What I learnt from my first 4 months of living in London

When I left Australia at the beginning of this year to start my long-term travel lifestyle, London was the first place of choice to establish a base for myself.

Why London, you ask?

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For many travellers from all around the world, London is a popular destination and for those wishing to reside there, it makes a convenient base for onward travel. This was one of the main reasons I chose to live in London. I wanted to live in a place where I could work for a while and easily reach some of the nearby European countries when time permits. For another thing, it is also an English speaking country, which makes it somewhat of an easier transition for me (i.e. someone who doesn’t speak many foreign languages :)).

London is a melting pot of many cultures. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and you can find just about everything. It is busy, fast paced and there are so many things to see and do. There are also plentiful work opportunities for hospitality workers, with Britain having it’s reputation for providing some of the best customer service in the world.

I have previously visited the UK on two occasions. The first time, I arrived via the Eurostar train from Paris. I had problems with immigration, where I was detained and questioned because I had only a small carry on and no return ticket. I looked like I was planning to work illegally, and so I had to assure them that I was not. I believe the half-finished Eurail pass I was holding onto was enough to convince them that I was not intending to work, but the detaining process took at least half an hour and as a result I missed my train. They fixed this up for me, though, and issued me a new ticket without cost. To this day I consider myself lucky to have gotten in.

The second time I was flying in from New York. I had a much easier time, but I was still bombarded with questions, such as ‘What’s the purpose of your trip?’, ‘How long are you staying here for?’, ‘Who are you staying with?’, ‘What do they do for a living?’, ‘Where are you going after here?’.

When passing through immigration on my third visit however, I had a European passport. This made a massive difference, in where I was able to completely avoid speaking to an immigration officer. You can simply pass through the e-gates. As a European (Greek) citizen, you have just as much of a right to stay in the country as everyone else. I gained this citizenship through my grandparents. It took 1 year to finalise and allowed me the rights to live and work in London without a visa, and thus has been the most useful asset for me. I can permanently reside anywhere I want in the European Union, and that is the whole reason I wanted it, and for being lucky enough to be able to have it, I am truly grateful.

This January, I landed in the UK to start my working holiday program, the kind that you have to pay a fee for, and I was sooner or later going to find out if I would regret this decision. The program offers a guaranteed job placement, where you can work flexible hours and take time off as you please. The job is specifically in the Catering and Hospitality field. I was going to get sent off to several different locations over Central London, usually working in high class establishments including some of the biggest 5 star hotels. My goal was to just try and save some money over the next three or four months, so I was hoping that the money I invested into the sign-up fee was going to pay off.

I attended the job training and did all the relevant paperwork. They set me up with a bank account and phone number. They also help you find a shared house to move into. I opted out of their services for this matter, as their cheapest available room was for £85 a week, and so I had a look around on gumtree to see if I could find anything cheaper, and found a reasonably priced triple room for £70 per week. I went to check it out, and became acquainted with quite a diverse house.

The first person I met was Rita, from Lithuania. I was welcomed into the house to have a look around. I met Povilas and William, also from Lithuania, then Jaime from Spain, Ilian and Blago from Bulgaria, Ulderico from Italy and Rachid from Morocco. It was a house of 9 people. I felt comfortable enough and decided to move in.

As for the work itself, it offered an interesting insight into the life of the rich. People pay thousands of pounds to attend some of the functions I was placed at as staff. Mostly my role was to pour wine and champagne for people. Some shifts were enjoyable. I got to socialise with fellow colleagues from different parts of the world, with many of them being Australian. But I had to wait 2 weeks to get my first paycheck. The paychecks would come every week after that. In some hotels, you come across unfavourable managers who believe they are above everyone. The good thing about this was if I had any problem with a particular hotel, I was able to contact my recruitment agency and request not to be sent there anymore.

I had to spend a lot of money just to set myself up, so the promise that I didn’t have to dig into my savings was unfulfilled. For the first two weeks in which I hadn’t had any money coming in, I had to use my savings to pay for rent, food and transport, along with buying the uniforms required for work. I never got that money back. I felt cheated. I wasn’t guaranteed the hours I expected. Your income working for an agency strongly depends on your performance and impression, but also the fact that there were many people assigned with this company and not enough work to go around for everyone meant we all had to be split up with working hours and sometimes I only had 15 hour work weeks, when my desired was a minimum of 40. The most I ever did in one week was 34.5, and that only happened twice in 6 weeks.

I resigned after those 6 weeks and joined another recruitment agency called Blue Arrow, which my flatmate Rita recommended to me. I was confident I would get more hours with this agency, as Rita told me she was needed for 50 hours some weeks. This is what I needed. The work was more or less the same, but the establishments were different. I got to work in high-rise office buildings, serving tea and coffee at corporate conference meetings, as well as some banquets. My favourite assignment with Blue Arrow was working on a rooftop bar near Trafalgar Square.

However as the months went by, and especially over the Easter holidays, there was a lack of work, and the timing was all wrong. I felt cheated again.

During the entirety of my stay in London, where my goal was to save a little bit of extra money for travel, I ended up losing quite a bit. While I wouldn’t discourage people from starting out with a recruitment agency when moving to London, as it’s a great way to gain experience, I would strongly advise against it as a means for having a stable job with a steady income. I would recommend searching for something full-time; there are plenty of listings available for bartenders, waiters and other hospitality staff on gumtree.

I think that if you decide to move to London for the first time, you should not try to make saving money the goal. I made some truly amazing friends by living in a shared house. I had wonderful and memorable moments with my flatmates. This is the kind of experience that teaches you to live in the moment without too much dreaming of the future. London was perfect, despite my expectations with money not being met. The most important lesson that I’ve learned not only in London, but through life and travel experienes in general, is that having expectations is a bad idea. I could have gone for a better job which would have given me a better income, but I ended up settling for less and was happy to just scrape by just so I could spend more time with my flatmates. I wouldn’t know when I’d see them again upon leaving London to travel Europe during the summer. The house had its grip on me, and I’m more grateful than anything for the people I met and got to spend quality time with.

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