(Holidailies entry #3)
Been pondering a few days out of town/out of country. I need a break from my life very early in the New Year or I might lose my shit entirely.
People have been suggesting a lot of new-to-me places, but I’ve been missing the U.K. terribly lately. Specifically London, a place in which I’ve never lived, but somehow feels like *my* place whenever I’m there, despite my penchant for being lost pretty much always, spending a lot of time there in hotel rooms watching panel shows and eating egg & cress sandwiches from M&S (I could cheap out and go Tesco, but they aren’t as good), and recalling my first experience there with horror.
Picture it: June, 1999. A too-old-to-be-so-wussy(?) Megan embarks on a trip to the U.K. for eight weeks, most of which will be spent in Edinburgh taking open courses at the University of Edinburgh. She decides to spend a few days in London, then head to Devon and Cornwall (some friends had lived in Mousehole briefly a couple of years earlier), then a long train journey to Scotland for a three-day bus tour of the Highlands.
Unlike my grandmother, who until her dying day was probably not entirely convinced that Scotland was civilised, it was the northern bit of the trip I was most excited for, but I really thought London would be wonderful and easy for a first-time solo traveller who hadn’t left North America since a school trip to France in grade 8. I mean, tourists go there all the time, right? I was pretty tough and independent and could totally handle a giant city, right?
You see where this is going.
It was on the flight over that I realised something was amiss. Possibly before. I cried a lot at the airport before leaving. I sat in the wrong seat on the plane somehow (blinded by tears?) and was approached by two bros who were meant to be sitting together in my row. This got me flustered, then more nervous, then more cry-y, which then led to my not sleeping a wink on the overnight journey.
The bros caught up with me before Customs and asked if I wanted to share a cab into town (I think they were staying in Earl’s Court, which, according to my Lonely Planet Guide, was a bit shady), but I decided to (wo)man up and carry on like the lone wolf I thought I was. Also STRANGER DANGER. Also, even split three ways, I couldn’t afford a taxi from Heathrow.
Customs was a doddle. It turns out my cousin (American, tiny, olive-skinned, argumentative, ambiguously ethnic last name) had to go to a separate room to ‘chat’ with people in uniform before she was allowed to go to her summer classes at Oxford not long afterwards, but I just had to show them a letter and my passport and say approximately three words and I had a visa stamp good for six months.
Because I was/am a superdork and couldn’t make heads nor tails, of the train fare charts in my aforementioned Lonely Planet Guide, I had weeks earlier not only purchased a rail pass for whole country, but a voucher for a only-for-tourists three-day Zone 1-6 Travelcard.
Those who know London know that this is an hilarious rip-off. Sure, the journey to London from the airport takes you through all six zones, but after that? You’re not going to be going to Croydon (unless you’re Kirk, but that’s a story for another time) or Archway or Dagenham.
And most tourists, after taking the Tube from Heathrow to central London, will probably not opt for that journey again.
The Tube stations at Heathrow are approximately 957 miles from anywhere, or at least it feels that way when one hasn’t slept and are carrying your life on your back. At first, I couldn’t locate a person who looked like they worked for TFL anywhere, so my little printed coupon Good for One Tourist Idiotcard might not have been redeemable. It was. But the man working the counter didn’t seem to understand it at first. Maybe other tourists aren’t as stupid as I was.
Eventually, I got my card and was handed a miniature Tube map and sent on my way. It was approximately 8:30am, or 3:30am in Home Time.
It takes approximately 90 minutes to get to Central London. When you are carrying your life with you, haven’t slept, and there’s a band (an actual band) of Irish metalheads dicking about and staring at you the whole time, and, gradually, a commuter population equivalent to the (semi-major) city you live in get on the train ON A SATURDAY, you start to panic.
And sweat. Man, was the Tube ever sweaty. And what was that SMELL? And why did I come to a country where I didn’t know a single person? And why did I bring so much stuff?
I was staying in a hostel near London Bridge, which seemed very complicated to get to. Or so I thought. But I didn’t want to consult my miniature Tube map too often, lest I look like a tourist. Because the Canadian flag on my enormous backpack wasn’t tipping anyone off. Every time I peered out the windows, all I could see was graffiti. Eventually, the car got so crowded that I couldn’t turn my neck.
I switched trains at Holborn, got off at Bank planning to walk to my hostel, and stepped into a nightmare.