Notting Hell, Part 1

Tired of everything, my wife and I moved to London in 2006. We craved new people, new places, new anything. And we got it. All of it. Therein was the problem: it was too new, too different. We were ill-prepared for the subtle yet distinct difference in culture, lifestyle, weather, just about everything you could think of.

We went over there, like so many Australians before us, homeless and jobless. And clueless, truth be told.

It took a long time to find a place to live. We looked high and low, north of the Thames (mainly) and South (once). Anywhere I lay my hat, I’m an unashamed North of the river guy. I can’t help it. It’s hardwired into my DNA. Most of the flats within our budget were either too small, too dirty, or both. We had two essential (and rare, we were to discover) criteria when it came to our new home: we wanted our own bathroom and an oven. Modest requests, one would assume, but we struggled to get either. I remember looking at one place in a particularly sketchy part of North London and just being relieved to escape with a pulse.

In the meantime, we were trying to get ourselves employed. My wife found a short contract as a PA in Mayfair, one of the snootier, more gentrified areas of London. I was struggling to find work as a drafter/AutoCad technician. We thought about coming home many times in that first month. We loved the city but were growing increasingly frustrated at not finding a place to live. We felt like London was chewing us up and spitting us out. We kept changing hotels. First we got one in Kensington. It was lovely but pricey and we knew it wasn’t sustainable to stay there. So we relocated to a room in Earl’s Court. The room was tiny, but cheaper. The elevator in the hotel was so small that only one person at a time could fit in it comfortably. We were to learn that this was not uncommon in London. Space is at a premium. So with Earl’s Court as our base, we would venture out early every morning in search of a new home. We found a business that locates flats to rent on your behalf, so we went in and told them what we were after. They give you a list, tell you the tube stop to get off at and the name of the person that will show you around the flat. This was an exhausting process. We got nowhere, but we did see plenty of London as a result. What a beautiful, charming, grimy mess of a city! We couldn’t decide what to make of it at the time. It was all too much. We were experiencing sensory overload.

Dejected and almost defeated, we switched hotels once more, this time to Canary Wharf. This is a part of London that feels decidedly un-Londonish. The buildings are all new, the streets are clean and junkie free. You could walk around late and night and not feel like terror was lurking around every nook. But it wasn’t London, and we wanted the London experience. That was supposed to be the point of transplanting ourselves in the first place. We craved difference. Difference was the motivating factor in uprooting ourselves. The hotel was big and cheap (relatively) and although it was a longer train ride to get into the city proper, we had to make it our base for the sake of saving money. My wife and I had so many deep and meaningful conversations in that hotel. Being the eternal pessimist, I wanted to throw in the towel and head back home. Australia suddenly seemed like manifest destiny in my eyes. I fell in love with a place I’d been moaning about for years before. I was officially homesick. My wife, ever the optimist, wanted to stick it out and really give it a go. After all, we’d quit our jobs, our friends and family, and our old lives to make a new life in England. We had to see it through. She was right, of course.

I had three interviews scheduled over the following two days. One was at an engineering firm overlooking the Thames and right next to Tower Bridge. It was south of the river but I let it slide. I needed a job. The interview went well and later that afternoon they called and offered me a position. I informed them that I had two more interviews and that I’d let them know what I was doing in the next day or so. I had another interview at a firm where, if I got the role, would be designing roads all day, every day. Not overly exciting but the money they were offering was good. The other company offered a role drawing structures like buildings, as in offices and apartments. Slightly less money but the work seemed a bit more interesting to me. Funky office too. But they didn’t make an offer after the interview.

An employment recruiter set me up with an interview for a contract drafting role in the financial part of London. Lots of men trying to look like James Bond and women that look like they’ve sucked on a lemon for nine consecutive days. Uptight and self-important people took over the area, refusing to budge. The interview was not an interview at all – it was my first day of work! I was appropriately perplexed. They sat me down at a desk and threw a set of plans under my nose. Something to do with rail work. Having never worked with rail design or drafting, I felt like a fish out of water, especially considering I didn’t even realize that I’d somehow avoided the interview process altogether and just been thrust into a job! Maybe I was revolutionizing the employment process. Regardless, I sat in my cubicle and looked around at my dead-eyed co-workers. I took turns staring at the computer monitor and the drawings on my desk, trying to make sense of the whole thing. I left at lunch and didn’t go back.

After a quick bite at one of those faux-fancy sandwich shops that proliferate London, I headed to an internet cafe, continuing my job search. I found an interesting sounding position in an area called Watford. I Googled the location and reconsidered: it was (still is, I suspect) 17 miles northwest of central London. Not ideal. I discovered that you can get there by tube but it’s the last stop on the Metropolitan line. But I liked the sound of the role and I applied for it. Stomach full and job application sent, I set forth into the streets and wandered aimlessly. I got a call from the company near Tower Bridge, they wanted to know what my plans were. I told them that I was still looking around for something and that we hadn’t found a place yet and were thinking of heading back to Australia. He told me to give him a chance to talk to his boss and see if something could be arranged. I didn’t know what he meant but I agreed. He called back an hour later. He told me that his boss had a big place in Chelsea and was willing to let me and my wife stay in it rent-free until we found somewhere more permanent. I didn’t know what to say. It was a very generous offer. I called my wife and told her. She, like me, appreciated the charitable offer but was slightly uncomfortable with living at my prospective bosses home. It just didn’t sit well. My natural instinct is to oppose bosses and managers of all kinds. They are my enemy and I treat them as such. It might be the wrong way to approach life but it’s in me and I can’t fight it.

So I politely refused the kind offer of both employment and accommodation. My wife was enjoying her job in Mayfair. On clear days she would eat her lunch on a bench in a nearby park. But it was to end soon. It was just a two-week contract. She managed to secure a job at the Hackney council, in London’s east end. I went with her to the interview and was terrified for our lives. Hackney is a scary part of London. I think my comfortable life in Australia had me ill-prepared for a big city like London. Hackney looked to me like what I imagined Baghdad to look like. I assume I was very wrong on that front. Regardless, I was nervous for my wife to travel there every day. But my wife, being better at life than I, went in with gusto and enjoyed her new role. On her second day, her boss didn’t show up for work because the elevator was out-of-order. I asked why she couldn’t take the stairs instead, and my wife told me that her boss was so large and out of shape that she was medically unable to endure such vigorous cardiovascular exercise. Her doctor told her that if she were to exert herself in such a manner that her heart might literally explode. I thought maybe this woman needed a second opinion.

We managed to find a flat, a tiny little place in Notting Hill. We liked telling friends and family back home that we lived in Notting Hill, it made us feel hip and relevant. But we were nervous about making the rent every week as I still hadn’t secured a job. We got to know the area we lived in, taking long walks at night when my wife returned home from work. As it was August, the sun didn’t set until around 9pm, so we made the most of the extra sunlight and explored on foot for hours. Notting Hill is a lovely area, though not at all like how it was represented in the 1999 film of the same name. It’s a lot dirtier and more culturally varied than the film would have you believe. I’m sure the locals hated that film. It’s an affluent suburb, no question, but it’s also rich in bohemian arty types, and not of the showy kind. Real artists lived there. They’re probably well and truly priced out by now.

We lived on Pembridge Road, basically wedged between Notting Hill Gate and the famous Portobello Road, home of the weekend markets. Speaking of which, weekends were bedlam around our way back then. Our flat fronted the street on the ground level and if we opened our blinds our view was a sea of people as far as the eye could see. We would avoid Portobello on Saturday’s and Sunday’s for this very reason. Portobello Road was for tourists and locals that didn’t hate crowds, and we considered ourselves in neither category. We considered ourselves Londoners.

The company in Watford called me in for an interview. It took me an hour and three trains to get there. It was a welcome change of pace, however, from the rat race in London, and I welcomed it. The interview went well and I was offered a position. I discussed it with my wife and accepted the following day. I was employed on contract and to be paid a lot for what I would be expected to do.

My daily commute consisted of the following:

  • Race to catch the Central line to Oxford Circus
  • Switch to the Victoria line and head to Euston station
  • Take the National Rail to Watford

My first two stops were critical, because if I missed those then it would affect the time in which I got on the National Rail to Watford, which was the longest leg of the journey. But the great part? I was going against the flow of traffic. Most commuters were heading into London for their work day, I was going in the opposite direction. This meant on a good day I had an entire carriage to myself. I would spend most mornings staring out the window, watching London recede out of urban congestion and into an almost rural sprawl, all in the span of fifteen minutes! That, or I’d read a book.

Work was good. It was low-stress and quite simplistic and repetitive, but I worked with some great people. On lunch breaks (weather permitting) I would walk to The Harlequin, a huge shopping mall and the epicenter of Watford. I saw lots of young mums pushing prams and wearing Adidas tracksuits. I later discovered that they were known as Chavs. We call them Bogans in Australia. America calls them Rednecks.

We were settling into our new life. It took about a month to feel comfortable in London, which seems quite reasonable in retrospect. We had gone from a small city of 1.7 million to a cosmopolis, one of the major cities in the known world. It’s little wonder we felt overwhelmed at times.