Thursday, May 1, 2008

LOST! In London

“A man could lose himself in London.” When Tom Courtenay said those words in the film Billy Liar, I didn’t realize how utterly true they were.

Shortly after midnight, we had enough clubbing in a foreign land and decided to head back to the hotel on the other side of the city. Since the Underground closed at midnight we got on a classic London double-decker bus. Seeing an opportunity for a unique experience, I climbed the spiraling stairs to the top level.

Sitting on the top open air deck, I was bounced around wildly as the bus came to sudden stops and jerking starts. Like something out of a Harry Potter film, the bus careened down the road as if driven by a mad man. More interested in staying in my seat than noticing the sights, I had no idea we were headed the wrong way.

Finally, the bus made a U’ie and stopped. The driver said, “End of the line." End of the line? We have to exit the bus! In a small town somewhere outside of Brixton we looked at the dimly lit and deserted streets. No cabs. We stared at each other. The only mode of transportation was one bus; the one we were bounced off.

Husband and I stood there discussing our options. Before we formulated plan B, the driver was done with his smoke. The end of the line became the beginning of the line. He gave us a free ride back to London. This time I avoided the roof top seats. Finally our stop came and we got off the bus. Well, we thought it was the right stop.

After a few blocks we found ourselves walking the streets of London, in the middle of the night, with no idea where we were. We wandered down several dead end streets and past an odd cul du sac. We decided that price be damned, we needed a taxi. Somehow we found our way to a main drag. I hailed a cab Manhattan style. The cab drove on by. I could have sworn he flipped me the bird. Then again, I was so tired, maybe he just had an itch.

We kept walking. We stopped a few people on the street and asked for directions. No one would help. They weren’t even polite about it. By 3 am and a half dozen failed cab attempts, we had no idea where we were or even which direction the hotel was in. Nothing was open. There was nowhere to buy a map or make a phone call.

London isn’t on a grid. The roads follow no logical sense. They turn and wind in on themselves and dead end for no apparent reason. Due to brilliant pre-planning before we left the US, I had purchased a huge detailed map of London. One major problem, it was back at the hotel. It was so big and detailed it didn’t fit in my evening bag.

“A man could loooose himself in London.” How true.

Around 4 am a lone man in a tiny car pulled over. In very broken English he asked us if we wanted a ride. Despite overwhelming desperation, I could not get in that car. The childhood mantra, “don’t get in the car with strangers,” beat in my brain like a bass drum. He could have been our savior or he could have been a madman. I will never know. Totally lost, we kept walking to nowhere.

We kept walking down the main drag, hoping that something sometime would be familiar.

Some time around 4:45 am, I noticed a cop stopped at a red light. Another childhood mantra came to mind, “officer friendly will help you.” This was the only cop I had seen all night and the light was starting to change. In heels and a dress I ran. I ran as if a mugger was chasing me.

I knocked on his window, he rolled it down. The light changed. I asked for help, he started to drive off. Tears came. “Please,” I cried. He turned the corner and pulled over. “Sorry Miss, I had to let traffic by.” They gave us directions and drove away.

Oh sweet relief, we knew which way to go. After a couple blocks, we noticed an odd thing. The Bobbie kept circling us. He would drive by, turn the corner, come from behind and drive by again. They were keeping an eye on the lost American tourists. It was oddly comforting.

We walked a few more blocks and the Bobbie pulled up next to us. He rolled down the window and said, “Sorry Miss, you’re going the wrong way.” Wrong way? Oh no! He cleared his throat and continued, “We’re not supposed to do this, but we’ll give you a lift.” Did I hear correctly? Could it possibly be true?

Officer friendly moved his college books out of the back seat and apologized for the mess. We squeezed into the back of a London police car. Yes, they were indeed giving us a lift. It was too good to be true. Tears of relief streamed down my face.

Then something odd happened. The two officers pulled out a map and discussed it. The cops need a map? Geeze, if the locals can't navigate the streets, how can a foreign tourist? We felt a lot less stupid. So with Officer Driver and Officer Navigator, we got a ride to the hotel in the back of a London police car.

I asked about the fickleness of the taxi drivers. We learned that London cabbies aren’t required to pick people up at night. So that explained why we couldn’t get a cab. They didn’t like the cut of our jib.

By the time we arrived at the hotel it was 5:30 am. We had spent the entire night, nearly 5-1/2 hours, walking the streets of London searching for the hotel. To this day I have no idea where we were.

We asked the two officers if we could do anything for them in return. Yes, they said. "Please tell your friends. London Bobbies have a bad rep in America. We want Americans to know it isn't true."

I won't ever forget those bobbies who helped us on that cold October night in 2001. That 30 minute drive down twisting, turning roads would have been a very long walk indeed.

1 comment:

NWJR said...

That's a great friggin' story.