“I love London, but I couldn’t live here forever,” is an increasingly common refrain heard in the bars, restaurants, and tube stations all over the city. The capital’s assets are obvious — incredible brunch spots, historic landmarks, and inspirational creative talent — but the downsides sometimes become all too apparent.
A housing market that makes it nearly impossible for first-time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder, an increase in the average working hours, and a growing attachment to electronic devices have resulted in a population that’s tuned in, stressed out, and increasingly looking for the nearest exit. But, it is possible to recapture feelings of fondness for city life. Ahead, one journey of falling back in love with London.
Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
My name is Emily London. I’m a born-and-bred Londoner who also has the distinction of being Refinery29’s London editor. It is fair to say I am a card-carrying member of the City of London Fan Club. But, recently, my love affair with the capital has perceptibly begun to cool.
The gnawing feeling began slowly, on the London Underground. I don't drive, so I traverse the city via public transportation to reach the restos, bars, gigs, and flea markets I report on for R29. Usually, the heaving tube carriages, irritated passengers, and lack of personal space aren't an issue. But, since January, my fellow travelers’ lack of awareness for others, coupled with interminable delays, began to take a toll. I started to wonder what I might do the next time a person stepped on my foot or whacked their rucksack directly into my face.
And, then, in the midst of this growing irritation, came the exquisite pain that is house hunting. My boyfriend and I started spending each weekend — and most evenings — trudging around every South East London borough in search of a place to call our own — with increasingly depressing results. Each open house seemed like the worst party on Earth. They were invariably filled with couples wearing matching poker faces, huddling in corners, eyeing us (the competition) as they hissed unbelievably large offers to the estate agent. (All this, and not a drop of alcohol in sight!)
While the home search was underway, my close friends began escaping the whole charade altogether. One by one, old pals began moving out of the city, citing the lack of living space and the hectic pace of life as the reasons for their departure. It cut me up. And, it was the final ingredient in a perfect storm of feeling frazzled, exhausted, and at a loss as to what to do about it. I started to wonder, Is it time for a complete life change?
I realized that if I wanted to love London again, it was time to reassess my day-to-day life. I was working from home, constantly attached to an electronic device, and battling a severe bout of insomnia — and I needed to put a stop to the situation.
“City dwellers suffer from what I call the Ally McBeal complex,” explains naturopath Roderick Lane. “It’s a case of, ‘I get up at 6 a.m. in the morning, go to my amazing job, do amazing work, and eat donuts and coffee. Go to a bar, drink alcohol, dance, and go home to see my amazing girlfriend/boyfriend. Get up at 6 a.m. and wonder why I’m tired.’ We have lost the art of resting [and we're] constantly stimulated by media that we can’t put down before we go to bed.”
This scenario sounds all too familiar. Like any Londoner, I have a major case of FOMO, and I dread the thought of my iPhone or MacBook running out of juice. Until recently, my bedtime routine involved checking that all my electronic equipment was charging, even before I brushed my teeth or read a book. It's no wonder I often found myself wide-awake well past midnight.
“If we get down to real basics with regards to sleep, people don’t realize that: 1. You need it. 2. It should be restful. 3. It should be uninterrupted,” suggests Lane. “Interruption is a subtle thing. Flashing blue lights in a room [like those on your telephone] cause disturbances to your sleep pattern. It is triggering a response deep in your brain that is an alarm response. Sleeping in darkness is an essential.”
So, I resolved to make some serious changes to my nighttime ritual. First and foremost, I banished all electronic devices to the living room. I also began wearing an eye mask and sleeping with the curtains tightly drawn. And, while I'm still working up to a full eight hours each night, things are improving. My self-imposed iPhone ban after 9 p.m. makes me more inclined to hit the hay earlier. And, when I do, I feel genuinely sleepy.
Lane also has relaxation tips, which I am taking to heart. The key: Think like a cat. Yep. “When a cat is unwell, it curls up somewhere nice and warm and goes to sleep. Ditto when it's tired. It doesn’t say, ‘I’m tired. Let’s have three cups of coffee and do something else.’” Yesterday evening, when feeling knackered, just I curled up on the sofa with a good book. And, I did nothing else. This simple act did wonders for my energy level — and, for once, I didn’t feel remotely guilty. Progress!
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
But, I still wondered how to stop feeling alienated and irritated by the rest of the city’s population. It seems that the answer lies in community: the connections we make with individuals and organizations living and working among us.
“The benefits of living in a city is that it’s lots of villages, which are all connected but different,” suggests life coach Carole Ann Rice. “Think of Fulham, Chelsea, Soho, and the West End. You can become king or queen of your area. It is about finding out about your local community… You start to go to a coffee shop three times in a row, and you’re practically family. It is about creating a bolt-hole [for yourself] in your community and becoming 'known.'”
As Susan Quilliam, relationship psychologist and The School of Life faculty member, points out, this can be done at a micro and macro level. “Whenever you go out, make a connection with the people you are interacting with — that’s eye contact, or a smile to the person at the shopping till… They will perk up. They will smile and interact with you,” explains Quilliam. “Or, on a more macro level, the more alone you are for most of the day, make a concerted effort to link to your community — it can be geographical or interest-based… Make sure you have at least two activities that involve other people, like a theatre company or dance class. If you can get involved on the organizational level, it gives that connection a sense of purpose, too.”
So, that’s what I’m doing. Instead of plugging in earphones as soon as I step out the door, I’ve become far more mindful of the people I interact with in my neighbourhood. And, though I’m already on first-name terms with my newsagent and the owners of my local coffee shop, charity shop, and launderette, I’m taking time to get to know a little more about these people. I’ve also started swimming at my local pool. While I’m not yet chatting with the other swimmers in the slow lane (I’m still pretty new to this), I do enjoy people-watching and casting the odd smile at the others making their way around the pool. These may be baby steps, but they are definitely heading in the right direction.
I'm also changing my mindset. Although this city is my birthplace, it’s time to think of it the way a tourist would. “Really embrace living in a city… It is the most exciting place to live,” suggests Rice. “Rather than fight against it, have a look at the statues, take a walk through the parks, and see the museums. We take so much of it for granted. Really get the best of it.”
Even though my job takes me on a daily hunt for new discoveries, I'm now taking the time to appreciate the old, too. I find myself enjoying the view of Trafalgar Square from the bus or slowing down to admire the sights from the Hungerford Bridge — without Instagramming them! I've begun to do all the things tourists do that I somehow never got round to doing.
These changes have convinced me that London and I don’t need to part ways just yet. It's a good thing, too, as my dream home is now within reach. Yes, dear reader, all that trauma paid off, and I found a house after all. It seems this city will do — for another decade or two, at least.