Hana Dethlefsen (BA’01, BEd’05, MMEd’12) specializes in exhibition and gallery development at the Natural History Museum in London, and has lived in the UK’s capital for the past six years.
What three words best describe London?
Diverse. Ambitious. Traditional.
How did you come to live in London?
I came here more than 15 years ago on a working holiday and fell in love. When my visa expired, I moved back to Canada, but with a long-term plan to work my way up in museums and then move back here. It took nine years to get my schooling, my German passport (so that I could come as an EU citizen), and a few chunky museum projects under my belt, but I made it happen! And now I’ve worked at both the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum — two places I’d admired so much as a visitor.
What do you like most about living there?
There’s always something cultural going on in London. You can never run out of things to do. There will always be a play or an exhibition or a concert or something happening where you can encounter something interesting and thought-provoking.
Describe your favourite neighbourhood.
I love my newly adopted neighbourhood of Bermondsey. It’s full of little independent shops and businesses, and although it’s so close to many of the major tourist sites, it still has a neighbourhood feel.
If you could change one thing about London, what would it be?
The UK has a lot of entrenched systems, and it can sometimes be hard to navigate them if you’re not from here. I’m really lucky that my wife is English and can help me navigate the healthcare system and other bureaucratic processes, but before I met her, I found life admin here to be a real challenge.
What might surprise a visitor about London?
Two things — one good and one not so good. One thing I really dislike about London is how much litter there is on the ground. Especially after people have been drinking, there is a lot of broken glass on the streets. On the good side, London is full of green spaces — no matter where you are, you’re probably not very far from a little spot where you can go and sit on a patch of grass under a tree.
What are your favourite hidden gems or activities that only locals know about?
- For green space: St. John’s Lodge Garden in Regents Park. It is a lovely, tucked-away secret right in the middle of one of the most well-known parks in London!
- For food: Roti King near Euston station is a cheap and cheerful spot for Malaysian and Singaporean food. There’s always a massive queue, so be there by 5:00 pm if you want to get the first seating for dinner.
- For beer: Bermondsey’s Beer Mile is a series of small, independent craft breweries, which have opened up shop in the arches of a railway line. It’s a great place to do a bit of a pub crawl.
- For a local market experience: Spa Terminus market also features small, independent food shops, which have opened up in the railway arches near Bermondsey station.
- For a community museum experience: The Horniman Museum and Gardens. Its staff work closely with the local community to do some really meaningful exhibitions in a way the big national museums just can’t.
- For a traditional pub experience: The Mayflower in Rotherhithe. It’s literally on the Thames (your feet will get splashed at high tide) and is named for the area’s connection to the historic Mayflower ship. It’s a pub I love so much, I got married in it!
What’s the most over-rated tourist hotspot?
I’d have to say Buckingham Palace, because in my humble opinion, it’s one of the least interesting-looking buildings, and nothing much really happens there except for when there’s a really big event like the coronation. I’d say if you’re keen to tick everything off the list, just take the bus past it and snap a photo as you pass by.
How easy is it to meet new people?
Meeting people can be difficult here, but I’ve learned a couple of things:
- Don’t expect strangers to talk to you. Part of living in a big city like London is that you’re around people all the time, and so locals like to keep to themselves unless they are purposefully being social. Starting a chat with a stranger here is a pretty rare thing.
- The pub is a place people are willing to let down their hair. Pub culture is really important as a way to break the ice with new colleagues or friends of friends in London. In Vancouver, I’d probably invite someone over for dinner or to go do an activity on the weekend, but here, you make your first personal connection over a drink. Once you’ve shared a pint (or two), then the English are more willing to open up and connect on a personal level. At every new job, I now always make a special effort to go out to the pub, because I know that’s where I’ll be able to make a personal connection. And don’t forget to buy a round — especially if one has been bought for you!
What issues are particularly important to the people of London?
- The cost of food, housing, and transportation. Especially post-COVID the cost of living has really increased and people on lower incomes really do have to choose between rent and food these days. London is a really expensive place to live, and any increase in living costs has a big impact.
- Politics. London is quite a liberal city in a conservative country, and so in London, you see the conservative values reflected in Parliament and in politics. The clash of traditional culture with the more permissive culture in London can be jarring.
What is one local custom that every visitor should know about?
How to order at the pub! When you arrive, grab a table with your friends, and then send one person up to the bar because that’s where you order food and drinks (usually). When you’re heading up to the bar, look at who is already up there and note who comes after you, so you know your rightful place in the queue. (The bartenders are usually pretty good at noticing this, too.) You will be served in the order in which you arrived at the bar, but you also need to stay aware and be ready to order once it’s your turn. (The bartender isn’t going to go out of their way to let you know it’s your turn or wait for you to make up your mind!) If you’re also ordering food, make sure you know your table number (it’s usually marked on a little tag bolted on the table).
Looking to connect with your UBC alumni community?
If you’re a UBC alum living in London, check out our LinkedIn group to connect with other grads in your city. (Did you know we also have Global Alumni Ambassadors specifically in London? Check out the “Europe” section on the Global Alumni Network page for more info.)
If you live outside our campus communities in the Lower Mainland and Central Okanagan, visit our Global Alumni Network page to see if there’s an alumni ambassador or social media community where you live.
Finally, alumni volunteers also host fun My Town Meetups in locations around the world. Check out our Meetups page to see if there’s a gathering near you — or sign up to host one in your location!