Leaving London and Coming Home Part V (Last one!) People

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Living an ocean and the greater portion of Canada’s land mass away from our family and friends was one of the most difficult parts about living in London. We missed the passing of Jonathan’s lovely Grandmother, we missed Mom’s 60th birthday, we missed the birth of our first nephew, we missed Dad’s 65th birthday. We missed a lot of weddings of dear friends. We missed Christmas with family for three years in a row. Most of all we missed the quiet times between the big events. The quiet Saturday afternoon sipping tea at the kitchen table or Sunday walks. We missed a lot. As the date of our return drew near my hand gestures grew wild as I exclaimed how thrilled I was to return home, to be there for the big things, and to enjoy a lot more of the quiet moments.

But three years in London led us to some very lovely people who became dear friends. I was amazed at the number of people we met with whom we shared so much in common even though they had come to London from all corners of the globe. Few of them were British (though we do love our British friends!). Most of them had immigrated from a distant country like us. Almost everyone had a ‘how we managed to find a flat in London’ story. Many had visa stories and shared, like us, the dramas of navigating British bureaucracy. I think these shared experiences help to bond people very quickly. There was a sense that we were all in this together, that we were all navigating life in a sometimes hostile and often confusing place, and that we could support each other through the difficulties. The friendships we built in London sustained us through financially, emotionally, and spiritually difficult moments.

However, I think it was more than a shared sense of supporting one another that led us to develop such wonderful friendships. I think London also draws together like-minded people. Not everyone just hops on a plane and moves continents. I’ve never met so many people in one place who loved to travel, who cared so deeply about social justice, and who worked so diligently to make amazing things happen. Our friends were a constant source of inspiration and gently challenged me to keep reaching for what I wanted most. We met so many wonderful, encouraging, inspiring, and kind hearted people in London. We miss them already! However, I suspect we will see many of them again either in the UK, in Canada, or in their respective homelands. It’s great to have friends from all over the world and I look forward to those visits!

The people around us have a huge impact on our experience regardless of where we choose to live. Three years away has shrunk our North American social circle and I think, in many ways, this is for the best. I look forward to strengthening our relationships with friends and family as we build our life in Calgary.

PS. This is the last of my ‘official’ posts about what I’ll miss about London and what I’m most looking forward to about living in Calgary, but I’m pretty sure you will continue to hear about things I miss and things I love for weeks to come!

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Leaving London and Coming Home Part IV Travel

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In London we could do this amazing thing. We could take the tube to St. Pancras station, hop on a train – the Eurostar – and be in Paris in a couple of hours. No jet lag, no major exhaustion from the journey, simply a quick jaunt to crepes, cheese, and the best grocery store wine we’ve ever tasted.

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If we flew to Europe, the flight was never more than 3 hours, and we had the joy of exploring international airports and going through the non-EU passport lines. It was was wonderful. And now it’s gone. Europe is now a minimum of 8 or 9 hours away and, likely, not to be enjoyed without a massive headache caused by fatigue, change in atmospheric pressure, and breathing in recycled air for the duration of the flight. I will definitely miss our proximity to Europe.

But Canada is certainly not without its charms and Alberta offers a wealth of culture and wilderness to explore. We may not be able to buy wine at the grocery store, but we can check out Calgary’s newest breweries. We may not be able to jet to Spain for a bit of sun in the winter months, but we won’t need to with Calgary’s 332 days of sunshine per year. Coffee shops abound and our proximity to the Rocky Mountains will provide plenty of opportunity for adventure. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Calgary and Alberta through my well trained tourist eyes and enjoying the things that I overlooked in the years before we moved.

(Photo credit: Jonathan Hooper)

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Leaving London and Coming Home Part III Transportation

We have a car sitting in our driveway. For 3 years we had no car, which might sound like a horrible nightmare to some of you, but in London life without a car is quite easy. In fact, now that we have a car, I am realising how much I loved our car-less lifestyle.

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London’s system of trains, buses, trams, and boats wove their way through the city’s boroughs and offered an array of options for getting from point A to B. We could choose the fastest option (often the Underground or train or combination of both) or the cheapest option (usually the bus) or the scenic option (the bus, unless you’re heading to Greenwich in which case one of London’s river boats will give you the best views of the city).

The upper decks of London’s iconic red buses provided the most scenic and least disorienting way to see the city. Our primary link to London quickly became the 14, a bus that stopped just around the corner from our flat and arrived every 3-10 minutes depending on the time of day. On the 14 we could hop off anywhere along Fulham road although our usual destination was South Kensington where we worked. On weekends we hopped off in South Kensington to visit the V&A or go to church. A 10 minute walk from South Kensington brought us to Hyde Park but if that was our intended destination the 14 stopped at Hyde Park Corner. From there the 14 made its way to Green Park (5 minutes from Buckingham Palace), up through Piccadilly Circus, and stopped just a few blocks away from the British Museum and Regent’s Park.

Of course, the 14 couldn’t get us everywhere or get us there fast enough. Learning to navigate the Underground produces a certain pride especially once you know the lines to take to get to your destination and the stations at which to transfer. When knowledge of the Underground fails the Transport for London (TFL) website was always just a click away to help us plan our journey.

Navigating the rail system is also a learned skill. I loved standing in front of the digital boards with the masses at Waterloo station searching for the next train calling at Putney. As much as the British slag off their rail system, I always thought it was pretty good. Occasionally delayed, but always quick with an explanation and a refund. Of course, no system is perfect.

I was told before we moved that London’s Underground completely shuts down on the weekends and it is impossible to get into the city from the suburbs. This was a gross exaggeration. Many tube and train lines do shut down over the weekend for maintenance works. This was somewhat inconvenient, but certainly not impossible to overcome given the myriad of transportation options available.

The buses also had their failings. More than once we confidently boarded the 14 only to hear that ‘the destination of this bus has changed’ and be dropped off several blocks earlier than we had anticipated. Occasionally this meant wet walks home in the rain, but more often it meant opportunities to stroll across Putney Bridge and admire the Thames at sun set.

It’s the walking that I miss most of all. The grocery store was only a few blocks away as was the bus, train, and East Putney tube station. Jonathan started walking to work when money was tight to save on transit fare, but in the end we both preferred the 50 minute walk as much for the mental space as the exercise it provided.

Now we’re in North America and we have a car in the driveway. In less than a week a car has become the quickest, cheapest, and easiest mode of transportation. The nearest grocery store is 20 minutes away on foot, the neighbourhood bus comes once every 15-40 minutes depending on the time of day, and our nearest C-Train line is 40 minutes on foot. In our temporary suburban home it seems that every opportunity has been taken to discourage the average person from walking.

Despite this cultural shift (and shock) I do look forward to life with a car in Calgary. I’m excited to leave the car behind at every opportunity and go against the grain as I navigate the suburbs by foot. Even though the grocery store is significantly further away than it was in London we have committed to walking there as often as possible. Once we find a permanent home in a more central location this will become even easier. We also plan to cycle to the train station once the bikes have had a little tune-up. In Calgary, we have space for bikes!

And, of course, with a car comes road trips! Though train travel through the English countryside is lovely, we have missed long drives with friends to the Rocky Mountains. There were parts of England that felt inaccessible without a car (I’m not totally sure why we didn’t just rent though there was a long period where that was not an option financially), but now the whole of the Canadian landscape is open to us and we are looking forward to exploring Alberta’s backroads and more distant treasures.

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Leaving London and Coming Home Part II The Thames

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The Thames has been a major character in our London life. A 7 minute walk through the quiet streets of Putney led us to the river’s edge where we watched sea gulls stomp in the sand for food when the tide was low and saw the moored boats slowly drift around their anchors when the tide changed. On New Year’s Eve we rushed out of the house, minutes before midnight, to see fireworks burst up through the trees in Bishop’s Park on the other side of the river.

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The faithful coming and going of the tide gave the river a sense of familiarity. The tide might be out as I crossed Putney Bridge on my way to work in the morning , but it would be back, high and gentle, by the time I returned in the evening. This coming and going created a comforting rhythm in an otherwise hectic and chaotic place.

I look forward to getting to know the Bow river in a similar way – if knowing it is at all possible. Flowing from the peaks of the Rocky Mountains the Bow rushes through the city until its waters reach Hudson’s Bay. The Bow careens through Calgary never to return and in this way it seems elusive. As the river broke its banks and flooded Calgary this past summer ‘unpredictable’ and ‘uncontrollable’ were added to its descriptors. This is vastly different from the calm Thames that rarely breaks beyond its high, man-made banks. But I look forward to living near the Bow again, to spend time along its banks, explore its unique beauty, and discover how it will work its way into my life and memories.

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Leaving London and Coming Home Part I

We are leaving London. This thought dawns on me several times a day. We are leaving London. This week Jonathan and I will cease to be residents of the UK and will once again call Calgary home. I can’t remember any other time when I’ve felt more ready for such a massive change (except our wedding day!).

But as we say our goodbyes to friends and the city itself it’s clear that there are things we will miss about London. The bulk of our married life has been lived in London and, though there were tough times, there are pieces of London that we have embraced.

I’d like to share a few of the things I’ll miss most about London as well as a few of the things I’m most looking forward to in Calgary as we count down the final 3 days to our move.

These are in no particular order, though I will save the best for last.

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One of the things I’ll miss most about London is the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum’s focus on design and it’s celebration of the arts and crafts movement has led to a diverse and fascinating collection from a number of cultures and time periods. I loved sitting in the garden over a lunch hour, munching on my leftovers and watching children splash in the fountain and chase pigeons. I’d visit the stained glass collection or Raphael’s cartoons for the final 20 minutes before drifting back into the office to face the remainder of the day.

The museum is open late on Friday nights making it the perfect place for date night. Even during our leanest times in London we could splurge on tea and share a dessert beneath the twinkly, bulbous chandeliers in the luxurious setting of the ornate cafe.

The museum shop was also a favourite for browsing and gift purchases either for ourselves or others. I’m sure by now our families groan when they open a parcel to find yet another V&A bag inside.

And the best part about all of this? It was completely free. We could visit as often as we wished with virtually no impact on our budget (except for a few irresistible prints). This is true of most of the major museums in London (and England). I will certainly miss a culture that values art highly enough to ensure any member of the public can enjoy it.

And in Calgary? As my appreciation for museums and galleries grows I look forward to seeking out these spaces in Calgary. Although I lived there for nearly 10 years, my knowledge of Calgary’s public museums is minimal. Of course I’m aware of the Glenbow Museum, The Art Gallery of Calgary, and a few other small galleries, but in all honesty I’ve never been too sure about the best way to access these. Of course, there is a fee to visit the Glenbow, so an annual pass might help us make the most of this museum. But as for the rest? I don’t even know their opening hours. It will be great to get to know these places and spaces as we settle back into Calgary.

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Existing in London

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We moved to London nearly 3 years ago. In 3 years we have posted a lot of pictures of the maple tree behind our flat, a little bit about our travels, and not much else. I am embarrassed that, in 3 years, we have shared so little about our time here. There are reasons for not sharing the minutiae of our daily lives, even if, for many of you our musings come from a completely different country and might be (maybe?) somewhat interesting. Of course, in no uncertain terms, London is amazing. To live in a city with so much history and culture has been a blessing and a valuable education. But it’s also been challenging, demoralizing, and exhausting.

I’d love to share a brief overview of our time in London and the experiences that have shaped the past 3 years.

As many of you know, the catalyst for our move to London was my education. We moved here on a student visa so that I could take a one year master’s degree in Children’s Literature. This brought us to the tiny top floor flat in Putney, South London that we have called home for the past 3 years. Putney has been an excellent neighbourhood to call home with plenty of coffee shops, grocery stores, parks, and gorgeous view of the Thames from Putney Bridge.

I completed the M.A. two years ago and am so grateful for the experience and the knowledge I gained through the masters. It was absolutely worth doing and an interest I continue to pursue. In fact, I wish I had time for further exploration into the subject. But I don’t, for reasons I’ll explain later.

The M.A. was fantastic, but it did not come without its unexpected turns. I did very well in my undergraduate degree in English and fully expected my proficiencies to translate in grad school. Fellow grad students will agree that graduate studies are demoralizing at best, but add to that a completely foreign grading system and suddenly those anticipated straight As just don’t seem to come as easily as they once did. I cried for two weeks after getting my first paper back. I was supposed to be cranking out papers of a publishable standard, papers that demonstrated my ability and readiness for doctoral work. My first paper came back with 56% and I was, as the English say, gutted. It felt as though I had been following a clear career path and then suddenly, without warning, the path had disappeared. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for Ph.D. studies after all, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t even be doing a masters. The doubts about the degree coupled with the weight of moving to a completely different country for the degree added up to an incredibly stressful and depressing first year in London. When you’re busy trying to get through several novels, countless articles, and wrapping your mind around theoretical concepts as they function in Children’s Literature, blogging to share the fun that you’re not having isn’t exactly top priority.

We also thought that travel would be a primary part of our time in London. I fully expected weekends away in Paris sitting at cafes while I read up on semiotics in picture books and ecocriticism in children’s literature. But it took Jonathan nearly 7 months to find a full time job, and by that time our robust savings were dwindling. His new job at a charity barely allowed enough at the end of each month for grocery money, let alone quick weekend trips around Europe.

We muddled along and then, for reasons I’m still not totally clear on, decided in November to apply for a 2 year post study work visa and see if London might look a little different once we were both working. After six long months I also found work – at the same charity as Jonathan. I stepped into my role without a handover, without a real job description, and with three months of backlog to catch up on as the team had been without a coordinator since January. My aspirations to do admin by day and academics by night quickly dwindled as I repeatedly worked 8-10 hour days just to keep up with everything (I’m paid to work for 7 hours a day). I came home exhausted every evening and quickly began to dread the team dynamics, immense work load, and volatile working conditions. I’ve stuck it out for over a year now, and have learned so much practically, emotionally, and spiritually. I’m grateful for this opportunity, but ranting about my experience in the workplace didn’t quite feel like fodder for blog posts.

If I’m totally honest, I feel as though we’ve only just started to enjoy London and really start ‘living’ here in the past 6-8 months. But London is a hectic city and finding the time to share our experiences in any medium other than twitter and instagram just doesn’t fit our overly stretched time budget.

And now we’re leaving. In less than two months our belongings will be on their way back to Canada, while we take a much needed break and soak in some of Europe in September. I’m sure the internet is a better place without my ramblings about London. But it also seems like a waste. As a married couple, Jonathan and I have spent more time in London than anywhere else in the world. For better or for worse we have built a life here. Our time in London has been profound in ways that might have been valuable to share.

We are thrilled to be moving back to Canada and cannot wait to soak in spontaneous and meandering time with family, a luxury we’ve not had for 3 years. We’re excited for our first Christmas with family in 4 years (despite the inevitable juggling and time sharing involved). We look forward to moving back to a society that, in many ways, just works better and makes more sense. But to say that we’ll leave without doubts and fears about this next chapter would be a lie.

I think Adam Gopnik, quoting his wife in his memoir, Paris to the Moon, says it best. “‘We have a beautiful existence in Paris, but not a full life,’ Martha said, summing it up, ‘and in New York we have a full life and an unbeautiful existence.’” In London we are surrounded by beauty, history, and culture, but most days it feels as though we are merely existing, which is hardly worth writing home about. As we transition into the fullness of life in Canada I hope to have more that is worth sharing. 

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I Will Never Remember the Details of the French Revolution

We went to Paris to celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary. On our anniversary day I was away on a beautiful estate in the English countryside, near Basingstoke, for work. I worked 70 hours that week culminating in a tear filled meeting with HR and my manager the day before we left for Paris. I felt confused by the outcome and struggled to process everything that had happened in the days leading up to the trip.

King's Cross St. Pancras Station

On Thursday morning we leisurely made our way to St. Pancras station for our first journey by Eurostar. Poor Jonathan spent the majority of our time in the boarding lounge and on the train journey fielding my questions, doubts, and fears about the situation I was leaving behind. We arrived at Gare du Nord and made our way to our hotel on the RER.

The next morning, as we walked from the hotel to the RER, I realised that I arrived in such a stupor that I didn’t remember a single road or building from our walk to the hotel the night before.

Jardin du Luxembourg

We started the cool, sunny autumn day wandering through Luxembourg Gardens and examining the faces of the statues that lined the paths. We stopped for a crepe on our way to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame

Le Louvre

We continued on past The Louvre, through the Tuileries Garden and stopped at the Place de la Concorde. Jonathan stood amazed at the immensity of the Parisian square and surrounding architecture. I continued to mull over recent events.

Arc de Triomphe

We walked along the Champs-Élysées and up to the Arc de Triomphe. One wrong turn led us up the stairs directly beneath the arch. By then it was dark and we were hungry so we hopped on the Metro back to the Latin Quarter and found a Vietnamese restaurant in which to share our anniversary supper. As in London, space is at a premium in Paris and we shared our table with two other women who ordered delicious looking soups and were gone before we had finished our vermicelli noodle soups.

We took the bus back to our hotel and walked a number of blocks through streets that I certainly would not have felt safe walking through alone.

Eiffel Tower from below

Saturday was dark and rainy and reflective of my mood. We arrived at the Eiffel Tower to find that the top deck was closed due to the wind and the rain and decided to enjoy the hazy view of Paris from the second deck.

Eiffel Tower from Palais de Chaillot

We descended into the rain and crossed the Seine to the Palais de Chaillot & Trocadéro Gardens. Wet, cold, tired, and still mulling over my experience at work we decided to head back to the hotel rather than venture to Montmartre which was sure to devolve into an embarrassing public shouting match. We took the Metro toward our hotel and got off at our nearest station to find a woman lying on the platform, surrounded by paramedics, with a large pool of thick blood near her leg. The only way to get to the exit was the foot wide space between the train, the paramedics, the woman, and the blood.

We arrived at the hotel and went to the Monoprix in the mall across the street where a lovely 8 Euro bottle of wine, fresh baguette, cheese, Italian deli meet, chocolate, and mint biscuits ensured a quiet, warm, and peaceful evening in our little hotel room.

The next morning we checked out, made our way to Gare Du Nord, checked in for our journey, bought a massive chocolate bar and a gift for friends and travelled under water in a tunnel that had only England on the other side.

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