As the train pulled out of Rotterdam Centraal Station, I couldn’t calm the butterflies in my stomach. My next destination was London. London! I’d navigated my way through The Netherlands, but London? As excited as I was to finally meet the city I’d romanticized about my entire life, it was overwhelming. It was like wishing to meet your favorite celebrity and seizing up with terror at the actual opportunity. Plus, London is huge. I didn’t grow up in the country but I am no city girl. My upbringing was that of a vagabond military brat. The majority of my community life revolved around military bases and surrounding towns, which is to say, I mostly landed in comfortable populations well below the quarter million mark. Savannah, Georgia was about as close to a big city I’ve ever lived: roughly 150K. Did I really have the courage to wander such a behemoth of a city of over eight million people?
The butterflies were still aflutter with anticipation when I stepped off at the Brussels-Midi/Zuid Station in Belgium but, little by little, the fear was giving way to excitement. Making my way to the Eurostar terminal, I went through another security checkpoint and waited with passport in hand for the next available customs officer.
“Remove your hat. What’s the purpose of your visit?” he asked, with an intensity I’d only experienced from a military gate guard under a high-security alert. I slid my beanie off my head and smiled at his dreamy English accent.
“And how long will you be staying?” he continued, giving my near-empty passport a thorough inspection.
“Two days. Not long enough to see everything but I’m going to try!” I gave a little laugh, practically bouncing on my toes. (I’m actually annoying myself as I recall the encounter.)
His eyes flicked unceremoniously over my face. Yeah, I know my picture is fifteen pounds lighter but it’s me.
“Where will you be staying then?”
“A bed and breakfast. The Luna-Simone on Belgrave Rd.”
I was ready to rattle off the address, phone number, and reservation confirmation code.
“A bed and breakfast, eh?”
His expression remained hard but his tone had suddenly taken on a wistful tone. He pounded a stamp on a page and slapped my passport back onto the counter. He sighed.
“Sounds nice. Enjoy your stay.”
Poor guy. Customs officers are not in the customer service business. They’re not supposed to be friendly. They’re in the I-have-to-be-suspicious-of-you-in-order-to-do-my-job-well business. And to top it off, a large portion of the people he waves through are all going to or from holiday. Meanwhile, he’s stuck indoors, in a glass cube, under life-sucking fluorescent lighting. I hope he gets his own stay in a B&B soon.
Riding the Eurostar was one of the highlights I’d booked on this trip. I know, I’m a bit of a nerd. High-speed railway is another one of those big city novelties that I’m sure loses its shine after the ninety-second time you’ve traveled on it. But this was my first. It was smoother than I had imagined it would be. And quiet! Extra large windows allowed for scenic views and ample opportunity to play with the motion parallax of the landscape; admiring the slow promenade of buildings and roadways in the distance; trying to catch a clear glimpse of blurred blades of grass below; becoming quickly disoriented and training sight to the pale blue sky. A digital ticker over the train car doors kept a tally of our speed, edging upwards of 290 kph (about 180 mph).
We dove under the English Channel and when we emerged again, it was a sparkling, sunny, winter wonderland. Snow caked the hills and frosted the bare trees. The kids a few rows ahead even set aside their video games to ‘whoa’ over the landscape. The snowfall was a precursor to the pending “beast from the east” winter storm that would hit in the coming days, dumping more snow and serious travel delays all across the UK. But when you don’t have a job to be at or kids to juggle because of canceled school everything about an on-coming blizzard becomes charming and magical.
Even with a slow-down due to icy tracks, the trip to St. Pancras took just under two hours. I emerged from the bustling, cavernous train station and out into the stream of people. The walkways had been shoveled clear of snow but that made no difference walking through the half-melted slush that squelched around my sneakers. Damn you, sensible, middle-aged self! Boots would really have been the proper footwear now! I walked the three and a half miles from the train station to the hotel, reveling in the atmosphere. Business folk dressed for executive meetings walked with a pep and purpose in their step. Some tourists took in the skyline around them, looking to street signs and generally clogging the flow of foot traffic. Even mothers with their small children in tow made for their destinations like they had executive meetings of their own.
On my way, I encountered a couple of locals chilling on a table outside a local bakery. Two snowmen, one dressed in a snappy scarf and hat, enjoying what appeared to be a fine, miniature cigar, and the other…well, he was stark naked with a blank expression. I’m sure there’s a funny story there. It certainly gave me a little laugh. Even the employees inside were getting a kick out of watching people stop and take pictures of the winter art installation that had popped up outside their business.
I continued on. Black cabs rushed past on the wrong – uh, opposite side of the road. I was hyper-aware of the fact that the American elementary school proverb “look left, then right, then left again” was a liability here. At every walkway intersection in bold white letters on the asphalt were the words, “LOOK RIGHT”. If my sneakers didn’t immediately give me away as an American tourist, muttering this mantra to myself at every crosswalk surely did.
The Luna-Simone Hotel was just on the outskirts of Westminster, a short walk to Big Ben, Westminster Cathedral, and Kensington Park. Most importantly it was a ten-minute walk to Victoria Station where I’d catch the shuttle to the London-Gatwick Airport.
Convenient, clean and tucked into a relatively quiet street, this B&B also came to feel like home in the mere two days I spent there. Some travelers might like a more spacious suite than where I stayed. The bathroom was small with just enough room for everything you need and the room is filled out with a queen bed, a small wardrobe, and a desk. There’s enough space to comfortably walk the perimeter of the room but not much else. For me, however, it was absolutely perfect. I’ve been on a mission to downsize my life and belongings so snagging a cozy, clean room such as this one for a reasonable price was exactly what I was looking for. I plan on returning and would recommend it to anyone interested in staying close to the sights without spending an arm and a leg.
With just enough daylight left to explore options for dinner, I found the perfect spot for amazing pad thai and people watching: Rosa’s Thai Café. This sweet eatery is right on the corner of Gilligham Street and Wilton Road, large windows overlooking the city street. Over hot jasmine tea and spring rolls, I watched business professionals, families and college students stroll by. Everyone seemed just as enamored of the cold snap as I was, dressed in their most fashionable coats, gloves, beanies, fur-lined hoods, and (sigh) boots. The vegetable pad thai arrived on my table in a swirling veil of sweet-savory steam. I clicked my bamboo chopsticks with glee and for the next forty-five minutes, nothing else existed except my dinner and the stage full of people passing just outside my window.
Particularly entertaining were the antics of one little girl in a pink parka and her mother waiting at the street corner. The mother was engrossed with her phone and the three-year-old was engrossed with something other than holding her mother’s hand. The girl pulled, her mother absently following the tug on her arm until realizing she was being led off course and rerouting them back to the street corner. The spunky adventurer in pink tried a different tactic, successfully squatting down until she slipped from her mother’s grasp, sprinting down the sidewalk after who-knows-what. It only took two seconds for the mother to realize she had an escapee, dart after her daughter and herd her back. This went on for about ten minutes the whole time the mother never losing patience and the grinning daughter never losing determination. I wonder what bedtime looked like in their household.
On my way back to the hotel, I rubbed my belly through my jacket pockets, a satisfied sigh clouding up in the cold air. At the end of the street, I ran into a familiar face: the dapper snowman from the bakery. Evidently, he had given his hat away to his naked snow-mate out of pity and decided to retire to the local flower bed for the night.
I could live this kind of life very easily. Travel to new countries. Eat incredible food. Let the inspiration for stories and characters flood in at me from every angle. This was my first taste of the city, and it was invigorating.
Back in my room, settling in under the warm bed covers to shamelessly watch an episode of the local soap opera, EastEnders, the anxiety from that morning couldn’t have been further from my mind. The years of longing to travel across the pond came flooding back. I was really here and my beloved London awaited.
Keep your eyes peeled for PART 2!
By: Erica Ruhe