13 years ago, on March 9th 2001, an Air NZ plane landed at Heathrow airport. A young, inexperienced, rather ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ female, unbuckled her seatbelt, reached for her bag in the overhead hold and nervously made her way towards the aeroplane exit.
That girl, so much younger, so much less worldy and a whole lot less feisty, was me.
I had always dreamed of visiting London one day. I’d travelled to USA, Australia and Japan on vacation, but this was a whole different ball game. I was moving my life to the other side of the world. The girl that was a true homebody, a child that cried at every sleepover and insisted my mother collect me so I could go home to my own bed. This trip, was on a different level, and I really do not know how I managed to find the courage to step foot on that plane. But I did. Thank you stupid, young love. I have my naive, romantic 22 year old self to thank for allowing me 13 years of unbelievable, life changing adventure.
I arrived in London, with the hope of a happy ever after. My cooking skills extending to scrambled eggs and chicken stir fry. So young, so much to learn, so much change ahead.
Oh how life is full of twists, turns and horrendous life changing shit you just really didn’t see coming. I could not have predicted that within months, I would be single, living in a backpackers hostel, sharing a room with a rotating bunch of strangers. Trying to make ends meet whilst endeavouring to secure a permanent job. I could not have predicted that the young, somewhat timid girl would slowly start to change, finding my voice, my opinion and learning to stand on my own two feet. The ex-boyfriend once said ‘You need to be tough to survive here in London, you can’t rely on anyone’. It is the only quote I will ever give him credit for. Because he was right. London is a city that can bring you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and you have to be ready for it all to survive here.
In the first 5 years, I experienced the break up, the hostel, sleeping on friends sofas (and floors!), sharing rooms, feelings of extreme loneliness and anxiety. So why on earth did I stay?
I stayed because somewhere inside of that young, timid girl existed a very determined, stubborn streak. I was not leaving London with a sour taste in my mouth. Thank goodness for being stubborn.
Thank goodness, because following the lows came the highs. In 13 years, I’ve gained the very best of friends all around the world. I can visit USA, Japan, Colombia, South Africa, Costa Rica, France, Italy, Poland, Germany (and the list goes on), and I will always have a friend to visit and a place to stay. I’ve worked in amazing jobs that allowed me to experience things my 16 year old self would have had a minor heart attack over. I stayed at George Clooneys villa in Como, with George, with Emily Blunt and a host of other beauties. I sat on a private jet with Uma Thurman, who handed out the sandwiches for lunch. I’ve laughed at emails from Hugh Grant and stressed over Mick Jaggers birthday present. Yes, my 16 year old self would most definitely be impressed. I’ve lived 3 months in NYC. I’ve travelled to over 30 countries, admiring everything from the Cosplay kids in Tokyo’s Harajuku, to the famous sunset in Santorini, Greece. I’ve found a home away from home in the tiny village of Atrani, on Italy’s Amalfi coast. I would never have believed it had someone told 16 year old me ‘One day you will travel to Amalfi once a year, you’ll stay in this small, beautiful village called Atrani, and every year you descend those stairs, you will be welcomed with smiling faces and “Ciao Ana-Maria, welcome back!”‘.
I’ve experienced so much and missed out on so much at the same time. I’ve missed friends weddings in New Zealand, I’ve not had the chance to see my nieces and nephews grow, I wasn’t around when my high school friends all became mothers for the first time. I visit New Zealand, not often enough, and when I’m there, I feel like I never left. It’s an unsettling feeling at first, do I really belong here anymore? I get into the groove mid-vacation, having an amazing time, and all too soon, I wake up to that dreaded day of departure. And every time, my heart breaks to say goodbye. So why do I return?
I get back on that plane, because there is something so magical and so magnetic about the city of London. It’s the geographical equivalent of crack. The more you indulge in it, the more you’re hooked.
This city never fails to impress me. I love its vibe, its people and the exhausting list of things to see and do. London is full of open minds, New Zealand has much more of a tunnel vision view. I love living in a city where opportunities are there for the taking and people don’t blink an eyelid when you share even the craziest of goals and dreams.
I want everyone that has never been here to experience a summers day picnic in Hyde Park, a weekend away in Paris because you can so easily do that from London, a beer garden in a pub on a Sunday afternoon or a stroll around Shoreditch passing Banksy originals, food stalls and busking musicians. It’s never ending, the London to-do list grows longer each day. New markets, new festivals, the latest restaurant and exhibitions.
In 13 years, have I changed? Yes. I’ve become the person I always hoped I would have the courage and confidence to be. That is all due to the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, the highs and the lows. Those things all shape a person.
My 22 year old self, that stepped off that plane 13 years ago would be both surprised and impressed that I ‘stuck it out’ this long, that London became a love affair I just couldn’t give up.
Today, I will celebrate 13 years wandering in the sunshine, eating good food, and enjoying every moment with my very own Londoner, The Boy Next Door.
London, we’ve had our moments, but you’ve been very good to me, so thank you for allowing me to encounter some of the very best moments of my life.
* This post is for all my ex-pat friends who at one time in their life, all sat on a plane, saying good bye to their homeland, feeling the need for Valium, a shot of whiskey and a meditation session all at once, whilst thinking to yourself ‘What the F*ck Was I Thinking?!’.