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