Expat tales: London life crowded, exciting
Simon Wood relocated to London after the Christchurch earthquakes.
What inspired your move, and how long have you been there?
I moved here in 2011 a few months after the Christchurch earthquake. I had a great life in Christchurch but, like many others, my circumstances changed suddenly. I'm eligible for a British ancestry visa so moving to the UK was an easy choice. It helps to speak the language and have a Kiwi support network! Now I'm halfway to a British passport and plan to stick around indefinitely.
What do you do there?
I'm guest relations manager at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Kensington. My job is basically to be nice to people, which is rewarding. I get a kick out of welcoming people to London for the first time. We have a great international team at our hotel - I think I've worked with people from about 50 different countries. It's a good way to learn about the world.
What are the greatest advantages to living there?
London never stops and it barely sleeps. There's always something happening. It feels like I'm living at the centre of the world. The city is hectic, diverse and challenging and rewarding. It forces you to move out of your comfort zone and embrace the world around you.
Every single Londoner will say crowds, and they're right! There are crowds at the shops, crowds on the bus and crowds at the parks. Sometimes all you want is some peace and quiet. It's not unusual to be standing on the concourse at the train station and be shoulder-barged three or four times by other commuters.
How expensive is it compared to New Zealand? How much is a beer?
Groceries are cheaper but that's as good as it gets. Expect to pay twice the rent you do in New Zealand for a room half the size. And the flat will probably have no living room, no garden and a tiny bathroom. A pint of beer varies from £2 ($4) at the dodgiest pub on the high street to £7 for a fancy foreign brew at a gastropub.
What do you do in your time off?
It seems Londoners spend half their free time co-ordinating calendars with their friends. It's not unusual to go months without seeing friends, so making an effort to spend time with people is important. After a few years, I'm much happier just sitting in the park or on the riverfront with good company instead of braving the tourist destinations.
I help run the London branch of the New Zealand Green Party. We're doing a massive "get out the vote" push among expat Kiwis in the lead up to the election, which is a nice way to stay in touch with home. I also blog at outstandinglyaverage.com.
What's the local delicacy and would you recommend eating it?
British food doesn't set the world alight. Pork crackle, black pudding and toad-in-the-hole fill me with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. I have learned to love warm beer, though. Give me a nice ale served at room temperature on a winter's day and I'm happy.
Easiest way to get around?
Get a bike! There's no better feeling than zipping past traffic in the shadow of 500-year-old buildings. It's quicker than the bus, cheaper than a car and more liberating than the tube. And it's pretty much the only exercise most Londoners get.
What's the shopping like?
Surprisingly underwhelming if you stick to the high street and major brands, but Londoners are very fashion-savvy so there are lots of places to discover off the beaten path. The best thing is to hit up secondhand stores in posh neighbourhoods for deals on barely-worn designer clothes.
Best after-dark activity?
Most London icons like the National Gallery or Victoria and Albert Museum open late once a week. Often they'll serve drinks, so it's the perfect storm of socialising and culture.
Best time of year to visit?
Summer in London is beautiful but the city really excels at Christmas when the streets twinkle with pretty lights and the chill in the air to make it feel really seasonal.
What are the top three things you recommend for visitors?
Climb The Monument. The view is as good as the London Eye. It's only £3 and you get a certificate at the end!
Explore one of London's lesser-known parks - Holland Park, Battersea Park and Primrose Hill all have their charms and quirks.
Visit Brixton Market for amazing food, history and a sense of community that's missing from most of the central-city markets.
Besides family and friends, what do you miss most about home?
I miss simple things like native bush, seeing Maori words in everyday use and looking out over the Pacific. I really, really miss proper coffee - although Kiwis are doing a pretty great job of infiltrating the London market!
How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?
It's easy, but it's not cheap. It's about £900 return and, once you factor in travel time and jetlag, it's not worth going for less than three weeks. I last came home about a year ago and probably won't visit again until next year.
For Kiwis looking to move there, which industries are seeking fresh talent?
Kiwis have always had a reputation in the UK for being hard workers. There are always openings in hospitality. Some of my friends have made a living doing freelance journalism, design or film-making. A different background can really help set you apart from the crowd. The best thing is to find a London-based Kiwi working in your field, pick their brain and ask them to introduce you to the right people.
Sunday Star Times