When does a city finally become a home?

By Henriette Neimann and Iman Cavargna-Sani

Studying abroad has become more attractive to students all over the world. According to the statistics, in the school year of 2017/18, the UK was the second most popular study destination in the world. Looking at the numbers of students across the country, more than 450,000 students, who were attending university in the UK, were foreign.

We wanted to explore, what challenges and joys you must face when studying in a foreign country. Five European students have shared their experiences about studying in London and what it takes for a city to become a home. 

I had a chat with Grima Irmudottir, 22, and Emeline Taverne, 20, two girls who I met at the start of my course last year here at LCC. Grima aspires to make films after she graduates and Emeline would like to work in the fashion industry.

When we met, I had already been in London for already a year, and it was fascinating to see how everyone as an individual adapts to a new environment when they encounter one. That new environment being London was a way for me to approach my new friends and share some tips on getting to know the city. 

“What made you move to London?”, I asked Grima. “It was mainly because of my course, BA Contemporary Media Cultures. I wanted to start university and I’d been looking at a lot of places. I’m from Iceland and I used to live in Denmark and France before, so I was thinking about all these cities but I’d never actually been to London in my life.

So, it was mainly me deciding to look at something completely new and living in a different place, but also because of the course the I found at the University of the Arts London, which was the exact balance I was looking for between practical and theoretical… I applied super late! I’d also gotten into other universities outside of the UK. Nevertheless, I decided to move to London two weeks before the course had started. I was so confused! Very randomly I decided to start this adventure in London and here I am now.” 

portrait of grima

Grima Irmudottir [Darnell Christie]

I asked Emeline the same question and she replied that she moved here mainly because of her course and secondly because of the ‘dynamic of London’. “The artistic opportunities are huge, as well as the diversity,” she added.

“I’m happy to have moved here because I’ve gotten so many opportunities in the fashion domain: before, it wasn’t so easy to go to fashion weeks in Paris, whereas now I get to go to every fashion week I want in London. Another aspect which makes me happy to live here is the fact that I can notice how much my English has improved and I also believe that the longer I live here, the better it will get.” 

I want to focus on one thing she mentioned: the diversity of London… what a beautiful thing. I don’t think I’d ever felt more at home before I came to this city. I’m from quite a small town in the south of Switzerland, a place I left almost three years ago. Back when I was living at my parents’, I didn’t feel like I was fitting in with my surroundings; I didn’t feel like I fit in at all. 

High school was dreadful because a lot of people weren’t open-minded enough to accept diversity and deviance, especially when it came to style and culture. In London it’s a different kind of story; you get to be yourself without constantly fearing someone might comment on your style or your culture, your race, your religion or even your sexual orientation. There might be some circumstances in which you may encounter conflicts but not so much since the nature of the city is very multicultural and diverse. 

The appeal to move to a city like London doesn’t only depend on its openness, but also on its beauty, because it is a gorgeous city. Being in London might sometimes feel like being in so many different cities simultaneously.

Even though I’ll always feel French inside, I want to become a Londoner; I do everything the locals do here” – Emeline

In fact, when asked about what she liked doing during her time off, Grima responded: “I like discovering new places because in this city you can always discover something new.  You can try so many new things! What I love about London is this opportunity to travel a lot within the same city. Being in London feels like you’re not in the UK, it’s like a country of its own, a very special place where people come from everywhere.” 

We both agreed to the fact that when we go outside of London, it sometimes feels like leaving one country to go to another one. London was the first city in the UK we had both lived in and for this reason, we sort of see it differently than someone who might have moved here from another part of the country. 

 However, we all know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Brexit is the downside of it all: as foreign students, we still don’t know what we will be entitled to in terms of jobs and settlement rights. I asked Emeline whether she would like to stay in London after she graduates. “Yeah, probably,” she said. “Depending on if I find some well-paid jobs. I really like the city, so I would love to stay longer.” 

The uncertainty of her future in London is something Grima finds challenging: “The country can change that by doing something about Brexit. Don’t let it happen! I feel like London is quite open, there aren’t many places like it.

London is not the city of Londoners, it’s the city of the people that live there. It’s the first city I’ve lived in where I feel like this is a place of the world. There’s a very special energy here.” It is very upsetting to know that, no matter how much we love this city and regard it as ‘ours’, there is this uncertainty about everything. Literally everything. Theresa May hasn’t got a clue either!  

Despite Brexit, we believe there can be ways of coping with the problem: friends. This might sound cliché, but it’s pretty true. Friendships can help make a new place feel like home; at least it worked for me. My friends are my family in London.

When I hang out with them, I just feel like I have a piece of home with me, even though the friends I had back home were very different. Emeline agrees: “When you have friends and family with you, you can be yourself. That’s the main thing you need to have in order to feel at home.” 

Grima didn’t know anyone before moving to London, but found making friends invaluable too: “I’d never been here before. I’ll never stop being grateful to have met this one friend that welcomed me with open arms and showed me around. Having true friends is very important. People you can count on.” 

I asked Grima how often she goes back to her country. “Last year I would go back once a month, but this year I tend to go back less, every two to three months. I suppose it is because I have got more things to do, more friends to hang out with and more interesting events I want to be part of.” 

The people we’ve found here have had quite a big impact on the way we feel towards London, making us feel at home. However, given that it is such a huge and fast-paced city, it can sometimes be challenging to stay in touch with friends and make real connections, Emeline feels: “It’s very easy to make friends with people but it’s such a big city and it’s not always easy to find those friends who will always have your back no matter what. Everyone is so busy here.” 

Grima has also noticed how the busyness of London life has affected her friendships. It took her a long time to come to terms with the fact that she had to make plans weeks in advance with her friends in order for everyone to be able to come: “I’m used to Reykjavik, where I would walk out and meet everyone, I didn’t need to plan ahead.”. 

Do either of them think they will call London their permanent home? “It already is home to me,” says Emeline. “Even though I’ll always feel French inside, I want to become a Londoner; I do everything the locals do here, I have everything they have, such as a UK bank account and address; I share the same language and so on… The only thing I’m missing is a UK passport, really. London is my home.” 

Grima gives a similar response: “London already is my home in a way, but it would fully be my home if I’d really settle down into one neighbourhood and kind of get a stable feeling of where I live, especially in a big city like this one. And most importantly, I’d need to have my own place, because I’ve moved out so many times that I haven’t really gotten the sense of settling down and having my own home, which is something I really want.” 

Celine Eckl, 22, from Germany is currently on an exchange stay in London, where she studies magazine journalism and publishing at University of the Arts London. She has asked to meet me at the Tate Modern Museum by Millennium Bridge because it is her favourite spot in London. “If I had to pick a place in London it would be here. The sun is always on this side. I feel like it is my area,” she says.  

celine on millenium bridge

Celine Eckl [Darnell Christie]

After a few minutes of walking, we find a Starbucks. After ordering our hot drinks, Celine can start telling her story about moving to a new city. Celine arrived in the city just after the new year. It took her a while to get comfortable living in a new city, but it was important for her to feel like a London citizen and not a tourist. “I don’t feel as if I live here if I don’t have a routine,” she says. Doing sports has helped Celine find this routine since she is convinced that she wouldn’t be playing tennis if she was only here for a holiday. 

It was her love for travelling and curiosity to see what living in a city with eight million people had to offer that made her choose London. She explains that the city has an abundance of social possibilities, which are incomparable, which Germany can’t offer in the same extent. Despite this excitement, she had to get used to going from living a five-minute walk from nature to live in a busy metropolis in central London. 

“The absence of nature is why I don’t want to live in a great city for a long term,” she says. To maintain the experience of being in nature, she utilises London’s possibilities for visiting parks and green areas, among others the park Hampstead Heath.  

There didn’t go many days before Celine had a new friend group with other exchange students. “It was nice to meet people and not be alone because if you’re out with someone you can talk to, you feel completely different,” she explains. 

Celine believes that she hasn’t stayed here long enough to connect the feeling of home with London. She needs a sense of familiarity with the city and a proper routine, she claims. “If I say ‘oh that reminds me of home’ I would definitely mean Germany.” 

However, she doesn’t dismiss the idea that London someday might be home to her, while being an exchange student. It will take staying in the city for a longer period and eventually showing her visitors what she loves about the city and where she always goes. “If they feel like you live here, then you might feel the same way,” she says.        

But Celine can still imagine coming back to London for a longer stay. “Later in life, I would like to live with my children in the country. I am more of a countryside girl,” she says. 

The artistic opportunities are huge, as well as the diversity” – Grima 

After sitting at the cafe for around an hour, we have finished our drinks and are almost ready to leave. It is clear that Celine enjoys her stay, despite the deprivations from Germany. But is she looking forward to leaving?  “No, I only think that times fly too fast. I don’t want it to come to the end” Celine says.     

International students do not only contribute to the universities, but they also help to keep the UK economy going. In the 2015-16 school year, the UK economy made a profit of nearly £23 billion, whereas it costs around £2.3 bn to host these students, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). They do not only spend their money on and off campus but their visitors also contribute financially during their stay. 

The students also benefit from studying abroad, according to Universities UK. Outcomes from the 2015-16 graduate cohort show that ‘mobile students’ are 20 per cent less likely to be unemployed half a year after graduation, compared to the ‘non-mobile’ students. Furthermore, 78 per cent of UK undergraduate students are convinced that studying alongside international students ‘prepares them for working in an international environment’.  

Danielle Jukema, 21, from Amsterdam, arrived in London in January to become an exchange student at City, University of London. To her, it is essential to make the most of the stay.  

On her first day in the city, Danielle had a memorable encounter in the grocery store. “I was so lost there and there was some guy who asked me if I wanted to buy some weed, I was traumatized and got so scared,” she says, laughing. 

In Amsterdam, she studies international communication and media. In London, she explores different subjects such as international politics and journalism. Danielle was quick in getting used to the city, despite the fact that it was her first time visiting. But financially, it can be a strain, she admits. “I think it’s a shame London is so expensive. It’s very hard because we are students and we have to look at our budget to pay rent,” she says. 

She thinks that London is different from Amsterdam, as Amsterdamers are more ‘outspoken and extrovert’ whereas the Londoners are more ‘introvert and live in their own bubble’. 

The cultural differences are also something that Celine Eckl from Stuttgart has had to get used to, due to the infamous British politeness. “They always ask how I am and I think: should I ask them back?” Celine says. 

However, both Danielle and Celine have good experiences in finding new friends here, and both felt very welcomed when they arrived. But they share different views in seeing London as their home. 

Danielle already started having the feeling of home during her first weeks. “London doesn’t make me feel at home, but I make it feel like home,” she says. 

She is making sure to keep herself busy, hanging out with friends, decorating her flat, and generally do the same things, as she would have done in Amsterdam. This helps her in increasing the ‘home’ feeling.  

Danielle has her own way of handling the challenges of living in a new city. “You just have to keep reminding yourself of what you are here for and your goals. When you leave, you don’t want to think that you spent your time here in a flat,” she says. “When I go back to Amsterdam, I will definitely say London is my second home.” 

Louise Hebestreit, 22, is from Germany, Heidelberg. She is in London to be an exchange student at the University of the Arts London, where she studies media communications. She says her decision about coming to London was personal. “I have become more mature since I think more about the future, and how I want to live my life, when I go back. I always thought I would stay in the area where my parents live, but now I can probably live somewhere else in Germany or another place,” she says.

portrait of louise

Louise Hebestreit [Darnell Christie]

Her first days in the city didn’t go without problems. She had no internet on her phone, meaning it was harder to navigate where to go and which transport she should take.  

Louise first realized that she was moving to London when she had to go through the security barrier alone in the German airport. “I knew that was the moment where I wouldn’t see my family for a long time,” she says. However, Louise expected to feel more homesick during the stay.  

She explains that the similarity between her London and German accommodation and the friendliness of the people here have prevented the homesickness- feeling.  

Despite missing German food, the stay in London has given Louise many unique possibilities like visiting British pubs and free museums. “In Germany, there are bigger towns, but it’s not the same. Here, you have so many cultures, but back home it is the German one, which dominates,” she says. 

Even though the foreign stay in London has given Louise a lot of unique memories, she looks forward to going back to Germany. She tells me that her big passion is going horse-riding. Even though she can do it in London, Louise prefers the German version, since ‘it makes me happier than all the other things I do’. 

“Home for me belongs to family and friends. I always say my studies are a station and not a home. If I get a family here and friends from London, maybe someday it will feel like home. 

I will consider coming back to work or spend time here during my holidays. I am grateful for this experience. It really is exceptional,” she says. 

After talking with five different students from different European countries, we have got a thoughtful insight into how being a European student in London can be. Being foreign- students ourselves, we have found a major interest to explore, how other students, who are in the same position, see their London stay.

Every experience has its own challenges and enjoyment. For some it might be the fear of the future effects of Brexit, that is the most concerning part of being a foreigner in London. Others seek to explore as many of the options that London offers, as they can already see their stay coming to an end. From talking to these five different girls, we have learned that it takes time and a lot of individual factors, before the feeling of home arrives. For some students, the feeling will keep being distant. 


Featured image by Matt Buck via Flickr