When I arrived in London two years ago it was raining, it was grey and it took me a quarter of an hour to change from the Bakerloo to the Hammersmith and City line in Paddington, without using an iPhone map. This was the area where I had booked my hotel, the night before my job interview. Now I think of Paddington as the purgatory of London, where enterprising Europeans find a cheap hotel to transform themselves from tourists still excited about the idea of going to Oxford Street into proper unexcitable Londoners.
The morning of the interview it was raining, it was grey and I had no idea of how to turn the pages of the Financial Times without killing my seat-neighbour. I still wonder why a newspaper mostly read by people going to the City on the tube is engineered to be so tube-unfriendly.
The interview went well, I guessed what team the manager supported and I did understand his foreign Northern England accent. What really struck me, though, was his last request: you will start on Friday, and here we have dress-down Friday. “Oh great, thank you”. I had no idea what that meant. How badly do you have to dress on a dress down Friday? What’s a dress code? It was a concept beyond “Continental” business language. In Italy the only rule is to dress better than anyone around you, unless you are a journalist. In other Northern countries the rule is to dress worse than anyone around you, especially if you are a journalist.
So there I was, having done my best to be completely dressed down on my first day of work in this country, while outside it was raining and the sky was grey. It was July and I still believed Summer existed.
It didn’t really matter. There was something in that British rain that called me and many privileged migrants to this city that continuously absorbs millions of lives in the innards of the tube to then expel them into a world of dressed up business people.
I didn’t know Italy, France and Spain had such a large population until I came to London. Italians have even overtaken Russians as first buyers of prime London properties, according to agency Knight Frank, with many of them working in finance. Some say that London is the sixth largest French city, with some 300,000 Napoleonic citizens.
So why are we all here? This is the question I am trying to answer.
The latest UK unemployment figures show that the jobless total has decreased to 2.51 million, while the number of people in work has risen by 24,000 in the three months to April.
These figures are better than in many other European countries, but they are not enough to explain the appeal of this country and its capital to many highly educated and experienced Europeans.
I left my secure Euro-welfearised job to come here. Was it for the money? Not at all: in London you dream about earning more money, so that you can spend it on a hideously expensive rent.
My contract is much weaker compared to my Italian one. But when I meet with my friends on Sunday at “our” pub in Pimlico nobody seems to be too bothered about the easiness with which that contract can be broken. This lightness – in the back of our mind – is part of the attraction. It’s what makes things move in an era where speed is the key factor and the economy is less and less made of tangible goods. It’s – and this is where part of the calamite-effect comes from – the possibility to accept new energy. Looking at the faces sitting around that pub I hear lots of languages – or lots of ways of speaking English – and one thing becomes clear: to be a real Londoner you cannot be really from London. You have to be like wind, and become part of the energy that flows into the city. The capital of the country is a huge vase that contains people who left their roots but have found a way to grow. And it is not only for its geographical position that London has become such a crucial centre for finance, a world based on volatility, on speed, on risk and on what is defined in opposition to the “real” economy.
Will the appeal and the energy of this country collapse as a Lehman Brothers dream?
Two years later, 457 Costa coffees, some warm beers and many typically British curries later, outside it’s raining and the sky is grey. I believe Summer exists only on the Central line, not in real life. At the pub we complain about the weather, the NHS and the bad wine, which as soon as it arrives in England becomes sad, expensive and 10 times less good. Many know that a life here has its risks and shortcomings, but the bet has been successful so far. Keep the umbrella in your handbag, and it will be a sunny day.