February 01, 2009

London – the good, the bad and the ugly

A working holiday in London has long been a right of passage for twenty-something Aussies. For over three decades we've been coming over by the planeful, cramming ourselves into flats south of the Thames, pulling pints in pubs (or whatever we can to keep the pounds rolling in) and complaining about the shithouse weather.

2008 was the year that me, Craig and 13,062 other Aussies decided to do our requisite stint in the UK on a Working Holiday Visa (WHV). It was also the year Britain started spiralling into recession and the almighty sterling hit all-time lows.

In other words, the worst possible time in history to come to the UK on a WHV.

After miraculously finding ourselves some work, we managed to get ourselves off Jackie's floor and into a bed – words can't describe how wonderful it felt to put our clothes in drawers! – sharing with another Aussie couple in Clapham South (er, sharing a flat, not the bed).

With the current 'credit crunch' sending Australians home in droves (over 1,500 a month are fleeing the Motherland), this could mark the end of the traditional London stint.

After three months of braving the Tube, donning scarves and gloves as a necessity rather than a fashion statement and calling potato chips 'crisps'. Here's what we rate and hate about living in England's capital.

The good
Travel. The novelty of being able to jet off abroad on any given weekend will never wear off. An overseas journey from Australia requires weeks of planning, at least a week off work, and a few grand in the bank. Here, you just log onto EasyJet's website and you're just a few clicks away from cheap weekend in Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Budapest, Berlin, Dublin, Munich, Prague, Lagos, Brussels...
Transport. While Londoners are quick to moan about their public transport system (and everything else, for that matter), they've never lived in Sydney. Nab yourself a Tube map and a Oyster card and you've unlocked the key to getting around London with relative ease and minimum fuss. Sure, there's the occasional signal failure or suicide jumper on the tracks, but with trains running every couple of minutes (as opposed to the once-hourly weekend bus to the city from Drummoyne), timetables are obsolete – just rock up and go.
Metropolis. Sydney's CBD feels like a ghost town compared downtown Oxford Street, when you're in London, there is no mistaking you're in a truly global city. It's easy to lose yourself in hustle and bustle, and it's exciting to feel like you are a part of this unflagging metropolis.
Entertainment. You could spend weeks in London and still not get around to doing everything. In fact, we've been here for three months and our 'to do' list is still quite impressive. There's the usual tourist fare — Oxford Street, Trafalgar Sqaure, Piccadilly Circus – along with galleries and museums galore, plus infamous attractions such the London Eye and Madame Tussauds. The West End is where it's at for theatre and shopping, then there's the famous Portobello markets and nearby Notting Hill to explore. If that's not enough to satiate your appetite, there's always a plethora of sporting events to pick from.

The bad
Weather. It's true, the weather really does suck... hard. While we are currently experiencing the coldest winter recorded in England for 13 years, summer sucked, too. Over summer, I only bared my legs for a total of 11 measly days, the rest of the time the temperature hung around the 17 degree mark, forcing me to sport clothes usually reserved for an Australian winter. The weather really does drag you down — getting up in the dark and getting home in the dark, with grey clouds and icy winds in between, does not a happy Couchsitter make.
Crime. As avid readers will remember, we were broken into shortly before Christmas. Yes, this could happen anywhere, but it didn't, it happened in London. And while our experience may have made us slightly biased, the crime statistics speak for themselves — in 2008 alone, 30 teenagers died from knife attacks.
Transport. I know I said the public transport here truly rocks, which it does. But I just have one gripe — the morning cram. Cramming onto a Tube in peak hour is total hell. It's hot, it's stuffy and you're pressed up against total strangers for the entire duration of your journey.

The ugly
Economy. The current global crisis has definitely brought out the uglier side of London. With the UK said to be the hardest-hit nation, doom and gloom has set in over the capital like the constant grey skies. With the papers constantly drumming into you that you're bound to lose your job and end up like the thousands of others in the dole queue, it's hard to maintain any form of optimism. Though, we all know that Londoners are secretly loving the current recession, it gives them something new to moan about!

In five short weeks we plan to leave London and continue on our travels. It was hard and downright depressing at times, but totally worth it. Having earned our 'I've lived in London' badges, it's time to move on. It's just too bloody cold!