So I know it’s taken me a while to post about our adventures in London, but I’ve had quite a hectic week. I only had one quiz and one paper due, but I also had two big projects along with all of the usual stuff so I’ve had virtually no free time! Anyway, London was such an amazing place! I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it totally exceeded whatever I’d imagined.
Our flight was supposed to leave Madrid at 8:30 Thursday night but of course we were delayed, so we didn’t get out until well after 9. The flight was a little under three hours, and, as we begin to prepare for landing, the prevalence of pop culture in England begin to sink in. I mean literally some of my all time favorite bands such as the Beatles, the Smiths, and Pink Floyd came from there, as did many of my favorite actors and other such entertainers. As we deplaned, I was overcome excitement that we were actually there. It wasn’t quite as cold as we had anticipated, but it definitely wasn’t warm. We had booked tickets for an airport bus to take us to some station where we would then catch the train to a stop near our hostel; sounds easy enough, right? Well, as we waited to board the bus, we made conversation with the boy checking tickets, who was extremely nice and quite funny. He informed us that Baker Street, our bus stop where we would catch the train to King’s Cross, had been closed down due to the bum threat. I had no idea that the homeless population in London was so prevalent that they had to close down an entire train station because of it. The whole thing didn’t really make sense, but it was a bit worrisome nonetheless. Anyway, on top of that, the train will have stopped running because it was past midnight, so getting to King’s Cross was looking like more of a challenge. As we were discussing these matters with the boy, people in line started offering input as to what station we should go to and the best way to make it to our final destination. Besides being helpful, they were all making dry jokes and were so friendly. By this point we had picked up a stray young female traveler who was also trying to go to King’s Cross, so we all eventually boarded the bus and hoped for the best.
We were on the bus for about an hour, but we had a pretty good time getting our first look around the area. We were surprised when the bus stopped and the driver announced that we were at the Baker St. station; I guess they got the bums cleared out after all. We got off the bus without a clear idea of where to go next, but the driver was very nice and he pointed us in the direction of the nearest bus stop that would get us to King’s Cross. We of course didn’t have any pounds yet though, so we had to stop by an atm. We found one along the way and I joked with my comrades to be careful with their money since there were apparently so many bums around the area. They all just sort of looked at me because apparently it had been clear to everyone else that the boy had said bomb threat not bum threat, which actually makes way more sense. I guess it just goes to show how easy it is to have miscommunications in countries where they speak your language. Anyway, once we had the correct currency in hand we made our way to the bus, which we found out would be coming in 17 minutes. By this point the cold had completely penetrated our outer layers, so we did our best to stay positive and huddled together in what little shelter we had. When the right bus finally arrived, we climbed aboard only to be informed by the driver that we first needed to buy tickets back at the station. With that we returned to Baker St. and purchased our very own Oyster Cards! We returned to the bus stop and had to wait another 20 minutes before the next bus came. When it finally did, we were super excited to be on our first double decker bus! We eventually made it to King’s Cross, but the kid that was supposed to be meeting the girl wasn’t there anymore because we had arrived over an hour and half late. We found a McDonald’s where she accessed Wi-Fi and got his address. With that we parted ways and began towards our hostel. It was only about a 15 minute walk or so and we actually managed not to get lost!
The hostel where we were staying used to be a courthouse, and it was probably one of the biggest hostels I’ve ever seen. When we checked in we learned that we would have to be split up, so Daniela and I would be in one room but Nola would be in another. They gave us our room numbers and assigned us our bunks. The three of us decided to meet in the breakfast room the next day at 9:30, and as we parted ways Nola called her room number to us. We found our way through the labyrinth of brightly colored hallways to our room. We entered into the darkness to find a small room with four bunk beds in a row, literally right next to each other, with nothing but small dividing walls near the head of each bed. We found our bunks, but there was someone in mine. I wasn’t sure what to do because I didn’t want to take someone else’s bed, so I returned to the front desk. Though it was 2:30 in the morning the pandemonium throughout the hostel was fascinating. As one of the men from the desk walked me back to my room, he randomly stopped one young man and reprimanded him for something. The boy, clearly intoxicated, tried to plead innocent, but the man warned him that he was one step from being kicked out and that he “had been there long enough to know how things work”. I wondered how long he’d been staying there. Anyway, when we reached my door the man asked me, “so where abouts are you from?” Because we were heading into a room of sleeping people I hesitated slightly, in which time he guessed Denmark. He seemed legitimately surprised when I said I was from the US. He really had no regard for their slumber because once he saw that there really was someone in my bed, he turned on the lights and started asking the poor kid his name, but he didn’t really seem to speak English. The other four boys begin waking up and between them were able to groggily converse with the man. He eventually agreed to just let me take the other bed and decided we could work the rest out in the morning. With that I climbed up into my bunk and eventually feel asleep.
We were woken up several times throughout the night, with one boy coming in a bit later, and the others getting up and going to and from the shower. We heard them laughing about what had happened the night before, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t aware we could understand Spanish. They weren’t saying anything bad though. The community showers were actually nice enough except we couldn’t adjust the temperature and the water would only stay on for increments of about 30 seconds. Probably the best part of the hostel was that they offered a free breakfast! It was pretty standard with cereal, toast, coffee, and juice, but we ate more than our fill in hopes of spending less money on food later in the day. We had planned to meet in the breakfast room at 9:30, but apparently Nola had set her alarm without accounting for the time difference; she was originally ready by 8:30 and came looking for us after she ate. I guess she ran into Daniela in the hallway and told her that she would meet up with us after we ate. When she didn’t we went to look for her. I thought I vaguely remembered her room number, so I just went with my gut and gave it a shot. I knocked on what I believed to be the correct door, and a man in his underwear answered. I suppose I had been expecting her to answer, so when she didn’t I sort of froze. I mean what was I supposed to say, “Is Nola here?” I tried to look for her on the beds behind him to no avail. We probably stood there for at least a whole seven seconds, until she finally greeted me from a bunk in the back of the room. The man seemed surprisingly unfazed by the whole thing. He just turned back towards his bunk and said, “Oh, you’re looking for your mate, come on in.” Then as he got back into bed, in good humor he added, “I thought you were just going around randomly knocking on doors and staring at people.” Nola later informed us that he had been living in the hostel for six months while he saved money working as a DJ, which is apparently a common situation.
Once we were clean, full, and relatively rested, we headed out into the cold around 10:30. We had an idea of how to get to the bus stop, but we weren’t exactly sure which direction to start out in. We wondered out loud which way to go, and a random man interjected and told us which way was south. We walked for a while and still couldn’t find it, so we asked another random stranger who kindly pointed us in the right direction. I just couldn’t get over how nice everybody was. I always thought there was a stereotype about Londoner’s being somewhat cold and distant, but that could not be further from the truth. We got off the bus and walked along the Thames for about an hour or so until we finally made it to Big Ben. I had arranged to meet up with an old friend from McKendree there. We graduated together, and he was now returning to his home in Southern England; he had gotten in the day before and was leaving that afternoon, so it was pretty lucky that we were able to see each other. Together the four of us explored Westminster Abbey, then we met up with his brother and walked to Trafalgar Square. Though it was cold, it was great just getting to walk around and see the city. From the square we decided to head back towards Will’s university which meant we got to take our first ride on the London Underground. It was pretty different than the other metro systems, and it seemed really old. It was super fast though and before long we emerged in a different part of the city. Will returned to school, and the rest of us went to check out the Museum of Natural History. Now I’ve always loved going to museums, but this had to be one of the biggest one’s I’ve ever been to. We knew it would be impossible to see everything, so we had to pick our favorite things and focus on them. Alex eventually had to leave to catch his train, but I think we stayed in there for a good four hours or so. They also had Wi-Fi so we had good chance to regroup, check the map, and formulate a plan for the evening. Will had told us about some Christmas event going on in Hyde Park so we went that way. By now the sun was starting to set (it does that around 4pm in London), it was quite cold, and we were ravenous, but walking around the park was pleasant. We found what Will was talking about, but it was way cooler than we thought. It was like a whole traveling amusement park, complete with roller coasters and beer tents. It was very Bavarian themed, with a small Chinese section so we never really figured out who was sponsoring it. We did eat a pretty great bratwurst though. We made a loop around the whole place, and it would have fun to walk around longer but we were freezing and had been walking all day so we decided to head to our next stop: the British Museum.
I was in charge of navigating to the bus stop so we left the park to find it. Sadly, we went in the wrong direction (twice), and after about an extra hour of walking we realized the stop was right outside of the park after all. I suppose the important part is that we found our bus in the end, and I was actually able to get us to the museum afterwards, which basically made up for the earlier mistake. I wasn’t sure what the British Museum was, I just knew it was famous. It turned out to be another history museum, and it might have even been more expansive than the first one! We arrived just in time to join a free tour about death in ancient Egypt and we got to see some pretty cool mummies. We probably could have spent an entire day in there, but they closed at 8:30 so we once again had to pick the galleries of most interest and focus on those. At the end we learned that it was where they filmed part of one of the Night at the Museum movies! We begrudgingly left the museum and went to a notorious British food chain called Nando’s, though we of course got lost along the way. They specialize in chicken, and it was actually quite good albeit somewhat expensive. The mashed potatoes were to die for though. I was confused when I saw everyone eating French fries but couldn’t find them anywhere on the menu, which turned out to be because they of course call them chips. After the meal we wanted to get a taste of the night life, so we set out in search of a good pub. We ended up in this perfect little establishment near King’s Cross station.
The pub was crowded, but in a good way. The live entertainment was a young man singing and playing various pop songs on his acoustic guitar. The atmosphere was just so warm and cozy. After splitting a bottle wine (the most economical option after all) I tried to scope out their draft beers, the most popular (and cheap) of which being Guinness. I guess I had never tried it before because it was quite unique and I really enjoyed it. We had found a spot to sit along the windowsill and were settled in quite nicely there. The man sitting at the table in front of me accidently backed his chair into me and, like all courteous British people, apologized profusely. When he returned from the loo he turned around and started making conversation with us. He and his wife were probably…oh I guess in their 60’s or 70’s, I can never really tell. Anyway, it turned out he was actually from North Carolina and she was from somewhere in Tennessee, though they now lived in Louisiana. I don’t recall what they were doing in the London, but they were soon going to France to visit one of their sons. Apparently the wife had been a professor at Loyola University in Louisiana and one time on sabbatical they had lived in France, so now her children loved it. They were just the nicest couple, and we talked to them for a good while. When they got up to leave the woman gave me hug and said, “well I just feel right at home with ya’ll,” and we returned the sentiment. We stayed in the pub watching the drunker people make a spectacle, then headed towards the exits when they turned the lights on. We ended up back at the bar of hostel, in what had been the breakfast room that morning. It was actually pretty hopping for such an obscure location, but we called it a night around 2:30 or so.
We got up around the same time on Saturday and followed a similar routine, except Nola had to check out. She had originally wanted to see the soccer match between Barcelona and Madrid, so she booked an earlier flight on Sunday to make it back in time; soon after she changed her flight though they randomly changed the game to Saturday, so she was stuck going back early and would still miss the match. Anyway, since she would have to head out around 3am, she decided to pay for one less night. After her bag was stored in the luggage room, we set out to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Daniela was the navigator today and decided it would be most logical to take the train from King’s Cross to the Victoria station! We were fighting our way through the crowd and were a little spread out. When we turned the corner onto the platform and saw the train was there, Nola instinctively ran and jumped on. She didn’t know where we would end up though, and when the doors started to close the look of sheer panic on her face was priceless. I managed to wedge my body into the door and did exactly what you’re not supposed to do and pried it open. By then Daniela was able to catch up and we all made it aboard. It was quite the spectacle, but we got a good laugh from it. The change was supposed to happen at 11:30, so when we got off the train just after 11 we figured we were making good time. As we neared the palace, however, we were greeted by hordes of people. The crowd was so thick that we soon accepted there was no way we’d be able to see anything. It was interesting to at least hear the marching band and stuff though I guess. It all reminded me of the time in fourth grade when my family went to Arlington Cemetery to see the changing of the guard there; if I remember correctly, my brother’s watch was set to the wrong time or something, so after sitting and waiting for what seemed like forever, we decided we had missed it and got up to leave about 10 minutes before it actually happened. I guess I’m just not destined to ever actually witness a guard change, but that’s alright.
From the palace we walked for about an hour to the Piccadilly center and got to see all of the fancy shops along the street lit up for Christmas. I guess it was pretty much equivalent to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills except it was also packed with people. From there we boarded a bus to my most anticipated sight: the Sigmund Fraud House. It was pretty far from downtown, so we were on the bus for quite a while, but it was cool to go to a less touristy part of the city. The house took us a little while to find because it’s literally just in a neighborhood. Say what you will about the archaic nature of Fraud’s work, but his contribution to the field of modern psychotherapy is incontrovertible and actually being inside of his house was surreal. He moved to London in his 70’s to escape the Nazi invasion in Vienna. It was fascinating to see his study where he worked and eventually died. It even had his notorious couch that he used in all of his sessions! We were by far the youngest visitors, and afterwards Daniella commented that pretty much everyone there looked like a psychologist…whatever that means. It was a great experience though, and I still can’t believe we actually got to see it!
By the time we left we were once again starving, but we managed to find a burrito bar near the station so that was great. We weren’t all that far from the recording studio on Abbey Road, which I had really wanted to see, but it would have been a 40 minute walk in the opposite direction and it was dark and cold and we were kind of wore out, so I agreed to forego it. Oh well, I suppose the album cover does the area enough justice anyway. We made the long journey back to the hostel to just chill for a bit and formulate a plan for the evening. We ended up deciding to participate in a pub crawl, but we got a bit of a late start. We were supposed to begin at six, but we didn’t end up jumping in until about 10. We had planned to eat a bit of dinner at the first place, but by the time we got there the kitchen was closed. They had separate menu featuring “crisps”, which Daniela explained were potato chips. For some reason I assumed it meant they would give us a basket of homemade chips, so I asked the bartender if they were still serving them. He gave me a look as if he couldn’t tell if was serious or not and I understood why when he handed me a simple bag of kettle chips. Not the most balanced dinner, but they were pretty good. Our second pub was a quite lively and crowded with young people. It was a great atmosphere, but it started to close down around midnight or so. We made our way to the third pub, and I instantly fell in love with it. The décor (specifically the carpeting) basically matched that of a roller rink from the 1980’s, and it even had some little colored disco balls. It was actually somewhat crowded, and I don’t think there was anyone else there under the age of 70. The best part was the guitarist who played his own renditions of songs by the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Cream, among others. The drinks were also unbelievably cheap, so what more do you need in a place? We never did make it to the other pubs and ended up back at the hostel around 2, and so began quite an eventful Sunday.
Nola needed to leave around 3 to take a bus back to Baker St. to catch her bus to the airport. Though it probably wasn’t the best idea after a “pub crawl”, she decided to take an hour nap before she left. She came back to our room, where the Spanish boys had also just gotten in, so we took some time to make their acquaintance. Nola and I shared my tiny bunk and she set her alarm for 3; once again, she didn’t account for the time difference, so 3:00 in Madrid had just happened, meaning her alarm would not go off. Fortunately, sometime around 4 London time, I awoke with the most urgent urge to the use the bathroom. I flew down from the bunk and didn’t even bother searching for my flip flops before running down the hall to the community toilet. What’s the worst thing I could contract anyway? Although Nola got up an hour late and had to take a taxi to Baker St., it was a relief that she woke up at all (thanks to my impeccable kidneys). Daniela and I woke up at the usual time, enjoyed one last continental breakfast, and checked out at 10. We decided to head to Victoria because that’s where the airport bus would leave from at 2:00. I, however, had a different ticket and ended up having to change mine which was quite an ordeal. We got it though, and at 1:00 we decided to have one more authentic London meal of Indian food. We went to a restaurant about a half a mile away from the station, and the food was actually quite different than any Indian food I’ve had before; it was good, but it would have been better if we wouldn’t have had to shovel it in so quickly. We left the restaurant at about 1:46, with our objective being to make it to the station a half a mile away by 1:50. Now I’ve never really enjoyed running, but that day I learned that I absolutely loathe running when I have a stomach full of Chicken Marsala and Nan bread!
We made it to the station just in time, and I had to fight the urge to vomit as we stood in line. Although we had our tickets in our hands, they informed us that the bus had sold out so we would have to wait for the 2:30 bus. I’m not really sure how that happened, but there was a good sized crowd of other enraged patrons who also got the boot. I didn’t really mind that much because the wave of nausea was starting to pass, so I was feeling pretty content. Then they informed us that for whatever reason the 2:30 bus was not going to show up at all, so we would have to wait for the 3:00. This was slightly concerning because the bus ride would take over an hour and our flight was supposed to leave at 5:30; our boarding passes said the gate would close at 5:00, but it also said it would open at 5:00 so we weren’t really sure what that meant. Anyway, if we missed the flight the people assured us we would be reimbursed. By the time 3:00 rolled around there was a mob of people with tickets for three different buses trying to claw their way aboard. We were near the front, and they agreed to let people with earlier tickets on first. I managed to make my way to the door, the man checked my pass, and I triumphantly climbed on. For half a second I thought the ordeal was over, but then Daniela wasn’t behind me. Apparently she had bought her ticket for 2:00, which seems logical, but we were in Europe so she needed a ticket for 14:00. The bus people tried to be nice about it and said they would normally just let her on, but they couldn’t today because it was so crowded. In retrospect, maybe I should have just stayed on the bus; Daniela is after all a fully capable adult in a country that speaks her native language, and it probably would have been easier to negotiate one refunded flight instead of two. In the moment though splitting up didn’t really seem like an option, so I hopped off and we quickly contemplated our next move.
I suggested that we just bite the bullet and get a cab. In Madrid, a taxi to the airport costs a flat rate of 30 euros, so I figured one here might be around 60 pounds, which would be $45 per person. Not ideal, but ultimately better than buying a new flight. We found our way to a taxi stand and hailed one pretty quickly. We asked the driver how much it would it be, and I couldn’t believe it when he said 130 pounds! That’s $205! For that price, it would have been cheaper to just get a new flight. The driver was super nice though and told us that we could go the Victoria underground station, take the metro to King’s Cross, then from there get a train to the airport. He seemed fairly confident that might be able to make it, so we thanked him and set off without further delay. We had already sold our oyster cards, so we had to get new tickets for the metro. We got to the platform just as the train was getting to ready to leave, but we made it on board in time. I was actually pretty excited that we were getting to take a train from King’s Cross, the King’s Cross. For anyone unfortunate enough not to know the gravity of that situation, King’s Cross is the station where the Hogwart’s Express departs, specifically from platform 9 3/4! We didn’t have much time to look around though as we ran straight to the ticket window. When we got there we saw that the next train to the airport was departing in three minutes, and the one after wouldn’t leave for another 30. As soon as the transaction went through we grabbed our stuff and sprinted through the station with all we had. I think I had an easier time weaving through people as I was only wearing a backpack, but poor Daniela had to pull her suitcase behind her through it all. I’m pretty sure she came very close to punting a small child off the escalator, but we ultimately emerged with our integrity intact. We once again got to the platform right as the porter was blowing his whistle and the engine was starting to move. We jumped on just as it pulled away, and we couldn’t help but to collapse into a breathless laughter. For things having had gone so wrong, we were having some really incredible luck.
We made it to the station at 4:20, but then we had to wait for a shuttle to take us to our terminal. We finally got to the airport around 4:40. We eventually made it to security, and as we were running up to the que, a worker stopped us and asked if we were late then checked our boarding passes. He too seemed fairly confident we could make it, but he actually let us the cut the entire line and go straight to the front. We immediately stripped ourselves of our boots, belts, and liquids, but the people in front of us were taking forever to get their stuff in the bins. He actually called us forward again and let us go around them! As we begin putting our stuff on the conveyor belt he very seriously said, “Now no shopping, go straight to your gate.” I nodded and laughed about that later, but in retrospect I’m sure that he was definitely making a joke. We went through the metal detector, and my heart sunk as I saw my bag on the other side of the divider. I racked my brain as to why that might be, then it hit me that I had made the most rookie mistake of my career; I had forgotten to finish off the rest of my water in my bottle before sending it through! The lady was pretty rude about it, but it only set us back a couple of minutes. We ran from security banking on the fact that the airport was small and that the gate wouldn’t really close at 5:00. We were right and we ended up getting there exactly one minute before it opened for boarding. It was a little too close of a call, but I guess all’s well that ends well and I’ve never felt so grateful to be seated on a plane before.
The trip to London was quite the adventure, but I would definitely do it all over again if I ever get the chance.