I arrived in London thinking it, like Melbourne, would be a disappointment. After 36 hours of travel from South Gippsland, I was tired. It was my 53rd birthday. Really. What was I doing? I found my hostel easily enough. When I checked in, the two young guys at reception – one an Aussie the other a kiwi said “this is a youth hostel, mainly for 18-40 year olds”. Ooooo-kaaaay. “This is just the verbal disclaimer. A lot of drinking happens here. It’s not a fancy hotel. It may get noisy.” I replied I was fine with that, thinking ‘just give me the key so I can have a bloody shower’. I assured them I would be fine in this environment. After all the dorms large and small I had slept in earlier this year. I was more than used to dorm life.
The first night I went to a local pub they had recommended. Then another. At both places I tried talking to people and making friends – just so the birthday didn’t feel too lonely. It did – but as I was tired I was back at the ‘youth’ hostel 7:30pm. I popped a pill, put my earplugs in, my eye mask on and was asleep in no time. I barely noticed the already sleeping woman in the other bottom bunk.
The next morning, two of my roomies were up early. Six am to be precise. They took two full hours to get ready for their day. It was constant in and out of the room, up and down and up and down again on the bunk above me. Thankfully they took the task of drying their hair right outside the bedroom door and not in the room. I tried to ignore the noise and keep sleeping but I was faking it. So I said hello to them before they left. They were two Korean girls on a European vacation. The were both very sweet and told me I could get breakfast downstairs in the kitchen and if I wanted privacy there were showers upstairs. The shower in the room was a little less private but I had used it the evening before when I was in the room alone and it was fantastic. After they left, the sleeping body from the bed the night before stirred. An Irish woman who exclaimed “how long did it take those two to get ready?” We laughed and chatted. She was 63 and wasn’t given the verbal disclaimer from Sam and Dylan. Her staff member was a young Australian girl and when the Irish woman raised the issue of the fine print on the age limits, the Australian girl waved her hand in dismissal and said, “no worries, you’ll be fine”. Hmppfff – I thought to myself.
I took a shower upstairs. The shower was bad. The water dribbled out. I think I have gotten more wet during a menopausal hot flush than I did in that shower. I cursed the whole hostel system, longed for a three to five star hotel room and got ready for the day ahead. I had planned to visit Hampton Court. Instead I found myself wandering the streets alone and miserable. I decided to go to the Portobello Road markets and had an ok time before ending up in Carnaby Street and Soho – with yet more aimless wandering. When I got back to the hostel, the room was empty. I took a shower in the room shower. It was fantastic. I washed my hair, which was impossible in the communal shower and enjoyed the luxury of time alone. Which was odd given I had spent almost the previous 24 hours cursing my alone-ness. After the shower I caught up on my facebook and emails. Before I left Australia an old acquaintance from my government days had said he could catch up on the Saturday. I had agreed but was hardly surprised when I had an email at the last minute telling me he was now unable to. Hardly surprised but very annoyed as I had been looking forward to catching up with a familiar face. Just then, Yana walked into the room and into my life.
Yana was the new roomie to replace the Irish woman. She was a pretty Russian from St Petersburg. I told her to use the room shower, not the communal and warned her that our other roomies woke very early and took ages to get ready. She would hear zippers being zipped and unzipped. Sprays of beauty products going on and on and on with lots of climbing up and down the bunks. I wished her a good night as I headed out and left her to shower in peace.
Well, I hadn’t actually realised how annoyed I was about the broken date and how much it threw out my mojo. I walked up the street and needing to go to the bank went for my wallet. It wasn’t there. I searched my pockets, the pockets of my backpack, my pockets again, the pockets of my back pack again. Nothing. I raced back to the room. Yana was “chilliing” on her bed. The window open a breeze coming through. She tried to talk me down but it was not to be. I was sweating and angry. Trying to re-trace my steps. I went through the hostel. Asked Sam and Dylan if they had found it. Nothing. I went back up to the room. Thinking about the hassle of replacing my cards before I would fly out to Gibraltar on Sunday morning. I was about to give it all away when I said to Yana – “now I have lost my room key”. She counselled me “no you have not. You just had it”. I put my hand into the back pocket of my bag and pulled out my wallet”. I assured Yana I was not usually like this (no one tell her that I can be). She asked if something had happened to lose my usual composure. I thought about it and it was planning my day around an arrangement which was cancelled at the last minute. With my wallet and key found I ventured out but not before I received a message from Jan Caddy of my Camino asking to catch up the following day. A much better catch up than the one I had planned.
Out into the London night I went. I pressed play on my iTunes and London Burning by the Clash rang loudly in my ears. It was going to be a good night.
I had a funny and interesting night. I met an Australian couple from Mitchell a small town in outback Queensland – seven hours west of Brisbane I was told. This couple had spent six months travelling around Eastern Europe in a camper van. Their tales were more than I could ever imagine. I asked how many fights they had had. She said none – he said only a couple. It sounded like it was more bickering than anything. They had travelled through Albania, Romania and Bulgaria – just to name a few. It took me back to when I travelled in 1987 and was detained in Bulgaria. A story for another time. They told me about the bears they encountered one night in the forest. They could hear the bears howling to each other across the valley and he had one of his thongs stollen by a bear. I imagine a bear wearing one thong like a yobo on Australia Day. She had her hair done that day and it was the longest time they had spent apart in six months. Their stories were inspiring and funny. After saying goodnight I finally went and had the English curry I had been longing for.
After dinner, I stopped at another pub and met an English guy named Chris. For twenty minutes I was entertained by the funniest monologue on Australia that I have ever heard. “Australians. You all cling to the coast ‘cos there is nothing in the middle but snakes and spiders and big fucking lizards. Then you go into the oceans and get eaten by sharks or those weird octopuses that you ‘av. And the World Cup in Qatar. What is that about? I mean, I would be surprised if you Aussies even get into the World Cup. You guys can’t play football. You always want to grab the ball and run with it. You played Syria. What is that even about? You go to Qatar for the World Cup and you aren’t even gunna have a cold beer. We English will accept a warm beer from under the table but you Aussies can only have a truely cold beer. What ya gunna do like?” I laughed and laughed and laughed.
I went home to find the two Korean girls packing as the next day they were leaving for Paris. They both were drinking a large can of Guinness each with a small pack of peanuts to share. One had to sit on her bag to close it. They told me they were scared about Paris as they would be subject to pick pockets and other evils. They thought they would be easy targets in Paris being Asian. I tried to assure them that they would be ok and that there are Asians in Paris. After a while I grew tired so popped in the ear plugs pulled down the eye mask and fell into sleep. I heard Yana come home but was too tired to wake and say hi.
The next morning at six, the girls got up. Again it was two hours of packing, zipping and unzipping, climbing up and down the bunks, drying their hair just outside the bedroom door, leaving the door ajar for a small bit of light, in consideration of us sleeping and not turning the full light on. More sprays were sprayed, loud whispers on final instructions, one more climb up and down the bunk and they were gone. Having tried to ignore and sleep through, once they closed the door for the final time Yana and I sat up in our beds and looked at each other … “those girls took so long”. When I told her about the packing the night before she laughed “you mean they had already packed?”
We took our time getting up, chatting and getting to know each other a little bit. We both made each other laugh as we continued to talk and made our plans for the day. Yana was off to Greenwich and I was off to the Tate Gallery in the morning and then to meet Jan from the Camino. I had the most amazing day. The Tate was wonderful with an amazing collection Turners and Constables and other British painters. An art lovers dream. After that I quickly popped by Buckingham Palace for a peak through the gate and the obligatory selfie. I was meeting Jan at 2:00 Jan under the clock at Waterloo. It was great seeing Jan again. We relived the Camino times, and caught up on our lives since then, our plans for the future and exchanged toenail horror stories post Camino. Jan won that one.
On my return to the hostel, I briefly met one of our new roomies who left the room soon after I arrived. I had a great shower just before Yana rushed in to change as she was going to see Kinky Boots with her friends. We walked to the bus stop together. I wanted a selfie of us and could not find my phone before the bus arrived to whisk her off to Piccadilly. She told me we could have one when she gets home (I will look awful) or before I leave at 5:00am tomorrow (she will look awful). I think I know which one I would have chosen but alas it didn’t happen. I hope to hear from her again but my accent confused her to no end. She laughed when trying to distinguish my a’s from my e’s and i’s.
Next stop Gibraltar.