I reluctantly moved to London this week. And I’m not entirely sure anybody has said or done that before.
Generally, people move to London because they really want to. Australians move to London because it’s a colloquial ‘right of passage’ and an opportunity to have a ‘base’ to travel and explore the wider European continent.
I was always more interested in other places.
My first expat experience — indeed my first time overseas — was in China, and what really captured my 21-year-old imagination was just how different the people were, how different the culture was, and how almost nothing made sense to me. A trip to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent would become a hilarious game of lucky dip. Trying to explain to a Qingdaoese taxi driver where I lived was effectively a lost cause. Amidst all the chaos, and the absence of familiarity, the mundane had become exciting.
Sweden, Denmark and more recently, Norway, represented something different altogether. On the surface, the Scandinavian countries might appear to have a lot in common with Australia. They do. All three boast developed, wealthy economies. They offer strong welfare systems, low-density living, and it must be said… a habitual appetite for rules and regulation. But there were enough differences to grab my attention and keep me interested. I was drawn to Denmark’s relaxed, rather dismissive attitude towards the concept of work. Norway’s nature, open space and their progressive approach to politics drew me in. These experiences also gave me the chance to (try and) learn new languages and develop new habits. Big things like living slowly. And small things like taking my shoes off before going inside the house.
Don’t get me wrong. Over the last few years I’ve probably visited London thirty times. It’s a great city — arguably one of the greatest. It has — effortlessly — pretty much everything you could ask for. A wonderful, diverse, free-flowing population. Fascinating food, restaurants, bars. Career opportunities too. Plus, all the new stuff comes to London before it goes anywhere else.
Along with perhaps NYC, there’s nowhere in the world quite like London. I’m convinced that London is one of the best cities in the world to visit, to explore, and to get lost in. Put simply, you’re not allowed to be bored in London.
But when it comes to living somewhere, London has always felt a little bit too familiar. I see signs with names that are mainstays back home, Camberwell, Victoria, Richmond. Cadbury adorns supermarket shelves. You can find Milo, Vegemite, flat whites and Australians, everywhere. And just like home, cars heave along the left hand side of the road. The colony — understandably — has a lot in common with its empire.
Moving to London always looked so easy. So routine and straightforward. I guess that’s why I didn’t see myself doing it.
I had always thought that once my time would be up in the Nordics, I could just spin back to Melbourne, or go somewhere else altogether — maybe Berlin, Barcelona or Singapore.
Enter, a one-in-a-hundred-year pandemic, an impossible visa situation and Australia enforcing the world’s strictest border force policy. I needed to make a decision quickly, it came down to two options. I could retreat back to Australia, which would involve sitting through a month of mandatory (and expensive) hotel quarantine, followed by a pronounced outlook of closed borders, no travel and a sketchy, ‘here-comes-the-recession’ career outlook. Or, I could pull together the documentation for my ancestry visa application for the UK, and make a fist of life in a new country, again.
Both options had their own pros and cons.
Home is always a drawcard when you’re abroad and things start to unravel. Home is a system that’s easy to navigate. It’s the easiest place to find a job, somewhere to live. That’s probably why Australians have evacuated Europe en-masse since the pandemic started to explode in March.
On the other hand, while living in the UK might not have been part of the plan, it offers the best of both worlds. A lifestyle that’s culturally close enough to home, and geographically close enough to Europe.
The final straw came when Melbourne closed down its international airport completely and other states started to cap arrivals at approximately 50–300 arrivals per day. Most airlines stopped servicing the route almost immediately. Relocating a pet from Norway to Australia won’t be an option for a long time, either, which is another administrative hurdle in the new normal that we’re now living in.
It became clear that right now, with Australia shutting down borders to focus on elimination, and London starting to open up, the reluctant path was actually the most straightforward. Not to mention it’s much easier to visit your girlfriend when she’s 2 hours away, not 26 hours away.
So here we are. Welcome to London, I guess! On the plus side, the beer is cheap, the weather is looking alright for a while yet, and European travel is back on the cards. Plus, for the first time in my expat journey, everyone speaks English — how easy is this?
I’ll probably eat my words, have a blast here and never want to leave. I’m happy to be wrong.
At the end of the day I guess I’m privileged enough to have the chance to choose from all these different places to live. It really shouldn’t be understated how lucky we are to be able to travel and set up camp around the world. Not everyone gets to do this. I’m spoiled and lucky and I don’t take it for granted.
Planning your life in the middle of a pandemic — the ultimate challenge.
Someone pass me a Tim Tam and a Fosters, will you.
Originally published at https://www.bencampbell.co on July 25, 2020.