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HORRORS: ENGLAND

Grim Ferry Tale, Ad Nauseam

Seasick, cold, hungry, cash-strapped and stranded-- could her dismal day possibly get worse? Absolutely

October 29, 2000|ANITA HEMPHILL McCORMICK

I don't know what was worse: the violent waves that made me so seasick, the people who sat nearby and pointedly left once they got a whiff of me or the prospect of spending a night in a London train station in that wretched state. Funny, this wasn't the scene I imagined when I signed up for the "Spend a Year in England" program in college.

It was December 1973. I was 21 and had left UC Santa Cruz for a year in northern England at the University of Leeds. My itinerary was direct: After some sightseeing in other parts of Europe, I would take a morning train from Brussels to Calais, France, where I'd board a ferry to Dover, England. There I'd take the train to London and another train north to Leeds.

But foolish me. I had only a handful of Belgian and English coins--barely enough for a couple of sandwiches and nowhere near enough for the ticket to Leeds. I had to reach London by 3:30 p.m., when banks closed for the day.

I left the hotel in Brussels long before breakfast, and by the time I was on the ferry and at its refreshment counter, I was famished.

We left the calm of Calais behind, and the seas started to get choppy. Suddenly the ferry began to lurch. (I learned later that a small hurricane was moving through the English Channel.) I've never been much of a sailor; I can get sick if I look at a porch swing too long. I decided to skip eating after all.

Instead, I looked for comfort in the fresh air of the deck, clutching a railing as the ship and my stomach tossed and turned with increasing severity.

Finally the white cliffs of Dover came in sight. I congratulated myself on weathering the storm and was trying to summon up my emotions about the cliffs (I was an English major, after all) when the ship pitched and, quite unexpectedly, I vomited. The wind was blowing so hard that the mess flew straight back and smacked my face and shoulder-length hair.

I scrambled downstairs to the women's cloakroom, where the hand basins were occupied by a line of nuns in full regalia. They were sick too. When one vacated a sink, I rushed in and rinsed my hair under the tap as best I could--which is to say not very well, considering there was no soap.

My hair may have looked better, but anyone with a sense of smell would know something was still amiss. But silly me, I imagined that once I was on the train between Dover and London I'd have access to my luggage and my shampoo. Washing my hair in one of those tiny train bathrooms would be challenging but manageable. Or so I figured.

When the boat docked, I dragged my luggage toward the train platforms, but uniformed men waved us toward buses. The railroad engine drivers had gone on strike, and British Rail had commandeered motor coaches for the trip to London. No worry, I thought: Dover is only an hour away from London by train. The bus couldn't possibly take too much time.

It wasn't long before I discovered the problem with the bus: no washroom. My hair, which hadn't seemed so bad in the brisk air of the ferry, took on a life of its own in the stuffy confines of a motor coach. I was doomed to smell rank for the whole ride. More than one person took the seat next to me, settled down for a moment or two, then silently departed.

I was mortified. I prayed no one would speak to me; my accent would reveal me as not just a disgustingly filthy young person in jeans, but a disgustingly filthy young American in jeans.

Naturally, the traffic all the way to London was snarled, and the bus ride took three hours. Yes, I had lots of space to spread out--there were empty seats in a ring of disdain around me--but I began to panic about the banks' 3:30 p.m. closing. It was the pre-ATM era. If late, I would spend the night in a railway terminal waiting for the banks to open in the morning.

We pulled into Victoria Station hours too late. I was stuck. I read in a guidebook, though, that in the Victoria Air Terminal, just down the road, Barclays Bank had a branch open late for airline passengers. I made my way to the air terminal, and from a distance I could see the huge sign: "For the Use of Ticketed Airline Passengers Only. Please Be Prepared to Show Your Ticket."

To make matters worse, it was 8:15 p.m., and I hadn't eaten all day. Desperation made me shameless. I studied a board that displayed the incoming flights and went back to the Barclays counter, which was to close at 8:30. Putting on my best lost-dumb-naive-teenage-American act (not a stretch at this point) I went to the counter and started to lie wildly.

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