It's been a good decade since I packed a bag and flew from Auckland to London to work 'for a year or so'. I came with big dreams and romantic big ideas about London, about seeing the world and about forging a career as a writer. This week, waking up on a London summer's morning (raining, sure, but you get used to that), I read with some bemusement Alex Hazlehurst's story about finding work here. "I'm talented. I'm hard-working. I'm blonde. So why can't I find a job in London?", read the headline. Hey, I'm talented. I'm hard-working. I'm blonde. And it didn't make my quest for a career in London any easier. The difference between Alex and I is that I never thought it would.
Let's get one thing straight: London was never an easy gig for Kiwis. Not 10 years ago, not now. We're warmly welcomed, yes, the friendly, non-threatening cousins from Middle Earth. Like Alex, I was told time and again that "UK employers LOVE New Zealanders," but the second half of that memo was always, "because we have such a strong work ethic". If anything gives us Kiwis a head start, it's our positive can-do attitude and appreciation for opportunity. The work experience we gain back home converts to a lesser value over here; it's not apples for apples. When up against candidates from the UK, Europe and USA, we're little apples indeed.
My story started in much the same way, albeit back in those alleged glory days of unfettered expat opportunity. I arrived in London in the spring of 2005, and despite being a qualified travel agent (I felt this was a quick route to travel writing - there lies my own naivety) and registering with a London recruitment agency before I left home, it still took me two months to get a gig. Many employers wanted someone with more UK experience: a common Catch-22. Fortunately my first temp appointment was extended regularly over the best part of a year, paying my rent while I found my feet. Because - and this surprised me at the time - British culture is actually quite different to that of New Zealand, and it requires a fair bit of adjusting. Simply getting my bearings, as well as my head around the value of a quid compared to the NZ dollar, took some time.
I lived in an ex-council block with no living room, and my Australian flatmate was another qualified professional, temping as a legal secretary. We'd go for weeks without temp work, living off veggies doused in Bisto. ('The broccoli and gravy years', as they're now known.) To be honest, this was standard expat life. We were trying to make it in London, with all its highs and lows, and it was really, really exciting. I would not have changed those challenging early years for anything. This was all part of our Overseas Experience.
Meanwhile, short-term contracts came in dribs and drabs, and I continued to apply for jobs in publishing. I started taking on admin work, broadening my skill-set and creating a more realistic stepping stone for myself. I accepted a job as a receptionist at a law firm - hardly my dream gig, but being able to support yourself in this incredible city is half the goal. Get some income first, establish your footing, then work on polishing your career. At the end of the day, we all want to make it and with double the population of New Zealand living in this one metropolis, the path to your goals is always going to be crowded. The idea that you can rock up and walk into a job is little more than misinformed banter. Be determined, but be patient... and above all, enjoy the ride!
After all, you don't move to London just for gainful employment. Here there are eye-opening things happening around you every day: the good, the bad and the ugly. Among many other historic happenings I've been here through the London bombings, the Olympic Games, a Royal wedding, two Royal babies and a Jubilee, not to mention the construction of The Shard from start to finish. I've enjoyed the benefits of cheap overseas travel, having world-famous concerts and exhibitions on my doorstep, and being surrounded by cutting-edge food and fashion. It's a cliché, but when Samuel Johnson said "You're tired of London, you're tired of life," he really wasn't wrong. Whatever you're into, London provides, and there's always something new to discover.
Finally, after 5 years of slogging it out in the corporate world, including a run-in with redundancy when the recession hit, I finally got my foot in the media door. I was hired as an editorial assistant, happily wearing the £7k pay drop. After that job the next few years were like swimming upstream, chasing unpaid internships, approaching publications, getting freelance writing commissions, (taking more temp work again to help me cover the rent - thank goodness for that admin experience!) and training as a sub-editor. I've effectively started from the bottom twice in the last 10 years. It hasn't been easy, but it's always been possible, and that's the key thing to remember. London lets you be whatever you want to be, if you're willing to work for it. Today I'm a published writer and a sub-editor for a major food and travel magazine. I feel incredibly lucky, but at the end of the day we make our own luck. It's nowt to do with being young, blonde and Kiwi.
I appreciate that everyone's experience is different. Alex forged her own path and overcame her own obstacles, just as I have. Each OE is a personal journey. But please don't be fooled: there was never a gold-paved road for expat New Zealanders and anyone who tells you so is either misinformed, pulling your leg, or they got exceptionally lucky. London might be a difficult city to start a new life in, but trust me, it's not out to get you. If anything it will tell you to pull your socks up, force you to go after what you want, make you stronger, better, and offer you mind-blowing experiences along the way. You could stay in New Zealand and steadily climb your chosen ladder, or you can come to London and throw yourself into the delicious uncertainty of possibility. Come determined, do a good job and be prepared to stick it out. And to be fair, Alex Hazlehurst was not entirely misinformed. She recalls being told, "It's the greatest city in the world, you will have the time of your life!" They were right - you absolutely will.