How to Leave London

Image: St Pancras

Image: St Pancras

12 Minute Read

Stokey Girl

I think of myself as a Londoner. I’m not from London originally, but I lived there longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. It was my first home of my own choosing.

Until I left, I spent 10 years living as a lodger in a huge Victorian house with a garden the size of a small park in Stoke Newington, which is the equivalent of living inside a duvet. 

After a miserable, unpredictable childhood that involved a lot of moving and nine schools, I felt like I’d landed a spot in heaven and I planned to stay as long as possible.

When I first met my partner 5 years ago, a French man living in Brussels, I laughed at the idea of my leaving. I assumed he’d eventually move to London, whereupon we’d go and rent a tiny flat in zone 4/5 somewhere.

I assumed this despite the fact that he’d left London years before because the quality of life was too low, and he now owned a big two bedroom, airy, plant-filled apartment with a roof terrace 15 minutes walk from the city centre of Brussels - with a mortgage equivalent to a decent double room in Dalston. 

It took about a year of visiting each other back and forth other to realise I was expecting him to completely tank his quality of life because… London. 

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    A Tale of Two Cities

    What dawned on me most profoundly was the fact that my partner’s friends in Brussels - hairdressers, venue staff, teachers, artists, and even the unemployed ones - were looking in to buying flats, without any help from family.

     
     

    They were taxed through the nose but they also seemed content, relaxed and well looked after.

    Most of their employers give them cards pre-paid with €7-10 for lunch every day and also paid their travel, which is maximum €50 a month anyway. The hairdresser has a company car (Mercedes Benz) and one friend had a clothing allowance. Some even got an extra months pay in January. Paid leave is generous and unemployment pay far kinder.  

    As I looked around at myself and most of my friends, working every hour available, monetising our hobbies, thinking of occasional work trips as “holidays”, considering not having children because we simply couldn’t afford it, I started to feel… swindled. 

    Up until this point, London had been my true north, all things pointed towards it.

    It was the place you went to “make it”. The place to immerse yourself in the culture and arts scene. The reward for years of missing out on concert tours that weren’t stopping off in Brighton or Warri or Oxford . Even the racism was less dated.

    I’d been plotting to get to London my entire life, with the intention of staying forever. 

    A Cold Bath

    When I finally moved to London for university in 2001, it wasn’t so expensive.

    A bus fare was 50p (now £1.50) and you could rent a one bedroom flat with a garden in Wood Green for £750 (now £1250) a month. I had a student loan to cover living costs but no tuition fees (now £9250 a year).

    I also graduated in time to get on to the employment ladder before the recession hit, jobs were scarce, and arts sector wages stagnated. 

    By the time I left in 2015, I was a freelancer drowning in (mostly) badly paying clients. I preferred the stress and insecurity of freelancing to staff jobs at arts organisations and record labels because of all of the subtle (and not so subtle) racism and sexism I’d experienced.

    The requests for “brain picking” meetings in exchange for cups of tea - which now cost significantly less than the bus fare there and back - were endless.

    I was sitting in a bath that was cooling down and I hadn’t noticed until the temperature was simply too uncomfortable to bear.

    My friend Musa was the first to tell me he was moving to Berlin. I secretly hoped to myself he’d be back within 6 months. He wasn’t. Suddenly a whole wave of friends began moving away to Berlin and Scotland and Australia.

     
    Image: The Good Immigrant featuring an essay by Musa Okwonga, photo by Amelia Ideh

    Image: The Good Immigrant featuring an essay by Musa Okwonga, photo by Amelia Ideh

     

    The Big Decision

    One thought kept crossing my mind: if I left, how was I supposed to find work in Brussels with my mostly-forgotten GCSE French and non-existent Flemish? Everyone I’d met there spoke between three and nine, yes nine, languages, so how on earth would I match up?  

    Eventually I decided to just try it and see what happened. My partner pointed out that refusing to ever give up my room in a shared house in Stoke Newington because my rent was £450 a month was more of a trap than a life choice. It was time to take a leap. 

    I sold or gave away most of my stuff and booked a one-way Eurostar. My best friends came to Kings Cross with me and we sobbed at the gate as though I was moving to the end of the earth, rather than two hours away. 

     
    Image: Afropolitan Festival poster at Bozar Brussels, photo by Omar Victor Diop

    Image: Afropolitan Festival poster at Bozar Brussels, photo by Omar Victor Diop

     

    The Epic Fail

    The first six months were… awful.

    I burned through my meagre savings quickly. I was nearing the end of a year-long Clore Cultural Leadership Fellowship programme I had dropped most of my clients to take part in.

    Despite using the fellowship to secure meetings fishing for work with the leaders of Belgian cultural organisations, none of them were very fruitful. They’re very organised and wanted to discuss possible projects three years in the future, which at the time felt like an eternity.

    I hadn’t realised how much work was a part of my identity at the time, and I felt adrift and truly miserable, unable to enjoy the rest of my new life until my work situation was settled. 

    Eventually, I realised the easiest solution was to go back to London for a few weeks to try to secure some work I could do remotely from Brussels, and things began looking up. I found a great part-time marketing job with an arts organisation I loved, and my freelance work began to pick back up. 

     
     

    Making It Work

    During this phase I returned on the Eurostar from Brussels to London three weeks out of four. I’d generally go on a Tuesday morning, stay one night and come back on a Wednesday after work. At £50-68 return it still worked out cheaper than living in London. As my employers began to trust me it eventually dropped down to visits twice a month, now once a month.

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      We live 15 minutes walk from the station, so I’d leave the house in Brussels at 8.15 am and be at my desk in Shoreditch by 10.30am. (Due to the one hour time difference, a train departing Bruxelles Midi at 9am arrives at London St Pancras at 10am). It worked.

      All of a sudden I had two lives. Two sets of friends. I could go to a gig at the Southbank on Tuesday night and another at Bozar on Wednesday night. It really began to feel like the best of both worlds, and I couldn’t believe my luck. 

      Only two of my London based friends have visited so far, though I’ve seen a couple of others who happened to be in Brussels for work. My new found friends in Belgium seemed to go on trips around Europe to see friends every other week. 

      It became increasingly painful to note the differences between their lives, despite being similar ages with similar interests. 

       
      Image: Brussels Beer Project, image via  bxlbondyblog.be

      Image: Brussels Beer Project, image via bxlbondyblog.be

       

      It’s Not You, It’s London

      Weekends in Brussels involved inexpensive or free cultural excursions, visits to the cheap organic food market, and afternoons running in to friends lounging on a terrace, drinking artisanal bottled beers which cost less than half a pint of Stella in London. It seemed as though everything was walking distance or a 10-15 minute (always seated) metro journey.

      Amongst other things we’d often discuss future holidays, house renovation projects, and with increasing frequency, babies. Topics that require time and disposable income.

      If I wanted to see my friends in London I generally had to book them weeks in advance, and often travel an hour and a half one-way on packed tubes and buses to their flats in Camberwell or Walthamstow because of the accumulated costs of eating out in central London.

      Our discussions often veered towards work, and much less often towards house-buying unless they had financial support from family to come up with a £90k deposit. Starting families was just out of the question for my friends in couples who couldn’t afford to live together outside of a flat share.  

      Londoners would often grill me to try to understand why I left. I began to feel like shouting back “WE ALL SHOULD, IMMEDIATELY!”.

      I saw the same look in their eyes I’d had. The look that said to leave is to give up

      The other conversation went along the lines of “oh wow you live in Brussels? How is it, I’d love to live in another country…”.

      I’d launch in to how I was making it work and that they could too. They’d launch in to a long list of reasons (language barriers, racism, missing friends, finding a job, their kids adjusting) they couldn’t. They sounded trapped. 

      *A note on racism

      In the past 4 years in Brussels I’ve been called a nigger (made with accompanying gun shot signals, mortifyingly when showing around a rare London visitor) and a monkey, plus a weird incident at a party, but racism hasn’t tarnished my experience overall.

      In Brighton there were three racist attempts on my life by age 18. In London there’s been no name calling or threats of violence, but my career has certainly been impacted by racism.

      As a mixed heritage woman I certainly can’t speak for the experiences of all people of colour, but I’ve never lived or travelled anywhere racism wasn’t a factor which needed to be carefully considered in one form or another.

      It’s hard to walk the often blurry and movable line between personal safety and adventure, and it’s different for everyone.

       
      Image: painting by Lakwena, photo by Amelia Ideh

      Image: painting by Lakwena, photo by Amelia Ideh

       

      Freedom of Movement

      I began to feel we’d been robbed. Robbed of the spirit the people I meet in Brussels have for adventure and possibility.

      I rarely meet anyone who works for the EU, which is very much its own bubble. The folks I meet come from Belgium and all over, France, Turkey, Morocco, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Bosnia, Venezuela, Rwanda and DRC. Most of them have already lived in at least two other countries before arriving in Brussels. They trust that they can make it work.

      A Portuguese woman in a bar regaled me with the tale of her 11 year old son learning fluent French and Flemish in under a year. It’s not unusual to see children being brought up bi and tri-lingual from birth. Erasmus is a right of passage for many. Songs in Arabic and Italian are on the radio, and they watch subtitled series and films in their original languages even when dubbing is available. 

      For most English people language learning comes too little too late.

      My French has gone from “Bonjour, où est la gare?” to (very hesitantly) being able to make myself understood/ understand most conversations. Especially about hunting wild boar, but that’s a story for another day. 

      The real change has been in my attitude. 

       
      Image: Barbican

      Image: Barbican

       

      419

      I’m embarrassed to admit, I was a fully paid up member of the London-is-the-center-of-the-Universe hype machine before I left.

      I still think it’s a wonderful city, but a slow, pernicious, Fyre Festival level fraud on the cost of living has occurred over the years, and it feels as though we’re too invested in the idea of it to pull back the influencer-orange curtain and see just how unfair it really is. 

      London became the most expensive city in the world to live and work in 2014. Knife crime has increased by two-thirds since then. When I left in 2015 it had the most expensive transport system in the world, and rates of homelessness are skyrocketing . It doesn’t even make the top 40 cities in the world for quality of life anymore.

      London clearly doesn’t cost this much because its just so fantastic it’s priced like a luxury brand. It’s just broken. Life - even a fabulous life - simply doesn’t have to be that hard or expensive.

      Since peeking around that incredibly depressing curtain and seeing what lies on the other side, I won’t move back unless I have to.

      Quality Of Life

      It turns out there are other cities which have thriving cultural scenes because rent and studio space is cheap, venues offer artists free residencies and support, and audiences have more disposable income.

      Many of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s bright ideas to improve the city are just watered down standard features of other European cities. [Dear continental European friends, please stop laughing, I’m slow to catch on.]

      Whilst I really like Brussels with its high quality of life, diversity and commitment to alternative artists, I’ve (slowly) learned the hard way how to make it possible to work from anywhere. *NB, not like a “Digital Nomad”: I like having a home and not ruining holidays by working through them. 

      By totally screwing up leaving at first, then slowly figuring it out, I now trust that I can do the same elsewhere. Hopefully more smoothly. It’s a newfound freedom. If I can make it through, Dear Reader, I’m certain you can too.

      I still fear missing out, but I go back to London often. I do miss it, especially my friends who still live there, but I definitely don’t miss my old life and it no longer feels like home. As I settle in to my (always solo) seat on the Eurostar back to Brussels, I feel relieved to be leaving.

       
      Image: Katy Ideh at Fundació Joan Miró, photo by Amelia Ideh

      Image: Katy Ideh at Fundació Joan Miró, photo by Amelia Ideh

       

      The Next Chapter

      Brexit allowing, I’m moving with my partner to Barcelona this summer, four years after moving to Brussels.

      I don’t speak Spanish or Catalan but I’ll learn. I don’t have many friends there apart from my sister but I’ll make some. I don’t have any work there (who has a hook up at Sónar+D?!), but I can continue to work remotely. 

      When Londoners grill me about why I’m moving to Barcelona, aside from dearly missing my sister, I tell them that I’ve learned since leaving London what it really means to prioritise my own personal idea of “quality of life”. 

      Quality of life to me is swimming in the sea and standing in the sun and not feeling deeply miserable throughout January and February every year. It’s discovering interesting new cultures without centering your own as the coolest or most sought after. It’s family and free time.

      If I ever have kids I want them to grow up by the beach and near the mountains, speak different languages and see living in different countries as a right of passage. And I don’t want to do the school run in the perpetual rain and cold.

      It goes without saying I’m as ambitious as ever, and I’ll continue to come back to London for work, but working in other countries is definitely my next goal. I believe my career won’t suffer from this life choice, and might even thrive. It’s a chance I’m willing to take.  

      Who knows, my London friends might even come to visit. 

       

       

      If this essay does one thing, I hope it puts the possibility of moving somewhere new on the table for someone. If you’d like to know all of my Eurostar travel secrets just enter your email address below.

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