For those of us growing up in the Midwest of the US, subways, undergrounds and mass transportation are just not a part of life. Sure, the downtown areas might have buses, and if you go to Chicago or Detroit, there are trains or subways. But where I live, everyone still has a car. If I didn’t have a car, I would have no way to get to work. Mass transportation just doesn’t come out to the rolling fields of farm country.
So imagine my terror of using the London Underground. Sure, everyone in London does. Sure, it’s clean, safe, easy—well, mostly. If you don’t have any idea where in the city you are, it’s a bit tricky to figure out the different lines. I can’t tell you how often I stood in a tube station for a good fifteen minutes staring at the map on the wall.
Or using this one:
Which made me really look like a tourist (as if the camera hanging around my neck didn’t do the trick), so sometimes I would surreptitiously used this one:
Which, as you can see, was well-loved and ended up in multiple pieces.
Still, navigating the Underground made me feel very independent. I got lost repeatedly, but I always found my way to my destination. Eventually I was competent enough switching lines at the stations that I fancied myself indeterminable from the locals.
Ha. The camera. And, really, I’m very American-ish. They picked me out without me having to say a word!
Anywhoodles, I was utterly terrified the first time I stepped onto the Underground. I kept reading signs that said “Mind The Gap”, and I thought for sure I would be the one to fall into the gap and get run over by a subway car.
Headline: Stupid American Author Didn’t Mind The Gap!
Newspaper headlines and overactive imagination notwithstanding, it was lovely to ride the tube and then change my mind regarding destination partway through the trip. Traveling alone means that if you decide to take a detour, there is no one to consult but yourself.
April 15, 2016
. . .
For now, it is time to put my big girl panties on and brave the Underground!
. . .
On the Underground
Apparently going the right direction.
I love the signs. “Mind the Gap” on the door. Also, there is an advert that says “Love Your Ladyparts. Text Ladyparts 2 to #####”.
What would happen if I texted Ladyparts 1?
. . .
The Underground—no idea why I was so scared! Easy-Peasy-1-2-3sy! Minus the fact that I switched trains and went the wrong direction. Oops. So it took me 3 stops to figure that out, at which point I got off, hemmed and hawed, then found my route.
But partway to Charring Cross for the National Portrait Gallery, I suddenly decided to go to Westminster. I mean, I was so close. [According to the very small map. Turns out when you shrink the city onto a 5¾ x 11½ inch piece of paper, things are not as close as they seem!] So I got off at the station, pulled out my map to figure out where I was.
I step out, and there was the bleepity-bleep Big Ben. OMG. It’s BIG. So I start to take pictures, walk around and Holy. Hell.
Westminster this moning was utterly divine. It was mostly cloudy, just shy of rain, in fact. The building was utterly amazing. The architecture was so detailed, so exquisite, it was nearly impossible to believe it was real. It was like looking at a fairytale building. Gargoyles, saints, crazy-pretty carvings.
First, who dreams this? Second, who builds it?
That, my lovelies, was one of the thoughts that ran over and over in mind that morning. I thought not of the architect so much as the builders. The stonemasons. The carpenters. The laborers. The men who shifted stone into place, who fell from the highest heights—because you can’t tell me they were tied and buckled to the building. Someone had to have fallen to their death. For as many people who have trod the stones of Westminster, so, too, has blood been spilled there in the name of beauty.
I felt sort of like I was at the Beast’s castle in Beauty and the Beast—minus the police and men with machine guns.
A bit off-putting, to say the least. [But as the first bombing in Brussels occurred just a few weeks before, Europe was on high alert.] And I’m sure they all thought I was nutty, snapping a selfie or otherwise taking pictures all across the building.
But there I was, totally nutters, wandering at a snail’s pace, zooming in on every bit of architecture I could. God, it was divine. Utterly, utterly divine. I can’t wait to look at the pictures.
Anyway, I wandered, snapped, wandered. Then I saw a building in the middle of Westminster that was clearly Middle Ages. Clearly. And the sign in front said “Open Daily.” Naturally, as it was a day, and I was here, and it was Medieval, I went. But more later on that.
First, I walked in a little park south of Westminster, took some selfies, met some pigeons.
And I found some little white and yellow flowers. I took a picture. Why? Aside from the fact that they were pretty, in Hyde Park [the day before] I came across an Arabic woman probably about my age. She was taking a picture just as I passed. She said to me, a little sheepish, “They are pretty flowers.” And I said, “I thought the same thing this morning!” I had. I’d looked at them during my initial walk through the park and thought how pretty and cheerful they were.
So there we were, she and I. Me in my Old Navy clothes, windblown and sweaty, she in her traditional garb and with an English accent, both of us marveling over pretty yellow and white wildflowers. That’s a moment I’m not likely to forget soon. Continents apart, and yet human in the same way—we stopped to smell the flowers. Or take a picture, anyway.
It’s more or less the same thing when you think about how few people ever stop.
Later that day I toured the Medieval building, St. Margaret’s Cathedral, and the National Portrait Gallery (more later on all that, of course, as I’ve loads of history to share). When I left the NPG, I went to Chandos Pub on Trafalgar Square for a pint and to journal. I met a very nice man there at the counter next to me, who directed me to the Charring Cross subway station. It was, apparently, right on Trafalgar Square (which was actually a roundabout). If I just went counter-clockwise, I would find it.
Yeah. I went around the roundabout three times. In the pouring rain.
If I just went counter-clockwise… Pshaw.
Still, soaking wet or not, I will always remember the woman in Hyde Park. Have you ever met a kindred spirit? One that you just knew you’d met in another life? (Assuming there is such a thing, which I have yet to rule out). She and I looked down at those flowers and I knew we were kindred spirits, 3,700 miles apart.