Ch. 25 – Getting to London
Finally, we were granted leave for our December break. There was a party at the CIDEF, which was unmemorable, and we had a celebration as a group. Robert and Mindy were going with Carol and Chuck to the Pyrenees, where they had rented a cabin, or gite. Others were off to Paris, or Amsterdam, or had secured invitations with one of the families that had hosted us over the past couple of months. I didn’t fancy making the trip to London alone, so I joined forces with Jillian, another New Orleans girl from our group. She was also meeting her mother in London, so she offered to give me a ride – her boyfriend, Jacques, was driving her to Paris to catch a bus for London.
As with everything about travel in Europe – well, cheap travel, that is… – it was a time-consuming voyage. We left at around noon on a Friday, and the voyage to Paris took about six hours. This was at break-neck speed, but with a detour in Laval to pick up Pascal, a friend of Jacques. From the beginning of the trip, Jillian and Jacques weren’t speaking to each other. Apparently, they had had a quarrel the night before. She kept telling me – in English – that he was an asshole, but “wasn’t he cute?” I think that the fight had something to do with favors withheld, but I didn’t pry.
Jacques drove like a maniac, but I concentrated on watching the scenery. It was a gorgeous, clear day – albeit cold outside – and I didn’t talk much as I watched the quaint villages with their church steeple whiz by. As it was, Jacques and Jillian were deep in battle, and his friend, Pascal, didn’t have too much to say.
When we arrived in Paris, we stopped off at a café to use the bathroom. Since our bus did not depart for four more hours, Jacques and Pascal decided to show us the sites by car. First, we drove to the Champs-Elysees, where the trees lining the streets were strung with white lights. It looked like a fairyland! At the rond-point, there was a tableau of Christmas trees, flocked with fake snow, and hung with big gold balls. It looked so beautiful. The only thing I lacked to complete the romantic mood was a special person to marvel at the sight with me – Pablo, perhaps?
We drove down the Boulevard Haussman, where a fancy lighting system had been installed. Overhead, spanning the street, were bars of neon light in red, yellow, orange and pink. As we passed underneath them, the lights turned off and back on in a wave, following us down the street – or leading us up the street! Jillian pronounced it, “cool.” The department store, Printemps, was covered with a shiny black vinyl façade, twinkling with multicolored glitter – it looked like a giant Christmas gift. We slowed the car to admire the animated scenes in the store windows. In one window was a large white ape, wearing a Santa Claus cap and swinging from a chimney.
It was really nice to finally see something that put me in the holiday spirit – despite the parties, we had been lacking the necessary Christmas mood in Angers. The French don’t usually go all out and decorate their stores and windows and houses with all manner of tinsel and flashy lights. The exception was the windows of the confiseries, or candy shops – they go all out for the holidays, with brightly colored boxes and tempting chocolates. We did not attempt to do much decorating at the dorm, since most of us were going to be away for vacation.
The guys, in order to try and shock us, took us down a dim street called the Rue St. Denis. During the day, this is close to Les Halles shopping center, and is a major business thoroughfare. At night, however, it is the red light district. The lights were on in sex shops, and prostitutes stood about, waiting for clients. Prostitution is legal in France, so they were just standing out in their hooker clothes – like an “open for business” sign. Most of the women wore a sweater, cupped around their hips – just barely covering their buttocks. Some wore a leotard over stockings; some wore just black hose attached to a garter, with nothing but a bra under their sweaters. There were a lot of black girls – Africans, I suppose. It was a bit wild, but Jillian and I tried to act blasé about it – as if we encountered hookers on the streets all the time!
We got out to walk when we approached the more respectable shopping area of Les Halles, when we were assailed by something in the air near the pedestrian walk. Suddenly, we couldn’t breathe, and our eyes began to sting. Apparently, someone had recently sprayed mace in the area – it was awful. I draped my wool scarf over my mouth and nose, and that helped a little bit, but the only thing to do was to keep walking until we were out of range of the gas.
Jacques drove us to the bus station by 10PM – he and Jillian had made up by then, and spent a lot of time kissing goodbye. Pascal had loosened up a little bit, but not really enough to warrant more than the basic bises – polite air kisses above each cheek. Then, they were gone. The bus was full, and very crowded. I stowed my large bag under the bus, and put my receipt in a safe place. There was no overhead storage room, so I had to put my backpack under my feet. I was very uncomfortable and cramped, and there was a draft that kept my right side and both feet constantly cold. It was a five-hour trip, and I can’t say I slept a wink – although I might have lapsed into a fitful delirium for a while.
We arrived at Calais at about 4:40 AM and found out that the ferry had just departed. We would have to wait for the next ferry, which would leave at 6:00 AM. We sat around and watched people greeting and saying farewell to each other. We go on the boat at around 5:45 and walked around and stretched our legs. Jillian bought some things at the duty-free shop. The Bailey’s Irish Cream tempted me, but I resisted. I decided to wait and buy liquor on the way back home. We changed our francs into pounds, then Jillian planted herself in a lounge chair to rest, while I began writing a letter to Dad.
The crossing was shorter than I expected, and soon the sun was shining on the white cliffs of Dover. We boarded another bus, and I tried to look out at the scenery – this being my first sight of England – but I was exhausted, so I dozed until we got to the outskirts of London. A slight problem arose as it became obvious that our bus driver was lost. He was French, and this was his “maiden voyage,” so he didn’t know the way to Victoria Station. He was finally able to locate someone to help him, but we were late getting to the station. It was 10:00AM, London time (we had gained an hour, so for us, it was really 11:00AM).
Before going to the hotel, we had to go to Waterloo station to meet a friend of Jillian’s named Sarah who was arriving from the Isle of Wight. She was going to spend the night with us. After we met Sarah, we decided to splurge on a taxi – we were too tired to lug our bags through the subway and to try and find the Russell Hotel on our own. We flagged down a large black cab, driven by an old genteel cabbie. Before we got in, we inquired if the Russell Hotel was, indeed, within walking distance. He told us that it wasn’t far, but, with our luggage, it would be a difficult walk. He assured us several times that the price he quoted was fare, and said – at least three times – “I’ve never been on to take advantage of another’s misfortunes…” We girls were dying in the back seat as we stifled laughter. The lack of sleep was making us giddy.
The Russell Hotel had a magnificent lobby with dark green and rust red marble floors, walls, and banisters leading up to the rooms. We checked in, but had to wait a half hour for our rooms. We headed to the lovely oak bar, with its gleaming mirrors and bottles, and the bartender immediately said “Good Morning!” We admonished him, saying that he could not say it was morning, because then we couldn’t have a drink yet. It immediately became afternoon, while he prepared us each a drink called “A Perfect Love Affair.” Hello London!