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.