When I was a child, my family and I would go on these one-day bus trips from Antwerp to London to go Christmas shopping. It’s the most idiotic thing: you get up at 4am, spend seven hours on a bus where the average age is 82, don’t actually arrive until 12pm, leave around 4pm and spend seven more hours on that bus. We would go to Oxford Street and have dinner at Garfunkel’s. That was about it. Yet for ten-year old me, that was enough.
In the years that followed I started thinking of London and The Promised Land and moving there was my number one goal. I had fallen head-over-heels with this city and my naïve little head was convinced that it was a place where everything was wonderful, where everyone was outrageously happy all the time and where no bad things ever happened. Whenever I would be on holiday in London and I would see someone cry, fight, or look upset, I wanted to go up to them and say: ‘How dare you be unhappy? You’re in London!’ I would sit on the tube with the biggest smile on my face (which, looking back, must have looked very strange).
If you’ve ever played The Sims, you know that it’s possible for your Sim to achieve an ultimate level of happiness. It’s an extremely ambitious task, but once you’ve reached that level, your virtual project will never be unhappy ever again. That’s what the idea of moving to London felt like.
As I got older, that image changed. Not much though. Sure, I started realising that I had put London on a pedestal that was a tad too unrealistic, but the passion never faded. I would scroll through London accounts on Instagram and cry because I wanted to be there so badly. Every chance I got, I jumped on the Eurostar to St Pancras. At night, I would stand on Primrose Hill or Tower Bridge and promise myself that one day, I would stay. If teenage me liked acting like she was in a noughties romcom? Maybe. If twenty-eight-year old me still likes acting like that? Perhaps.
When I made the decision to move here in August 2019 (I can’t believe it’s been more than a year), a lot of people asked me if I was sure this was the right thing for me. What if I would regret it? That made me laugh. I’d been dreaming about this moment for the last fifteen years. I had never been more sure of anything. But although that was the case, you can never be a hundred percent certain that these things will work out the way you hope they will. There’s a big difference between going somewhere on holiday with a vacation budget that allows you to live your best life for the entire duration of your trip, and actually living and working there.
It’s been sixteen months since I moved my entire life across the Channel, and even though more than half of that time I haven’t been able to enjoy the UK as much as I would have liked, I still think I’ve been here long enough to list my pros and cons. And it’s your lucky day, because I’m sharing those with you!
London rent prices are nauseating.
Everyone knows that London is an insanely expensive city to live in. However, I’ve noticed that many people assume that, because the cost of living is so high, the salaries must be high as well: ‘London is expensive, but surely people earn a lot more money there to make up for that, right?’ Well…no. A lot of people my age (with degrees) have net salaries of about 1500 pounds. If you want a decent(-ish) apartment that’s less than two hours away from Central London, you’ll find yourself paying at least 1400 for it. Therefore, it’s completely normal to share your home with a handful of people until you’re well into your forties. In fact, if you live alone, you’re kind of the exception.
London is far from the only city where the rent prices are so astronomical, but I recently looked for properties in Berlin to see what the same amount of money would get me there. I would be living in a three-bedroom loft in a location so central that I could touch Brandenburger Tor from my balcony. I’m not gonna lie: reading that was painful. I may or may not have wept a little.
The truth is, if you decide to live in London, whether you rent a place or you decide to buy, you’ll always have a lot less for a lot more money compared to other places.
Making friends is difficult
From September until February, I had visitors almost every single weekend. It felt like I was running an Airbnb for free. When I didn’t have visitors, I wanted to spend time by myself or with the people I had already met in the UK. This probably goes for most people, but once you’ve entered that going-to-work-going-back-home-loading-and-unloading-the-dishwasher life, you don’t meet new people that easily anymore. You have to put in some effort.
I should know better by now, but I still tell myself that I will magically become this extravert that loves hitting the clubs every two days, goes to events every day after work, knows all the best places in town, and who’s kitchen is spotless because why eat at home when you can check out the latest food trends? In reality though, I love staying at home more than anything and if I have to leave my house more than twice a week, I need at least four days of interrupted me-time to recover.
In February, I decided to start actively looking for friends in London. I bought theatre tickets and scheduled events and parties in my calendar because I wanted to go out and meet people. My year was fully booked. I was ready to start discovering all that London life had to offer, ready to steal hearts left and right, ready to make tons and tons of friends. Here I come, future chums! Well, we all know what happened next.
I like to think that, had this been a normal year, I would have met a lot more people already. But hey, the more friends you have right now, the more people you’re not allowed to see, so what’s the point?
Public transport costs an arm and a leg (and it’s not that much better)
I’m from Belgium. When it comes to public transport, the bar is set quite low. I really don’t expect much. I’m used to trains being an hour late or getting cancelled more often than not. Well, the thing is: public transport in the UK is much more expensive, and the quality is basically the same.
When I was still working in Windsor, some of my colleagues spent around 400 pounds per month on trains that were about as reliable as the Daily Mail comment section on Facebook. Again, I’m not used to good public transport and even I was shocked. I can’t imagine being from Germany and having to deal with this mess.
In Flanders, I would pay around 300 GBP for an annual travel card for all busses, trams and metros. In London, depending on which zones you want to travel to, an annual travel card will set you back 2000 GBP. Going to work by train would have meant an extra 3000 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly. Oh, and employers don’t pay for these kinds of things like they do in Belgium. If you’re extremely lucky, your employer might give you a loan so that you can afford going to work.
The quality of London homes is, well, not great.
Extremely high rent prices do not mean higher salaries, and they definitely do not mean higher quality of homes. I feel like, in general, houses and flats in the UK are in much worse condition than in other European countries. Especially in London, landlords tend to not give a tiny rat’s arse about the quality of their property. Why would they? There’s always someone desperate enough to rent it, no matter how shitty it is.
I’m very lucky that my budget allowed me to be picky (not too much though) and that my landlord cares about his property and his tenants. But even I’ve had more than my fair share of issues. First of all: boilers are an absolute joke in this country. I don’t know why or how, but everyone I know has boiler nightmare stories. The first three months in my apartment, I basically had no hot water. People came over, looked at it (when I say looked I mean looked, from a distance) and left. Eventually, somebody replaced a small part, which fixed the issue for a couple of months until it started again. Nobody is surprised when they hear this. They sigh and go: ‘Yeah, that’s the UK’. What?
Apparently, every flat in this building had their boilers installed at the same time, which must have been around the time Anne Boleyn was executed. Now, they all need replacing, but that simply doesn’t happen.
A girl in my building told me that, for twenty minutes a day, her boiler makes the most deafening noise. It happened during the finale of The Great British Bake-Off, just when they were about to announce the winner. She was NOT amused. When she called the plumber, she was told that there was nothing they could do unless she recorded the sound and sent it to them. And I recently heard another story of a woman who was told by her plumber that she definitely needed a new boiler but that – and listen carefully – ‘That was too much work and they didn’t feel like doing it.’
I could write a separate blog post about boilers in the UK, but let’s move on to the next thing. In my living room, there’s a light that switches off after half an hour. Twenty minutes later, it comes back on for half an hour, until it switches off again. When I Googled this, I discovered that people thought this was perfectly normal. ‘It switches off when it gets overheated, obviously.’ I still don’t think lights are supposed to do this, but I find it more amusing than annoying.
Those big, white, typical houses that you see in Notthing Hill or Kensington look nice, but unless you’re a millionaire, those are not for you. Most people in London live in houses that look rather sad and dilapidated. Another thing I’ve noticed: most of these houses have a front garden or terrace, and people put insane amounts of garbage there. Furniture, boxes, bins… It’s a miracle they can get to their front doors.
London is gigantic
When I told my friends back home that my ‘support bubble’ during lockdown consisted of the receptionist, they asked me why I couldn’t just meet up with people I know in the city.
In Belgian cities, even in the big ones, if takes about fifteen minutes by bike to go from the north end of the centre, to the south end. In London, you’re lucky if the public transport journey from point A to point B is less than an hour. During lockdown, we were not allowed to use public transport. See the problem?
I have one friend that lives relatively close. If I want to meet up with her, that’s a 40-minute walk for both of us to meet somewhere in the middle. I don’t know anyone in my area, because I never spend any time here since there’s not a lot do to. I’m moving closer to the centre though, so I’m hopeful I’ll make some friends in my new neighbourhood.
When I was living in Antwerp, it took me 40 minutes to drive to Ghent, which is considered far. It takes me longer than that to go from my place to Picadilly Circus now. In fact, my definition of a long journey has changed completely. An hour and a half on the tube to meet someone for a coffee is nothing. In Belgium, if you voluntarily travel that long, it’s probably because you’re going on holiday.
In Antwerp, my friends and I would walk to our local bar and walk back home a couple of hours later. I know that, even if I make more friends in London, I’ll probably never be in a situation again where everyone I know is less than twenty minutes away. In Belgian cities, everything feels rather compact and cosy. Every concert hall, bar or restaurant in my city was within walking distance. When friend A asked friend B if they knew Simon who lived in Ghent, 9 out of 10 the answer was yes. Image asking someone: ‘Hey, do you know Emma who lives here in London?’…
London is gigantic
I know, we just talked about this. But the fact that London is so big is easily one of the best things about living here. You can visit a different area every week and never get tired of this city. You’ve seen every neighbourhood? Just start over, because there will be so many new things to discover! I moved here almost a year and a half ago and my list of places to visit is still getting longer instead of shorter. There’s just so much to do and see!
The main reason I fell in love with London all those years ago, is because this city feels like a lot of different cities in one. Richmond, Notting Hill, Brixton…they are all separate, unique worlds. So no matter what mood you’re in, there’s always a perfect place to go.
Even though I also think there’s something nice about smaller cities where everyone knows each other, I still very much prefer the anonymity that comes with living in a place like London. You hardly ever run into someone you know and you can do whatever you want, because no one knows who you are. I find that extremely liberating.
There’s quiet places everywhere. Yes, really!
London is crowded, no one can deny this. But although it might not seem like it, there’s so many little parks and hidden squares if you’re looking for some peace and quiet. Even in the middle of the city! You can be in a sea of people on Oxford Street one minute, and in an empty park the next.
London is open-minded
A few weeks after I moved here, I went to the hair salon for the first time. I’ve been a fan of Bleach London products for years, so I was thrilled that I could finally get my hair done at the salons and become a regular customer.
The first thing I saw when I stepped inside that salon, was someone with a leopard buzzcut. Well, I don’t think we’re in Flanders anymore, where, when I asked hairdressers if they could dye my hair pink or lilac, they looked at me as if I’d just asked them to give me both their lungs. Bleach London gave me a form with questions about the condition of my hair, possible allergies, and my pronouns. Where I’m from, that’s simply unimaginable.
Anything goes in London. There is no haircut, look or outfit too extravagant. Even before I moved here, I would book trips to London and fill my suitcase with my most flamboyant outfits because I felt a lot more comfortable wearing those things here, than at home.
People of colour who have also moved to the UK have told me that, in London, they don’t get asked ‘where they’re really from’ as often as in their hometowns or countries. I think Londoners are a lot more open-minded in general. More woke, if you will. Obviously, that’s partly due to the fact that people who feel like they can’t be themselves in small cities or villages tend to move to bigger places such as London. I’ll let you decide if I’m one of those people.
In London, the world comes together. Brixton, for example, is dubbed ‘little Jamaica’, whereas Camden has a large Latin-American community. Tooting is known for its Indian markets and Chinatown…well, I think that one’s obvious. You can find restaurants and markets from all over the world in one city.
There’s literally nothing I love more than visiting bookshops and buying way too many books. In Flanders, I can count my favourite bookshops on one hand. There’s one, maybe two, nice ones in every big city. That’s it. It goes without saying that London is book heaven for me. Gone are the days of looking for that one shelf in the whole shop that has books in English (usually Stephen King and Danielle Steel). There are hundreds (hundreds!) of lovely bookshops in London. The books are cheaper, it takes less long to reach for new titles to reach the shelves and there are soooooo many book events. Heaven, I tell you! Although I suspect my Monzo feels differently.
Public transport is (slightly) better
If you’ve ever used public transport in Belgium or if you’re used to a place with the same level of quality of public transport, you’ll most likely agree that the UK is at least a little bit better at it. Especially in London, if you need to wait more than 10 minutes for a tube or bus, that’s considered an eternity. Even when one line is not running that day, there are several alternatives that will still get you to your destination. And unlike in Belgian cities where if you miss the last train or bus you’re beyond all help, public transport in London runs at night. Now to be fair, considering the price, you should get a private coach with a library and a masseur, but that’s another discussion.
You’re on a film set wherever you go
A walk along South Bank? Bridget Jones! Shopping at Leadenhall Market? Harry Potter! Chilling at the steps in front of St Paul’s Cathedral? Mary Poppins! A flight that arrives at Heathrow Airport? Love Actually! Going for lunch in Notting Hill? Notting Hill!
Tons and tons of books and films are set in London and if you live here, you can visit those places as often as you like! That might not mean a lot to you, but if you’re someone who likes walking on Tower Bridge whilst listening to Out of Reach by Gabrielle as if they’re Bridget Jones, or someone who goes for walks in Hyde Park like they’re a character in Downton Abbey, your options are endless. Not that I am one of those people, of course…
Londoners are super friendly
Some people disagree and would even state the opposite, but in my experience, Londoners are friendly. Yes, the English are rather reserved, but although most people won’t break into song during their morning commute (that would be great though), most of them are kind if you ask them something or if you initiate the conversation.
Something that happens to me a lot, is that people spontaneously walk up to me to compliment me on my hair or my outfit. That makes my whole day. People in shops tend to be very friendly as well. Although to be fair: I’ve lived in Berlin. Once you’ve spent some time there, every other place in the world will seem friendly.
The UK is one massive holiday destination
Honestly, I could spend the rest of my life on this island, only go on holiday in the UK, and I would be perfectly content. My to-do list of UK holidays is gigantic: road trips, short getaway, city trips,… In 2020, most of the travelling happened between my sofa and my fridge, but I did go on a mini road trip to South Wales and it was phenomenal!
Opening hours in London are the best
This might look a bit out of place in this list, but I HATE the opening hours in Belgium. Shops close at five or six, supermarkets around seven, and everything is closed on Sundays. In London, I have a Sainsbury’s next door and it closes at eleven. Love it. The big shops usually don’t usually close before 8 or 9 PM and Sundays don’t mean you can’t go shopping.
When my friend Jason – an American who moved to Belgium – came to visit, he expressed his feelings on the matter: ‘Oh fucking finally, some decent opening hours. I’ve missed that.’ Exactly. Nothing better after a long walk along South Bank than buying a book or two (or eight) at Foyles.
London is where it’s at
Big West End musical productions or obscure plays with an audience of ten people, debates, book events, open-air cinemas, workshops, free museums, festivals, activities based on every theme or topic imaginable…London has it all in abundance.
It can be difficult to keep track of every event, bar, restaurant, or museum you want to go to. In Antwerp, I would just check the handful of venues I liked on social media to see if they had anything going on. In London, that would be a fulltime job. It doesn’t matter what you want to do or what you’re interested in, there’s a plethora of possibilities every single day. And when an artist goes on tour, the chances of them not paying London a visit are small.
I no longer need to place online orders and pay international shipping to enjoy things from my favourite shops. They’re just a couple of tube stops away! There’s a shop for every occasion or style. I’m obsessed with those shops that look like Victorian apothecaries or clothing stores, and there’s so many of those in London.
The UK has always fascinated me
I love the United Kingdom. I love the culture, the language, the history, the literature, the castles, the tea, the actors, the singers… I’ve always loved this country and I probably always will. So it’s only logical for me to live here, isn’t it?
In conclusion: Moving to London was the best decision I’ve ever made
I no longer think that London is a paradise where everything’s perfect. But in all honestly, I’m still as in love with this city as I was when I was ten. Possibly more.
Every time I arrive at Picadilly Circus, every time I’m walking along South Bank, every time I’m looking at the Trafalgar Square fountains, I can’t help but get excited and think: ‘Oh my God, I live in London!!!’ I still feel like I’m on holiday in the best way possible.
During my last year in Belgium, it became clear to me that I needed to take the leap and move to London. I needed a change of scenery and I needed to find myself again. Ever since I moved to London, I feel much happier and calmer.
Granted, these past couple of months have been far from ideal. Still, I haven’t regretted this decision. Not once. No country or city is perfect, so obviously there are things that I prefer in Belgium or that I wish were different, but the positives outweigh the negatives. That’s a no-brainer. Sometimes, people ask me if I would consider ever moving back to Belgium. Never say never, but right now I would say…never. I’m so happy here. And if that means I’ll never have a properly working boiler again, so be it.
What are your favourite and least favourite things about living in London? Let me know in the comments!