I was excited about my day in London. I had studied a map, looked at a guide book, and talked to a few people who had been there. I had my plan.
I rode the subway from Heathrow airport to Hyde Park station in downtown London. I didn’t look at my phone during the ride because it was to serve as my camera and I was very concerned about the battery going dead. Instead, I immersed myself in people watching.
My mother-in-law says I should engage people in conversation wherever I am. This is a talent of hers and it has brought her many delightful experiences, but it’s simply not me. I’m not overly sociable, particularly with strangers; I find small talk tedious; and I’m very sensitive to those people who really just want to be left alone and find people like my mother-in-law obnoxious.
So I sat and watched for the 45 minute ride. I noticed that no one was on their phones. With only a couple of exceptions, they weren’t talking to anyone either. Most were sleeping or reading or staring off into space. There was a fun guy in dreadlocks and a rainbow knit top hat, who I gather drives a bus around the airport. He and the flight attendant talked and laughed most of the way. The woman across from me answered her phone at one point and I was fascinated to see that the inside of her arm and palm were covered in Mehndi (intricate henna tattoos).
The German family that boarded shortly after me was entertaining. The kids were trying to play a travel sized Connect Four. But it was only 4 spots tall by 5 spots wide which made it just about impossible for either to win. I couldn’t help but think the rules should have been changed to “connect three.”
Eventually, I was off the train and heading out into a beautiful park in London. I checked the map in my guidebook, started walking, and marveled at all the statues and arches and big trees and double decker buses. As I approached Buckingham Palace, I was surprised at the number of people standing around. I managed to get to about the third row of people on an obscure stretch of fence and realized that everyone was waiting for the changing of the guard. After waiting for five or ten minutes, I realized that a) I had no idea where exactly the ceremony would take place and b) it was still forty minutes until showtime!
Shocked at how many people were willing to wait that long (thousands of people!) and fully aware of how quickly my day would fade, I moved on. Checked out Westminster Abby, got all choked up and pensive when I saw the MLK statue, bought a tote bag for my husband, and walked on.
I rounded the corner and got a full, perfect, beautiful view of Big Ben. It struck my already emotional being that this – this view was the one thing my ten year old son wanted from me. I was grateful for the sunglasses that hid the teary eyes. I marveled at how raw my emotions were.
I checked out the Parliament buildings, peeked down Downing Street, looked at the “Eye” of London, and made my way toward St. Martin in the Fields near Trafalgar Square. I am a person who usually worries what people think. Stopping to take pictures of random non-significant stuff was challenging as I thought people would find me crazy. To steel myself against caring about what they thought had the unintended consequence of drawing me further within myself. I was my own bubble floating down the street through crowds of people.
I ate lunch at the Cafe in the Crypt under St. Martin in the Fields. This was when I was first struck with a strong sense of loneliness. I’ve heard before how hard it is to eat in a restaurant by yourself. It is completely true. I found myself wishing I had brought my Kindle. I had positioned myself at a two chair table such that one side of me was up against a pillar, which felt sheltered and secure. Unfortunately, this meant my back was to most of the dining room, severely restricting my people watching opportunities. I saw another woman eating by herself and idly considered joining her. Fears that she wanted to be left alone or that she was expecting someone stilled me.
When I left the Cafe, I noticed a wall outlet near the gift shop so decided to plug in my phone. That tied me to the general area and left me with nothing to do. I found myself wishing I had brought my Kindle. Then I noticed people bringing some interesting stuff over to a nearby table. I wandered over to where they had come from and saw that you could pick out a metal etching and do a wax rubbing of it for as little as 3.50 pounds. Something to do while the phone charged and a cool souvenir!
I picked out a dragon and the gold and dark red wax sticks and settled into the task. I seriously think this might have been my favorite part of the day. I saw the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, Sherlock Holmes’s residence, the Millennium Bridge, and all those places already mentioned and more, but sitting at a table rubbing wax on a dragon etching was probably the best part. I was doing something.
I saw all those wonderful places but had no one with whom I could turn and remark on it. I started to feel like I was simply documenting the sights to take back and show my family. I was checking off my list. And I was getting more and more isolated in my head. It didn’t necessarily bother me. It just felt so incredibly strange!
I was sore and tired by about 4:00 in the afternoon. I would push myself for another 5 hours before crawling back into my hotel room. I made the wonderful call to visit King’s Cross station… at rush hour! All so I could see what? A non-existent place out of a children’s book?
I was so tired that I didn’t even notice the right place and wandered aimlessly around platforms 9 and 10, taking pictures of random bits of wall to tell my kids “See? There’s platform 9 3/4!” But on my way out, I happened to notice a crowd. A long line of about 50 people or so. All waiting in line to take their picture going through the gate to Platform 9 3/4.
There was a luggage cart, suitcase, and owl cage all cut in half and fastened against the wall. Two employees stood there with a wand and a scarf from each house. When it was your turn, they wrapped your neck in the scarf of your choice, handed you the wand, and held the scarf out behind you so it’d look like you were running.
It was cool. I didn’t get in line though. For one thing, I was done waiting in lines. And I was extremely tired and my lower back felt like it was on fire. And I had no one with me to take my picture when I got to the front. Sure, the employees likely would have done it, but… it suddenly felt particularly lame for a 40 year old woman traveling by herself to wait in line to pretend like she was heading to Hogwarts.
So I moved on. Well, after taking pictures and video of some folks doing it so my kids could see. They loved it.
People ask me if I had a good time in London. I reflexively say yes. In reality, I’m not sure. I saw a lot of neat things. I’m glad I was there. I felt extremely accomplished to have navigated the subway and everything else all by myself. It was a growth experience. I’m a better person for it. I feel lucky. I’m just not sure I had “a good time.” For that, I think I would have needed my family. Or at least someone to walk around with.