We arrive at Heathrow Airport around noon. We’re tired but also excited to soon be in London. I want to see the big Ferris wheel and the streets and the weird teardrop cars. All that BBC Sherlock stuff.
But first we have to walk. And walk. And go down the stairs. And walk. And go back up the stairs. And walk. Hey look, this hallway’s got a human conveyor belt.
Now I don’t have a Fitbit, but I’m pretty sure the Heathrow airport is harboring at least 6 miles of unused walking space. My theory? They know we’re tourists. They know we’re coming. They’re weeding out the weak.
Protip #4: Good walking shoes. If you have any kind of chronic pain, also bring pain meds which you can swallow without water and which will enable hours of standing still. These people make a point of not wanting you here. You gotta fight your way to the exit.
Finally we arrive at customs. No one specifies what you’re supposed to do until you do it wrong, so as my mother takes the first guy that says “Next!” I take the second.
“No,” he says, shooing me, “Stay with your travel group.”
I nod and motion to my sister and the three of us stand in front of the middle man with the pen. He glares at us over his podium and I get a strange feeling that I’m about to steal a horcrux from Gringotts Wizarding Bank.
“Passports,” He instructs. “Lamp please,” I hear, “Key please”. He takes our passports while looking at our pre-UK-arrival cards which we received and filled out on the plane with information such as the exact number of days we would be in the UK. “What is the purpose of your visit?”
“Travel,” My mom says.
He looks to my sister and I for confirmation. “And where are you staying tonight?”
Now we had booked a room, but just to be clear: A person cannot arrive in London at noon without having pre-booked a place to stay? Noon?
So my mom tells him the name of the hotel and he scoffs and repronounces it “correctly”. He stamps our passports, hands them back, and we part ways never to speak to Griphook again.
Outside we find a taxi and ask the driver to take us to the Grosvenor Hotel by Victoria Station. It’s about a half an hour drive and I don’t get to see any of it because I’m facing the back of the car from some emergency wall seat.
Eventually we start passing by the iconic Victorian neighborhoods and soon after we are in the Victoria area of the city of London. Our driver takes us around the block to show that our hotel is surrounded by construction and he can’t get us to the front door.
“That’s fine, we can walk.”
“We need to get pounds to pay you,” My mom has already tried sluffing him USD but as he said—the wife wouldn’t have it. “Is there a money exchange nearby?”
The cabby takes us to the nearest bus station, wherein he believes there is a currency exchange booth. My sister and I run out together because Taken I and II memories won’t allow our mother to let us be separated.
We enter the bus station. The walls are brick but you can’t see them under the scum. Smokers lie everywhere, coughing what is left of their lungs into the air that smells of cancer and international body odor. A possibly-drunk man sits on the centermost bench to reach the most people with his psychotic muttering of “the truth”.
It’s like every other bus station I’ve ever been in. No surprise there.
My sister and I find the currency exchange booth, where we give the man $200 and receive about 120 pounds after the 1.6 exchange rate and some fee. We give each other the look. Sometimes the look means “what an idiot” and sometimes it means “stop doing that”. This time it means “what a rip off” but we’re not going to let this affect our first day in London.
We return to the taxi and the driver takes us back to the Grosvenor general area.
“Right, love, that’s 80 pounds yeah?”
Protip #5: If you are able bodied and willing to walk down town, love, take the bus from the airport yeah? 80 pounds? 80 pounds. Yeah.
So we all remove our left kidneys to pay the taxi fare and then step out onto the ancient and beautiful streets of London.
No, we must still be in the bus station.
Smokers, drunkards, BO. Garbage and pigeon feces in the streets. There’s a man urinating on the sidewalk.
The Grosvenor Hotel is a bright beacon of civilization, beckoning us with its stone stair case and grand rotating door. Without further ado, we take our baggage inside, check in, get our key—
No no, wait. There’s a 20 minute wait for check in because there’s only one desk open. Three employees are deeply engaged in a conversation about whose mother said what about whose boyfriend and can’t be bothered to help.
So after much lollygagging we do obtain room keys and go to our room. The room is clean. We are unburdened of baggage. All is well. We nap. Eventually my sister and I wake up and decide it’s time to check out the good eats.
We go out into the streets, spot a nice looking restaurant across the way called “The Victoria” or something. Makes sense, we’re in Victoria. We walk through the group of youngsters drinking beer on the patio and enter a dimly lit, chilly room that looks everything like what a good pub should be.
And we stand there. There’s no sign that says “wait here”. No sign that says “seat yourself”. No menus on the tables. No menu on the wall. We look around and see that no one has food. It’s a loud place, blasting American music that fell off the radio about 6 months ago, but my sister and I give each other the look and manage to communicate: “They’re not serving food”.
So we leave the place and head on down the street.
Every restaurant has a patio of youngsters drinking beer. All restaurants must be required to double as pubs. We keep walking in search of food. There is no food. All food has been locked away.
Now I do understand this area has a bit of a “pub culture” reputation, but when it’s 6 o’ clock and you have to walk away from several restaurants because they are no longer serving food I think it’s time to admit your country has a problem.
(What’s the difference between a bar and a pub anyways? Because if it has to do with how hard they’re trying to be American then I don’t think we ever found a pub in the British Isles).
Eventually we find a restaurant called the Belgravia and—after lingering in the entrance hall—the wait staff ask if they can help us.
“Are you guys… serving dinner here…?”
“Yes, love,” they say, and lead us around winding halls, stairs, and tunnels past many open tables to the one. The chosen one. The one chosen table. The waiter brings us water and bread and we sit to read our first English menus.
Dishes are unpronounceable and cost 27 pounds each so we decide the best route is to split something. That way, if it’s disgusting, at least neither one of us gets stuck eating the whole thing. We decide to order something called a Cornish-whatnot which we think could either be a chicken or a fish.
At the bottom of the menu is a disclaimer which says something about 12% gratuity for large party groups and then a line akin to “After 7 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, customers will be charged a mandatory 15% jazz tax”. I perk my ears to the music I haven’t been listening to because I hate jazz and automatically zone it out for the sake of my sanity—but it just sounds like a recording. I check my phone for the time. It’s now 6:05. My sister and I discuss how we have to get out of here before 7 so as not to be charged the “jazz tax”.
We look at our waiter to signify we are ready to order.
Except I can’t really call him a waiter because he doesn’t wait on us. He kinda walks by 5 times, checks his phone, checks the till, sits down with a glass of water, and meanders over when we’ve been staring at him for a solid 10 minutes. This is a cultural difference that holds consistent for the rest of the trip. Servers are not servers, they are workers who make a living wage with or without you and will hide/feign work/avoid eye contact to get out of having to listen to you speak.
Which is all fine and good until you’re trying to get out of a place by 7 to avoid mandatory jazz tax and—worse yet—live renditions of jazz.
Eventually we get our order in and about 30 minutes later he meanders over with the food—surprise! It’s a fish. My sister thinks it’s amazing and I agree because I can appreciate the culinary art of it—the sauce and the garnish and the layout yada yada. But I can’t lie. I was hoping for chicken.
We eat like The Flash on steroids because it’s now 6:45 and we’re not sure what time the jazz tax accrues—when you sit down? When you order? When you get your bill? We finish at around 6:52 and stare down our not-really-a-waiter. He ignores us.
We’re not sure if we are supposed to leave a tip so we connect to someone’s open wifi and google it in order to avoid asking the people at the next table over.
We’re also not sure if it’s rude to flag down a waiter and google doesn’t have an answer for that.
Eventually he brings us the bill, whips out a credit card machine, and does the transaction right over the table. Another cultural difference—they don’t try to hide when they’re taking your money.
All said and done, we manage to escape by 6:58 with a bill of 40 pounds that includes a couple pints and no mention of jazz tax. Dinner success.
There’s nothing but pubs open downtown London at this ungodly hour of 7 pm so my sister and I return to the hotel and go back to sleep. Later that night our mom orders room service. Room service is an overpriced chunk of hard crust and rubberized fruit called a “tart”. The clotted cream on the side of it tastes like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, (which I hope no one actually believes tastes like butter).
I go downstairs to print off our tickets for the next couple of days—
WELL ACTUALLY the printer is unusable because the computer it’s hooked up to is older than me and slower than Big O of n factorial squared, so really I run up and down the stairs several times trying to email the tickets to the concierge so he can print them behind the desk. But you know. I get the tickets.
The three of us go to bed.
Chaplings, I want to make a point here. Nothing that has happened up to this point bothered me. London is grosser than the sketchy side of Denver? It’s a city. Thing cost a little more than expected? That’s travel. There are no rules for obtaining food in a restaurant? Note taken.
It wasn’t any of these things that ultimately turned me 180 on my view of the British Isles. And so, after the first day of adventure I was still looking forward to an awesome trip.