How this American made London her home Part 2: A date with destiny

Photo taken on the steps of my first apartment in London

Now, where did we leave off from How this American made London her home Part 1? I think we need a quick recap. At the time, I’m 22 and I’ve just arrived in London in December 2002. My friend from university met me in the city. We had no place to live, no friends, no jobs and no cell phones (remember this is 2002…. cell phones were just becoming a thing that everybody had). So, we start our adventures nearly freezing to death in a hostel, I cry a million tears in the course of 24 hours and start to think I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life. We then, as a result, end up being the fastest people ever to find permanent accommodation in London so we can start to settle down and enjoy our six months of living abroad as young adults with no idea what on earth they want to do with their lives! Does that accurately bring you up to speed? If not, reread the post so you can get the full picture. 

It should be said that I arrived in London at the beginning of December 2002 for a reason. It would have never been my choice to miss a Christmas with my family. But, the way our visa worked, we had to arrive in the UK, with stamps in our passport, in the same calendar year as our graduation from university. That was the deal and there weren’t any special exceptions for girls who wanted to have one last Christmas with mom and dad, sadly.  In retrospect, I’m not sure why we didn’t just choose to come over after Christmas instead, but it is what it is. I think we were hoping we would find jobs if we came earlier in the month – avoid the Christmas rush and all that. Little did I know that the Christmas parties and accompanying lack of motivation to hire new people had pretty much already started. Our situation was dire. We were definitely up sh*t creek with no paddle in sight. And here’s why that’s scary.

Remember, we had come over to the UK with a pretty small balance of cash in hand. That’s right… there wasn’t even a bank account to speak of yet. So every day that we were living and not making cash was a day that we were eating away at our funds, and in a rather fast way. We had to fork out half of our savings each to secure the flat we now called home. We then had to sign a mobile phone contract and sort out a bank account. I’m not sure how I would classify myself before this move, but I can tell you that the first week in London most definitely threw me into the idea of “this is adulthood.” If someone had told me that moving abroad meant more admin than I’ve ever dealt with in my life, I probably would have just stayed in Carolina. But, I wouldn’t be writing this story if that were the case, so I’m putting on my “be grateful” cap right now. 

So week one. We have a place to live. We have bank accounts. We even have mobile phones. Are you ready to really be thrown back in time? What we didn’t have was the internet. These were the days of internet cafes. In fact, I can tell you, hand on heart, that the Easy internet cafe across from Bond Street Station saw more of my time in December 2002 than any other venue in London. Every day, for at least three hours a day (I have the receipts to prove it), I’d be sitting in a venue filled with computers and the pecking sound of fingers flying across keyboards. I’d sit down and login to my hotmail account and read through all of my personal emails of encouragement from family and friends. I’d write massive updates back about how amazing the Christmas lights were, how I was scared beyond belief by the tube and how I didn’t understand buses (I actually just stood on the side of the road with my hand out as buses would pass…. seriously how moronic was I to think a bus would just stop because I had my hand out on the street?).  After I’d had my fill of personal interaction, I’d take to the job sites and look, apply and wish for an opportunity to come my way. 

Before moving to London, I had written to over 200 galleries, auction houses and museums, to ask after a job in house for six months. I was offering myself up for any opportunity. I’d sweep floors, serve coffee, run errands… anything! I just wanted to be able to work in the wonderful world of art in some capacity in a city that was the capital of the art world at the time. I wanted in on the action. Well, the action didn’t want in on me at all. Before even stepping foot in London, I had over 180 rejection letters back. Yes, these were the days of snail mail. I kept every single letter. I even had a letter back from Buckingham Palace – my favourite at the time, and it still sits on top of the pile. Sitting in the internet cafe, I was getting the same response. There was nothing available. Arney, my roommate, was having the same trouble. We just weren’t finding a way forward and I think both of us were panicking on the inside and trying to showcase a calm exterior. It wasn’t working.

So let’s fast forward to week two. I’ve finally managed to get a hang of the tube. Arney moves around on the tube like she’s lived in London her whole life. Her experiences have always been good. I wish I could say the same. I’m skittish because I was left behind on the tube when I visited London for the first time when I was 14. I was on a school trip and the teacher thought she had all the students on the train, only I wasn’t there. I was still on the platform at Liverpool Street Station. That’s a long story for another time, but the point is that it left me scarred and that stuff is never easy to recover from. But, I managed to overcome and get with the programme. So, I was upping my game in attempting to find gainful employment. This time around I was pleading face to face. After three days of walking into every gallery in Mayfair, I came home with bloodied heels from wearing totally inappropriate shoes, and no job to speak of. So, Arney and I did what any normal broke roommates would do – we sat down and assessed the situation. 

We decided there were no job opportunities at the time. We had exhausted what we felt was every possible avenue. So, we looked at our new bank account statements and made a few calculations. There might be a chance we never find a job. We had to get real about that. But, we were in this amazing country with an amazing opportunity so what should we do right now? The job hunt had to go. Christmas was killing us. No one was hiring so we decided to leave it two weeks, play tourists and re-approach the hunt after January 1st. 

The next two weeks were absolute bliss, although the money worries were never far from our minds. Every single penny was accounted for and I can’t tell you how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were consumed as a result. But, the great part about London, and being a tourist in London, is the fact that there are more free things to do here than you could ever imagine. The museums and galleries are all free admission, which I still find absolutely amazing. And, just walking around the city, exploring all the different areas, is an adventure in itself that’s free and never ending. So, the city was our playground and we, the penny pinchers, were making the most of it.

Come Christmas Day, I was feeling a little more settled in the city. I was definitely crying less and not spending as many days looking up at planes in the sky and counting the days and hours until I was back on a flight to the USA. But, Christmas Day itself was hard. Again, this was my first Christmas away from my family. Another friend of ours from the USA, Christina, had moved over a month before us and was also alone on Christmas Day, so we invited her to come and stay with us for the holiday. She had my dream job at the time. She had come early and nabbed a position as a junior cataloguer at Sotheby’s. Christina was working every day, bringing home a pay check and basically living the high life. We were both seriously envious. When she arrived on Christmas Eve, in Hampstead, she came carrying the best Christmas gifts I can ever remember receiving. She had with her, in a brown paper bag, tastes of home. Stovetop stuffing, pumpkin pie, marshmallows for sweet potatoes and crispy onions for green bean casserole were all laid out before us. I felt like the richest woman in the world and I barely had $400 left to my name. 

That night we filled our bellies with food and wine, we watched movies on Channel 4 and we talked about how incredibly strange it was to be sitting there, in London, on Christmas Day. As fun as it was, I made a promise to myself I’d never spend another Christmas away from home. Let’s just say I’ve made good on that promise. 

Christmas came and went, followed by New Years and we were approaching Mid-Jan at warp speed, or at least it felt like it. We still didn’t have jobs and I was literally down to my last $100. I had my parents on speed email, just in case I needed emergency funds, but I had made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t ask for help and I really truly didn’t want to break that promise. Arney, one day while out and about, found a flyer calling for cater waiters for London events. She brought home the number and called to get us both positions at the training day one night mid-week. We agreed that while our dream jobs were waiting for us to find them, a bit of cater waiting might keep us stay afloat long enough to see our dream become a reality. I went to the class, hated it, but realised I had no other option. We had come 4,000 miles across the ocean to wait tables at big events. I was sure this wasn’t the plan. But, I’ve never been afraid of a little hard work and I wasn’t ready to give up yet. 

Our first event to work was scheduled for the following week. The money was good, the hours were terrible, but at least we were in it to win it together. Only I never made it to the event, as the day after our cater waiter training, I received a phone call from an auction house asking me to come in for an interview. The house wasn’t my top choice, in fact it was the rival of my first choice, but the position was too good to be true. I was interviewing to be the maternity cover of the Manager Director’s Personal Assistant for six months. The time period was perfect. 

On the day of my interview, I put on a black wide leg suit, with a nude camisole and a simple gold chain necklace. I wore flat shoes and I carried a brief case and an umbrella under one arm. Inside my briefcase I had my phone, my wallet and a copy of my resume, which I had photocopied at our local post office the week before. This was the first of 50 copies that I intended to hand out as I went from interview to interview. I tried as hard as I could to look like I belonged in the world of high flying auction houses. I am pretty sure I failed epically. I was still at a stage where the British accent impressed me. I was still the little girl who was looking, doe eyed, around the city as I walked from place to place. I was most definitely a stranger in this town.

But, a strange thing happened when I walked into the auction house. As I sat in the lobby, waiting to be called in to talk with HR, a rather eerie calm came over me. To this day, I can flash back to it and feel that moment. It was one of the first times in my life where I could feel a physical change. I knew this building would be a building I would become very familiar with and I just knew I was in the right place at the right time. I think I was more freaked out by that than anything else. How was I in the right place and time 4,000 miles away from everyone I loved? Surely this couldn’t be real. This wasn’t meant to be? I was sitting there arguing with my destiny. Before I even went into the interview, I knew that my fate was here. I knew this was more than six months and I honestly had no idea why I was feeling like that. I didn’t want it! 

I went in for the interview, met the most beautiful and wonderful soul behind closed doors and was introduced to the Managing Director a mere ten minutes after arriving. The rest, as they say, is history. I was offered the job on the spot and asked if I could start on Monday. I walked out, onto the busy streets of London, feeling like the smallest ant on the sidewalk. In an instant, everything that I had ever wanted to happen in London was happening. I was boarding a fast train, with ticket in hand, and I still had one foot on the platform debating whether or not I wanted this. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I’d come all the way to London to pursue a dream of working in the arts. All of my dreams were coming true and I wasn’t sure this is what I wanted at all. What the hell is that all about? 

Well, it must have been about something, because 15 years later I’m still here. But that’s where the story continues in part 3…..


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