Seeing the Sights Solo

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.

Oh, The People You Meet

When you are sightseeing by yourself, as I was last Friday, having extended my time in England by a day so I could checkout London, you really don’t have anyone to talk to, except for strangers.  Most strangers are busy doing their own thing – especially on the subway.  I didn’t see anyone making small talk there!  They either talked to the person they traveled with or were silent.  I, being alone, was silent.

However, sightseeing and being unfamiliar with an area forces one to speak to at least a handful of strangers to get around.  My first was just a block from the hotel at the bus stop.  I had been told to catch the U3 bus to the airport where I could then get a day pass for the London Underground.  The person at the front desk had been kind of vague about where to go.  And I didn’t know how to read the signs at the bus station.

There was a British family standing there so I walked up to the woman who was probably the grandmother and asked if the U3 bus stopped there.  She told me that it didn’t and that I needed to walk down to the other one.  As I walked away, she suddenly called out (calling me “Darling”) and said she was mistaken – the bus did indeed stop there.  I know it was a little thing and she probably calls everyone “Darling” but it still made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

The next was a fun guy with dark skin and maroon hair (I mention the dark skin only because it made the maroon hair that much more striking).  He’s the one that advised me to buy a day pass that didn’t allow me to ride until 9:30, which was a little over half an hour away.  The advice saved me nearly $15.

After that, there was no conversation.  Except with the people taking my money at the various gift shops and at lunch.  I just walked around on my own.  More on that experience and its effect on me tomorrow.  Suffice it to say for now, it was a quiet day.

Until the end.  Tired and sore, I began to make my way back to the airport.  Problem was that I hadn’t eaten dinner and didn’t want to pay airport or hotel prices.  So I stopped at the Acton Town station and walked to where you run your tickets to leave.  I decided to ask the man working there whether there was any place to eat near the station.  He said no.

“But if you just go one more stop,” he said (referring to a different line than the one I needed to go back to my room), “there’s a good Tex-Mex restaurant.”

I was too tired to laugh but managed to tell him, “I’m from Texas.  I really don’t want to eat Tex-Mex while I’m here.  I’d rather have something local.  I mean, it might be interesting to experience your take on Tex-Mex, but…”

“Well,” he said, “if you like Curry, there are several Indian Curry Shops across the street.”

“I’m burned out on Curry now.  Is there not something on the way back to the airport?  Maybe some fish and chips or something?”

He quietly named off the stops to himself, shaking his head at each one.  One stop, he told me he wouldn’t send me to.  “I wouldn’t want to send you to the Detroit of England,” he said apologetically.

He finally said that if I’d be willing to go just one more stop on that out-of-my-way line, there’d be a whole host of restaurants to choose from.  So I reluctantly dragged my aching body back onto the subway train.

When the doors opened at the first stop, I seriously considered just getting out and trying the Tex-Mex place.  But my resistance to eating Tex-Mex along with my physical desire to not get up out of my seat and my growing reluctance to sit in a busy restaurant by myself kept me planted.

I had no choice but to get off at the next stop, being the end of the line.  On my way out, I noticed a pastie shop.  When I looked in their glass case, I saw “Cornish Pastie” and thought to myself, “Hey, now.  That’s local and I’ve never had one.”

When I found out the flaky pastry was stuffed with seasoned meat, potatoes, and onions, I exclaimed that that was exactly what I was looking for.  The price (under 5 pounds) was also right.  She asked if I wanted her to put it in a bag.  I started to say no, that I planned on sitting at one of their tables, when I realized she was offering to solve several of my problems.  I was past ready to be back in my room and I didn’t want to sit and eat by myself.

I was so excited about my purchase (silly, I know, but in my defense, it’d been a really long and tiring day), that I took the time and steps to return to the ticket man at Acton Town.  I proudly held up my bag and said, “I just wanted to thank you for recommending I go on to Ealing Broadway!  I got a Cornish Pastie and I couldn’t be happier!”

“Oh, honey!” he exclaimed. “That’s not dinner!”

“Oh, it’s exactly what I wanted,” I countered. “It was something local, inexpensive, already prepared, and something I could take with me.  Perfect!”

He looked doubtful but reluctantly said I was welcome.  I then realized that I didn’t know which terminal the subway had taken me from that morning.  That knowledge was important in that it was two different trains and only one of them was near the bus station that would take me on to the hotel.  I think the man was starting to worry about me but we talked through it and I took an educated guess and chose wisely.

Back at the airport, I caught the bus that would return me to my hotel.  I saw us go by the hotel but since we were on the other side of the street, I assumed that I would need to wait until it looped back around.  I saw a young woman looking anxiously at a map to the same hotel.  I told her that it would come back around right about the time the driver stopped and announced something I didn’t catch.  She asked if we needed to get off and I said I didn’t think so.  The guy behind me gruffly insisted that we were to get off the bus now.

I soon found myself standing on a dark street several blocks from my hotel, on the wrong side of a busy, four-lane road, with a very small college student from Tokyo.

“Wanna walk together?” I asked.

And so it was that I ended my solo sightseeing adventure in the company of another solo traveler.  We made light small talk together and ran across the street when we saw a break in traffic.  It felt good to walk alongside someone.  All in all, those last two people went a long way to restoring my sanity after a full day of living inside my own head.  What a blessing.

Twenty Things I Learned In England

I mentioned last week that I was away from home again.  As it happens, I was in England!  There’s a first time for everything.  Anyway, here’s a few things I learned while I was there:

  1. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of logical flow-of-traffic rules.  This isn’t just American confusion about driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  In America, you always go on the right.  It doesn’t matter if you are driving, walking, going upstairs, walking through a pair of double doors, whatever.  You always go to the right.  In England, if you are in a car, you go to the left.  If you are on an escalator for the London Underground, the signs tell you to stay to the right.  I was walking in a crowd once with a speaker telling us to stay “to the right”.  Yet other times, the crowd migrated to the left.
  2. Speaking of the London Underground, no one eats or drinks while riding on it.  No one does in Washington, D.C. either but there’s signs all over the place telling you not to.  There were no such signs on the tube.  Yet the only people I saw eating were the members of a tourist German family and… me.
  3. Speaking of Americans and food, our obesity problem is not global.  We may be slowly exporting it to the rest of the world but we haven’t been completely successful yet.  The vast majority of the people I saw were either not overweight or barely overweight.  I only saw one or two tremendously obese people and they were at the airport, waiting to board an American Airlines flight.  I don’t comment on this to denigrate obese people but to say that perhaps we as a society should quit blaming the individuals and start looking at what aspects of our culture create such a rich environment for people to have so much trouble with weight.
  4. Speaking a bit more about food, I had no idea they ate so much Indian food.  I mean, I guess it makes sense seeing as how India was part of the British Empire and all, but it still felt weird to be ordering curry at the pub instead of fish and chips.
  5. The women in England still wear pantyhose.  Ok, I don’t know what they call them and I can’t say for sure that they go all the way up to their waist.  Perhaps they are stockings.  But nearly every woman I saw in a dress was wearing hosiery.  Most often, it was black.  Women of all ages.  I stopped sometime shortly after Jane was born when I started noticing that young women were wearing dresses bare-legged.  I hated hose so much that I joined them.  I now see very few women under 70 with pantyhose on in Texas.  I think I saw two women wearing dresses in London without hose.  They were probably tourists.
  6. We judge (probably wrongly) based on accent and idioms.  If I heard a British child speak, they seemed so educated and refined – simply because of their accent and the odd word choice that kids here wouldn’t use.  Yet if we hear someone in our country speak with a Southern, redneck, or African American accent, we tend to assume they are less educated.  Based purely on something they have little control over.  Something to consider the next time we catch ourselves reacting to an accent.
  7. Speaking of accents, someone once told me that we and the British are “separated by a common language.”  I didn’t have too much trouble, but the combination of accent and slightly different vocabulary made it sometimes difficult to parse what someone was trying to say.
  8. The roundabouts were just as difficult to understand as everyone said they would be.  I guess there’s order to the madness but it just looked like barely controlled chaos to me.  I’m glad someone else was driving.
  9. Speaking of driving and right-of-way, every crosswalk in London included a “Look Right ->” or “<- Look Left” painted on the crosswalk near the curb, warning you which direction traffic would be coming.  I don’t know if this is a nod to all the foreign tourists or if the British get confused too.  Either way, it seemed like a good idea.
  10. They have switches on each outlet.  I’m not sure why.  I never could decide if this was better or worse than us or just different.
  11. Those switches and all others go down to turn on and up to turn off.  How did an ocean between us allow us to develop such different standards?!
  12. They apparently still take baths more than we do.  The adults, I mean.  I stayed at two different hotels.  Both of them had absurdly tall tubs with handles on each side.  I found them very awkward to get in and out of to take my shower but I think I could have easily immersed myself in a bath – something I couldn’t do in our tub at home.
  13. And while we are on the topic of bathrooms, the latches on the stall doors of every public bathroom I visited were such that when you latch the door, an indicator on the outside of the door lets people know that the stall is occupied.  It either turns from green to red or says “occupied.”  This is brilliant.
  14. Speaking of public bathrooms, they have problems with proper toilet paper dispenser operation too.  *sigh*  The problem is universal, I suppose.
  15. And one more comment about bathrooms:  Almost all chain hotels have signs in the bathrooms telling you they are environmentally conscious and that you can decide whether you want a fresh towel by throwing it on the floor if you do or hanging it up if you don’t.  The problem is that no one bothered to train the housekeeping staff.  They take my towel every d*mn time!  I now know it’s not just a problem with American maids.
  16. Speaking of signs in the bathroom, my Holiday Inn in London had nearly a dozen signs in the bathroom.  Telling me about the sham towel conservation program, what to do if I forgot my toothpaste, warning me that the tub might be slippery when wet and instructing me in the use of a bath mat, some statement about water conservation, and two different (and conflicting) instructions on how to operate the odd faucet in the shower.  What they didn’t have was a sign telling me how to turn the lights on.  I finally decided to see what would happen if I inserted my room key in the slot near the front door – which is what you have to do to get any lights or switches to work.  A sign over that might have been more useful than half the signs in the bathroom.
  17. The English are exceptionally proud of their history.  I suppose there’s room for that.  It is pretty impressive.
  18. I mean, the White Tower inside the Tower of London is over 900 years old.  Over 900 years old!  Our country is still in diapers by comparison.
  19. While they are proud of their history, they still recognize the contributions of others.  Over a prominent entrance to Westminster Abby were a series of statues commemorating “twentieth century martyrs.”  One of them was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I had to put my sunglasses on so no one would see my teary eyes.  Of course he’s a big deal and a significant historical figure.  But sometimes it takes seeing something like a statue on an ancient, historical, and significant building in a foreign country to truly understand how important someone was to people all around the globe.
  20. And finally, the people there use charming terms of endearment in casual conversation with strangers.  I was called “Darling” and similar terms when people were helping me.  I get annoyed when the cafeteria lady back home calls me “honey” or “baby” but a British grandma calling me Darling made my heart melt.

So there you go.  A very long-winded list of twenty things I learned in England.  Next up, I plan to write some vignettes of a few cool people I met and also take a look at how lonely it is to sight-see all by yourself.