Lara was born in Windhoek but spent most of her adult life working in Cape Town in the hospitality industry. Her passions are wine, food and service… In that order as well.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Windhoek, Namibia.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: London, United Kingdom.
Q: When did you move here?
A: February 2021.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
Q: Reason for moving?
A: The lack of support in SA during Covid. I used to be a sommelier/beverage consultant, and there was absolutely no support for the restaurant/tourist industry. I was lucky enough to have someone who I could stay with in London and to have the funds to pay for a ‘no funds/independent’ type of visa.
Living in London
Q: What do you enjoy most about London in general?
A: The freedom, safety and opportunity, and meeting people from all walks of life. Oh, and online shopping with delivery within two days! And, of course, the fact that it is so easy to commute to different places and countries.
Q: Have you had any low points? What do you miss most about home?
A: Oh, yes! I miss the culture, nature and winelands and my people.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience culture shock at all?
A: I did not really experience any culture shock. Life is just a lot faster here than back home in Cape Town. There are a few things you need to adjust to. You have to travel with your groceries on a bus or train (if you don’t order it online). The thing that I probably miss the most is driving to a mall and buying everything in one go and putting it in your car. One thing that I also realised early on is that people here don’t really care who you are or what you look like. This can be a good and a bad thing. It is difficult to make friends with the locals; I guess that is why a lot of South Africans live in specific areas where there’s a lot of Saffas (South Africans). But that takes away the opportunity to meet people from different cultures and to grow as a person as well. I have a lot of learning to do – here you are a very small fish in a massive pond!
Q: What are your favourite things to do on the weekend? Any particular places or experiences you’d recommend to fellow expats?
A: I work in hospitality, so there are no weekends for me. But what I absolutely love about London is that no matter what the weather or day of the week, people are out and about enjoying life. I love going to the park (there are so many here), lying on the grass, having a bottle of rosé, and reading a book. Going to all the museums, walking along the Thames, going to the theatre. Discovering different food cultures, going to a wine bar or a club, etc. So many things to do. Hopping on a train or the Eurostar and spending time in a different country every week, even just for two days. Everyone must go to Borough Market – it is my go-to place for everything.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything especially expensive or cheap in London?
A: It is cheaper living here (buying food and clothes) – the only thing more expensive than South Africa (in comparison) is rent. I would not recommend moving here alone if you don’t want to share a house. You will need to share a house with someone to enjoy the perks of living here. At least half of your salary will go towards rent, council tax, electricity, gas, etc.
Q: What’s public transport like in London and across the UK?
A: A dream! You can hop on a bus or train all over London and most other destinations in Europe.
Q: What do you think about the healthcare available in London? What should expats expect of local doctors and hospitals?
A: Healthcare now is dismal. Covid changed everything. Just too many people and not enough doctors or facilities. You still get a lot of things for free, but do not expect to see a doctor immediately or tomorrow like back home. You will have to wait a few days or weeks to see someone. The great thing, though, is that you can call or email your doctor for a script. That will be emailed to your local pharmacy for free, and your meds will be a minimal fee. I do think that the new PM will focus more on fixing the NHS, so hopefully this will also improve soon.
Q: What’s the standard of housing like in London? What different options are available?
A: House-share or rent. Most places are furnished, so you at least don’t have to spend money on furniture and appliances.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Southwest of London is just divine (SW postcode). Easy access to most places, and the people are also really nice. Living is definitely a little bit easier, and you will have a pub on almost all corners. That is the goal living here, to have your own local pub!
Meeting people and making friends
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: No, it was not easy. You end up being close to your work colleagues in the beginning and meeting their friends, etc. I find London quite difficult because there’s just so many different cultures and types of people. People here are also very independent and keep their groups small. It is a great place if you just want to get on with it. If you go to a pub, you end up making lots of friends anyway, even just for the evening.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: I have not met any other expats. It really does make a difference where you live. South Africans tend to live in the areas known for expats. I lived in places where I am close to work, and they have more of a local feel.
Working in London
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I used an agency. It was relatively easy but an extremely long and expensive process.
Q: What is the economic climate in London like?
A: Positive. People here complain about mediocre things. For example, waiting for a bus longer than five minutes. I am one of those people now. Ridiculous! In general, people are not really worried about the economy, just the energy crisis that’s a global problem. There’s more positivity in general with a new PM being announced this week. We have a lot of tourists visiting London, and people here work hard. There’s a real buzz all the time. Locals support their city as well. The only problem we are facing is not having enough chefs and hospitality people due to Brexit.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: Fast paced! Back home, I was well known in the industry, and here I had to start at the bottom again (although I was promoted early on). The competition here is just insane. I learned a hell of a lot the last year and a half and still have a long way to go to be where I want to be or to even just be on a competitive level. What I can say is that South Africans are very popular here as employees because of our work ethic. Not always a good thing, because a lot of the locals don’t allow employers to take advantage of them. People in general are a lot more vocal about what they want and don't want, especially after Covid.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to London?
A: The grass is not always greener on the other side, but it really is worth exploring with a positive mindset. London is extremely hard and fast-paced, and people are not so friendly, but I would not change it for anything in the world right now. It is so exhilarating, just the best experience really. I am growing as a person every single day, through all the ups and downs. Africa will of course always be home, and I will return one day. For now, it is a great holiday destination and I promote it as much as possible, especially Cape Town, my ‘Moederstad’ (Mother City).
►Interviewed September 2022