If I had to describe my experience in London via song lyrics, it would have to be British pop star Lily Allen’s “Nan You’re a Window Shopper.”
“Get up in the morning and you like your tea milky,
you fumble for your glasses coz without ’em you cant see,
It’s funny how I come round your house and I’m 20
and I still have to wear all the presents you sent me.
I walk into your kitchen everything’s got a label,
you done your Christmas shopping and we’re only in April.
And you wont leave the house unless your wearing your thermals,
you’re covered all in cat hair and you’re stinking like Strepsils,
Your heading down the Bowls Club,
have another orange squash.
Balls are rollin rollin rollin.
You can’t walk right coz things aren’t what they were,
your ankles are swollen swollen swollen.
You’re walking down the post office to pick up your pension,
and then you’re off to Bingo, it’s become an obssession.
So weary of the kids when their wearin’ their hoods up,
and even if they smile at you, you think its a stick-up.
You only buy the paper just to cut out the coupons,
your saving 50p but what do you want with tampons?
Your always at the doctor picking up your prescription,
and they throw in some K-Y just to ease up the friction.
You gotta leak in your colostomy bag,
yeah its got a hole in hole in hole in.
At the weekend your shopping with your trolley,
its so sad how your rollin rollin rollin.”
Why, you may be asking, was my experience of London synonymous to a British song about a sad old cat lady with a colostomy bag? In due process, dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes is on the case.
For added fun to this blogging experience, I’m not going to write in any type of chronological order. Instead, I’m going to organize this post by FEELINGS because FEELINGS are very important. Just ask Hootie and the Blowfish, the 90’s dream team fronted by Darius Rucker before his fascination with wagon wheels. They have a lot of feelings in a lot of their songs that you’ve never heard.
Right, on we go.
Uncomfortable: Act One
We knew going into the weekend that our AirBnB host was crazy. Please note our correspondence with her:
Once checked in, you can come and go as you please as I will give you your own key (and of course on a night – you can be as late as you like – there is no curfew.) Check out on the Sunday would be officially 13:00, but you can leave your bags here rather than carry them about all day as lots of other people have done this. (I realise may not affect your timings but I like to state them in case your travel plans change).
This is why I ask people to confirm with me first before booking. Another reason is the decor; because the apartment is in need of refurbishing (hence the cheap price for a central listing) although your room is fine, the Living Room is undergoing renovations (which will pause for the days you are here) though as you will only be briefly passing through it as you come and go I doubt it will bother you too much. However, your bathroom needs redecorating and it will NOT be completed on time before your visit – it is useable but not ‘pretty’ as it needs a good lick of paint! This is my home, not a Hotel, so it has to be done around my other commitments. Also there is no air conditioning – for the 3 weeks a year we get reasonably warm weather, I would rather cater for the other 49 weeks and have central heating instead – which I imagine is okay if you have a similar climate, but thought it best to point this out. I am not a mega clean freak and I cater for super-budget travellers – you do get what you pay for! Also – I have Cats and this is a pro-smoking apartment, which is not everyones cup of tea (but I do not allow the cats into the bedrooms) So PLEASE read the listing fully and my profile to understand what you are letting yourself in for so you can fully enjoy your stay!
I just want to be upfront here about it as I dont want a negative review or you any nasty surprises. I aim for the low end of the market, the budget backpacker. This isnt usually young American girls who study abroad! Plus, the room size is clearly listed on the plan on my photos. There will be virtually nil floor space if 4 of you stay, so if you have large baggage it simply wont fit. This is also the reason I dont charge for the 4th person.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and I appreciate your understanding in this matter. If you are okay with this should you wish to still stay I will happily accept your booking, I just felt in the spirit of honesty you need to know the full score! If you want to stay feel free to book.
If I do not hear from you again, I do hope you enjoy your stay in London and I feel confident you will find something suitable via Airbnb.
I hope to God you didn’t read that whole thing. If you did, bless your soul. This was just the beginning of the back and forth. Once we confirmed that we did indeed want to book, she asked us very specific questions right on down to our food allergies, even though she wouldn’t be feeding us. We thought it best to go ahead and explain the basics of my diet, and in response, Kitty got genuinely upset that I would need to use her kitchen, which was listed as usable in the listing, mind you. She said it’s something I should mention in the first email so as not to catch my host off guard. We convinced her it would all be okay since we didn’t have enough time to find another place to stay, knowing that when we met her, it was going to be epically bad.
And we were right. It was bad.
When she answered the door, she was wearing a blue t-shirt as a night dress, but it came up to her mid-thigh. She was wearing no pants and squinting into the sunlight even though it was after noon. Clearly, we had woken her up and she was not pleased to see us. She mumbled some words at us and we scurried inside to put our bags down before getting out of there as quickly as possible. Not even the allure of her four cats could convince us to spend any more time in the apartment than we had too. We wondered if maybe she would murder us in the middle of the night and felt perhaps this was preferably to actually sleeping a whole night through in the apartment.
Here’s a comprehensive list of every time I felt cold in London: That time we had to wait outside for a bus to take us into London from the airport. That time when had to wait outside for a train to Jane Austen’s House. That time we had to wait outside for a bus to take us from the train station in some town that started with an F into Alton, where we watched the bus we needed to get to Jane Austen’s house drive away as we walked up, and then we had to grab a taxi. That time we had to walk back from Jane Austen’s house to the train station in Alton, which was further than we thought but also closer than we thought. That time we had to wait outside for the train back to London. That time we had to wait outside for forty minutes for a bus back to the airport.
I’ve never taken so many methods of public transportation in a 48 hour period in my entire life, which included planes, trains, buses, and taxis (multiples of each).
We gave ourselves plenty of time to find and catch a bus back to the airport to catch our nighttime flight back to Dublin. The strange thing about London is that there are a million airports, none of which are very close to the city center. We were flying out of a different airport than we flew into, and so we went to Victoria Station early so we could find a bus. What we ended up finding was a very sketchy sidewalk ticket-selling operation, some guys who couldn’t speak great English but could count money, assurances that the bus would be there in five more minutes twenty minutes ago, and a bus that was forty minutes late and ten minutes from our collective and graceless plunge into panic. But hey, we made it, didn’t we?
While we were in the very house where Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, among other classics, we encountered two older British men with a question. We had the answer. The object being discussed was a ring that belonged to Jane Austen (supposedly), which had been sold to Kelly Clarkson before making its way to the museum. The British guys couldn’t help but ask, “Who the feck is Kelly Clarkson?” They may not have asked in quite such an Irish way, but still, I was quite shocked. How can you go through life not knowing the magic of what lies behind these hazel eyes? We dutifully informed them that she is absolutely no one important from some show called American Idol, and we all happily moved on with our lives.
(Just kidding, Kelly, I love you)
Uncomfortable: Act Two
We came back to our AirBnB, knocking on the window (since the doorbell was broken) around 8 pm, which was when we said we would be there for the night. When Kitty, our host answered the door, she was still wearing that damn blue night shirt and no pants. Exasperated, she told us she wasn’t ready yet, and could we come back in ten minutes?
Okay, fine. Whatever. We were cold and had to pee. But I took the opportunity to go buy some butter, so it wasn’t a complete wash.
When we came back twenty minutes later, she didn’t answer until the third knock and was still wearing the damn night shirt. As predicted, at one point she bent over and I saw a flash of both ass cheeks. I was horrified. She ran through all the quirks of the apartment, which had flooded a few months back and was really quite filthy. Papers everywhere, cat hair galore, crumbs all over the counters. The faint smell of cheap cigarette smoke and cat urine. And just my luck, I would be sleeping on an air mattress on the floor.
Nothing can demonstrate my chronic confusion when travelling as clearly as when we were walking back to the train station from Jane Austen’s house. The landscape started looking familiar from the taxi ride we’d taken there, and when we turned a corner, I pointed over into a parking lot and asked Jess and Abbie, “Isn’t that where we catch the bus?” They exchanged “can you believe this girl?” looks and then basically told me I’m nuts. I was pointing to a pet store. Not a train station.
And I had absolutely no explanation. All well.
I thought their was a child behind me on the airplane kicking my seat, as children do when confined to small spaces for longer than two minutes. But when the flight was over, I stood up and looked behind me to find…a grown-ass man. Who kicked my seat the whole flight. The. Whole. Flight.
We were having dinner at the Queen’s Arms. It was after 9 pm when the food arrived. It wasn’t our first choice restaurant, but it was one of the only places still serving food and not just drinks/regret. By the meal’s end, the waitress had tried to convince us that a ghost had locked the bathroom from the inside out and I’d nearly fallen asleep on the table. Three times. It was only after the plates were cleared and we were waiting for the check (and waiting and waiting) that we found a new friend climbing out from a crack in the floorboards.
You guessed it, it was a baby mouse friend. It darted around from shadow to shadow in the dim dining room, getting ever closer to our table. It moved fast; one second you could see it and the next it was blur at the other side of the room. We just wanted to go home and sleep but the waitress had disappeared with our check (to fight the ghost possibly??) and the mouse friend was threatening to climb into our socks. When we informed the waitress about this mouse friend, I could see the hatred behind her eyes. She was also tired and wanted to go home and sleep, but now she’d have to set up a stake-out for our mouse friend so she could give him a proper mouse funeral involving moldy cheese and a trashcan out back.
Luckily, we were not sticking around for that.
I was about to settle down into a nice chair outside of a nice cafe with my nice, warm organic steamed milk. So I put the milk on the table and tried to put my butt in the chair. Except, my butt is rather clumsy and like that scene in Robots where Aunt Fanny wrecks the whole house with her ginormous fanny (the American meaning, not the Irish), I knocked into the table, which sent a shockwave that tipped my milk, which started pouring down the pants of my leg and collecting on the ground in front of me. This, of course, happened in front of three moderately attractive men who sent me looks of “oh, sweetheart, poor thing.” I bought another milk and let the first one seep into my pants, wearing my agony with red-faced pride. I did it to myself after all.
Kitty had four cats, but she had only one favorite. She let us know which was her favorite because every time we were in the room, she would pet Pudding the cat and tell him, “Oh yes, Pudding, you’re the favorite aren’t you? Grandma’s favorite, but don’t tell the others.” Meanwhile the other cats were looking at Pudding with daggers in their eyes, sharpening claws on all the lost hopes and dreams of Kitty’s, scattered around the apartment in the form of collected junk mail and Kibbles and Bits. She talked to all of her cats, and all of them were named after food. I’m pretty sure one was called Sprinkles. Another might have been called Spam and Eggs, but I could be making that up.
When Kitty fell asleep on the couch, which she was always doing, Pudding would sit on her chest and rise and fall with Kitty’s breaths. And when Kitty would sporadically wake up, jolting, she would reach out for Pudding and say to him, without missing a beat, “Yes, Pudding, the favorite aren’t you?” before falling back into a slumber not quite as sweet as death.
There was not a lot of sadness in London since it was so sunny and we were simply too busy to be sad, but when there was sadness to be had, it involved food.
Traveling with a strict diet is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Rice from a thermos is never inviting or appetizing when your travel mates are eating chocolate-covered waffles or authentic Italian or shrimp with the faces still attached (maybe it’s not so hard with that last one). I can’t help but wonder during these situations when I can’t eat what everyone else is eating, how often my friends say to themselves, “I’m glad I’m not Sarah.” Not that I would blame them one bit for thinking so. How could you not be happy to be able to eat chocolate covered waffles after seeing Cleopatra’s dead body in the British Museum?
Shout out to the small child who ate three bites of her vanilla ice cream and then threw it away. There’s a special place in the hell pit of my heart for you.
Milk (milk is a feeling right?)
Direct quote from my travel journal, which recounts my time sitting in the airport before the flight to London: “I got a Starbucks milk because milk.” The next JK Rowling, ladies and gentlemen. Such imagination and inventiveness, it just really captures the feeling, you know?
There was also that time when we were waiting in Stansted Airport for our flight back to Dublin. Getting there was hell, but once we were there, it was the best airport we’d ever been in. The place was empty at 9 pm at night and there was a lovely cafe with tattooed barmen and a departures board near where we sat. And best of all, THEY HAD FREE MILK. It was the closest thing to God blessing me with his presence that has ever happened to me. I immediately scalded my tongue, I was so excited.
Uncomfortable: Act Three
Kitty worked nights, so she was gone for the night when we got back from dinner at the Mouse Trap. What exactly she did for work was another question altogether. My theory, based on the art that decorated our bedroom, was that she was a stripper. But given her size and age and love for cats, I thought maybe she was a bouncer instead, or maybe a bartender even. She claimed to work in the underground, but I ask you, which underground? Lots of strip clubs are also underground…just sayin’.
We all crashed pretty quickly after coming to the apartment for the night. My air mattress was out of air within twenty minutes, so I slept on the floor with stiff hips and silk blankets that had not been washed since the last guests were there the night before. I was only extremely grossed out, waking up a few times through the night because I wanted to scavenge the house for the damn 24 euros I spent to sleep in that cesspool.
When we saw Kitty again the next morning, she was fresh off work, talking to her cats again and wearing that same damn blue night shirt with no pants.
Oh, crazy cat ladies of London. What would England be without you except less weird and perhaps a lot cleaner?
Happy was walking through the National Gallery and recognizing the names of so many different artists, getting to admire their work. Happy was walking into the room where Van Gogh and Monet works were on display, and seeing in person Sunflowers and other fine impressionist paintings that made my heart flutter a little bit. Happy was how quiet London seemed to be even though it stretched on forever and was full of people. Happy was walking right past Big Ben because we thought it would be bigger, and enjoying even the moments when we got lost because the sun was shining and we were alive.
Happy was the girl (me) who got to walk down Butts Road and take a photo with the Butts Road street sign, fulfilling a lifelong dream she (I) didn’t realize she (I) had. Happy was buying butter that had the British flag on it because it just seemed so brilliantly British. Happy was walking down the park next to Buckingham Palace, looking at the horse poop and feeling grateful it wasn’t my job to pick it up. Happy was the shower I had upon coming home after three days of not showering while living in a flurry of pet dandruff and Kitty fleas. After that air mattress, my bed was the best dream I ever had, except, thankfully, it was real.
Part of Something Bigger
When we stumbled out of the National Gallery of London, high on Van Gogh, I noticed a line of red umbrellas down near the fountain in Trafalgar Square, so we walked over to check it out. Turns out, we were catching the tail end of a marriage proposal. Written on the red umbrellas in white paint were the words “Will you marry me?” which were all held up by friends of the couple. The woman said yes, and the hug between her and her new fiance was quite magical. The sun was shining as the umbrellas were stowed away and the umbrella-holding friends high-fived one another. As the crowd dispersed and we walked away, I peeked back and saw the couple still standing near the fountain, just holding each other.
Part of Something Smaller
As the three of us were walking down a quiet street near the end of our second day in London, we passed by three guys in their mid-twenties kicking a soccer ball around. One of them, shock of all shocks, was wearing an Indiana University sweatshirt. And because it’s London and I was feeling brave, I shouted over to him, “Heyy, Indiana University!” and made a weird hand gesture that communicated victory (but victory of what, I’m not sure). He smiled and that was the end of that. Sometimes the world is so big and you’re lost in a foreign city and you can’t speak the language or ask for help. And other times, the world is so small that you find familiar things and people in the strangest, most unexpected places.
That was London. Strange and unexpected while somehow incredibly familiar and welcoming. It also happened to be my last trip I’ll be taking with either Abbie or Jess. This incredible journey of adventure and exploration is winding down. I’ll be home in less than 30 days, ready to start the last summer of my college career.
Meanwhile, in a basement flat on Upper Tachbrook Street, I’ll take comfort in knowing that there’s a woman wearing a blue night shirt sleeping on her couch, a cat named Pudding sitting on her chest. And like clockwork, every fifteen minutes the woman will stir, reaching out to calm the cat named Pudding, whispering, “You’re the favorite, aren’t you Pudding,” before falling back asleep. Everything will be right with the world.
Pudding’s world anyway. He is the favorite, after all.