London certainly began auspiciously: our plane arrived from Edinburgh quickly, our baggage emerged almost at the first of the heap, and we absconded through Heathrow with little difficulty. I made a call home to prove that I was living, and also to take care of some terrifying money woes that disabled me from withdrawing any cash (travel requires money, you see—I can tell you are shocked). Hopping on the tube with a wave of our long-prepurchased Oyster cards, I sat in the subway with a smug hubris. Hah, I thought, only two major cities and I am already an expert traveller.
Those capable of reading incredibly obvious portents will understand that the other shoe dropped fairly quickly. We dashed over to our hostel, about a half-hour walk from King’s Cross, and checked our bags. The first bump was the costliness: the hostel was expensive, food around it was expensive, everything was in pounds and therefore both confusing and even more expensive, but we waved that away: this is London! Of course everything is pricey: it’s English.
Our plan was to wander for a while, then to meet Donny at the train station at his supposed arrival time. We found the grocery store, the British Library, the train station, and various other spots not terribly far from the hostel in the first place. Look at all this success we are having in such a big city!
It began to rain. We were not taken aback, at first, because: Britain. That we had enjoyed freakishly pleasant weather in Scotland and Ireland was either fluke or due to our sacrifices and prayers to the bog gods. It had to rain eventually. I removed a dinky umbrella from my bag, Zack confidently strode on. Surely it would not last.
At King’s Cross, we waited. And then we went to St. Pancras and waited. And then we waited outside. Shockingly, it would be easy to get into that station and not come upon people waiting there for you, because that station is a) enormous and b) teeming with people waiting for others. We were vastly outnumbered to an enormous degree by scores of British and Europeans far more accustomed to both train stations and patience. An hour later, we gave up. The stink of failure had come.
Outside, it was pouring. Since Donny’s hostel was nearby, we decided to try poking our heads around there, which similarly ended poorly. We were also exactly halfway between our own hostel and King’s Cross, so we decided to do the walk back to our own. We settled for sending him a quick, depressedly typed message over Facebook and called it an evening.
The next morning, we successfully met Donny at the British Library. Achievement! Travel accomplishment! We managed to secure our companion in a city of millions, currently squeezing millions more through its congested streets in the peak travel season! We felt good once more, and I fumbled around the exhibits in the library, self-satisfied. The rest of the day fed into that well of raised-pinky sophistication I sensed I was developing: we strolled through Regent Park and took in the British Museum. I tutted at those who caressed and molested the artefacts for cheap snapshots. Like a librarian.
London would not let this hilariously un-earned douchebaggery stand. The next day, I decided to direct us to the River Walk around the Tower of London. Now, it was incredibly pleasant and very historical and eye-opening and all that, but it was also incredibly hot. The heat was only partially from the sun, and more from the unending seas of other tourists. There were thousands, tens-of-thousands, of people milling about the area, all looking to do the exact same things as us, all keenly fearful of skilled pick-pockets, and all willing to abandon all sense of Western private space by slamming their way through crowds. All haughtiness I had developed collapsed in on itself. There were just so many people.
We passed the London Eye (essentially: it looked cool, but in August the cost was prohibitive and the queue insane), and much of the Thames, and came to rest in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. We were all vague crabby and unhappy with how things were going: we were seeing the great modern splendours of London, and yet we were all incredibly exhausted, and warm, and could not escape the feeling of being constantly surrounded. Our attempts to track down Rose, who was also in town at the time, were unsuccessful. We needed something that realistically dealt with London’s londonishness while being tolerable to frustrated sensibilities. Hyde Park, crowded but so expansive as to ultimately swallow the masses whole and still have acres of room, proved to be the trick.
The next day, I first set off alone. Dissatisfied with what I assumed to be a fault of my navigating or planning, I carried a sort of egotism that completely ignored the fact that we were in London and August and, really, what did I expect? All the same: I went off to Oxford circus alone, got an iPod cord I had been searching for in three cities, and went to Buckingham independently. They were cool and, of course, beset by immense crowds of people. I fended them off and got back and forth around the city while multiple of the subway lines were closed. Slowly I came to terms with the reality of a city that wasn’t there to bend to my touristy will.
Once I gave into it, the leg became great once again. I found Donny and went to the Natural History Museum, and later we managed to find Rose (and her friend, Beth) and we marched about Camden market in the sun for hours. With the right attitude and a Zen acceptance that the hordes of tourists were not going anywhere (and that, indeed, we were a part of that horrifying mass of humanity infringing on someone else’s trip in turn), we were even able to adopt a leisurely pace.
We followed Rose to her hostel and stayed for Pub Quiz, which I now greatly hunger for, as it unifies two of my great loves: useless trivia and drinking. Rose and Beth, for whatever reason, departed to search for Jude Law, and we ran into Gary of our days in Edinburgh. We drank, got terribly lost hours after the subways closed, and stumbled around the London bus system, laughing like children. A swell of Oh damn, we’re being drunken fools in London! swept over us. The magic of the Eurotrip had once again taken over.
I feel like this was more essay than narrative, and maybe it was, to argue a point to myself. Half of the skill of travelling anywhere is trying to understand what a city or a place is like on its own and just going with it, rather than raging against the frustrations and unpleasantnesses that assault you along the way. Yes, crowds suck. Yes, London is a giant, smoggy mass of tall buildings and constant rushing. Yes, you are going to wait in incredibly long lines to see the cool stuff. But that’s London. If I wasn’t willing to deal with it, why would I go in the first place? The fun is worth the minor difficulties in earning it.
As though to bestow a boon of positivity on me for my Great and Treacly Learnings of the World, on my last day as I scribbled in my notebook, a couple proposed directly in front of me. A lady stood in a circular courtyard in front of the library, waiting Britishly. I ate a fruitcup and wrote about whatever stuff I felt was important at the time, and then a man approached her. They hugged pleasantly, and she gestured inside, but he murmured something, and suddenly he took a knee. Her hands flew up to her face. More murmuring. She squealed and jumped a little and, one assumes, accepted. They strolled off together, hand-in-hand. Another woman nearby who oversaw the event as well wiped a tear, and others still smiled. So did I. London won me over.