April 1997 – New Zealand to London – The Adventures of an Expat Kiwi
Sitting on a plane to the other side of the world, not yet 20 years old…
I had dropped out of a tertiary education course that wasn’t heading towards a degree, took the maximum student loan drawdown and bought a one-way ticket to London…
Of course, I had every intention to repay that loan, just as soon as I landed, found a job and started saving up to travel the world…
I’d heard that it was totally possible and indeed plausible to get a job in a pub, live upstairs, work hard and save money to travel… What I hadn’t heard about was that there was a lot more drinking involved and a lot less saving money…
I landed in London on a typically dreary April morning (actually it could equally have been an afternoon) jetlag was still an exciting thing in those days, filling up on the airline snacks and free mini-booze bottles, life was good, life was an adventure, who needed sleep?
I had just become an Expat Kiwi!
I had slightly less than £1000 to my name, no real skills, hardly any job experience and plenty of enthusiasm! What could go wrong?
Sitting on the Heathrow to London underground train as it moved, over-ground through the suburbs, past the backyards of grey brick houses, I had a distinct feeling that something was wrong with this place… Never mind, I wasn’t headed to the suburbs, I was headed to the bright lights and cheap hostels of Hyde Park!
I had stayed in London for a brief stopover on my return from Russia two years earlier, where I had been an exchange student. We had been put up in a fairly tired but perhaps historical hotel near Hyde Park in Lancaster Gate and had the opportunity to explore the city while we gathered a few other students from different countries in order to travel back together with our chaperone. We didn’t really need a chaperone. We had been let loose in post-Soviet Russia for a year, by this stage we were pretty well able to handle ourselves, not least with hard spirits…
Since I was slightly familiar with the area, Lancaster Gate was the first destination. I found a hostel at an eye-watering £15 per night in a shared room and booked myself in until the weekend when all of the beds were booked out. I’d work that detail out later.
First stop was a visit to the Doctor Martin Store in Covent Garden to buy a pair of black 8-hole Docs…
It was fun and exciting to be riding around London on the tube, passing historic stations and wondering what it looked like above ground… Regents Park, Oxford Street, Kensington Gardens… So exotic for a kid from small-town New Zealand. Of course, all of the different tube lines got confusing; the different levels and platforms, the line colours and working out which direction the train was actually travelling in.
On one such early Tube journey I was standing in the doorway of a train that was about to leave and asked the two guys sitting in front of me if this train was going to my destination… ‘No’ they both said emphatically… I stepped off the train… And then began the baiting… ‘Yes’ they both said equally emphatically… I stepped back on the train… ‘No’ again… I stepped off… The beeping sound of the doors closing… ‘Get on, get on’ get on’ they insisted… I stepped back onto the train…
The doors slid closed… They informed me solemnly that I was in fact on the wrong train. My face fell like I’d just been given a terminal diagnosis. Of course, I could simply get off at the next stop and I was in no hurry to get anywhere, no job to be late for… But my newly-arrived-in-London-brain didn’t compute this fact. I was feeling a little disoriented, London was a big, busy city with lots of people, roads, underground lines. So much I didn’t know and didn’t yet understand. Was I feeling a little homesick? Never!
Then they started laughing. They laughed and told me I was actually on the right train, take a seat, relax. At this point, I wasn’t about to put my trust in their hands and was understandably sceptical. They apologised for winding me up. This was my first introduction to British humour. Thankfully, after all of this, I was on the right train, heading in the right direction!
After paying my rent, buying the Docs and eating, I realised that my money wasn’t going to last very long at all… Time to find that magic pub job!
I don’t remember exactly, because we are talking about 1997, but I think I had some sort of printed piece of paper, known as a CV.
I guess that I didn’t have a real address or a phone number (mobile phones weren’t really something that normal people had yet) so I have no idea how I was going to get a callback, but I went door to door around the pubs of Lancaster Gate and Eastbourne Terrace. With no luck there I ventured forth to Paddington, where the landlady of the Sawyers Arms took a chance on me and gave me a job in the upstairs restaurant as a waiter.
She was a heavyset Irish woman with short red hair and a temper (and in retrospect, maybe a little bit of a drinking problem?). She had a passionate hate for what she called ‘Fitbas’
Fitbas were under no circumstances allowed into the pub!
She once came down from her office to find the pub filled with Fitbas. She was a forceful woman and swiftly ejected said Fitbas from the pub, I presume with a pressure to drink up and piss off and not return…
In case you’re wondering, Fitbas were in fact Football Fans, who at the time still had a strong domestic and international reputation for violence and general hooliganism, as well as copious alcohol consumption.
A potentially good clientele, until they kick off and destroy the pub… As a Kiwi who is genetically inclined to support first the All Blacks and second any other New Zealand team, and as a general policy, shied away from hooliganism, I was a proponent for her ‘No Fitbas’ policy.
As it turns out, there were very limited opportunities to stay above the pub, and these had already been nabbed by the earlier hires, the Eastern European couple who cooked in the kitchen and the full-time Australian bar staff. But there was plenty of drinking!
After the pub and restaurant closed at night we would go en-mass to the local Sports Bar where they had drinks specials and other London bar and restaurant staff would gather to spend their hard-earned cash…
On my first visit to the famed Sports Bar, as I queued to be served, in front of me at the bar were the two guys from the tube that had messed with me. Now in a city of some 11 million people, this is not something that happens often, so naturally, they bought me a pint and we had a laugh about the situation.
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