Nelson Mandela died is dead. I am only a little sad. He was very old and accomplished, and died surrounded by his family. No one could ask for much more than that.
Therefore I feel only slightly guilty about continuing my asinine story.
It’s the evening of June 19, 1999. My feet are again blackened by soot, I have toe-sized blisters forming, and I am absolutely too exhausted to cope with Big City Lights and Noises. Everything I do is an overwhelming mess. I want to enjoy London, go to pubs, or shows, or ANYTHING, but instead I opt to buy some jaffa cakes and a sandwich (maybe?) to eat in the common room in the basement of the youth hostel. I remember there was a royal wedding that day, so decide to watch some of that.
Confession: I grew up in mild-to-moderately monarchist environment. My grandmother’s house was littered with Country Lifes and Majestys, because apparently working-to-lower-middle-class people in small town Ontario can be ridiculously aspirational too. My brother and I were taken to see the Queen at Parliament Hill during the 1977 Jubilee tour (I was in a stroller) even though it was pissing down rain and almost all the other parents had wisely left their kids home. Her Madge waved at us specifically, possibly out of pity. Throughout my childhood, royal weddings were worth watching, even if the royals in question were never gonna make it anywhere near a throne, if only to mock the pageantry.
I am not a monarchist now, but I’m not above gossiping about various royal personages, so I still pay some attention. And I wouldn’t mind if the Queen were my gran.
Unsurprisingly, however, in a dank basement in one of the great cities of the world on a hot summer’s day, no one joins me to watch a repeat of the third son of QEII getting married.
An American couple come downstairs for a little while to eat and make out a bit. They had never heard for Prince Edward, let alone Sophie, and give me my first piece of travel advice: go to Bath because it’s ‘real cute’. I was planning on going there anyway, but that clinched it.*
Eventually, at what felt like 11pm, but was actually closer to 8:30pm, and looked like noon (I hadn’t accounted for how much further north I’d be and it was nearly midsummer), I stumbled up to bed, thinking that a good night’s sleep would fix everything.
I did sleep. For a little while.
The hostel had a pub on the first floor. Why I didn’t eat there instead of alone in a basement, I cannot remember. Australophobia? Anyway, the noise from the pub was pretty loud and woke me up occasionally. Not option to close the room window to block out some of the noise as it was still sweltering.
What I hadn’t realised, again knowing nothing except from that pubs closed at 11pm so I was SURE I’d get relief soon, was that the final of the World Cup of Cricket was the following day at Lord’s. Australia was going to play India. Australians like cricket. And drink. And youth hostels.
You may see where this is going
As the night went on, it became clear that 11pm was not the cut-off time. Nor midnight. Nor 1:30am. Around 2am, the police showed up to shut them down.
You know what will get you awake forever? Sirens 20ft away from where you are trying to sleep, screaming, drunken Aussies, and the absolute feeling that you are probably about to die.
I don’t remember the rest of the night very well; it was a swirl of near-sleep, panic, and noise. I finally gave up around 7am and showered in the communal showers (luckily for a nervous, overwhelmed kindafat girl, empty, as everyone else in the building was probably still passed out in their beds, or, possibly, jail cells) and went down to wait for a disappointing breakfast of generic muesli and instant coffee. I had missed the memo that instant was standard in the U.K.. Yet another blow to an already delicate system.
Despite its dessicated origins, the caffeine was probably a mistake. Two nights of fewer than a couple of hours of sleep does not require stimulants. Maybe propofol. See, ’cause as soon as I could, I called my mother to tell her I was OK. But, of course, I was not OK. I cried. A lot. The shock of hearing a familiar voice after almost two days of Exhausted Shocking Newness threw me into a full-blown nervous breakdown. You think Claire Danes has an ugly cry? Well, I’m sure the people of Southwark would have given me alllll the awards for snot trails and hysteria if they could have.
But it helped me make a decision. To get the fuck out of London, probably never to return. The hostel people wouldn’t give me a refund on my next two nights, but I didn’t care. Have rail pass, will travel. No one was forcing me to stay in this godforsaken place.
I decided to go to Canterbury, since my ex had spoken of it highly. I found a B&B that would take me on late notice (that LP guide finally proved useful!). I got on a train. I felt such relief on reaching a place where I could breathe the air, and find my way around without consulting a map (keep in mind I did not have an A-Z yet, so my ‘maps’ in London were a Tube map and whatever tiny ones appeared in my travel guide) every three seconds,
24 hours, a somewhat overwhelming tour of Canterbury Cathedral, a trip to the M&S food halls, and a decent night’s sleep later, I returned back to the capital. And it was fine. I mean, I was still shaken, but had a new place to stay (a B&B in Pimlico that smelled strongly of oregano for one night, then a slightly less boozy hostel in what had been St Paul’s Choir School for another). I went to my first West End play. I visited, briefly, the British Museum (which was so full of school groups that I could barely move). I bought my monarchist grandmother a postcard at the Kensington Palace gardens.
But I still didn’t like the place. And vowed never to return. Especially after going to Bath (lovely, walked miles to find a laundrette, blisters at peak, watched ‘Friends’ with 30 people from about 12 different countries in the hostel common room), Exeter (deserted at night, boring during the day, one of only three people staying in the hostel), Penzance (one of my favourite places in the world to this day), and, finally, a long trip to Edinburgh (during which seemingly the whole of the Glastonbury Festival’s audience embarked the train to sit in the aisles and stink up all the carriages).
If the Southwestern bits of England helped soften the previously unconsidered culture shock (Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones, and Blackadder really hadn’t prepared me as much as I thought they would have), Scotland had me full on in love with the U.K. It allowed me to see (one of) my ancestral homeland(s), win my first international trivia contest (a game of Trivial Pursuit in a hostel in Kyleakin), visit unbelievable archaeological sites, make lifelong friends, and learn to love whisky.
I gave London another shot. Several others. It wasn’t until I had made several day trips from Birmingham when I was living there in 2003-4 that I actually learned to love it. In 2007, I spent a full week in the Great Wen and marvelled at how I could ever have hated it, even though the Circle Line had some kind of delay ever single day I needed it.
I guess, reading back, the lesson here is that when diving in at the deep end doesn’t work, retreating and trying again in stages is the way to go. But that’s awfully boring and obvious.
If I were a more arrogant person, I’d compare the city to myself: Prickly, disorganized, occasionally dour, doesn’t like looking people in the eye, and crowded with ideas. But I’m not nearly so ancient, grand, beautiful, and fucking irresistible.
Vacation sorted, then? Not hardly. But if I settle on a Eurolocale, London will definitely be the jumping-off point, a home away from home before I fly off to another wonderful place of Big New Scariness.