12 surprising things about living in London as an expat

Monday 08 April 2019

Welcome back to Britain Insiders—our new series of city guides, curated entirely by locals. For our second installment, we spoke with Virginia-native Connie Waters about her impromptu decision to move to London, the romantic reason she stayed, and the cultural differences she’s noticed as an expatriate.

On relocating: After graduating from college during the middle of the financial crisis in 2008, I came across an opportunity to move to London for a year-long internship program through the Mountbatten Institute. I love traveling, and didn't have any real idea of what I wanted to do for a career, so I decided to apply—and got it. During that year, I met a great British guy named Ciaran. After returning back to the U.S. and dating long-distance for a bit, I made the decision to move back to London. We’re now married.

On finding the perfect place to live: London has so many distinct neighbourhoods. It's one city, but it feels like dozens of little villages all jammed next to each other. Each part of the city has its own character and sense of community. We live in Fulham, which is a part of west London. It feels really residential and neighbourhood-y, but it’s also walking-distance from plenty of restaurants, bars, cafes, shopping, and parks—and is easily accessible to everything in central London.

On housing design: London is full of period properties from various eras, which have more character than you’ll typically see in many American cities. It's common to find a single-family home from 100 years ago split into multiple flats. It’s also very typical for flats not to have any closet space at all – freestanding wardrobes are needed instead. While most flats do have a washer/dryer, they’re a lot smaller than the ones you’d find in the U.S., and they’re often located in the kitchen. 

On using British phrases: A lot of British-isms have crept into my vocabulary over the last few years—mostly at work. Now I say lift (for elevator), diary (for calendar), and holiday (for vacation). I've also started saying "quite" and "a bit" a lot more often too. 

On staying active: Londoners walk a lot! It is a very easy city for pedestrians, and many people I know even walk to work. I’m a big fan of Triyoga, which has a few locations around London, but I prefer the Chelsea studio. My colleague recently told me about a group exercise class called Bounce, where you jump around on a trampoline. Apparently it’s really hard! There’s also a running path along the Thames in southwest London—and lots of races to take part in all year long. The Royal Parks Half Marathon is a great because it goes through four of the city's royal parks and past lots of famous monuments.

On pub culture: In London, pubs aren’t just for adults looking for a night out on the town. Going to a pub for a family lunch is just as acceptable and common as going to a pub for after-work drinks or the big game. There’s also a “rounds” etiquette, where everyone in the group takes turns buying a round of drinks for the table, as opposed to people buying individual drinks for themselves.

One of my favorite things about British pubs is that you’re allowed to take your drink with you outside. When the weather is nice, there’s always a large crowd of people drinking outdoors. Plus, a lot of the pubs have great beer gardens. The bars in Broadgate Circle or around Leadenhall Market are always great spots for after-work drinks.

On local cuisine: I've definitely started eating fish and chips more since I moved to London. And it may sound weird, but it's the condiments that I've really gotten into! There are some foods now that I cannot even eat without Brown sauce, Colman's mustard, or Pizza Express salad dressing.

I love the diversity of London’s food scene. You can find the best food from every country all over the world, including Indian, Lebanese, Spanish, and Southeast Asian. Although the portion sizes are smaller in London than the US, if you don't finish your meal it's awkward to ask to take home leftover food. Most restaurants don't do that—and will look at you strangely for asking!

On date nights: My husband and I go on a lot of dinner dates because we have a long list of restaurants that we want to try! But we keep coming back to The Sands End in Fulham—it’s a great gastro pub in our neighborhood with seasonal food and real cask ales. They’re famous for their homemade Scotch eggs and serve them all day long.

On the social nature of tea: People don't just drink tea just for an afternoon pick-me-up… it's more of a social thing here. Whenever you visit someone's home they'll offer you a cup as soon as you walk in the door, and at work, it's an excuse to take 10 minutes out of the day to chat. While some people like sugar and others don't, I don't think I've ever seen a British person drink a cup of tea without milk.

On must-visit attractions: London can be so big and overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. I recommend going somewhere that offers a view of the entire city just to see how it all pieces together. It’s hard to get a feel for where everything is when you’re just traveling around underground!

City Social at the top of Tower 42, Sushisamba at the top of Heron Tower, Sky Garden, and Aqua Shard are all great cocktail bars with awesome cityscape views. You can also see a beautiful view of the city from Hampstead Heath in north London if you’d rather be outdoors!

On new holiday traditions: Every November 5th, our friends host a big bonfire party to celebrate Guy Fawkes' Night. It feels like the closest thing to a UK Independence Day. There are fireworks, a bonfire, and lots of food and drinks. 

On regional travel: My husband lived in Brighton for many years, and still has lots of friends there, so I've been fortunate to visit there many times. It's a seaside town with a pebble beach and lots of little streets with good cafes and shops. The Brighton Pavilion is definitely worth checking out too.

I also really like Cambridge—it’s a beautiful, old, little city with so much culture. The Cambridge colleges are interesting to explore – but the must-do attraction is punting up and down the Cam River, by yourself or with the help of a guide.

However, my all-time favorite UK destination is the Lake District. It’s absolutely stunning and a paradise for nature lovers.

On getting away from it all: Every once in a while my husband and I like to leave London for a night to explore somewhere new and take break from the city. Sometimes we’ll visit my husband's family in Wiltshire, or as a bit of a splurge (and because of the novelty of it!), we’ll book a room at one the historic castles and buildings that are abundant across the UK. Most of them have on-site restaurants and are in the most charming little villages. Some of our favorite stays have been in Amberley Castle in Sussex, Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire, and the Manor House in Castle Coombe.

For more travel inspiration, follow Connie on Instagram @cemacmanus.

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