Well, after about 6 weeks of living in London, there is plenty to report back on this blog. Plenty of random observations and interesting titbits! Here they are vaguely grouped together into similar categories.
THE MAD, CRAZY LONDON RENTAL MARKET!
This topic deserves a section on it’s own. Currently the rental market in London is insane. There is a severe supply shortage and each potential new rental property is inundated with people wanting to rent it. Real estate agents often take the advertisement offline after 2 days because they are flooded with more interest than they can field. Prospective tenants offer more than the asking price or make their application more attractive by locking in much longer lease durations.
Viewing a rental property in London is quite inefficient and frustrating. Rental agencies rarely reply to online enquiries. If you call them, 90% of the time, the person you need is out of the office. So you leave your details for a call-back which 95% of the time never happens. When you finally, get a viewing time locked in, 60% of the time it will fall through. If you are lucky, you will be given a few hours of advanced notice of the cancellation. Perhaps the property has been taken off the market or perhaps access has not been properly organised with the current tenant. There are those unfortunate times when the viewing is cancelled at the time it is supposed to be held and you are already at the front door having wasted time and money getting there. Finding a rental took a huge amount of time. I shudder to think how someone with an ordinary job can manage it.
Strangely, rental viewings are generally done one interested party at a time. Doing a block viewing with multiple interested parties would seem more time efficient for the tenants and the agents yet this is not the done thing in London. So an agent could show a tenanted property 12 separate times on any given day. What hell for the current tenant trying to work from home! Various unconvincing reasons were given for this inefficiency such as the prospective tenants don’t like to be herded through like cattle. Well, as a person who was a prospective tenant in a hyper competitive rental market, our position in the pecking order is pretty apparent….cattle would be too complimentary a term!
Looking for a rental property, we used the major sites of RightMove, On The Market and Zoopla. Facebook Marketplace should not be avoided as it is clearly littered with scams. Gumtree could be used with significant caution as there are plenty of scams on there too. We also used OpenRent to look at properties being rented directly by the owner. This was often better as it helps to talk directly with the owner.
Several reasons were given for the supply shortage of housing. Covid caused a lot of job losses and combined with the rise of working from home, this created an exodus from London in the last few years. Now. the people are returning to London, including plenty of students. It does appear that London is limited by their housing regulations. There are plenty of suburbs full of low rise housing. If permission was given to build high rise apartments, far more people could be accommodated. New build housing would also help to house people in more comfort and reduce heating costs.
A CITY OF CONTRASTS AND DIVERSITY
Exit a tube station and you are often confronted with a different vibe, a different architecture, a different mix of people. London is a city of contrast and diversity.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the 2019 census, 85% of people in England and Wales are ethnically white. When looking around in London, this is impossible to believe. Many parts of London are far more ethnically mixed than this. There are lots of Carribean people in Brixton. There are lots of African people in Dalston. Areas like Whitechapel and Shepherd’s Bush is home to loads of Bangladeshi Muslims, many of whom wander about in traditional long robes for men and face veils for women. Yet, many would give themselves away as long term British residents when they open their mouths to speak.
Some areas are full of low rise, stately, historical homes whilst areas like Canary Wharf are reminiscent of modern Singapore with its skyscrapers of shiny glass and steel. Rich and poor rub shoulders in London. We were at a free lecture in the City of London, an area usually considered the central business district. Most attendees at this lecture were white men in sharp suits and leather shoes. Head over to the Watney Market, near Whitechapel and there are no suits to be seen. Instead stalls cater to the Muslim crowd selling modest clothing and headscarves of every colour for women, cheap homewares, fruit and vegetables.
In some areas, the rich and poor collide. Well off people and tourists traipse up and down the Oxford street which is lined with all the big name brands whilst on the sidewalk, in a suspiciously even frequency will be a beggar woman. Due to the demographic similarity of these beggars and their even placement on Oxford street, it does look suspiciously like an organised begging syndicate.
Over the weekend, we visited the Nine Elms Sunday Market. There are a few food stalls but mostly, the market is dominated by the sale of second hand goods, in particular, clothing, hand tools, power tools and homewares. This is the market to go to if you want to find a bargain. It was crowded with people hunting through the goods for what they need. What a contrast it was to walk over to the next suburb to find the newly renovated and opened Battersea Power Station. This old power station has been refurbished into a high end shopping and dining destination. It has the prices and clientele to prove it. Lots of luxury, modern apartment buildings have sprung up around the power station, making this an expensive, fancy precinct to live in.
As expected, the diversity of people means that there is a huge price variation in everyday goods. If you are well-off, you can shop at Waitrose or M&S. Mid-range supermarkets includes Sainbury, Morrisons and Tescos. For the more budget, conscious, there is Lidl and Aldi at the low end. Whilst you might think, surely, there can’t be much difference in the cost of the basics e.g. fruit, vegetable, bread, flour, you would be wrong. The prices of individual groceries items between these shops can be multiple times different. With the current inflation rates in the UK, every bit adds up!
From my experience in other countries, a Chinese restaurant would have only Chinese people working in it. Similarly for Indian restaurants etc. This has been surprisingly not the case in London. We were served by a lady with a strong Eastern European accent in a traditional Indian restaurant. There are all kinds of people working in the kitchen of a Japanese restaurant. This story is repeated over and over in London. It was surprising to me but a reflection of how diverse London is.
Often when people ask, why choose London, the underlying concern is the miserable weather in London. It is currently autumn in London and it is not bad at all. There is a chill in the air, but it is beautiful with the trees changing colour and the leaves falling. The unlucky street sweeper has a futile job trying to sweep up the leaves from the sidewalk at this time of the year.
Yes, it is cold, grey, foggy and rainy at times but sometimes, it does clear! The grey clouds do move on to reveal blue skies and lovely sunny periods. The contrast only makes you appreciate the good weather periods more. It does rain but it is more of a drizzle. It isn’t the type of heavy rain that makes you miserably and irretrievably drenched, just slightly damp.
MISCELLANEOUS GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
Lack of standardised garbage system – for a big city, London is marred by a lack of system for dealing with garbage. As a result, there is a hotchpotch of different bins and a lot of random types of garbage bags on the street. I found this issue in New York city too. It attracts vermin and it really brings the tone of the city down. Fancy being a tourist, stepping out from a fine dining restaurant or a West End theatre show to be confronted by garbage bags of all description on the sidewalk as you make your way home. London should learn from Ljubljana in Slovenia whose streets are spotlessly clean and garbage free!
A grimy city – it seems like really big cities are grimy and dirty. There is litter on the streets, the sidewalk looks like it could use a good, pressure wash. In contrast, I have been to many small towns that are neat and clean. Why is this? Is it the sense of community pride in a small town? Is it that a high population density makes it impossible to keep the place clean due to a few bad apples? Is it due to systemic issues with local councils? Whatever it is, this is the way it seems to be in a big city. They are grimy, noisy and crowded.
The smell of Lidl – Lidl is one of the budget low end supermarket chains in London. It’s main competitor for price is Aldi. The most striking thing about Lidl is the amazing smell whenever you go in. Lidl always seems to be baking fresh croissants. Every time you go in, your nostrils are assailed with the smell of fresh baked, buttery goodness! It really makes the baked good fly off the shelf at Lidl!
Plant Based Meats – For some unknown reason, London is currently inundated with billboards and advertisements for plant based meats! Plant based bacon, chicken, burgers, sausages etc. made of who knows what Frankenstein concoction of soy or vegetable protein or some such ingredients. Big business are trying to corner another niche of the market by providing a new overly processed food group!
An Able-ist City – London is an old city so in a way, it can be forgiven (a little) for not setting a high standard when it comes to being accessible for all types of people. London is not a friendly city for people in wheelchairs, crutches, frail old people, people with mobility issues etc. There are stairs in most subway stations. The more modern ones are slightly better. The gaps between the platform and the trains can at times be treacherously huge even for an able bodied person, let alone an older person. It would be dangerous or impossible to attempt the gap with a wheelchair! As a result, you hardly see anyone in the city in a wheelchair. I see older people struggling when going about their everyday tasks such as getting their shopping home on foot. It seems to me that to live in London, it is strongly preferable to be able bodied and be able to walk comfortably for reasonable distances.
London is huge or maybe the public transport is really slow – it takes ages to get anywhere. When heading to a destination, we usually have to allow an hour to get there. It just seems like a lot of the day can be eaten up just getting to your destination. The buses are always either cancelled or delayed. When you finally get on the bus, the traffic is usually busy so it crawls its way along to your destination.
Royal Mail vs Australia Post – Coming from Australia where the Australia Post branches all seem newly renovated, clean and bright, it was quite a shock to go into the Royal Mail outlets. They are really dated, sad and grimy. Their systems are also not at the standard of Australia post. We were looking on their website for a post box but the results were out of date. Their website was down for days so parcel tracking and re-scheduling parcel delivery was impacted. It just seems a much more rundown postal system compared to Australia.
Living car-free – It is a different existence. In many places, you would drive to the shops, buy everything you need and load your car from your shopping trolley and drive it home. Then you can unload your car at your leisure. When living car-free in a big city, anything you need at home has to be carried, often quite a long way on foot, depending where you buy it from. It is a pretty good way to reduce consumption as you always have to consider whether you want to lug your stuff all the way home!
Cycling in London – London is not a cycle friendly city. It is trying to improve. There are some segregated cycle paths and more infrastructure being planned. The issue is bigger than that however. Bicycles are only allowed at certain times and only on certain Tube lines. This is limiting and to be honest, I have never seen anyone with a proper bike on the Tube. Only a few folding bikes. Bike theft is also rife and there is an ongoing antagonistic friction between motorists and cyclists. London needs to learn from its European neighbours to make the city more bike friendly for all types of people. It would improve congestion and a bicycle would be a lovely way to get around the city.
Seeing a Doctor in London – It is not easy! Calling the local GP clinic is a bit like calling a big bank. You will be confronted with a really unwelcoming recorded phone system which tries to discourage you from holding on by redirecting you elsewhere. Once you make it through the various options, you will be put on hold where you have to wait sometimes up to an hour or more before finally speaking to someone. Contradictory advice is then given depending who you speak to and if you want to make an appointment to see a doctor, you are told to call back ta 8am the next morning.
It turns out, that the appointments for any given day are only made the morning of that day. You cannot make an advanced appointment, not even if you are standing at the reception of the clinic the day before. So again you have to navigate the unwelcoming phone recordings and the long time on hold. How do people manage their work commitments if they have to see the doctor? I also feel for the people who do not have English as their first language. They will struggle to advocate for themselves and their families in such a system. The system is designed to put obstacles in the way, all in the name of efficiency but I have seen advice from various online forums that tell people to phone the emergency number to get more timely help. Surely this just creates a worse problem!
Where are the flat sheets? – onto the big issues! Seems that Londoners don’t use flat sheets on their beds. There are fitted sheets and doona (duvet) covers sold everywhere but flat sheets are very hard to find! Bizarre!
Why did they butcher the spring onions and where is my yoghurt lid? – more hard-hitting issues from the grocery store! The green tops of spring onions are always removed. Perhaps this is for efficient packing and transportation but it does waste a lot of food. Also, perhaps in an effort to minimise plastic waste, yoghurt containers do not come with plastic lids. This is annoying because the yoghurt tub is then unsealed once opened! To reduce plastic waste, there are no plastic produce bags for loose fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. Hilariously or sadly, instead, a lot of the produce are packed in plastic bags or containers in “easy to grab” quantities so there is plenty of plastic anyway!
SAVING MONEY IN LONDON
London is an expensive city. The cost of everything is particularly amplified when coming from a different country. There is always a long period of transition when you are constantly doing currency conversions in your head. The inflation is also high. Costs given by articles written at the start of 2022 can be up to 20% less than the costs today! Even the Tube is expensive so the cost of this has to be accounted for if you are travelling for a bargain. There are some great ways to save money if you are willing to take the time.
My favourite way is using the OIio app. This app is all about reducing waste, both food and non-food waste. Shops such as Planet Organic, Tescos, Iceland or Pret pass on food that is about to expire to Olio Food Heroes.. These awesome folk are volunteers who pass it on to anyone who wants it in the community. Through Olio, we have gotten cumulatively about 4 full days of food thus far, a shelving unit, power board, plates, bowls, hat, saucepan, hangers, immersion blender, keyboard, mouse and bike helmet. All this perfectly good stuff for free and all of it saved from being put into the rubbish bin. The best part of all is the Olio community itself. It is filled with really lovely people who hate waste and can see usefulness in all manner of things that others would not hesitate to throw away. The only downside is that the food is often given out late at night and at this time of the year, it is pretty cold to go get it.
Just tonight, we picked up 2 wraps and 5 sandwiches from our lovely local Food Hero. These are from Pret and are worth 35 pounds full price from the shop, but as they were about to expire, we got them for free! We only asked for 3 items but got 7 because they would otherwise go to waste. The Food Hero was apologising to us for giving us extra free food. How crazy! There is absolutely no need to apologise for being out in the cold night handing out food to strangers for free to save perfectly good food from being wasted.
The saddest thing about the winter ahead is the concern everyone shares about the price of energy in the UK. Heating coats are expected to soar. We will try to minimise heating as much as possible by using more clothing, a hot water bottle and an electric blanket.
If money is no object, you can visit Harrods, Selfridges or Fortnum and Masons! These London institutions are all a consumerist paradise, all designed to separate you from your money! They are really crowded and busy in the run-up to Christmas but are beautifully decorated for the festive season. Harrods is decorated in a gingerbread theme, sponsored by Dior, of course!!
Thus far, everyone we have dealt with has been lovely. Sure, they are not openly chatty people as you might get in a small country town but everyone has been decent, helpful and kind.
We needed some paperwork certified and was struggling to find someone to do it without charging an exorbitant fee. The Australian Embassy are happy to certify your documents but only during a limited window of time that you attend with an appointment pre-booked and at a cost of about 40 pounds per signature. Wow! I miss the times that I wandered down to the local Aussie shopping centre to get my stuff signed by a Justice of the Peace volunteer! Luckily, I found an Australian lawyer from the Aussies in London Facebook group willing to take a minute off work to do it for me for free. This awesome guy actually certified my documents on two separate occasions. How kind and helpful! A busy lawyer, a total stranger to me, dashing out of their busy work day to certify my documents for nothing!
As we have no friends in London, we used Meetup to join up with a group of people socialising in a pub. Everyone we spoke to was welcoming and open. Actually, this Meetup group demonstrated to me that there are plenty of lonely people in the city and some of them are willing to step out of their comfort zone to befriend strangers. It was a lovely afternoon at the pub chatting with a diverse and international bunch of random, interesting people. Plus we learned about a UK institution, a chain of pubs called Wetherspoon and its eccentric CEO!
THE MAGIC OF LONDON
Everywhere direction you walk in London, there is something to draw your interest. The are so many different areas to explore and each with their own vibe and mix of architecture and people. As long as you are willing to do a little research, you will find so many things to do in London. Here is a small list of some of favourite things so far.
- Seeing the spectacular, immersive free light show at the Tower of London with a live choir. There are always vendors selling warm, fresh caramelised peanuts in this area so this is the heavenly smell I associate with a walk near the Tower of London.
- Attending some free lectures held by King’s College and Gresham College. In one, we listened to the ex-deputy director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and in another, an amazing mathematics professor. The professor gave a great lecture about game theory. She managed to translate quite complex maths into simple, engaging scenarios like how to win a duel and the prisoner’s dilemma.
- London is absolutely beautiful at this time of year, adorned with Christmas decorations and fairy lights everywhere. This in combination with the lovely Christmas markets and temporary ice rinks makes this such a delightful time to be exploring the city.
- Enjoying a 50% discounted meal in the modern Canary Wharf area at a new franchise of the cult, super-popular, Indian-Persian restaurant, Dishoom. There is always a queue outside of Dishoom. We waited an hour for a table but our impatience was tempered by endless cups of warm, milky, sweet, free chai tea and the provision of loan umbrellas to protect from the rain.
- Exiting the tube station in Dalston Kingsland and to be confronted with a market with loads of cheap fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of African products and butchers with all manner of animal innards displayed out the front!
- Walking along the Thames with a view of the Tower Bridge, the city and the Shard lit up at night and perusing the stalls of the London Bridge Christmas Markets.
The London explorations will continue……