“London is like a beautiful, high maintenance girlfriend who I’m waiting to break up with.”Illustration by Danielle Meder
[S]o it has been seventeen months in London. Seventeen months of novelty, bureaucracy, existential crises, loneliness, rejection, vacation, wondering, wandering, cash flow issues, random encounters, queues, new friends, risky behaviour, confined spaces, grandeur, wrong turns and righteous reinvention.
How do you prepare for the unknown? I don’t think you can. I’m not a planner by nature. I’ve found my independent, creative career and my greatest pleasures in an intuitive way; feeling my way along without a map, moving toward the good, and discarding the bad as I go.
I am a freelance fashion writer, and because my industry is fashion, I wanted to see if I could handle the competition of a fashion capital.
When I moved to London, it was my first time in Europe and all I had were the general ideas you get from a decent education and a heavy media diet. I had only a handful of acquaintances there. I didn’t even buy a map of the city until I landed. That was 17 months ago.
People ask me if I love London – and I joke that London is like a beautiful, high maintenance girlfriend who I’m waiting to break up with. After a while you stop asking why when you have to open your wallet, and just give a bitter laugh as you hand all your pounds over. Yet, when you tell your friends you live in London, they’re impressed and envious.
At the same time, London is the world’s most sprawling casino. When you’re winning at London, you feel brilliant. When you’re losing at London, you feel like an abject failure. London deals out euphoria and downright hostility, but without much in between. It is not a city you can cruise along comfortably in. Especially if the nature of your occupation is inconsistent.
There have been so many moments when I’ve grit my teeth and tolerated difficult situations because I didn’t want to lose at London. The first six months here were brutal – defined by isolation, obscurity and squalor. I had been used to having a large downtown studio, fairly steady work, lots of friends and a busy social life in Toronto. In London, I was lonely. Since I didn’t go to school or have a proper job in London, I didn’t have any of the conventional opportunities to meet people or make friends. My living circumstances were drastically reduced to a tiny room in a shared former council flat. My flatmates were nice, but we didn’t have enough in common to become close. I had lost the portion of my income that was location-based, and I was burning through my modest savings at an alarming speed.
[A]s a freelancer, your working life is unpredictable. You have to roll with the uncertainty, holding a kind of irrational faith that everything will turn out okay. That’s easier to do when you’ve got family and friends around you to bulwark your ego against the inevitable dry spells. It’s much more difficult when you’re on your own. A couple months after my move, I had two months in a row where I earned… nothing. “Zero months” have happened before – but two in a row, compounded on top of my situation at the time, made for a high-anxiety freelancing first. Did I respond by hunkering down and hustling? At first, no. I spiralled a bit, making some self-destructive, emotional choices and spending money I couldn’t afford to spend, impulsively going to Paris for Fashion Week – on credit. I was 28 going on 19.
I’m lucky that I’m lucky. I had a happy childhood and am blessed to possess a resilient sense of self-confidence. Existential crises are a recurring theme for the self-employed creative – I call them “freelancer’s vacations”. Still, no matter how bad they are, they always feel possible to overcome. At the time, I was filling in a diary for a side project. As I was reading over my entries, I realized how repetitive my concerns were – lonely, money, lonely, money, lonely, money, and so on. Having isolated these two problems, it was clear that I had to come up with some kind of solution. It was time to get clever and grow up a bit.
I wrote down lists. Updated my long-disused CV and hit the pavement looking for part-time jobs. Drew up airy-fairy woo-woo vision quest diagrams. Because my store-front to the world is my website, it was a major priority. Sorting out my blog, my business and my brain were all tied together. I stripped the site down to essential elements and for the first time as a blogger, made conscious strategic decisions about what was important. This was about formalizing the transformation of my life and livelihood from city-specific to international. The need to clarify my purpose was long-overdue and the deadbeat downtime was the perfect opportunity to do it. In the absence of family or relationships, I poured myself into my work.
It did seem at the time like I wasn’t doing enough – a lot of what I was spending energy on was mental work – attitude adjustment, refocusing. The line between polishing and procrastination is a fine one that I’m well aware of. The proof would be in the results, if there were any. Turned out, I had managed to stay on the right side of the invisible line. The changes I had made to the blog had re-ignited my passion for it. Inspiration was fired up, and the responses were very positive. The patron saint of casual workers, San Precario, must have been on my side too because my inbox once again had a steady trickle of inquiries, and then in due course, deadlines. The time and energy I had poured into my business began to deliver returns, and when I did get offered part-time work, I felt optimistic enough to turn it down.
Heartened, I decided to take a financial risk and rent a desk in a shared office, just a five minute walk from my flat. Up until that point, I had felt that I needed to keep my overhead minimal and was working from a small school desk beside my single bed. As a workspace, a bedroom is confining physically and psychologically. The desk-share was expensive but worth it I wanted people in my life who would notice when I wasn’t around. It was a great decision – as soon as I had done it I wondered why I hadn’t done it earlier. My desk-mates were all around my age, and even though we all had different businesses in different industries, we shared a lot of the same challenges. Being able to share space and experiences was expansive and positive. The effects on my emotional well-being were remarkable. Plus, when you love going to your office, you spend a lot of time there, work harder, and that brings rewards in turn.
[T]hus, the second chapter of my life in London had begun. I had finally developed a level of social momentum which meant that meeting new people stopped feeling like hard work and started to become spontaneous. Real friendships were forming naturally, in their due course. I had acquired several new clients, some prestigious, and some recurring, and I paid off my credit card debt and started saving again. The blog was on fire – I was writing what I still consider to be some of my best posts, ever, and was beginning to reach a new international audience. Six months later, my visitor statistics had doubled.
A happy life has a good balance of novelty and routine and as the first year in London came to a close I was beginning to achieve that balance. I was feeling short bursts and then extended periods, of contentment.
Having overcome my discomfort, I was open to really absorbing my environment. The cultural and historical texture of this city has informed the way I perceive my subject and the social emphasis on taste and education has helped me practice my craft at a higher level.
Before I moved, I had thought that moving to a fashion capital would be good for my business – that maybe I would make some new contacts. What I discovered was that for me, London was more about personal growth, indirectly allowing me to completely unchain my career from the city I live in.
[N]ow, people ask me if I’ll stay in London. I guess I could figure out a way to extend my visa if I really wanted to, but to be honest, I don’t feel strongly enough about the city to make the effort. As much as I enjoy living in a vibrant, major international city, I’m not convinced that the sacrifices I make to be here are worth it for the long term. The nature of being self-employed in a non-location-specific business means that I could live anywhere in the world. I miss being near my family, and there’s no reason why I can’t be. Also, living in an expensive city with high overhead is a liability. Living in a smaller, cheaper city would be like giving myself a raise. At the cusp of the age of 30 , I’m ready to improve my quality of life and save for my future.
If I can create a good life for myself in London, I’m betting making the switch to a new city with a lower cost of living will be a cinch.
Looking towards a final seven months in London, I’m conscious of not taking the city for granted, and I’m enjoying it more than ever. London taught me that risky moves are worth it.
Danielle Meder is a professional fashion illustrator and a trend theorist, currently based in London, UK. Meder graduated from Ryerson University in 2006 from the Fashion Design program. Meder can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org or finalfashion.ca.