Love-hate relationship with London

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Moving to a new city is like falling in love. One accepts the partner's flaws until the honeymoon is over

In many ways, moving to a new country is very much like dating someone new.

First, there's the getting- to-know-you part. You start out a little tentative as you struggle to get over your shyness; unsure about whether the two of you might hit it off.

Some bits look attractive to you, but other bits are a little questionable. A lot of superficial judging is happening.

There is definitely that excitement of newness and you can't wait to explore, find out more; maybe even probe deeper as your interest grows.

So you do your homework; ask people who know this new creature: What's he like? You do background checks and tell yourself to keep an open mind.

 But the fun part is embarking on that journey of discovery in the nascent days of a budding romance. As the rose-tinted first blushes of love shroud you while the cheap pints of real ale intoxicate you, nothing matters.

And so it was that London and I went on a honeymoon about three months ago, when I moved 10,000km from a small young island to a big old city to go back to school.

I wasn't sure that I would like living in London, to be honest.

I came because I thought it would be a good base for me to explore Europe, a continent I have neglected in the last 10 years on my annual travels as I explored less developed countries while I still had the stomach and stamina for them.

It would give me a different perspective from my North American experience, where I spent my undergraduate years. And, it offered me the kind of post- graduate work I was looking to do.

 Of course, other factors influenced my decision: London's standing as a top global city; its immensely rich intellectual and cultural offerings and deep history; and its strong journalistic tradition, among others.

 It was closer to home, and warmer, than North America too, and if I needed to fly back home, I'd make it eight hours sooner.

 The stress of relocating and settling in was a small, necessary inconvenience that anyone in that "ooh, everything is new and exciting" frame of mind would happily endure.

 It takes at least two weeks to open a bank account? Okay, if that's how long it takes to get things done here!

 Oh, the supermarket closes at 5pm on Sundays? That's cool. Thumbs-up to work-life balance!

 The train is delayed again? No problem, I have a book to read!

 You enthusiastically plan your days around what neighbourhoods to explore, which museums to visit, what shows to catch.

 Distance didn't matter either; you'd gladly walk an hour to get home instead of taking the Tube just because you want to see and soak in more of the city.

 It helped that the honeymoon coincided with unseasonably good weather - warm and uncharacteristically dry; ripe for long hikes and picnics in the park.

 But as the stardust settles and the nights turn from starry to chilly, little things that didn't bother you before start to irritate you.

 That book in your bag is no longer enough to keep you occupied when the trains are delayed because you're busy worrying about how to make it to class on time.

 When you need emergency groceries for Sunday dinner, the weekend shutdowns suddenly seem like a bad idea.

"This is a global city, it's not supposed to sleep!" you rail outside the shuttered Sainsbury's.

And why don't the traffic junctions have the green man? How am I supposed to know when to cross the road? What if I don't read English or I'm illiterate? How would I understand Look Left and Look Right and Look Both Ways marked on the ground?  

It costs how much to get from south-east to east London in the beat-up black cab? £50? I can fly to Barcelona on EasyJet for £12 less, Mr Cabby Sir!

 The London Underground may be 150 years old, but that fact ceases to impress you when you're walking for what seems like miles in hot tunnels, going up and down the stairs, to catch your train connection while steaming under your thick, heavy coat.

 When the honeymoon is over, so too, are your partner's efforts to be on his best behaviour.

Every morning now, before I draw my curtains open, I wonder what London's mood will be. Will I be greeted with rain? Maybe I'll get lucky and see some sun, but chances are, it'll just be plain, old grey.

 Yes, gone is that accidental summery September and Britain at its best; in creeps the depressing winter chill and darkness at 4pm.

 Okay, I do exaggerate my annoyance. No city is perfect.

 While there are universal markers of what makes a world-class city - human capital, business activity, cultural experience, political engagement - and London ticks all the right boxes, the question is whether it is right for you.

For me, there is plenty to love about this new town. For one thing, I love that you can imbibe alcohol while watching a musical and they're not fussed about sticky carpets or people eating on the Tube.

 Giving latitude and showing confidence that people will do the right thing - or at least be socially pressured to do so - instead of slapping on all manner of restrictions speaks of a modern, mature society that cities should all aspire to become.

 Indeed, there is no shortage of things to do in and out of this culturally diverse metropolitan and they don't necessarily have to do with eating and drinking, although there's plenty of that.

Boredom never has a chance of setting in when you constantly have to choose between competing events, like trying to decide whether to go for this talk or go for that walk.

 Culture also doesn't have to cost a cent when admission to some of the best museums in the world is free. Think about it: You're in the land that gave the world Charles Darwin, Shakespeare, the Beatles and David Beckham.

 So the Tube fails you. There's still the Overground, the light rail, buses. Or just hop on the rental bike.

 It's another drab, grey morning today? Well, that will make you appreciate the occasional sunny day even more.

 As any love guru will tell you, the key to keeping the flame alive in a relationship is to focus on the good qualities of your partner and remember what made you fall in love with him in the first place.

 Since I've chosen to have a relationship with this city, I'm ready to embrace it, warts and all.

dawntan@sph.com.sg