Expat Living in London

Shopping on Oxford Street.

Shopping on Oxford Street.

I was recently asked to contribute an article to the expat website World of Expats. This website provides useful information and tips to anyone considering moving overseas on a work assignment. Below is the article I contributed to World of Expats. At the end I provide additional links to the World of Expats site as well as related articles that I have written about expat and London living.

My family just returned from living in London for two years. We moved there with two teen-
aged children and a chocolate Labrador Retriever in 2011. As a family we feel those two years were some of the most exciting and valuable experiences in our lives. Whether you are single or a family considering an expat assignment in London, I’m here to say, “Go for it”. 

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

London is an absolutely beautiful city contrasting both modern and classic architecture. Nestled throughout the city are eight picturesque Royal Parks providing ample green space. Our dog certainly enjoyed the parks especially in the areas that she was allowed to go leash-free.

Discovering London on foot.

Discovering London on foot.

London has outstanding public transportation in the form of the underground and buses. If you absolutely need a car, you may want to consider the following: 1) getting a UK license requires lessons and thorough preparation for the test, 2) finding parking in London is challenging, and 3) remember the English drive on the left-hand side of the street. Another option is to rent cars as needed with services like Zip Car. We chose to not have a car during our 2-year stay and did absolutely great getting around.

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

London offers an enormous array of entertainment for all ages. Whether you like museums, theater, ballet, concerts, or traditional tourist attractions, you will have plenty to pick from. London is a world capital with people from all over the world living there and calling it home. This was a huge highlight for me personally, to be able to meet people from around the world and enjoy such an international experience. London used to have a reputation for having bad food. Well not anymore! The food revolution began around 2001 and London has become a culinary destination. You will be able savor Michelin star cuisine and still enjoy traditional English pub food. There are also amazing outdoor food markets.

Our favorite food market, The Borough Market

Our favorite food market, Borough Market

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

It is important to understand some of the practical aspects of living in London as an expatriate. For starters the cost of living is high. As with any expensive city in the world, you will find rentals very pricey. However, depending on neighborhood you will also have many choices to pick from. Set your expectations appropriately, this is city living and space is at a premium.

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

If you have children, there are excellent British, International, and American schools to pick from. We chose to send our children to The American School in London located in the neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. We chose this school because we wanted our children to continue with the American school system. The British and International school systems are slightly different. I will share that although our school was “American”, there were over 45 nationalities represented giving the school a very international flair. I recommend you apply to schools as early as possible.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux. I saw him twice in our 2 years in London.

Opening bank accounts in the UK is a lengthy process. Again, begin this as soon as you can and even before you officially move. For some strange reason, getting telephone, cable, and internet installed in London is quite a challenge. Request these services early in your moving preparations and be PATIENT. We thought we were so on top of things by setting up these services 4 months ahead of time, only to discover once we arrived in London that the cable modem box would take yet another 4 weeks to arrive. I suppose the advice of being patient is very important when you embark on any expat assignment.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone. We saw the actor Bill Nighy once.

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

It is certainly advantageous to move to a country where English is the main language. As with any foreign travel or living, it helps to learn about and appreciate your host country and culture. The English have some unique norms and customs as well as their own form of “British” English. Take the time to learn them. When we first told our children we were moving to London they had a million questions for us. We felt it was very important for us to set the appropriate expectations. For example, they would ask us if there were certain foods or activities in London that they had back at home. The standard answer became, “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”. We embarked on our adventure with an open mind and a positive attitude. In our two years in London we visited over 25 UK and European cities.

The Tower of London Bridge

The Tower Bridge

We also experienced “city” living and were exposed to a wonderfully diverse community. If you ask any of our family members if they would do this again, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.

For more of our expat and London living and select the corresponding tabs:  https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/

About Finding Housing in London: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/finding-housing-in-london/

About London Post Codes: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/london-postcodes/

About Borough Market: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/borough-market/

About moving overseas: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/moving-overseas/

About the Queens Jubilee celebration: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/london-gets-ready-for-the-queens-jubilee/

About Eating Around the World in London: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/eating-around-the-world-in-london/

To visit the World of Expat site go to: http://www.worldofexpats.com/

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Happy Mother’s Day to My Friend Consuelo

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I met Consuelo two years ago when I first moved to London. The name “Consuelo” means comfort or consolation in Spanish. We met while walking our dogs in our neighborhood. She is a nanny for a family with two children and a handsome black Labrador Retriever. Her dog and mine took an instant liking to each other. Her dog is 11 years old and still looks very youthful. Consuelo shared that the secret for her dog’s youthful look and good health was that she had fed him freshly cooked chicken and rice since he was a puppy. Spoiled boy!  Consuelo shared that she had moved from her native Ecuador to London over 30 years ago. So we had always chatted in Spanish. Over the months, we would run into each other with our dogs. Most of the time Consuelo would be pushing a stroller with an adorable little girl who is now 3 years old. One weekend afternoon I ran into Consuelo with the family that she works for and I found out that their older son had severe disabilities. Consuelo also cared for this little boy.

The months would go by and we would continue to meet each other and share pleasantries on the street. Then Friday morning was a special day. I was on my way to a coffee gathering when I ran into her with the little girl. We said our hellos and the cute little girl who recognizes me gave me a huge smile. It turned out we were walking in the same direction so off we went to the St. John’s Wood high street and chatted for about 15 minutes.

She would share so much in just those 15 minutes. She would open up in such a way that even she surprised herself. I asked how the little boy that she watches was. She said he was doing ok. She shared that it is always so challenging to take care of his needs. It is an exhausting job for both the parents and Consuelo. I told her I so admired her patience in dealing with the boy. My friend commented that she is always so concerned when they hire a babysitter for when Consuelo cannot be there. Consuelo will review a thousand things with the new sitter to ensure he is well taken care of. You can tell she is very protective of him. One day last week, Consuelo was preparing the boy for a bath. The boy is about 7 or 8 years old. As Consuelo lifted him to put him in his bath, he turned his face, and he placed his open mouth on her cheek in what appeared to be an attempt to kiss her. She was so moved because it was his first attempt at kissing and of showing any signs of affection. Consuelo could not believe it, and even as she recounted the story she was filled with goose bumps. The little boy had not even done this with his own mother. I said to Consuelo, “That little boy loves you so much. He must sense and recognize your dedication to him.” The outside world only sees the boy’s disabilities and suffering, while Consuelo focuses on improving his quality of life while showering him with love and affection.

Consuelo then shared that she and her husband were expecting a grandchild. I congratulated her and asked if it was their first one. She said it wasn’t but that it was the first girl and she was obviously very excited. She said her oldest grandson was 11 years old. She was delighted to share that her grandson had just been awarded a full scholarship for the rest of his education in London. She commented that the family was very pleased with this since her son had limited financial resources. As we walked further, she turned and said, “You see my son is disabled, he’s been in a wheel chair since he was a child”. She went on to tell me some wonderful stories about her son and how he has tried to live independently and support his family. I asked her if he was the reason why they had left Ecuador and she said yes. Her son would not have had much of a future in her native country back then.

I turned to Consuelo and I said something like, “Dios te escogió para este labor por una razón muy especial”, which translates into “God hand picked you for this task for a very special reason”. I could not get over the fact that after raising her own disabled child she would find the fortitude and patience to repeat the whole experience all over again by helping raise another family’s child with special needs.

We arrived at the high street and were getting ready to say our goodbyes. But she had one more story to share. She told me how her son had adapted a vehicle that allowed him to store his wheel chair on the roof and was therefore able to drive everywhere. It pleases him very much that he can transport his own family. You could sense how proud she is of her son. No doubt her son gets a lot of his “can do” attitude from his mother who through her example taught him to never give up. Consuelo continues to share this love and perseverance with the children she watches. And in return those children adore her not just as a caregiver or nanny but also more like a grandmother. Not to mention the family dog who also adores her because she showers him with love and attention too, oh and with freshly cooked chicken and rice, as well!

My heart filled with such joy to have met Consuelo and to have run into her on that particular Friday morning. I turned to her and said, “I must hug you”, and I did. She thanked me for listening to her and said she shared these stories with me because she felt I was a special person. I was very moved. We said “Hasta Luego” (See You Later) and went in our different directions. It may be the last time I run into her since I will be moving back to the US. I often wonder why people’s paths cross. I like to think that it is not just coincidence but that somehow it is meant to be, that there is a reason for it. Even if it is just to say, I am so proud to have known such a special person and role model like Consuelo.

Happy Mother’s Day

The Journey

Back in September I snuck into one of my posts that I had just joined a women’s beginner running group and that we were in training to do a half-marathon in Bratislava, Slovakia in March of 2013.

Part of the Beginner's Running Group in our favorite meeting place

Part of the Beginner’s Running Group in our favorite meeting place

We are now 3 days away from the big day. I leave to Bratislava today and the run is on Sunday March 24th. Our group of 33 women, ranging in ages from 30 to 50’s started out with routines of walking 2 minutes, running 2 minutes and so forth and so on, to eventually running 11-mile runs. Back in September, when I printed out the training program I was amazed with what we would accomplish. We slowly increased our running times. We used to wince at running 15 minutes straight, then 30 minutes seemed outrageous, and an hour run was the “unthinkable”. Then the runs started getting longer and longer. By December we were running 3 times a week. The short run was 35 minutes long, the medium run was initially a 45-minute run which eventually became an hour run, and the long run, well we made it to 2+hours. Last week was our last “long run” before the race. We are ready for the half-marathon. Our main coach is a woman who has dedicated the last 11 years of her life to introducing women to running. She does not charge for this, for her it is a labor of love. Through her dedication to us she shares her passion for running while at same time building our confidence and serving as an inspiration. She recruits other runners to be assistant coaches to help her with the rookies. Every year she takes an average group of about 70 women, both beginner runners and graduates, to half marathons. She also trains some of the women to do marathons.

Our First Run to Big Ben

Our First Run to Big Ben

What we achieved as individuals and as a group was remarkable. I get a little misty eyed thinking of this group of amazing women, my pillars throughout the training. When the weather was dreary and dark, with temperatures below freezing accompanied by that quaint London spitty rain, all I wanted to do was go back to bed after the kids went to school. Instead, I donned my running gear and knew the group was waiting for me at the St. John’s Wood High Street Starbucks. Although over time the group divided into 3 sub-groups depending on our running speeds, we all remained cohesive and supportive of each other. We “left no woman behind”. There were falls, injuries, and disappointments along the way but we endured. There were also triumphant achievements, laughs, and celebrations. I was also very fortunate to have a fan club at home. My husband and children were so supportive throughout the training. They have been very proud of me and that is such a special feeling.

Last week proved to be a fateful week with regard to my running. On the day of our “last long run”, last Thursday, during the first 10 minutes of an 11-mile run I felt as if though a dog bit my right lower calf muscle.  I continued running thinking it was a cramp and that it would go away. I slowed down, and waved my friends on. I felt a pulling in the leg, not really a harsh pain, but things were not right. And as always, our head coach was suddenly there, massaging my leg, asking me questions, and assessing what to do. She asked me to slow down my pace and see how I felt. Part of me was afraid of further injury, but part of me was determined to accomplish the long run. Since there was no harsh pain, just a dull discomfort, I slowed down, and was able to complete the 11-mile run. I was fine once I was running. By 1:30 that afternoon I was at the physical therapist’s office. And yes sadly, I had a small tear of my right leg calf muscle. The good news was that based on the strength I showed in the leg that afternoon he felt confident that he would have me ready for the race, only of course if I followed his strict instructions. So this past week I was very busy icing, exercising, stretching, and going to the physical therapist. I did 3 short runs successfully and that helped increase my confidence. I will do the run on Sunday but I will need to start at a slower pace than usual and depending on how the leg feels, then I will increase my speed for the second half of the race. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

This journey I have taken with this amazing group of women has made us all richer in spirit, stronger in body, and courageous and confident in mind. It has reminded us of how important it is set goals. And I have had the opportunity to make wonderful new friends. This journey reminded me of how important it is to reach beyond our comfort zone and to aim to do things we thought we might not have been able to achieve. We set our mind to it and we achieved it.

The Little Venice Walk with Maya

Little Venice is an area of London located north of Paddington, west of St. John’s Wood, and south of Maida Vale. It is a quaint neighborhood named after Venice in Italy because of its waterways that join together in a small central lake where the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal and the Regent’s canal meet.

Blomfield Avenue to the right.
Maida Avenue to the left.
Regent’s Canal leading to meet the Paddington Arm of Grand Union Canal in Little Venice

Little Venice – where the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal and the Regent’s canal meet.

Maya and I take this very scenic walk many mornings of the week. We walk down Blomfield Road along side Regent’s canal, we turn left on Warwick Avenue, we continue walking until we take an underpass below the street that ultimately brings us over a pedestrian bridge connecting to Sheldon Square with all of its office buildings and restaurants near Paddington station.

Walking through the Underpass

And Over the Canal
Sheldon Square in the back

We stop and pose by the commuter statues.

Commuter Sculpture walking Maya

From there we continue along the canal back to the Little Venice pond. We continue up the Paddington branch of the canal until we reach the bridge by the Waterway Restaurant and cross over. We continue on Formosa Street and make a right onto Warrington Crescent. Then we turn left onto Clifton Gardens. We pass through the Little Venice High Street. We cross over Maida Vale Road and complete our loop on Hamilton Terrace.

We walk by the canals filled with houseboats.  Some of the boats have such clever names.

Canality J’aime = Calamity Jane

I try to imagine what life on a canal house boat is like.

We watch swans make dramatic landings on the water.

Spring 2012

Fall 2012
Down the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal

In the winter months we witness beautiful sunrises. We also walk on grey and wet mornings.

November 2011 Sunrise

We pass commuters, walkers, and cyclists. We see the coffee drinkers at Starbucks. We greet other dog walkers and dogs. And most of all we stop to take in the views.

November 2012 –
Maya Enjoys the Sunrise
More like the Swan Landing

Finding Housing in London

Just a year ago my husband and I were deciding where to live in London. We knew we wanted to be in the city. Our children had been accepted to The American School in London located in St. John’s Wood. We had been to London numerous times and felt that we wanted to look in both Marylebone and St. John’s Wood. It helps to study a map of London and start learning the various neighborhoods and postcodes before you come on a house-hunting trip. This helps focus your search.

If you have children, you’ll need to know what postcode or neighborhood their school is in. (See my posting on London Postcodes)

https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/london-postcodes/

Then you’ll need to confirm if the school offers a bus service or find out what your public transportation options are. There’s always the option of driving or hiring a private car service.

Examples of neighborhoods where expats live include but are not limited to:

  • St. John’s Wood NW8
  • Maida Vale W9
  • Hampstead NW3
  • Swiss Cottage NW3
  • West Hampstead NW6
  • Knightsbridge SW7, SW1X
  • Kensington W8, SW3
  • South Kensington  SW7
  • Chelsea SW3
  • Mayfair W1
  • Marylebone W1
  • Holland Park W11
  • Nottinghill W11

Factors Influencing your decision

Your budget and willingness to give up space are critical factors in determining your location. You get more space for your money in places like Hampstead, Swiss Cottage and West Hampstead. These neighborhoods are north of the city. For example, my friend is less than 10 minutes by car to The American School in London (ASL) from West Hampstead. Public transportation will take you about 15 to 40 minutes to ASL from some of these further locations. Some families want to be more centrally located and choose neighborhoods like Mayfair or Marylebone.

Townhouses in Marylebone

Some folks want to be near one of the city’s beautiful parks like Regents Park, St. James Park, Green Park , Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, Primrose Hill, or Hampstead Heath. Proximity to public transportation can also influence your decision as well. Others pick particular neighborhoods simply because that’s what they like.

There is a high concentration of Americans in St. John’s Wood because The American School in London is located there. Many families prefer to be close to the school. However, keep in mind that a walk to school can range from 1 to 15 minutes depending on where you are in St. John’s Wood. The South Bank International School has campuses in Hampstead and Kensington for the Lower Schools and in Westminster for the Middle School and High School.  Some families choose to enter their children into the British School System. These are decisions that may influence where you live.

A Semi-Detached House in Maida Vale

Something to keep in mind when calculating commuting distances is traffic. London like all major cities has its share of traffic jams. If you live in Kensington or Knightsbridge, which is very popular with expats, it is typically a 15-minute car ride without traffic to ASL. I have friends who live there and their child’s school bus ride from ASL in the afternoons can take upwards of 45 – 50 minutes. Another factor influencing your decision may be proximity to your children’s friends’ homes. And let’s not forget the dog. Do you need a patch of grass in the back or are you willing to walk the dog all the time.

You’ll need to decide whether you want: a flat (apartment), a maisonette (a cross between a flat and a semi-detached house), a terraced house or townhouse (4 to 5-storey row homes, some with their own garages), a mews house (converted stables), a semi-detached home, or a detached home.

A Maisonnette in St. John’s Wood.
There are two duplex flats in this property. One is on the ground (1st in the US) and lower level (Basement in the US), and the other is on 1st (2nd in the US) and 2nd floor (3rd in the US)

In many cases you’ll be working with a relocation consultant that will help you sort through all of this. Availability of inventory will also influence your decision. If you are planning a summer move it makes sense to come in the April/May time frame.  Remember, not only are you competing for properties with families that are moving over but also with families that are already living here and need to change their housing. On some occasions, families have to live in temporary housing because they are unable to find something ideal.

It helps to speak to other families living in London. The schools can put you in touch with support families. I was able to speak to families living in both St. John’s Wood and Hampstead and this really helped with our decision. We looked at housing in Marylebone and St. John’s Wood. Marylebone is a wonderful neighborhood closer to the heart of the city with a great high street. A high street is the main street in a neighborhood for shopping. Keep in mind that London is made up of neighborhoods which hundreds of years ago were separate villages with their own high streets. Today they all blend into one city.

A semi-detached house with its own driveway

Some parts of Marylebone border with Regents Park. It offers wonderful shops and restaurants. We chose to live in St. John’s Wood and be near our children’s school. My 14-year old son visits with friends after school or on weekends and most of his friends live in the neighborhood. I still escort my 12-year old daughter to and from friends’ houses. She has a few friends in our neighborhood but many live in other locations. We take buses, underground, or taxis to get her back and forth. St. John’s Wood is still very centrally located. We can easily hop on a bus and be at Oxford Street in 20 minutes. We brought our dog over from the states and we chose a house that has a small back yard for the dog. We selected a lovely 4-storey terraced house/townhouse. We lucked out because our house has a generous sized kitchen and an American style side-by-side refrigerator. It also has its own laundry room.

Example of Terrace Houses in St. John’s wood

Many homes in London and other European cities come with small refrigerators and washing machines located in the kitchen. Although, some places come furnished ours did not. We ended up renting furniture here.

Also, beware of being gazumped. This is the expression for when you may have signed contracts with a potential landlord, but they continue to list the house and end up accepting a higher offer. I know of cases where families have been ready to move and they have lost the property the night before the move. In another case, a friend went through two consecutive cases of being gazumped. I suppose in the end it is better that you don’t end up with a unscrupulous landlord, but the stress of the whole experience is exhausting.

Armed with your house & family requirements and of course with a healthy dosage of flexibility you too will be able to find a suitable house in London and turn it into a lovely home.

If you want to get a jump start on looking for housing, we found the following website very useful:

http://www.zoopla.co.uk/

The following three websites describe neighborhoods in London:

are:http://golondon.about.com/od/londonneighborhoods/London_Neighborhood_Descriptions.htm

http://www.anglotopia.net/british-travel/london/best-places-for-americans-to-live-in-london-american-expat-areas-of-london/

http://www.reloburo.com/uk_information/area_information/introduction.shtml