Originally posted sometime last year but had to be taken off the site because of my stupidity. Lol. I’ve decided to repost my review of VE Schwab’s books because I’m about to finish another one of her weird, interesting, quirky and altogether original books. Enjoy re-reading this guys!
Fantasy is a genre that relies on an author having an original idea, unparalleled imagination and the ability to create worlds that take us away from our own lives for the 5 hours or so that it takes to finish the book. V.E. Schwab succeeds with all that and more in the first book of her Shades of Magic Trilogy.
In this book. she introduces us to three different worlds, their only common thread being that in all these worlds there is always a city named London. The main character, Kell, is an antari – a group of people who are “blessed” with magic and whose blood enables them to travel through those worlds as long as they have a “token”, usually an object that belongs to that world.
Kell differentiates the three Londons by assigning colours to them: Red London, the city where magic is alive and thriving; Grey London, where no one believes that magic really exists; and White London, where magic used to exist but has long gone, leaving its people starving for just the taste of it (and starving for food as well, most likely). There was a fourth London where magic existed in its purest, strongest form, ultimately leading to that city’s destruction; Kell calls this city of legends Black London.
I am utterly enamoured of the concept of this book. It goes without saying that I will automatically love a book that’s set in London, but Ms Schwab takes it further by giving us three (for now) different version of this city. The world building in this book is amazing in its descriptiveness. I feel like its almost itching for a movie adaptation, and let’s be honest, that is the dream isn’t it? I, for one, would love to see Red London – with its castle floating on the river Thames itself, and a bustling and vibrant market on the banks – up on the big screen.
Apart from the world-building, this book also introduces the delightful, though sometimes annoying, Delilah Bard. Although Kell is meant to be the main protagonist of this book, Lila steals the show every time she appears. Unapologetically brash and driven by self-gratification and selfish purposes, she is the perfect foil to Kell’s strong sense of duty. A common thief originally from Grey London, she’s the kind of woman who marches to the beat of her own drum and doesn’t let society dictate her actions. She is determined to make her mark on the world, to have adventures and to see what else is out there. She refuses to be a victim of her own narrative: just because she was born poor doesn’t mean she’ll stay poor.
Lila is a character whose arc is sure to be explored in the next books and I’m quite excited to learn the secrets of her past, some of which are already hinted at in this book. As for Kell, I feel like his character wasn’t as well-developed as Lila’s. Either that or I haven’t really paid attention because he’s carved from the same mould as many other male protagonists in other fantasy series. VE Schwab is yet to add something to his character that will make readers stand up and take notice, but there is potential there.
The real winner in this book is the writing. It flows so seamlessly that you will find yourself turning page after page and not noticing that you’re halfway through the book. VE Schwab keeps its simple. This book doesn’t attempt to be literary or wordy, it embraces and celebrates the fact that its a fantasy novel. Ms Schwab simply tells the story in the best way she knows how and somehow it just works.
As the lead runner in this trilogy, this book picks up the baton with aplomb and sets the scene for passing it to the next book in the series. It takes readers through a delightful pub crawl-like romp through the worlds the author has created. It ends on a high note and with enough hints of what more there is to come to quickly send readers to the nearest bookstore to buy the next instalment, which is exactly what I will be doing today.
Its 1 am and I’ve just stayed up late to finish this fantastic crime/mystery book. As I said, I recently joined the Armchair Murder Book Club at Waterstones‘, which meets every first Wednesday of the month. You can imagine my panic on Tuesday night when I realised that the meeting was the following evening and I haven’t even started the damned book yet. Nonetheless, I decided to make a start so I could at least have something to contribute to the conversation. At the last meeting, some people didn’t finish and it didn’t really make that much of a difference because there wasn’t really a big reveal to spoil. I honestly thought the case would be the same for this book.
This book had one of the best plot twists I’ve ever read in my life. I don’t know if its because I haven’t read a good mystery book lately, but this one just blew. my. mind.
To my everlasting regret, I unfortunately learned of the plot twist during the meeting when I was still 30% into the book, but my mind was still blown. I was speechless for a good 2 minutes, which for me is a long time. I could not wrap my head around it.
Three women lived in a village. One was eighty year old living in a mill overlooking the river. The second was a pretty school teacher trapped in a loveless marriage. The third was a child progeny with the gift of painting. All three were trapped in the picturesque village of Giverny, famous for being the inspiration for Monet’s paintings. All three longed for escape.
Three women lived in a village. “The first one was mean, the second a liar, the third and egotist”. For thirteen days, the gates of Giverny were open for a possible escape but only one would make it out. The third woman was the most intelligent, the second one was the most cunning, the first woman was the most determined.
This is a riddle solved against the background of the brutal murder of a prominent businessman who had a passion for Monet and an even greater passion for women.
Things are not what they seem.
I am not going to give away any plot twists. Suffice it to say that during our book club meeting, one of the other readers pointed out that in the hands of a less brave author, this book would have been written very differently. It takes courage and talent to have written it the way it was written; the plot was tight and there were no glaring holes that would make you say “but what about the time when…?” when the big reveal was finally unveiled.
The story generated a lot of discussion during the book club, even from me and I didn’t even finish the damn thing. I was kicking myself for the entire hour and a half for not finishing this book. Ultimately though, I can’t really say that my reading experience was less satisfactory because of the fact that I’ve already been spoiled. I read it with the understanding and perspective of someone who already knew what was coming so I could look at certain plot lines and see exactly how the author cleverly placed red herrings deliberately designed to mislead us, but actually the clues to the real story were there all along.
This book is ultimately about the chances you take and the tragedy of a life that is not fully lived. I can’t really say much without unintentionally spoiling it for everyone. However, as tragic as the circumstances may seem, I find upon finishing it that there was no other way for the story to have ended and that things happened exactly as they were meant to. All the victims were victims of their own actions or inaction; one of my fellow book club members pointed out that it was hard for her to sympathise with any of the characters, and I agree. The characters will annoy you to the point of wanting to give up on the book, but DO NOT GIVE UP ON THE BOOKbecause the payoff is worth it.
The writing was very fluid. I tend to be biased against books that have been translated from a different language, especially French, because sometimes the translation is too stiff and something inevitably gets lost in translation. However, this was so well done that I forgot that this book wasn’t originally written in English. The prose was seamless and easy to follow. Michel Bussi was very descriptive (almost too descriptive) that it really created a nice atmosphere for the story to unfold. I now want to visit the town of Giverny and see Monet’s pond for myself.
Armchair Murder Book Club
Kudos to the book club moderators at Waterstones’ for the awesome choice of books. I can’t wait for the next one. Readers in London, if you’re interested in joining like-minded individuals geeking out over books, check out the Waterstones website for events at the store nearest you. Usually, the book clubs are at the flagship store in Piccadilly, my happy place, 5 floors of bookworm heaven. There’s free wine involved if you want to check it out. Our next book is The Collin Case by Ferdinand Von Schirack.
Yesterday, I was having one of those rare occurences in my life: a weekday off, and my sister and I decided to go out and get our nails done in preparation for the big wedding this weekend. I rarely venture around my street on weekdays so while I knew that Berwick Street is a popular place for people around the area to have lunch, I didn’t quite realise its impact on the people who work in and around Soho until I saw a sign thanking people for petitioning to save the Berwick Street Market.
I’m sure I got the flyer in the mail, but it must have been one of those weeks where I was working 70 hours a week and anything that had nothing to do with the nhs or orthopaedics were pushed to the back of my mind to be attended to later. So this market has apparently been independently run for about 300 years but the Westminster City Council is aiming to privatise it (ugh, story of our lives) so someone started a petition at change.org.
I am not socially conscious and I don’t always fully understand the implications of privatisation. But I do understand tradition, and how important it is to have continuity, the pleasure one takes in carrying on a routine.
When I was in high school, there were two or three street vendors who would sell fish ball, squid roll and fish tempura outside the school grounds. They’d have these mobile frying pan thingies where they would fry these delicious treats after which they’d be skewered in barbecue sticks and we would be able to dip them in the selection of sauces provided (sweet, chilly and this vinegar mix that to this day I can’t quite recreate).
It probably wasn’t the most hygienic thing in the world, but in the Philippines, we weren’t much fussed about those things. I think as a result, we as a people developed strong stomachs and, short of actualt typhoid, can tolerate pretty much a range of food-borne bacteria. We were all perfectly capable of asking our parents to buy these things in the supermarket to have at home, but it just wasn’t the same as queuing up with all the other skids after school just to have fried fish ball. It became part of the after-school socialisation routine.
It was even more special for me because I was raised quite strictly as a child and I never stayed late after school on account of the need for me to study AND tutor my younger siblings. But on the rare occasion where the driver would pick us up late, i was right there queuing with all the other kids, excited at the prospect of eating a simple street food.
I think my love of street food and street markets stemmed from those days. When I travel, I have never been able to resist the lure of the street market. When I first arrived in London, I went to all the markets: Borough, Brick Lane, Camden. London is full of them, especially in the summer, and they’ve become a tourist attraction as well as places to eat. But Berwick Street is special. Its local and its home. I feel kind of bad that I didn’t do much to preserve something that’s been here since before I was born, but I promise I will try to patronise the local businesses here as often as budget allows.
The food really is tasty and quite affordable too. Usually of Meditarranean and Lebanese origin, they offer a selection of gyros, falafels, lots of lamb, wraps, halloumi, etc. There’s also a fresh fruit and vegetable stall if you don’t feel like trekking through nearby Chinatown to find produce. Seriously, I love that I live so close to this. Hopefully, it will be around for a long long time.
After work today, I went to my muay thai training session at London Fight Factory. I’ve been going to that gym on and off for about 3 years now. At one point when I was experiencing probably the lowest point of my life, I think it probably saved me from giving up or going insane. My friend Aaron first introduced me to it. At the time, I was significantly less confident about my physical abilities. I thought I’d better stick to what I knew best (Zumba) and save myself the embarassment. But he was so passionate about it that I decided to give it a go. And while I may not have been as consistent about it as I would have liked, it has remained one of the most enduring parts of my fitness routine.
It just makes me think about how quick we are to judge ourselves and say ‘I could never do that’. When did we develop this mindset that there are things beyond our reach? When we were kids, we used to be dreamers. We used to believe in magic and in the impossible. More importantly, we used to believe in ourselves. I sometimes envy the innocence (and blissful ignorance) of children. They haven’t yet learned to put themselves in a box nor to place limitations in their abilities. They still believe they can be the next prime minister or president, or be an actress, a ballerina or martial arts fighter. Check out these kids doing warm up for a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training today at LFF.
This stopped me in my tracks first of all because it was so darn cute, but also because it just inspired me. I mean, not all of these kids will be fighters. Some of them are probably going to be awkward executing all those moves. But they will always remember the fact that they tried, and they had fun with it. I will think about this the next time I need inspiration. Because you know what? The fact that I’m out there and trying already makes me better than half the population who are spending the afternoon watching the telly.
There were a lot of adverts on the tube and other places a couple of years ago celebrating the active woman called This Girl Can, and it really stuck with me. This one in particular:
Sometimes I forget that the only limitations I have are the ones I place on myself. If I want something and I work hard enough for it, there is nothing I can’t achieve. This girl can. And if I can’t just yet, I will never stop trying.
So here’s my own rough muay thai training session. Cheers, blabbaholics. x
But I know that I can make it, as long as somebody takes me home every now and then…
When Brandon Flowers sang Sam’s Town at the Royal Albert Hall to the thousands and thousands of Londoners who came out to watch the Killers, it just gave me chills. The last line from the song (quoted at the end of this post) probably says everything that I need to say about how I feel living in London. Despite its faults, despite the struggles, I absolutely love being here.
LONDON AND ME: A LOVE STORY
The journey to this kind of contentment takes ages, and the best thing is I’m still on that journey. Here I am, five and a half years down the line and I’m still discovering new things to love about London. My love for London is what I imagine being in a relationship is like. You start off with stars in your eyes and you get swept up in the romance of it all. You visit Big Ben and Tower Bridge, or stroll along Southbank or walk down Pall Mall towards Buckingham Palace – you know, touristy stuff – and its like those first few dates when everything seems perfect. I think that first year, London could do no wrong in my eyes. I arrived on the tail end of 2011 and I rang in the New Year by watching the famous London Fireworks at the London Eye. The amount of people who turn out for that, and who are willing to wait 7 odd hours in the freezing cold for a 10-minute firework display, simply boggles the mind. I’ve watched it twice and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. But back then, I was in love with the wonder of it all that I barely noticed the crowds (or the struggle to hold your pee in because the journey to the public toilets was more difficult than climbing a small mountain).
The fireworks display that year was extra special because 2012 was the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. The atmosphere that year was electric, I could not have timed my arrival better if I tried. I threw myself into the celebrations that year with the energy of a woman possessed. I waited three hours in the rain for the Royal Parade down the Thames, jostled elbows with the crowds near Trafalgar Square so that I could catch a glimpse of the Royal Family as they made their way to Buckingham Palace, watched the London Olympics Opening Ceremony in the park with my friends, bought tickets to the games, and celebrated a job well done with the rest of London during the Closing Ceremony (which fell on my birthday!) on a special viewing area at Westfield-Stratford near the venue.
With one of my best friends, soaking up the sun in Canary Wharf
Tower Bridge all ready for London 2012
With some enthusiastic Brazilian supporters during the opening ceremony
The atmosphere around the Olympic Park was unbelievable
With my friend Russel, getting ready to watch Team USA in the preliminaries
Oh hello, Kobe. 🙂
I gradually adjusted to adulting. I learned to do my own laundry, set up my own Wifi and even cook. I was doing well at work, but it was probably the first time in my ambitious existence that I focused less on getting ahead in my career because I was too busy “living the life”. All I wanted was to get paid at the end of each month so that I can pay rent and do fun things. I refused bank shifts because it took time away from my exploration of all things British. I fulfilled a childhood dream to watch the Backstreet Boys in concert (don’t judge me!) and followed that up with what is still one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to in my life, watching Coldplay live at the Emirates Arena during their Mylo Xyloto tour.
The Seven-Year Itch
Inevitably, the excitement wore off. Winter began and whilst I used to scoff about Seasonal Affective Disorder when I was studying about depression at uni, I sure wasn’t scoffing when I started to feel really blue as November kicked in (I still do sometimes). I discovered that I actually needed the sun, and the shorts days and long nights really got to me. I developed a love-hate relationship with the London Weather. The first time I was running to catch my bus with groceries on one hand and an umbrella on the other because it was raining so hard, I think I nearly cried.Reality really does bite. The honeymoon was over. I started to think about what it really meant to live in London. Why am I here, so far away from family, friends and everything that’s familiar to me? Am I here to just do a job so that I have enough money to go to the Philippines every year because that’s where I think my life still is?
Making it work: couples therapy with London :p
Ultimately, I made the conscious decision to stop being a tourist and really live in London and all that entails, horrible weather and all. I learned a lot of things that year, and while my previous post dealt with how to get started in London, I think this one is more of a guide on how to be really live and be happy here.
Accept the weather
Now this was something I struggled with. I came from a tropical country where it would be 30 degrees Celsius even with a storm raging. Everyone you’ve ever met who told you about the constant, seemingly-never-ceasing rain in London was not kidding. There are times when it rained for two full days nonstop. I hated it. I’m a shorts and flip-flops kind of girl, I hated wearing closed shoes and jackets. I cannot (and still can’t) layer to save my life. I used to moan a lot about the weather. But now I’ve learned to embrace it. I bought myself a pair of Hunter boots and an all-weather warrior jacket from Hollister and that was that; I had my battle armour ready for the next torrential downpour. I bought a sturdy umbrella that wouldn’t turn itself inside out with the next strong gust of wind. I learned to plan my activities around the weather. My friend visited me a couple of years ago and commented on my almost obsessive hourly checking of the weather. She had obviously never experienced going out in shorts and Toms because it was sunny when you left the flat and then two hours later, you’re soaked to the bone because it had begun to rain. Do not underestimate how much of an impact the weather will have on your London life.
Love your job
Most people will tell you that they’ve taken a job abroad so that they can travel, and that’s what keeps them going: the thought of going away every couple of months and exploring the world. That’s all fine. But realistically speaking, you won’t be able to travel more than twice in a year. Maybe if you take short weekend trips you can stretch that to four, but the fact is, a lot of the time you’ll be caught up in making a living. The average nurse spends 37.5 hours a week at work, more if you do bank shifts (overtime). Honestly, I didn’t love my job as much as I should have, nor did I give it the appreciation it deserved for being the reason why I’m in London in the first place. Maybe my first job wasn’t really the right fit for me, but the one I have now is. Part of the time I’m working in a speciality that continues to excite me, but most of the time I’m doing what I love and do best: teaching.
Its the kind of job that challenges me, frustrates me, pushes me to my limits and ultimately, gives me that sense of achievement that only comes when you know you’ve made a difference. Don’t get me wrong, some days I feel like doing a primal scream or burrowing underneath my duvet and never leaving the apartment. But the good days outweigh the bad. Having a job I love has kept me sane even as it makes me insane.
Develop a hobby or a passion
I have to be honest. I haven’t been listening to this part of my survival guide for the past year because I’ve been too caught up with work. I feel like I’ve taken on the problems of the world on my shoulders, I’ve forgotten the simple fact that the world will go on turning with or without me. I am irreplaceable to no one except myself. This is part of the reason why I’ve taken up blogging again. I used to write and write like there’s no tomorrow, even if no one would ever read it. I wrote for the fun of it. I used to go dancing twice a week and training every other day. I used to go for runs just because the weather is good and I feel like it. It’s really essential that you have a work-life balance, and -what’s that saying – that you don’t get too caught up in making a living that you forget to live. The people who have enjoyed living here the most are those who have made the most of what the city has to offer. They do yoga, go wall climbing, joined running clubs and others. For those who less physically-inclined (like me), there’s book clubs and social groups that you can join to keep the monotony at bay. Push yourself though, I never thought I could do Muay Thai but I’m not only doing it but loving it.
Meet new people, not just fellow countrymen
When I got to London, the Filipino community was pretty much established. Most of them were people who went to the same school as I did, acquaintances more than actual friends. But it amazes me how much being in a foreign country together forges a bond. No one else will know what its like to be living and working abroad apart from the people who are having that same experience. However, I didn’t want to limit myself to the Filipino community. I’m living in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. I love to talk (hence, blabbaholic) and I have a genuine love for getting to know people and gaining new perspectives. I think one of the reasons why I love my current job is because it allows me to get out of my comfort zone and actually network with people. And the more people I meet, the more I’ve realised that people are essentially different but the same, and that those differences should be embraced and celebrated.
My boss is Scottish and my vocabulary has gotten so much better ever since I’ve started working with her. I’ve also picked up a couple of quintessentially Scottish words, the kind that have no English translation. There are no words to express how much I’ve matured as an educator because of her advices. One of my closest friends is Australian, and she’s taught me to see things from a whole different perspective, and to stand up for myself every once in a while. She’s also brought me to a sports bar to watch State of Origin and got me to cheer for Queensland against New South Wales, and to wear red in support of “my” team. Another one of my best friends is Italian, and she teaches me Italian swear words and brings me cheese from home. She’s also one of my most avid cheerleaders, and she always reminds me to love myself and to look at the mirror and think, “I am beautiful”.
A couple of years ago, I tried a social group called Thinking Bob, and I thought it was fantastic. I got to meet so many new people while doing activities. I learned that I have the courage to walk up to a group of strangers and socialise; because of this group, I had the guts to step up on stage in front of a rock band and sing ‘Proud Mary’ like I was Tina Turner, complete with the dance moves. It was exhilarating to be with people where I can be someone besides usual myself. There’s comfort in the company of strangers because they have no basis with which to judge you, seeing as they don’t really know you.
There’s nothing like the home crowd though…
I’ve met lots of people and I love it. But there’s something to be said about having the kind of friends who you just know will help you bury a body if you ever decide to murder someone. The kind you can call long distance at 3am because you’ve just unlocked one of life’s important achievements. The kind you can have two-hour conversations with just because. So stay connected to the friends who have known you long before you ever landed on Heathrow.
Yes, travelling tops every 20-something or 30-something year old’s list of things to achieve. There’s so much fuss about travelling lately, and so many travel blogs or vlogs about exploring the world and finding yourself while getting lost in some random city. There’s a reason why there’s so much hype, because travelling changes you in so many ways. I’ve always loved and read about history, and travelling gave me so many opportunities to visit places that I’ve only ever read about in books. The first time I entered the Louvre gave me the most surreal feeling. I think I cried when I entered St Peter’s Basilica and when I finally got to walk down the gardens of Versailles. I had authentic German beer in Berlin with friends I met on a free walking tour; I visited Anne Frank’s attic and felt profoundly sorry for the innocence that was lost there. I visited a concentration camp and got up close and personal with just how low humanity can be brought to when driven by greed, hate, prejudice and desperation. I toured the canals of Venice, prayed in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and enjoyed aperitivo along the coasts of Italy. Each time I came back from travelling, I came back not quite the same person, but more. So yes, before Brexit fully comes into its own, travel. A lot.
Stay connected to faith and family
I put these two together because for me they are one and the same. My faith and family keep me grounded, and give you a reason to go on during days when everything just seems to be going wrong. By faith, I don’t mean religion. I am not at my most eloquent when talking about spiritual matters. But I suppose by faith I mean just having the belief that everything will be ok in the end because there is a plan for you; and that you are here for a reason. And if you get that kind of faith by going to church or praying or meditation, it doesn’t matter as long as you keep the faith. I think when we stop believing and we stop hoping, that’s when we stop seeing the beauty in being where we are. Its happened to me a couple of times, and each time it helped to go home and spend time with my family.
Because really, there is no substitute for having family. There is something to be said about people who have to love you no matter how horrible you are simply because you share the same blood. When I was having a bad week at work a couple of years ago, I cancelled all of my extra shifts and hopped on a plane to Switzerland, where my nearest relative was. I didn’t have an itinerary or any kind of plan, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to be somewhere else and be with someone who has no expectations of me. I think when my sister moved to London last year, I breathed a sigh of relief. Life just got a little easier (and my waistline a little thicker, she’s such a good cook!).
I try to go home to the Philippines every 2 years to see my family. It recharges my batteries like nothing else can. One of the highest points of my life was when I got my entire family to go on a Eurotrip with me last year. Seeing London through my dad’s eyes brought me back to those honeymoon days when everything was new and wonderful. They made me love London again, and made me love London more.
Take care of you…
Home isn’t a place, its a feeling. Its the feeling of belonging somewhere, of being somewhere where you can learn new things and explore other parts of yourself but still have a place, and people to turn to, where you can just be you. And YOU are important. You are allowed to be selfish and to pamper yourself every once in a while. Have a mani/pedi, get a gorgeous haircut, buy that dress that fits you like a glove. You deserve it.
A happy ending
The truth is, the book doesn’t end when you find happiness because happiness is an ongoing thing. I have come to the conclusion that no one is every truly always happy or always content, we go through cycles of happiness and contentment. More importantly, we have to work for it and not be passive observers of our life, because as cliched as it is , life really is short. Your circumstances can change in an instant. Have you made the most out of this experience or are you still waiting for life to happen to you? Wake up and smell the roses: that future that seemed so faraway is happening now. You’re an adult, deal with it.
I’m going to stop blogging now and go out to re-explore this city that I love so much. I didn’t come here expecting to find home, I thought it was enough for me to have a job, to earn money and to have the chance to travel. But home is what it has become. It’s my Sam’s Town, and I could not be more grateful for that.
You know I see London, I see Sam’s Town
Holds my hand and lets my hair down,
Rolls that world right off my shoulders.
I see London, I see Sam’s Town now.
I’ve got this energy beneath my feet, like something underground’s gonna come up and carry me…
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
There are few things more important to a Londoner than the tube map. Nothing is more important to a working Londoner than the tube, the local name for the Underground system ran by TFL. I remember one time there was a tube strike because the train drivers wanted higher wages, and it completely disrupted the city’s way of life. In the hospital where I work, cases were delayed because both patients and nurses couldn’t get to work. The buses were so crammed that if, like me, you’re just barely over 5 feet you were basically standing under somebody’s armpit. And that’s only if you were fortunate enough to get on a bus at all. It was one of those times that I felt extremely lucky that my flat was at a walking distance from work. It really got me thinking about a) how much Londoners depend on a working tube system; and b) the close relationship between the tube and the choice of where to live.
Deciding where to rent in London is a really big and often difficult decision, especially if you’re new to the city. You don’t have enough information to know better and I think everyone’s first London flat always has that tinge of desperation on it, like we settled for the first available house or flat that would have us, even it means sharing a room with another person and losing all privacy. You learn from every experience though. God know I have, and I think I’ve come a long way from Mount Pleasant Road, where I had to constantly look over my shoulder when I come home at night to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Now, because I don’t want any of my potential followers to go through the same experience, I thought I’d share some tips on looking for accommodations in London.
Have a budget and stick to it.
This comes first for me because London is an expensive city. All those stories about astronomical flat prices are not exaggerations. If you’re not smart, you could end up paying half your salary for what is basically a double room in a tiny flat that is an hour’s commute from work. Figure out how much you are willing to and can afford to pay and work around that when looking for flats.
Have a selection criteria
I am not suggesting that you have to make some obsessive-compulsive checklist, but I do suggest that you have a mental checklist about the things that are important to you when it comes to living conditions, and highlight which ones you refuse to compromise on. For example, I will gladly pay a little extra money to know that I live in more or less a safe neighbourhood. You cannot pay me to live in Peckham. I’m sure its a perfectly fine area but I went there once I just got bad vibes. Which leads me to my next point:
Do a preliminary visit
In most cases, you will have a viewing before you decide to rent a house or flat, and i think this is a really great idea. No only does it allow you to check out the house, you also get a chance to have a feel of the neighbourhood. Sometimes decisions can be based on the most mundane of things, like that quirky cafe a few blocks over your flat that you can just picture yourself reading a book in or that park that you can see yourself running in. I personally like the hustle and bustle of the city, and I feel at home anywhere there are lots of people. I guess its the kind of security that comes from knowing that you’re never really alone. Doing a visit also gives you the chance to check out what the transport is like to and from your prospective address. Do you have decent access to a bus stop? What is your nearest tube station, if you have one? These are all important questions to consider.
As I said, commuting comes part and parcel with working in London. You really want access to a tube station, and more to the point, you want to be on a line that provides the most direct route to work. I know it’s sad to plan your life around work, but let’s face it. On average you will be spending 37.5 hours a week at work, why add commuting time to the time you’re already losing to work??? I’ve always said I will gladly pay an extra 100£ for an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning. In an ideal world, you want your flat to be on the same line as the nearest tube station to the place where you work and still be affordable. Here’s why that wouldn’t necessarily work.
London is divided into Zones. I work in Warren Street, right in the heart of central London, which comprises the whole of Zone 1. If the map below, which shows the average cost of renting a one-bedroom flat on each of the tube stops, is accurate then I would have to be living as far as Edgware or High Barnet (Zone 6), which is probably an hour’s tube ride away at least, to be able to afford rent. And even then its equal to nearly half of my monthly salary.
This map basically tells you really can’t afford to rent a one-bedroom flat on a nurse’s salary. If you attempt to do so, you’ll basically be spending all that money on a flat you don’t get to enjoy because you’re working overtime shifts to be able to pay for said flat. Most people opt to flatshare. And you can look for those on sites such as Gumtree, or Spareroom.
There are also other options available for key workers such as nurses and teachers. We get what they call intermediate rent price, which is a lower price compared to what someone who’s not a keyworker would pay. Housing associations that offer intermediate renting include Catalyst Housing and Genesis Housing Association. Generally, you have to fill in an application form and wait for it to be approved or your employer may have arranged this for you before you even arrive. I’ve lived on flats provided by both of those associations. the latter being the official provider of accommodation for those who work for our hospital. And let me tell you, there are definite pros and cons
The highs and lows of living in a housing association
As the header of this post suggests, its all about location, location, location. There’s really no faulting the location of the buildings owned by housing associations. Most of them are in central London or if not, an easy commute away. On average, it probably took me 25 minutes via bus to get to work when I was living at Ashgrove Court (Catalyst). It took me 10 minutes to walk to work when I was living at John Astor House (Genesis). Both locations were really central. Ashgrove Court is a short bus ride away from Notting Hill and the famous Portobello Market. John Astor House is close to the famous shopping areas of Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road.
However – and the same is true for flatshares as well – having a flatmate that you get on with depends mostly on the luck of the draw. I once had a flatmate who had some kind of light that she shines over the kitchen surfaces so she’ll know whether I’ve cleaned it properly or not. We also had washing facilities inside our room, and as her room was next to mine she claimed that she can hear the drip of the faucet whenever I failed to close it as tight as I should. Seriously, this person threatened to report me to the council for singing along to the songs on my iPod because this was apparently not allowed after 10pm. Jesus. Its a funny anecdote now, but back then I had only been living in London less than a year and I didn’t realise I was being bullied in my own flat until much later.
John Astor House took the meaning of cramped to an all new level. I never really understood the term “matchbox-sized room” until I moved there. But I thought, you know, this is probably better for me because JHA was more of a dormitory than flat. You don’t really have a “flatmate” and after living with a psychotic one for about 2 years, this was a huge draw for me. JHA also had cleaners who were responsible for cleaning common areas. What I failed to realise is that the cleaners were off on the weekends, and that I would be smelling how good other people’s Friday night went whenever I have to go to the toilets on Saturday. The toilets, like the kitchen, are shared by at least 10 people maybe more. Boy was it interesting to take a leak in those toilets come weekend. Do not let me get started on having to wait to take a shower that is shared by more than 10 people, some of whom take forever to have a bath. I wake up some nights to people either running screaming down the hallways or “unmentionable” noises in the room next to me as other people…”get to know each other” if you know what I mean.
Unfortunately, if – like me- you’ve been hired as a nurse in one of the hospitals and you don’t know anyone in London, chances are your first flat would be in one of these accommodations. Its the easiest choice, I suppose. In these accommodations, the rent you pay per month includes bills and council tax. You don’t have to worry about setting up all kinds of payments, which is a huge help during the first few months when you’re still settling. Its not that bad. You get to meet a whole lot of people from different walks of life and you get to meet people who may have been in the same position as you 6 months earlier who can give you the benefit of their experience. You get to have some kind of support system in these accommodations because everyone there more or less knows what you’re going through as a London newbie because they’ve all been a newbie at some point. Some of the things that people have done for those who are new to London just restores your faith in humanity. Some of them buy cookware for you, or give you some of their secondhand stuff for free. They cook you welcome dinners in the common kitchen, show you around London and do what they can so you feel just a little less lonely. I was lucky because whilst my first London flat was not an accommodation and left much to be desired, I already had lots of friends here who gave me the support I needed.
If you do decide you’ve had enough of accommodations, you can try your hand at looking for a flat of your own. Maybe you decide its worth paying the hefty price for the sake of comfort and privacy. Its up to you. The important thing is to plan ahead, consider different options and to move only if you’re absolutely sure its right for you. Moving flats is a huge undertaking and requires a lot of organisation, you do not want to do it again and again and again. Believe me, I’ve moved flats three or four times and it amazed me how much stuff I’ve managed to accumulate in all the years I’ve lived in London. In addition, two or three bedroom flats are probably cheaper than one bedroom flats so be on the lookout for potential flatmates.
For those working in and around central London, there are ways that you can get affordable flats. That’s what I did, because let’s face it, without the benefit of key worker discounts there is no way I’ll ever be able to afford a flat in Soho. Visit Peabody Housing or Dolphin Living for more details and a list of areas where developments are being built. You’ll probably have to be living in London for at least 18 months to qualify for these though, so if you know someone who’s been here a while who might be a good potential flatmate, maybe you can lure them into moving with you so that you can ride on their coattails. This what I did for my sister. I applied for both of us because I had been living here longer and was therefore eligible for the scheme.
I hope this helped. Either way, don’t get too worried about accommodation. These things have a way of falling into place in a way that you don’t expect. Enjoy the experience of being here. Welcome to London, newbie!
Nobody ever had a dream ’round here but I don’t really mind that it’s starting to get to me
It’s only fitting that the first post on this, my resurrected blog, would be an ode to two of my favourite things in the world: London and The Killers.
There is nothing like moving to a foreign country to show you that you’re made of much sterner stuff than you thought you were. Up until I moved to the UK, I had no concept whatsoever of what the millenials so fondly call “adulting”. I mean, I like to think of myself as fairly responsible in my own way. But let’s face it, I went 23 years without having to cook my own food, or to do my laundry or pay my own bills. My “life skills” consisted of being able to drive, one that is absolutely useless on this side of the pond seeing as they drive on the wrong side of the road (insert arguments here).
I don’t know who was more petrified of the prospect of my moving to London and living on my own for the first time in my life: myself or my mother. The days leading up to my flight, she kept giving me these reminders like making sure to separates my whites from my colours when using the washing machine, or how not to burn the house down when using a gas or electric stove. The latter she needn’t have bothered with, as I spent the first 6 months of my life in London subsisting on a steady diet of Marks and Spencer’s ready-made meals.
I had a seemingly endless list of things that I needed to organise and see to. There was the question of accommodation, obviously. I had friends living here already and it was easier to just defer to their judgment. How was I to know that Tottenham was in fact different from Tottenham Court Road, and that the commute from work to home would take me through some really rough areas?
And really, who in the world could have foreseen that I would be renting a room in a house owned by a family who just happened to be fond of dogs and that said dogs would be equally fond of my legs? So fond, that they chewed off a huge chunk of my skin one day as I was about to head out to go to King’s Cross Station to meet my mum, thus necessitating my first ever trip to the hospital as a patient.
National Insurance Number. GP Registration. Opening a bank account. Buying an oyster (no, not the kind you eat). Locating my nearest bookstore. And then figuring out where to move after the whole dog bite incident made it impossible to stay where I was. I wish someone had given me a roadmap back then. A how-to guide on surviving London. All I had to rely on were my own instincts, helpful advice from friends and Google.
Fast-forward to five years later and I get to meet batch after batch of wide-eyed fellow countrymen who are trying their hand in London, just as I did.
Some of them I know from school and I invite them over to dinner at my hard-earned flat in Soho and I try to give them the benefit of my experience, patiently answering their questions so that they’d have a much easier time than we did. So here’s my way of giving back. My own version of a survival guide or as i like to call it in my head “How to make sure you don’t end up in an operating room at the Royal Free Hospital within your first six months in London”. I’ll be doing a series of these posts on my blog for anyone who’s thinking of moving to London, or for nurses like me who’ve recently been hired through international recruitment, or if you’re already here and may want some tips on how to make life just a little bit better. I don’t claim to be an expert, and these tips are largely self-referential but hey, they work for me.
Tips and guides on part 2 of this post. Read on, blabbaholics. Xx