I moved to London, England, after I graduated university.
My degree is in Archaeological Sciences, but by the time I graduated I knew I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. My only marketable skills were clerical in nature, acquired during various summer jobs – I once spent three months typing (on a typewriter) endorsements for a large insurance company – and I decided if I had to have a boring office job, I was going to go and have it in London.
So I applied for my work visa, saved a little money, packed my bags, and left.
Because when you’re twenty-two, it doesn’t occur to you that an international move might be a complicated undertaking. And I’m so glad I went ahead and did it when I was young and stupid, because if I had known how hard it would be – to open a bank account, to find a doctor, to get an interview as a foreigner – I would have just stayed home.
My cousin, a single mother and putting herself through university at the time, lived in London, and she invited me to stay with her while I sorted things out in my new city. I shared a bunk bed with her six-year-old daughter and lived out of my beige vinyl suitcase tucked in a corner on the bedroom floor. It was a cozy and welcoming place to land, but I was anxious to start building my own life.
I had saved just enough money to be a little choosy about the jobs I applied for. Even back then, just out of university and hunting for an entry-level admin position, my work had to be something I could love. It had to be something I could take pride in. I pored over the Media section in The Guardian every Monday and applied for anything even tangentially related to theatre or publishing. My two loves. I was very clear about that, even then.
Every potential job in my chosen fields gave me a little thrill. I daydreamed what my life would be, going to work every day in the offices for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Judi Dench’s name was listed on the theatre’s letterhead as one of the trustees (my mom and I watched As Time Goes By on PBS together for years), and I imagined I might get to meet her one day while I was sitting in a board meeting taking the minutes. I imagined going to the opening night of a play or a musical and knowing that I had some small part in bringing it to life.
I waited for weeks, impatient for the application’s closing date. I waited for weeks beyond that. And finally, when I had forgotten the application, given up the daydream, the rejection letter arrived to remind me of my failure all over again. Every position I applied for played out the same way.
The only responses I got in the first couple of months were from the positions advertised through employment agencies. A handful of agencies called me in for interviews, although they turned out to be interviews not for specific positions, but for representation by that agency. I wore my grey wool suit and too much liquid eyeliner (I was twenty-two) and took the tube into central London to run through my tricks like a show pony. Speak French, typing test, Excel proficiency, and so on. Three agencies signed me on, and it felt like my first success.
In the meantime, I investigated London. The tube terrified me the first time I had to ride it by myself. I ended up going completely the wrong way at least once, because Earl’s Court Station makes no sense. But there is no alternative to the tube in London – buses are slow and taxis are expensive – and I learned there is no shame in pulling out a map to work out where you’re going. Locals do it, too.
I began to learn the different neighbourhoods; which ones I could afford to live in (very few) and which ones I shouldn’t even dream of (pretty much anything convenient to any of the jobs I was applying for), which ones I loved (Camden) and which ones I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (Seven Sisters).
In the end I fell in love with Stoke Newington, a really lovely pocket within the scuzzier borough of Hackney. My cousin took me there for a visit and a wander. She suspected I’d like it. The neighbourhood felt villagey, in an indy-lesbian-vegetarian sort of way, with cafes and bookshops and lots of green space. I liked the vibe. And the lesbians.
I made the mistake of daydreaming all over again. I started looking at listings for rooms and apartments to let. I started going to view them and fell in love with one in particular – a shared loft conversion that was being made over into a kind of artists’ commune. I imagined myself living there, spending lazy Sunday mornings in the nearby cafe, meeting a nice girl over a cup of hot chocolate on a damp afternoon. (I tried to ignore the fact that the only transit option was an overcrowded bus to the tube stop in Seven Sisters.)
But I couldn’t do anything to make my dream come true. After two months in London, I still had no job and only slim prospects on the horizon. Without a regular paycheque, I couldn’t take the risk of signing a lease. Someone else rented the room in the artists’ loft, and I continued to spend my nights in a bunk bed.
I don’t remember if I was homesick, if I was lonely. I must have been both. Did I worry I had made a huge mistake? I know I believed that having to go home when I ran out of money would be abject failure. I don’t remember, though, if I wished I’d made a different choice in the first place.
I had lived at home through university, lived in the same hometown my whole life. Now that I had this degree I couldn’t use, now that school was over and real life had begun, I still felt as directionless as I had at thirteen years old the first time the guidance counsellor asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I still didn’t have an answer. And I think I felt there wasn’t anything more for me to learn in my hometown. I needed to go someplace new to work out who I would become.
So I had made my big move. I was ready for my big adventure, for my new life. Ready to define myself. I was in London now! And yet, my life was still on hold.
1. I’m still proud that I did not at any point hurl myself out the window of the 18th floor fluorescent-lit cubicle farm I worked in. (BACK TO POST)