To quote Sweeney Todd, there’s no place like London. And there really isn’t. As a kid I dreamt of moving to London and having friends with that sought-after British accent. I dreamt of immaculate manors and lovely weather and the best sort of people. So to be fair, my expectations were pretty high. Still, when friends and family ask me what I thought about London, the first thoughts that come to mind aren’t exactly praise.
I’ll admit, I was a little jaded from the moment my friend, Ashley, and I landed. We opted for a budget airline, and our $400 tickets did not include space in the storage bins on the plane. Thus, our bulky backpacks were shoved by our feet for the ten hours it took to get from Arizona to London. I am already an anxious traveler; by the time we arrived I was a wreck. I sipped a $9 hot chocolate and followed Ashley, who can hardly be blamed for hurrying away from me. I am not always a fun travel companion.
Things looked better once we arrived at our Airbnb. We had a cute room in central London with a window facing the street. Seeing as I spend 70% of traveling staring out hotel room windows, this was just fine with me. I settled down and prepared to stare, when Ashley interrupted to ask if I was ready to go. Go? Now? Remembering most people consider time spent in a hotel room wasted, I pulled on my coat and faced London.
Chapter One: Phone Booths and Piss.
In every mental picture I had of London, there was a phone booth. For what was London, but a magical place with red coffins on every corner where you could insert change and make a phone call? I was disillusioned pretty quickly.
“Just step inside,” Ashley prompted. “And I’ll take a picture.”
“How’s it look?” I called, my face twisted in disgust as the putrid stench of piss and unknown smells hit me. One hand gingerly touched the sticky door and the other grabbed the phone to hold it a full foot from my face.
Chapter Two: Clocks and Carousels
I have nothing bad to say about Big Ben. The tower was cute, the pictures came out okay and the time on the clock was accurate.
The London Eye was less enjoyable, but still not necessarily bad. We shelled out twenty bucks, plus a few extra to skip the line, and climbed into one of the clear capsules. As our capsule peaked and then fell, so did my enjoyment. The view from the top was spectacular and I am glad that I did it.
Waiting for the capsule to descend fully was less exciting. Or maybe I was just irritated by the man who seemed determined to be in the background of every picture Ashley and I took.
Chapter Three: Won’t Somebody Help the Children?
The entirety of London can hardly be blamed for this encounter, but it was amusing and so I share it now. On our way back from the Eye, a woman shuffled up to Ashley and held up what appeared to a be a weed, picked from the cracks in the street.
“A flower for you,” she crooned. “It will bring you good luck.”
“That’s okay,” Ashley said, even as the woman pushed the flower in her hands.
“The children picked them,” she explained. “Can you donate something for them?”
I looked around but did not see any children. But I could imagine a gaggle of children waiting around an empty table, eyes wide as this woman entered the home later. “Did anybody donate?” they might ask, their little stomachs growling with hunger.
“Here,” Ashley said and handed the few coins she had in her coat pocket. The woman inspected them, frowned and shook her head.
“No, this won’t do. I’ll have to take this back.” she said and snatched the flower. “Other people are donating more money. This is not enough. It won’t do.”
As the woman walked away from a surprised Ashley and I, I once more imagined the hungry children around the table, anxiously awaiting this woman’s return. “Did anybody donate?” they would ask.
“Someone tried to donate eighty pence.” the woman would shake her head and drop the leftover flowers, now dried and up and wilted, on the table.
“What a bastard,” the children would say.
Chapter Four: A little redemption.
Our last experience in London was a good one. For Christmas, Ashley had gotten us tickets to see Wicked, my favorite musical. The theatre was only a ten minute walk from our Airbnb, and we had good seats.
The actors were good, the singing was great, and as we shuffled out of the theatre late that night, I began to think that maybe we had misjudged London. Maybe I just needed to spend a little more time there, to really experience the people and culture. Then I remembered the woman with the flowers, the piles of trash heaped in street corners, and the man who could not enjoy the view of Buckingham Palace without pressing his body against mine, no matter where I shifted or moved.
I can’t end without clarifying that I don’t hate London. I’m sure there are so many amazing parts of London. There’s the shopping, Harry Potter world, the history and the giant windows to look out of. I’m not giving up on you yet, London. But perhaps I’ll take just a short break before trying again. Until then, cheers.