Sunday Morning ~ Whitney, Oxfordshire
September 2, 2018
I thought taking a train to London would be easier than the one hour flight. No getting to the airport early, no security check, no overweight anxiety, no number of bags limit, just show up on the platform and get on the train. How simple is that? And if I were traveling with no luggage this fiction might have been realistic.
I really thought I had given most of my stuff away. I thought I’d be traveling with a manageable amount of stuff, even after being away for two years. We hadn’t accumulated that much, I thought. I was so wrong. Getting to Rotterdam was relatively easy. I’d dragged the stuff into the airport in Lilongwe, checked the two heavy bags (each just under the 50 pound weight limit) and carried the other bags (plenty heavy) onto the plane. Not much problem. Then when I got to Amsterdam, I met up with six colleagues who helped shlep the stuff onto the train to Rotterdam and then to the hotel. Easy. Leaving Rotterdam…not so easy.
The conference was excellent. Nurses from fifty seven countries advancing the profession and fostering leadership skills. There were presentations of inspirational accomplishments and overcoming obstacles. It was a huge booster shot. Our presentation was on the first day, which meant we could relax for the reminder of the week. Tea was served in glass cups packed with fresh mint alongside bowls of fresh croissants. Lunch for 1,500 comprised of piles of gorgeous sandwiches next to glasses of cherry and pear juice, milk or buttermilk. Imagine!
There was not a whole lot of time to sight see, but I managed to get in a few early morning runs through the city which had been completely destroyed in WWII. It was rebuilt efficiently and the traffic flow, including bike and pedestrian, was a sight in itself. Beautiful city. Running routes of various lengths are laid out along the waterways. The conference ended Wednesday and Thursday morning I set out laden with my luggage to walk to Central Station, a mile away. It wasn’t too bad. The sidewalks were smooth so dragging a hundred pounds with another forty on my back was doable and a good cardiac workout. I had my ticket, plenty of time to find my platform, plenty of time to make my connection, and getting through the turnstile was my only concern. Until I looked at the board and saw my train was cancelled. My ticket was for a direct train to Brussels; there I had to switch to the Eurostar to London. It should have been simple. I never considered the train might be cancelled. Since when do they cancel trains in Europe? I had completely romanticized how everything works efficiently everywhere in the world except East Africa.
I panicky dragged all my stuff to the information center where I had to take a number. I thought that was rather unfair for people who were about to miss a connection. I waited, looking at the numbers popping up above the counters, getting irritated at the employees who didn’t seem to be moving fast enough or looking with concern at the growing crowd. No, they acted like this was just another Thursday. When my number was finally called, I dragged my stuff to the counter to be told I could take a different train, which was leaving in four minutes, to a different station, then had five minutes to change platforms and catch the train to Brussels. No way I was going to make that with all this stuff, which I was getting less and less attached to by the minute. I told the man I had a lot of luggage and would never make that train. He suggested I wait another hour when the direct train to Brussels would come. He assured me I’d have enough time there to make the train to London. I believed him. He printed out a new ticket (which took ages to my surprise), and I went to sit and people-watch, eating one of the sandwiches I’d taken from the conference. There was no way I could maneuver all this stuff into a line for food. Glad I’d thought ahead when I saw all those extras.
When I went to check what platform my new train was on, I saw it also had been cancelled. Now real panic set in and I pushed all my stuff back into the information center, thinking there must be others here in the same predicament! No one looked very frazzled or impatient, and I still had to take a number. A bunch of garbled announcements I couldn’t understand were being made in Dutch but I heard the word “Brussels” and looked around for anyone else paying attention. Two smartly dressed guys, obviously together, were looking at their numbers and perked up at the announcement. They headed toward the counter and I asked if they were going to Brussels. I was happy to see they looked frazzled as well. I told them I didn’t know what to do as my train was cancelled for the second time and they said they were in the same predicament, and they were Dutch, so went up and got the scoop in the employees first language, which I always find reassuring. The only way to get to Brussels was the train I thought I’d never manage an hour ago. Leaves in four minutes with five minutes to switch platforms to get the connecting train. This time I had no choice and started dragging toward the turnstiles. I never got the names of those two men, but they were angels. Angels. They are both angels. Hurrying, each one took one of my bags and ran with me to the platform on the second level. If I were alone, the escalator would have been the end of me. These bags are heavy and awkward. When we got on, I stood by the doors with all the luggage and they took seats saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll be back to help you transfer. We won’t abandon you.” Angels. The next station required a descent from the train, only one step, but tricky with all this, a steep descent down a flight of stairs, a walk along a narrow corridor, and an ascent up another flight of stairs to the next platform, all within four minutes. These trains don’t care if you are only halfway up the stairs. They leave! But with the help of these two angels, I made the connection! Woo hoo! Thought I was home free. This train was crowded with everyone who had been rerouted from the direct to Brussels. Then they made a garbled announcement as we moved along, and again, I understood the word “Brussels” and saw all manner of distraught expressions on people who immediately identified themselves as flemish speakers. Nope this train was not going to Brussels either. The lucky ones going to Brussels had to change at another station and wait for another connecting train. I looked at my new BFFs and they said, “You are going to miss your train to London.” At this point I didn’t even know if we were in Holland or Belgium.
I won’t drag you through every transfer, but it took four train changes through stations that must have been built in 1809 or something because the stairs would never pass building codes. Up and down and every time I would consider the contents of my bags and think, “Who on earth needs that?” My arms are killing me. When I made it to Brussels, my friends ran off to the meeting they were now late for and I dragged my life to queue to change my ticket to London, my train long gone, along with thousands of other people. Seems like lots of folks were going to London! And you still have to go through immigration and security! But where the Dutch angels left off the British swooped in. I cannot believe how fantastically kind people were. Without a blink people were assisting me on MORE stairs I’d never have been able to negotiate myself without doing it in two or more trips. I’d never really noticed how trains are all either up or down stairs! My motto is usually not to travel with more luggage than I can carry for five miles. Anyway, when I finally got on to the Eurostar and parked my bags in the luggage rack I was sorta hoping the train would never arrive in London. I was dreading getting off. The train is super comfy with great wifi. That was the image I had in my mind when booking these tickets. Didn’t consider the other elements of that trip. I arrived in St. Pancras station and then only needed to board one train for Jane’s house in London. She assured me she lived two minutes from the station. Very kind transit employees in orange blaze vests carried my bags down (more!) stairs to the correct platform, one waited with me to make sure I got on the Sutton train, and help load my bags onto the car. Really! When I arrived at Tulse Hill, not sure I was still in London, two more kind people, not together, each carried a bag down the stairs (steep) and when I discovered there were two exits and got confused about which to take, the woman who’d carried a bag walked me to Jane’s road! It was like being in some children film about how to be kind to strangers. I was totally overwhelmed. This world is full of very good people.
Jane had worked with George and had a lovely dinner party with another volunteer who’d been to Malawi, some interesting neighbors who’d lived in Zambia, and two psychiatrists who’d volunteered in Myanmar! Jane also had been there, not knowing George was going there for a year. I was wishing he were there. He’d have loved it. Aside from my aching arms, it was a great evening.
Only two trains on Friday to get to the station where dear Chris was collecting me. I had told him to look for someone overloaded with luggage so he was confused when I came strolling out of the turnstile with only three bags, a fellow passenger behind me with the fourth. Another kind stranger. They are everywhere.
My weekend in Witney has been a family affair for the christening of my new godchild Joseph. There was the usual eating, drinking, storytelling, laughing, and reminiscing with old friends and their growing families. I’m so blessed to be a part of it. It feels like a second home.
Ok, only one bus, a plane, and then cuddles with my little ones. Can’t wait.
Love to all,