There I was. In London.
I’d packed my overseas electrical plugs, my ticket information, my travel hair dryer, maps of the cities and subways, every cord I could possibly need and a passport belt. Just in case.
I’d managed to get to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris for my layover, maneuver through security, take a bus (driven by a man who spoke not a lick of English, and my French is bad!) to the flight gate and was chastised for the size of my carry on. Sure, I had a few panicked moments when my first flight left Detroit an hour late, but I was determined to do this all by myself.
I flew from CDG to Heathrow, found the Express Train that traveled a straight shot from Heathrow to Paddington Station. I even bought my return ticket, so I would have that for my return trip. One better, I found a store to buy my shampoo and conditioner right there in the Station! I figured I’d have to buy it later or use the hotel’s toiletries. Low and behold, there was a convenience store conveniently located just feet from my train platform (which was not 9¾, sadly).
I was thinking I was all kinds of awesome. I’d managed to fly over an ocean, navigate a foreign airport, and arrive at my destination. All alone. Me. The woman who married at the ripe old age of 20. Who had never lived alone. Never purchased a car by herself. Never rented her own apartment. Sure, I run my household (I’m a mom!), but I’ve never fully run my own life, going straight from my parent’s house to falling in love with Mr. A my freshman year of college.
I’ve been part of a unit ever since–a fact I wouldn’t change for the world.
I’m still in love with Mr. A, by the way. Even more so because he encouraged me to go to Europe alone.
Best. Husband. Ever.
Anyway, I’d made it all the way to London by myself, after having booked my own flights and hotels and everything. I was so all about my independence. Look at me! Headline: Worldly American Author Travels to London!
So I exit Paddington Station, turn the corner and walk a block to my hotel. Luggage wheels are grinding on the sidewalk behind me. It’s a little bit cloudy, a little bit damp. I’m filthy from airports and airplanes and having traveled for twenty-two hours.
But I’m grinning from ear to ear. I’m in London. Pubs abound. I can hear the British accent in the passersby. Signs say “Mind The Gap”. And there is a big double-decker red bus on the street. Seriously. Can life get any better than this?
It was a short lived exuberance.
I found my hotel, stepped inside, exhausted and hungry and thrilled—but not so thrilled to find a creepy bald man at the front desk. I check in, and I do *not* like his leer. I’m convinced women have a sixth sense about creepy men. Call it self-preservation. Survival instinct. Whatever. We know creepers. This creeper noted I had paid for a twin room, but he decided to upgrade me to a “better” room with a “bigger” bed.
Meanwhile, as he’s upgrading my reservation, I’m watching the cameras he’s got behind the desk. They cover every hallway. That’s good, I guess. But the lobby is—not clean. Not dirty, but not clean. And it’s not even remotely well-appointed. It’s Spartan. And tiny. And dominated by a leering bald man and his cameras.
But I’m an independent woman of the world, right? I’ve just traveled farther than I’ve ever been. I’ve got skillz.
So I take my key and cram myself, my bulging carryon bag, my suitcase, and the shampoo I just bought into a teeny tiny elevator. This is what London is like, isn’t it? Space is at a premium. Hallways are narrow. Elevators are small.
I find my room, walk in, close the door and look around. It’s Spartan as well. Pretty much just furniture and white walls. OK, I think. I can stay here. It’s not what I was hoping for, but I’m not some spoiled, silly American.
I put my suitcase on the nearest non-cloth service (I’m worried about bed bugs), and I look for a room safe. None. OK. No biggie.
I check my phone. No service. I can’t make a call.
There’s no wifi, so I can’t email Mr. A to let him know I’m safe.
The room is at the back of the hotel, away from the street. No one can hear me scream. (Note my overactive imagination taking flight here.)
But I’m good, right? I’m an independent, worldly woman. So I set out the toiletries I need to take a shower, step in, revel in the hot water—and start sobbing.
Hangry tears? Yep.
Homesick? A little.
Missing Mr. A and my 7 y/o Biscuit? Quite a bit.
Terrified and alone and four thousand miles from home? Yes. Big yes.
The good thing about crying in showers, though, is that the water washes away both tears and snot.
But when I got out, I was so uncomfortable I locked the bathroom door and got dressed mostly under the towel. Creeper, you know. Cameras.
I dressed and went to the bed, still not sure what to do. Above the bed were windows covered by ugly beige curtains. I pushed them apart—and realized the windows were open beneath the curtains. Wide. Holy sh!t. And the bottoms of the windows are parallel with the floor of the fire escape. Which means anyone could have pushed aside those curtains and come into the room while I was in the shower. Vulnerable.
Panic, panic, panic.
So I close the windows, but the locks are, at best, paltry. I close the curtains, too.
“I can do this,” I say aloud. “I can do this. I’m a big girl.”
I pull back the cover of the bed…And there’s hair in it. More than one piece. Dark, short hair, about an inch long. Clearly not from my bald creeper, but hair. And a chunk o’ dried dirt, as if it came from the bottom of someone’s shoe a few hours after wandering in a swamp.
“I’m not doing this.” I think I might’ve cursed too. The F-word. But I know I said aloud to an empty room, “I’m not doing this.”
So I went through my bags, looking for all the money I had brought with me. My passport. My travel documents and flight confirmations. Credit cards. I put them in the passport belt and strapped it to my waist. Then I put my phone, it’s cord, my Kindle, a few Great British Pounds and one credit card into my over-the-shoulder carryon bag. All my valuables are now on my person. I leave my suitcase in the room (clothes are just stuff, shoes I can replace), and exit the hotel looking for the nearest pub.
And I end up here. At the Pride of Paddington.
I’m waited on by a pretty Australian named Jackie (left), then a firecracker of a half-Italian, half-Arabic girl named Zuleika (right). Both are nice and cheerful, and Jackie ended up being a very good friend by the end of the trip. So while she orders me up a BLT and a pint o’ beer, I do my best not to cry while I connect to their wifi.
I want Mr. A. Desperately.
All my skillz, my independence, dissipated in a hangry, travel-worn minute.
It’s silly, as I look back. It was just a hotel room that didn’t meet my (apparently high) expectations. But I felt as though I’d failed. I’d come all that way, determined to be on my own, to be dependent on no one but myself for the first time in my life, and all I wanted was Mr. A.
I shall take this moment to note, I am clearly sheltered. I’ve obviously never had a truly difficult life. Some women live this life every day, with no one to depend on but themselves. Some women live through the worst life can offer—abuse, poverty, war, grief, illness. And all I’m complaining about is hair in my hotel bed. Hair in a bed in a foreign country I am fortunate enough to be able to travel to.
So what, exactly, does that make me? Spoiled.
That is a humbling realization. One I wish I did not have to type.
No, I’m not a millionaire. I don’t a have private makeup artist or a live-in housekeeper. The fact is, I’m fortunate to have a stable life, a loving husband, an adorable son. I live a lucky life, and I know it.
But I wanted a clean room in London. Windows with proper locks. Call me spoiled and selfish, but I wanted to feel safe.
So I sent an instant message to Mr. A via wifi and he sent one back. Between us (my international minutes and data were limited for the trip) we found a new hotel nearby. I called, made my reservations, told them I’d be there in 20 minutes if they had a room for me—which made the receptionist chuckle.
I left the Pride of Paddington, my eventual home away from home (more on that in a later blog post) and went back to the icky hotel. I marched in, got my bag, checked for personal items I may have left behind, and marched back out again. I told the creeper I was leaving. To charge me for one night per the cancellation policy, but no more. And I left.
There was power in that, even if that power was partly fueled by fear, partly by being a spoiled American, and partly by the financial ability to reserve a more expensive hotel.
I went back to Paddington Station, walked past it one block, and found THE BEST HOTEL. It was like staying in a Hampton Inn for those in the US. Clean, simple, not overly fussy décor but modern. And, did I mention clean? The room was tiny and I bumped my head on the slanted ceiling more than once. But everything I needed was there. An in-room safe, a clean bathroom, a comfy bed, lovely receptionists, and a pot for making coffee or tea.
Um. Did I mention clean?
So. I’m spoiled. I know it. I obviously have hotel expectations. As I said, it’s humbling to know I have such expectations. I thought I could have stayed anywhere. But at the same time, I try to tell myself there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel safe if I have the ability to make it so.
In my new hotel I sat on the bed, opened the window, and pillowed my face and arms on the windowsill so I could watch the city go by.
I saw locals and tourists. I saw the sun set and rise. I noted how the windows of every building were smaller the higher up they went. I thought the chimneys were cute. I loved how the people below bustled and the buses were full of people. I was comfortable, and more, I was in awe of the city around me.
Headline: Spoiled American Author in London!
Even as I watched the city around me, I realized what I was. A woman who did not know how to live with real hardship. And yet, I could be grateful in the fact that I did not have to stay in a hotel where I felt uncomfortable. Watched. Unsafe.
It is simply my truth. I want to apologize for it, yet I don’t know how to. Who would I apologize to? Women in situations where safety is but a dream? I don’t know. But when I said this trip was part vacation, part self-discovery, I meant it.
I went halfway across the world and discovered just how very lucky I am.