There are 8.8m people living in the Greater London area. Back in October 2009, when my wife Katharina and I moved over from Düsseldorf, a city of 600,000 in western Germany, we knew about four of them. The crowds of cheerful people meeting at the city’s many pubs for an after-work pint or two gave me a silly feeling of envy. Everyone knew each other, but I felt on my own.
London is not really about the iconic sights, the fancy clubs, the world-class cultural venues. It is eventually about the people you meet. And while starting from almost zero, we found it surprisingly easy to get to know amazing people from very diverse backgrounds. That’s due to two key characteristics of London. One is its sheer size, the other its internationality.
The first guarantees that no matter how odd or peculiar your tastes may be, you can easily find like-minded people. The second means that as an expat with few friends, you’ll run into plenty of people in similar circumstances, eager to make contact.
For me, a decisive door opener was cycling. I always loved to ride my bike and within a few months, I discovered an eccentric get-together called the Friday Night Ride to the Coast (FNRttC). Between March and November, up to 100 people meet at a central London location on the Friday closest to the full moon, get on their bikes by the stroke of midnight and cycle through the night for breakfast by the seaside, be it in Brighton, Southend or Whitstable.
I initially thought that was a wacky idea worth doing once. It soon became a regular pastime. Even Katharina, who prefers daytime yoga to night-time cycling, joined me for rides under the full moon. Eight years on, many of our night-riding partners have become our close friends. We sometimes meet them during the daytime too. I learnt a lot from them, not least how to be more generous, and to overcome my German thriftiness. It took a while to get used to paying rounds for friends, and to splitting the restaurant bill evenly across the whole group, even if you end up paying £1.50 more than you consumed.
Humour was another great lesson. Many clichés about the British may be wrong. The weather and the food are both better than their reputation. But the British fondness for understatement and ability to smile in the face of adversity is true. The moment when a friend fumbled a soaked £10 note out of his wallet on a wet bike ride and mumbled, “Oh, it has been a bit damp, hasn’t it?” still amuses me. So do my memories of watching Northampton Town FC, a third-tier football team that my cycling friend Ian supports. They were playing York City and were 2-0 down after only 15 minutes, but Northampton supporters answered the guest fans’ jubilation with a very English chant: “You’re nothing special, we lose every week.”
The downside of London’s internationality is that many people are there only temporarily. After about four years, our circle of friends took quite a hit, as one after another moved on. The friend working for a big European bank got a new job in New York; the lawyer working for the same lender moved back home. There was a time when we got tired of attending farewell parties. Everything in London is in constant flux, including our own social life.
I was often asked if I liked living in London. I never had a straightforward answer. At times, I was thrilled to be a part of such a fantastic city. In other moments, often on the very same day, I found living in London just tiring. The longer I stayed in London, the more often I had the second feeling. Many of London’s best and worst sides are both driven by the same factor, its sheer size.
All those much-praised museums and theatres, the choice of world-class restaurants, the transport links to the rest of the UK and the world owe their existence to the 8.8m living in the Greater London area, all creating demand for these amenities. Those millions of fellow Londoners exacerbate the crowded roads and Tube trains, the noise and air pollution, and the cost and quality of housing.
London expects a lot from its residents. In the first year, we rented a flat close to Angel in north London. After three weeks we discovered a severe rainwater problem, as the roof was leaking. Our German friends looked at us in disbelief when we told them the owner did neither care nor really fix the issue. As we had signed a one-year contract with no break clause, there wasn’t much we could do. We then rented a lovely two-bedroom flat in a Victorian terrace in Highbury, north London, with a small garden and a landlord who looked after her property. The flat wasn’t a bargain but — by London standards — the price was fair, and one of the big upsides was being within 15 minutes’ walk of Arsenal’s football stadium.
When it comes to housing, the contrast in prices, quality and location with Germany can barely be exaggerated. In 2017, when it became clear we were to leave London, we bought a period flat in Frankfurt with four bedrooms in one of the nicest areas which was previously rented out for less than £1,200 a month. Per square foot, rent in London was almost three times that.
My decision to leave London was not triggered by housing costs nor Brexit. After eight years abroad, my wife’s employer thought it was time to move her back to Germany. Yet Britain’s decision to exit the EU made leaving London emotionally much easier.
All of my British friends backed remain and are in despair over the vote’s outcome. While I never experienced personal resentments, something changed after June 23 2016. As German citizens, we did not feel as welcome and I started to feel estranged from the country I had lived in for almost a decade. Yet after our last box was loaded into the lorry that was heading to Frankfurt, and I was left with one suitcase in our empty flat, I shed a tear. That had never happened when I left Düsseldorf for London eight years before.
Look Mum No Hands A legendary cycling café on Old Street is a top tip, whether you need a new chain for your bike, lunch or just a coffee. It even sells Germany’s best beer, Rothaus Tannenzäpfle.
Southbank waterfront Here on a Friday night near the full moon is where the Friday Night Ride to the Coast, an eccentric bike ride, starts (more information at fridaynightridetothecoast.blogspot.com).
Broadway Market A lovely east London street market on Saturday mornings where you can buy fresh groceries, great cheese, second-hand Barbour jackets and, on 6 Broadway Market, books in one of London’s nicest independent bookshops.
- From 2010 to 2017, average property prices for second-hand homes in the Greater London area rose 50 per cent to £613,000, according to research by Savills based on Land Registry data
- In Highbury, the North London district where Olaf Storbeck used to live, average prices over the same period rose 55 per cent to £781,000
What you can buy for . . .
£1m A two-bedroom mansion block apartment covering approximately 800 sq ft overlooking Highbury Fields
£2.5m A house with three to four bedrooms with 2,000 sq ft and a small garden in Islington
£5m A large four- or five-bedroom house on Highbury Hill, with a good garden
Olaf Storbeck is an FT correspondent in Frankfurt
More homes at propertylistings.ft.com
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