What is expat life really like in London? I thought it would be interesting to delve deeper into the way people live their lives in this major global capital and financial center.
The British weather
You don’t have to live in London for long before you realize that, like most Brits, the locals are obsessed with the weather.
This morning, when you open your curtains and peer outside, it’s dry and sunny, the perfect British summer day. But the weather is almost always changeable, and it’s wise to check the forecast before venturing out. So you click through to the BBC Weather pages and find you don’t need to take a waterproof today. Excellent!
Travelling around London
Getting around the city is easy, with a comprehensive tube system, buses and famous London taxis. But walking is also an option.
You have been pleasantly surprised how close your place of work is to home, and how close your home is to the city center. The tube can be deceptive, leading you to believe distances are much greater than they actually are. It only takes half an hour, for example, to walk from Victoria train station to Covent Garden and the West End theatre district. And it is a beautiful walk, taking you past all manner of historic sights including Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square.
You’ve decided that, like many Londoners, you really don’t need a car. It’s so easy to get around without one, and there’s the Congestion Charge to take into account, levied by Transport for London on vehicles travelling in the city center. Fewer cars in the center make it more of a pleasure for pedestrians and visitors, quieter, calmer and cleaner than many comparable cities.
While many people work a standard 9-5, plenty start work later to avoid the worst of the commuter crush on the buses, tube and overland trains. You’ve figured out that if you arrive at your place of work for half past nine, you miss most of the crowds. And you’ve discovered that the fastest and most enjoyable way to reach your office is on foot.
London has more green public spaces than any other city of its size. The city’s famous Plane trees, with their jigsaw-patterned bark, have an important role to play in keeping the city’s air fresh, too. They absorb pollution through their bark, which falls off and is replaced with fresh pollution-absorbing bark.
Because today is warm and dry, the parks and gardens you pass on your way to work are already filling up with people relaxing, playing ball games and walking dogs.
Places to avoid in London
Like any large city, some places are poorer than others. But unlike many cities, there are no real ‘no-go’ areas. In the city center and beyond, poor areas merge into wealthy areas seamlessly. One street might be full of million pound residences, the next tower blocks. It’s obviously best not to walk through large, deserted, open areas like Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common after dark, but that’s just common sense.
The vast majority of London, while often eclectic and eccentric, is perfectly safe, including Soho and Brixton, and there are plenty of police on foot patrol. After just a few weeks in the city, you already have a good feel for where you feel comfortable and the areas that are a little bit too edgy for your taste!
Eating out in London
You can pay as much as you like for a tasty lunch in London, from a few pounds upwards. There are all the usual international fast food outlets like Subway, McDonalds and Starbucks. But you will also find small local sandwich bars, many of which serve exotic foods from around the globe, as well as low-key restaurants serving every nationality and style of dishes.
You choose to walk to the nearest high street and visit a sandwich bar run by Greek family, who have been selling great food to passers-by and local people for generations. You love it there because you always get a warm welcome, and they remember your favorite sandwich filling.
Many pubs in London often sell food, too, during the day and evenings. They are called gastro-pubs and these days they sit right at the heart of the British eating out experience. Pubs serve everything from Indian and Thai food to West Indian, Malaysian, European, traditional British fare… you name it.
Today’s a Friday, and you’ll be joining your colleagues for a curry and a pint after work.
Shopping in London
Just like any capital city, London offers excellent international shopping. Famous retail streets like Oxford Street and areas like Covent Garden are tourist traps, but every area has its own shopping street or streets.
In some places the roads are lined with wonderful shops selling saris and Indian silk, others are home to high class, bespoke tailors, for example Jermyn Street and Savile Row. There are plenty of chain stores, which appear in almost every high street in Britain, plus independent shops selling everything from hand made jewelry to art materials, fashion, shoes, sporting equipment, home brew beer, bicycles, artisan bread, handbags…
At weekends you like to spend Saturday mornings exploring the shops around your new home, at first sticking to the supermarkets then venturing farther afield into exotic fruit and veg shops, halal meat outlets, jellied eel stalls, open markets and community shops.
Nights out in London
‘Local’ pubs are still big in Britain, although countless pubs have closed since the financial crisis in 2008. Nevertheless, an evening in your local is still one of the most popular nights out.
Many pubs, as well as serving very good, affordable food, also lay on free entertainment. You might run across pub quizzes, comedy nights, wine tasting, special food events, bands and entertainers. If you stay out late, the city offers a low cost night bus service to take revelers safely home.
You’ve discovered an excellent local pub, and meet your work colleagues there on weekend evenings to watch sport on the big screen, chat and socialize. On other weekends you take in the best the tourist circuit can offer, taking in the city’s numerous world-class theatres, night clubs, comedy clubs, live music, street art, museums and art galleries, exhibitions, sights and scenes.
Canals and rivers
The mighty Thames flows through the city, bisecting it into north and south and criss-crossing it with historic bridges. But there is also an extensive canal network, not as well known. It’s possible to walk long distances following canal-side public pathways, away from the traffic and crowds. And there are some lovely canal-side pubs and restaurants to discover… another treat you enjoy on your days off.
Like most big cities, London consists of a series of distinct villages. Once real villages and small towns, they have been subsumed into the city over its two thousand year history, and each has its own distinct personality.
Like any capital city London is a busy, bustling, vibrant place. But there are some beautiful, quirky and fascinating places off the beaten track where you can enjoy peace, quiet and tranquility. Siobhan Wall’s little book, Quiet London, reveals the best of them: tree-lined strolls, quiet cafes and pubs without TV or music, places to swim, places to relax and read.
After a particularly challenging day at work you often head somewhere peaceful on your way home, so by the time you open your front door you feel calm, cool and collected.
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Image source: Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee