World cities like London are lauded as shiny beacons of creativity, diversity and progress. But have we really got it so right? Maybe Londoners could learn a thing or two from the world's titchiest countries. We spoke to two guys living in London, originally from Barbados and Malta and one Loughton-born lad who spent a year living and working in Tuvalu, nine islands which collectively make up one of the world's smallest countries.
Imagine catching a glimpse of your home for the next year out of a plane window. A thin ring of coral, just meters wide, surrounds a lagoon. The highest point on the island is an indistinguishable 4m above sea level, making it one of the lowest-lying in the world. "Flanked by the lagoon on one side, and the world's largest ocean on the other, the sense of remoteness upon arrival is real." This is Andrew's memory of flying into Funafuti, the main island of Tuvalu. He says he'd done a good amount of research beforehand, but nothing really prepares you for just how small the islands are.
The runway doubles up as a sports ground. There's one school, one health clinic and you have to be prepared to stomach a lot of fresh tuna steaks and sashimi.
"Within hours of my arrival, I was being treated, not as a tourist (there aren’t any!), but as a genuine part of that community," says Andrew. "With such a small population, (around 10,000) family links are strong, and as such, people you meet, regardless of who they are or where they come from are treated as a part of your extended family. Nobody goes hungry in Tuvalu, no one is homeless, and crime is almost non-existent. Everybody knows their neighbours, and on the outer islands in particular, everyone works together for the good of the island: if I go fishing I don't just get enough for me, I fill my boat and distribute the extra. The same attitude applies to farming, building, and community events.
"One of the reasons I love London so much is how many people from all over the world you have the opportunity to meet and interact with, but I don't think we take advantage of that. How well do you know your neighbours? The shop keeper? The people in the office downstairs?
"When I left Tuvalu, I spent a few days in Fiji, and then found myself in the modern metropolis of Seoul, South Korea — the shock of being in such a dense urban environment was like nothing I have ever experienced before, and I felt extremely vulnerable and uncomfortable in that city environment, where once I would have thrived. It took quite a long time to recalibrate to city living after so long on the islands."
If that was Andrew's experience after just after one year, imagine what it's like for someone who has grown up on a tiny island and then has to acclimatise to the rush and bustle of London.
According to World Atlas, Malta is the 10th smallest country in the world, with an area of 316km2 and a population of around 420,000. JJ describes himself as "Maltese, pure and pure" and spends our first 10 minutes together explaining the various traditions associated with Imnarja, a popular festival in Malta, but he says he doesn't know what the celebration is like in London as he isn't part of the Maltese community here. "The fact is, to be honest I have no chance [to go]. I should be ashamed, but I don't even have a life at the moment, because when you're a pub manager it's like," he pauses, "it's my fault, I work 80 hours a week — I've lost relationships because of it, actually. How can I explain?" another pause and he continues: "it's me, I'm a workaholic. I wish I had the time." And so, we hit on one of the first major differences between life lived out on a tiny Mediterranean island and life here in The Big Smoke; namely work-life balance. Or lack thereof.
JJ isn't alone in being sucked into the 9am-7pm culture adopted in offices across the city. Every year Londoners clock up an extra three weeks (100 hours) at work compared to the rest of the UK, according to new ONS data. "In Malta, it's different, more laidback, you have that moment where you finish work and go to the beach, at least once a week," says JJ. And with the health risks associated with these kind of hours, it's no wonder he's dreaming of retirement somewhere in Spain. "I need to cut down on the hours because of my health, I need to get that work-life balance, otherwise I'm not going to see the age of 50. In five to 10 years' time, I don't think this is going to be my home, I've got it in my head to get out of here and go live some place warm".
We're in a quintessential London pub; England flags poke out of the spirits rack, hanging on the match box wall paper are old framed theatre posters. JJ lives upstairs with his collection of Maltese fridge magnets. We laugh about how souvenirs are seen as worthless tat until you move away from home and then suddenly all your memories are bound up in these mass-produced figurines. Among them, he speaks fondly of the Malta bus: "they were amazing because they had character, they were part of our tradition, but also attracted tourists". Is there anywhere in London that reminds him of home? "If I go by the river," he says, "although it's not the same, it's not the sea. But as long as there's the water, it does remind me of home, but it's nothing like home."
JJ isn't the only one searching the murky waters of the Thames for some semblance of the tiny island he was born on. Next up we met Nico, a beach-loving Bajan and stand-up comedian currently living in Brixton. For Nico, it wasn't so much the longer hours he found difficult, but the "soul-crushing" unsociability of it all.
"I remember passing someone who I worked with, and in Barbados you'd say hey or at least nod your head and this dude just ghost me — like he'd never seen me before. That was shocking to me". He says, speaking with a Caribbean lilt, "back home, everyone greets each other with a good mornin' and if you get on a bus people won't just offer up their seats, they'll offer to carry your bike or your bag for you." Can you imagine that happening on a tube in rush hour?
"There's more of a sense of community in Barbados, the population is around 300,000, so everyone kind of knows everyone and I think that helps with your mental state. I've heard it said in Barbados and elsewhere that if you tell people you're going to London, they say you'll come back mad. A lot of people have breakdowns and I think that's to do with the lack of connection. People are isolating themselves from human interaction."
Despite eight million city dwellers rubbing along together here in London, we're a lonesome bunch. According to the ONS, 34% of people in the UK say they often feel lonely, but young Londoners are twice as likely to be lonely as the national average, according to research by the charity network ACEVO.
"Now if I go home I'll probably be the one who has no manners, because you adapt to keep your sanity," he laughs. Cultural differences aside, Nico tells us it’s a privilege being part of the London comedy scene. We suggested it might be easier to make a name for yourself in a small country, but he's all for a little healthy competition saying, "Being in a bigger pool where the standard is higher is better for you, 'cause you might come out of the small pool thinking you're the king, then get in the big pool and quickly realise that isn't the case, so being around people who are better than you forces you to raise your standard."
Where is home? "I like London, it's busy, but Barbados will always be home for me" and like JJ, Nico imagines a future somewhere "chilled out, with a warmer climate, whether it be Barbados or elsewhere in the Caribbean."
Somewhat unpredictable (often dreary) weather combined with long hours and low pay make living in a fast-paced city such as London a bit of a slog. As Andrew says: "We find ourselves getting frustrated with people getting in our way. It can be exhausting, and difficult to gain perspective. Nothing happens very fast in small countries, it doesn't need to, and getting upset or angry about it won't make things go any quicker. So what if the boat didn't arrive today, or the post was delayed, and won't arrive until the next flight? Internet not working? Can't send that email? It doesn’t matter – the sun is still shining, there are fish in the sea, and music in the air; so, next time someone is standing on the wrong side of the escalator, take a breath, everything is going to be alright."
You can find Nico on Twitter: @Neeksman