Looking back over 6 months in London (and surviving the British winter!)
Exactly six months ago I returned to London after a blissful summer of travel in order to start a new job in Whitehall as a civil servant. As well as this 6-month anniversary, the clocks changed yesterday and I’m currently going through a mid-year appraisal at work, so it feels like perfect timing for a recap over my last six months here in London.
Reflecting on my decision to move back to London half-way through my Master’s and a year ahead of schedule, on balance I now know that I made the right choice. As much as my heart ached for Mexico City, Groningen and another year of doing what I love most – exploring the world – this job has exceeded all my expectations and I count my lucky stars to finally be in a role that ticks so many boxes for me. While it’s true that I’m spending most of my time in a 9-5 routine in London, my job allows me to travel abroad occasionally, to use my languages, to learn and develop professionally, and to gain experience in a field I’ve wanted to work in for nearly 10 years. Of course I do miss the travel involved in my former Erasmus Mundus Master’s student lifestyle and I’m looking forward to spending more time abroad this summer when I finally start using my annual leave, but I also feel like I’m in a good place right here and right now in London.
What I’m loving most about London
I can’t get over the prime location of my office, the stunning Treasury building, at the heart of Westminster. Passing Cabinet Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and MPs in the corridors of Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament can sometimes feel very surreal. Not to mention that one time I rang the doorbell of No.10 Downing Street and spotted Larry the cat inside on my way to a meeting – I’m still pinching myself that I got to do that.
In an ideal world I’d spend all my lunchtimes strolling through St James’ Park, feeding the ducks, gazing up at Buckingham Palace, being serenaded by songbirds, spouting poetry, etc. but the reality is that work has been extremely busy and most days I’m lucky if I even leave the Treasury building. When I do escape to meetings in the next-door building, the Foreign Office, I’m then in awe of the amazing decoration inside and the grand halls, columns, stairways, portraits, statues, maps and other remnants of London’s 19th century heyday. Google ‘Locarno Suite’ and ‘Durbar Court’ to see what I’m talking about.
My second favourite thing about my office’s location is the fact that I now cycle to and from work along the very scenic Thames on my baby blue Dutch-style bike, as it makes me so infinitely happy to be spending my commute in the fresh air next to the river rather than squished on a train and a bus! Outside of work and my dreamy commute, my fondness for Wandsworth has grown since moving back. Wandsworth is in south-west London, perched in between the more famous trio of Clapham Junction, Putney and Wimbledon. My sister and I bought a flat in Wandsworth 2.5 years ago when it was a distinctly yummy-mummy territory and the area just didn’t do it for me – the quantity of babies was a real turn-off! Since then I’m happy to report that all the young people of London have now arrived in Wandsworth and, to my great delight, the babies have vanished. Pair that with the fact that lots of the run-down areas of the borough are suddenly being redeveloped and converted into much more attractive places to eat, drink and brunch, the rejuvenation has pulled in a completely different demographic from the one we moved into. (I’d like to credit my sister and I for the wisdom of buying into the future potential of Wandsworth, but it’s just a complete fluke). Keeping up with the borough’s makeover, we redecorated our flat in the autumn and it’s amazing how much a lick of blue paint can do for the mood. Yes that’s right – our entire flat is blue (my favourite colour). I love it to bits.
Outside of Westminster and Wandsworth though, I’ve been trying to get out and about in the rest of London – as far north as the homelessness charity Crisis’ Women’s Centre where I volunteered for a few days after Christmas; as far eastwards as East Dagenham for a day’s volunteering in a Crisis warehouse; as far south as Tooting Bec Lido for a truly traumatic fundraising midwinter swim; and as far west as Richmond and beautiful Kew Gardens.
Autumn and the gentle roll into December were fairly pleasant as the novelty of having so many friends all in the same city as me sunk in and I filled all spare evenings and weekends with catch-ups and dinner parties. It had been three years since my last December in London so that month was of course a merry overload of Christmas lights, trees, carols, parties, dinners, ice rinks and frantic present shopping. The end of 2017 was celebrated in extravagant style with an impromptu rooftop jacuzzi party with schoolfriends (not my jacuzzi sadly!) and quickly followed by a broken boiler, the January blues, and the next few months of short dark days, grey skies, rain, snow and few redeeming features. To say I’ve been counting down the days to the start of spring would not be untruthful… 2018 hasn’t been kind to us Londoners so far!
Managing to get my fix of Europe
To my dismay I didn’t manage to travel abroad at all in October or December, but my passport has seen the light of day in the other months since I moved back to the UK. Luckily work trips have taken me to Rome, Brussels and Madrid and given me my much-needed fix of Europe, and I’ve been hopping over to the Netherlands recently too. However, I have not spent a single day skiing this winter, which pains me immensely! Nor have I taken any annual leave in the 6 months since I started this job – which surely isn’t healthy and is starting to take its toll on my energy levels… I am truly desperate for a proper holiday outside of the UK and a break from work that’s longer than 4 days…
One reason for so little travel was because I’d spent the previous 12 months living abroad, and two solid months travelling around the Balkans and Sicily in August and September, so I didn’t feel an immediate need to escape the British Isles straight away. Another reason was that I’d been salary-less for 12 months and my new employer isn’t exactly throwing gold bars at me in terms of paychecks. Translation for non-Brits: that’s a very British way of saying that, in short, I’m skint!
On missing Europe
My travel bug has in no way disappeared though, and any long-time reader of this blog will know that I always reach a point of frustration after spending too long in one place! See: ‘Wanderlust and the Problem with Staying in One Place for Too Long‘ from 2015. I frequently have pangs of nostalgia for the places I visited last summer and last year, with those three sun-soaked weeks in Sicily topping my leaderboard of daydreams. My wanderlust is ironically at its worst during these short work trips and for the 3-4 days immediately afterwards, as I’m confronted so directly with what I’m missing by not living on the continent. My 2-day trip to Madrid was my first visit since living there in 2014 and I was assaulted by so many wonderful memories (see my guide on ‘How to Spend a Weekend in Madrid‘). Likewise my visit to Rome was my first proper visit since I lived near Rome back in 2009 (!) and I instantly fell back in love with both of those cities. The pangs for Europe that hit me when I returned to London were horrible, and having just a tiny taste but not being able to stay was torture. Is seeing what you’re missing worse than just living in ignorant bliss?
How to keep travel front of mind
It’s my strict belief that annual leave is precious and should only be used for travels abroad (or elsewhere in the UK). In the last six months I haven’t yet used any of my 25 days, but I’ve found other strategies to keep my travels front of mind. I’ve been reading and listening to audiobooks in other languages (Elena Ferrante’s books for Italian, Isabel Allende’s for Spanish, Paulo Coelho’s for Portuguese) and reading books based in other countries (‘Rose of Sarajevo’, ‘War with Russia’ and ‘I Am Pilgrim’) to ensure my worldview stays as open-minded as possible and doesn’t succumb to the British island mentality that I studied last year during my Master’s. London’s collection of cultural institutes and universities also excel at running interesting talks and foreign film screenings, so I’ve been soaking up plenty of those. I do worry that my language skills might fade. My Dutch and Swedish aren’t yet sufficiently advanced to stick in my mind, and fingers crossed I’ll be re-starting French lessons through work soon.
Exploring England in the meantime
While I haven’t been abroad that often, other areas of England have featured more: Exeter University to give a careers talk, a spa weekend in the New Forest, Bonfire Night in Nottingham, Christmas in Surrey, a reeling ball in Oxfordshire, a rural weekend in Dorset. Next weekend I’ll be walking along the Cornish coast over Easter, and I have a few hen parties over the summer in different cities across England (I obviously can’t reveal which cities without ruining the surprise for the brides-to-be!). I’m really waiting for summer and good weather to arrive though, for England to really show its best.
Travels for the rest of the year
As I’ve barely travelled in the past six months, I’ve understandably made very little progress on my 2018 travels goals. The two trips overseas that I do definitely have booked are a long weekend in Hamburg, Germany, and a wedding in Provence, France. Plans are underfoot for trips further afield, but they are yet to be booked so I won’t preempt them here…
All in all, I’m enjoying my new role and life back in London, although I do feel like I am very overdue a holiday and a proper escape! I’m relishing the beginning of spring and eagerly awaiting the return of my favourite season: summer! Winter in the UK has been a test, but the daffodils are out in force, Easter is around the corner, and rare glimpses of sun are giving me hope!
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