We touched down in Heathrow airport sometime in the morning of the 27th of April, after a long, sleepless overnight flight. The plane had left Toronto Pearson at about 8:30 PM on the 26th and the flight was only seven hours, but what with our loss of five hours as we sped across the Atlantic, we arrived in England at 8:30 in the morning.
It was my first flight. I expected to be anxious. I expected to be airsick. I did not expect to enjoy the flight as much as I did, nor to spend the tense minutes of our arrival back on solid ground with my face glued to the window, watching the wing flex and jostle in alarming ways as hydraulics whirred and the horizon tipped and our heavy metal cylinder with its stubby, shaking wings swooped gently down through the clouds and landed with hardly a jolt.
My mom, unfortunately, had it a lot rougher.
We collected our belongings and shuffled down the narrow aisle and out into the airport. Although I had been able to see some of the green-and-yellow-and-brown patchwork of English country beneath us as we flew towards our destination, I don’t think it had really hit me yet that I was standing in a different country, thousands of miles away from the only continent I’d ever been on, in the land of castles and taxis and Doctor Who and chalk cliffs and royalty. This realization continued to not hit me for the rest of the trip. I don’t think it has hit me yet.
It took us more than twenty minutes, walking or riding escalators and moving sidewalks, to reach the security line (queue, sorry). There were big plastic signs with arrows pointing the way for ‘Arrivals’ and ‘Baggage Reclaim’ and we followed them and followed them until I was sure that we were being lead round in circles and that we would never find our suitcases again, but at last we reached the queue for security.
At Heathrow, it works like this: you’ve got lots of fast-moving lanes open for people with EU or UK passports. There are plenty of security people at the ends of these short lanes to help out the lucky holder of the EU or UK passport, and the queues never seemed to get very long while we were there. And we were there a long time, because everyone with a non-EU or UK passport was unceremoniously dumped into one massive, winding, slow-moving queue.
Tired and hungry and thirsty as we were (we’d been awake for more than 24 hours at that point, and the airline’s idea of breakfast/pre-arrival snack was a thick slice of suspicious-looking banana bread sealed inside a plastic package, which neither of us ended up eating) we remained in that queue for around an hour. It was the most frustrating and deceptive queue I’ve ever been in. Just when you thought you were getting close to the end, the line would turn again or double back on itself, carrying you even further from your destination: the row of security people behind their little desks, checking passports and asking serious questions.
However, my faith in humanity, as they say, was slightly restored when a great act of kindness was preformed by the weary, frustrated people of the queue. A very nice mom and her kids, who had sat in front of us on the flight and chatted with us a bit, was a fair way behind us in the queue when one of her children—who had been sleepless for the entire flight, but had fallen asleep just as we landed— awoke and began to wail mournfully at the top of his lungs. This went on for a little while, before some good Samaritan said, “Oh, it isn’t fair! Let them through, let them through!” and the people near the barriers unclipped them to make a path straight to the front of the line. The mom and her kids hurried through, the barriers were promptly reinstated, and the queue resumed its endless shuffling progress. But an act of great kindness had been preformed within its confines.
I never saw that mom again, and I probably never will, but I fervently hope that she had a wonderful trip, and that she never again has to face such a horrible queue.
Day 1: Friday (Homecoming, Hamlet, and Dinner at the Darwin)
When we finally reached the end of the non-EU passport queue, we breezed straight through security, picked up our suitcases —which had probably been waiting for us for at least an hour— bought some bottled water to refill our bone-dry thermoses, and took the elevator (sorry, lift) to the Heathrow Tube station.
I don’t think I’ve ever really ridden on public transport, except for Go Train in Toronto, which I took with my family one time to visit the CN Tower. I remember very little of that ride, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first journey on the Tube.
It started off rather badly, with an embarrassing mistake made before we even got on the train. My mom had acquired a normal Oyster card, but I had a paper Travelcard good for unlimited bus and tube journeys at off-peak times (after 9:30). With an Oyster, you simply tap the card on the yellow reader, and the gates open to let you through. When you leave, you tap out the same way, and your fare is deducted from the balance on your card. I, being an extremely smart person, assumed that the paper card would work the same way. My mother had already gone through the gates, and I followed close behind, confidently tapping my green paper card to the reader.
I tried again, multiple times. I tried tapping gently. I tried holding the card against the reader. There was no beep. The gates did not open. It appeared we were stuck on opposite sides of the gate, and I could not get through. I had previously observed a little slot on the machine below the card reader, which I assumed was for tickets, and, being completely desperate, I tried to feed my card through. I managed to shove it almost all the way inside, but the only thing that happened was that it became stuck in the machine.
At this point, I sought the help of an actual Tube employee, which is what I probably should have done in the first place, but alas my pride was too great and I was so eager to prove that I was not a ‘stupid American’ that I wound up looking like an even stupider American in the process. The man opened the machine and extracted my Travelcard, and kindly informed me that this particular machine did not accept paper cards and tickets, just Oysters. I had the right idea, just the wrong machine. I found another machine that did accept paper cards, fed my ticket in, grabbed it from the top slot as I hurried, embarrassed, through the open gate, and had no more troubles of that sort for the rest of the trip.
Things went a lot better when we actually got onto the train. We made sure to “mind the gap” as we hauled our suitcases and backpacks and selves over the small gap between the train and the platform, and staggered into our first London Tube carriage. There was just enough room for each of us to sit down on one of the blue fold-down seats with our suitcases held awkwardly in front of us. There was a series of quick warning beeps, and then the doors slid closed and the train began to move.
Imagine a train, small and round on the outside, with two rows of seats on the inside that face each other across a narrow isle. Imagine that this train moves very, very fast at times, and that it curves and loops and whips around corners like a writhing snake, very deep underground. Imagine that it jostles and bumps, up and down, left and right. Imagine that it can be quite crowded sometimes, especially when it is coming from a large international airport, and that, for some people, there is standing room only. Imagine that this particular train is not necessarily the highest priority on the maintenance schedule, and that when it jostles and bumps, sections of lights on the ceiling may go out, and may come back to life again at random moments before they go out again. Imagine that, sometimes, other trains scream past you in the darkness, making a shock wave and a sound like a small explosion — causing you to jump— before they vanish behind you. Imagine that you are underground.
But also imagine that you emerge, grinning with the fun and adventure of it all, into the daylight, and see ancient brick apartments and strong trees and green grass and glimpses of elaborate graffiti on every available concrete space, before you are plunged once more into a dark tunnel, in a jostling metal tube full of bored people and bouncing luggage and a pleasant accented voice announcing your next stop and asking you, repeatedly, to “please mind the gap!”
Imagine that you enjoy this immensely.
We had no more troubles with ticket machines, and emerged, still dragging our encumbering luggage behind us, into the dim sunlight just outside of Earl’s Court Station. Somebody had parked a life-size TARDIS just outside, and I, ever the tourist, had my mom snap a quick photo of me with it. I suppose I should have tried the door, just to make sure, but I forgot.
Neither of us had ever hailed a taxi before, but we managed somehow, even though we only did the halfhearted-introvert-wave while we ran awkwardly along the pavement as cabs passed by. A driver did see us, however (I have no idea how) and pulled over and stuck his head out of the window to ask where we wanted to go. We gave him the address of the flat where we were staying, scrambled into the back of the taxi with our luggage, and we were off.
As a new driver who is getting better at noticing when the rules of the road are being observed (and when they are not) I found this journey exhilarating, and also terrifying. London is a big place. There are lots of cars and taxis and buses on the roads, and quite a large number of people on motorbikes and bicycles, and plenty of pedestrians. Of course, in a perfect world, everyone would do what they’re supposed to do and everything would go along fine.
But, as far as I could tell, no one did what they were supposed to do.
Pedestrians crossed the street in droves whenever (and wherever) they wanted to, regardless of actual crosswalks or signage. People on bikes wove in and out between massive double-decker buses as if they didn’t even know they were there. Cars would suddenly dart out into intersections. People would dart out in front of our taxi. But the taxi driver had no fear. He got us right where we needed to be, and he did it without driving over top of anyone or being smashed by a bus or becoming lost in the narrow, twisting streets that seemed to branch off at all angles from every intersection. I respect him very much for that.
Once we’d met the landlady and dropped off our luggage, it was time to venture forth once more, for we had tickets for the 2:00 showing of Hamlet at the Globe Theatre, and we were determined to get there in time for the play. We’d gotten in much later than we’d expected (what with the Security Queue of Death), and so there was no time to eat — even though we’d eaten nothing all day— and no time to rest —even though we had been awake for over 24 hours— and certainly no time to take a bus or the tube, so we freshened up as quickly as possible, and hurried out to get another taxi.
We couldn’t find a taxi at first. The street seemed utterly devoid of vehicles, even regular cars, and there was certainly no taxi to be seen. We were just entering the throes of despair, when we met one coming down Prince of Wales Drive (which, apparently, is a street with a house where G. K. Chesterton used to live, although we were never able to find this fabled house) and hailed it madly. The driver took us straight to the Globe — bobbing and weaving and stopping suddenly all the way, and somehow managing not to run over anyone— and we were there in plenty of time to show our tickets and head up to our seats in the balcony under the thatched roof.
The Globe Theatre which we visited, of course, is not the original, which was burned down 1613, but an extremely accurate reproduction of the original building, down to the standing area in front of the stage, which is open to the sky above, whatever the weather. In true London fashion, it began to rain not long after we were seated, and continued to rain throughout the entire first half of the play. The people in the standing area merely pulled up their hoods and ignored it. I was very glad that we had gotten seats in the balcony, where there was an actual roof over our heads.
You would think with how much attention to detail was paid in the construction of the new Globe that the Shakespeare preformed there would be your normal, everyday, traditional Shakespeare.
This, however, was not the case.
At first, things seemed normal enough. If you know Hamlet at all, you probably know that it begins on the battlements of the castle, with Horatio, Marcellus, and one of the guards seeing the ghost of the dead king. Well, that’s how it went on the stage, except for one thing: Horatio and Marcellus were both being played by women. None of the names or pronouns were changed, and both actresses played their parts extremely well, but as soon as they came on stage, I knew we were in for an interesting modern take on Hamlet, and not the traditional fare I had been expecting.
The trend continued, with Hamlet and Laertes being played by a curly-haired blonde and a petite redhead, respectively. And to round it all out, Ophelia was played by a man. In a blue dress. It was actually extremely amusing. (I wish I had photos, but you weren’t allowed to take any.)
I wonder if this was done simply as a logical continuation of how things would have been done in Shakespeare’s day: women weren’t allowed to be actors, so men had to play all the parts, including the female roles. It kind of seems like an interesting idea to turn that on its head and have women play the leading male roles. And, of course, there might have been some feminist outrage involved, as there are only two female parts in the entire play. Or it could have been some kind of political statement. But whatever the motive, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the play anyway, even though I did start to nod off a few times (not because it was boring, but because we’d been awake for somewhere around 30 hours at that point.) The actors and actresses played their parts extremely well, and it was pretty awesome to get to see a Shakespeare play preformed in the actual Globe Theatre, even if there was some genderbending involved.
When the play was over, the crowd went crazy and wouldn’t stop clapping and cheering. The actors had to be called out for another bow. We finally filed out of our seats and down the stairs, as tired as ever and dreading the next leg of our journey. The last destination on Friday’s agenda was to visit the Sky Garden, a beautiful indoor garden and terrace complete with restaurants and live music, at the top of on of London’s weirdest-shaped glass buildings: the Walkie-Talkie.
The Walkie-Talkie Building
London seems to have a thing for weirdly shaped glass buildings; you’ve probably at least heard of the Gherkin and the Shard, for example. You may have even heard of the Walkie-Talkie building. But we saw far more weird glass buildings while we were there. From a City Hall shaped kind of like the top half of an enormous thumb to an office building that looked like it was constructed out of giant blue Rubix cubes stuck together at random intervals, I found London’s more modern constructions to be just as interesting as its ancient churches, cathedrals, and Roman walls, although perhaps in a different way.
Tired as we were, we still planned to walk to the Sky Garden. This was basically our only option, short of trying to find yet another taxi, because we were without internet access, and so couldn’t look up any bus or Tube routes. This was yet another misfortune, which had befallen us before we even left for the trip. I thought we had added international talk, text, and data to our phone plan for the month, but unfortunately it turned out the company only provided international talk and text, and even those were unavailable unless you were connected to Wi-Fi. So we were basically stranded, with nothing but a couple of paper maps, a street address, and a general idea of our direction.
We were on the wrong side of the river, so we crossed the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and turned right. The Walkie-Talkie, which had been easily visible from the other side of the river, had vanished now behind other buildings, and after walking a good way down Cannon Street and becoming slightly lost, we stopped to consult our maps. A very kind London woman must have seen our distress, for she came over and pointed us in the right direction. We thanked her profusely for her help, and went on our merry way.
And for some reason, I was a stupid enough tourist to get us completely lost all over again.
Somehow, I had gotten the idea stuck in my mind that the building was down closer to the river, and that we were too far to the north and needed to head in a southerly direction to reach it. We caught a couple glimpses of the building itself as we walked, enough to persuade me that I had got the right idea, and so we turned down the next street that went to the south and walked… and walked…
The building seemed to have completely vanished. We couldn’t see it anywhere. At last, we had to stop once more and consult the maps. I turned and twisted them, trying to figure out where we were and where we had gone wrong. And then, I realized it: I had had the map turned the wrong way. We had been travelling in the opposite direction of our destination. We should have gone up that street, not down it. Tired and footsore and jet-lagged and extremely hungry, we turned around and went back up the street, towards the north. And, sure enough, we soon caught sight of the Walkie-Talkie, gleaming in all its strangely shaped blue glass splendor.
It had been behind us the entire time.
There are some moments in life when you come to the uncomfortable realization that you are a colossal idiot masquerading as a smart person. As you can probably tell, this was one of them.
We finally made it to the Sky Garden, after going through a quick security check and riding an elevator all the way to the top, and were seated comfortably in the Darwin restaurant, with a nice view through the southern window (wall? The entire building’s made of windows…) Because of the strange way in which the building is shaped, looking out that window makes you feel as if the building is leaning or falling towards the ground, and as this was an unpleasant sensation, we decided to concentrate on our food instead.
We had eaten nothing since our dinner on the plane, which was somewhere around twelve hours before, and even though I was suffering from some kind of jet lag-induced stomach ache, the food was extremely welcome. We managed to finish a plate of very fancy Caesar salad between us, and to eat about three quarters of our fancy hamburgers, but whether it was the jet lag, or some other reason, we unfortunately could not finish all of the wonderful food.
If you’re ever in London, I would highly recommend paying a visit to the Darwin, and trying their Caesar salad. Just… maybe not right after you get off the plane.
I hope you’ve enjoyed part one of my adventures (misadventures?) in London! I want to try to post one of these each week until I get through the whole trip, so part two should be coming out quite soon. Obviously, this won’t be a complete account of everything that happened to me, but because so many people are interested in hearing more about what happened on the trip, I thought it might be better to write up the main points and post them on here, instead of trying to tell the whole story to each individual. I hope I’ve been able to tell the story in an interesting manner so far, and I hope you’re as excited as I am for Part 2!
Another quick update for those of you who enjoy my film reviews: I saw Infinity War this past week, and I’m going to try to get a review up next Friday, so keep any eye out for that as well.
See you again soon.