After a little less than 3 years I’m leaving London. To say it’s been odd is an understatement.
My life is in boxes again. It’s time to relocate. Some moves find me wishing for more time. Hong Kong and especially Tokyo were like this. Others feel ripe, like the best time to move was right away. Delhi and Singapore come to mind.
But London is the most odd moving experience. It couldn’t come quickly enough, but yet leaves me wishing for more time.
This is my second turn in London. When I moved here in 1999, I was a young, fresh-faced PhD student, full of sharp edges, strong opinions, and the bravura that filled those of us into postmodern philosophy in the late ʼ90s. I was also still loosely connected to the church world and saw my post-PhD career incorporating writing about religion and its role in culture and society.
A lot changed in the intervening years. Quitting the PhD, moving repeatedly across Asia, returning to music and creative work, starting my own company, and being a parent reflected –over and over again – a different life from the one I had imagined at the end of the last millennium.
Returning to London was such a culture shock. The city had changed after two decades of relentless redesign and construction. Maybe it was Brexit. Or just the impact of the pandemic.
London was difficult to enjoy this time around, and I’m glad to be moving away.
A Life Compressed
I’ve leaving London just shy of 2 years and 11 months after arriving. That makes this the second shortest of my expat stints – a month less than my time in Delhi and 11 months more than my season in Singapore.
But the pandemic compressed a lot of living into this time.
By my calculations, I cooked way more meals during this time than I did in six years in Tokyo. A combination of work from home and no travel meant spending more time with my spouse than we had ever had. And my daughter packed up her life at college and moved back in, which gave a season together we’d never bargained for.
Add to that the tension and worry that went into coping with the pandemic – from the relentless sound of ambulances during the worst months to the challenge of figuring out how to buy food when supermarkets became unsafe places and trying to replace in-person experiences with virtual ones.
Like a lot of people, I’m emerging from this experience feeling older. Not just a couple of years older, but like I’ve transitioned from one season of life to another. As if a decade of ageing got crammed into two years.
A Life On Pause
It’s now over three years since I saw most of my belongings, especially my music gear, workshop tools, and paintings. The house here in London was too small for everything. So the idea was to settle in, then find a studio space nearby. That never happened.
The idea in moving here was to work on my next book. That felt untenable once the pandemic seized hold. I handed the best work space to my spouse and the next best space to my daughter. I wrote blogpost after blogpost, and attended several writing workshops, from the dining table.
Most haunting of all, I haven’t seen my house in the Japanese Alps since early 2020. It’s been dark for two winters now. It’s not just the skiing I miss but also the space, crafted to reflect my aesthetics and creative goals, and all the dreams that go with it.
Usually my last few months and weeks in a place are full of farewells. Not just goodbyes to people but also to places, cafes, galleries, restaurants, shops, and other locations of special significance.
This time it’s saying goodbye to subscriptions and online food retailers. Like Farmison & Co, Field and Flower, Abel and Cole, First Choice, The Fish Society, and Rick Stein, who’ve kept us fed with amazing produce. The Sausage Man and Willy’s Pies, who’ve added a little fun to the kitchen. The Courtyard Dairy, The Fine Cheese Company, and The Cheese Society, who’ve provided some amazing cheeses. MexGrocer, The Japan Centre, Sous Chef, and The Chocolate Society, who’ve kept the pantry full of flavour. And Freddie’s Flowers, who’ve added colour and scent to the house every week.
I’ll also be saying goodbye to my dream kitchen, which came to life in 2021 thanks to some amazing work by Hazel and Joe at Harbour Joinery Workshop. The kitchen was a delight to cook in and the realization of years of my saying “I wish this was different” in the 15 kitchens I’ve lived with before this one.
Finally, I’m saying goodbye to Victoria Park. My home is opposite the park, and I open my curtains every morning to look in the park’s gardens, ever-changing trees, the people who jog, walk, and sit in the park’s various spaces, and the birds and squirrels that make their home in the park.
When the first lockdown happened, my daily walk in the park was my only connection to the outside world. Later, it continued to be the highlight of my day, through grey foreboding winters when the grass was loose and the soil muddy under foot, to summer time, when the sun set well after dinner time and the ground was hard and spiked with dry tufts of grass.
After the experience of loving and caring for our family hamster Echo in Tokyo, I resolved to never have another pet. But when my daughter came home from college, she insisted we get another hamster. We brought Espi (short for Esperanza, which in Spanish means hope) into our lives just as the UK went into lockdown.
While Echo had a short life marred by illness, Espi had a long life full of health right up until the final weeks. She passed as our time in London was coming to an end. I cried every night for weeks as she slowed down and seldom left her burrow, and then wept when she died. But I’m glad she is buried in the garden of the house that was her home.
Espi was timid. We figured she may have been treated poorly in the pet store. She never really took to being held, but in her final days she let me place my hand on her side while she ate, and on our last couple of times playing together she sat on my hand, for the briefest moment.
Espi loved to explore. She enjoyed coming out to explore her room or go into the play pen we set up for her, with wooden houses, tunnels and toys. Espi also loved to dig and remodel the bedding in her enclosure, creating new burrows and moving items around every night. We called her Espi the Engineer.
In the latter half of 2021, my spouse changed jobs and started to travel for work, and my daughter moved back to college full time. But for various reasons, including the pandemic, we weren’t ready to relocate. That meant I spent increasing amounts of time alone. Espi was my beautiful companion during those lonely weeks. Caring and playing with her, following her morning and evening routines, grounded me on days that felt interminably isolated and sad.
Final Thoughts On Living In London
I will come back to the UK one day – or at least to whatever it becomes when inevitable changes, like Scottish independence, reshape the country.
London still has some of the best galleries in the world, especially the Tate Modern. It’s also home to Chelsea FC. Live Premier League football is the greatest spectacle in sport. Outside the metropolis, the trips I’d pencilled in – to Cornwall, Yorkshire, the north of Wales, and the far reaches of Scotland – will wait for a non-pandemic future time.
I’ve gone through the whole range of emotions as my time here has drawn to a close: almost bottomless sadness, rage that burns like the sun, and anxiety that makes my skin feel electric. It’s like my body has been releasing layer upon layer of fear, confusion, and frustration from the last two years.
Mostly, I feel glad to have got through this safely. My life and work feel smaller but more focussed. My circle of friends has shrunk but feels more supportive. My family is more present for each other. And what I want from my remaining years is clearer than ever.
So here’s to my hopes for the rest of this year, from love and honesty, good food and great music, long walks on lonely beaches and tearing turns on freshly powdered ski slopes to poetry, brave film-making and bold fashion, cherishing our wild places and natural resources, and to making the world safer and fairer, and showing up for each other full of compassion and understanding.
I’ll be taking a break from regular blogging until late October. You’ll still get the monthly reading review. But after 117 blogposts since the start of 2020, it’s time to pause and recharge for a few weeks.
All the best,
Note: Kitchen photos by Anna Stathaki and used with permission of Harbour Joinery Workshop.