Sunday morning was the perfect time for our group walking tour of Primrose Hill and the famous Camden Markets. Primrose Hill, standing atop Regent’s Park in Northwest London, is home to many notable American favorites including Gwen Stafani, Enrique Iglesias, and Jude Law. Needless to say, the neighborhood is rather “posh.”
Though we did not see any stars, the weather did provide us a beautiful morning to check out the neighborhood and explore Regent’s Park before heading down into the Camden Markets. The locals were sunbathing in the unusually sunny weather, runners were climbing the steep hills as best they could, and we silly American tourists did our best to stay out of the way.
Camden is just a short walk out of Regent’s Park and across the bridge, but it is a whole other world entirely. As I crossed the bridge, I think I exclaimed something like, “I’ve found London’s SoHo!” (Note: I later found out that London actually does have a placed called SoHo. It is not Camden. Silly American.) While I’m not sure the two can be compared, this is the closest thing I have. The Camden Markets are open-air markets full of everything from used books to vintage clothing to touristy sweaters to glow-in-the-dark specialties. In them you can find food from around the world, beer from every country, and people so crazily diverse you may forget where you are on the planet.
A friend and I grabbed our first English fish and chips at a local beer garden and then ventured forth to explore. I must admit I am a closet shopaholic, so it didn’t take me long to find an adorable sweater to drool over. As I searched for a price tag like the cliché American I am, I was approached by an English Asian man who offered to sell it to me for fifteen pounds. I laughed and shook my head, knowing there’s no way anything else will possibly fit into my suitcases returning home. But then he made his twelve pound offer and it seemed like finding the space would be a little easier.
As I pulled out my wallet, he met my friend, Paige, and they started talking. Paige is an adorable little American, still trying to figure out the parameters of being “hit on.” She learned quickly as the man offered me the sweater for free in exchange for her. After we both started laughing, he tried to sell her on the idea of marrying him, telling her they would make beautiful children together and insisting the stereotypes were untrue. “I have a small body, yes, but a big treat for you under the small clothes.”
It was official. Paige had been hit on.
I got home with my new English flag sweater (and a cute tank top I couldn’t refuse) to find my host mom readying herself to go out for the evening. She was very excited about an evening concert to which she had received complimentary tickets just the night before. She joked with me before she left, making sure I would be all right without her for the night. I laughed, too, and promised everything would be fine.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Just before it was time for me to microwave the dinner Sandra had left behind, I was talking to my parents and feeling rather homesick. I missed mommy hugs and life lessons from my step-father. I wished I could just call my dad and talk with my big sisters in person. It occurred to me, after a few minutes, that sitting in London moaning about not being in Pennsylvania was quite absurd. I needed a run.
I got changed, threw my keys in my pocket, clipped my iPod nano on my shirt, and headed up a route I thought had become familiar. The run did me good, as I had not had the opportunity since I’d arrived and was in desperate need of a good head-clearing. By the time I was feeling tired and ready to turn around, cleared my head I had. I’d cleared it of homesickness, jetlag, schoolwork frustration, and the route back to my homestay.
I should mention that I’d been sick since I’d arrived in London, so I had not been taking my allergy medicine in order to take nasal decongestant. I should also mention that I’m rather allergic to my own sweat when I’m not taking my allergy medicine and, as I slowed down from my run to try to find my way home, I became quite itchy. I dragged my wiggling, itchy self around desperately for about an hour, scratching at every street corner (shaking my pockets violently) and praying I would find my way home before the sun disappeared. Finally, I found Finchley Road and got myself back. As I walked past the gate to the yard, I smiled with relief. That had been one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. And then I reached for the keys.
I’m going to let you guess what happened next. I ran back down the main road from which I had just come, trying to catch my breath through my hyperventilation and hold the tears back. The tears would not help me find the keys. I searched desperately, making it all the way back to where I’d taken the first turn of the Run of Doom when the last shred of sunlight slipped from the sky and it was officially nighttime. And then I started crying. I ran back past my home into the small town surrounding my host mom’s flat. In town, there was a small market still open for the evening hours and I went in, trying to get myself under control and hoping someone could help me.
There were three seemingly nice men behind the counter and one man checking out groceries. I walked up and began my story. About half way through the tragic tale, it occurred to me that just because there were bright lights in the store did not necessarily make it a safe place for me. So, if I had been tearing a bit before, I really started crying then. All four men begged me to stop. In retrospect, it was rather hilarious.
They offered me a place to stay for the night, a ride home, a friend to come with me and try to look for the keys. They were all quite nice, but I left still unsure of what to do. I ran back to the house and encountered one of the neighbors leaving his home. Though he was on his way out, it did occur to me that perhaps Sandra did as my mom had throughout my childhood and left a spare key with her neighbors.
First I tried Armond. Armond called Sandra for me and left a message, but had no key and had just returned from Hospice, where his terminally ill wife is living. I felt horrible imposing and left his home, declining his offers of tea and a warm place to stay until Sandra returned.
I decided I absolutely had to find the keys. I forged my way back through the dark, trying to remember where I had gone when I’d been lost and trying even more to remember how to get back home after I retraced my steps. I searched for two more hours, but there was nothing. The keys were gone. I made it home again, but by this time my congested head had an attractive stream of snot running down my face, my sweaty-wet clothes were causing me to shiver, and I was crying again. It was 9:30pm. I decided to try one last-ditch effort with Sandra’s other neighbor.
Barry opened the door, quite astonished at his late visitor, as he was just about to go to bed. He listened to the my long-winded tale about getting lost and the men at the market and trying to look for the keys in the dark. He looked at me for a moment, thought for another moment, and then Barry saved my life. At least that's how it felt at the time. He ushered me into his home and sat me down as he went to the kitchen and reached for the phone. He called Sandra, no answer. He called Sandra’s keyholding friend, Warren, who is India at the moment. He then called Sandra’s keyholding daughter, Tash, who answered on the second ring. Before I knew it, Barry was asking directions to Tash’s apartment and ushering me back out the door and into his car.
We got to Tash’s apartment in no time, where my London big sister gave me four hugs before putting me back in Barry’s car with the spare keys, making me promise to call her as soon as I was home safely. And just like that, Barry had me home and was walking me to the door of Sandra’s flat.
I don’t know how many times I thanked him along the way, but I thanked him one last time coming to the door, telling him he really didn’t have to do what he’d done. He chuckled as I unlocked the door, saying, “Of course I did! I couldn’t just leave you in the street! Maybe you’ll do this for someone like yourself one day.” With that, I was in and Barry was on his way back to his own home.
Tash was calling the landline as I got in. I answered and promised her I was safe, I showered the shiver out of my bones, and then I wrote a novel note to Sandra to explain the strange messages and the escapades that had ensued in her absence.
And then I went to sleep thinking about all the things that could have happened, the kindness Barry showed me, and the fact that my faith in humanity had been wholly restored.