June 5, 2014

Heathrow. “So, you know that song “Hit Me With Your Best Shot?” Steve asks as we exit the terminal into the airport. We haven’t talked for about eight hours because we had the misfortune of being sat on opposite sides of the plane from Toronto to London. Annoyingly, neither of our seat neighbors would agree to switch with us. This is the first thing he says to me.

“Um, yeah?” I answer to this seemingly random question. “What about it?”

“Well, I was sitting next to the guy who wrote and produced it! Can you believe it? He’s done some other songs too, but that was the most famous one.” Steve would end up sitting next to an interesting, somewhat famous person. It’s just the kind of luck he has. I laugh and share in his disbelief.

As we walk up through customs, Steve and I are both giddy with excitement. We have landed in the old world; (some of) our ancestors’ homeland! However, as we journey through the airport, accomplishing all the odds and ends asked of foreign travelers, we also become increasingly exhausted due to the two hours of wakeful sleep we got apiece. And yet, when the security assistant stamps Heathrow onto our passports and says “welcome to Great Britain,” our adrenaline starts pumping once again. Next, comes the frustrating process of getting our bearings in this place we have only seen in textbooks, webpages, and on MapQuest. These tasks include but are not limited to: exchanging American dollars for British pounds, buying the correct train passes, figuring out a general idea of how to get to our B&B, and attempting (and failing) to configure the free WiFi at McDonald’s. All of this takes at least an hour, but seems a helluva lot longer with thirty pounds strapped to our backs. We  jump on The Tube (London’s version of The L) towards Kentish Town and are finally on our way. We can’t help but notice the colorful graffiti on the sides of buildings and train cars as we ride past the outskirts of London. “Just like home,” Steve jokes. 

“Yes, where is Platform 9 and 3/4?”

Kentish Town. We get to our B&B, The Westport Inn which is conveniently located above a quaint pub called The Bluebell, around noon. Following the instructions typed on a small note which says “Welcome to the Westport Inn, please knock,” we knock on the large wooden door located on the side of the pub. From the large front window, I see a young lad come out from behind a long wooden bar. He answers the door, obviously flustered, and explains that our room is not ready yet, but that he would be happy to take our belongings until check-in at three. Now, I have read up on all of the cons and scams that happen to unsuspecting backpackers in bluebell2foreign places and I knew this was probably a BIG no-no on the very first day of our journey; but our backs hurt. We had walked around the airport, switched trains on The Tube, and then walked a mile from The Tube to the B&B; so we willingly hand over all of our possessions and go on our way feeling, literally, thirty pounds lighter.

We wander back the way we came so that Steve can start creating his “mental map.” I say “Steve” because apparently, my brain does not have the app for that. I could get lost in my own hometown. It’s ridiculous. I hate being a stereotypical woman, but I have come to grips with it. Fortunately for us as a traveling team, Steve has amazing directional skills. My skills consist of thorough planning and a keen sense of observation. So, as Steve notes the streets, coordinates, and landmarks, I start to notice how our surroundings are quite similar to any suburb of Chicago. We walk through a park. Right next to Eng3the basketball courts is a group of people with their dog. As we get closer, we notice that their dog is surely our dog, Rosco’s, long-lost brother. Uncanny! We stop to pet the dog and notice bright neon graffiti scrawled on a nearby wall. We move on through a very average looking street market and continue to a corner store (basically a Chicago Bodega) to pick up a “London A-Z”  guidebook. With exhaustion setting in again, we stop into a local pub for a seat and a pint. Steve waves down the bartender and as she walks towards us, we turn to one another, wide-eyed and perplexed. This girl is the spitting image of our friend Nina back home. As Britishnina Nina asks what she can get us in her English brough, I can’t help but start to wonder: have we really just traveled halfway across the world? The familiarity is actually a bit off-putting. British Nina returns with our beer.

“That’ll be eight quid,” She says.

“Quid?” Steve laughs.

“Oh, yeah, you yanks don’t use that word, isn’t it?” We’ve been in England for only a few hours and have already learned the slang word for British money and have been called “yanks.” Awesome.

We take a sip of our own beers then switch to taste the other. Both beers are served at room temperature. “I told you that’s how they drink it,” I say smugly. Steve and I have bickered about this fact.

“It might be just this beer. Or this bar,” Steve argues playfully.

“Yeah, yeah. We’ll see then,” I laugh.Eng1 As we open the guidebook and start to plan out our five days in London, a local sitting a few bar stools down asks, “Aye, where ya from?” We smile.

“The U.S., near Chicago. We just arrived today,” Steve answers. As we talk and the man tells us about the must-sees and freebies of London, the British Nina and a few other patrons join in. “You really must go up to Hampstead Heath. It’s right by your B&B.” My mind starts reeling: Hampstead Heath! John Keats lived right near Hampstead Heath! I quickly open up to a map of the area and wouldn’t you know it, not even half a mile from our B&B, directly south of Hampstead Heath, I see written in tiny letters: John Keats’ House. We are literally walking the same stomping grounds as my favorite nineteenth century British poet. Adrenaline overflows my mind and a smile threatens to break my face in half.

“How long are you all staying in London?” British Nina asks.

“Well, were here for five days, and then we’re heading off to Amsterdam,” Steve explains.

Her eyes go wide and she smiles. “I was there a few years ago,” she explains. “That place is crazy, but it’s a blast!”

“And then after that, we’re taking the train to Paris. And then from there, Florence, and all over Italy,” I continue.

“Wow! I’ve never been to Italy. You guys are going to be away from home for what, three weeks then, isn’t it?”

“Twenty days total,” Steve says. “It’s going to be amazing!”

We hang out for an hour, taking a page worth of notes on must–sees and advice from the locals. Then, we pack up and head out, thanking everyone whole-heartedly and promising to stop back in before we head off to Amsterdam.

“Wow. How nice were they?” I say as we’re walking out of the pub.

“I know, right?” Steve concedes.

We head back to the B&B to finally check-in. We walk into the pub area and explain to the bartender that we are there to check in. The young girl answers in the heaviest brough we have heard all day.

“Are you from around here?” I ask.

“Oh, you can tell from my accent, can’t ya? I don’t speak as proper as these English folk,” she laughs. “I’m Scottish.” She calls someone on the corded bar phone and explains that we are downstairs, ready to check-in. She turns back to us immediately after hanging up. “Actually, the family that owns this place is Irish. We’re very multicultural at the Bluebell.” She serves us two beers on the house due to the fact that we were “kept waiting” for our room. Glad to get anything for free, considering you lose almost half your American dollars as soon as you exchange them for British pounds, we happily take them. The beers are two different English brands, both of which are room-temperature. This triggers me to give Steve an I-told-you-so look. The bartender begins telling us about Scotland and we tell her about our plan for London and what the rest of our twenty-day journey consists of. About twenty minutes later, the doorman from earlier comes down.

“Sorry about the wait.” He shakes our hands. “My name is Patrick. I can show you to your room.” As we walk up the narrow stairway, Patrick explains that his dad owns both the pub and the B&B above. He shows us the two separate bathrooms that are shared with the other two rooms on our floor, and then unlocks and opens a door left of the stairs. Our room is small with tall ceilings. The bed is a good size. Hopefully it’s comfortable, but even if it’s not, I have the feeling that I will sleep like a solid rock tonight. We cannot go to sleep before nighttime as it will completely mess up our sleeping schedules if we do so. Currently, it is 4pm (16:00) London time, but it is 10pm (22:00) Chicago time, and it has been a long day and a half of non-stop travel and very little sleep. We have to keep ourselves moving if we are going to make it to at least 9pm. When Patrick leaves, we take a seat on the bed to feel it out. Immediately, we realize that this is not a westportqueen bed, but two twins pushed together and made with a queen-sized sheet; but, the bed itself is soft and clean. That’s pure luxury when you’re backpacking. A little gnat flies in triangles over our bed, perhaps welcoming us to his quaint abode. The twenty-inch flat-screen on the wall looks out-of-place in this room. You could just feel the age of the place; it was built at least four hundred years ago. Instead of laying down and turning on the TV (what my physical self really wants to do), we shower off the travel grime and ready ourselves to go out. We are going downtown to see the real London tonight; it cannot wait until tomorrow. We are ready to see something that we absolutely cannot get at home.

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