Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to not be a jerk in London: 10 ways

There are a lot of things that newbies, tourists, and clueless foreigners do that Londoners or people who generally live here find irritating. There are two reasons for this: 1) cluelessness and 2) stubborn resolve to not conform to London/English etiquette. 

I can't help the people determined to be jerks. (I'm looking at you Americans who resolutely refuse to apologise for being bumped into -I have heard your conversations declaring to one another that you will never be complicit in this seemingly backwards system that we also employ in Canada!) But for those of you who genuinely don't want to piss people off or are curious about why someone dressed in [likely expensive] ripped clothing, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a beer on the sidewalk is giving YOU dirty looks, read on. 

10. Be a conscientious umbrella user
Won't hit anyone here!
Being a wee woman myself, using an umbrella on narrow sidewalks is difficult. Raincoats and ponchos are a lifesaver for the vertically challenged. If you must wield an umbrella, hold it as high above the heads of the crowds as you can. 

9. Be ready to swipe out
When you got off any train transport, you will need to swipe out with your Oyster card or put your ticket through. Scrambling in your bag to find your card while dozens of people are trying to get on with their day? Huge London faux pas. 

Also, if you're on a longer trip outside of London, your ticket will be checked at least once on the train. Keep your tickets accessible. 

8. Ask for the bill
When in doubt, ask for the bill. Service here is worse than almost every where else I have been in the world. Unless you're dining with celebrities and paying triple digits for your meal, you're probably going to have to ask for your bill. If people are queuing at the door, you've finished you're meal, and you think you're being polite by hoping someone will stop by with your bill: you're probably not.

7. Cross the street carefully
Pedestrians do not have right of way. Even if a car is turning onto a different street, it has right of way, not the people crossing. Plus, cars drive on the left, so for those of us from the 72% of the world that drive on the right, crossing the street can be particularly frightening. I have stopped many a tourist from walking into traffic since we moved here, despite painted explanations of which way to look on most corners. 

Don't stress people out or be a burden on the health care system. Watch your step.

6. Don't travel during rush hour, especially in the morning
Basically between the hours of 8 and 10, stay off of the main London streets and off the tube unless it's necessary. Don't take the tube with your luggage during rush hour. Don't take your pet with you on the tube during rush hour. Just generally let people who have places to go at the busiest times of the day get on with it in the least painful way possible.

Plus, it's more expensive to take transit during peak times (6:30 to 9:30 and from 16:00 to 19:00 Monday to Friday)! Save a few quid and sleep in.

5. Be on time
Events start on time, or even early, here. I'm continuously guilty of being rightontime for events and squeezing in at the last minute. This is marginally rude but the odd person who is truly late for events is really stepping on toes (often literally). Be early. Everyone else was and doesn't want to watch you get to your seat when the show/talk/whatever has already started.

(Caveat: this does not apply to clubs, which the Irishman and I learned the hard way. We went to an event on time, weren't allowed in until 10 minutes after the venue had opened, and were the only ones there for over an hour. I have never felt older or more uncool. Spare yourself the embarrassment.)

4. Don't "red rover" the sidewalk
This game isn't fun anyway. (Flickr)
People who walk in a line across the sidewalk on Oxford Street are committing a massive urban sin. At most, walk beside one person. Rows of 4+ people taking up the whole path, walking at a leisurely pace, when there are thousands of people trying to get to their destinations are responsible for blood pressure spikes in Londoners daily.

3. Get in line
Queuing is a British pastime, as we all know. While everyone is in a rush when they are walking places, they come to a screeching halt once the goal is in sight. Butting in to join your friends is probably unwise. 

Complaining is also a primary British activity, so feel free to commiserate with everyone else waiting in your vicinity. 

2. Be quiet

That being said, don't be too friendly. Customer service here, see #8, is all about leaving people alone and getting interactions over with as quickly as possible. Small talk happens but it doesn't get personal. Generally, don't talk to people on transit. Keep your voice down when you do talk to people. 

Coming from Canada, I feel like the volume here is set on "low" and several times I have questioned whether I am losing my hearing due to the quiet nature of communication. Then I go to a pub once people are a few drinks in and suddenly, my hearing is restored! Magic.

1. Walk fast, walk straight
Especially in Central London, walk as quickly as you can and in as straight of a line as you can to allow for people who know where they are going to get there. Sidewalks are full of zigzagging commuters trying to get around clueless tourists. This problem is so prevalent that multiple proposals over the years have suggested "speed lanes" on foot traffic heavy Oxford Street.

If you think you are lost and want to check your phone/guidebook/map, treat it like you're in a car and look for a good space to pull over that won't obstruct people before you stop.

Bonus ways people are jerks that should be common sense:

  • If you stand on the left on the escalator, don't be surprised to hear tutting, throat clearing, coughing, or a drunken "get out of the f---ing way!" 
  • Elevators ("lifts") often have an entry side and an exit side for traffic control. There is a special place in hell for people who jump the queue and enter from the exit side.

Really, this can be summarized as get out of the way. It may seem excessive but, unlike Hong Kong where density seems to have resulted in everyone being complicit in getting places very slowly, Londoners still want to get places in a reasonable amount of time. Whether you agree with it or not, you're going to be a jerk if you're taking up space.

It's inevitable that you will be in someone's way, hit someone with your umbrella, loiter at a restaurant, or generally irritate someone for a reason you can't pinpoint. When in doubt, apologise. The English love a good apology.

If you have any other tips on how to not piss people off in this excessively dense tourist trap of a city, please share in the comments!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Saving cash in London (the fun way): 10 tips

The number 1 thing most expats I meet in London say about the city is that it's expensive. And it is. Rent and transport are crazy; I can't believe how much we moaned in Toronto! Salaries, especially for non-manager roles, are completely inadequate in a lot of sectors. And if you are here on a working holiday visa, your odds of a decent wage are even lower.

But being young and having a good time in London can be semi-affordable if you plan a bit and keep your eyes and ears open!

1. Bring on the emails.
You're probably familiar with Groupon and its competitors. While I have found the deals in London much less dramatic than in Toronto, there are still great deals to be had. Theatre tickets, clothing, exercise, spa treatments, and nights out can all be had for steep discounts.

The Irishman and I got a Wowcher coupon: 6 cocktails and free cover at a club in Soho for £10! Each drink, normally £10 each, was expertly shaken (with 2+ shots of alcohol in each) and there was a comfy lounge area for us to hang out in.

There are tons but my subscriptions of choice:

2. Stay fit -no excuses!
The climate isn't really ideal for outdoor activities and incredibly long escalators in the Underground could make anyone fall out of shape quickly. But even if a rainy jog or yoga in a shoebox of a flat don't appeal, you have no financial excuse!

Like yoga? Lululemon hosts free classes throughout the week. Many studios also offer amazing intro deals, including triyoga and Bikram.

Free exercise pops up around the city if you're looking for it. Boot camps can be pricey but, especially if you`re willing to get up early on the weekends, you can find totally free classes (e.g. Hyde Park) and most companies will let you try your first session for free.

As mentioned above, group buying deals are a good default. And if you can stand the emails and texts, sign up at gyms and studios near your home or work to find out about great deals that may find you at the right time!

3. Save on transport.
Speaking of exercise, walking is the best way to get around the city. Avoid any rail service or cabs, leave your heels in your bag, and hoof it! If you're not going far, it can be quicker to walk than make your way deep underground and then surface, anyway. Handy maps are dotted all over the city to help you sort yourself out.

Get an Oyster card. If you are in the city for a week, get an Oyster card. The £5 card save you money on every trip, you can register it so you get the cash or pass back if you lose it, and you can top up your balance online.

App CityMapper is all the rage now. It gives you your various transport options, including cost and weather at your destination. For free. iOS and Android users, get downloading.

The bus is way cheaper and can be faster, especially during rush hour. The price is fixed, unlike trains, so you can get pretty far on a couple of pounds. They're usually much less crowded than the tube. You can see the city rather than concrete walls. And they often are double-deckers. Which is cool.

If you're a braver person than I and have good waterproof gear, cycling is a great way to go. Beware of roundabouts, buses, pedestrians (especially drunk ones), motorcycles, thieves...Just wear a helmet and buy a good lock, okay?

4. Good shopping.
One of the best things about London is the charity shop culture. People automatically think of donating their clothes to the shops and they are EVERYWHERE. Usually named after the specific charity they support, often several will be side by side. Especially for women's clothing, you can find tons of clothes at deep discounts and support charities.
5. Head outside.
There are regular markets in every neighborhood of London. And look for signs for mini-markets in your area. We have at least 3 on the weekend within a 15 minute walk! Browsing, grabbing an inexpensive lunch, catching some streetside entertainment --you can spend only a few quid in an afternoon but have a lovely time just hanging out outside. (Bring your umbrella.)
The biggest Chinese New Year outside of Asia. It was disappointing (food was not actually Chinese and the entertainment was awful) but the rest of the fests have been great!
Especially in the warmer months, free festivals abound. Being a Torontonian at heart, I'm used to spending weekends festival hopping, enjoying free entertainment, samples, street food...It's even better in London with more lax public drinking laws where you can BYOB to many events! TimeOut London is your source for all London events.

6. Join the club.
There are two deal cards in particular that I would recommend to anyone moving to London, even for just a year: Tastecard and Nectar.

The Tastecard gets you 50% off food or 2 for 1 courses at tons of restaurants in London. Pizza Express and Zizzi are two delicious chains included. Combine with happy hour for extremely cheap eating out. They have a great app and after choosing your restaurant, you can have the address and map texted to you. What's the catch? A one year membership is £80 and you have to make a reservation when you use it. You can get a one month free trial to give it a whirl. They frequently have 50% off the card deals; they will likely offer it after the trial or, if you are patient, you'll get an email offer. £40 will pay off in about 3 outings or less!

The Nectar card is free and gets you points at tons of places when you shop (including eBay and grocery giant Sainsbury's). You can redeem the points for cash. Simple and costs nothing!

There are tons of loyalty cards in this city, many of them free, so stock up!

7. Enjoy cheap/free cul-chah.
Most museums and galleries are free. Many have late hours scheduled in. It's a no brainer. Check ahead for tour times, which are usually free and bring museums to life! If you are a student, you can get enviable deals on entry to exhibitions and places that charge admission. The British Museum (check out free talks by curators or guest speakers at 13:15 Tue-Sat), gettyimages gallery, and Somerset House are my personal favourites, but I still have several smaller museums on my to-see list.

Rush seats are the way to go if you want prime seats for minimal dough. Show up at the theatre a couple of hours in advance at many shows, put your name on the list and see if you've been lucky enough to get yourself one of the hottest tickets in town at a massive discount. Book of Mormon front row seats? £20 each. The real seats? Over 6x that price.

8. Hang out at pub.
Listening to a Johnny Cash impersonator on St Paddy's day for free? Why not.
Sorry Mom. Hanging out in pubs is a British institution. And when your flat is a shoebox, you have few friends, and the rain is making you sad, grabbing a warm ale in a cozy pub is just the answer. Not only are the prices fairly inoffensive by urban Canadian comparison but free or inexpensive entertainment abounds.

Televised sports, live music, themed DJs, pub quizzes (trivia nights in North American-speak), movie nights, comedy nights, even affordable theatre, can all be found at pubs around the city. Speed dating, speed flatmate hunting, Meet Ups -pubs are hubs for meeting people.

We randomly stumbled upon Pint of Science through Facebook, an event where experts in different fields of science offer free lectures in pubs around the UK. Did you know dolphins sleep with one half of their brain at a time so they don't forget to breathe?

9. Don't bother with TV.
Going out to the movies for £10+ per ticket or paying £145 a year for a TV licence is restrictive if you're on a budget in London. (TV licenses are required if you use a TV to watch digital stations. Not having one is a prisonable offence which people are reminded of quite often. Enforcement drive around inspecting houses that don't have licenses. For an outsider, it is weird, to say the least.)

If you have WiFi, the world is your cheap entertainment Oyster. Competition is heavy between streaming companies at the moment and you can take advantage. Most providers offer a free one month trial. Group buying deals for subscriptions are common. We got 6 month of LOVEFiLM (Amazon's answer to Netflix) for £10! Netflix is rising in popularity here and BBC iPlayer is free, as are many other channels' streaming apps.

Renting movies digitally is also cheap; you can get new releases without a subscription with services like Tesco's Blinkbox, LOVEFiLM or Sony Entertainment Network.

10. Keep your eyes peeled! 
So many deals and freebies pop up every day in the city, it isn't hard to find ways to occupy your time. I had a friend tip me off to a poorly advertised promo by a radio station to see Of Monsters and Men in a private gig. It was supposed to be a contest but we just emailed our names in on the day and we had tickets, including a couple of free drinks for ourselves and our +1s!

Selfridges was offering free facials a few months ago that I happened to notice in a free newspaper.

I suggest following groups on Facebook like Walk London, Yelp London, London for Free, and Handpicked London to get the scoop on what is going on that you can take advantage of.

Enjoying yourself in London on the cheap isn't that hard if you know where to look.

If you have any tips about things I have missed, add them to the comments!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Moving to London for the first time: 10 tips

Booking a ticket is easy but where to start to make sure you make the most of your move, whether permanent or for a year or two?


1. Pack smart

We moved to London with a suitcase and a backpack each*. Our poor parents are saddled with a fair amount of junk but we gave away and threw out most of our possessions. So in our limited stock of stuff, why did I bring eco fabric shoes and suede pumps? (I.e. The worst possible footwear for [perpetually] rainy weather.)

You can get anything you need in London, for the most part. And most of it isn't even that expensive outside of lodging and gas/petrol.
My friend Bee, who is above the age of 12, begrudgingly bought these out of desperation with no affordable non-patterned wellies in sight.
There are three things we did need to outsource: rainboots, can openers, and bottle openers. Rainboots/Wellies, even "cheap" ones, run about £20-30 minimum. And, even in adult sizes, often have patterns more appropriate for kindergarteners. We purchased 3 can openers and 2 bottle openers before we gave up and went North American. No idea why we had such a hard time; I open it to your speculation.

2. Because it's who you know

You probably know someone who lives in London. Or who has lived in London. Those tips and connections are key to potentially feeling normal in this large and often lonely place. Check your social networks. Put it out there that you're moving here. You'd be surprised!

Toronto 2006 to London 2012. Who'd have thought?
I have a friend who I only met for a few minutes on stage in 2006 when we shaved our heads for a cancer fundraiser. We had connected on Facebook to share photos and that was it. When Hind saw on her Facebook feed that I had moved to London, 6 years later as she was wrapping up grad school, she popped me a message and I had my first inexpensive and salty Camden Market lunch. She hadn't even remembered the context in which we met. But that's London: the smallest connections can feel like bonds when everyone seems to already have their own friends and are not looking to add to the roster.

3. Money = problems, period

My biggest regret about my move is not figuring out how to transfer money back and forth to Canada. We have spent way too much time on the phone with our Canadian bank, carried around stupid amounts of cash from ATMs, and wasted more money than I care to count in fees.

An account where you can transfer currency, travelers cheques, bank transfers through an agency...basically anything beyond doing nothing to prepare for my pound sterling-led financial future would have all been better options.

I had no idea how difficult it would be to get cash out. Despite having no withdrawal limits in Canada, I was slapped with daily and weekly caps from being overseas. I called and got them increased but not enough to cover first and last month's rent, so we had to take dreaded cash advances from our credit cards. Stupid? Very much so. Don't make that mistake.

Added 20/02/2013: My friend Leanne, Canadian teacher in London, shared a tip with me this morning that international transfers from one PayPal account to another are quite inexpensive if they are linked up to bank accounts! (Disclosure, my employer is funded by a grant from PayPal)


4. Get social

As anti-social as London can feel, there is no shortage of people looking for friendship or love (or job leads). Especially in the case of the former, though, you are usually dealing with expats. Which is great! Most of my friends are Canadian, Australian, and American, simply because we're the ones out there, looking for people to complain about the weather with. (Don't get me wrong, Brits are also filling their leisure time moaning about the cold/rain/clouds/darkness -they're just doing it with each other.)

Meet Up is huge here, for singles looking to meet other singles and friendly people looking to hang out with other friendly people. I've made a few friends through the Canadian Expat group and gone to other events from emails they've sent out.

Yelp is a personal favourite. You may have heard of it as a review website. What you may not know about are its events. There are events you can join to meet other people who like exploring the city and trying out local businesses, restaurants, galleries, museums, etc. You can put up Unofficial Yelp Events and other eager Yelpers will join you to check out a pub, watch a movie, check out an event -whatever! Almost everyone is American, so if you want to get everyone going, mention the quality of pizza and/or Mexican food in London. Always entertaining.

5. Sort out your paperwork

Apply for your National Insurance number immediately after arriving if your job situation isn't magically set up already before you get here. I called and had to wait for a form to arrive, fill it out, and return it to the offices in Scotland. Then I had to wait for the number to arrive in the mail. The whole process took a few weeks.

If you get a job before you get your National Insurance number, your job may take a large chunk of tax off your pay (anecdotal from an Aussie friend who temped under the youth mobility visa). Some people will need to be interviewed to get their card. Essentially, make it a priority to get that done ASAP. I did it as soon as I got to where I was staying.

6. First thing to do after you leave the airport? Get an Oyster card

£5 for that little guy will save you lots of money on travel in the city. Register the card at a station so if you lose it or if it's stolen, you can get the balance transferred.

(My upcoming post on saving money in London will go into more detail about saving cash on travel.)

7. Homelessness is not ideal

This is seriously our kitchen. And we cook almost all of our meals.
Basics to keep in mind:
-Living with other people is the default option if you're single and in a non-management role
-If you don't already have a job, good luck renting an apartment that isn't a flatshare
-Watch for what is and isn't included. Council tax, internet, tv license and other utilities can add up! If you are moving as a couple, rates are often higher for both flatshares and whole flats.
-With our Canadian mentality, we got our own tiny, overpriced zone 2 studio. After 6 months, we are moving into a flatshare so we no longer have a cupboard kitchen. Newlyweds with roommates? That's London!

8. Get a job

This will be the subject of a future post, but in brief: apply, apply, apply. Subscribe to as many of the dozens of job website and agency email alerts as you can manage, pay attention to Twitter and LinkedIn for job openings specific to your field, and work at getting work. There are a lot of jobs in London if you have some experience and are willing to swallow your pride to take a job that pays less or is less prestigious than your last role.

Researching the local context, the companies you are applying to, and competitors is key to standing out in the massive talent pool. Do not get discouraged and do not be afraid to temp. Get experience in the country, make connections, and impress your recruitment agency!


9. Find a doctor

Your mother didn't make me say this, I swear. But it is for your own good.

If you're in good health, you probably won't even think of it. But with universal health care, visits to the doctor are free and medication is heavily subsidized (if you are working legally in the country, at least). Having yourself set up with a local doctor while you're healthy will make those unpleasant visits later much easier to schedule and get through.

Explaining your medical history when you are sick or in pain is far from ideal.

10. Explore your neighborhood! 

The first thing we did after signing our lease is get our library cards. Okay, kind of lame, but is part of feeling like part of a neighbourhood.

I got to know the guys at the local fruit market, the pizza chef at our local bar, and the owner of our local coffee shop. When I see the people who work at the dry cleaners who cleaned my second-hand (Mom's) wedding dress, they ask how the wedding plans are coming along. We don't have much money to spend, but keeping most of it in the neighborhood can help make London seem that much friendlier and like home.

It's easy to hole up in your apartment or stick to the main spots in Central London. Your neighbourhood has something to offer and you will love this city if you love your neighbourhood!

Do you have any tips or suggestions for newbies to the city? 
Know where to get a good bottle opener? 
Comment below!

*and my fantastic, good looking, brilliant family delivered a big bag of stuff when we met up at a family wedding in November...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

on being a happy 25 year old disappointment to my younger self

When I first started this blog, I had some pretty grand expectations for my 20s. I would get an awesome job in development with an ethical organization whose politics I would comfortable with. Or at least a mediocre job with an okay organization that I would leave to do my Masters or a development placement by 25. I would travel and meet inspiring people dedicating their lives to helping others, etc. I'm pretty sure biking across Africa and learning French was in there, too.

Instead, I've gone through a couple of 4 month spells of unemployment/temporary work with loads of interviews with feedback like "You were basically equivalent to the candidate we chose", and "You are slightly unqualified" followed by "You are overqualified" when I applied for the position below it. After university, I ended up working in the last place I expected: advertising. Very long days and weeks, lots of stress, and, thankfully, transferable skill acquisition were my life for a year and a half.

Which is to blame for the dearth of updates.

Don't get me wrong, I did my best to nudge the world in a better direction while trying to persuade people they really did need to upgrade their home printer lest their children's book reports lack "professional quality colour". Expressing my dislike, disapproval, and disgust to Rob Ford and his peeps as a member of St Clair West Stop the Cuts was the closest thing I had to a hobby in 2011 and 2012. But blogging about it seemed like a dilution of that space since the Toronto Star and others most certainly had it covered.

For now, I live a quieter and calmer life with my fiance who I met when I came back to Toronto from Canada. We moved to London in September. We found jobs. We are squeezed by wages that don't quite cover a modest yet comfortable existence. And we're preparing for an April Irish wedding. So that's what I know about for now. No Masters. No development work. No life changing travel.

But I'm young and happy and hope to be so for many decades more. And hopefully I can start using this space to share what I am learning along the way, as trivial as it sometimes is.

Upcoming post: A guide to moving to London, 10 tips