I’m sitting on the floor of my London flat surrounded by a mountain of papers. It’s old mail I’ve been forced to hoard over the past two and years to help prove that, yes: I’ve been living in London, holding down a job and paying my bills alongside my partner of nearly a decade.
For anyone that’s had to apply for a visa, you understand my mind-numbing frustration. After seven years in the U.K., I finally qualify for permanent residency and all the financial and bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through to get there.
My arrival in London in 2012 feels like ages ago. Having only hopped around the Kootenays growing up – from Grand Forks, Castlegar, Christina Lake, Fruitvale and back to Boundary country again – I never imagined I’d live this far away.
I mean, I was going to move somewhere after graduating from UBC, if only to wait out the economic slump and what I thought was just a temporary dip in reporting jobs across the country. But the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it sounds that I was willing to pack up my life for London without even stepping foot in the U.K. beforehand. I suppose that’s the kind of courage you can summon when you’re 23, jobless and fresh out of university.
It also helped that I’d fallen for a British boy while in Vancouver who was finally heading back to the U.K. to start his teaching career. So off I went, equipped with a bit of extra cash and optimism, to live 5,000 miles away in one of the largest cities in the world.
My travel experience wasn’t extensive, but I’d happily spent months travelling solo in central America years earlier. So I figured, how hard could living in an English speaking, developed country in Europe really be?
It turns out it’s the small things that catch you off guard. It’s stepping off the curb and nearly getting hit by a car because you forgot that traffic runs in the opposite direction, or watching policemen jaywalk while you’ve awkwardly been trying to find a crosswalk. It’s having to buy fresh vegetables in wasteful plastic and learning there’s no such thing as a bottle depot. It’s the fact that you think language won’t be an issue, but you’re constantly asked to repeat yourself because you’re using the wrong words or speaking in that unexpected Canadian accent.
Now the vocabulary issue left me with some hilarious stories, like the first time I met my boyfriend’s parents. They had driven four hours to London to stay with us and as we were getting ready to go to dinner, I said that I “just needed to change my pants.” I walked away confidently before realizing that I’d just brazenly told my future in-laws that my underwear needed changing. I burst out of the room to correct myself (“I meant trousers!”) and thankfully only got a few chuckles that evening. That was before I learned that chickadee birds here are actually called “tits.”
London’s not an easy city to live in and I previously thought Vancouver was huge. It can be extremely isolating here when you’re broke, tired and trying to launch your career. Or when you’re pulling pints in the local pub on minimum wage with no tips (remember, service jobs are nowhere near as lucrative here) and trying to catch an internship opportunity at the right moment.
But there are definitely some perks: restaurants are expensive but groceries are cheap and I’ve been gorging on well-priced cheese since I landed. It’s also liberating to go camping and know there are no animals that can eat you, and there are so few bugs that windows here rarely have screens. And I’m in love with British pubs. The local watering hole isn’t just for partying or washing away your sorrows – they’re gathering spots for family affairs, where people go for a Sunday roast and bring along their grandparents, dogs and babies.
It took me at least three years to start to fully embrace this city and find my footing, and the U.K. is constantly growing on me. I’m now much more worried when I come home to Grand Forks about getting eaten by a cougar, and I don’t miss the mosquitoes. But it would be disingenuous to say I don’t still call the Kootenays home – I’ll just have to leave that off my residency application.
Kalyeena Makortoff is a journalist in London, England.