Next Friday, I leave London after almost four years in the UK. I’m off to New York, to make a go of it in what has been my favourite city ever since I stepped foot onto Eighth Avenue outside Penn Station for the first time eight years ago. I’m a little bit daunted, a little bit excited, but mostly it still doesn’t feel entirely real. I suppose it won’t feel real until the taxi pulls up at my (unexpectedly awesome) new apartment the night I arrive.
The last four years have been… well, a lot of things. I’ve gotten married. Gotten a book deal and finally finished the book I’ve been planning to finish, oh, since 2009 or so? Sort of, anyway. There’s still another round of edits or two to go, but it will be on your shelves sometime next year. Probably spring if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn if you’re in the Southern. I’ve been to a “salon” in France (twice!), done a TEDx talk, seen some amazing art and theatre, and interviewed Kate Moss, Natalie Portman and Tina Fey.
I’ve also spent a lot of time feeling like London was impenetrable to me. I’ve walked into events where I’ve known no one, tried to strike up a conversation with a stranger, failed and ended up retreating into my phone to email friends on the other side of the world. I’ve bemoaned the difficulty of finding “my people,” despite the fact that I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know a whole bunch of really lovely ones (even if those who were expats like me kept leaving). I’ve felt increasingly distant from the country that I am from, and quietly grieved my loss. For a long time, I felt like I was trapped in a place where I didn’t really belong, where I had become a less interesting, confident, vibrant version of myself.
Despite this, I leave London feeling both satisfied with the time I’ve spent here, and equally, like I could happily spend another four years in the city. I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of London, made an impact (however small), and yes, “found my people” here. I’ve also learned a lot about myself and what makes me happy along the way; things that perhaps I knew intuitively before, but which were placed into sharper relief by plonking myself on the opposite side of the planet and forcing myself to start all over again.
Here are six of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
1. Create, don’t just consume. When I first moved to London, I loaded up on events and activities in an attempt to meet new people and get a feel for the city. I joined a co-working space, went to literary events, struck up conversations with strangers and so on. This worked, at least a bit: I did meet new people, some of whom invited me to things where I could meet other new people, and some of whom I’m still in touch with. One friend, whom I sat next to by chance at a feminist conference and struck up a conversation with, later invited me to see Germaine Greer talk with her at her university in the Midlands, eat pancakes and quesadillas, and sing musical theatre songs. It was a great weekend, we’re still in touch, and I wish she lived in London so we could have done it more often. But going to events and introducing yourself to strangers is also exhausting. At least, it is for me.
I found my happiness in London increased dramatically towards the end of 2012/beginning of 2013, when I started not only attending other people’s events but creating my own, through my weekly hosting work at Hub Islington and my feminist discussion group. Being a creator rather than just a consumer helps you to feel a part of something greater than yourself. It also taps you into a community far more than simply showing up at stuff might. For my part, I love organising things, but for you this might mean volunteering at your local Oxfam shop, reaching out to someone who’s already running something you enjoy, or so on.
2. Put your hand up for things. Feel crappy that you’re nowhere near well connected/known enough to be approached by others to do the things you’d like to do? Well, no shiz – you’re a newbie. Instead of hiding in the background, get in touch with people who are doing things you think are cool and volunteer your time and expertise. Most of the time, they’ll be glad to hear from you. And if they’re not, that says more about them than it does about you.
3. If something isn’t working, let it go. A lot of my early un-ease in London was a product of the fact that I held on for too long to things that weren’t a great fit for me. I joined the first co-working space I visited, and stayed even though I barely spoke to anyone there. I chased friendships with people who, in retrospect, probably didn’t really want to be friends with me. It’s hard not to do this, sometimes. You want to let people and places find their groove. But in New York I plan to try out a whole bunch of different workspaces to see which one fits, and although there are people there I already rather adore and hope to hang out with all the time, if that doesn’t transpire, so be it. Letting go of the things that don’t work opens up space for those that do.
4. Nothing lasts forever, so appreciate it while it lasts. In my first few months in London, I didn’t know how long I would be here for, so I drank in every opportunity I could. When a then stranger invited me to attend her “artists’ salon” in the north of France, I said yes (after doing due diligence, of course), because what is the point of moving to London and working for yourself if not to be able to yes to things like that? I bought tickets to oddball plays and shows, because who knew when I would have the opportunity to do so again? Similarly, in my last few weeks, I’ve been taking in everything, gazing up at St Pauls or Trafalgar Square as my bus crawls by at night, observing the cherry blossoms that pop up on the trees in spring.
But the truth is, my time in London has always been temporary, no matter how long I was going to be here for. And if there is one thing I could go back and change about my time here, it would be to retain that sense of wonder for all four years I was here. And even if you’re not living on the opposite side of the world to where you grew up, the same is true for you. The part of your life that you are living now will only last so long, so drink it in while it’s here.
5. But don’t let the fact that it’s temporary stop you from making deep connections. I’ve only been friends with one of my current favourite people in London for about three months. A tragedy, you might say – to meet a friend crush of such proportions right as you are about to leave the country. But as I told her via song when I had her over to my place for dinner a few weeks back, I prefer to take a Sandy and Danny approach to these things: just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean the friendship isn’t worthwhile. In our globalised age, there’s no reason why my friends in London won’t someday be in New York, or Sydney, or wherever else I end up, or why I won’t end up in London again. And a great friendship is a great friendship no matter how long it lasts.
6. Don’t feel bad about hanging out with other Australians. Or Minnesotans, or Colombians, or wherever else you’re from. Sure, it’s true that you generally don’t move to another continent to hang out with the same people you spent your time with back home. But there is something nice about crossing paths again with people you’ve known in another time and place, and adding a new dimension to your friendship. I’ve gotten to know some amazing Australians in my time here whom I never would have gotten to know so well in Australia, and I’m grateful for those friendships. Plus if you’re from the same place, it’s even more likely that your paths will cross again in the future. So, don’t avoid people from the place that you’re from just to escape the “expat ghetto.” And don’t limit yourself to pursuing friendships only with the locals, either. One of the best things about living in a global city is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world.
Related: Going where thousands of Australians have gone before.
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