“Grove Park offered us a safe, warm place to sleep at night and convenient transport links for work. But that’s about it. Instead of thriving in a new city, we were struggling.”
So, on my birthday we moved from Grove Park, zone 4, South East London – home to countless fried chicken shops, three barbers, a Sainsbury’s Local and not a lot else – to Fulham, South West, zone 2.
This move was the best birthday present I could have asked for. Now it feels like we’re really living in London. While Grove Park had its positives – cheap rent being one of them – it was quite possibly the most boring suburb we could have picked to live.
A word of advice: if you grew up in New Zealand, close to the water and surrounded by beautiful greenery, don’t move to a quiet suburb on the outskirts of London at the beginning of your first English winter. You will cry. Waking up to grey sky, grey brick and rubbish strewn across your grey street will make your heart ache for home. Just don’t do it.
Pick somewhere livelier instead, with great transport connections and at least a couple of eateries to choose from. I don’t have anything against fried chicken. But when you wake up on a wintry Sunday morning and you just want to pop out for a hot chocolate or a couple of pints at the pub, and all you have to choose from is Cottage Chicken and Perfect Fried, you will feel depressed.
Our adventure at Groove Park, as Tom now ironically calls it, started out positive. If anyone read this post, you’ll remember how excited I was about the fox in our backyard and the cheap chocolate at the local store.
Oh, how times have changed. Harry the fox was probably in our garden every evening, only we couldn’t see him as the sun started to set at 4pm and we were half asleep in bed, eating cheap chocolate that didn’t even taste good and contemplating whether or not to get on the next plane home.
This may strike you as rather pathetic. Why did you move there in the first place, you may be wondering? Tom and I made the best decision available to us at the time. We weighed up our options and went with the one we thought would provide us with the best chances of enjoying ourselves.
Tom had a good job in Kent and a car. In our minds we imagined taking road trips every weekend and frolicking in the English countryside. Or something. We didn’t factor in the fact that driving in England is more stressful than serene, or that the countryside looks just as bleak as brick on a cold winter’s day.
Truth be told, we were lacking in motivation. We were living in a new city, trying to settle into jobs and find a way forward. Rather than wanting to escape on a road trip every weekend, or play tourist in central London, we were seeking a little bit of normality. We wanted to be able to go out for breakfast without spending half an hour on the train. Or to go for a walk around the neighbourhood when the sun did occasionally make a presence. Okay, technically we could do these things – but fried eggs at the Filling Station Cafe or a walk through brick street after brick street just didn’t quite hit the spot.
Grove Park offered us a safe, warm place to sleep at night and convenient transport links for work. But that’s about it. Instead of thriving in a new city, we were struggling.
Of course, as it always does, it all worked out in the end. We are now living in a busy, vibrant community with plenty to see and do and a tube stop right on our doorstep. We have moved in with friends from New Zealand, so we’re never lacking in social interaction or the comfort of the familiar. And we can look back on our time in Grove Park and feel grateful – perhaps smugly so – that we get to call a country as beautiful as New Zealand, home.
For me, this experience has also underlined the key difference between travelling and living in a foreign country. Travel brings on a specific mindset. You are open, energised, captivated by all the new sights and hungry for more. It’s challenging, daunting, inspiring and amazing all at the same time. You collapse into bed every night feeling exhausted but alive.
Living in a foreign country starts out that way. Everything feels like an adventure. But inevitably, life soon takes over. When you have work in the morning, bills to pay, food to make, you just have to get on with it – you don’t always have the time or energy to stop and admire that old church you just walked past, or take a photo of something special.
At first this is hard. I remember when I lived in France, I felt incredibly guilty for feeling homesick because I felt this intense pressure to be “having the time of my life”. I may be four years older now, but that feeling still remains. Just like I felt guilty for missing home in France, I am now feeling guilty for missing home in England.
Sometimes I wonder if social media has a part to play in all of this. To live overseas, or go on an ‘OE’, is always depicted as this joyous, fun-filled experience. As an outsider, you could be forgiven for believing travel is synonymous with having the best time of your life, ever.
Yes, being on holiday and seeing new places is fun. But when you have a job and a ‘normal’ routine, you’re not waking up every morning with a spring in your step. Back home, I wouldn’t worry too much if I had a bad day. I’d just get through the day and onto the next one.
Here, however, I feel hugely depressed when I’m going through a difficult patch, because my emotions don’t match what I ‘should’ be feeling according to social media. I’m slowly starting to realise that it’s okay to feel crap. I am learning not to put so much pressure on myself to be having fun all the time, and to instead just appreciate the experience for what it is.
I know some of my seasoned-traveller friends will be reading this and nodding right now, as they are the ones that continue to remind me that this is what exploring a new country is all about. It’s about the challenge as much as it is about the reward. It’s about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and just seeing how it feels.
What I need to remember is there is no right or wrong answer – there is no “should”. You forge your own path.