LONDON - It goes pretty much without exception that an hour after arriving in London, every newcomer wants to exclaim ‘this city is so expensive.’ No matter with who or where you crash, your stay is bound to empty most of your well-saved travel money, often leaving you feeling like you didn’t even buy anything.
One hour in a pub, a simple meal in a take-out place, a ride into the city – these things shouldn’t make you want to count the leftovers in your wallet, but here they do. Fortunately, I quickly learned that there are also perks and freebies most visitors and immigrants tend to miss.
As I am a strong believer in exploring the existing benefits and avoiding the inevitable complaints and comparisons with any better place, I researched what’s typical of London a couple of months before my move there. It seemed that socializing, networking and any kind of intellectualizing was the way of life in this somewhat fast-paced city.
This isn’t the Lonely Planet, so I am not going to warn you about the sky-high lunch meal, coffee and tube prices and tell you to buy a weekly pass before you have spent most of your money on transport (but do that). My wise direction was actually shown by a couple of men as I was quick to profile myself on one of those ‘dating’ sites, where everyone claims they log on to chat and not chat up. But where else to seek the real local opinions?
As there were categories like ‘friends’ and ‘activity partners,’ I figured it was safe to at least check it out and, as a result, I found several gentlemen interested in showing me around and introducing me to their idea of the city.
First of all, benefits that quickly became my absolute favorite was eventbrite.com. Without going into a loud oh-my-God I must warn you – this site can become more than just a door-opener to London’s society. It can lure you in and make you addicted to all the fascinating opportunities UK’s capital has to offer, and I don’t mean anything touristy. This is for people who want to know the higher circles and meet people who work and achieve things here. I am talking about events with, often but not always, free food and drinks where you mingle and shake hands with CEOs of growing and expanding global enterprises.
Within hours after my arrival and with my suitcase still stacked under the pub table, I was discussing the advertising industry, which makes the rest of the world shiver with its original ideas. I was introduced to people who were my age and, without any real knowledge about programming, ran Web sites and Web-based businesses. It was actually funny to be speaking English and not really comprehending what they were saying, as their vocabulary at times could be constructed of words like ‘App,’ ‘IPO’ and other abbreviations that might turn out to be acronyms. Nevertheless, it was more than exciting and very informative.
Then I started using my own keywords and attended various PR and marketing-related breakfasts, luncheons and cocktail parties, and my vision opened up to a whole new world of possibilities. I met managers, individual entrepreneurs, business developers and creative types. Some of these weren’t even situated in London but simply flew in for the evening. It was not entirely about who you meet – but you can meet exceptionally cool people during these events. The best benefit is that of the exchange of insights, know-how and way-how. London is a very active and supportive city and people who have made it are very open to taking you in and welcoming you to their brain pool. Once I had the honor to sit through a guest appearance of Shakil Khan, the founder of Spotify, which for me was something like listening to Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs talk about how they started their businesses and what kept the drive on and led them to their success. That stride home afterwards felt like on clouds of inspiration.
The second added value that the UK can be very proud of is their StartUp Britain organization. They seem to be all over the place and full of new ideas. It is a place where to go if you’re interested in starting up anything new, as they actively engage you, back you up with information and ideas and help you to otherwise believe that it is possible and a worthwhile thing to do. Such activities are mainly organized through seminars, experience exchange workshops and various new offers that they come up with on an experimental basis. For example, one such newbie is the PopUp Britain shops, where not-yet-established artists can exhibit and sell their merchandise. It’s a great way to meet the public and see if what you want to do is actually interesting and appealing to any customers.
The other fascinating thing I was fortunate to get myself into was an all-day fashion merchandise event. I woke up in the morning completely blank, and they gave me everything from coffee and donuts to a complete array of meetings and seminars, with guest appearances by sellers, buyers, new designers, investors and manufacturers. There were success stories and pitches, individual interviews and question-and-answer sessions, after-hours and e-mailed follow-ups. It even hosted bookkeepers, lawyers and success consultants to make sure I walked out well-informed and ready to go and start up my new fashion business. Did I mention it was completely for free?
The third, but not least, place to indulge in intellectual and artistic pleasures is the South Bank. It’s hard to describe what it is in a couple of words as I got the impression that it changes its offers and openings from time to time. Let’s just say it’s a space. In one building you find art, music, literature, culture and there’s an open air market with great continental food right outside. Not all of these fabulous treats are for free, but you can always find something that will be, and they aren’t necessarily worse than the ones that ask for the £8 admission.
For example, I saw an exhibition of all-around-the-world photographs that focused on the great tragedies and natural disasters of our generation. Maybe it’s not everyone’s appetizer, but was a very impressive and well-organized display. Plus, there are always many street artists around with their stalls and layouts that host booklets and flyers with information about other venues as well.
As London becomes home for many who speak English as a second language, their literature afternoons might be the place to go to practice reading and discussing books, short stories and even poetry. Just pick up a list and choose what best suits the mood and, often without any registration, show up to talk about you favorite author or manuscript. I spotted even a couple of writing workshops inviting people who speak Spanish-English, French-English and Polish-English to practice writing bilingual poems and articles.
These were three of London’s attractions that led to places, people and discoveries that made my time in this city feel like a trip to magic land. It also served as a modern day education hub as I learned so much new about industries I wouldn’t otherwise even have been interested in. So, maybe it isn’t about the subject, maybe it’s simply about the Great London.