There’s an old joke or urban myth about the American woman who, upon meeting a British person holidaying in the USA, asks him if he happens to know her British friend Susan. Perhaps it’s something to do with the diminutive size of little country (although as this television advert notes, the same anecdote works with stereotypical foreigners’ views of the big ol’ country of Canada as well).
Britain (population approximately 60,000,000) can, conversely, seem like a pretty big place to people living here in London (population approximately 8,500,000). It continues to bemuse me how many Londoners (whether natives or adoptees) perceive the United Kingdom to be so much larger than it actually is in geographic terms. A certain friend (who shall remain anonymous) complained to me one evening the other week about how far she had travelled that day. She’d had to go to Birmingham for a meeting. That would be the Birmingham that is about 120 miles (190km) away, or ninety minutes by train. It really did feel to her as though Birmingham was in northern Scotland. Earlier this week she went to another meeting in Leicester. Needless to say, that sounded as if it had been in Novosibirsk.
Two months of work in London are almost up. I’ve been pretty quiet on this blog because I completely underestimated the amount of time that simply living in London takes up. Thirty minute commutes twice a day aren’t too bad, but then neither are they quite long enough to really settle into for a really good read. Occasional long days in front of the computer have become more frequent, sapping my energy or desire to do anything in the evenings. Precious weekends away have been made possible by a four day working week, but then that extra day off hasn’t always been fully taken advantage of. I love this city, I really do, but there is no way that I could or would want to live here for a long time. I do indeed – as proud Londoners will always tell me – have everything I could possibly want right on my doorstep. But having grown up less than one hour away from the capital, I see no need to pay the inflated rent, council tax, public transport costs and overall cost of living that comes with being here. I don’t want to get used to paying £3 – £4 for a pint of beer, and I don’t want to live in a neighbourhood where Tesco has desimated the options for buying fresh food locally. And yes, there are indeed two reasonably popular markets close to me – yuppies have made one extortionately expensive and rather stodgy produce has made the other undesirable. London is a great city, but it’s not nearly as great to live in as some of it’s fans make out to be.
These two months have been a brilliant experience. I’ve learnt a lot in my job, working with people I have enjoyed getting to know, and learning a lot about my profession to level of detail I did not expect to reach. I’ve also realised that the opportunity to work in a very small architectural practice is one of the best ways for staying in control of your learning curve, and being able to influence how and what you work on. I have a much clearer picture of what I might be doing one year from now, and I am a lot more cautious about chosing my next steps. Everything returns a sense of scale. A sense of physical scale and a sense of psychological scale. For an example of the physical scale, I miss Canada greatly – it helped me greatly to adapt to the scale of our world, notably by taking quite a few trains for more than a day at a time, like the forty hour VIA Rail service from Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay, or the three day marathon from Vancouver to Toronto. I’ve come back to the UK with a much more realistic sense of scale. Meeting in Birmingham? Sure thing, I’ll be back for lunch.