Why I am breaking up with London

Robert Frank: London Street, 1951

To be in your early 20s and live in London is cool. It’s exciting, it’s filled with great opportunities and amazing things to experience. At least that’s what people say. And the people who usually say that are not in their early 20s and are not living in London. For a long time, I believed too, that London was the best city to live in. I thought people who decided to move to Amsterdam, or South Africa or back to Romania were crazy. In my mind, London was superior and living anywhere else meant missing out. But the more time I spent in London, the more my perspective shifted.

I moved to London when I was 19. I came here to study and because I had no idea what to choose, I picked a really crap university. Coming from Bucharest, Romania, I foolishly thought that even the worst university in London would be better than the best university back home. I chose London Met because it was right in the middle of London and at that time I had no idea that the best universities were usually miles away from London. The lesson here is that if you ever want to come to London, just don’t enrol at London Met.

Because I went to a crap university, there weren’t many interesting people to befriend. And as an Eastern European who didn’t come from a rich family, I also had to work full-time in order to support myself financially. This meant less time to get drunk with colleagues on random Wednesday nights or to hang out at Starbucks for hours on end. What I kept telling myself during uni was that everything will be fine once I graduated because London was filled with great opportunities. And while the latter is true, when you’re a 20 years old Romanian with a Liberal Arts degree, the same opportunities don’t actually apply to you.

If you want to write, work in fashion or art, there are a few harsh realities to accept. Unpaid internships are not an option if you don’t have family in London or friends on whose couches you can sleep indefinitely. Even getting a full-time job that pays an entry-level salary is a joke. I’ll let you do the math on how you can live with less than £1,500 a month, including rent, a student loan, tube fare and bills. Things may be different if you know Photoshop or have studied computer science or economics. But I didn’t like computer science or maths, I liked words and history.

Read today’s magazines, blogs, books and listen to TED talks, and you’ll discover a common theme: everyone speaks about pursuing your passion. It seems like educated elites are transfixed with fear at the idea of doing a job that is not their passion. After hearing countless stories of people who turned their cupcake-making hobby into a successful start-up, I was more confused than ever. How do you reconcile this conflict between doing what you love and earning a living? If your passion is writing but the demand for jobs is in technology or finance, what do you do? Do you give up writing so you can learn to write code instead?

After years of sending my essays to Vogue and Elle, I realised that the kids who got the internships or jobs were those who went to private school, studied at Oxbridge and who still lived with their parents. But there was another bitter pill to swallow: later on I also understood that despite my hard work, these were the people who would one day afford to buy a house in London while I’d be doomed to share with strangers for eternity. And so I tried the other avenue of doing something that was ‘in demand’, as opposed to what I loved. But that didn’t work out.

Along with the lesson in equal opportunities, I also learned a hard one about the plethora of choices London has to offer. To have a decent life in London you need to work like a maniac. What I mean by decent life is not having to live 2 hours away from your job, being able to go to the movies from time to time and buy apples from Whole Foods. All choices we make come at a price and for me, the cost of a ‘decent’ life in London was spending half of my earnings on rent and not being able to save. The irony here is that even if I saved, I would then end up spending that money on shoes or holidays because my savings could never buy me something substantial like a house.

London really does spoil you when it comes to choices and before you know it, you become addicted to the idea of having access to anything you want. Shopping at Whole Foods is like therapy. Going to art galleries and to the theatre every weekend is perfection. Eating in cool restaurants, walking around beautiful streets and admiring beautiful architecture becomes habit. You wonder how you could ever live in a city where society is broken and the system corrupt when everything in London is so civilised, so developed, everything works as it’s supposed to and people are polite. For a while, you actually believe that these things that London scores points for are what counts as ‘quality of life’. But I one day woke up and realised that all of those things only begin to scratch the surface of what life actually means.

When you go to work at 9 in the morning, never leave the office before 7 in the evening, then spend another hour commuting, there really isn’t much time left to enjoy all those amazing things London has to offer. I was shopping at Planet Organic the other night, where I had gotten after walking for 20 minutes in the pissing rain. It was a Friday night, the supermarket was empty and a Coldplay song was playing on the radio. I picked a punnet of nice strawberries and spent a few minutes thinking I couldn’t care less about the strawberries, the organic chocolate, the green juices and the perfectly ripe avocados. All these amazing choices you have mean nothing when you’re too jaded to actually make a choice. When there’s no one there at the end of the day to give you a hug, having great restaurants and amazing museums on your doorstep is really not going to cut it anymore.

A French man said to me that Londoners are always sad and angry. I thought about it and realised that most of the time I am sad and angry as well. Angry because people push me and cough in my face on the morning commute. Angry because work sometimes makes me so anxious, not even yoga can help relax. Sad that I only have about 3 hours left in a day to do things I like. Sad that friends won’t meet you for a spontaneous rendez-vous because they’re too tired and cranky and because distances are too big. Not that I actually have many friends, because another lesson I learned is that as a foreigner in London, making friends is harder than finding a flat you like.

People here tend to stick with the friends they made in school and the older they grow, the less likely they are to be open at the idea of making new ones. Over the years I have tried really hard to get close to certain people but I failed every time. It’s not just because British people are cold, it’s a cultural barrier that no matter how civilised the society is as a whole, on a personal level you can’t break. People are polite, people will go out for beers with you, they will ask you about your weekend plans and then stop listening once you’re in the middle of telling them about your weekend plans. People in London will almost never say something politically incorrect or rude to your face, yet they will somehow make you feel like a leper by keeping their distance.

After nearly 2 years of sharing a flat with the same person, I am still unable to get more than a few niceties out of him. He’s 36, hangs with a group of friends he made when he was a teenager and has no interest in being friends with me. I remember a few weeks back when he had made a huge lasagna and was getting it out of the oven as I walked in from work. I was tired, cold and hungry, and he never offered a slice. In Romania, even if you went to a complete stranger’s house and they had just cooked something, they would tie you down to a chair and force you to eat. I don’t really like lasagna and I had my own food waiting for me in the fridge, but these are the cultural differences that still bewilder me.

It is quite a paradox that in a city so big, it’s so difficult to make friends. But if you think about it, the more choices you have, the harder it becomes to slice through the noise and meet those people you can actually have a meaningful relationship with. And while I always craved real friendships, for most people, having too much choice diminishes their ability to settle. By ‘settle’ I don’t mean get married or have kids, but focus their attention on quality rather than quantity.

London is a place where everyone seems to suffer from a touch of ADD. People run around both literally and metaphorically. They always rush to get from one place to the other, to catch a tube, to get home after work, to buy something on sale. I can’t really blame them because it’s not easy to focus when your whole life revolves around an obsession to make more money. You lose a sense of what’s real, you can no longer stop to admire a tree or the colours of the sky. Every day when I’m on the bus on my way to work and we cross a bridge, there’s nobody who looks at the view. People tap on their phones, flip through a newspaper or stare at the road ahead.

On this cold and rainy island, everyone is a tiny island himself. The disease London carries in its bones is not a perpetual state of greyness. It’s loneliness. After almost 6 years since I moved here, I now understand why most of the friends I managed to make have left London, and time has come for me to admit that this is not my home either. But while I am ready to explore something else, I can’t shake the fear that London will give me a parting gift I did not request. Something I am scared I might carry with me forever: the feeling of an abiding outsider.