London Travel Diaries: Week 1 First Impressions

This is the first of what I hope will be a weekly feature on the blog. I decided to write this as I would love to have a reminder of my time in London to look back on and I hope it will also be something my readers enjoy. This first post is really long because it reflects my initial thoughts of London but future ones will be a summary of my week. I arrived in London on a Friday so technically this is a 10 day update, but who is counting right? Beside my pedantic side that is! I have observed plenty on life here to form a few thoughts, opinions and judgements of my own.

Weather
I landed at Heathrow Airport at 5am to the darkest of skies. You could be forgiven for wrongly thinking it was 11pm. It has been a relatively mild Winter (or so I am told) with temperatures ranging between 4 and 9 degrees. That being said, the below zero temperatures in the early hours of the morning is not the type of icy cold you want to be standing outside for. I have been surprised at how well I’m handling the cold and thanking my lucky stars that there hasn’t been any rain yet. Cold and wet is not something I will handle very well. London isn’t as well ventilated as people say, I have to set the temperature in my apartment to between 25 and 30 degrees and even with a thermal top I still feel quite cold at work. I don’t dare leave home without long boots, a jacket, beanie and gloves. Overall the cold has been manageable because I’m always on the move walking and it’s generally a 10/15 minute walk to a tube or attraction. When the wind stirs up it does get super cold regardless of the predicted temperature. One thing I am not used to and probably never will is the sun rising at 8am and setting at 4pm. Waking up at 7am with no sunlight is proving to be quite difficult for my body to adjust to. Even though I go to sleep at a similar time as I did in SA, my natural waking time is now 8am.

Apartment
My apartment is located in South Kensington, west of central London. This is apparently a fancy area because people always comment that it is quite posh. I can’t say I see it as anything special so it makes me wonder what the average areas of London look like. The tube station is a short walk away with plenty of franchised takeaways (Nando’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Subway and Burger King), grocery stores and dingy shops around it. I am lucky to have an apartment all to myself because my colleague insisted on it so she could have her “overnight visitor”. It’s a one bedroom studio apartment with two 3/4 beds joined together, couch and TV, a little kitchen and a tiny bathroom with a shower, not bathtub thankfully! The thing I hate most about my apartment is the terribly uncomfortable and hard bed. I haven’t been sleeping well at all, I generally wake up either at 1am or 3am if I am lucky.

Travel
Most people use the bus or tube to get around. Common behaviour on the tube is either reading a newspaper/book/kindle or playing around on a phone. Someone very clever invented the rule of standing on the right side of the escalator in order for people running down/up to use the left and get wherever quicker and without injury. I know in South Africa we say that if the public transport system were better we would use it (there are plenty that use the Gautrain) but using public transport is downright crappy. Unless your destination is short you will spend time walking to a tube, at least a 30 minute tube ride and then still walk to your destination. It takes me 45 minutes to get to work which is longer than back home. Tubes also come with an invasion of your space, having to stand the entire ride, boredom, waste of time, no cellphone signal and having to carry all your shopping. My biggest problem with the tube though is how soul depleting it is. Most people look gloomy, sad, depressed or just have a bitch resting face. The fact that it runs underground in the dark doesn’t help. A pro is that you don’t have all the worries that come with driving (stuck in traffic/car crash). While a train can get delayed or crash, it doesn’t happen very often.

I have been on a bus once with a friend but have been too scared to try it out again after my experience of getting lost in Rome by taking a bus. The tubes are easier to understand and locate on Google maps. Something I am still slow to accept is that the tube lines on a map isn’t an accurate representation of distance in reality, often it’s quicker to walk than use the tube.

Work
It might be the reason I am here but it isn’t the reason I came. The office reception which sets the tone for the entire building is modern, cold and clinical. Only partners are given offices and the rest of the office is extremely open plan. It’s weird for me to find senior managers sitting amongst analysts. Desks are messy, there are no microwaves, no two ply toilet paper, vending machine coffee, stationery cupboards in the kitchen, lockers for filing and personal use, and no bins at anyone’s desk.

Having been here and to several companies in SA, I have realized the company I work for has a very unique culture (which I love!), that is very difficult to find anywhere else. The people here weren’t welcoming or friendly in the sense that they didn’t make an effort to acknowledge us. I don’t blame them entirely because there was no email sent around letting people know who we were. My expectation of a culture similar to back home where a few of us would go have lunch together on the first day remained but a pipe dream. The team is quite big and the overall ambiance is rather grim, draining and depressing. It’s definitely not a place that I feel eager to go to in the morning. When I do speak to people they are great, but normal day-to-day small talk or greetings are non existent. People will ignore you in the lift or the kitchen whereas back home you say hello or smile at someone. I am starting to feel that I have morphed into a typical Londoner and have forgotten how to smile on a normal day to day basis.

Company is available in the form of the person I came with but that has many a downfall. It’s been extremely difficult dealing with someone who undermines everything to her advantage but also at the same time to my disadvantage. Everything must be all about her and done her way. This ranges from the time we flew, the choice of airline, the time we should leave, the tubes we should take, the work that must be done, where we sit at work and even hijacking conversations to sideline me out of them. One would expect that people who go on secondment would do things together, but she sees her boyfriend most days and whenever we have made plans she has cancelled or moved the time to suit her needs. I also don’t want to spend my time shopping at Primark (London’s version of Mr Price) with her or go out for lunch/dinner where she ends up paying less and effectively stealing the waiters tip. All I can say is that I’m tired of people believing I’m the mean one simply because it’s easier to blame (and not use logic and brain cells), the naturally loud and strongly opinionated person versus another person who pretends to play the victim. I know most of the people at work won’t care much for my side of the story but that always helps me to weed out who my real friends are.

People
In a city filled with a crazy amount of white people and encountering a vast number of guys in public you would think I would be in heaven. It disappoints me to say that Londoners are not a good looking bunch. One should be able to deduce this from looking at British actors though. Most people have pale bad skin, puffy eyes, and ordinary features. I can’t say I have seen a stunningly attractive person (male or female) yet. South Africa has better looking people by far. Aside from looks people are unfriendly and unapproachable. My friend who lives here mentioned to me that London is a very lonely city to which I agree with.

People describe London as a melting pot of cultures (wait, is that SA), so I have been quite surprised to see and hear that mixed race relationships aren’t a big thing here. Then there is the problem of dating in London, given the unfriendliness of people it’s difficult to approach and meet a guy here. If you do find one you might want to avoid a British guy as there is a high probability he will cry during sex or want anal sex. Unless of course that’s what you are looking for, then go right ahead! We also encountered a bit of racism at a bar – it really is a problem everywhere in the world.

Friends
I am lucky that I have existing friends here who have been so great to me because I don’t see myself being able to make friends here. Michelle organizes events, is generous, makes sure everyone gets home, lets us sleep over at her house and allows us to use her amazing beauty product stash. I’m also thankful for Makatu, Emefa and Baveshan who offer great fun, company and conversation.

Food
First up, grocery shopping. This was a double adjustment for me because I never had to buy groceries/cook back home and things also work a bit differently here. If you choose to buy your groceries in store instead of online shopping you will have to remember that there is a limit on how much you can buy as you have to carry all your heavy bags home. The variety of groceries can also be a bit overwhelming at first. Some stores have a self checkout option and you might have to pay if you want to use a trolley instead of a basket. I haven’t tried online shopping yet because I like seeing and inspecting my food as it’s all new to me. There is also a minimum spend to get groceries delivered from some stores and since I am not sure where I will be in a weeks time I can only buy enough to last me a week. Hopefully I will get the hang of what to buy and be able to plan meals better so I don’t have to go to the store every 2/3 days. On my first visit I felt pressure to eat healthy so I bought a packet of lettuce. Only to have it lie in my fridge for 2 weeks because I am not one to eat salad. My mother’s biggest concern apart from asking me if I am home yet, is what food I am eating. I’m happy to report I only skipped one meal so far and that was on my first day here. I do wish that I knew how to cook so that my choice of food wouldn’t be so limited.

You can find plenty of ready made meals, sandwiches and salads at any store as buying prepared food is a big culture here. I found that most people at work go out and buy lunch. It is quite a pricey exercise ranging between 6-10 pounds. That is pretty much the standard takeaway rate and the equivalent to a nice restaurant meal in SA. I have tried McDonald’s (yeah I came all the way here to eat that!), it is so much better back home. The burgers don’t have tomato and the chips have a strange artificial taste to it.

Back in SA I am pretty familiar with the restaurant scene, there are very few restaurants in the main Johannesburg area that I don’t know. London however is a whole other ball game. Every where you go is a pub or bar or coffee shop or restaurant. If you search on Zomato for a restaurant you have to narrow it down to location, above 3.5 rating and cuisine in order to not have a ridiculous number to choose from. Even the number of different cuisine options are crazy. I forget this while in SA, but we really do have it good when it comes to food and booze, not only in terms of price but flavour and quality too. My allowance is a pittance so eating out here isn’t within my budget. I have however been to three restaurants, only one of which was great. You need to spend around 20 pounds for a main meal and drink at a cheap restaurant. Cocktails are super expensive and will cost you 8 pounds a pop if you aren’t drinking during happy hour.

Shopping
I have only attempted shopping on Oxford street so my view on this might be quite limited. Underwhelmed pretty much sums it up. Oxford street is so crowded, I prefer Champs Elysees. It might be called High Street shopping but given that there is a Primark on the street, that doesn’t exactly scream fancy. I expected to see amazing boots and coats to the point that I would have to restrain myself, but not a single thing has been bought yet. Whoever said that Zara, cosmetic brands and other international clothing stores were cheaper here obviously cannot do math properly.

Fashion
Much like the shopping I am not seeing London as an amazing hub of fashion. Sure I see the occasional coat/boots on someone that looks nice but I haven’t seen any noteworthy inspiring fashion. What I do like is that no one looks the same. In SA everyone has similar clothes depending on what is trending and we all end up looking like each other. In London I feel that pretty much anything goes.

Night life
I love the bars here! There are so many of them that you don’t have the problem of everyone going to the same place. Which of course means you don’t have to end up dealing with a bevy of arrogant, jock, douchey guys and dumb bimbos. There are probably the new places which become popular and packed because they are the flavour of the month. But given that there are so many options to choose from you don’t have to put yourself through that to go somewhere nice. What I do love most is that the music is great and there is no smoking inside.

Drinking
People drink a lot here! I’m not sure how anyone in London has a functioning liver. Whether the reason for this is the cold or using public transport or there not being anything else to do remains a mystery to most.

General
London was never on my travel list but as the the time drew closer I did get excited to be here. I guess I haven’t done too much exploring yet but it isn’t what I expected. The architecture feels fake because you have a mix of new and old buildings. Tourist sights feel very out of place with surroundings that don’t match it. The good thing is that because everything is so spread out you are mingling with Londoners not just tourists.

I wouldn’t be South African if I didn’t talk about safety. Yes, it is nice to not have to worry about your safety all the time, that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it at all. I worry when I see dodge rowdy guys get on the tube and I am also quite wary of pickpockets. It’s in my nature to worry so I am always quite aware of my surroundings, I slow down to let people walk past me, I take a step away from people on the escalator and I don’t leave my bag lying around. Back home in SA, crime is something I only think about when I read the news. Most of my driving is done on a highway and I live in an estate which offers some level of comfort. I fortunately haven’t been in a life threatening situation so for me I wouldn’t be one to leave SA because of the crime.

I understand the reason London appeals to people but it doesn’t to me for either travel or making a life here. Everyone’s circumstances are different though so I would say it’s a place to experience when you young but you might not want to settle down here. My views are also based on the limited parts of London I have seen, people with families and those away from the city obviously lead a very different lifestyle. My thoughts can only be based on what I have encountered though.

I am however really grateful for this experience because it is something that comes around once in a lifetime. It’s definitely been a learning opportunity in more ways than one. Living on my own is something I never would have done back in SA and it’s something everyone should do at some point in their life.

I do acknowledge my experience is different because I am here for work not a holiday, I am in a long term relationship and not single, I am very close to my family and I haven’t lived alone before. Plus I might change my mind once I go to one of the many pretty parks here. Lastly I expected way better internet connection and speed here.

Sightseeing
I actually did more sightseeing in weekdays than weekends mainly because I get up late on a weekend, recovering from going out during the week and recovering from any partying. What I have done so far (and you can see in the pictures below), in a chronological order is: Natural History Museum; Oxford Street; dinner, drinks and dancing at The Grand Union; Tower Bridge at night; St Paul’s Cathedral; Dennis Sever’s house; National Portrait Museum; National Gallery; Covent Garden Market & Piazza; British museum including an exhibition on ancient lives; dinner at Giraffe and clubbing at Circa in Soho.

I have taken around 900 photos, uploaded 300 to Facebook and spent hours cutting it down for a few photos to post here. Please don’t laugh at the fact that because I only have one coat, beanie and pair of boots I look exactly the same in all the pictures. If you have made it this far, congrats on reading it all and I hope you like the pictures!

1. Earl’s Court Tube Station / 2. St Paul’s Cathedral / 3. New Street Square / 4. Natural History Museum (NHM) / 5. NHM entrance hall / 6. View from second floor of NHM / 7. Dinosaur exhibit at NHM / 8. Carnaby street / 9. Liberty store / 10. Oxford Street at night / 11. Street signs / 12. Tower of London / 13. The Shard / 14. Tower Bridge / 15. Standing on Tower Bridge / 16. Hippodrome casino / 17. The National Gallery / 18. Map of The National Gallery / 19. Trafalgar Square / 20. Blue rooster temporary installation at Trafalgar Square / 21. Covent Garden Market / 22. Artist at Covent Garden Piazza / 23. In a red telephone booth / 24. Inside Covent Garden Market / 25. The British Museum / 26. Selfies in The British Museum / 27. The pretty sky roof at The British Museum / 28. Dinner at Giraffe

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Sights seen: 15
Photos taken: 938
Pounds spent: 167

Love from London Town,
CG

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