick information booth. Just a note: these were the days back when mobile phones were still picking up speed and obviously I didn’t have one of my own yet, so had to use a payphone. Shock horror! The woman behind the desk took pity on me after seeing my tear stained face and hearing my predicament and problem with lack of coins needed to place a call. She made the call for me and informed me that I had in fact booked my cab for the day before, not taking into account that I would be arriving a day later than the day I had originally flown out. Spot the amateur traveller.
There was no rebooking as it would apparently be hours before they could get another car out there. So, I had to find an alternative. At the time, I had £100 in cash in my pocket. This was meant to last me for a while. I was working on limited funds and I wanted to spend as little as possible. But, there was no way I was going to be able to “tube it” with two 50 lb duffel bags, a carry on and a large purse on my person. As I turned the corner, trying to make this happen, I spotted a shuttle sign for those headed into central London. The shuttle, for £25, would take you to your hostel or hotel, as long as it was within certain postcodes. I lucked out on this one. My hostel was in Paddington and I was on my way. It only took three and a half hours to get there, after stopping at over a dozen hotels to drop off other shuttle hoppers.
Now, remember I was meeting a friend in London for this little adventure. We were friends, but hadn’t been for a huge amount of time, and we had certainly not found ourselves in foreign countries together before. This was a leap of faith we were taking with each other. And there are plenty of funny stories to tell there, but that’s for another time. Arney, the friend (who incidentally is now my best friend), was waiting for me when I arrived. She helped me bring the luggage up to the room – as we had paid extra to have our own twin bed room in the hostel. I remember walking in the door, frozen solid and thinking there was a bit of a funky smell lingering in the “lobby.” I told myself, this isn’t forever, it’s just for now.
Up in the room, we threw down our luggage and opened up bags to find more layers. Remember, at this time it’s freezing outside. As neither of us had showered since the day before, we thought washing would make us feel a bit better for the night ahead. Off we went to the bathroom. Only, after 15 minutes of allowing the water to run, we discovered there was no hot water to speak of. Apparently it had gone out as the cold weather had come in. After leaping in and out of the water like Poprocks, you could say we were definitely awake and refreshed at this point. Out we went.
My first night in London, I ate at a Wagamama. Wags was my first London meal. Yup, living large, people. Saying that, it was just what the doctor ordered. Warm noodles and broth made us feel warm and whole again. As we were young American tourists, can you guess which Wagamama we headed to? Like moths to a flame, we headed straight for Leicester Square. Now, I have to admit that rather embarrassingly, I first pronounced it “Lie-chester Square.” My dad set me straight on that the night before I left and he asked what we had planned for our first big night in London town. I made the pronunciation mistake and he simply said, “Let me give you a pointer here that will keep you from looking like an American tourist. You don’t pronounce it like that.” Bless you, dad. You saved me a lot of chuckles from locals.
Post noodle fest in the bustling tourist trap that is Leicester Square, we headed back to the hostel on the tube. Arney was a pro on the tube maps. When I say pro, I mean she truly had it all figured out. I was like a scared child every time I went underground, intimidated by this rather intense and overflowing transportation system. At this point are you starting to wonder what the hell I was doing in this city?! Because, as I write, I’m wondering how the heck I got here and stayed.
We returned to our hostel to find that not only had the hot water not come back on, but the heat had failed as well. Yup, great start, just great. Arney and I both went to bed wearing half of our suitcases. We even wore mittens and hats. But, we fell asleep feeling as if we were on a crazy trek up Mount Everest and ready to continue the battle the next day. We had survived our first day.
My first full day in London started with me crying. Yup, I woke up like that. I was freezing cold, couldn’t stomach the idea of having to spend another night shivering so much that my teeth hurt, and was really ready to just change my flight and head back then and there. Arney suggested we go out for breakfast, grab a Loot (back in the day this was the paper where you found jobs, apartments and more), and look into getting ourselves out of this rather bleak situation. We found a local cafe around the corner and Arney went in as I visited a pay phone to call my parents and let them know I survived.
When my parents picked up the phone, I burst into tears and stated, “I was wrong, I can’t do this. I want to come home. Please help me get home.” Seriously, who is this person I am even writing about here? I don’t recognise myself, yet I can remember it clear as if it were yesterday. Both my mom and dad handled my breakdown like seasoned pros. They promised that things could only get better, that I had to stick it out for at least another day or two and then we would talk. I hung up the phone feeling no better and just missing my sensible parents more.
Walking into the cafe, I’m pretty sure Arney must have thought she had made a massive mistake inviting me on this little life adventure with her. I was a drag and dragging her down with me.
Then came the turning point, thanks to one woman, that, for the life of me, I wish I could remember her name and the cafe we were in so I could go back and thank her all these years later. I sat down and the waitress came over and put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Love, you need a cup of tea. Everything always looks better after a cup of hot tea.” I had never been a tea drinker, never pictured myself as a tea drinker and thought for sure this lady was insane. She popped a blue mug of murky brown water in front of me, with a serving of sugar and a small silver jug full of milk. Arney and I sat there, looking through the paper and circling possibilities for jobs and flats, as I clutched the warm mug with both shaking hands. As I came to the bottom of my mug, the whole world seemed to have changed. To this day, I give that cup of tea all the credit in the world for my staying. It made me whole again and ready to take on London. I am crazy, and realise I sound even more like one after revealing all of this now. But, I do believe every single thing happens for a reason and that cup of tea was placed before me by an angel.
So, it must be noted that before my arrival in London, I had spent two months writing letters to every gallery, auction house and museum in London, enquiring after job opportunities. Every single potential employer wrote back to me and more or less said “thanks but better luck next time.” Somehow, I thought it would all iron itself out once I was on the ground and that was that. Finding a job wasn’t going to be the easiest thing the closer we got to Christmas, but I just believed it would happen. Before we found jobs, however, we needed to sort out the living situation. The hostel was hell on earth and we couldn’t stay.
Back in the early days of the internet (God, I can’t believe I’m saying that…. I am basically a dinosaur), real estate agents weren’t really using it at all with rental listings. In London, most flat hunting was done the old fashioned way – through a real estate agent and their rolodex of properties. Our second day in London, we threw ourselves at the mercy of a sweet couple who ran an office just off Bond Street. They gave us four addresses. To this day, I can’t remember two of them, and Arney and I speak about this regularly. We remember the first was a council estate where we would be sharing a room with twin beds- not ideal. The second was similar, but also had bullet holes in the window – obviously a pass. The third was a studio in Notting Hill where we could barely move around the room. The fourth, and final, was THE ONE.
We visited at dusk, around 3pm in the winter, and fell in love with the landlords before we even saw the flat. They were two artists, living in Tufnell Park, in their eighties. They lived in the ground floor and basement of the house itself. The flat was a third floor walk up, that had a garden gate at the bottom of the spiral staircase leading upstairs, where really a locked door should have existed. People, we moved into a flat with no door. I still can’t believe that. But, we walked into a bright one bedroom flat with an en suite bathroom, a separate kitchen and a living room that would easily double as a second bedroom so we could both have our own space, and we fell in love. We told them, on the spot, that we would take it. It would, naturally, cost us most of our savings to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit, but we were seduced by the space of the flat, the view of London from the living room window and working heat!
We moved in the next day. Even the advisers at BUNAC were stunned by how quickly we found accommodation. Turns out the best thing you can do to motivate yourself to move faster is to book yourself into an absolute dump of a hostel. We couldn’t get out fast enough.
But wait, there’s more… to come! If you can stomach more of this country girl battling the big city. I promise it becomes less cringe worthy!