Keeping Calm and Carrying On in London: When Travel Gets Tough

With my freshly stamped passport in hand, I made my way out of the non-EU-citizens passport control line and over towards the ATMs lining the wall at London Stansted airport. I had just enough time to withdraw some pounds before catching my National Express bus to the city center. Normally I like to come to a new country with cash currency already in hand, but thanks to bank holidays and my work schedule the week leading up to the trip, I hadn’t had time to switch my euros for quid at my local La Caixa before getting on the plane. No problem, I can just withdraw when I get there. Right?

Wrong. I slid my bright yellow Caixa debit card into the slot and entered what I thought was my PIN. PIN incorrect. Awesome. One, two, three more tries. Error: number of PIN entry attempts exceeded. Your card is now locked.

Trying not to panic, I tried my American debit card. I entered the correct PIN, selected a withdrawal amount, cringed a little when I saw the pounds-to-dollars exchange rate (this was why I’d wanted to withdraw from euros in my Spanish bank), and pressed Enter.

Error: this transaction could not be carried out.

Of COURSE I’d forgotten to tell Chase that I would be using my card in the UK. Suddenly I’d found myself in one of many travelers’ worst nightmares: newly arrived in a different country with no way to access my money.

By this time I was sure I’d missed my bus and would have to pay for a new ticket on the next one using money I didn’t have. I decided to head to the bus stop anyway and was surprised to see a large group of my fellow passengers listening to a National Express employee giving instructions: “The 2 p.m. bus is experiencing a severe delay due to an accident on the motorway. Please remain in the queue so that we can board as quickly as possible when it does arrive.” (Oh, right, they say things like “motorway” and “queue” here.)

While waiting for the bus, I frantically took advantage of my one hour of free airport wifi to message my friend who works at La Caixa in Spain as well as my mom, who heroically made several phone calls to Chase on my behalf (lack of an international phone plan meant that I couldn’t make calls or do much else without a wifi connection). The waiting area was crowded, it was hot as hell (so much for dreary English weather), and my back and shoulders were killing me from carrying my bags. It was about another hour and a half before the bus finally showed up, and things still hadn’t improved as we boarded.

The bus pulled onto the free/high/motor/whateverway past a large sign in five different languages instructing motorists, many of whom were non-Brits fresh off the plane in their rental cars, to drive on the left. The UK traffic pattern is one of those things that you see and think “Huh, it IS true!” even though there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be true. After being amused by this for two seconds, I sat there riddled with anxiety for the entire hour it took us to get to the city center (although the accident had been cleared up, it was now Friday rush hour). All I wanted was to get to the hostel, connect to unlimited wifi, and get things straightened out.

By some miracle, my mom managed to get my Chase card working. It was now after 7 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast twelve hours earlier, so as my first purchase in London I bought myself some dearly missed Chipotle and inhaled my entire usual chicken burrito bowl PLUS a whole order of chips and guac to celebrate.

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Please, like you wouldn’t have done the same thing.

Then suddenly the exhaustion hit me like a double-decker bus. Maybe it was a sudden-onset food coma, or maybe it was a result of the stress that had consumed me the whole afternoon. I ended up doing a whole lot of nothing on that first night in London, due to both the unexpected snafu in my itinerary and just being so. damn. tired.

You could be the most prepared person in the world and things could still not go your way. I’ve learned that lesson quite a few times while traveling, but perhaps this past weekend in London is when it hit me the hardest. It’s hard not to feel frustrated, helpless, or even ashamed of yourself for not thinking of what you could have done differently.

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But something that every traveler should know is that it’s normal to feel that way. Things aren’t always going to be perfect, especially in something as unpredictable as visiting a brand new place. I feel like sometimes when it comes to travel, there’s this huge need to live life through an Instagram-filtered lens, with every Pinterest perfect moment more breathtaking than the last. Most of it actually isn’t that glamorous at all. What usually doesn’t make it onto social media is the fact that sometimes, shit happens, plain and simple.

It’s okay to slip up and have less-than-perfect moments on your travels, because those moments more than anything else are what teach us the most valuable lessons. And even when you feel completely and utterly useless to do anything like I did at the Stansted bus stop on Friday while my mom was on the other side of the ocean calling my bank, sometimes that’s God (or whatever higher being you may or may not believe in)’s way of telling you to just take a moment and breathe. In the words of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, just take everything in life ten seconds at a time.

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I ended up loving my time in London after that less-than-ideal first afternoon, but in a way, that was the most eye-opening moment of the whole trip. It forced me out of my comfort zone – which, I have to admit, I was expecting to be much wider in a place like England. (They speak my native language! Its Western culture won’t be all that different from that of the US! We threw their tea into the harbo(u)r and started a war but now we’re friends! This will be easy!)

It just goes to show that you never know what to expect. Just get through these next ten seconds and breathe. You’ll be okay.

london big ben buses

changing guard

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london street

 

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. I had similar experiences when I visited London last summer in regards to culture shock. I think it’s because we expect it to be so similar it hits us harder when we encounter differences. I’m hoping I can visit again so that I can improve my feelings about England now that I am more prepared.

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