I was sure I was going to keel over right then and there in the customs line. I was hot and nauseous and the line was moving at a snails place that I didn’t know if I was going to actually make it onto the Heathrow Express. When it was finally my turn in line, the desk agent took just a few seconds to check my passport and BUNAC work visa and with a smirk, reminded me to write the day’s date in reverse from now on – 7th of September 2007, not September 7th, 2007.
Just walking out of the customs area instantly made me feel better. I felt like I could breathe properly. I hauled my two bags onto the nearly empty Heathrow Express and was relieved to have fifteen minutes to collect myself. The train slowly crawled out of the airport tunnel and was soon moving at warp speed out into the open. All I could see from my window view were identical brick houses stacked side by side but it was enough to convince me I was no longer in San Francisco.
Two elderly ladies sitting nearby shook their heads and muttered disapproval of President Bush as a clip of his speech from that day played on the train’s televisions. I chuckled to myself because I was expecting the criticism of my country’s president by people I would meet on my travels and now, not even an hour into being in London, here were two ladies showing their distaste for Bush. Months later, I would see the London newspapers cover Obama and Hilary with such excitement and positivity like never before.
I arrived at Paddington Station and immediately developed a strategy for managing my heavy suitcases. I pushed one suitcase in front of me and pulled the other behind me – I was sure this was the graceful way to do it without looking like a complete foreigner admist the chaos at the station on a Friday afternoon. I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing, where I was going, that I do this sort of thing all the time. And by “this sort of thing”, I mean, up and move to a new city with no job and no permanent place to live. I found the taxi stand and hoisted my bags into the spacious back seat of the black cab, no thanks to my driver.
And then came the sweating. I was expecting a cold, dreary and foggy London, not humid, hot, and sauna-like London. My thick jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt were no match for the weather. Strands of my curly long brown hair were sticking to the back of my neck and my tank top underneath my t-shirt, yes another layer, was stuck like glue to my back which was also stuck to the black leather seat. It didn’t occur to me until halfway through the ride to my hostel that I could in fact roll down the windows. Maybe because I was so distracted by what was going on outside my window. St. James’s Park was brimming with people sun-bathing in striped lawn chairs or just taking strolls and then the cab rounded the circle in front of Buckingham Palace with throngs of tourists snapping pictures in front of the gates and then moved on past Big Ben and over Westminster Bridge. No matter that I would be seeing a different side of London in the next six months and not this iconic side but it was still beautiful nonetheless. I couldn’t just play cool and dismiss how really wonderful it was. With every site we passed, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was finally here. After months of planning and years of day-dreaming, I made it and no amount of sticky sweat could bother me really.
The cab dropped me off on Borough High Street in front of St. Christopher’s Inn. I knew my location by address only but standing on the sidewalk with my bags with no sense of direction or what part of town I was in was a vulnerable feeling. Any passerby could suddenly knock me over, take all the possessions I owned at the moment, and render me insignificant. Luckily, all I had to do was turn around and walk into the hostel lobby. I had friends to meet, a job to find, an apartment hunt waiting for me. Six months later I was on Borough High Street again but this time across the street at the Borough Market with a friend. Before gorging on the food at the market, I looked over to the St. Christopher’s Inn and couldn’t believe how much time had passed and how much had happened since those first few hours of nausea, heat, sweat, and confusion. I had accomplished so much and become more confident in my new temporary home. My unstable state during my first few minutes in London quickly dissipated, but the excitement, the anticipation I felt – that never went away and always stays with me.
Have you had memorable first minutes in a new city?