Following in the footsteps of thousands of kiwis before me, I ventured off to London for my OE as a fresh-faced 23-year-old with minimal life experience. All I knew is that I wanted to live somewhere other than Dunedin, do some travel around Europe and make a few memories along the way.
I arrived in London at the back end of 2015 after travelling around Europe for 3 months over the summer. A great time was had, and after many “fresh mojitos" and a couple of lost phones, it was time to head to London to start my new life. Truth be told, I actually chewed through more money than I had planned while travelling and had to cut my trip a couple of weeks short (daily mojitos really add up).
When I arrived in London, I was lucky enough to stay at a friends place for the first couple of weeks while I got settled in and started the arduous process of looking for a job. I didn't know what I wanted to do work-wise but being broke in London was no fun, and I needed some money coming back in.
My only real piece of work experience to date was working in a casino. Not in the gambling part; I don’t even know how to play cards apart from ‘ride the bus’ (a classic student drinking game). So besides having my stock-standard Bcom degree and about 15 months of customer service experience, my CV didn’t exactly scream hire me. I managed to secure my own room in a flat full of Aussies for a few weeks, and it turned out a couple of them were teachers. They both worked for an Aussie teaching agency (funny that) and said the agency was always looking for teachers' assistants to work at schools around London. With nothing else in the pipeline, I thought why not and paid a visit to the agency to see what they could do for me. I walked out of there with a job starting on Monday. The weight slightly lifted off my shoulders, and I could now begin to enjoy my time in London, or so I thought.
A row of flats in Notting Hill
I jumped on the tube on Monday morning and headed to west London, where the school was situated. The school itself was a primary school with a roll count of about 300 pupils. It was an office block type building with one outdoor concrete basketball court providing the kids' only ‘recreation’ area to play. Coming from New Zealand and attending schools where you had big open spaces to run around, it was quite an eye-opener to see how constrictive school life was for kids in London. To prove that the world truly is a tiny place, I was placed in a class with a kiwi teacher, who also had gone to Otago university and who just so happened to know my older brother. This certainly helped me settle into the job faster.
My workday was from 8.30 am until 3.30 pm. I was only being paid for the hours I worked, so by the time payday rolled around, I was only getting 250 pounds (roughly $500NZ a week) in the pocket. After about a month of working, I had moved into a permanent flat with some other kiwis I met through the Kiwis in London Facebook page. The flat was in Wimbledon. It was a lovely area but ages away from my work (it took me just over an hour to get there on the tube). Being quite a nice flat and in a ‘swanky’ part of London, I paid close to 150 pounds a week in rent. A teacher's assistant salary wasn’t going to cut in London, especially if I wanted to enjoy all that London had to offer.
It seemed like every second job advertised in London was for a recruitment consultant. The earning potential attached to these jobs was usually pretty good (or they said it was in the advertisements). Another friend of mine had been in London for about a year and worked as a recruiter for a big firm in the city. He managed to get me an interview at his company. He told me to wear a suit to the interview (which I didn't have), so I had to borrow suit pants and a non-matching suit jacket and tie from my new flatmate. The interview went well, and they invited me to attend their recruitment day the following week. My friend told me the hiring manager said, “your friend is good, but he won’t be working here with a suit like that.’ Duly noted.
At the same time, I interviewed for another job with a ‘recruitment’ startup opening a London office. I think they pitched themselves as the ‘tinder for jobs’ at the time (not a great pitch, in my opinion). The job description was pretty vague, and the pay was significantly less than what I could have got from the recruitment gig, but I was sold the startup dream.
A couple of days after the startup interview, they made me an offer and wanted me to start on Monday. I talked to my friend at the recruitment company and asked him for advice on what I should do. Yes, the pay was good as a recruitment consultant, he said, but the hours were long, and things got pretty stressful if you didn’t hit your targets. Did I really want to be stressing all day about hitting 'targets' and have to wear a suit to work every day? No, I didn’t. Against my better judgement, I accepted the offer at the startup.
The new job was in Notting Hill (yes, the Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts movie) and I had recently moved into another new flat in Finsbury Park in north London. The flat was much closer to the city and my work (about 30 mins door to door) and a little less expensive than my flat in Wimbledon. A win-win, you could say. I had lived in London for a few months by this point, but I felt like I had only hung out with other kiwis. While it was good to develop that network of people in the same boat as me, I hadn't moved to the other side of the world to fall back into my comfort zone and only socialise with other kiwis. I wanted to experience a different culture and meet new people.
My new job was great because it was at a company where many people were my age, and we were mostly at the begininng of our careers. We were looking to learn as much as possible, but we also wanted to enjoy ourselves outside of work. We were in a rather large open-plan office, so there was always people moving around and chatting. Because the company originated in Spain, we had a lot of Spanish people in the office. It was just as common to hear Spanish spoken as it was English. I love the Spanish language (I love all things Spanish), so it didn’t really bother me, but you could tell some British staff weren’t too happy about it. Fair enough as well. You could well be sitting beside someone, and they could be slating you off in Spanish with a smile on their face, and you were none the wiser. I wish I had a Spanish translator on the day's; things weren't going well, as I’m sure this happened all the time.
5 months into the job, the company managed to raise $42 million. We hired lots of people, ran extensive marketing campaigns, and racked up the bar tab in pubs all over Notting Hill. Happy days. Less than 6 months later, most of those new starters had been shown the door, the office parties had stopped, and that $42 million now had a couple of less zeros in it. How often do you read about an NZ company raising $30, $40 or $50 million? I feel like that is something you don’t get exposed to too much in NZ. In London, you would see this kind of capital raising every day. It really does open your eyes to what is achievable if you have the right idea, a good team, and the market is big enough. Apart from raising lots of money, there were some other really great benefits of working for a startup.
The London Underground also known as 'The Tube"
One of the things I miss most about working in London is how easy it was to get to and from work. You were never more than a five-minute walk from a tube station, and the buses came every 5 minutes or so. The main thing, though, is that they actually turned up on time. My bus to work barely ever arrives on time in Auckland, and sometimes it doesn't arrive at all. NZ is light years behind other countries around the world when it comes to public transport, and until we stop our reliance on cars, this ain’t changing any time soon. However, I digress.
London has a reputation as being notoriously expensive. While I was being paid far from a hansom wage (around 46k NZ), I still managed to enjoy myself and save up enough money to do a bit of travel. Yes, rent was expensive; I was paying 550 pounds a month to live in my north London flat with 7 other kiwis, but the location was good, and it had the best-fried chicken shop in London right across the road (there are over 8000 chicken shops in London). Whether it was actually chicken that I was eating is probably up for debate but paying 4 quid for chips, a drink and a couple of pieces of fried ‘chicken’ was right up my alley. Not good for the waistline but great for the wallet.
I spent a lot of time at pubs with many other Londoners, so this is where a lot of my paycheque went. You would pay anywhere from 3.50 to 5 pounds for a pint at most places (this was 2016/2017, so these prices might have gone up slightly). I have actually found NZ more expensive when it comes to going out for drinks, so don’t be put off if you like to knock a few back with your colleagues after work. Grocery shopping is also much cheaper in the UK than in NZ, and I found clothes shopping to be the same if not cheaper in London. Don't go to London thinking you can't afford anything. You can, and as long as your not a complete moron with your money, you can make it work.
One of the main reasons so many kiwis go to London for their OE is that it allows you to travel. There are heaps of international destinations you can get to from London. It is also cheap to do so. You can literally buy a one-way ticket to Spain for 10 pounds. It is the same distance as flying from NZ to Australia. I recently bought tickets to Dunedin from Auckland, and it cost me a $250 return. It doesn’t seem right. Obviously, nobody is travelling now, but when the world returns to normal, there is no better place than London to explore Europe from.
The weather is grim in the UK. There is no sugar coating it. Most days are overcast, and you are never far from a bit of ‘drizzle.” I would be surprised if there has ever been a drought in the UK. In winter, the days a short, and the nights are long. It doesn't get light till about 8 am, and the sun usually sets around 3.30/4 pm. You go to work in the dark and go home in the dark. While the weather is pretty bloody hopeless, you can always catch one of those cheap flights to Spain or Greece for a bit of winter sun. You can't beat London on a good day. When the sun comes out, the city transforms into an oasis. Well, maybe not quite an oasis, but it's a good place to be. Just try to avoid the tube as much as you can in summer. Sweaty armpits in your face and overheated Londoners are no fun for anyone.
I loved my time in London. Yes, the first 6 months were hard, but when you uproot your life to a new city with no job or place to live, it will always take a while to get yourself sorted. Working and living in London was a time in my life, while short, that will hold a lot of importance to me. My eyes were opened to a world outside of New Zealand, I made friends and connections that I still have today, and quite frankly, I grew up a hell of a lot and learned to take care of myself.
The world was a different place when I did my OE. I feel for the Kiwi's whose OE has been ruined by Covid. Life will eventually return to normal, and London will once again become home to many a kiwi on their rite of passage. London isn't for everyone, but I personally wouldn't have wanted to experience my OE anywhere else.