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Floating on the Surface of London

The new immigrant still feels a lot like a tourist in his new town

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I am an immigrant and a resident of a new country. I just don't know it.

That is to say that while I know it intellectually, I don't feel it in my core. When I am walking around in London, I still feel like a tourist there to take in the sites, have a few pints, and get back on a plane to Canada. During all the weeks spent in Toronto in denial emotionally about my impeding move, I always felt that once I got to London, it would all hit me like a ton of bricks and I would realize that it was real. Instead, I find myself still sitting around feeling like a temporary visitor.

That's not that bad, though. Getting hit by a ton of bricks doesn't sound like much fun. Perhaps easing myself into this whole adventure seems a lot better.

The adventure started out poorly, frankly. My last day in Toronto was drizzling, cold and wet. My flight over was long and sleepless. I couldn't sleep, so instead I watched movies and thought about sleep.

Immigration was surprisingly easy. The immigration officer asked me who I was claiming as my "ancestor" for my ancestry visa. I said my grandmother.

"Where was she from," he asked, punching keys on his computer.

"Birmingham," I replied.

He looked up and raised an eyebrow. "Really," he asked. "I am from Birmingham, you know?"

I didn't know, but I thought it best not to point that out to the man in charge of deciding whether or not this whole adventure, for which I had given up my apartment and job in Toronto would continue, so instead I nodded and said, "really."

"Yes sir. You know what Birmingham is famous for?" he asked.

I didn't. In fact, I never had been to Birmingham, and prior to seeing it on my grandmother's birth certificate, I hadn't even bothered to think about it, except in the context that it was also the name of the capital of Alabama and that Birmingham gets mentioned in the Lynard Skynrd song "Sweet Home Alabama."

"You know the band UB40?"

"Sure," I replied. Red, red wine, and all that.

"They are from Birmingham," he said, looking at me with a very satisfied smile on his face, like he had just told me that the Queen or Elvis or the Dali Lama was from Birmingham. I made noises to indicate that I was very impressed, while on the inside was I was thinking that if the best Birmingham could do was UB40, perhaps they should just pack up shop and all move to Edinburgh now.

He went on to add two other notable Birmingham contributions to the world, those being Land Rover and Jaguar, which I have since learned are not, in fact, contributions that Birmingham has made to the world, as neither company is headquartered there. Though they do, I believe, have factories there.

I have also since learned that Duran Duran was from Birmingham, which is (at least to me) 100 time more impressive than UB40. No offence to UB40 fans, but Red, Red Wine doesn't hold a candle to Hungry Like The Wolf.

Heathrow didn't lose my luggage. In fact, quite the opposite happened. I exited the immigration hall to find my luggage already off the plane and waiting for me. I exited Heathrow into a bright, sunny day, exactly what I was not expecting from the United Kingdom. I left Toronto where it was cold and raining to arrive in London where it was sunny and warm. Perhaps I flew into Bizarro London instead of regular London. "Me am Bizarro Greg. This am bad weather."

After a very sweaty ride on a packed underground with three transfers and a number of evil looks from commuters who were cursing the fatty, sweaty foreigner taking up all the space with his three bags, including a backpack which he didn't even bother to take off, I arrived at Willesden Green station. I called to get picked up by the accommodation company that had arranged my flat for the month.

"Did you not get our confirmation email," the voice on the other end asked when I called. I had, and so I said I did. It said to call this number when at the tube station to get picked up, so that was what I was doing.

"Then you would have seen that we can't pick anyone up until 10:30 AM. The check in isn't until then," she said. In fact, I hadn't seen that. I must have skimmed over that part. I looked at my watch. 9:45 AM. "Perhaps you can go and grab a coffee for a while, and call back and 10:30 AM?" she suggested. I guess I would.

Instead of coffee (which I don't drink), I grabbed a Coca-Cola Light and sat on my suitcase outside the tube station, watching the world go by and reading, occasionally, from a travelogue book by Tim Cahill. The neighbourhood seemed a pretty multicultural mix of people, and struck me as safe, which was at least one less thing to worry about.

10:30 rolled around, and I called back to get my pick up. A blonde Aussie girl drove around and took me to my place. She was quite pretty, with large full lips like Scarlett Johansson that kept drawing my attention when I should have been paying attention to riveting things like lease arrangements, power consumption keys and garbage collection schedules. Eventually we got all the papers signed and the leave paid, and I sadly saw Scarlett out the door. I turned around to face my new home.

It's a studio apartment. Not very big, but clean. It sits on the second floor in the front room of a row house on a quiet though central located street. Just steps away is a busier street full of shops, restaurants and bars which cater to a mainly Polish population in the area, but are welcoming of "foreigners" like myself.

2008_06_05.._Houses.jpg
My street

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The main room of my flat

2008_06_05..athroom.jpg
Kitchen in my flat, with bathroom off to the side

As you can see there are only two rooms, the large main room and a very small bathroom. I quickly dubbed the two rooms the greenhouse and the cold storage. The main room has large windows that were closed when I arrived, and with the bright hot London sun (there are words I didn't think I would be saying), the main room had heated up to an almost unbearable level. In contrast, the bathroom door was closed, and upon entering one felt a frigid chill.

I have since figured out that if I keep the windows open a crack to let in some cool air and keep the bathroom door open, the temperature in both rooms evens out to a liveable level, but the names have stuck.

I dozed for a little while in the afternoon, but didn't want to sleep all day, as I was afraid that would mean I was up all night, so I went out for a walk. My mind raced with a million thoughts, a million things that I needed to do as a new resident of London. I tried to put them all out my head, telling myself that I could worry about those things tomorrow. For today, I would just try and let the day wash over me and let my new found residency sink in.

It didn't sink in, though. Instead I still felt like a tourist all day. Perhaps it is because I have nothing permanent over here. My flat is rented for the month. I have no job, no permanent place to live, no bank account, no phone, no friends, no connections to this place at all.

Dejected, I walked back to my flat, and continued to read my book. The book, Road Fever, by Tim Cahill, tells the story of an attempt to break a Guinness Book of World Records by driving as quickly as possible from the tip of South America to Alaska. Just before he is about to set out on the adventure, he talks about feeling down.

Remorse before the fact is a common preadventure sensation. There is an overwhelming sense that you left the water running in the bathroom. You have, in fact, neglected something so simple and self-evident that people didn’t see any reason to tell you about it: the Wall of Flame in Chile, for instance, or the Big Hole in the Earth that Swallows Trucks just south of Rio Gallegos, the River of Acid, the meteorite Firing Range, the Living Dinosaurs...

I read it, and recognized the feeling in me. In the days leading up to leaving Toronto, I had been feeling down, and the feelings had carried over to my first day in London. I felt like I was missing something, that at any moment I was going to get a call from back in Canada that I hadn't paid my rent, or that the UK police were going to bust down the door and deport me. I knew that I was here in the United Kingdom, but it didn't feel like it is permanent. It still felt temporary, and it felt like I was not in control.

I went to bed early the first night at 10:30 PM, and I didn't walk up the next morning until 11:15 AM, getting more than 12 hours of sleep. Despite the late start, I headed out and got 3 things done on my list of things to do:

  • Buy Shaving Cream - okay, not exactly complex, but it was still on my list
  • Get a phone - kind of complete, as my voice mail doesn't work, but at least I have a phone number now
  • Get an adapter plug from my Apple MacBook

In addition, I took a double-decker bus for the first time today, riding the 189 from Oxford Circus to Brent, where I am staying. Like a tourist, I sat up top in the front to watch the view. More importantly, however, is the fact that this bus is a 24 hour bus and will come in handy in the future if I get stuck in Central London after the subway trains stop running. I know that many of the 24 hour buses run through Oxford Circus, and I now know how to get home from there, which could save me a huge amount on cabs in the future.

Music fans will also be interested to know that the 189 runs along Abbey Road, right by the Abbey Road studios. These studios are famous for being the place where famous British rockers "Camel" recorded their 1981 album "Nude." I also understand that some mop-top kids from Liverpool recorded some crap there, but that's 1960s/1970s ancient history, dude.

Anyway, I felt better about the whole adventure after completing the little things today like getting a phone, an adapter and riding the bus. I can't say that I exactly feel like a resident of London now, or that I have completely shaken that feeling that I am just a tourist here, but at least I feel a little more like someone who lives here now. If the first day I felt like I was floating on top of London, not at all immersed into it, the second day I felt that at the very least I had a toe in the water, slowly sinking into my life.

Posted by GregW 15:47 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences

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oh Greg. man, does this hit home. marcel and i moved to NYC in 2000. we were in a tiny room at a hotel near wall street for the first couple of weeks, and marcel left me there every morning at around 6am to go to the office, and didn't return back until about 11pm at night. all of our stuff was on a moving van, making its way to us from toronto via chicago from some crazy reason or another. i had no job, no friends, no IDEA what to do with myself. but eventually, some tourist will ask for directions in your adopted city and you will confidently answer and that's the day you'll know you really took the plunge! marcel and i wish you all the best, and look forward to following your latest adventure in the blogsphere.

by Luca's Mom

Congratulations on the leap...I'm looking forward to seeing where you land (other than London, which is already established). Just know that you are living an adventure that most of us will never have the chutzpah to undertake.

by Bwaybaby10

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