August 11, 2019 – London, England
I never counted layovers as visiting a city. After a month of introspection and relaxation in the rural West of Ireland, it’d be nice to see the bustle of London, but I had a short layover, so that’d have to wait for another time.
Due to windy weather in Ireland, we arrived late in London. I missed my connecting flight back to North America. I had to go backwards through Customs and stand in a line at ticketing that was short but stagnant. Hungry and worried for my luggage that I still hadn’t picked up, I called my dad so that I wasn’t just standing alone in the Heathrow Airport having a panic attack. He assured me that I’d get home soon, and offered to buy me a different flight home. Months previously, I’d paid for the flight that I missed, but I wanted to get out of England so bad that I almost let him buy me another plane ticket. It didn’t work, though, and so I just had to wait until I got to the front of that line.
“I’m hungry,” I complained, “and my back hurts from holding my backpack for so long and I had to go backwards through security and nobody who works here is nice like they are in America. I was supposed to pick up my suitcase from baggage claim, but I wanted to get to ticketing first and now I’m scared that my suitcase won’t be there when I get out of this line.”
“You’ll get back soon,” he assured me, but I was shaking with anxiety. I didn’t know anybody in London. I didn’t even know where in London I was. I’d probably have to sleep in the airport like a homeless character did in a book I’d read years ago. I pictured myself laying my body over my money and laptop to protect them while I tried to get rest.
Eventually, I got to the front of the line. The ticketing agent had a thick accent, so I could only understand about half of what he said. He told me that since the airline caused me to miss my connecting flight, they’d take care of me until the next flight for America left in the morning. He provided me with bus tickets and the name of a hotel that I could check into using the room and board vouture that he issued me.
“What about my suitcase?”
“They’ll have taken it in by now, so you’d have to wait at the airport for about an extra hour while they retrieve it and then you’d need to take a later bus to the hotel. Just give the airline your luggage barcode tomorrow and they’ll be able to route your suitcase to your final destination.”
I took the packet of voutures and wandered out to the bus stop. The air was cooler outside than it had felt in the airport. I brought with me only my backpack, which had my toothbrush, medicine, laptop, and notebook. I’d have to wear the same exact outfit tomorrow.
The bus ticket he’d given me was for a hotel shuttle. I boarded the bus and it took off, with no other passengers on board. At a stoplight, the driver made eye contact with me in the rearview mirror. “Do you have change for a twenty?” He asked.
I shook my head. I didn’t have one single cent, or whatever they called money. Pounds? Pence? I was thankful I had my meal vouchers, because my poor debit card had made too many international purchases while I was in Ireland.
“Do you mind if I stop to get some?”
I said no, I didn’t mind, and this man stopped the bus in the parking lot of a gas station. Or petrol station, as the sign said. He got off the bus, leaving me alone to look around at the neighborhood. It definitely wasn’t the brick buildings, lush gardens, and cobblestone streets one would read about in a travel book on London. The concrete houses had no gardens, and the road looked like it needed to be repaved. I felt like I was in Trainspotting.
What kind of bus driver just left his bus unattended in a neighborhood like this? What if someone tried to get on the bus? My backpack held all the belongings of mine that I had access to in this country, and if someone were to try to steal it, I’d have no way of getting back to the airport and on the plane.
Luckily, the driver returned, presumably with the change for a twenty that he’d wanted. He drove to the nearby hotels, picking up nobody, but stopping at each stop all the same. When my hotel came into view, I could feel my stomach growl. I had a voucher for a dinner, and as soon as I could, I was finally going to eat.
I checked in, was given a room on the first floor, and had to act like I didn’t find it wildly strange that I had to ride the elevator up to get to the first floor. This place made no sense and I really just wanted to be back in America.
I was the first customer in the hotel restaurant for dinner. My voucher gave me an appetizer, entree, and dessert. I started with meatballs, then had an entree of an Indian dish called dhal with rice. For dessert I had a warm brownie with a scoop of ice cream. Having a meal at a restaurant unique to a location and staying overnight were my qualifications for counting as a “visit” to a place, but when I retired to my room for the night, I didn’t feel that I could say I visited London.
The lining on my leggings was starting to dig into my skin, so I took them off for the night, showered, and got in bed so that I could be awake for the first bus out of here. The breakfast voucher that the airline gave me wouldn’t work because the restaurant at the hotel would not yet be open (they said, “Now take this meal voucher that doesn’t work, go fetch!”), so I treated myself to a sit down English breakfast in the airport terminal. I opted for a meal containing vegetarian sausage, a fried egg, roasted pepper, roasted tomato, smashed avocado, cubed potato, and herby grains. I enjoyed a black coffee and glass of orange juice, then spent the last portion of my meal trying to figure out from Google if I was supposed to tip.
The first flight back to America that the airline had been able to book for me was on Virgin Airlines, so I got to ride home in style. I snuggled under the provided blanket and fantasized about McDonalds and money that made sense to me.
When I landed at JFK, my bag was not amongst the bags at baggage claim. We walked around the retro TWA Hotel attached to the airport while we waited for the next incoming flight, because we were told that my bag might be amongst that luggage. We waited about two hours, and I begged my dad to just drive me an hour and a half back home, because if the bag turned up, they could just mail it to us, and I was exhausted and I was supposed to spend last night in my bedroom and not that sterile London hotel.
I regretted having gone to that hotel so fast. I should have waited the hour at the London airport and made sure I had my suitcase there. Some Londoner could have stolen it. I could technically replace most of what was in there. I didn’t exactly have the money to do so, but it’d be possible to buy a new package of socks and a week’s worth of underwear. I’d brought one of my mom’s shirts to Ireland, though, and if I didn’t get it back, I’d blame myself forever. It was one of my favorite. In just two days, I was flying down to Florida to live out the next few months, and I was down a month’s worth of clothes and underwear and shoes and jackets.
I had to file a lost baggage report with a woman who was legitimately working her first shift. She handed me a receipt that had a number to call if my bag didn’t show up in two days. We left for Connecticut, a day later than I’d expected and without all the belongings that I’d need.
My suitcase came about two weeks later, and my grandparents mailed the contents to me in Florida. In those two weeks, I learned to live without all my favorite shirts and skirts and notebooks. It was an extreme exercise in anxiety management, but I’d survived on my own. In the thick of it, I’d feared I would have to sleep on the streets of London for a week and would never see my mom’s blouse again, but I managed to take care of myself. I can safely say that I now count that layover as a visit to London (just not the most pleasant visit).