What I learned when I left New York for London
Usually when I look out the window at London while the plane prepares to land, I immediately have a joyful feeling of coming home. But arriving during the lockdown to retire in New York after five years felt different. As I peered outside in my N95 respirator, I saw the familiar landmarks in the early morning light – the winding Thames, all the parks, the Shard, the Wembley welcome arch – and yet I was nervous. Would i be happy here? Or would I be an alien in the place I used to call my home?
So much has happened since my partner and I left London in February 2016 that looking back it feels like an alternate reality. David Cameron was Prime Minister, Boris Johnson Mayor of London and the Brexit referendum had not taken place. In the US, Barack Obama was President and Donald Trump was not yet a Republican candidate. There were zero cases of Covid-19 and George Floyd was still alive.
Quarantine was a chance to adapt to London. After presenting a thick pile of documents at Heathrow (negative test results, quarantine test bookings, and passenger search forms to monitor us during our isolation), we took a taxi through the empty restricted streets and drove straight into isolation.
For the next six days, we watched from makeshift accommodation in the city as London woke up after the lockdown. We marveled at the green Postbuses, shocked the lack of mask wear on the street (in New York it was strange not to do it when we left), comforted friends, obsessively checked Rightmove, cursed the increased rental rates and watched like a man named Fred (Sirieix, it turned out) seemed to be on every TV show now. The News at Six was a daily highlight.
We loved the London food too. Honest Burger, Franco Manca, Nando’s and Tayyab’s lamb chops found their way to our home via Deliveroo – a treat that is justified in the name of acclimatization. Most days we got calls from the government to make sure we were doing what we were told. After giving the all-clear under the “Test to Release” scheme, our first few days of freedom were overwhelming, with emotional family reunions and taking in our new old surroundings. But after a few days of wandering and cycling through central London, the nesting swans in Brockwell Park, the pelicans of St. Some things are the same: The British national sport is still drinking and football, in the words of a Portuguese taxi driver who gave us tells why he loves London, “everyone is here” and there is so much to do and see.
But a lot has changed. Of course there are new buildings – the Tate Modern Extension, One Blackfriars, London Bridge Station, 22 Bishopsgate – Pret is everywhere, so is vegan food, Big Ben is covered with scaffolding, there are a lot more cyclists and bike paths and there are fewer people in the center London. There are the milestones in the deadly tragedies London has gone through over the past five years – including Grenfell and several terrorist attacks. And then there are the less physical but painfully tangible changes: the dizzying loss of life and the increased appreciation of mutual business after Covid, the breach of Brexit, Britain’s race reckoning sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, the financial one Uncertainty in the gig economy.
Being away in the first half of my thirties changed me and my relationships too. Hopefully I have more prospects, I got married (in Stockholm, in the summer before the pandemic), made new friends and my old friendships have developed.
We talk less, not exactly because of my refusal to join WhatsApp – I already feel like there are too many communications, although I quickly realize that if I want to have friends in London, I may have to give in – but I have a big one , intense catch-ups when we see each other. Many of my friends have become parents, so now I have five new babies to meet.
I’ve always wanted to move to New York since I vacationed there in 2012. A few years later, job opportunities arose, so we set off. Soon everything began to change quickly. First came the Brexit referendum, after which total strangers on the streets of New York asked, “How’s Breggsit doing?” Then, a few months later, Trump’s shock election came and people in the UK started asking, “How’s Trump doing?”
Life under Trump was scary, insane and sad. But I didn’t want to leave because as a journalist it felt like an important time to be there and because there was always hope. It was incredibly inspiring to see how New Yorkers reacted. Resistance to all protests and community organizations, but also to those who ran for office – as embodied in the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress in 2018. When the coronavirus hit last March and New York became the global epicenter of the pandemic, the streets were cleared and suddenly it went from a 24-hour city to a ghost town. My partner and I worked from either side of our Brooklyn railroad apartment, listening anxiously to the haunted wail of the ambulance sirens.
Then, after the police murder of Floyd in May, New Yorkers returned to the streets. We woke up to the early morning chants of “WAKE UP!” As marches and bicycle protests broke out across town.
When Joe Biden was declared the 2020 election winner on an unusually warm Saturday in November, the news came through our window. The cheers in the streets beat the push notifications to announce the result. For the rest of the day, cars honked their horns, waved flags, rang bicycle bells, and parks filled with people dancing and drinking champagne – very unusual for New Yorkers. We watched Biden and Kamala Harris talk to our neighbors on our roof. The collective relief was extraordinary.
Like London, New York is a very difficult city to leave. When my partner retired professionally, it was almost a relief that the decision had been made for us.
I would definitely go back to New York or anywhere else in the US. It’s a fascinating and exciting place where anything can happen, for better and often for bad. But my experience with it was completely privileged.
For so many of its citizens, daily life is desperate and dangerous, which can make it a difficult place for love. To be in a country where millions of people have no health insurance and where even those who have health insurance still have to worry about the cost of seeing a doctor made me grateful for the NHS.
In my first few weeks in London, a few things surprised me. London is more peaceful and friendlier than I remembered it, the tube is pretty amazing and ironically it feels more European with all the new bike paths, outdoor dining and electric vehicles.
The feeling of being at home comes in unexpected moments. When I find my legs, I automatically take a shortcut through M&S to the subway. Balance an Evening Standard and coffee while leaning on a pole on the circle line. And for the first time you see the words “free and open to all” on the top of the Tate Modern. Coming from a city where the big art galleries often come with expensive entrance fees, the sight makes me emotional. I take a picture of it and walk up the Thames and think that I hope that never changes.