At Big Ben
I have a lot of memories of London from before I lived here. In one, I’m wearing Spice Girl shoes, you know, those platform trainers that all of us wore in 1997. I had bought them on Oxford Street, at Miss Selfridges, my new favourite store. It was my second time in England and I was there on a school holiday; my first visit, in fact my very first visit to another continent, was to London and Windsor for a Christmas holiday with my family only six months before. My sister and I had gone to see Spice World in Convent Garden that holiday, and let me tell you – the Spice Girls were a big deal in London at the time. Anyway, in this memory, I’m on the tube, wearing my Spice Girls shoes, being very thirteen, when I stepped on a woman’s foot.
“Watch it!” she hissed, and I remember thinking she was extra scary because she had a British accent.
In another memory, I’m staying at a big, crowded hostel smack dab in the most touristy part of the city. By this time I had been to London a few times, passing through on my European backpacking adventures over the years. I was in the city in order to interview for a Japanese company, to see if I would be a capable English teacher. As I was living in Edinburgh at the time, my closest interview point was London. I remember looking out the window at the grey skies, feeling very small, very eager to get home to Scotland.
Full confession: I didn’t like London then. I never really did, to be honest – it didn’t click with me, and it felt overwhelming and drab and like everyone was in a hurry. It was exciting to be there as a tourist and see Big Ben and Trafalgar Square and the British Museum, but when I was given the opportunity to live there in 2008, I balked.
“No way, I really don’t want to live in London,” I told my then-boyfriend. A Kiwi, his Canadian visas were up, and he decided to take advantage of his UK passport and live somewhere in the British Isles. I was going to follow him, using Europe as my base for a year before we got jobs in Asia. “But what about Edinburgh?”
On the South Bank
Fast forward five years. I had indeed taken that job in Japan, and lived there for just over two years. After that came a year travelling around Russia, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, and North America. Following that came almost a year of backpacking through Central and South America. And somewhere along the way, with my bank account dwindling and those “what am I doing with my life” thoughts growing ever stronger, I started to look into master’s degrees.
I have always valued education as much (OK, fine, almost just as much) as I value travel. And I knew, just as strongly as I knew I would travel, that one day I would seek higher education and return to university. I had graduated from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia in 2006 after completing a BAH in English, and I missed formal education. I love learning and reading things I wouldn’t normally choose for myself. I love being introduced to things I didn’t know existed. I love having discussions with people about books and writing. But I hit a roadblock in my search for the perfect master’s program, because a) I am not a creative fiction writer or screenwriter and b) I’m not a journalist. I didn’t want to do another literature program, journalism didn’t fit, and I have very limited desire to write fiction. Basically, I wanted to get a master’s degree in blogging, and I was convinced that existed somewhere, somehow. After what felt like months of searching – I considered programs in Melbourne, Amsterdam, and just about everywhere in between – I found a program at City University London.
“London?” I remember my mum asking me. “Would you want to live in London?”
With St. Paul’s Cathedral
I wasn’t totally sure. All I knew was that the program was perfect for me – a Master of Arts in Creative Non-Fiction. So I could keep writing my rambling, naval-gazing blog posts, but, like, get a degree at the end of it. Sold.
I pulled together a portfolio from some writing I’d done for this blog and for other publications. I nervously sent away my application from Canada – expedited, of course – and then went on holiday to Arizona with my dad. Only a week after my application was sent away, I got an email from the university that they’d like to speak with me. I was elated – it was the only program I’d applied for. While they offered to speak to me on the phone, I thought I may as well go big or go home… and so I flew to London instead. I landed at Heathrow airport with only one thought in my mind… what if I still don’t like London?
And, to be honest, those first few weeks, I truly wasn’t sure what I felt about the city. I was staying with a friend who worked in the financial industry, so I wasn’t really into his scene of swanky cocktails and expensive dinners in Soho. But one Saturday morning, we took the tube to Broadway Market, a small food market in East London, found on Regent’s Canal.
“I like it here,” I remember thinking. East London just felt right to me. I’d heard all the jokes about Hackney hipsters, but I couldn’t help but love all the coffeeshops, the graffiti, and the creative vibe I felt, something I never personally felt when I was in Chelsea or Kensington or anywhere west.
With the Gherkin
And so, on August 28th, 2013, I officially moved to London to start my degree, quickly making my base in the east of the city. And, almost instantly, as soon as I knew it was going to be my home for a while, I fell head over heels in love. I think part of me was scared to take that leap before – I had been moving around for so long, living in so many different cities, that I was frightened to show my hand. I knew, in any of those other places, that I could easily pack up and move on. London was different; I had a two-year degree to think about, so I knew I was going to be around for at least a little bit. Once I felt like I could relax – there was no frantic middle-of-the-night google searches for my next place to travel to, or next place to live – I could finally let go, and learn to love a place enough to want to stay.
I’ve written about why I love London before – I wrote about it after less than a month of officially living here and again, a year later, when I wrote about why it feels like home. I even wrote about why settling makes sense. I love London for the sheer fact that you will never run out of interesting things to do. That you will never run out of people to meet. That you will never run out of surprises, or excitement, or laughter, or cheap flights abroad. So when I finished my degree in 2015, graduating with an MA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing, I knew that my time in London wasn’t over. I applied for the Graduate Entrepreneur visa through my university, citing this blog as my growing business, and I was granted another year to live in London and develop my freelance writing and blogging career. It’s quite difficult to live in the UK as a Canadian if you’re over 30, you’re self-employed, and you have zero chances for snagging a British husband anytime soon, so I feel pretty fortunate that this has all worked out for me, visa-wise.
On Regent Street
But oh, how fast a year goes. All sorts of thoughts started playing up: do I leave London on a high, now that I’ve worked hard and saved some money? Do I leave now and try to make a life on the road again, because as much as I love London, my wanderlust is still all-consuming, never satiated, and oh my God, what if I could base myself in Argentina/Italy/Thailand/Mexico for a little while? These thoughts were exacerbated last summer by the fact that I was stressed about a variety of things, a classic case of when-it-rains-it-pours. Would life be easier if I travelled again, or if I moved somewhere else?
But as much as I want to go out and explore the world again – to live nomadically, to travel long and slow – the fact of the matter is that London and I aren’t done yet. There’s still so much to do and see here, there’s still so much to discover and explore. This doesn’t even account for the fact that I love my flat, I love my East London neighbourhood, I love my job, and I love all of the incredible friends I’ve made in this city over the past three and a half years. Eventually, I will run out of visa options and have to leave (my current situation is that I’m applying for an extension on my current visa). But for now, given the opportunity to continue living in London, I’m choosing to stay for another year. Part of the reason I went down to part-time with work, other than wanting to travel more and write more, was so that I could spend more time exploring the city, to give it as much time as it deserves.
Confronted with the thought of actually leaving – of actually packing up and saying goodbye – my heart dropped. I’m not ready to leave. London and I are going into our fourth year together, the longest I’ve ever lived in one place in my adult life. All these years later, I still get a rush out of saying I’m a Londoner, of walking its crooked cobblestoned streets, of looking out at the city skyline and realising I am lucky enough to call it home.
At Covent Garden
I have another memory of London, a more recent one. On New Year’s Eve 2015, I made the choice to stay in and spend the night on my own. At midnight, I climbed the stairs to the roof of my building; there’s a communal garden up there, with lots of plants and benches, and it overlooks the city (yes, it’s the reason I went £200 over my monthly rent budget). I stood there with a glass of Prosecco, knowing the entire city was on bated breath, waiting for the clock to strike twelve. And when it did, the sky exploded into colour and light; standing on a bench, I could see fireworks all around me, a 360 degree celebration of shouts and cheers and jubilation. I watched the fireworks at Westminster – I could see them all the way from my flat – and goddamn it, if it wasn’t one of the happiest I’ve ever felt in my life.
All those years ago, if you had told me one day I’d not only be living in London, but that I’d love living in London, I would have laughed. But now I know, that no matter where I live in the future or wherever life takes me, I will always love this city – it has welcomed me, it has made me feel at home, and, more than anything, it has made me feel happy. It has made me feel alive. It has made me feel loved in return.
Here’s to another year in this place I call home. To London, my love.
In Primrose Hill
For more blog posts on London, check out the Best of London series as well as the London tag.
Have you ever been to London/lived in London? What do you think of it? Do you have a city you really love?
Beautifully written as always Brenna and good luck with the next twelve months. I feel that way about my University town of Newcastle, Australia. I was driving there yesterday, rounded a corner and the stretch of coastline appeared in front of me. I nearly burst into tears! It hasn’t been home for a long time, but I still think it’s a lovely place.
Thank you so much, LC. I totally know that feeling! 😀
So happy for you! Good luck! I’m actually applying for my masters at City at the moment (for a different program though) and am hoping to call London home in the near future myself. There’s just something about the city I can’t shake, and hope to make it my home for a time as well. Always love reading all your London posts! ❤️
Aw, thank you so much, Emily! And good luck with your application, let me know how it goes! 🙂
I love your comment “the fact of the matter is that London and I aren’t done yet” .. I’m about to head to England for a holiday for the 4th time. People keep asking me why I keep going back to England and my latest response to them is “England just isn’t done with me yet” .. it’s so nice to see someone else get it!
I’m glad to see someone else get it, too! Thanks for the comment, Sarah 🙂
I love your love for London! : ) Visiting my English bestie I only used London as a transportation hub to get into the U.K./up to Scotland (I know, I know…we were going to day trip in together but there were train strikes and we lazed about Sussex instead) but I’m glad to have four “proper” days planned there this summer! I love my adopted home of Boston but it wasn’t love at first sight–I was completely intimidated by it on visits as a kid/teen, especially by the blank stares of the commuters heading home on the T after work–now I’m one of them!
Thank you so much for your comment, Paige! I think you’ll really love London once you spend a bit of time here. 🙂
I get it, London was my home for six years – I had originally planned for two. It’s been four years since I left and I miss it – hoping to return this year for a visit
I hope you get back very soon! London definitely has a way of sucking you in…
I absolutely loved reading this and could connect with your emotions and history w/ London so much. I had never connected with London in the past- like you. I had lived there briefly and traveled there quite a few times and eventually gave up on the fact that London and I would ever connect. Then I met my current boyfriend three years ago. He is from outside of London and I was kind of forced to like it from a distance, by default. But once I went there with him and explored the same part of the city that made you connect with it, I connected with it too. He wants to move to the US, but I told him not until we spend a few years in his neck of the woods (perhaps like four years, to exactly this date 😉 ) So we are going to move there at some time this year and I hope that I experience the city just like you do and feel just as at home and welcomed there.
Congrats on one more year there and I hope to connect with you in the city at some point later in the year 🙂
(This may submit twice as it gave me an error the first time)
Aw, that’s amazing! Yes, definitely let me know when you’re here. I’m sure you’ll love it to bits this time around. 😀
I’ve struggled with London as well, overwhelmed by its size, its busyness, its stuffiness. Thanks for sharing your experience, it encourages me to keep looking for a little corner of the city that speaks to me.
Thank you for your comment, Marisa – I hope you find your corner in London, too! 🙂
Beautifully written, Brenna! I can relate to so many aspects of this post – I’m currently coming to the end of my two year UK work visa, and frantically exploring potential options that would allow me to stay longer. I feel the same unbridled love for Edinburgh, and can’t imagine having to leave in a few months. I’m so happy everything has worked out for you visa-wise – I know how stressful it can be!
It’s so difficult to stay in the UK for non-EU passport holders! I wish you the best of luck 😀
I have lived in London for 10 years and still feel that the city and I aren’t quite finished yet : ) It is a spectacular place.
I totally hear you about financial sector friends! I actually work in the City but could never relate to dishing out cash left and right for expensive dinners and cocktails. What an utter waste of money : )
Ha ha, I appreciate it once in a while, but I simply can’t – and don’t want to – lead that lifestyle all the time. Glad to know you love London, too! 😀
Such a beautiful post! I absolutely adore reading your stories.
Aw, thank you, Kate!
I totally get what you’re saying. I lived in London for a grand total of two weeks, which doesn’t make me a Londoner by anyone’s standards, but it certainly grabbed my attention and imagination during that short time. How you feel about London is how I feel about Cardiff, which is where I went after two weeks and ended up staying for two years there. Good luck with your visa extension, I really hope you get to stay as long as you want to!
Thank you so much! And so nice to hear you felt that way about Cardiff, I really need to spend more time there. 🙂
I have not visited London yet, but I feel the same way about L.A. in the U.S. I used to hate it — the juxtaposition of shallow wealth and grime — but the last time I was there, it felt different. After working at the Women in Travel Summit that was happening in nearby Irvine, I decided to stay in L.A. for a few days to see a friend I’d met in Italy. Experiencing the city with a local was so different! (It didn’t hurt that I also met up with an actress friend who took me to her set where I got to meet Nathan Fillion, who was actually pretty sexy in person before literally scooting off on a little metallic electric scooter.)
After just a few days of exploring the city more intimately, I had such a different impression: It’s a city where grown-ups can live a childlike existence — free to create and play pretend and be silly and adventurous and where no one says, “You shouldn’t want to do that. That’s weird.” I still hate the traffic and the over-emphasis on fashion and physique, but the smog has improved significantly, and I have to say that, given enough money that is, I could actually picture myself living in the land of make-believe for a time. It’s interesting how a shift in perspective can completely change how you feel!
I know, so interesting how everything can change! That’s awesome that you feel that way about LA, I barely know it (have only been once, years ago) but I’d love to revisit. You need to come to London soon! 😉
I love reading your blog. Things are so simply said and refreshing. This last post made me so nostalgic about London. Have to plan a trip soon! 🙂
Thank you so much, Daniela! I hope you get to London soon. 🙂
I teared up a bit. That New Year’s night must’ve been one of the most beautiful sights in the world. I’m currently based in Glasgow for a short while, so I’m hoping to make it down to London a few times so I can learn to love it!
Thank you so much, Victoria, so glad you liked the post! Glasgow is such a cool city. 🙂
Oh Brenna – such a poignant and beautiful post. It’s so absolutely wonderful that you love living in London – not only for your own sake – but, selfishly, for mine as well! Being able to come there (often) to hang out with you and experience one of my favourite cities with someone who has pretty much become a Londoner makes my visits outstanding in all ways. And one of the best things? I can feel London loving you right back!
Thank you so much, mama! You know you are always welcome for a visit…… so when are you coming next?!? xoxo
Such a lovely post. I stumbled across your blog by accident and it’s honestly become a firm favourite of mine ever since – great writing and and always inspiring.
Aw, thank you so much, Betsy! I hope you’ll keep reading. 🙂
So beautifully written… and again it makes us reflect on our thoughts and memories. 🙂 There are some cities that have really special place in our hearts. One of them is Vienna the first city we visited together, the city where we got engaged and the city where we return at least once in every year since then. Then there’s San Francisco where we’ve spent the most special year of our lives. We would be so happy to go back (the reason we haven’t done so yet is: visa). But whether we go back or not it will always be heartwarming even to just think back to our time there.
And lastly Budapest. We’ve both grown up in Hungary but in the countryside. We didn’t like Budapest and couldn’t stand the thought to live there ever. But then… we finished our studies and the best career opportunities were all in the capital. So we ended up in Budapest. That was about 6 years ago and we’ve lived abroad in the meantime. But since we moved back to Budapest again more than a year ago now we realized we love this city. Actually, now we feel grateful to live in one of the most beautiful and vibrant capitals in Europe. (Okay, our opinion 🙂 ) And now we don’t see how could we not love it before. Though we could stay here as long as we want, we are sure won’t stay too long. Wanderlust. 😀 But we’ll always be attached to it.
This is so similar to my own feelings towards London! The first time I visited I hated London. I thought it dirty and smelly and busy. I revisited two years ago and loved it! And now I’m headed back for a program this summer and can’t wait! …if only I could find a way to stay on after my program…
Hi Brenna! Really love your blog! I am also in London (originally from Kentucky) and just began dabbling in blogging to reflect on my time here and expat life in general (I find it pretty therapeutic!). I work from home part of the week, but am getting a bit bored being home alone all day and want to try to explore London by working in different coffee shops. Do you ever work our of cafes and other public spaces, and if so, do you have a recommendation on comfy and unique coffee shops from which to be based for a day?
Keep writing, am looking forward to following your stories!
I absolutely loved London when I visited a few years ago! I’m hoping to hop over for a quick visit when I’m in Paris later this year! Loved reading about your experience!
Thank you, Amber! I hope you get to visit again very soon 😀
You’re such a beautiful writer, Brenna. <3 I love this post.
(And yes, I'm basically hopping around your posts, reading them, and commenting, haha. I'm addicted!)
Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. It is your great writing style that has made me go through this article till end (which I usually don’t). Great reasons for staying in London.