by Alexis Gargin
The plan was simple—take the iconic double decker bus from the University of Sussex campus, where my friend Jake and I had stayed with my friend Kelly, to the coach station in Brighton, then take the coach to London and meet my cousin there at the McDonald’s by the station. It shouldn’t have been too difficult, considering the coach station was the same one we had arrived at two days earlier. However, we had forgotten to take into account that it was November 11th—Remembrance Day—the European equivalent to America’s Veterans’ Day. The national holiday celebrating the end of World War I and the servicemen who had fought for their country aroused patriotism, parades, and traffic. The result was that the coach would no longer come to that particular station in Brighton, i.e. the last one, the one closest to the Atlantic Ocean and the beach.
Perhaps this change in location was not a matter of importance to the locals, but to two students visiting Brighton, it was another part of an adventure, the frightening part. Jake and I examined the 8 ½ by 11 poster declaring the change in location and tried to remain calm. Our first instinct was to find the new address, Prescott Circus. But we had no idea how to do so.
We headed to a hotel, thinking they would be able to help lost tourists. However, the hotel concierge informed us that it was a thirty-minute walk away. It wasn’t even on the little map I hook from her desk.
Our coach was supposed to leave in about thirty minutes. We knew it would be close, but we tried. We had already paid for the tickets and didn’t want our money to go to waste, even if the ticket was about six pounds. For ten minutes, we walked in the right direction, at least we hoped, until we decided it would be better to go to the train station, since we had some idea of its location beyond just a sense of which direction it was in.
We found the train station after a few minutes and a quick question at a coffee shop, where our sense of direction proved to be correct. We saw the large building that we had been to the day before. Jake and I try to channel our history professor and notice the old green metal styled in an Art Nouveau fashion with flowers and fancy ornamentation. Upon arrival at the train station we discovered, with some luck, that a train was going to London, Victoria Station, in about twenty minutes. The train would arrive about an hour before the coach would have. I used my emergency credit card to buy a ticket, paying more than I had for the coach, then anxiously awaited the appropriate time to board and chose a window seat. I noticed about two minutes after I sat down that I was in a seat marked for handicapped individuals. Jake and I considered changing seats, but we had already settled down. I took out my Cadbury Crunchie bar, something much harder to find in America and so it’s always been a treat from Canada, Ireland, or England, and tried to calm down and let the nerves sooth once again into excitement as the English countryside rushed by. Unfortunately, I kept thinking that a porter was going to come and ask us to move to make room for somebody who actually needed the handicapped seat.
We pulled into a huge station, with people walking all around. We took the extra time we had acquired from the faster mode of transportation to walk around the station and browse a bookstore. We quickly and easily found a McDonald’s, an easy meeting point, the golden arches a global sign of fast food. We grabbed a Big Red Bus tour map. We saw Big Ben, King’s Cross Station, The Eye, our location, and the Victoria Coach Station. Two Victoria Stations within blocks of each other celebrating the Queen’s long reign created confusion. I tried to think back to my Facebook conversations with Mandy, but I could not remember specifying how we were coming into the city. The panic that been eased away by the smooth lull of the train and the sweetness of the countryside began to take control once more, postponing the excitement of London once again.
Jake and I were meeting my cousin Mandy, her husband, Tyler, and ten-month-old son, Owen. It was my first time meeting Owen, although I had seen many photos on Facebook, and I had not seen Mandy and Tyler since their wedding a couple of years before in Canada. Mandy and I are second cousins, but she and her brother are closer in age to my siblings, cousins, and me than to my dad. Before my semester abroad, Canada had been my only international destination, and each time I went it was to visit family, not really to sightsee. Mandy and her brother Patrick often came down to visit us in New Jersey with their dad for Easter or other big family events. When I was little, Mandy was one of my role models. I used to name my dolls and stuffed animals after her. When we grew up, Mandy moved to London, a city I had always dreamed of visiting, and entered into the publishing industry, my dream job. I was grateful when she had reached out to me and offered me a chance to stay with her when I came to see London. My dream of visiting London became more realistic with me studying abroad in Vienna, a short plane ride away in Austria.
The six hour time difference meant communication with family was limited to emails and occasional Skype calls. I had been looking forward to being with someone who was family, who had known me all my life. My grandma had passed away only weeks before, and I had not been able to talk about it with anyone in person. I looked forward to being with someone who knew her and loved her as Mandy had loved her Aunt Paddy.
I’m usually someone who does not like talking about their emotions, and if I do, the person is someone I’m close with, either family or friend. But when I woke up to an email from my dad, sharing the news I had known was coming soon, I wished I was able to hug my parents or siblings, to cry with someone. I did not know whether or not Mandy and I would talk about my grandma, but at least she was someone I could be honest with, not wear a fake smile for.
After a short walk, we discovered that the Victoria Coach Station did not have a McDonald’s near it. The panic that I had kept at bay before was coming back to the forefront of my mind. We tried using a pay phone, but I forgot that the phone number Mandy had given me included the area code.
Finally, I decided to head back to the other Victoria Station, we walked through the crowds, the small areas of construction, the gates, the tunnel that took us to the large room with the trains arriving and the stores around it. We found Mandy waiting for us in the McDonald’s with her small family. We were happy not to be lost in one of the biggest cities in the world. Jake and I sat eating French fries as they ate their lunch. We talked about the two months I had been living in Europe as they talked about their seven years there. They came to London after graduating college and had made a life and home for themselves in the big city.
After our little lunch, we let Mandy and Tyler guide us around the city. We weaved around the streets and buildings as the locals directed us. We passed West End with huge billboards plastered onto buildings with the newest and most popular plays catching our eyes.
As we neared Buckingham Palace, we thought we were going to see a royal. Mandy and Tyler pointed out how the signs were all there, police motorcycles entering a barricaded street, our close proximity to the famous address, but instead of catching a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry, Prince William, or Duchess Catherine, we watched the tail end of the Remembrance Day parade, bagpipes and all. We did the usual tourist thing and took many photos. The rain London is famous for was missing and instead came a sunshine so bright we knew our photos wouldn’t come out very well. Despite having a nice DSL camera for my photography class in Vienna, I was barely able to do more than zoom in and out and shoot images of one of the oldest and well-known homes in the world. We walked down what Mandy and Tyler liked to call the “Queen’s driveway,” talking about the Olympics a few years before and how London adapted itself for all of its international guests.
We walked past areas perfect for tourists as the double-deckers drove by and the telephone booths stood proudly British. Mandy and Tyler pointed this and that out, naming so many places that I could hardly remember them all. We went to Westminster Abbey and saw the family members entering and leaving the church, remembering family members.
I missed my grandma’s funeral. I stayed in Europe because it would have been so difficult to go home and come back. Part of me wanted to be sad and felt that I should, but I knew that’s not what my grandma would have wanted. She had spent a few days staying at our house during the summer and during that time she gave me some money for my European adventure. She wanted me to have a good time, but sometimes I had to remind myself that I should not feel guilty for it.
We walked past old and new buildings. I wondered which were the oldest, which had been here during that queen or king’s reign, which had survived the wars. As a history nerd, I enjoyed being in a city rich with time and stories. History was ever changing as only weeks before the Scottish were voting to become independent or stay with Great Britain. We walked past long line, stretching along a city block, they too wanted independence, but as a smaller country their story is left untold, their name forgotten. Mandy and Tyler pointed out one of the oldest buildings, standing behind the line.
We walked until we found a traditional pub to rest at. Although I was not yet twenty-one, I was legal in the U.K. I hadn’t had much to drink in my two months in Europe, so I decided to have something, but of course I had no idea what to order. Tyler had bought us four different beers to try and a cider. A few hours later, I realized I left my scarf sitting on the bench. It had been one of the souvenirs I had purchased for myself in Vienna.
London was a city I had dreamed about for years and one that allowed me to understand the language better than the German I was surrounded with in Austria. The city was beginning to decorate for Christmas as lights and decorations hung above us in the streets. It was beautiful, even if it was a few weeks before December. We found a magical little ice skating rink with a Christmas tree and people in penguin costumes.
Mandy showed us a side of London a tour book may have skipped as we found charm in the little French restaurant with its quaint furniture and curtains on the windows and ceiling, creating a floating atmosphere, and live performance on the floor below. The room was beautiful and graceful, although we had some difficulty telling our waitress that Jake and I did not want spiked hot chocolate.
We sat and talked about travel and life. It felt like a moment of culture and dreams. We talked about cities big and small, places we’ve been and want to go. I was hungry for more travel, but as the weather grew colder and the Christmas decorations multiplied, the date of my flight back home approached. I both wanted to see my family again and travel to France, Italy, Switzerland, and so many more places. Being in Europe only made me want to see more of it.
Mandy showed us where she worked at the museum. As we walked, she extended an invitation for my brothers to visit her. We said, it’s what family does. Although she is technically my second cousin, we’ve always been just cousins. She reminds me of my grandma and other members of my family who say family and mean it, generously giving themselves.
Crowds gathered around the Tower of London to see the display of poppies. Thousands of red flowers were created and placed in the moat beside the old prison, remembering our fallen heroes. I kept thinking about the bad things that happened in the tower, beheadings and disappearances, but yet I still had to respect a building with so much history.
We walked along the river, past the London Bridge, the Tower Bridge, and the Millennium Bridge, the one we were familiar with from a Harry Potter film. I stopped every few feet trying to capture the new image or angle of a landmark on my phone. I had given up on my digital camera.
Fish ‘n Chips, Platform 9 3/4, the Globe Theatre, my first visit to a men’s restroom (receiving a few weird looks, but there wasn’t a line for it), as well as my first curry served to me at a local find under a bridge, the Empress. Everything about my trip to London was memorable. I saw more with my “tour guides” than I would have with just Jake and me. As we walked past markets and bike parties, London became a living city. Unfortunately, I will also always remember the transportation issues that began the trip and were most complimented by problems of ending transportation. I had thought it would be a good idea to get an early flight so that we did not miss our afternoon history class. And by early, I mean six in the morning. To avoid leaving Mandy’s for the drive back to the airport at two in the morning and given the fact that London does not actually have much public transportation after midnight, we left around eleven. We took two subways and reached Heathrow airport about two hours later and waited for the security gates to open at four am. The number of passengers on the subway dwindled until we were the last two people heading towards the airport. As we printed our tickets, the silence of the normally crowded airport surprised us. We saw the small huddled masses controlling the power outlets with their cellphone chargers. As my battery edged from five percent to four, I knew I needed to find an outlet and crossed the great room to the seating area by the bar. I attempted to complete my philosophy reading as I waited for my plane. Finally, the gates opened and we were allowed to go through security to find our next waiting spot by our plane’s loading area. A quick hour and a half in the air brought us across the English Channel and the hundreds of miles of continental Europe to Vienna. Two subways, a train, and a tram later, we were back in our rooms.
Read an interview with Alexis here.