Today, July 20, 2022, marks two years to the day since I left London destined for Toronto, Canada. We were eager to be reunited as a family, but it wasn’t the farewell we had imagined, thanks to the terrifying pandemic that had gripped England. It was a bizarre departure from the place we had called home for over three years. There was no festive gathering, farewell toasts, and tearful hugs from friends. In fact, there was little time for sadness, at least on my part. It was full-on execution mode to pack up, try not to get Covid, and then board a plane. This is my opportunity to reminisce, to look back and reflect on my London life and how it all began.
I first met London through the eyes of my grandmother. As a little girl sitting at her knees, I gazed in awe at her photo album. This heavy, leather-bound book with spiral binding was full of faces and foreign places.
Grandma showed me pictures of her travels to the United States and throughout Europe. Her steady fingers slightly stiff with arthritis pointed out pictures and each one had a story. I was wide-eyed in wonder, committing all the photos to memory, but it was when she spoke of London that I was most captivated. Ironically, she didn’t have pictures of her visit to Madame Tussaud’s museum but when she declared that the wax figures “looked just like real people”, I decided then and there that I would visit England one day. My plan was to head straight to Madame Tussaud’s to test whether these wax figures could trick me into thinking they were real.
My wish came true in my 18th year courtesy of my aunt, who handed me a plane ticket and pocket money and sent me on the way to visit my French uncle and half-Jamaican cousins who lived in Oxford at the time. I remember visiting Bath and Blenheim Palace, riding big double decker buses, having fancy tea at some hotel and of course, rubbing shoulders and taking photos with the stars at Madame Tussaud’s.
In the years following that trip, I visited London on several occasions. I went on short jaunts from Brussels where I was studying and working during my twenties. It was accessible and affordable via train, and I had friends who lived there. Oh, how I fell madly in love with cool Britannia – the fashion, the music, the football stars, the Spice Girls, Pret-a-Manger prepared meals and the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus. I desperately wanted to find a job in London after completing my MBA degree and although the jobs were all a longshot, I sent off several resumes. Having had no luck scoring employment, I returned home to Jamaica.
Throughout my thirties, each of my subsequent jobs took me to London on business a few times and each experience was unique. I travelled with government officials which occasionally meant being whisked through immigration and customs and offered a ‘cuppa’ before being escorted to waiting vehicles; I travelled with colleagues laden with boxes and banners to set up booths at trade fairs; I travelled with Executive Teams armed with dossiers and presentations for our sales meetings to woo potential suppliers and win new distribution contracts; and I travelled for weeklong training courses in Marketing. I always snuck in a moment during my trips to try something new in lovely, vibrant London – touring the Tate Gallery, taking in Mamma Mia on the West End, browsing independent bookstores, clubbing near Trafalgar Square, and discovering the most delectable Indian cuisine. London still had it all in my eyes.
I moved to the US, and while working in Miami, the dream of living and working in London resurfaced. It became a burning desire. By then, I had read the ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho and I firmly believed his words, “when you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you.”
My husband was open to the prospect of moving and my boss was aware of my interest. So, I set the intention to live and work in London. I found a way to write the word ‘London’ every day over a period of years. I affirmed it and then detached from it, confident that if it were meant to be, the Universe would coordinate the details.
And one day the Universe did.
The company where I worked announced a vacancy. The role was based in London, and it was an exciting opportunity to lead internal communications, so I tossed my hat in the ring. I arrived in London in January 2017 for initial meetings, ahead of confirming the big move. It rained the day I landed at Heathrow, and it flowed into a week of grey, overcast skies and snow flurries. I could sense the sunny shores of South Florida raising both eyebrows at the contract I was about to sign.
Conversations progressed throughout the week and my friend from high school in Switzerland, who had lived in the U.K. for decades, invited me over for dinner one evening. She gathered her family to give me the ‘skinny’ on London life. They were more optimistic than she was, and her warning reverberated in my brain, “Brexit’s changed things, I’m not sure you want to live here.”
Her words gave me pause. Moving my family and relocating for work was a big decision. Was this the right move? What if it didn’t work out? In that moment I wasn’t sure, but I knew I didn’t want the regret of not trying something new, of not stepping out and taking a chance on what would be a life-changing experience for me and my family.
So, I said yes.
From that moment onwards, together with my husband and two children, I entered an intense period of adjustment, discovery, and growth. We had to adjust to new working environments and new schools, we made the shift from hot and sunny Florida to cold and rainy London; and we took public transportation instead of driving around. There were many things that surprised me as I peered through the lens of a Caribbean native at the many complexities and contradictions of Great Britain.
Suffice to say, life was not without its various challenges. However, we took it all in stride and learned to live with the things we liked least, over time.
It’s like this in every new place; there are some things you love and some that you tolerate. The secret to settling in smoothly is to lower your expectations.
One of our big lessons was learning how to live on less. London is an expensive city and space is at a premium. We adapted to smaller spaces and less convenience and reimagined a life that was more about meaningful experiences. It also helped that there was plenty to love about this city with a history stretching back to Roman times.
Ten Things I Love About London…in no particular order
- The sightseeing is magnificent, and the city is walkable. We bought a book, “Walk London” and explored the city on foot.
- There are endless things to do. Pick from markets, gardens, theatres, museums, events and more. In over three years I barely scratched the surface.
- Transportation links take you everywhere. With a choice of bus, tube, train, and ferry you can explore all of London and go further afield into other cities.
- Piccadilly Circus with its bright lights and buzz of activity captivated me every single time. Yes, it’s touristy but it’s also a real slice of life with Londoners rushing through to catch the tube or bus.
- The museums are free to visit. I especially adored the V&A – Victoria and Albert Museum.
- London has a true big international city vibe. I wouldn’t quite say it’s a melting pot, but I met and made friends with many people of different nationalities and cultures.
- Supermarket grocery and prepared food is incredibly good. It’s fresh, has fewer preservatives, and is more affordable than you’d think.
- Green space is abundant within the city. Whether it’s strolling through the Royal Parks or your neighbourhood Common, I felt connected to nature. We were blessed to have Richmond Park on our doorstep with sightings of deer and the splendid Isabella Gardens.
- My love affair with fries was cemented in London. Chunky Chips became my favourite side much to the dismay of my thighs.
- Football fever is alive and well. Football (soccer) is a big deal in England, and we are huge fans. We felt more connected to the sport and embraced the opportunity to attend games.
Truthfully, I could add 20 more items to this list, as I’m feeling a renewed level of gratitude and fondness for Old Blighty. I got the chance to experience something I’d always wanted and I’ll eternally be grateful.
Although I’ve moved on and settled somewhere new, London will forever have a special place in my heart. It will always be a part of ‘my story’.
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© Arlene Amitirigala 2022. All Rights Reserved.