The year was 2008, we were 25 year old newlyweds in the first year of our marriage, and we had become a bit disillusioned with life in one of Australia’s largest cities. It was time for a change, and we had decided that this change would take us to… London!
My wife and I had worked in the finance industry our entire careers up to this point, and that had meant studying for bachelors degrees while working, which was then followed up by a post-graduate qualification (in my case the Chartered Accountant qualification) which was a hard slog indeed.
While completing this horrible educational experience I had floated the idea to my wife that we should move to the UK once I was finished my studies, and she had steadily warmed to the idea after being quite nervous about it initially. I don’t think my wife’s mother was particularly keen on the idea of her first born child being half a world away, but may be that was part of the appeal for me?! I get along OK with my mother in law, but I can’t say I particularly cared what she thought about it all. I think she cried when we flew out, and the year that we were away was probably quite a long one for her. Oh well.
In the pre-global financial crisis world of 2008, everyone knew that finance professionals were in great demand in London, and with the exchange rate of GBP1 = ~AUD2.25 it was a pretty attractive proposition to get yourself into a good financial position. Add in the fact that I was getting pretty tired of my current workplace at the time and it was a good time to move on.
For those of you out there that are building your careers, many employers also place a lot of importance on experience in different environments. If you have the guts to go way outside of your comfort zone then I think that it says a bit about your character, and this can therefore sometimes be a way of “fast-tracking” your career or getting your foot in the door for a more promising position. I wanted to get to partner as quickly as possible, and as my young age would always be a problem I figured I needed to get some good experience in the heart of the old Empire as one more string in my bow to push things along.
The big plus for my wife in this whole plan was that she wanted to start a family, but I had convinced her that we needed to have this experience before having kids otherwise it would be pretty hard to do afterwards!
So off we went…
As a former British colony, Australia has an arrangement with the UK where people under the age of 30 can apply for what was then called a “Working Holiday Visa”. This allowed you to stay in the UK for two years, and work at any job for 12 months within that two years. We had applied for this visa before leaving Australia, and it came in the form of a stamp into each of our passports.
We had to attend a family wedding on a Pacific island, so we timed things so that we went to his wedding first (and had our first wedding anniversary there too, aren’t I a sweet husband?), then flew straight on (via Auckland in NZ and LA to refuel) to the UK. I finished work in Australia on the Friday, we moved our stuff back to one of my Dad’s storage sheds in our home city on the Saturday, and then we flew out for five nights on a Pacific island on the Wednesday.
We managed to fit everything that we took to the UK into two large suitcases, and this included our two backpacks (for long treks on the continent), some suits for work (we needed to look good for job interviews), a laptop (no such thing as tablets back then), some guidebooks (how old school is that?!), general clothing, toiletries and some novels. To think that all of our worldly possessions could fit into such a small space made me feel quite uncomfortable at first, but it became quite liberating after a short period.
On the day we flew out from the pacific island, we flew to Auckland (NZ) for an 11 hour stopover, then on to LA (where they put us in what I referred to as a “holding pen” for two hours while they refuelled the plane), and finally on to Heathrow airport in London.
Because we had 11 hours between flights in Auckland, we thought we might as well get the bus into the city to have a walk around. While we obviously didn’t see that much of Auckland in such a short amount of time, it struck us as being very similar to Australia, so we didn’t really see that much that was uniquely New Zealand. One thing we did try (based on the endless cravings of one of my wife’s Kiwi work colleagues back in Australia) was a uniquely Kiwi lolly/sweet called Perky-Nanas…
Our very brief stopover in LA was my entire experience of the USA so far, and while I am very keen to go back there to experience some of the amazing things that the country has to offer, I was struck by their airport security and the supercharged sense of “big brother is watching”. Even though we didn’t go through customs (since we weren’t actually leaving our “holding pen”) they still took the opportunity to take our fingerprints. No other country has ever done this to us, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly offended at the concept. It really did seem like bureaucracy gone mad.
Our “holding pen” that gave us our LA experience was a large room with some basic airport chairs, no TVs, some crappy vending machines selling chips/crisps, and some bathrooms with no showers. I at least managed to brush my teeth, which was about the best part of the whole experience. Thanks Air New Zealand!
After our NZ and USA “experiences” (and I use that word very loosely), we touched down at Heathrow airport in the UK, some 37 hours after we left the Pacific island. As my 195.5cm (6’5″) frame doesn’t fit so well into economy class seats, it should come as no surprise that I got about two hours of sleep in the entire trip, and my wife had a cold, so we were pretty tired by the time we got there.
We had arranged one month of accommodation in a “studio flat” in Lower Camden (not far from the centre of London), so we caught the Tube straight there. I remember thinking how out of place I felt, catching the tube on the rattly Picadilly line in the middle of the day, with not many people on it, holding on to our suitcases with all of our worldly possessions on our way to our flat.
When we got to the flat, we were met by a neighbour who had the keys, as we were renting someone’s flat while they were on holiday back in South Africa. To our surprise, the “studio” flat, which was costing GBP150/week, was actually one small bedroom in a large four-storey conversion with a fold down bed and a sink. There was a communal kitchen on the floor below, and a communal toilet/shower room about 1.5 floors below. There was also no internet access.
It was very ordinary and really not what we were expecting. I would hate to have lived there permanently.
Since we were starving we walked down the high street (at least it was close) and went into a supermarket (I think it was a Somerfield) to buy something we could cook up. We were blown away by how expensive the food was (because we were converting the GBP back into AUD) and I had this moment of panic that we may not have enough cash to survive until we get jobs if it takes too long! Thankfully that fear turned out to be unfounded, but it didn’t make for easy sleeping (or eating) in that first week…
In the next instalment
So that’s it for the first instalment, tune in next time to hear about our experience getting jobs…