I mentioned in my previous post that we stayed in Oxford during the weekdays but took side trips on the weekends. At first glance, this may not seem like it posed any complications, but in order to save money and time, we picked flights and busses at off hours, and this created a cornucopia of unforeseen stressful situations that proved very interesting for us. As it turns out, navigating foreign cities and airports and bus stations both late at night and early in the morning is not always the most pleasant. However, it came with the thrill of adventure that can make even the longest night worth it for me. Even when I was deliriously tired and unsure if we would make it back to our rooms or have to sleep on benches right there in the city, I was making memories I knew would last a lifetime while seeing London, Oxford, Dublin, and Paris in a way I had never expected. The entire time we were in Europe, we never seemed to slow down, and though I don’t know if I could have kept it up for much longer than three weeks, it was the perfect way to spend our limited time there. If you are looking for a relaxing trip, I don’t recommend doing things our way, but I promise if you choose the overnight busses and last subway rides of the night and early morning plane rides, you’ll have an amazing adventure that will stick with you long after you return home.
Our first interesting travel decision was booking an afternoon flight from the U.S. to London that would arrive 8 am their time. This meant that we had to try to sleep long before we were ready and then stay up at least 12 hours once we got there to beat the jet lag. Of course, I got only about 30 minutes of sleep on the plane, and though we were able to trick ourselves into thinking it was morning once we arrived, it became harder and harder to maintain the illusion throughout the day.While groggy and sleep-deprived, we managed to get on a bus that would take us from London to Oxford, found Brasenose, checked into our rooms, found our classmates, walked eight miles round trip to an adorable pub called the Trout that sat right on the river, and met our tutor for the first time. Looking back, I’m not sure how we accomplished it (adrenaline can do amazing things, kids). Little did I know, I would need to accomplish a lot on very little sleep numerous times throughout the trip (though I feel like this newfound skill will be very useful to me in the coming years of increasingly difficult exams and eventually medical school – really, it was just training!).
Our sanity was tested next with our trip to Paris! I went with my friends Jordan and Rachel, and we elected to take an overnight bus (which included a ferry ride across the English Channel) to get to Paris, where we would stay in the apartment of Kristoff, Jordan’s father’s friend. The overnight bus was far cheaper than taking a plane or a train, and we figured we could sleep on it and be just fine. Sadly, this was the height of delusion, and from the beginning, the bus ride did not go according to plan. First off, we had to take a bus from Oxford to London to catch our bus to Paris, and the day that we needed to be in London, the underground workers held a massive strike that made the traffic in the city truly horrifying. It should be noted that London bus drivers do not appear to care much for smooth starts and stops – I wouldn’t wish the seemingly-endless jolting we experienced on anyone, and it was a relief for us to exit the bus. We then made our way to the incredibly crowded Victoria Coach Station to wait for our bus (incredibly crowded because all the busses were delayed, thanks to the traffic that made our first bus ride of the day so unpleasant). Eventually, we made it on to the bus that we thought would be our home for the next nine hours. It was indeed our home for nine hours – and then some. All in all, the journey took a total of TWELVE hours, and by the time we got off the bus in Paris, we were ready to kiss the ground. It should also be noted that the ride was not as continuous as we had hoped – when the bus drove on to the ferry, we had to exit the bus for the duration of the ferry ride. We also had to get off the bus twice to go through customs (and I am still amazed they let me through – I was so tired, I’m not positive I was speaking to them in complete sentences!). As bad as the journey was, we eventually made it to Paris! Three hours late. Which meant that, though Kristoff had tried to pick us up at the bus station, he was long gone, for he had to work. Our next challenge was finding his apartment before his wife also had to leave for work – if we didn’t make it, we would be stuck lugging our heavy backpacks all across Paris for an entire day (remember, it was 10 am when we arrived). To add to the fun, my entire water bottle had spilled on my bag before we left Victoria Station, so all my belongings were wet, AND Jordan’s phone, the only one connected to data that could make calls and look at maps, and the only one that contained Kristoff’s emails with instructions, died before we could even make it on to a subway car.
In case you need a recap, we were lost in the middle of Paris, tired from a very rough night of sleep, frustrated and stressed because we were three hours late, unable to speak the language, and on a deadline – we needed to make it to Kristoff’s and we had 30 minutes to do it. We did know which subway stop was closest to the apartment, but once we emerged into the sunlight, we had no idea A) how far away the house was, and B) which direction we needed to travel in. From this situation, we learned several important lessons. First, if you are the only one in your party with a phone plan, you MUST charge your phone before you depart and/or bring your phone charger on the bus. And second, if you have even half a brain, PRINT OUT YOUR MAPS. Filled with regret, we did the only thing we could do: turned my data on to look at a map and pull up Kristoff’s instruction email. We were accessing the web for less than one minute and it cost us $85. Eighty-five dollars. I cannot stress the necessity of printing maps enough. Learn from our mistakes!
In a positive turn of events, we were able to easily find the apartment after we used my phone, and we made it in the nick of time. We were able to change clothes (and lay out all my wet ones) and regroup before heading out into the city for an incredible day. Paris may have had disastrous beginnings, but the rest of the trip was nothing but wonderful, which taught me another important lesson: never write off a day. You may feel more tired, stressed, and confused than you ever have in your life one minute, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be looking down on the city from the highest tower in Notre Dame, filled with ecstasy, the next. Crazy things are bound to happen while traveling, but the best thing you can do is to roll with the punches and enjoy the ride.
Our next questionable travel situation came on our journey to Dublin. To save money and maximize our time in this incredible city, we chose a flight that left Stansted, Heathrow’s smaller, sketchier cousin airport, at 6 in the morning. This meant that we needed to arrive at around 4:30, and it took a three hour bus ride to get there. The only bus that would get us there close to our desired time arrived at 4, so we found ourselves rolling up to the bus stop in Oxford, cold and tired, at 1 am. I was fresh from a delightful one hour nap, so I felt better than I could have, but it was still a far-from-ideal way to start the trip. I took the bus with four friends, and we met up with three more in Stansted, where we learned something delightful: the Stansted airport doesn’t announce which gate your flight is assigned to until ten minutes before boarding, so we were stuck in a massive waiting area for an hour before we could access our gate. Thus, we did the only thing we could think to do: ate breakfast. This ended up taking just the right amount of time, and by the time we finished, they were announcing our gate. Most unfortunately, signs told us that it took a ten minute walk to access our gate (remember, they only gave us ten minutes to get there before boarding started). So it was a mad dash to what was (of course) literally the furthest gate from the waiting area. But we made it! We quickly boarded a terrifying little plane with hard plastic seats (I forgot to mention – we flew RyanAir, a company known for both its cheap flights and substandard quality). Fortunately, our flight took just an hour, and we were landing before we knew it. Most unfortunately, none of us had thought much about the fact that Dublin is much further north than Oxford and much closer to the coast – as soon as we exited the plane, we were shocked by how wet and cold and windy it was. This made getting to our hostel particularly interesting. Unlike London, Dublin did not have an impeccably marked bus system, and we were at a loss to figure out which bus could take us where. After wandering around the various bus stops in the wind and rain for a while, we decided to take two taxis and avoid the bus altogether, which turned out to be an excellent decision, as it got us out of the rain and into a building in no time. Because Dublin is a smaller city and our hostel was centrally located, we had no more need for transportation until we called another eight seater (!) taxi to take us back to the airport when the trip was over. I never realized before Dublin how much of a blessing being able to walk places is, but I don’t intend to forget it!
My final tale of inconvenient transportation comes from our last weekend, which we spent in my favorite city, London! For the last two nights, we chose an affordable hostel with great security ratings. The only catch was the location: unlike in Dublin, our hostel was most certainly NOT within walking distance of anything. Fortunately, it was near a metro stop, and the London Underground, if you don’t know, is fairly magical – as long as you can get to a stop, you can get pretty much anywhere in the city. Unfortunately, they were doing construction on the one line we could access and while we were there, our metro stop closed! Meaning that we had to take alarming replacement busses that were always packed and smelled strongly of urine and cigarettes (lovely, I know). During our time in London, we, more than once, hopped on a bus that we thought might take us to our destination and hoped for the best (miraculously, we always got where we were going without mistakes!). The worst moment occurred while we were riding the last metro train of the night. We had closed down the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio tour (an activity that I HIGHLY recommend, though I’m a bit biased, as I love Harry Potter more than I love almost anything) and were struggling to make it back to the city before all the public transportation closed down. So we were already a little on edge when two drunken men boarded our car in the midst of the beginnings of an argument. One stormed off a few cars down, the other followed. As we sat, their voices got louder and louder. More and more people turned their heads to see what was amiss, but their argument continued to be just words. Until it wasn’t. One man threw a punch at the other, and suddenly there was chaos. Both men were screeching and brawling, everyone was running as fast as they could away from them, and the police were called. During the fight, the train came to an emergency stop, and somehow, the two fighting men fought their way off the overground car and onto the platform. We saw the conductor run past our window more than once as he attempted to break up the fight and talk to the police. After what seemed like an eternity, we were moving again, but by the time we reached our stop, all the trains had stopped for the night. Our only hope was a bus, and we researched as much as we could before taking a guess and hopping on. Most fortunately, we were correct, and we made it to our hostel before it got too terribly late!
These are all of my most interesting transportation stories, though there are many more – I don’t know that we had any trips without their own new and wonderful complications. I tell them not to scare you away from utilizing public transportation to its fullest extent, but rather to prepare you for all of the craziness that my party was not expecting. Even at its worst moments, traveling across Europe with your friends is fantastic. I did honestly question at times why we were allowed to galavant around foreign countries by ourselves with no proper supervision, but no matter the obstacles, we always got where we needed to go, and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. It was insane, it was aggravating, and it was stressful, but above all, it was completely and utterly worth it, and I would gladly give my left arm to do it all again.