London called. I followed.
It ends with the long haul on the Piccadilly line. Twenty-three stops, Heathrow-bound. Hands in lap, mind adrift and wild. At each point on the line, memories dance to life: that one time when; the hilarious morning of; the night when two worlds collided. Then, a stop you hadn’t yet ventured to. A missed adventure? Probably. Too bad; it’s too late. Onward the carriage hurtles.
A handful of commuters filter out at each stop, and return above ground to their ‘another’ London day. I have no another days remaining; the visa expiry in my passport is uncompromisingly stamped hard and definitive, dated today.
By the last few stops, all there is left are a few suitcase-clutching travellers facing the same fate. Destination: the sky. Fast-forward and here I am – navigating my way through the labyrinth of airport walls throbbing high with emotion – to the line up. Plane after plane transcends into the night sky; leaving a trail of flickering lights muffled through black sky. Then, nothing.
The engine of my plane roars. Lift off. And suddenly, I’m gone, too.
Just like that.
Leaving London is like stepping through the reflection of a mirror, unravelling a life refracted in almost perfect symmetry to setting it up. Retracing and untracing, learning and unlearning. Some parts of the reflection no longer match in symmetry, where life has shifted. My grandfather won’t be there to welcome me where we said departing goodbyes. Adelaide has gained an Apple store. Engagement rings sit snuggly on friends’ fingers; all reminders that parallel life through the mirror has also kept moving. I study myself in the reflection. Much the same, yet I feel expansive. A more lived, worn down, beamed up version of my pre-London self. Hardened; softened; cracked open with the sheer whelm of adventure flooded through.
My two years in London were the most messy, thrilling, devastating, turbulent, sun-drenched (figuratively), rain-showered (literally), best years of my life.
The youth mobility visa is an antipodean rite of passage for many twenty-something Australians, with feet on the ground and hearts in the clouds. One non-descript evening, my friend had sent me a simple message: “So… want to move to London with me?” and I replied, “Yes! Let’s chat.” without even thinking it through. Having recently returned from a stint living in California (her) and France (me), wanderlust tugged relentlessly at us both. And so, a handful of months later, we did.
We moved to London.
It began with a one-way ticket, a suitcase full of curiosity for the big unknown; with shoulders heaving from giant sobs and the silhouettes of your closest caught steadfast in your vision, like when you stare at the sun for too long. I had stepped through the Adelaide International security gates and left every single constant behind. As he stamped my passport, the border patrol guy casually asked, “You got a job there?” and I shook my head. “That’s ballsy,” he said – and waved me through the gate.
That very moment is like running through a red light. There’s shock and piercing silence as you catapult down an empty road not quite ready for you; a road you’ve declared and claimed for yourself. The path behind is already gone; only uncertainty lies ahead. It’s impossible to undo, and too late to turn around.
In the first days of London, we drank endless cups of Yorkshire tea, survived on Terry’s Chocolate Orange and kept hope for finding our London home buoyed with every hit of refresh on Gumtree. We did, soon enough, albeit unfurnished, in Zone 5 and thus not officially in London. We held rental keys to our tiny flat above the vegetable shop, and woke on the first January morning to blinding snow blanketing pitched rooftops. Furnishing our nest exclusively with Ikea (with the help of three jumbo trolleys and an entourage of burly salesmen), we stayed up most of the night drinking wine and making inappropriate jokes about screwing [the] Allen [key] hard.
And once assembled, with our prized Lak table and our neighbour’s unprotected wifi, the CV-sending onslaught commenced. Day by day, we built our lives as expats with intention. Terrified, exhilarated and determined, from the ground up.
London is a strange world where you can buy sandwiches at the chemist, and wine at the supermarket. When the sun comes out, everyone flocks out of hiding to enjoy picnic spreads in Hyde Park, but you must pay hourly rent to an inspector for your deck-chair time. The day sky is eternally grey; the night sky vivid orange. Winter air effortlessly filters through ten layers of clothing, while summer days are expansive and stifling in equal measure. It’s an over-populated, vibrant, chaotic hub; a swarming melting pot of culture, yet it can be a very lonely place. London is a city that is conservatively progressive, austere and uncompromising, understated with eccentric swagger. London is a proud, purposeful contradiction. It’s alive, charming and impossibly infectious.
Time is distorting; life is perpetually on the run. Scurrying down escalators becomes common ritual; a four-minute wait for the tube stirs audible outrage. Signal failures, unexplained rail cancellations and engineering works are all so common that you’re in fact lucky when you do make it to something on time.
In London, you can live many different lives, but one thing is non-negotiable: you’ll live on the edge of experience. No matter good or bad, it’s all heightened. Adrenalin becomes a part of your everyday. London steals, and crushes, and floods your heart. You cry, often. Not in sadness, but in moments where you’re just really in it; utterly eclipsed. Overwhelmed, awed and inspired, you live more aligned to the heart of it all.
Rootlessness and holding no constant sense of belonging is uncomfortable, but standard. Life is transient, as friends arrive and depart at varying moments on the timeline. You’re constantly somewhere between welcoming, bonding and letting go, stacked and overlapped with timelines of other arriving/disappearing friends. Homesickness appears suddenly, with no apparent trigger, and dismounts you. But most of the time, missing loved ones becomes a dormant throb, rather than active longing.
It’s entirely possible to love and hate London with ferocious and equal intensity. You fall hard, in, and back out of love; sometimes hourly. Emotions fly like fireflies in all directions. On good days, you’re invincible. Because you’re there, and you’re living your dream. On bad days, you want to tumble over the edge of the world: frustrated and perplexed, isolated with the intensity of such feelings. In despair, you raise one hand to surrender; and in the other, fiercely clutch your Vegemite jar. Tomorrow, you’ll rise, steadfast and determined to endure.
Six months in, you start to connect the dots. Happily absorbed in a heaving peak-hour crowd of bobbing heads, it feels much more than a morning commute: it’s a big, wonderful adventure. I signed on as a designer for a big-time publisher and tried a grown-up 9-5 job on for size. Coffee to go. Oversized headphones. Patent heels. Paid holidays (what?)
After one year, you find flow. You’re on a first name basis with staff at coveted coffee spots; you’ve figured out the unspoken rules of the land, and traipse each fluently. Returning from a weekend trip, you have a distinct feeling of returning ‘home’.
With just my camera, wandering feet and wayfarer spirit, I ventured to different European destinations on more weekends than I did not. Every single cent earned, that didn’t go to rent or living, went to losing myself in strange and wonderful cities. Copenhagen. Helsinki. Lisbon. Sardegna. Istanbul. Reykjavik. New York. Paris (times six). “How can you manage it, every weekend?” my colleagues would ask, fascinated. I’d respond, “How could I not?!” The proximity of venturing to different cities is something that anyone hailing from remote Australia could surely never take for granted.
Approaching two years, when life feels stable and you’re on the precipice of (really, truly, finally) belonging, you have no option but to pack up your things and leave. Hello, visa exile. Alessandro Barrico wrote, “It’s a strange grief to die of nostalgia for something you never lived” and for me, that’s exactly how it felt to leave London. Severed, incomplete; a beautiful home you simply can’t belong to anymore.
I had always assumed I had far more than two years spread before me. HR had stressed that sponsorship was a simple, rudimentary procedure. As it turned out… not so much.
At one point, I wrote to a lawyer in desperation, “There just isn’t any alternative option available to me, is there?” and she replied with, “Haha- yes there is! Get married!” But of course.
Dear visa man, you can take the girl out of London, but you cannot (ever) take London out of the girl.
I’ll miss the exceptionally happy conductor at Bank station. I regret not stopping to say just how much I appreciated him. I’ll miss dewy morning wanders through Hampstead Heath. Acoustic nights up the crooked staircase of the Stoke Newington flat. The Mecca that is Borough Market: piles of rainbow chard, cheese wheels the size of tables, wooden crates heaving with apples still attached to orchard twigs, pigeons hanging from rafters, and paella in pans you could bathe in.
I’ll miss gliding along the DLR and gazing up to lofty Canary Wharf skyscrapers blanked in pre-dawn fog, while trying to understand the subtleties of my lover’s jazz in my ears. I’ll miss the endless stretches of time for wandering alone, the feeling and unfeeling; the comfort of anonymity. I’ll miss watching Wimbledon finals in a pub older than my country. Jugs of Pimms and lazy, sun-soaked siestas at London Fields. The cartoon-like black cabs; the squirrels and foxes. Soho streets on sticky summer nights. The abundance of blooms at Columbia Road Flower Market, my happy place. I’ll miss nights out in underground speak-easys, the Friday night rush to Heathrow for weekend adventures. Plump Waitrose raspberries. And Pret a Manger – need I say more.
On landing in Adelaide, the first thing I noticed was how sweet the air is. The sheer spaciousness of sky. I gasped at the stars; I had forgotten about those. Life here is simpler.
Now, some weeks on, I sit tapping on keys into the wee hours, hangin’ out with the moon and my mug of English tea propped beside, a still occasionally stubborn British lilt, and quid hiding in the crannies of my purse.
London very much feels the world away that it is; yet achingly close. My heart is tangled up in so much over there, and I don’t mind. I can close my eyes to be right back inside treasured moments. I’m so far from where I belong, yet right at home. Or perhaps, so far from home, yet right where I belong. I can’t even be sure.
Words crowd my heart, but never begin to summate the experience. Memories are made of the dust that suspends in the air and catches alight in the sun, glittering and elusive and unfathomable all at once.
I’ll continue to miss London every day. But for at least a while, it’s time to play on home soil, and stockpile some Aussie rays. Until the next adventure.
There’s a potent Portuguese word, with no direct translation in English, to describe it more precisely. Saudade: The state of nostalgic, profound longing for an absent something. The love that remains for something that you know will never exist again. It conjures both sadness for the missing, and happiness for having experienced the memory.
This is what it feels like.
London called, and I followed. And in those two years, London became my enabler.
Because when you step outside; like really outside of your everyday existence, and far away from everything you know, all of the collateral padding falls away.
All that is left is a trembling, poignant, courageous core of truth, and a crisp, blank page, ready for your adventure.
You discover how you want to write your story. Then, you scribe it, honour it, and live it, word by word.
And for me, it will always start with these two: heart first.