Normally, when I look out of the window at London as the plane prepares to land I get an instant joyful rush of being home. But arriving during lockdown to move back after five years living in New York felt different. As I peered out in my N95 respirator face mask, I spotted the familiar landmarks in the early morning light — the winding Thames, all the parks, the Shard, Wembley’s welcoming arch — and yet I felt nervous. Would I be happy here? Or would I be an alien in the place I used to call home?
So much has happened since my partner and I left London in February 2016 that looking back on it now it feels like an alternate reality. David Cameron was Prime Minister, Boris Johnson London Mayor and the Brexit referendum hadn’t happened. In the US, Barack Obama was President and Donald Trump was yet to become the Republican nominee. There were zero cases of Covid-19 and George Floyd was still alive.
Quarantine was a chance to readjust to London. After presenting a hefty pile of documents at Heathrow (negative test results, quarantine test bookings and passenger locator forms for monitoring us while we isolated) we got a taxi through the empty lockdown streets and went straight into isolation.
Over the next six days, from temporary accommodation in the City, we watched London reawaken after lockdown. We marvelled at the green post vans, were shocked by the lack of mask-wearing in the street (in New York when we left it was weird not to), comfort-watched Friends, obsessively checked Rightmove, cursed increased rental prices and observed how a man called Fred (Sirieix, it turns out) now seemed to be on every TV show. The News at Six was a daily highlight.
We also delighted in London food. Honest Burgers, Franco Manca, Nando’s and Tayyabs lamb chops all found their way to our door via Deliveroo —indulgences justified in the name of acclimatisation. Most days we got a call from the Government to check that we were doing as we were told. After getting the all-clear to go outside under the “test to release” scheme, our first couple of days of freedom were overwhelming, with emotional family reunions and taking in our new-old surroundings. But after a few days of wandering and cycling around central London, seeing the nesting swans in Brockwell Park, the pelicans of St James’s Park, shoulder dancing at a friend’s seated outdoor DJ gig in Hackney Wick, I started to regain my bearings. Some things are the same: Britain’s national sports are still drinking and football, in the words of a Portuguese taxi driver telling us why he loves London, “everyone’s here”, and there is so much to do and see.
But a lot has changed. Of course there are new buildings — the Tate Modern extension, One Blackfriars, London Bridge Station, 22 Bishopsgate — Pret is everywhere, as is vegan food, Big Ben is covered in scaffolding, there are far more cyclists and cycle lanes and there are fewer people in central London. There are the landmarks of the deadly tragedies that London has gone through in the last five years — including Grenfell and multiple terror attacks. And then there are the less physical but painfully palpable changes: the staggering loss of life and heightened appreciation of each other’s company after Covid, the fracture of Brexit, Britain’s racial reckoning sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, the financial insecurity of the gig economy.
Being away for the first half of my thirties has also changed me and my relationships. I hopefully have more perspective, I’ve got married (in Stockholm, the summer before the pandemic), made some new friends and my old friendships have evolved.
We speak less, not helped by my refusal to join WhatsApp — I already feel like there are too many communications although I’m quickly realising that if I want to have any friends in London I might have to relent — but have great intense catch-ups when we see each other. Many of my friends have become parents so I now have five new babies to meet.
I had wanted to move to New York ever since I went on holiday there in 2012. A few years later, work opportunities came up so we went for it. Soon after, everything started rapidly changing. First came the Brexit referendum, after which complete strangers on the streets of New York would ask, “How’s Breggsit?” Then a few months later came Trump’s shock election and people in the UK started asking “How’s Trump?”
Life under Trump was frightening, maddening and saddening. But it didn’t make me want to leave because, as a journalist, it felt like an important time to be there and because there was always hope. It was incredibly inspiring to see how New Yorkers reacted. The defiance of all the protests and community organising but also those who ran for office — as embodied by the 2018 election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress. When, last March, coronavirus hit and New York became the world epicentre of the pandemic, the streets cleared and it suddenly went from 24-hour city to ghost town. My partner and I worked from either end of our railroad apartment in Brooklyn, listening fearfully to the haunting wailing of ambulance sirens outside.
Then, following the police murder of Floyd in May, New Yorkers returned to the streets. We awoke to early morning chants of “WAKE UP!” as marches and cycle protests erupted across the city.
When, on an unseasonably warm Saturday in November, Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election, we got the news through our window. The cheering on the streets beat the push notifications to announcing the result. For the rest of the day cars honked, flags flew, bike bells dinged and parks filled with dancing people drinking champagne — very uncharacteristic for New Yorkers. We watched Biden and Kamala Harris’s speeches on our roof with our neighbours. The collective relief was extraordinary.
Like London, New York is a very difficult city to leave. So when my partner’s work required him to move back it was almost a relief that the decision had been made for us.
I would definitely return to New York, or somewhere else in the US. It’s a fascinating and exciting place where, for better and often for worse, anything can happen. But my experience of it has been entirely privileged.
For so many of its citizens, day-to-day life is desperate and dangerous which can make it a difficult place to love. Being in a country where millions of people don’t have health insurance, and where even those who do still have to worry about the cost when they see a doctor, has made me grateful for the NHS.
In my first couple of weeks in London, some things have surprised me. London is more peaceful and friendlier than I remember, the Tube is quite amazing and, ironically, with all the new bike lanes, alfresco dining and electric vehicles it feels more European.
Feeling at home comes at unexpected moments. Finding my legs automatically take me on a shortcut through M&S to the Tube. Balancing an Evening Standard and a coffee while leaning on a pole on the Circle line. And seeing the words “free and open to all” written across the top of Tate Modern for the first time. Coming from a city where the big art galleries often come with expensive entry fees, the sight makes me feel emotional. I take a photo of it and walk on up the Thames thinking that I hope that never changes.