Living in London — A Native New Yorker Crossing the Pond
I’ve always felt a bit smug when people say living in New York is hard. Hard for them, maybe, but not for someone like me, graced with an innate talent for city living and urban savvy. Ridiculous, right? New York is one of the world’s largest, most overwhelming cities — its nicknames even hint at the larger-than-life character of the place (“the Big Apple,” “the city that never sleeps”). To think that tackling this kind of urban jungle is easy is clearly a misguided notion. Nevertheless, it took me nearly 21 years to figure that out.
I was born in the city, and immediately began my love affair with it. I always am incredulous when friends themselves seem shocked that I grew up in the city yet do not seem to be suffering from any city-induced psychotic state. I’m similarly taken aback when people vehemently profess that they would never raise kids there. Fair enough, I grew up in Tribeca, whose wide streets and quiet residential feel is far from the suffocating mess of Times Square (if I never have to cross those tourist-packed streets again, I will die a happy woman). Nevertheless, my childhood was still New York-specific; I was taking cabs and subways alone by middle school, my notion of home equated with apartment rather than two-story Victorian with a backyard, and I was used to walking past a Chinese, French, and American restaurant side-by-side on the same block. I took the energy, variety, complexity of New York for granted; I assumed it was the norm rather than the exception.
I briefly flirted with the notion of leaving the city for college, but quickly dropped that idea. Instead, I inched up the island of Manhattan, attending university a mere 20 blocks from my Upper West Side high school. I’ve always professed great satisfaction with that decision — while others of my classmates couldn’t wait to get out and be someplace new, I figured that boredom with a city like New York was impossible and saw no reason to go elsewhere.
Well, until this year that is. The ubiquitous junior year abroad. Semester, really. I’d always had the romantic notion that I would go to Paris, until I realized my French would forever remain merely conversational. Despite my complete contentment in New York, I was somewhat disenchanted with school and wanted a new experience. I settled on London, UCL to be exact. Doubts did creep in as I was finalizing my decision, as giving up a semester at a school I ultimately do enjoy being at, among my friends and the many clubs and activities I’ve involved in, is a major decision. Yet I almost felt compelled to go; I needed to live elsewhere, even if it was just to confirm New York was the place for me.
I really gave rather little thought to the fact that I would be in a completely new city and even country until I got here. And I almost didn’t get here. A visa mess-up on my end resulted in an hour-long wait at Customs, as border guards affirmed that I was in fact simply an eager student and nothing more. A busy few days of orientation activities and sight-seeing, along with my dad, kept me occupied at first — I still felt like a tourist. It was only then that I truly started to settle in and realize that no two cities are alike — London and New York are (literally and figuratively) an ocean apart.
I don’t think I truly grasped I was living here until I first had to do the basics: grocery shopping and laundry. I’m used to skipping over to Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s, or any number of health and environmentally-conscious grocery stores in New York. Plus, they all stock my favorite brands, whether it’s obscure Icelandic yogurt or artisanal dark chocolate. Walking down the aisles of Sainsbury’s, my eyes scanned for recognizable brands — nothing. While it’s similar (it’s all food after all), it wasn’t quite what I was used to. If I need a night in and Netflix, it’ll have to be sans sweet potato chips– not going to find my comfort foods here.
Getting used to new food isn’t a huge deal. I guess I just didn’t realize how predictable I’d gotten. The tube was a whole different game. I think the New York subway is great — okay, good. The convenience is unparalleled, as you rarely have to walk more than a few blocks to find any station or your desired one in particular. Also, you just swipe in and pocket your metro card. Here, they’re not letting you get away quite that fast. Instead, you also tap your Oyster card, the equivalent of a Metro card, to get out. The reason is for calculating the fare — depending on where you go from and where you go to (London is divided into “zones”), the price differs. While conceptually it’s more rider-friendly, I still find myself annoyed by the tapping in and then out again.
Nor is the tube the only source of transportation anxiety for me. I’ve had to get used to riding buses, which in New York I wrote off as for those who had too much time on their hands and could afford to move a block an hour. Whereas in London, the buses are vital — rarely does a journey not involve hopping on one. While I’ve gotten accustomed to using them, I still am continuously checking route maps and stops, and have more than once boarded a bus in the wrong direction.
This account is starting to drag on, and I don’t want to bore you with the quotidian details of my ineptitude. It’s just that ineptitude that I want to point out — merely being a New Yorker didn’t translate into a seamless transition into London life. I had to and still am learning how to live in this city. It’s a humbling but necessary experience, but one that I am glad to have undertaken. I’m adaptable and resilient, but I’m not an immediate expert in whatever city I land. One thing I do know for sure — it always will be a city that I call home.