When we booked our hotel in central London, I thought we were making things easier on ourselves being directly next to Victoria Station. Knowing nothing about the city, especially its mass transit system, I figured that being close to a major train/ subway/ bus station would make the most sense. NOPE. As it turns out, being next to a combination of Penn Station + Grand Central + the L train at Bedford Avenue on a construction weekend is pretty much my worst nightmare.
Prior to the trip, Staci had regaled me with stories of her delightful long weekend in London during her semester abroad in Italy. She'd even made a special point of telling me how much I'd love the tube, especially compared to the hell that is the bedbug-ridden cesspool, otherwise known as the New York City subway. Oh young Staci. So innocent, so naive.
Our first encounter with the suffering pit of misery known as Victoria Station was on our very first night in town. After salmoning our way through hundreds of rush-hour commuters, we set out to buy an Oyster pass at the recommendation of the station agent who definitely didn't understand anything we said. Standing in line for 30 minutes to get to said agent while melting in the 90+ degree underground should have been my first clue that we were in for a treat.
The maze of claustrophobic tunnels leading to our train was enough to make me cry. I'm only 5-foot-4, and I felt like hyperventilating. How anyone of average height goes through this steamy labyrinth daily is astounding. Granted, we were traveling during rush hour, but we couldn't even get on the first two trains that passed through the station. Once in the train, things weren't much better. Even on the infamous L train here in NYC, I've never experienced such a soul-crushing, jam-packed ride. Again, I wanted to cry.
I thought that surely, I had to be missing something. This was in no way the pleasant, fast, enjoyable experience Staci had promised. In fact, it was by far the worst public transportation experience I've had in a while. This includes the G train.
To get to our destination that night (a "hidden" jazz club), we needed to transfer to the bus. After our adventure on the train, I was hesitant. Once again, things started off poorly. We couldn't even find the bus stop (which was directly across the street). After a confusing conversation with a bewildered money exchange lady, we eventually found the stop and then proceeded to wait nearly 30 minutes for the bus to arrive. As a former frequent rider of the crosstown M86 bus in NYC, I'm pretty familiar with this scenario.
We finally relaxed once we boarded. This was a mistake. We stupidly assumed they would announce every stop and we'd jump off upon hearing our's announced. Well, this never happened. Once the bus started venturing into more suburban areas, I turned to Staci and suggested that we ask the bus driver where to get off. The driver curtly noted that we passed our stop a while ago, opened the doors and shoo'd us silly Americans off her bus.
Not knowing where the fuck we were, we decided it best to take a cab. Though just five minutes away according to the cabbie, somehow we still got lost and had to make a terrifying u-turn in the middle of the street. Don't worry, we eventually made it to the club just in time to pass out to smooth jazz sounds at the table.
The next day, we decided to yet again brave the complete clusterfuck that is Victoria Station. I felt a false sense of confidence this time; we had our passes in hand and knew where to go. Guess what? NONE OF THAT MATTERS TO VICTORIA. She will eat you alive and spit you out like the cruel bitch she is. For what I assume had to be crowd control, the powers-that-be only opened a sliver of gate for people to enter the station during rush hour. So we stood in line to descend the stairs to the station for over 20 minutes. I've never experienced this in any other city.
That night we spontaneously booked tickets to see a show in the West End and left ample time to get to dinner and the theater via the tube. Or so we thought. We didn't account for the gates to the tube just straight up shutting while we were in line with the masses to descend the staircase. We just stood there for a few minutes because thats what everyone else was doing. No one seemed panicked or confused or anything. They just stood there. There were no announcements, no station agents or policemen telling us what was up. So we figured they'd reopen the gates soon. WRONG. Because we were surrounded by hundreds of people on all sides of us, it took us a minute to extricate ourselves from the crowd.
At this point we decided it best to abandon the notion that the tube would ever get us anywhere and headed for the bus. Unfortunately, since Victoria is a hub for like 10 bus lines, we had no idea which line to take. We gave up and again took a cab. This was becoming a theme.
Seeing how we're city-savvy ladies whose trip money seemed to be poured into black cabs at an alarming rate, we made an executive decision to stop letting the tube ruin our trip and learn the bus system. I have to admit, it was a great way to get around central London. The iconic double decker buses were spacious, let us see a lot of the city, and our Oyster cards worked on it so we didn't have to buy new transit passes. We even took the commuter ferry one day because literally anything is better than the tube. This might actually be the best way to see everything along the Thames.
One of the selling points of the Oyster card is that you pay a £5 deposit that you can get back when your trip is over. The only catch is that you have to talk to a station agent to do so. When Staci asked me if I wanted to get my deposit back before we left, I thought about it for a minute. Then the tears started. "I can't go back there," I cried. "The memories are still too fresh. I JUST CAN'T DO IT!"
Congratulations, Victoria. You have successfully turned a proud, deal-scouring Jewess into someone who you literally couldn't pay to go back into that station.
Note from Staci: Victoria Station may have (understandably) addled Jen's brain a little bit. I did think she'd like the tube much in the same way we liked the Paris metro. I never actually told her she'd like it better than the NYC subway. That said...I clearly don't hate the "bedbug-ridden cesspool" as much as she does either. But then again, I endured a 10-month stint of DC-to-Baltimore rush hour. So you know...the grass is greener and all that.