The Last (and Worst) Time I was in London

As we’re planning our 2016 European adventure, we’re talking about all the places we are interested in visiting — for me, Paris is always a must see, but not so much for Justin. At the top of his list is London.

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London is a beautiful city, with a rich (and bloody!) history, full of people who speak English and a theatre scene that can’t be missed. Yet, every time I hear the name of the city, my heart starts to race in a panicky way and my mouth goes a little dry. I haven’t been to London in over a decade, but the last time I went was one of the worst travel experiences of my life.

• • •

The time: January, 2006. I was on holiday in between semesters during my year studying abroad in Paris. With nearly two months off, I was able to fly home for the holidays, and then spend a few weeks traveling around Europe: a few days in Sweden visiting a classmate; a week in Rome with my mom; a few days in Dublin with my friend Elaine; and several nights in London.

The plan: Hang out with a couple girlfriends who were studying abroad in the city, and catch as many West End productions as my bank account would allow. (Original Cast Mary Poppins was the most expensive and the best of the trip; I felt like a little kid watching the magic unfold on stage. Original Cast Blood Brothers was boring and disappointing.)

Since I flew Ryanair and saved big on airfare, I splurged on a small hotel room near Piccadilly Circus. And since I flew Ryanair, and saved big on airfare, I had to fly into Gatwick, the smaller airport way outside of town. But it would be easy: I wasn’t checking a bag, instead carrying everything in my oversized backpack (including a pair of winter boots; January in Europe is no joke). There was an express bus from the airport into town; I’d get off at King’s Cross, catch the train so I could get over to Piccadilly. I’d get in a little late, but could grab dinner around the hotel and call Krystan to let her know I’d arrived. Easy peasy.

Or so I thought.

When I hand my ticket to the bus driver, he says my backpack is too big to take on the bus; it must be stored under the bus. Annoying but fine. Grabbing some cash, my passport and a book to read, I hand him my backpack and get on the bus. I choose a seat near the front so I can see out the front window on my way into the city.

I hadn’t been to London since 1996. This was the first time I would be visiting as an adult (or at least of drinking age, I was 20). I was PUMPED.

But I was also exhausted from three whirlwind days in Dublin, so I rested my eyes on the way into town, listening carefully for the King’s Cross announcement. As a Harry Potter fan, the idea of finally seeing the station where Harry catches the Hogwarts Express on Sept 1 every year was thrilling. I only hoped I had time to look for Platforms 9 and 10 before running to meet up with Krystan.

I hear name after name of bus stops called off hastily by the bus driver. His thick accent made some of them indiscernible but King’s Cross would be hard to miss. If I can understand Hagrid, I’m sure I can understand when this guy says it.

I watch people get off the bus at every stop during the hour+ ride into the city, waiting anxiously to get off with some of them. Certainly we must be getting close now?

We stop again, and I expect it must be mine, so I start gathering my things, but instead of an announcement or people exiting, people start getting ON the bus. My heart pounds in my ears. This is not a good sign. A few minutes later, we stop again and more people get on. One of the newbies sits down next to me, a woman in her late 30s.

“Excuse me, do you know how far we are from King’s Cross?” I ask her. “I took the bus in from Gatwick and thought we’d be there by now.”

Her eyebrows furrow. “We’re heading back to Gatwick now. This is the commuter bus.”

OH MY GOD WHAT.

THAT MEANS I MISSED MY STOP.

AND NOW WE ARE GOING BACK TO GATWICK.

Cue the panic.

I start to freak out, and the very kind woman, seeing my mental state, reassures me that it’s fine, that we just need to ask the driver to pull over, that we’re not that far from my stop, that I could easily get a cab and get to where I’m going. No worries.

She leans up to the driver and explains the situation for me.

“What?!” The driver explodes, and then in his mumbling fashion says something along the lines of “Why the hell didn’t she get off when we stopped?”

I lean forward, eager to explain myself. I’m not an idiot. I was paying attention. “I’m sorry, I was listening for King’s Cross but never heard it.”

“Well I didn’t say King’s Cross, did I? I said St. Pancras”

“What is St. Pancras?” I ask.

“It’s the same thing. Right next door. St. Pancras, King’s Cross. You get off at St. Pancras and get in the King’s Cross tube.”

I nearly flip out. “How was I supposed to know that?!”

“Everyone knows that.”

“I AM NOT FROM HERE.”

He shrugs, because obviously the entire thing is MY fault for not knowing that King’s Cross and St. Pancras are twins.

He finally pulls over on the side of the road, I think by a park — my memory is hazy but I remember it being dark and slightly drizzly (it is London, after all) — and opens the door for me to get off. I’m sure everyone on the bus is staring at me, the stupid American who missed her stop.

The driver looks at me expectantly, like ‘get off my bus’, and I stare at him the same way. “I need you to open the luggage door so I can get my backpack.”

“There’s no more luggage in there,” he snorts. “Everything was dropped off at St. Pancras.”

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I’m about ready to curl up on the curb and cry.

“But my laptop…. and all my money… and all of my clothes…. and everything. What am I supposed to do?”

The bus driver, now thoroughly annoyed, sighs and picks up his walkie talkie, calling the bus terminal. I barely hear what he says, but he must ask if my blue and black backpack is still there. The woman on the other end confirms that it is NOT there…. because after it was left unattended for 20 minutes, they thought it had a bomb in it and called the police. It would be at a nearby police station but she was not certain which station it was taken to. She provides the name of the one bomb bags usually go to but says that when I get there, I’ll find out for sure. Great.

The kind lady next to me sees my face pale. She hands me a 10 pound note, tells me to grab a cab and ask them to take me there. I nod, mumbling a thanks, and get off the bus.

The drizzle gets drizzlier. The bus pulls off and I start walking in the rain, looking for a cab. The area seems semi-residential, where am I supposed to find a cab? And as this is 2006, and not 2016, I do not have the option of Uber. Hell, I don’t even have a cell phone with me. FML.

A couple walks by, pushing a pram, warily eyeing this sobbing American girl. We make awkward eye contact, and they ask if I’m alright. I relay the whole stupid tale, trying to stop crying. The man uses his flip phone to call a cab and the wife holds her umbrella open for me. They reassure me that the police station is not that far, that the cab is coming, that the police will definitely have my backpack, that everything will work out.

I don’t remember the cab ride at all, but I do remember getting out of the cab in front of the police station, and walking up those steps, cheeks flushed, feeling like a raging idiot. The waiting area is totally empty. The person behind the front desk asks how they could help me. I tell them, trying not to burst into tears and an officer comes out from the back room.

“I heard them call about you,” he says, a smirk playing on his lips. “We have a backpack but how do we know it’s yours? Can you describe it and its contents?”

Afterwards, I fill out some paperwork, double checked that nothing was missing (thank goodness, my laptop was still there!) and ask how to get to Piccadilly Circus from there. I have no idea where I was at this point, in what part of town, but I splurge on another cab instead of trying to figure out a bus or train route. When I eventually make it to the hotel, now several hours later than I was supposed to, I call my friend to let her know I hadn’t stood her up, that I wasn’t dead, and that all I wanted to do was go to sleep.

• • •

The rest of my trip was splendid. Four days of seeing the sights and four nights of West End shows. Every day, I overpaid for an hour of internet access at the Burger King next to my hotel. I spent more money during those four days in London than in the other three countries I visited during my holiday, combined.

So, flash forward to 2016, when the husband tells me he’d like to see London, this is why I don’t leap for joy or say, “Yeah! What a great idea!” Because this memory, a big blue ball of pulsing sadness in the Pixar version of my memory, still looms front and center. Maybe seeing London through Justin’s eyes will help fix that. Maybe taking the Leavesden Studio Tour will help too. (I mean, we can’t go to London and NOT see Hogwarts, let’s be real.) Maybe being armed with a phone, a GPS, and taking a different route into town will be better. If we do go to London this summer, I am determined to make sure that this original, stressful, embarrassing memory memory will be replaced by a bright yellow ball of Joy.

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Where should we go when we’re in London? What’s your top recommended can’t miss tourist site? Favorite cocktail bar? Best locals pub? Which neighborhood should we stay in? Leave us a comment  and tell us where to go to make sure our 2016 London trip is way better than the one I had in 2006!

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