or "Part Two of My First European Adventure"
In the summer of 1995, I made my first trek across Europe. I began by touring England and Scotland before heading to Stuttgart to meet my German family for the first time. My Aunt Rosemarie and Uncle Rainer took me for six weeks in a camper van up the Rhine, through France, over the English Channel, up again through England and Scotland, and over to Ireland. When we reached Dublin, I bade my German relations farewell and flew to Italy to begin my semester at the University of Dallas Rome campus…
After traveling around Scotland and England for a bit, I set off to explore London for the first time. This was no small thing. Ever since I could remember, London is where I wanted to go. I had read about it, written about it, and made it my own fairytale destination. The city was so large in my imagination, so long dreamt of, and so wrapped up in stories; new, but familiar thanks to Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, George MacDonald and Charles Dickens; the home of Sherlock Holmes, Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear and the Pevensie children. My knowledge of the city was informed by an amalgam of their experiences, but none of my own.
I checked into the Palace Court Hotel in Prince’s Square (which was really a youth hostel) and found the same vibrant atmosphere and family of friendly fellow travelers that I had met with at other hostels over the past couple of weeks. Young people from various countries lounged in the sunny courtyard garden and milled around the front room, exchanging traveling tales, tips, and information. In no time I was sitting on the terrace recording all my first impressions in my leather bound journal. Just when I was beginning to feel lonely, I met Mia from Helsinki, Ewi from Luzern (both of whom I wrote to regularly and visited later in their hometowns), and a handful of others. Upstairs I met my roommate, who was a character - a rough, fifty-something Greek biker woman called Rodetta who owned the only Harley Davidson shop in Athens. “My husband doesn’t mind my flirting. He is so much older than me,” she confided in me as she adjusted her too-tight trousers and the tube top that accentuated her love-handled, bare midriff.
I spent the next day shopping the Portobello and Camden Town markets with my new friends, and in the evening we decided to go to Charing Cross for dinner. Afterwards we headed to Covent Garden to go to a funk dance club at the African Centre. While queuing for the club we met a group of Londoners just done with high school and about to head out on their own European adventure. We hung out with them the rest of the night - Tom, Dave, Ali, Adam, Johnny, Jonas and Lucy. Tom’s parents were out of town so several friends were staying with him, and he invited me to join them rather than paying for more nights at our hotel. I was paid up through Monday, but I told him I would happily take him up on his offer for my last few nights in London. Now I see flashbacks of Taken, but at the time I was relying heavily on my excellent intuition and feeling good about a free place to stay.
The club closed at 3 a.m. and we made our way through bustling crowds to a Soho tea shop. By 5 a.m. we were waiting for our bus in Trafalgar Square, and the city was awake as ever. It never went to sleep - all lights and laughing and beautiful buildings and good natured natives. I loved it.
Back at the hotel I pulled out my journal, having decided to stay awake until breakfast was served in the dining room. I wrote for an hour, had a cup of coffee and a piece of cheesecake, and finally fell into bed. That day I went to a marathon showing of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours film trilogy in Nottinghill and went to bed early.
The next morning I spent at the Tate Gallery enjoying some quiet time with the Pre-Raphaelites before moving on to the Museum of Moving Images. I had agreed to meet Brian, a guy I had met in Liverpool the week before, for lunch at Planet Hollywood. I had thought he was pleasant enough in Liverpool, if a little over-keen. We hung out that afternoon, and as the day wore on I began to realize that he was a romantic (the unnerving, staring sort) who was weirdly fascinated with the fact that we shared the same birthday. Annoyingly, between my fear of hurting his feelings and his stubborn refusal to take a hint I could not shake him.
By that evening, all my other new friends had taken off on their travels and I was left with Rodetta, my sex-obsessed Greek biker roommate, and clingy Brian. We ended up at the Hard Rock cafe after closing time, having free coffee with a Kiwi waiter called Damon who invited us all back to his place to hang out. Why not? I thought. (Because we might be raped and killed, says my grown-up self, but that didn’t cross my mind at the time.)
We hopped on the underground to northwest London. By 2:15 a.m. we were sitting in Damon’s room under an enormous *autographed* poster of a lingerie-clad Cindy Crawford. We spent the next interminable hours talking (some [Rodetta] more than others), drinking (me water, everyone else alcohol) and me writing, as ever, in my journal all through the conversation. I was writing things like, “I’m feeling sad at the lack of depth here...beer, sex, nonsense” and “Good Lord, help these people - they are starving souls leading dismal lives.”
After Rodetta failed in her shameless attempt to seduce Damon, and Brian failed to convince me that having the same birthday made us star-crossed lovers, we finally decided to leave. As we were standing at the bus stop, Damon ran after us calling, “Lara, you left your journal upstairs!” Unwilling to abandon my journal, I ran back. When I got inside Damon admitted, “You didn’t, actually. I just wanted you to stay without them.” Deceitfulness & the possibility of dishonorable intentions, not to mention the tacky Cindy Crawford poster, caused my estimation of Damon to plummet. But his room mates seemed like nice people, and my alternative was to weather the long bus trip back to the hotel with a drunk nymphomaniac and a staring, simpering guitarist who I had tried unsuccessfully to get rid of all day and night .
So I stayed. Damon, his room mate Scott, and I, sat in the kitchen. I had my first meaningful conversation of the evening with Scott while Damon (who did not have an interest in conversation) pouted and finally went off to bed. I ended up talking with Scott, a lost soul genuinely seeking, about Truth, the love of Christ, miracles, supernatural interventions, guardian angels, and the joy that comes of embracing one’s cross. We talked until 7:30 a.m., when the tube began running again. By the time he walked me to the station, I was elated. I had been able to share the truth with someone whose heart was prepared to hear it, and I was thrilled to have avoided being taken advantage of.
When I made it back to the hotel, Brian managed to annoy me even more than he had previously done by behaving as if I was his errant girlfriend. This relegated his many future letters to those read aloud to roommates and left unanswered. I said goodbye to a hung-over Rodetta and went down to the hotel dining room for breakfast before checking out.
We play a game with our kids at dinner called good day, bad day. You have to pick one favorite highlight and one disappointment to share. If I were to apply it to my days at the Palace Court Hotel, it would be:
Good day: being able to share my faith with Scott
Bad day: not capturing Rodetta on film (though her image is seared into my brain)
But my time there was so full of Good Days - John William Waterhouse originals, stacks of art books shipped home, marvelous museums, astounding architecture, history coming to life, lush gardens, foreign film marathons, dancing til dawn, singing in the streets, and more than anything else, all the amazing people I met. London was living up to the fairytale city I had envisioned, and I had finally woven the first of my own stories together with those that had formed my imagination. Now I was off to begin a new adventure with the fabulous friends I had met at the African dance club...