An article for The Telegraph about the trials and tribulations of settling back into London living after seven years away. Has the city gone mad, or have I?
It’s just over four months since I moved home. Following seven years in Dubai, I uprooted my comfortable, sunshine-filled expat life, packed it into boxes and sent if off on a ship back to London.
It was time to move back, be nearer my family and oldest friends and put an end to the constant limbo that hangs over one in a place so endlessly transient.
Once I had, I found I’d inherited a new and somewhat strange skill: the ability to look at my own country through sparklingly clear eyes. UK life differs sharply from that in the UAE, and there have been extra, unexpected difficulties involved in repatriating myself.
My personal speed and space boundaries had to be recalibrated first. London’s faster tempo was thrust upon me as soon as I touched ground, as hundreds of my fellow passengers marched off the plane and near-sprinted to border control.
For once I couldn’t overtake everyone; I struggled to even keep up. Clearly, living in a city of merely 2.1 million had readjusted my pace and parameters. But it isn’t just the fact I’ve come from somewhere less densely inhabited that makes me feel like London is overflowing. It’s because it is: back in 2006 the population here was 7.5 million – now it’s 8.3. The presence and pressure of those extra 800,000 residents is palpable.
Next up: my immune system needed a service. The minute the freakishly long summer ended (the best in seven years – talk about good timing), and I stepped into an office, I got a cold, cough, eye infection and my wisdom teeth flared up – all previous health issues that had laid dormant for years.
My body had gone soft, incapable of dealing with temperatures less than 25 degrees, or an office without air conditioning or a fleet of housekeeping staff. Thankfully, it only took my white blood cells a fortnight to catch up with me – which was almost as quick as HM Revenue and Customs.
But not everything has been a stinging slap-in-the-face sort of surprise. On the whole, it’s been a process of realising how much I’ve truly missed, without realising. By now my phone is stuffed with scenery shots: green fields, glistening lakes, pink sunsets, purple heather. The British countryside is stunning – it just took me seven years in an arid desert to notice. The smell of grass, the scattering leaves, the clearer light are all magical, truly. All that lush life feels so soothing and rehydrating for my wandering soul.
Similarly cheering has been my readjustment to London city life. At first, I’ll be honest, I felt frightened just walking down the street. I jumped out of my skin when a salesman asked if he could bother me for a moment. “No!” I impulse-barked at his raised eyebrows. Dubai doesn’t have much of a pedestrian culture; you hop in a cab to go anywhere, even cross the road at times, so you don’t actually come close to crowds of other human beings as often as here.
The UAE is also, comparatively, an incredibly safe place to live. Case in point: I once lost my debit card in a club, only to discover that a stranger had found it and cancelled it for me. So, initially, I felt like rather a babe in the wood walking about Hackney and Camden; as though I had “newcomer” etched in my eyes and “Dubai savings” on the watch on my wrist.
But time and time again I’ve been uplifted by the kindness of strangers: the man who lifted my stupidly heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs at Highbury and Islington station; the taxi driver who stopped the meter after a lengthy road diversion, then drove on and made sure I got safely to my front door; the older lady who shared my pain as we waited for an hour at Turnpike Lane for that mystical “replacement bus” one Sunday afternoon. Don’t get me started on my reacquaintance with cancelled/delayed/disappearing tubes, trains and buses: why can’t engineering works be done overnight when all motion stops anyway?
But yes, I’m happy to tell you, London remains, essentially, a friendly place. And that’s even amid the high street loons, like Kentish Town’s Cardboard Box Head Man, Lady Who Paints Her Face Bright Red and Man Who Wears Clown Make-Up. Honest.
I’m sure the shocks will keep on coming. In the past five days alone I’ve spotted an entire range of vibrators in Boots and a man with a pierced eyelid. I’ve drunk vodka shots with colleagues in the office. On top of that, a strange man, standing far too close at a pedestrian crossing, informed me that he uses the same brand of toilet roll as me, while looking intently at my transparent Sainsbury’s shopping bag. I must remember to buy a thick reusable one next time …
Yes, no doubt these cultural jolts will keep on striking as I immerse myself back fully into the swing of British life – until they suddenly, imperceptibly, stop.
For now? I’m just marvelling at them as they hit.