The Underground tried to eat me! And other shocking travel tales.

When the Megabus from Cardiff dropped me off last week, I headed toward Victoria Station and found myself trudging along in lockstep with thousands of Underground commuters. I followed the crowd into the subway car, carrying my suitcase in front of me. Then people stopped moving. I could see there was room elsewhere in the car, but apparently these folks liked being close to the doors.

“Excuse me, could I get by?” I said.

No one moved.

“I’m not quite in, please let me get by,” I said, louder.

This was met with a peculiarly British inertia. People looked at advertising placards, or their shoes. A few looked at their cell phones, as though scanning texts. Nobody looked at the tired American tourist who was carrying way too much baggage. (Physical, not emotional.)

Then the doors shut on me.

Not quite on me. The doors barely cleared my shoulders but their jaws took a firm hold on my backpack. “Mind the gap,” my ass — how about minding the doors?

“Please help me! I’m caught in the door!” I yelled. I worked to wriggle out of the straps, acutely aware that as the train took off, my livelihood — i.e., my laptop — was probably going to be swept away and crushed. Better it than me.

Two young men leapt to my assistance, yanking and pulling at the doors until they opened enough for me to stumble forward. I thanked them profusely and they blushed a little. Just regular lads, they were: Old blue jeans and faded sweatshirts, in stark comparison to the men and women in business suits who’d declined to move further down in the car.

“All right, then?” one of the youngsters said.

I was. Even though I wanted to kick some suit patoot right about then.

Festive music, fast food

On Saturday evening I attended a candlelight music recital at the renowned St.-Martin-in-the-Fields church. It wasn’t completely candelit, mind you; the insurers would have never allowed such a thing. But the lights were dimmed and many candles were lit. Close enough.

The Festive Orchestra of London played an all-baroque program of works most people would recognize, such as Air on the G String, Pachelbel’s Canon in D (think: weddings and wine commercials) and “Winter” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The acoustics in the place were stunning. So were the performers, even though I think they played the Canon much too fast. Maybe they’re sick of it and were just trying to get through as quickly as possible.

Afterwards I walked to a nearby McDonalds to nurse a small Diet Coke and use the wifi. I wound up having a sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious conversation with two thirty-something men who were trying to sober up with fries and a Big Tasty. (They’re not called “Big ‘n’ Tasty” here. Also: They serve sweet chili sauce with the McNuggets and the Diet Coke tastes faintly of banana.)

The two men bounced comments back and forth to each other like a comedy duo, but they’re not; I asked. They teased me gently and I teased them more directly (I am from the U.S., after all) and we talked about politics in America and England.

They suggested that Rupert Murdoch is to blame for much of the discord in the U.S. and the U.K. When they asked me about Sarah Palin, I felt compelled to tell them that I had once been in a shotgun tournament with her. (She didn’t win that time, either. But at least she didn’t quit in the middle of the thing.)

We also talked about the famous British reserve. I said that some people seem startled when I talk to them, particularly the people who were better-dressed. The folks I would consider working-class have been much friendlier. (This morning, for instance, I chatted for 10 minutes with a guy who runs a news and souvenir stand. He regaled me with stories of how lucky I was to be in London now, vs. during the blizzardy snafus of November and December. “It was ‘orrible,” he said.)

One of the two men, who’d traveled in the U.S., said that British manners are used to keep people apart whereas American manners bring people together. Within five minutes of sitting down in a U.S. bar, he says, someone will start talking to him. His friend chimed in: “I was sitting in my local watching the rugby. It took an hour for someone to speak to me — and he wasn’t from here.”

The first man had eaten all his food but seemed a little tipsy and maudlin. His friend suggested he’d had way too much to drink. “What do you think? Do I look sober to you?” the first man pleaded.

“You look like you used to be sober,” I said. “Back before you had all those drinks.”

His friend burst out laughing. “Harsh,” he said. “But true.”

Frugal spirituality

After spending part of Sunday at the British Museum I decided to take the bus to Westminster Abbey even though I was pretty tired. (Fatigue is cumulative, especially if your body hasn’t quite forgiven you for the previous month’s fall down the stairs.) I wanted to use the heck out of my weekly transit pass before it expired at midnight.

It turns out that the abbey is closed to visitors on Sunday. Never occurred to me to check. D’oh!

However, I was able to attend an organ recital (all all-Buxtehude program by the resident “organ scholar,” who looked to me about 12 years old) and then the evening service. The two were held in two different areas of the abbey. In other words, I got a decent look at this wonderful building for free, vs. the just over $26 it would have cost to tour it.

More to the point, if I am unable to get back to this part of town during the trip I will at least have gotten a glimpse of the place. Short form: Beauty everywhere you look, and ceilings so high that even the minister’s throat-clearing seemed profound. During the time of confession and forgiveness I was able to ask silent pardon for slapping someone’s car (more on that later).

Interestingly, my foot, leg and hip hurt less when I left. Was it the hour and a half I’d rested during the recital and service? Or was a Higher Power giving me enough slack to get myself back to the hostel? I was grateful either way.

I wonder what it would be like to attend Westminster Abbey as a regular parishioner, to walk in every Sunday and listen to announcements about the church bake sale and the charity drive. Or to volunteer there, dusting crypts and reshelving books in the library. Does it ever become ordinary?

More odds and ends

While in a McDonalds restroom I saw discarded boxes for false eyelashes and a pregnancy test. I couldn’t help wondering if they’d been purchased by the same person.

On Saturday morning I went to the Notting Hill neighborhood to meet with Viviana, a U.S. expat who blogs at The Lean Times (“lush living with thrift”). She and I walked through the food stalls near the famous Portobello Road antiquities market. Viviana shops there every week and has scoped all the best deals. At one barrow I bought a box of Carrs water biscuits and some individually wrapped Port Salut and herbed cheese; these made two lunches, with enough crackers left over for two more light meals. Total cost: 70 pence, about $1.20 USD. The cheese came from Marks & Spencer, a department store that has a fancy-schmancy food section. Its sell-by date was about three weeks ago. (Question: How can you tell when cheese goes bad?) It tasted delicious. Nothing like a scratch-and-dent lunch to keep me on my game. For extra credit: When I tried to buy one carrot, the vegetable seller just gave it to me. Free crudites!

After Viviana and I had eaten Portuguese custard tarts and talked until we were hoarse, I took a bus back toward the Underground stop. While the bus was stuck in traffic I struck up a conversation with a woman who was probably in her early 30s. She asked about my “holiday” and what I do for a living. Before I got off the bus she had written her name and e-mail address on a piece of paper. “If you ever want to come back to London, you can stay in my flat and I’ll go stay with my mum,” she said. I thanked her for her kind offer but said I couldn’t possibly ask her to do such a thing. “No, really,” she said. “I want you to.” See, not all British people are reserved.

Or maybe it’s “just me face,” as Ringo Starr once said — I have that look that says, “This woman is completely harmless. Invite her over!” I will note that twice so far on this trip I have been asked to watch people’s computers while they go to the bathroom. As I’ve written before, people need to remember that just because someone looks honest doesn’t mean she is honest. The fact is, I am honest. But for all they know, I could be paying for my vacation by fencing hot laptops.

Finally, about that car: Picture a Saturday night, Piccadilly Circus, traffic gone mad. The light changes. I start to cross the street. A car from the opposite direction starts inching forward. I keep walking. “I have the signal,” I say out loud. The driver inches further. I keep walking. The vehicle moves to within centimeters of my right leg. I slap the hood of his car and roar, “The signal is MINE!” The driver actually rocked backward in his seat, throwing his hands into the air. I surrender, crazy American woman who hits sedans! Please don’t hit me, too! That is the first time I have ever slapped a vehicle. Now I wish I’d slapped it twice.

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  1. Mary Lambert

    You know I’m living vicariously through you, right? You are doing something that I have dreamed of. I think if “ordinary you” can do it….one day I will too!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Mary: I hope you’ll try it, and sooner rather than later. Hint: Don’t sprain your ankle about five weeks before leaving, or get a really bad upper respiratory virus 10 days before leaving. Your trip will be easier that way.
      And thanks for your kind words.

  2. I, too, am living vicariously. I absolutely love it that you slapped the car!

  3. Maybe you could become a frugal travel writer? I’m also living vicariously through you and enjoying it immensely.

  4. First of all, the slapping of the car was hilarious! Good for you.
    The part of being stuck in the train door was annoying. People are so strange. I am glad those chaps helped you out because seriously, people can be so mea and callous.

  5. Have to tell you how much I am enjoying reading about your travels in London. I am a Englishwoman, born in London, living in America and am thoroughly amused at how you are reacting to us Brits.
    All so true!
    Thanks for the giggles,

    • Donna Freedman

      @Rose: Thanks for your comments. Glad you’re not offended. I hope the driver really and truly was, though. In fact, I hope he peed in his pants a little.

  6. LOL! This brings back so many memories!

    In London a British driver tried the same thing on me when I was dragging two children through a crosswalk on the green! He damn near ran us down.

    Londoners are like many stressed denizens of big cities — much like New Yorkers: they close out the crush around them, turn inward for survival, and create the impression that they’re cold, rude, and uncaring. Get out of the city, and you find most English people are warm and friendly.

    That you’ve managed to get a number of strangers in London to speak with you says a lot about your people skills.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Funny: The people in Wales chattered like magpies. Am going to Cornwall tomorrow; we’ll see how they react.
      In fact I have had some fine interactions with Londoners. Definitely can see the inward-turning thing you mention, though. Perhaps they think that any stranger who speaks to them will ask for money. That I-can’t-see-you attitude probably also helps city dwellers to rush by homeless people shivering on sidewalks.
      The panhandlers here are as soft-spoken and diffident as the ones that Abby and I met 16 years ago. Most don’t say anything at all; they just sit there with a tiny pile of change in front of them. The ones who do speak practically whisper, “Spare change?” I’ve burned through a fair amount of cash because, just as in Seattle, I can’t not help. I can’t help them all, of course, but I can’t pretend that they don’t exist, or that the problem of homelessness has nothing to do with me.

  7. I’m afraid that my American would have shown a bit when I got stuck in the doors. Someone would have had their arse handed to them!
    We have a ton of English friends and I have to say that they are just wonderful! Have to laugh though, they aren’t huggers so we “molest” them every time they are here.
    And I flat out laughed that you slapped a car!

  8. You slapped the car! You gave me my first hearty laugh of the day!

  9. I’m married to a known car-slapper (never without provocation, but we do a lot of city walking so this happens once or twice a month, I’d say), so the incident you described made me laugh aloud. In large cities, pedestrians just have to assert their rights sometimes!

    I love your stories and the way you tell them!

  10. lostAnnfound

    The car slapping…that was so funny!! Last time I was in London a few years ago visiting family I went out shopping with one of my cousins who had to grab my hand and pull me out of a crosswalk the second the light turned green for the cars. She told me that a lot of drivers have one foot on the brake & one on the gas and they’re ready and raring to go when that light turns.

    I did something similar once before here while walking the girls to elementary school (some years ago). The ladies at the crosswalk waited until the crosswalk was lit up for “walking” and we proceeded to go. One guy “didn’t see” me, the girls, three other school kids and two female crossing guards in bright orange vests and he ended up stopping right on the walkway. While I didn’t slap his car, I did put my hands on the hood of the vehicle and told him to back up or he could sit there all morning because I wasn’t moving until the walkway was clear for the kids to go. He took the hint 🙂

  11. I’m an english ex-pat living here in Los Angeles. I have only been back once in 25 years so, even though I was born and went to school there, I will be like a foreigner who just happens to have a british accent by the time I go back again (October perhaps)! LOL But I still remember everything you write about, especially crazy London, the traffic and the reservedness of the people. I’m kinda lookin’ forward to messin’ with ’em ….. 😉 Note: we are generally not ‘huggy’ types.

  12. I love that you’re having such a grand time – and that you’re experiencing so much of the people there.

    Many of my colleagues are native Brits and tell me what to expect and I see their countrymen in your descriptions, the whole gamut of them, but it’s amazing how spot on they, and you, are.

    As a guest in the countryside during the November/December schlock, it was … incredible. Gorgeous, the people were beyond friendly and personable and warm, and I absolutely loved it. It was all anybody could talk about, of course, and everyone was worried I’d not make it home ok because the airports were closed but there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that I’d be housed and fed for the duration if I was snowed in. My experience of the cities, in comparison, was much different.

    Though my London cabby was a hoot and a half – stopped dead in the middle of the street to make sure I could take pictures when he found out I’d never been before.

    By the way? I hope that driver peed himself too. And not just a little. RUDE, I say.

  13. I love your stories! And having spent some time in the U.K. myself, I could really relate to this one. I had to share it with my mom and sister, who lived in Scotland for several years. Thank you, Donna!

  14. I so enjoyed your travels and perspective. I linked over by way of Elizabeth and love this post. You’e got a new reader/commenter. We (family of five) went over to London in Aug. of 2009 and loved it. Not a lot of chats (I don’t have that “come over and talk to me even tho’ I am a complete stranger face), but the two cabbies we had were the epitome of cockney, chatty, clever and helpful.

  15. Hi I came via Elizabeth’s blog too.. see that my friend Jenny N has joined us too …:-) …

    I cannot believe you got a bus all the way from Cardiff to London ..!! bit of a nightmare journey. I love going to London too.. my friends come over from Paris and we meet up there.

    I hope you have a fantastic time with Elizabeth and John .. sure you will . Enjoy their guest room !

  16. Londoners can be tough nuts to crack. The first time I went there I was pretty young, and quite intimidated by them. The second time I was a bit older, and spent some time with friends of friends who were locals. Those locals complained too about how some Londoners can be haughty, even to other locals, so at least I didn’t feel so bad for being intimidated.

    It’s like any other city, there are always going to be those who fit the stereotype, and those who break it. But I can say a lot more people talked to us when we went to the bars in the working class part of town.

  17. I am so glad your blogging about your adventures in london. They are hillarious please keep them coming.

  18. I linked to this post for Wicked Wednesday. It just fits.

  19. Mariellen Romer

    Hi Donna –

    Hope you’re having fun in Cornwall. I spent 5 months last year in the US last year watching poeple sauntering across parking lots to the supermarket with cars stopping for them, and saying to my US host: “that person would now be dead in the UK.”. It was a marvel.

  20. Sarah L

    I have had the best time reading about your adventures. I was laughing so loudly at how you smacked that car and the driver acted!!! And Thank goodness those two young boys helped you when you got caught in the door! How awful! I guess next time better to be rude and push forward than polite and get stuck!!!

  21. Donna Freedman

    @Anne: The bus to Cardiff was a piece of cake. It took only about 15 minutes longer than the train would have taken. The ride was smooth. The bus was quiet. Nobody threw up. And the price was certainly right: Three pounds each way, or $10.33 USD round-trip.
    Next up: Taking the Megabus in the U.S. when I go to visit my dad. Now THAT will probably yield some tales….
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  22. Donna, I’m loving your posts from abroad. However, I’ve decided I will not stay in hostels because there is no way in H*** that I’m sleeping in the top bunk.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kay Lynn: I’m in another top bunk, have been for two days — but it’s a real bunk bed, i.e., it has a real ladder and lots of ways to hold on. Much easier.

  23. Samantha

    Love your travel stories, very funny! And think of the top bunk as just another adventure for you, pushing your limits on what you can cope with!

  24. jestjack

    My favorite part of being on vacation is the folks….”characters”….I strike up a conversation with. I’ve met some pretty interesting people with some very different outlooks on life. Perhaps life truly is about the “journey” and not the “destination”.

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