London rises. It emerges from the treetops and chimney pots as I gaze out of my window-seat view on the train. Steel and glass and past and present climbing skywards. Its angles catch the afternoon light, reflecting summer blues and patches of cloud. It brings a jolt to my belly – London!
I’ve been here for just less than three months, after leaving South Africa at the end of May, and I think I’m starting to realise that this is where I live now. The last eight months have brought so many changes that sometimes I have to plot them out, moment by moment, to remind myself how I got here. But get here I did, and I think along the way I learnt a few things about leaving one home and finding another.
Emigrating puts you on the receiving end of unsolicited opinions
When an acquaintance heard I was emigrating, he asked: “Are you sick of South Africa?” Another said, “You must be so relieved to be leaving”. These assumptions were nauseating. I resented the belief that I must be bolting from South Africa, rather than feeling a cocktail of emotions I’d never felt all at once before – excitement and apprehension and curiosity and disbelief and heartache and joy.
There were other remarks, too. A client said, “London? Eugh, I could never live there”, as if I were asking him to come with me. Someone else, a relative stranger, gave me a list of everything he disliked about London two weeks before I left.
Initially, the smallest things are likely to feel overwhelming
Figuring out self-checkouts. Navigating Clapham Junction at 6pm on a Friday evening. Choosing a washing powder brand. Opening a bank account. (Let me tell you about opening a bank account!) In the early days, some of the simplest tasks felt impossible. I’d reached my limit on things around me changing when the washing powder moment happened. It nearly drew tears.
It’s not a forfeiting; it’s a substitution
In my final weeks in South Africa, I was so aware of what I was leaving behind: my cat, my house, my belongings, my city, my people – ache, my people – everything that felt familiar, everything that felt like home. I moved around my house savouring the way the light fell in the kitchen, I felt an amused pang at the cries of hadedas, I gave tighter hugs. I thought a lot about loss.
Recently, speaking to a friend who moved here a year and a half ago, I mentioned this experience. I said that it didn’t feel like a sacrifice, but maybe a forfeiting. “No,” she said. “That doesn’t feel right to me either. It’s not a forfeiting; it’s a substitution. There’s so much lost, but so much gained too.”
I know this. I’ve felt it. The things gained. But having her put it so succinctly set my understanding back on its axis.
You can love more than one place
A friend who’s lived in London for 15 years told me this, and it resonated deeply. I don’t believe London will ever make me feel the way I do when I soak up the Eastern Cape’s beaches, or the vastness of the Karoo, or the Joburg city skyline. I hope not, in fact. Those are my South African places. They have permanent residency in parts of my heart.
But the heart’s chambers have expanding walls, and there has been plenty of room for London to move in, too. And that’s exactly what it’s doing with every verdant park, every sourdough pizza, every foreign accent, every new nook.
There’s such comfort in holding onto your reason
I left South Africa for love. I left because the person and partnership I found was London-based and I couldn’t let go of it. Neither of us could. And the smallest thing – the way he makes me laugh, offers a reassuring touch, gives all of my feelings their space, shows me the city through his eyes – reminds me that this was absolutely the right decision.
So much gained. And the things that I think are lost are, of course, not really lost at all.