When you pack for a trip, make sure you check the weather before mistakingly assuming that it’s going to be warm. Being from Florida I usually forget that other parts of the world get cold — and stay cold — well past winter’s expiration date. London apparently didn’t get the memo that it’s time to be warm now.
After two turbulent flights during which I was pretty sure we were all going to die, I landed at London Heathrow, grateful to be on land again and apparently underdressed. As Floridians, at the end of April we expect scorching heat and never-ending back sweat, so while everyone else in London was in their parkas and boots, fully prepared for the 48 degree rainy weather, I was strutting valiantly, densely, coldly, regrettably down the terminal in flip flops and a t-shirt. Before I even hit the streets I knew I was in trouble by the way two Hungarian girls with glorious budding mustaches stared at my feet in wide-eyed judgment, and through their rapid-fire Hungarian I overheard them say, “flip flops?!?”
Let me tell you how cold it was: It was so cold. I had no idea the world could be so cold. Why didn’t anyone tell me the world could be so cold? I walked to my hotel through bitter freezing wind and rain. With two hours until check-in, I ducked into the closest open pub that accepted my debit card, which was beyond being dank. A roach scurried past me and stopped briefly at my feet before disappearing into a deep fissure in the floor. Even the roaches are judging me. Pneumonia sounded awesome, but I opted instead to accompany the roach for a meal rather than take my chances back outside.
After finishing food that tasted as though it should have been illegal, I handed my Visa over to the waitress and she informed me she couldn’t take my card, though I was sure we’d already discussed that she could. Did she forget, or had the cold rendered me stupid? She asked if I could take out cash, but there was a problem. You might remember me mentioning that I had thousands of dollars stolen the week prior to me leaving, and two days before I left, my bank back home reinstated a new debit card and hadn’t yet issued a pin activation. Thus I have no pin , thus I can’t take out cash, thus I can’t pay for my meal of what was likely grizzly bear testicles.
Here’s where I have to take a moment and thank technology and Brandon, who saved the day. I was able to use my iPhone/iMessage and stolen wifi to text Brandon (frantically and in rapid succession) in spite of having no phone service and have him wire me the money pronto. Heroes really do come in all shapes, sizes and bandwidths.
Later that night I walked across town to make 6:15pm reservation at Kitchen W8, a semi-formal Michelin starred restaurant with strong French influence. Originally I’d planned to not eat from restaurants whose food does not reflect the country I’m in, but when reservations for Michelin starred restaurants are backed up weeks in advance, you have to allow for a little deviation in your plans.
When I arrived, the maître d’ sat me next to a posh, brunette woman and saw that, at 6:30pm, we were the only two in the restaurant. The maître d’ filled my water glass, handed me a menu and before swishing back toward the kitchen he said, “we’ll need this table back by 8. ‘Kay?” Um, okay.
The waiter, a young, tall, and lanky Frenchman then came by and presented me with an amuse-bouche of two small salted cod beignets about the size of small marbles. What they lacked in size, they more than made up for it in flavor. The center of the beignets were soft and creamy with a mild nuance of cod and encrusted in a thin coating of breading that provided a nice contrast to the smooth interior. Dominating the menu were an assortment of fish dishes, and I’d settled on a pan-fried sea bass over herbed spatzel and fricassée of vegetables; a combination that seems ordinary and unassuming, but had both tremendous flavor and a decent size portion for the price. The sea bass was perfectly done with a crisp, buttery skin and a moist, barely-done center that flaked apart effortlessly; however, the bass, which should have been the focal point of the meal, was upstaged by the spatzel and fricassee, both of which were slathered in a buttery, tangy sauce and prepared to the ideal point of being simultaneously tender and yielding without being mushy.
The waiter stood at the opposite end of the room and glared at me with his hands crossed, waiting for any indication that I needed something, which was both convenient (when my earl grey was empty) and awkward (when I missed my mouth and got fish in my lap…twice). It also made it a little uncomfortable when I wanted to take pictures of the plates without looking like a tourist, or worse, a novice to the world of Michelin restaurants. When the waiter’s back was turned, I whipped out my camera and took as many pictures as fast as I could, and when I looked up from my lens he was back to his position of crossed arms and devil’s glare. Busted.
Though I tried to be discreet, the woman next to me also took notice and asked what I did and what the photos were for, and we got to talking. By this time a tall, mocha-skinned man with greying hair, wide shoulders and a proper British accent joined her and I learned their names were Geraldine and Nadeem. Both London natives, both frequent diners at Kitchen W8, and after chatting back and forth for a solid thirty minutes about food, comedy and traveling, I became a de facto member of their party, sharing stories and being told I needed to take pictures of what they were eating as well (shown below, L to R: Ballotine of Cured Foie Gras with Spiced Crumbs, Apple, Balsamic and Sourdough Toast and Fillet of Gilt Head Sea Bream with Crushed Jersey Royals, Roast Beetroots and Watercress Pesto).
The waiter glared harder.
Before I left the states, a few of my friends met the news of my traveling alone as it being scary or lonely or other variations of these words to imply that without a travel partner, traveling can’t possibly be rewarding. I would love to have someone share this experience with me, but a travel companion is not always readily available. Also this experience isn’t just about traveling, it’s about immersing myself, and learning as much as I can. When there’s so much to do and you’re surrounded by so many new and amazing things, there really isn’t any time or room for loneliness or fear.
Traveling alone can be lonely only if you approach it from that angle, but it’s also liberating and opens you up to meeting interesting people and engaging in experiences that traveling as a group or couple may otherwise shut you off from. For instance, I once met a prostitute who, the schmalzy romantic that she was, asked me if I wanted to cuddle for $50 and she’d pop her teeth out to show me what she could really do for me before popping her teeth out to prove she wasn’t a liar. Which actually happened, I couldn’t make that shit up. I mean, who could?
However, if I ever feel the solitude to be overwhelming at any point, I remember one of my favorite quotes which puts things into sobering perspective: if you’re lonely when you’re alone, you must be in bad company.
The following day was my last in London so I knocked out the touristy business like seeing the Parliament and Big Ben, the London Eye, London Bridge, Thames, Buckingham Palace, etc. By the end of the day I’d walked all over London and was exhausted. I stopped to put away my camera when I looked to my left and was met face to face with Susan Sarandon.
Only it wasn’t Susan Sarandon, it was the world’s scariest wax figure ever. But A+ on the neck wrinkles, very pretty.
Anyway, I’m now in semi-warm Madrid, sitting at my table in my 500 year old apartment and eating a chocolate waffle. I can see my neighbors out of my periphery as they hang their laundry across communal drying lines while chatting in Spanish and listening to Bollywood as it blares from an antiquated boom box. It’s only been three days since I came here and I’m still acclimating myself to a world of very real communication barriers (i.e. asking for a wall charger and instead being handed condoms?). I’ve gotten severely lost about four times already, and I don’t have any internet at my apartment (this post is coming to you via stolen public wifi).
But hey, I’m here.