The Underground tried to eat me! And other shocking travel tales.Posted by Donna Freedman on Mar 7, 2011 | 29 comments
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.”
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.