“There’s a space on the entry form there for local address during stay — I don’t really know where I’m staying yet, so I didn’t put anything in there.”
“Oh don’t worry, we’ll get around to that when we do. Where are you coming from today?”
“USA. Well, Los Angeles. California.”
“‘Occupation: Writer’? What kind of writing do you do?”
“Technical, mostly. Tech stuff.”
“What kind of tech stuff?”
“Oh, everything. Apple products. Video games.”
“Uh huh. Are you meeting anyone here in the UK?”
“Well yes. But not right away. I am getting dinner with someone on Tuesday, and then hanging with some friends on Friday?”
“You’re meeting Tuesday in France?”
“France? No! Not in France. On Friday, I said.”
“Uh huh. How do you not know where you’re staying? Are you traveling alone?”
“I am alone. But I just don’t exactly know what the plan is yet, exactly where I’ll be.”
“Well if you’re traveling alone, then you’re the only one who knows the plan, right?”
“Yes, I am. But I don’t know if — There is no plan, I guess. I have a hostel address where I have a few nights reserved.”
“Uh huh. Can you show me your ticket for flying back to the United States?”
“Well, I don’t have one. Wait, no, I mean I have one, but it’s not printed or anything. It’s on my phone. Does that work?”
“Sigh. [reads email on iPhone, sees that flight back to the US is on May 1] Now wait. It says here you’re flying back May 1. But you said you’re only going to be in the UK for two weeks.”
“Well, I am going to France after that. And then a few other places.”
“What other places?”
“France, and then Germany. And then Holland. Probably.”
“How are you getting to France?”
“I am hoping to buy a train ticket?”
“Uh huh. [checks something on the computer, looks dubious]”
[smiles weakly, tries not to act nervous and jet lagged]
“All right. [stamps passport, opens gate] Come on in.”
And that’s how you get into the UK.
I got through the lines at Heathrow without too much of a problem, but as you can read above, I felt a surprising amount of nervousness. Walking through the endless hallways and passageways out of the airport (which reminded me of Chicago’s O’Hare, actually), I didn’t quite feel like I was in another country yet — I did hear an occasional English accent here and there, but I also heard Indian accents, and Spanish, and Japanese. It was so international that I might as well have been at a Dodgers game.
There were little differences — there was a sign for “way out” rather than exit, and as I walked past some emergency fire hydrants, I realized they were the first once I’d ever seen in real life that hadn’t been approved by some sort of US government agency. Little things like that struck me as I made my way through the byways of Heathrow out into this new country.
My first goal was to get a ticket for the Tube and somehow get into the city. After a little bit of confusion at the standard kiosk (a kind gentleman in an official looking uniform helped me out), I went to the counter, and my Mastercard seemed to get me an Oyster card. London is split into zones, I was told, but a seven day pass for zones 1-6 should be what I wanted. And just like that, with one swipe of my Bank of America card (and probably a nice chunk of fees for converting the currency, I was mobile.
I was impressed by the Tube, but the most interesting thing about it was that the line I rode away from Heathrow was headed to a final stop called “Cockfoster’s.” Yes, I did laugh, every time that woman mentioned the destination. I also laughed when I heard “Mind the gap.” It was riding in on the train yesterday when I finally wrote up yesterday’s post about flying in, and despite how tired I was, I was immensely happy. I was in Britain, with the English country flying past me, and I was headed to my destination.
Not having a constant Internet connection on my iPhone has been the biggest issue so far — I really depend on constant information at home, from directions to address lookup, and of course my usual Twitter, email, and so on. When I came up at the Piccadilly Circus stop, I wasn’t so interested in the incredible architecture and crowds right away as I was in just finding some Internet to hook up to and figure out where my hostel was supposed to be. I was online for just a little bit yesterday — just enough to get my bearings and an address.
For these first few nights, I am staying at a hostel just across from the British Museum, and it’s about as “hostel” as these things get. I slept in the upper bunk of a bunk bed last night, and I don’t know if it’s just because the building I was in also happens to be under construction, but I could feel every single movement inside that building in that bed. It wasn’t completely miserable — I believe I’ve staved off jetlag as well as possible, but “luxury accomodations” they are not. I have invested in a lock for my computer bag while I’m sleeping, and I think I’m going to rent a safe to keep my tech in today while I go touristing around the city.
The hostal hasn’t been all bad — I’ve met a nice guy named Thomas from Norway, and a nice girl named Tami from Spain. I slept above a guy from Brazil (whose name I didn’t catch), and in a room with three other girls, who I believe said they were from Belgium. They all speak in a hurried language that sounds Russian when talking together, but when you speak to one of them in English, they instantly smile and respond to you in perfect British accents. So yes, I believe they may indeed be spies.
Most of the day after getting off the train yesterday was just about decompressing and finding out the lay of the land, but I did check one big important goal off my list: I went to a pub for a pint. The Princess Louise is the one I landed on, just a few blocks away from my hostel.
It was gorgeous inside, with decorative designs all over the walls, and old wood everywhere. I have no information on how old the bar actually is, but it was in a sort of “parlor” configuration — there were little booths all around the bar in the center of the room, and people were hanging out in those little booths all together. There were all kinds of people — young English guys in expensive suits and coats, old gray-haired Englishmen drawing pints in twos and threes, working men sitting alone at the bar, and young couples sitting in corners and talking.
I was almost exhausted from jet lag at this point, and I wasn’t exactly sure how much money I had to spend on alcohol this evening, but I settled on something called a Soverign Best. I just barely caught a glimpse of the bartender making it — it sure looked to me like he put some sort of syrup or something in glass before pulling it from the tap.
But when he passed it over to me (and I paid him a few pounds, plus one extra for a tip), I took it, sipped it, and tasted a sweet, fruity, very hearty beer. After a long day of traveling, it was just excellent. I took a seat in a back corner of the bar, sat with my beer, and just relaxed, enjoying the fact that I was in London and having a pint.
Drinking, in America, is about all sorts of things — sometimes, you go to bars to pick up members of the opposite sex, sometimes you go to watch sports, and sometimes you just go to get wasted. But in this pub, in this country, at least, I was surrounded by the idea of “gathering”. The British have a thing for “gathering,” as far as I can tell in my roughly 24 hours here — even walking the streets last night looking for my hostel and this pub, I would pass doorways and see clumps of people standing around, talking, and enjoying themselves. In America, there’s a very clear line between “in the bar” and “waiting to get in,” but in Britain, that line doesn’t seem quite as clear.
In fact, I don’t know if you can see them in the picture above, but the Princess Louise actually has countertops outside on the street, so those drinking can take their beers outside and continue the conversation out there. This wasn’t the only pub I saw that spread out on to the street, either — there were a few others that had clumps of people standing around with beers outside, and even one restaurant that had brought tables out on to the street for the evening crowd.
It’s not at all about drinking outside in a Las Vegas or Mardi Gras kind of way, where you’re getting away with something out on a public street. Instead, it’s about being public in general, about enjoying not only your own company, but spreading out on to the street and enjoying everyone else’s. I finished my pint, happy to be in everyone’s company, alone as I was, and made my way back to the hostel to try and catch up on sleep.
Today: It’s off to Westminster, to see Big Ben, the Eye, Parliament, and everything else around there. Remember, if you’re in London, we’re planning on a meetup on Friday evening, 5pm, at the Oxford Circus Tube stop. We’ll go from there out to dinner, drinking, and whatever. And even if you can’t make that (or even if you can and just want to hang out), feel free to email me or offer any recommendations at all.
Posted on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 at 3:32 am. Filed under general.