This morning I received a travel newsletter about the ten best capitals in Europe. London is one of them. The article features some breathtaking pictures of London, which made me decide to spend our next city trip in the British capital. But then, a little voice in my head popped up: “Are you serious? Remember what happened the last time you went to London? And the time before? And the other time before that?”
First time in London… a total disaster at the Piccadilly Circus
I was 15 when I first visited London. On a bright July day, my sister and I caught an early flight at the Luxembourgish airport. The azure sky looked promising and we were excited at the idea of shopping, eating and immersing ourselves in London. But as we approached Britain’s capital, the sky turned into a murky grey. When we landed, it was raining buckets. Ha! Of course… Welcome to London!
The first thing we bought in “the Big Smoke” had to be an umbrella. A tiny umbrella to which we both clinched, fighting off a nasty wind. As we climbed out of the Tube station, we paused a moment, surprised by the turmoil of people rushing around Piccadilly Circus.
A moment later, I told my sister that her purse was half open. As she turned around, we saw the kid standing next to us holding her wallet! It took us a second to realize that the little guy just stole from us! We reached out to grab him, but he dashed off and disappeared between two tall guys. So we ran after the rascal, but only managed to see how he tossed my sister’s wallet to his accomplice, who casted it to yet another kid.
Of course we wanted to call for help, but who could have helped us? A woman who had witnessed the scene told us that those kids always work in gangs. We better watch out for what’s left of our possessions, she said and walked away. We went to report the incident at the nearest police station, but the officers told us that nothing could be done. Luckily my sister had split her money in two wallets. Her credit cards, ID and other important documents were safely stored in her second wallet.
All soaked up, and holding tight to our belongings, we walked to our hotel, looking forward to get changed and to dry our hair. Except… well, there was no hair dryer at the hotel. Back home, when we had called the hotel to book a room, the manager had confirmed that there was a hair dryer in each room. In fact, there wasn’t even a bathroom in the hotel. Just a tiny toilet and a sink, for bathrooms were shared.
Second trip to the British capital: from horrible customs to mice hell
9 years later, a dear friend convinced us to spend a weekend in London. We had barely made it to the customs of Eurostar in Paris that I already regretted my decision.
At the customs, they were giving our friend a hard time, interviewed her for an hour, and made her show them all available official documents. All that, just because she’s from Hong Kong! We knew that there are people from Asia who would like to enter the UK territory and stay there forever. But our friend lived in Paris, studied in Paris, and worked in Paris. She was even in a civil union with a French guy. She had absolutely no reason to flee France! We both tried to reason with the woman at the customs, but were soon told that it was none of our business and that we’d better not interfere. Five minutes before the Eurostar closed its doors, they finally let us go. We hopped on the train, relieved, but all shaken up.
After so many years, London was of course different from what I remembered from my first visit. But one thing didn’t change: we still didn’t get lucky with our hotel. Because of my previous experience, we had decided to book a 3-star hotel for the three of us. As students, this was clearly an investment. In appearance, everything looked neat and clean, the beds were comfortable, and the continental breakfast was not too bad either.
However, the disasters started on our second night in London. Needless to say, it was raining and windy. So, both Kerstin and I ended up catching a cold. We were glad to be back in our hotel room by 10pm, where we fell asleep after a boiling shower. But then a weird noise woke us up in the middle of the night. At first, we thought that our friend was having a midnight snack, since we heard some rustling noise. But then a second noise joined in: peep, peep! The peeping noise soon multiplied. We wondered whether we were both hallucinating because of fever? But no… the sound kept growing.
I think it’s mice! Kerstin whispered. I was so disgusted that I couldn’t move my body. And due to fever, we were both too weak to do anything about it. So soon the fever put us back to sleep.
The next morning, we found residue here and there, crumbs and bits of torn plastic bags. We also saw a few detritus lying on our friend’s cushion. We moved her bed, and found a huge hole in the wall. The whole building was probably an amusement park for rodents, and those sneaky midgets clearly had fun in our hotel room! It was our last day at the hotel, so we complained at the reception when we checked out. But they simply said “Oh!” We were so shocked that we didn’t even get a “Sorry” from the manager!
But that was NOT the worst experience of my second trip to London. Two months later, I found out that my credit card was hacked by someone from London! Someone who was definitely too stupid to understand that he can’t hack credit cards to buy plane tickets and stay unnoticed. My bank quickly confirmed that the guy got arrested, since it was a piece of cake for the fraud department to find out the name of someone who books plane tickets online! And it turned out that he had been working at the hotel we stayed in, since he had hacked other tourists’ credit cards before.
Third attempt in London: sticky sandwiches & ants invasion
About 2 years later, my professor in Paris told me about a great summer school program in London, which offered intensive classes in ancient Greek. The archaeology department of my University would pay all study fees! I couldn’t refuse that opportunity, could I?
Given the expensive accommodations in London, I was very lucky to stay at an acquaintance’s flat for free. The lady lived in a 3-story house, and each story was occupied by one of her family members. Her mother happened to be abroad for a few months, so she let me stay in her apartment. I had my own bedroom, my own living room, and my own kitchen. It was perfect I thought. But as I returned from the groceries the day I arrived, I saw an army of ants marching into the kitchen…
My host sprayed chemicals in every corner to make them flee the scene, but it didn’t work. I bought a stronger repellent to get rid of them, but they continued to invade the apartment, always finding new ways to intrude. Soon they were spreading over the living room, parading over the couch, patrolling along the armrest. I didn’t know where to sit, or where to put my bare feet anymore. Dealing with an army of ants each day before cooking was not exactly what I had expected from my stay in London!
So, I decided to eat out. But since I was just a poor student back then, most restaurants in London were too expensive for me. Hence, I had sandwiches every single day. Those triangular sandwiches where half of it stays stuck on your upper teeth with each bite. I once tried to NOT remove what’s stuck on my gum, but to keep gnawing at my sandwich until I had so much mellow dough accumulated on my gum that I couldn’t close my mouth properly. Of course, it was at that exact moment that a professor came to talk to me…
Fourth visit in the City… or how we managed to always catch the wrong bus
My last trip to London was in 2012 with Kerstin and our two teenage nephews. It was their first time in the City, so we visited all the touristy places from the Royal Palace to Madame Tussaud’s, waiting patiently in lines with thousands of other people.
To make sure that our nephews didn’t have to mingle with mice, ants, or other animals…, we chose to stay at St Ermin’s Hotel, a 4-star luxury hotel with awesome room service. The hotel was great, we didn’t get robbed, and it was even sunny and warm in London! Everything seemed perfect… until we tried to catch the right bus.
For more sightseeing, we decided to take the bus and not the Tube. But finding the right bus station in London was actually counter-intuitive. First thing to remember: the UK is the only country in Europe where they drive on the left-hand side. This means that if you want to go to a place located on the right side of where you’re standing, you have to take a bus that stops on the other side of the street.
However, it’s often more complicated than that: whenever we found the right bus number at a station, we crossed the street believing that there we’d find the same bus going to the opposite direction. But instead of stopping at a station just across the street, it often stopped somewhere on a side or parallel street. We ran up and down the streets so many times that in the end we visited almost everything on foot. To be honest, failing at understanding the public transport system in London was actually quite frustrating for us city-dwellers, who lived in Paris for a decade!
So, after all these misadventures, do I still want to return to London for another visit? Parts of me refuse. But there are still so many places that we want to explore in the British capital. And somehow, I like to believe that it could just get better in time. Besides, misadventures are also adventures, right? 🙂
Have you also had a similar experience in London? Or perhaps you have a few tips and suggestions to share with us?
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