The first in this series of “misfortunate events” was my cell phone losing its charge, making it impossible to pull up my GPS map. Second, the realization that the London Gatwick was “that way” -- not the direction I was traveling in. Third, an airline strike in France turned a missed flight, rescheduled, into a flight cancelled until further notice. One hiccup is inconvenient, but three gets you stuck in the London train station overnight. At least that’s what happened to me.
It was spring break, and I’d planned a trip to visit London, Paris, and Brussels in four days. Unable to afford an international trip during my undergraduate or graduate studies 24 years prior, this trip was a treat to myself. Although I’d traveled to London on three previous occasions, I wanted to take part in the London Black History Walk tour. Following the tour, I would travel to Paris to take part in the Black Paris tour, then end in Brussels where I’d gorge on Belgian chocolate and waffles.
The trip began in London. I caught the tube without incident. However, what should have been a 20-minute walk to my Airbnb turned into an hour and 30 minute half-marathon. I missed a street sign and turn which led me out of the way. The host awaited my check-in and after hearing about my ordeal, decided I needed a better view of London. She whisked me off to show me around the neighborhood. I got a great tour along with a superb fish and chips dinner at Sutton and Sons restaurant. Her kindness turned the rocky start around. I believed I was lucky to have met such an interesting and nice Londoner, but little did I know my luck would be short lived.
After a good night’s sleep, I hitched my suitcase onto my back, took an Uber to the tube, and met my tour guide for the London Black History Walks tour. Seeing London through this relatable cultural lens was amazing. Following the tour, I hopped on the tube again, this time debarking at the London Bridge station. I spent a few hours exploring and eating at the Borough Market and left in what I thought was an adequate amount of time to make it back to the St. Pancras station, where I’d depart for London Gatwick -- and France! I reached St. Pancras with the ease of a local and purchased my 6-euro ticket to board the train. This is where things went downhill.
I jumped on what I thought was the right train. With my luggage on my back and my belly full, I sat back and watched London go by out the window. People got on and off the train. Eventually, I got that feeling in my stomach: a mix of dread and panic that rose as I thought, “I’m on the wrong train.” I looked from the signs outside to the route board inside of the train, matching things up. I’d assumed only certain stops were being announced over the intercom, but that all the stops on the route map would be made. I was mistaken. The train I was on wouldn’t make the stop I needed, and I wound up disembarking, hopping another incorrect train, spending time at multiple stations well outside the city limits (with no wireless signal), and arriving at London Gatwick hours later.
I had been scheduled to take a short flight to Paris for the next segment of my trip, but due to the train mix-up, I missed the flight. I stood in the airline’s customer service queue hoping to get on the next flight. When I reached the counter, the customer service attendant explained I could not get added to the next flight because they had canceled it. Why? The French air traffic controllers were on strike!
Pressed for time because my Paris tour began the next day at 9 a.m., I contemplated staying in the airport, researched taking a bus to Paris from London, and looked into taking the Eurostar. The only option that would ensure an on-time arrival in Paris was the Eurostar, but of course, once I decided on taking the train, I heard a little voice ask, “Where do I sleep tonight?” Same-night hotel reservations were too expensive. I considered a hostel for about three seconds, but decided to tough it out back at the St. Pancras Rail Station for eight hours until the Eurostar office opened and I could purchase a ticket.
I took off once again with my clothes on my back. It was late and dark, and I was alone. I didn’t want to go out into the community. Earlier that day, the station was bustling with other travelers enjoying eateries and perusing retail stores. At night, it all changed. Travelers were scarce as many of the restaurants closed at 11 p.m. Luckily, some offered carryout options for late-night travelers. The situation was uncomfortable but manageable. “I can do this,” I thought. “This isn’t too bad.”
However, while eating my food, a homeless gentleman walked past me to another patron and snatched his hamburger off his plate without permission. I took that as the sign to move to the Starbucks, which was open all night and only allowed paying customers a seat inside. A tall coffee and a slice of lemon pound cake later, I took a seat in a corner, joining the ranks of the stranded.
I kept to myself, surveying everyone and holding my belongings close until two young ladies sat next to me. We quickly bonded as a boisterous American man who called us all “girlfriend” had us in stitches. They wound up in Starbucks because they too had arrived early for their train and, like me, didn’t want to spend the money for a hotel room for just a few hours. They were undergraduate students from a small college in Virginia studying abroad and taking advantage of traveling during a short school break.
As the hours rolled on, we discussed everything from politics to math. They were both studying to be engineers, and I was so impressed with how mature they were. When the hour came for the Eurostar office to open, I ran -- think Black Friday-sale sprinting -- to be the first in line. I paid what amounted to a car payment for a same-day standby ticket, which would allow me on the train, but didn’t afford me an assigned seat. Ticket in hand, I strode toward the departure area.
I still had another hour to wait, so I headed to the bathroom to take what my mother calls a “whore’s bath.” I washed the important parts, brushed my teeth, and changed my undergarments, then headed to the platform. When I reached the train, someone instructed me to stand to the side until the other passengers (those with assigned seats) got on. Eventually a seat opened, and I was ushered to it. I exhaled and fell into a deep sleep.
When I awoke, I was in Paris. I arrived looking like a Ninja Turtle with my luggage on my back. I managed to join five amazing Americans (who I am still in contact with) for the informative and inspirational Paris Black History Tour. It was worth all the effort it took to get there. My luck returned and everything went according to plan, allowing me to enjoy the rest of my whirlwind journey. If I had it to do all over again, I would have confirmed prior to getting on the train to the airport that it was the correct one. I would also have had a more reliable portable charger.
I learned the hard way that booking a same-day train ticket is equivalent to booking a same-day flight (expensive but possible). Also, wherever you are, Starbucks is a fun place to sit for hours, especially when you can enjoy the Wi-Fi, use the outlets, and have an amateur comedian calling you girlfriend. Lastly, I picked up a new golden rule for traveling: Where there is a will, there is in fact a way.
Planning your own European rail adventures? Don't miss our nine tips for traveling Europe by rail.