I decided that, now that I’m back in the UK, entries from a travel journal aren’t really justified when, technically, I’m making a new home here in London. Even though this still feels very exotic (there are red double-decker buses everywhere!), and may feel like exploration, it is in fact a form of nesting. Of constructing a new home. And home, by definition, isn’t travelling.
But, invariably, by being in a new country and attempting to build a new life, things will happen that I want to write about. I imagine most of these will centre around me fumbling through the challenges of assimilating into a new culture. Subtle and delicate things like saying pants instead of trousers and having British people laugh at me. It should prove quite entertaining.
So in light of that entertainment, welcome to the first edition of Life in London.
Appropriately, the first entry in this segment involves my recent entry into London. It seemed like a good place to start.
I flew into Gatwick airport last night from Vienna, and planned to use public transport to make my way from the airport home. City mapper is an app that formulates every possible route from one location to another within London, be in via train or bus or tram or bike or walking or hover board. This isn’t me being witty, by the way. The trip from home to the nearest train station takes approximately eight minutes via hover board, according to city mapper.
I had checked the route earlier in the day while still in Vienna to get a feel for how long it’d take me to get home, and knew that a train, then a tram, then a bus would have me on my doorstep in just over an hour. I estimated I’d be in bed a little after midnight, provided I hadn’t gotten the time difference between Vienna and London mixed up. I had, but that proved redundant anyway.
The first hurdle to getting home was that my plane was delayed by half an hour, putting off the schedule of my planned route. The second hurdle was that, upon landing, I discovered that the internet on my phone wasn’t working. This frustrated me, but I put it down to poor reception and reasoned that I still had the previously loaded route on city mapper, and could follow that until reception improved. The app was offline due to lack of internet, so wouldn’t update, but still showed the path I needed to take.
After a twenty-minute wait on a windy platform, I caught the 12:16 AM train to East Croydon, then headed into the deserted streets towards a tram stop marked on my static map. As I stepped from the station into the night, I passed a cab rank, and prided myself on the money I was saving by using public transport, enjoying a superior silent chuckle at the lazy fools who pay exorbitant prices for a black cab.
I had my first sense of disquiet after about fifteen minutes of walking through the dark deserted streets of East Croydon, admitting to myself that wandering through unfamiliar London suburbs alone well past midnight probably wasn’t the smartest idea. The eight minute walk that my frozen app displayed took around half an hour, and involved a lot of back tracking, sprinting across multi-lane roads, and feeling incredible exposed as I wound through alleys with nothing but my small pack back.
Eventually I found the tram stop, a small island of light in a junction of empty streets, and stood, praying a tram would appear. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the flight delay and my own indirect path to the tram stop meant I had well and truly missed my tram, but as the internet in my phone continued to hibernate, I happily boarded the first tram to appear, giddy with relief that a tram had appeared at all. This relief soured after about ten minutes when the tram came to a stop in the middle of nowhere, the tram driver announcing end of the line, and the words “Out of Service” appearing in small lights on the side of the tram. With little options, I walked away from the tram stop and onto a long empty road, devoid of anything but factories and warehouses.
It was one o’clock in the morning (two o’clock Viennese time), and I was stranded in an industrial part of London.
As I stumbled up a seamlessly endless road, the odd truck rumbling past to break up the darkness and the silence, a part of me began to accept this was my life now. I was destined to wander the grid of London streets until the sun rose, and maybe even past then, living off my wits, the items in my back pack, and a phone that refused to cooperate and get me the hell home. I honestly had no idea how I would get from my current situation to my apartment. Without transportation, I was looking at a five-hour walk through unsafe streets. Every car that approached I begged just to drive on because I was convinced that if it stopped it would only to be for the driver and passengers to get out, mug me, beat me, and then carry on, leaving me without my back pack, my only ally. The phone they could have, for all the good it was doing me.
As I approached an intersection, two buses whisked by and I had to bite back a yelp at the joy of seeing a sign of civilisation. They sped around a corner to the left without stopping and disappeared. I knew that left would take me in the opposite direction from home, so faced the decision of following big red buses away from where I wanted to go, or go right, down another long empty street filled with potential rapers and muggers, in the vague direction of my apartment.
I went right (right is right, after all), and prayed I wouldn’t later come to regret this as the moment I made the stupidest decision ever. Actually, it couldn’t be the stupidest decision ever because I’d already passed that point when I confidently and cockily walked past the cab rank into the night, a dumb smug smile on my stupid face. I cursed myself as idiotic tight ass and marched up the right hand road.
I saw foxes scuttling across the asphalt, dimly lit by the street lights, and felt like one of them. I too padded cautiously through the dark, sending furtive glances to either side, shoulders hunched against the cold and an imagined attack. We were creatures of the night, only I was a big dumb animal, vulnerable and unable to scurry into the bushes like my nocturnal companions. They were made for the night, whereas I was made for sitting safely on a couch eating chips.
The road I strode up, which I was sure would stretch on forever, a purgatory road, a Möbius strip road, miraculously came to an intersection, although as dark and deserted as every other I’d encountered. I stood on the corner looking up and down the line of bitumen disappearing to either side and feeling very far from home, and noticed, almost hidden by a scree of trees, a bus stop. A bus stop! It was like finding a sealed bottle of water in the desert, spotting a ship when adrift in the ocean, discovering a chocolate bar in the back of the pantry when you’re really hankering for chocolate. It was salvation.
I trotted to the bus stop, pulling out my previously useless phone and putting it to use as a torch, and stifled a squeal of happiness when I read that it was a 24 hour bus line. This late at night, the bus would come at ten and forty past the hour. It was 01:20 AM (02:20 AM Viennese time). I had to only wait twenty minutes and I would be heading, roughly, closer to home. More importantly, I would be taken off the streets and tucked into a warm metal box on wheels, which would feel like a five-star hotel after wandering dimly lit London industrial streets.
Twenty minutes is a long time to wait in the dark, standing on the side of a road in the extreme early morning, head spinning from sleep deprivation, listening to every sound and being convinced it’s Jack the Ripper. (I know he only preyed on prostitutes, but given how perfect a target I’d made of myself, I figured he’d make an exception).
So I did the only reasonable thing a person can do in that circumstance to pass the time: I pulled out my book and started reading.
Picture me now, backpack on back, standing small and exposed on the shoulder of an empty road in the middle of the night, reading by moonlight. What a fucking idiot.
Eventually twin headlights lit up my ridiculous tableau and the bus pottered to the side of the asphalt, door swinging open like the gates of heaven, and I boarded. I was so ecstatic I could have hugged the bus driver if not for the plexiglass barrier and his complete look of apathy that clearly communicated the sentiment, “Just take a damn seat.”
While riding this bus I realised that if I got off in five stops I could catch another bus from there to Morden station, a fifteen minute walk from home. I had a plan. I was going to get home. I repressed the urge to attempt to hug the bus driver again.
I disembarked at the appropriate stop and looked for the times of the 118 bus line that would get me home. It was upon reading the bus schedule that I discovered the 118 isn’t a 24 hour bus line as I’d presumed. I scanned the list of numbers, desperately searching for what time the bus line terminated. It was 01:53 AM (02:53 AM Viennese time) and the very final bus of the day would come through my stop at 01:56 AM. In three minutes. A difference of three minutes and I would have been looking at a two and a half hour walk through the western suburbs of London, but instead I counted down the seconds and, right on time, the 118 pulled up to carry me home.
I had to clench my fists to resist any physical show of affection to my new bus driver, but couldn’t help giving him a huge grin as I swiped my oyster card and took a seat, to which he rolled his eyes, closed the doors, and pulled out onto the road. My night bus in red shining armour was taking me home.
I got off at the end of the line at Morden station and felt like I floated the fifteen minute walk home. I savoured every familiar sight, running loving fingers over the graffiti-scrawled roller doors of an indian restaurant, smiling at the outline of the post office, and eventually drifting blissfully through the wrought-iron gates to my apartment building. I climbed the three flights of stairs, unlocked the door, and stumbled into my bedroom. As I stood in the light of my room, safe and warm and with a bed beckoning to me at my feet, part of me couldn’t believe I was actually there, that my physical body had somehow ended up in this location. An hour before I had been nervously striding past shadowy factories with no concept of how to transport myself from that reality to this one, yet somehow, through some weird twisting of luck, here I stood, unmolested and intact, with my backpack still on my back at 02:30 AM (03:30 AM Viennese time), in my home.
It was at this point that I noticed the internet on my phone had decided to stir, and city mapper updated to announce that I had arrived at my destination. I glared at it like the annoying kid at school who claims to have known the answer all along and just didn’t want to say it, trying to decide whether to swear at it or throw it against the wall, and then just collapsed into bed.
My last thought before falling asleep was that, next time, I’d take the fucking taxi.