When Astrid and I left Melbourne in 2013 we had always had a vague plan that perhaps we could work as paramedics in the UK at the completion of our ride. At the time the process was quite difficult and I had only heard of one other Australian trained paramedic having done it. Then way back in Western China, when a friend emailed us and told us that London Ambulance were actively recruiting Australian paramedics, it seemed perfect. The ease of getting a job in London ultimately caused us to change from our original plan of cycling to Glasgow. Instead we arrived in London on our bikes, jobs already secured. On paper it seemed ideal.
Yet by the time we were faced with the actual reality of an employed existence everything felt wrong. Who I was and what I wanted from life felt like it had been shattered. I was questioning everything. Did I really want to be employed? Did I want to live in a house? In a city? Slip back into my old habits, my old life? My heart longed for something else. To keep traveling, to write, something. The adventure had opened my mind and soul to different possibilities. I was no longer sure I wanted the life I had so fully chosen before.
We talked about our options but in the end pragmatism won out. We were already here and there was no obligation to stay. Plus, it wouldn’t be forever. With hindsight, I feel we made the right decision. I am happy here. We both are. Perhaps in the future I would consider doing it differently. While I don’t think regret is a useful emotion and I don’t regret the decision we made to work for LAS and live in London I am wary of planning too far ahead next time. In the same breath I will also say that sometimes making a practical decision from a solid place ends up feeling like the right one, once things have settled down. Probably there are no wrong decisions, just a series of choices we make through life that take us on different paths.
So after our summer of hiking and then visiting friends we arrived back in dreary London on a chilly and dark November afternoon. We pulled up on fully loaded bikes in front of the Croydon Park Hotel (Croydon being a far flung suburb of London). The doorman did a double take. We didn’t exactly look like people who could afford this kind of place. And actually we couldn’t. The LAS were putting us up as part of our induction. After the initial shock, he escorted us to our padded cell – also known as a hotel room. We set about trying to make it home. I don’t think we we fully succeeded. I am not sure I have ever been quite as miserable as I have living in that place for a month. There were many factors but its beige walls and dull tones didn’t help. I felt like the wildness in me had been caged. Our one point of rebellion was to fire up our petrol stove in the bathroom and cook dinner on it.
It is a huge process of rediscovery coming from life on the road back into work and conventional existence. Sitting in that fluorescent lit classroom, wearing that ugly green uniform, not seeing the sun. I felt like a small part of me was dying. Luckily these feelings passed in time and I slowly remembered that I had been happy in my life back at home. Working and living a settled existence doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The freedom I have known and the things I’ve learnt, I can keep them with me, even in London.
So while living in our padded cell, adjusting to a settled life and being taught how to be a paramedic London style, we also got partake in the fun task of becoming a human recognisable to British bureaucracy. Not an easy feat. I feel deep empathy towards anyone who does not speak english well. It was a mind numbingly frustrating and difficult task and english is my first language. I won’t go into the ins and outs – it’s pretty boring but its something like – you must have an address to get bank account, but in order to get a bank account you need an address and to get a national insurance number in order to work you need an address which in turn you need a bank account for….AHHHHHH!!
Once our work induction was over and done with I was faced with the stark realisation that I kind of hated London. We both did. It was miserable and grey with heavy clouds obscuring the sky for days. The service that now employed us seemed archaic and struggling. Equipment was often missing from our ambulances and technology we had had for more than 10 years back at home was non-existent. This was compounded by the harsh culture of austerity we found ourselves working in and the continued attacks on the NHS. The patients we visited lived in tiny, poorly insulated flats with rising damp. Everywhere was crowded and while you were often intimate with complete strangers on the tube at rush hour (think face in someone’s arm pit) to smile or to talk was a definite no no. People and the city itself appeared generally harsh, unfriendly and morose.
How do you learn to love a city that you do not get along with at first?
You get on your bicycle.
For me cities are more than just a bunch of buildings thrown together where lots of people live. They have a soul and a mood of their own. I first really fell in love with Melbourne when I began cycling everywhere. Being free to cut through back streets, parks and along rivers gives you an intimate glance into the life of the city that is hard to replicate. You cycle passed people’s open windows and smell their dinners cooking, find short cuts through small streets and stumble upon neighbourhood cafes you never knew existed. Through the seasons you feel the city shift – the hot northerly that will become a cool southerly by the evening (which is inevitably always a headwind), the swollen creek that spills onto the bike path after the rain, warm summer evenings, the smell of cut grass and neighbourhood barbecues. These collection of seemingly insignificant moments are the ones that connected me to Melbourne on a level that was different to the one I felt to the people that lived there. If you can have both of those – a connection to place and to people, well for me that’s what makes a place worth living in.
In London it began with canals. Not long after moving to East London I stumbled upon the canal while cycling and this is where my heart began to open up to this strange new place. Canals offer another insight into the city, something beyond the brash, often harsh globalised capital that is London. There is something almost other worldly about the slow moving canal boats with their charmingly painted exteriors. In the summer people sit on their roofs, a few boats gathered together, drinking wine and sharing food. In the winter, they seem to huddle together for warmth, wood smoke mixing with the chilly air. I fell in love with canals, cycling along them, running along them, sitting by their edge and drinking a beer. It was the first thing that delighted me about London.
With the canals as my grounding force I cautiously explored further, sometimes with Astrid, often alone (our shift patterns didn’t match up particularly well at that time). I would cycle into the city, explore a museum or gallery, then find my way home just by cycling east. Sometimes I used the luminous winter moon to guide my way, knowing that the glowing red AcelorMittal Orbit sculpture (i had to google what it was just now) would eventually appear on the horizon and from there I knew I was nearly home. These long winter cycles began to give me a feel and appreciation for the city that had become my home. It broke it down for me, into neighbourhoods, each with their distinct feel and character.
Slowly the season began to transform. The gloomy dark gave way and the incredibly long evenings of spring delighted us all. London began to feel different. The mood shifted, life moved outdoors. As soon as the sun shone the parks and green spaces (of which there are many) filled with people picnicking and barbecuing ( I feel Britain is in dire need of the free BBQ’s so prevalent at home). Our friends and family began to visit as the weather improved and Victoria Park practically became our second home. More and more I realised that London is filled with wild little nooks and crannies. You don’t have to go far to find a little bit of wilderness and it is actually considered the greenest capital city in Europe.
With the parks and canals as my founding love, as time wore on I began to add other things I appreciated about London to that list.
It is a city of many cultures, which seem generally more integrated than even my multicultural home of Melbourne. There is a mosque at the end of our street, a bunch of small shops that sell Halal food, a Romanian corner shop and a pub, all within 5 mins walk of where we live. Even in post Brexit Britain London in general remains a place of more liberal and open values. There is an underlying edginess, it feels like a place where anything can happen. Because it is so big and diverse there is always something going on . No matter how random your interest is, in London you can probably find a group of people into the same thing. I like that about living here.
Wondering around East London I also grew immensely fond of the humble corner shop. In Australia the equivalent of a corner shop – the milkbar is a dying, almost extinct phenomena. Here, at least where we live, the ‘Offie (off license) appears not to be going anywhere. The whole high street is dotted with them and they are all through the back streets too. Our local one stays open for 24 hours (great for 2am wine runs). I almost never go to a supermarket which makes me pretty happy.
Like offies, the neighbourhoods are also dotted with pubs. You can still find some old man pubs which are a strange mix of hipsters drinking craft beers and locals doing the crosswords (drinking fosters), probably sitting at the same place at the bar that they have for the last 15 years. I love wondering into a warm cosy pub on a winters night. And yeah, I totally love room temperature flat beers now too!
By the time autumn rolled around again these collection of experiences and realisations had shown me the good in London. I think we have both more or less found our place amongst the contrasting and shifting landscape that is east London. A pillar of our existence has certainly also been our home. After the time on the road I appreciate the simple things wholeheartedly. Being able to make cup of tea without lighting a fire or pumping our fuel bottle, baking bread and learning new dishes that require more than one pot. Building garden beds, planting vegetables, inviting friends over for a fire in our yard. All these seemingly everyday tasks delight me. While I look forward to the time when our tyres hit the road once more, for now I am very content.
And while I have written about the city itself and the things we enjoy doing now we no longer pedal for a living, it is our friends that truly make London feel like a home. They anchor us to this place and really give it meaning. There is something quite amazing after a year of living somewhere when you realise you are surrounded by people that you care about and who care about you, some of whom you have known for less than 12 months.
So I want to say a big thank you; to the friends we knew when we moved here – you certainly kept us sane in the first few bleak months, I don’t know what we would have done without you. To our families and old friends who visited us – your gaze helped us see the city in a different light and connected us with love from back home. And lastly to the new friends, the ones we have made since moving here – you have inspired us and helped us feel happy and at home here. It is going to be hard to leave.
Loads of Love