Building home across the pond
November 9, 2009 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Make London work. Help a beleaguered New Yorker figure out how to acclimate. Griping follows.

So, there's a decent chance I'll be trying to move to London next year for school and work. No visa issues (EU passport), no language issues, no real issues at all -- except that when I've visited London, it Just. Doesn't. Work. For me.

New York to London shouldn't be a big culture shock, right? But for some reason I've never found anywhere there that felt nearly as comfortable or useful as Brooklyn. I don't feel like I can pop in somewhere for quick food, I can't find any life (not nightlife) after 8 PM, I can't find more groceries than a Tesco Express... I realize some of these aren't reasonable London expectations, but that won't stop me from building a little homey bubble around myself!

So, your tips are welcomed for this oddly specific question: where's the appropriate London district that's similar to home? It doesn't have to be terribly central or TOO cheap. If you're familiar with both cities, comparable neighborhoods in New York would be Astoria, or Greenpoint, or Carroll Gardens -- the last three places I liked. All of them are sort of quiet, insulated, and very dense. A little off the beaten path.

The closest I found to something like this in London was the area near St-John-At-Hackney, and that wasn't all that close. Pleasant though.

(I've seen this, but it's not really what I mean)
posted by zvs to Travel & Transportation around London, England (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I hope you'll get to london, find your niche, and be pleasantly surprised. I do.

Most New Yorkers never get over it. We are NEW YORKERS wherever we go. Nothing compares. We're never truly happy anywhere else - but we are not happy at home, either. This is our secret power! Revel in it wherever you go!

You doubt my words? OK then, what is a New Yorker's favorite pastime, what unites us despite all creeds and colors??


Why do you think the Seinfeld show and Larry David are so damn popular? Because New Yorkers raise complaining to the level of High Art. We are the masters. No matter where we go, no matter how beautiful/culturally enriching/convenient/exciting anywhere else in the world is -- IT"S NOT NEW YORK.

Welcome, Friend. You're one of US now. Go forth into the world and Complain!

It's our religion.
posted by jbenben at 9:12 PM on November 9, 2009 [7 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like you definitely need to get out of central London into more "neighborhoody" areas. I would suggest looking at Zone 2 and beyond.
From your reference to Astoria, Green Point and Carroll Gardens (which are quite different from each other) it seems like you want an area with distinct character and it's own commercial district with independent shops.

Take a look at:
Stoke Newington (around Church St)
London Fields/Broadway Market (Hackney)
Parts of Wandsworth.
Borough (look around Bermondsey St).

Some of these areas are not cheap, some are more varied.
posted by cushie at 9:28 PM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, I know those aren't too similar, but they do all have at least a couple things in common. Hopefully. I definitely agree that Zone 1 is not the way to go.
posted by zvs at 9:33 PM on November 9, 2009

Hmm. Not sure I'd agree. Both Shoreditch and Whitechapel are in Zone 1, and I'd say they compare favorably. (Ok, I'd say Shoreditch is more like LES, possibly Williamsburg, and Whitechapel maybe more like Bushwick or East Williamsburg.)

In any case, I think you're just finding it hard to get used to, which is fair enough and perfectly understandable. But London is most definitely New York's sister city, and you'll find yourself moving to its beat before long.

And I second cushie's picks, though I'm not terribly familiar with some of them.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 9:56 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was going to say Stoke Newington, too, and possibly bits of Hammersmith. Maida Vale's probably a bit too villagey, so I'll throw in Kilburn in the other direction.
posted by holgate at 10:05 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

NYC and London are two of my favorite places on the planet, and I'm comfortable in either. I like the City, but popped into suggest Hammersmith or Brixton as the best analogues for most of Brooklyn and the nicer bits of Queens.

Since that's been done, I'll favorite/second cushie and holgate.

New advice: don't try to hit a home run on the first swing. London and its outlands are heaven-sent gifts for explorers. Settle somewhere cheap and temporary near a Tube station, and then explore, explore, explore until you find the perfect haunt.
posted by rokusan at 10:26 PM on November 9, 2009

Best answer: Gosh I've been living in London since 1997, when I traded Manhattan's Lower East Side for Camden Town. In 2001 I moved to the Whitechapel / Stepney area where I purchased a flat.

I don't want this to sound too critical, but when you say you don't think there is any nightlife after 8PM or only Tesco's sells groceries, I wonder how much you've gotten out and about in London.

Camden was definitely more New York style bustling and 24x7 oriented but Whitechapel / Stepney is more "in your face" urban. Foodwise, both have far more than a Tesco Express, sporting Sainsburys and Tesco superstores.

In the East End we can walk to Hoxton where there are plenty of galleries and any type of nightlife you'd like (mega clubs to smaller venues and even after hours, "chill out" clubs) but we do have a couple of very good, almost 1980's style East Village performing venues in our neighbourhood (The Mad George tavern for starters).

Zone 2 means we can walk to either The City or Canary Wharf (both Mrs Mutant & I are in banking), with both Tube, DLR and surface train stations very close.

We can also walk to Tate Modern in about twenty minutes, and The Thames is only about a five minute walk from our flat. In fact when I was working in Canary Wharf I'd walk to work most mornings along The Thames which really mellowed me out compared to my peers, most of whom trained then tubed into work, arriving at their desks at 8AM, already all stressed out and agitated.

Living here so long, I've seen lots of folks - many New Yorkers - come and go. It seems most who leave never really gave London a chance, never accepted it on it's own terms, as a thousand year old city with its own unique history, pluses and minuses.

I've been fortunate enough to live in five countries; folks who are unhappy and complaining, making comparisons to "back home" tend to never adjust no matter what country or city they live in.

cushie's advise is spot on. Just get out and see London. You'll be much happier and if you give the city a chance, you'll find your own niche.
posted by Mutant at 12:19 AM on November 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Mutant: Point taken, I can't deny I've got a limited view (extended vacations, basically). That said, I have been to Hoxton and Camden and neither was very close to what I want -- more like the LES, both of those, which was never a place I much went to in NYC unless forced. But most other neighborhoods I went to in London seemed to roll up the sidewalks.

Not that I don't get what you're saying -- obviously the city is what it is. Mostly just looking for a cushioned landing.
posted by zvs at 12:28 AM on November 10, 2009

Best answer: cushie's suggestions are really, really good. Truth be told though much of Greater London feels like a series of neighboring villages, each with its own distinctive feel.

Try also:
- Richmond
Like a separate town, surrounded by great parks in the West
- Greenwich
See Richmond, but to the East
- Hampstead Village
propably too pricey but has a nice village feel
- Highgate
- Finsbury Park/Stroud Green

I also used to live in NYC - in the Soho area - though only for a few years.

Here in London, we're happy in Zone 1, living in the Bloomsbury area whose closest NYC equivalent is probably the NYU area - except it is UCL instead of NYU. Not all of Zone 1 is big monuments. There are communites here too! For example, try walking down Lambs Conduit street or Marchmont street in Bloomsbury.

London is so enormous that, despite frequent trips to different parts of the city, my wife and I are still discovering new commmunities. But the sense I've gotten is that most people are able to find some place that suits them just fine.
posted by vacapinta at 1:29 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

war wrath of wraith: "Hmm. Not sure I'd agree. Both Shoreditch and Whitechapel are in Zone 1, and I'd say they compare favorably."

Since when have they been anything other than Zone 2?
posted by turkeyphant at 1:33 AM on November 10, 2009

How can I put this? London is... difficult. I have lived here for four years and still find day-to-day life exhausting. Finding decent night life is hard. Obtaining decent groceries is hard. Finding good, cheap food is hard. If NYC is your gold standard, you may find London terminally lacking. NYC is the city that never sleeps; London is the city that starts shouting at you to drink up and fuck off at a quarter to 11.

But you can try:

East Dulwich
Stoke Newington Church Street
posted by stuck on an island at 2:37 AM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

SOAI, what do want?
If you want fancy, there are more Michelin stars you can shake a stick at. Some lunch deals are amazing value. Have a look at Selfridge's food hall and tell me what's missing.
Very expensive, you will say - that's true.

If you want anything else more "normal"....follow the communities. Ever had a curry in Tooting? Caribbean in Brixton? Want to take a stroll in Golders Green on a Sunday night (and I mean after 8 pm) and choose whatever Jewish delicacy you can think of? And speaking of "popping in for quick food", does NYC have Leon?

I see you're "South Of The River" - You really cannot find nice food between, say, Clapham in the west to Dulwich in the middle to Greewich in the East? What's missing?
I am curious.
posted by MessageInABottle at 3:15 AM on November 10, 2009

Understood zvs, and it seems the best thing for you to do would be to get a short term let (easy to do in London) then, as suggested upthread, from that base get out and explore, find a part of the city that more appeals to your sensibilities.

Once again though I've got to stress that living anyplace, even London or New York, is what you make of it. I'm fine with London, and we keep a second flat in Amsterdam; no worries about either place, for what they are. Neither city is New York but, then again, New York is by no means a London or Amsterdam.

Further afield, I've lived very happily in Lagos or Cairo, both developing nations (developing, of course, is a relative term) because I appreciated them for what they were.

In Lagos we frequently went without electricity, sometimes for as long six or ten hours a day every day. I adapted rather well but folks that ranted and raved about how this never happened "back home" were almost always the ones who went "back home" rather quickly.

Cairo had it's own set of problems, but the same rule applied - those who drew comparisons to life "back home" never adapted well, didn't seem to befriend the locals and almost always left before their assignments were up.

Since it sounds like from your comments you're not living in London presently, why not meetup next time you're here? Planned far enough in advance will insure a nice cross section of MeFites will be in attendance, and from the time invested you could garner some good intel about different neighbourhoods.

And maybe score an invite to a Sunday pub roast as well! I can't think of a more British way to judge a London neighbourhood than a local pub's Sunday roast.

Let us know!

N.B. Our local serves a fine roasted veggie platter which I rather enjoy, and Mrs Mutant advises me their meat platter is tasty as well. And the crowd varied and eclectic, full of intersting folks to chat with, so we're both very happy with our local.
posted by Mutant at 3:21 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah - I didn't like London when I first moved here, but then I got to reading Time Out, explored a little, went out of my comfort zone, and 8 years later I'm completely in love with this city.

Whichever neighbourhood you choose, invest some quality time in getting to know the area: the neighbours, the bus routes (and the cool places they take you), the weird little shops with unexpected food in them. There's lots of time for central London and all the standard London stuff - but do check those out too.

As has been pointed out up-thread, the "no nightlife after 8pm + only a Tesco Express" really doesn't apply to a lot of London. It's really outside London that everything shuts down after 6 or whatever.

West Hampstead has decent nightlife and good food. It's also a nice neighbourhood with a lot of pretty Victorian houses.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:10 AM on November 10, 2009

MIAB, I'm not saying there isn't good food in London. But most of it is expensive, as you admit, and even the cheap stuff is still disproportionately expensive, because that's just a reality of eating out in London -- I eat out about 40% as much here as I did in Toronto, even though I make twice as much money.

The OP lives in Brooklyn, where a bewildering variety of cheap eats is readily available. Reasonably priced good food isn't impossible to find here, but it takes effort -- research is recommended to avoid disappointment, and you have to be willing to travel. And even if "best food on the planet" was a meaningful statement to apply to any single city, I wouldn't, in all honesty, apply it to London.

As other posters have said, living happily in any new city, including London, involves letting go of whatever expectations you might have brought with you from back home. I think London can be more difficult for an American to adjust to than, say, Lagos because superficially, it seems like it ought to have more in common with American cities than it actually does. There are profound differences, and they breed their own frustrations. You can definitely have a good time in London, but it's a mistake to think you're going to have the same kinds of good time you have in Brooklyn.

For the record, I live in Peckham, which I think is underrated, and am within 5 minutes' cycle ride of a Tesco, an Asda and a Morrison's. It's a nice place to come home to at the end of the day... but for dining, nightlife, shops and services, I generally have to go farther afield.
posted by stuck on an island at 4:36 AM on November 10, 2009

I'm not sure which part of London you've been to, but certainly in the West End and Soho, there are still people partying, pubbing and clubbing well into 3am on a Wednesday.

As for groceries, there are tons of food markets around the place. Try the Borough Food Market for classy gourmet food, and markets like the Shepherds Bush Market for general fare. There are also plenty of supermarkets and grocery shops - try searching Sainsbury or Tesco online.

Personally, I love living in Hammersmith/Shepherds Bush. 45 minutes into the heart of the West End for cinema, pubs and clubs, and plenty of local groceries.
posted by almostwitty at 4:39 AM on November 10, 2009

The big diff is that London is gigantic and nyc is just a few square miles. The key to London is hanging out in different neighborhoods to do different things. Get a TimeOut and go out and try new things frequently. If you can't find anywhere in London to go after 8 pm that is just wrong. Find a good local you can end your nightly jaunts at.
posted by xammerboy at 4:49 AM on November 10, 2009

I moved around a lot, and have lived in various cities, including London and New York. Top tips:

1) Walk around the city a lot. Get trains and buses. Find secrets of your own, the places you like.
2) When you've done that, stop comparing with New York. New York is a loud, brash concrete dump with no sense of history beyond about 1850. [Actually I love NY to bits, my point is that it's easy to do a place down for all the things that aren't like where you're from]
3) Get a mix of friends from either New York or the US and people from the UK or London. The first bunch are good to compare notes with, have a bit of of anchor to back home. The second bunch will unlock a whole new side to a place for you.
4) Be a tourist - do touristy things, even when you're bedded in. In one place I lived, I did nothing but party and regret it at little. In every subsequent place I made it my business to get out and see the sights. Your time in London may be limited, it may not be.
5) Make sure your accomodation is close to transport. You'll probably network/socialise a fair bit when you arrive. It'll be expensive and a faff if you get taxis and a chore if you have a long way to go to get home.

London specifically:

It might help to think of London like a collection of villages. Have a look round and pick one. Unless they live in a dump, most Londoners tend to swear their part of town is the best.

If the only place you can find to shop is Tesco Express, you're doing it wrong. No need to elaborate: you'll find out when you get here.

Avoid Leicester Square like the plague. Nobody who lives in London touches it with a bargepole, even less at the weekends. A block or two either way is fine. Ditto "Tiger, Tiger" and a large bunch of "West End" nightclubs.

Yes, drinking after a certain time can be a bit of a chore and can be either very noisy or ver expensive. It's getting better. Adjust your expectations. On the plus side, nothing beats a good pub for Sunday lunch, or a nice riverside pub on a sunny day.

Do you like markets? London's full of funky markets. Do you like art? London's full of free museums? Do you like live music? London's live music scene is peerless (IMHO). Good food? Far, far better than hackneyed old views of British food would have you believe. Do you like good looking girls? Paris is only 3 hours away on Eurostar. I am kidding.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:13 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The closest I found to something like this in London was the area near St-John-At-Hackney

This is Hackney Central but there are other places in the borough that might meet your preferences more. Stoke Newington and London Fields have already been mentioned, there is also Victoria Park Village. Dalston is repeatedly refered to by the curse of "up and coming" but it really is.

There will be similar places in other boroughs. London can change very quickly over a very short geographical distance and lots of places are hidden unless you are on top of them. As others have mentioned, it is a patchwork, localised city.

For the record, I live in Peckham,

It all becomes clear...
posted by ninebelow at 5:54 AM on November 10, 2009

Best answer: As noted above, London is an array of different villages that have essentially amalgamated through urban sprawl, as opposed to a purpose built city environment. This is why different neighbourhoods can feel very compartmentalised, and there can be unexpected relatively dead or dry areas.

I'm a born and bred Londoner, and have spent extended time (totalling probably a year or so) in New York. The sad fact is that New York has more lively streets at night. The 24 hour subway is an incredible boon. The night bus system in London has been steadily improving over the last 5-10 years, and is now actually quite good, but it does have a steeper learning curve than just hopping on the tube.

I'm a bit of a pauper foodie, and I do recognise that it's far easier to find cheap delights in New York than London. They are most definitely here, though you have to know where you're going a little bit more. In terms of middle to high-end dining, I think London is definitely comparable, if not ahead. Additionally, fresh and delicious groceries seem much easier to find than in New York, and also seem infinitely cheaper.

There's a wonderful variety of parks, museums, forests and so on in London. Central Park is beautiful, but the public spaces in London seem more common, local and spacious. Nightlife is (imo) better in London, though I guess it depends on your individual tastes. A quick scan through Time Out should be eminently fruitful, and you'll undoubtedly discover a local bar with plenty of character and possibly some great live music. As you spend more time here, you'll probably find some alternative listings and quirky things through word of mouth, and those tend to be the more interesting options. That's probably one of the hardest things to lose when you move away from somewhere where you're implanted.

I'd try what others have suggested - renting a place for 6 months to a year, and just doing lots of stuff, hanging out with your workmates and schoolmates and seeing what their haunts are. You'll quickly acclimatise and hopefully find your niche. Good luck, and feel free to mefimail me if you have any specific questions about London life.
posted by Magnakai at 6:10 AM on November 10, 2009

Best answer: Most of the villagey bits above. I'd avoid west of Camden, only because it's so ruinously expensive that only bankers and wealthy Eurotrash live there now.

Central: Camden, Islington, Shoredtich, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Borough all have plenty of life and food. You might want to try E8 (Londoners navigate by postcode) too. All of these places are fairly easy walking distance to the City-Westminster blob which is the centre of town.
posted by rhymer at 7:56 AM on November 10, 2009

Best answer: You can't tell what a city is like from being a tourist there, especially if you weren't shown around by locals. If you went by my tourist experience, you would think that Montreal had no culture or nightlife (which is far from true).

All the best places for food, groceries and hanging out in London are, as in New York City, local secrets. I've been lucky in that I've been shown glimpses of both by locals -- otherwise I would have remained convinced that there was nothing in either city but museums and posh restaurants that cost more than I pay in monthly rent. (Okay, I exaggerate -- restaurants that cost more than my weekly rent).

Food out will never be as cheap as North America, because that's just a cultural difference, but London has competitive prices for Britain/Europe and isn't unreasonable. And yes, the pubs do (did?) shut at 11 -- leaving only noisy clubs open for the rest of the night. But if you are a club person, there is a lot happening. (I'm not -- I want 24 hour pubs with old men and good beer and quiet talking. The old men are optional -- but old men know the best pubs so it's worth following them. The best pubs have an average age of 63).

I'm Canadian, and I've actually been an ex-pat in both the US and the UK (in both cases in small cities within a quick commuter train of London and NYC respectively - so I went into both places regularly) -- and the UK really has a lot going for it. The pubs are brilliant - you can really relax with people and the good ones alway have great beer. If you find a local, you'll get to know your neighbours. Even the little Tesco expresses had a better grocery selection than our big but inner-city supermarket in the States. Even the cheapest cheese tastes gourmet compared to North American cheeses -- and you can get gourmet cheeses for good prices. Wine is easy to get and cheap -- Sainsbury's Basic Spanish Red Wine may be only £2, but it's very drinkable. Maybe it helped that I'm married to a Brit and in our foodways we're very British -- we like a good chedder, fish and chips, curry and doner kebab, and I love a real ale. British beer is awesome -- so many small breweries putting out great stuff.

You'll learn to get by -- to shop in small amounts at small grocery stores which still offer good prices (which isn't true for small grocery stores in the US), to eat out a bit less and lunch off Marks and Spencers sandwiches a bit more (great sandwiches) -- and to start drinking at 5pm like the locals.

Also, Oyster Cards are brilliant. The tube may cost too much, but paying for it is so convenient. And it's a lot cleaner than NYC's subway.
posted by jb at 9:17 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

East Dulwich

East Dulwich is nice, with a good, if slightly limited, local nightlife around Lordship Lane and Goose Green. It has a definite sense of community, though it's more of a "second move" place for people who'd previously lived in places that either had more inner-zone bustle or outer-zone anonymity.

The key to London is hanging out in different neighborhoods to do different things.

Absolutely. When visiting friends in NYC, it always felt as if they were very comfortable, for the most part, living within a few-block radius.

London's a bit different: you'll have your home village, but there's a lot more cross-village activity. A lot of people arrive in London straight from university, with a decent-sized group of friends who graduate at the same time. As they spread out across the city, and develop new relationships, that becomes the basis of their insider knowledge. I've never lived in London properly, but I do have a very different sense of comfort in the neighbourhoods where friends have lived for extended periods, and have guided me around the local haunts, compared to the ones where I don't have a guide.
posted by holgate at 10:19 AM on November 10, 2009

Mod note: few comments removed - winky jokes not really that cool for AskMe, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:51 AM on November 10, 2009

Just a quick note on late night London - pubs aren't required by law to close at 11pm any more, so these days you're more than likely to find somewhere quiet to drink until a bit later, rather than having to relocate to a noisy club or bar. Most of my local pubs are open till half midnight weekdays, 2am Fridays and Saturdays. It's not 24 living as such, but it's far more civilised than the old 11pm kickout time used to be.
posted by iivix at 12:13 PM on November 10, 2009

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