Landing in a new city is as exhilarating as it is disorienting. You are tired and probably hungry. Your head is buzzing with I'm finally here. The smells and sounds are off, and you're not sure what they are telling you, but hey - at least they speak English here.
My travel to London went off without a hitch, starting at 4:10 PST and ending sometime around 13:30 GMT the next day. Four intermittently wailing babies and an angsty, teenaged seatmate threatened to derail my smooth flight, but I had came prepared with the impenetrable combination of earplugs and noise-canceling headphones and supplemented with a couple drinks and a movie to pass the time.
I arrived at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) and made my way for the Heathrow Express, a direct train to Paddington Station, the inspiration (literal location?) for the magical station in the Harry Potter books. From there, a taxi put me half a block away from my temporary home at 10a James Street, London, right across from the Covent Garden Tube stop. Managing to stay awake for the rest of the day day, I wandered the Covent Garden neighborhood in search of food, coffee, shampoo, a British SIM card, and a few other essentials.
And I got horribly, mind-bogglingly, helplessly lost.
I thought I had a vague sense of direction from the taxi ride in. Out the door, turn right, straight for a while, remember the corner shops to get back. Good plan, poor execution. I passed people handing out soap samples at least four times. I looked down every corner, straining to see the familiar Underground sign that would mark my street. Nothing. After a couple hours wandering within the same 2 square blocks, I finally took the right series of random turns and ended up back at the intersection where I'd been dropped off. Whew.
I would later learn that streets here are not only lacking any meaningful labels or signage - they meet at non-right angles, change direction mid-street without meeting another street, and generally meander drunkenly in non-ordinal directions. Also, I learned if you attempt to trust your sense of direction in a new city after about 4 hours of sleep in the last 48, you're going to have a bad time.
I ate a meat pie for dinner at the pub directly below our flat the first night. It was about as bad as it sounds.
In the days following, I generally settled in nicely, buying a bike, joining a climbing gym in a castle, and (slowly) finding where to purchase things like food and shoes that don't have holes in them. Freezing temperatures plus running shoes was a bad idea, and I take full responsibility.
The jetlag was miserable for the first week, but by far the hardest adjustment has been that I now live mostly alone, not with 7+ housemates whose company I enjoyed even more than I realized. These compounded one another, as the hour or two of sleeplessness in the middle of the night left me feeling more alone than I've felt in a very long time. My friends are awesome, and they deserve to be missed greatly.
After that, the logistics of biking on the left side of the street were surprisingly disorienting at first. Although I am now a proud ambi-turner, it took me days to work up the courage to turn right - I would just dismount and go through a crosswalk instead.
And as opposed to avocados the size of mangoes, my experience with British cuisine has been less than inspiring. It tends to be gravy-soaked, bland, fatty, and devoid of anything that grew in the ground or on a tree. Ethnic food is somewhat better, but I think I've been to a grand total of one restaurant that would manage to stay open longer than a couple months in the Bay Area.
Nevertheless, London is starting to win me over. Her people are warm and friendly, and her streets are packed densely with new opportunities and a charm that only the old world can genuinely deliver. Yes - this will be a magnificent place to call home for a year.