No Reservations

This wasn't BART. This was the real deal. I was tackling the British rail system alone, just like everybody else...

I emerged from the shower smelling like Imperial Leather Soap and pomegranates. My grandparents were already on their second cup of tea and reading the muggle equivalent of the Daily Prophet as I plodded through the kitchen and up the stairs, leaving a path of wet footprints on the cold tiles. Today was the first of many big days. I would attempt to attack the train system alone.

Having arrived 20 minutes early to the station, we wandered into the tiny convenience shop wedged between the gates and the exit doors. Inside, I came across a Kinder Bueno. It looked like any other hazelnut-filled chocolate bar, except that the package read in three different languages; German, Spanish and English. Next to it lay an endless array of chocolate bars and “sweets.” In the refrigerator adjacent, I expected to find soggy sandwiches and chilled crustables. Instead, fresh, golden Cornish pasties sat enticingly among petit pies, sausage rolls and little pots of curry.

The train ride to Exeter St. David’s involved one transfer. On the second leg of the journey the train was so crowded that I had to stand next to the toilets in between two cars because I had not made seat reservations. Even there, a girl had squeezed herself in next to the door, and was sitting awkwardly at my feet. I had nothing to hold on to except my suitcase.

A man was standing across from me engrossed in his phone. All I could do was use my ninja ballet skills not to fall into him. Next to us was the refreshments compartment. Someone had brought his dog on the train and I watched as it was tugged back and forth at the swaying of his drinking master. An older woman had made a spot for herself directly in front of the bathroom door. Every 10 minutes someone would decide they needed a wee and she had to move herself and her belongings out of the way to let them in. After an hour, the woman was becoming clearly agitated. She rolled her eyes and whispered, “You’ve got to be bloody kidding me,” every time a new person came to relieve themselves.

After two hours of watching this woman struggle, and shifting my bag from one shoulder to the other, the scenery changed from rolling green fields and quaint little farms to the form of a city, and the train finally pulled into the station.

After driving through the University, my aunt and I went for a stroll through town. We came across a dress shop that was completely dedicated to prom. Because American high schools are often portrayed as the epitome of teenage years and prom as the night of one’s life in popular American TV shows broadcast in England, British colleges have adopted our “magical” tradition. Clearly, however, this shop had taken prom dresses to a whole new level. Even older Toddler and Tiara stars would never have worn the dresses to prom that this store was displaying. The neon-colored gowns were so adorned with sequins and sparkles that they were hard to look at, let alone be moved to try on.

For lunch we had “chicken” soup, except that there was no chicken to be seen. It was more like chicken chowder without anything to chow on. Some “bread” was removed from a freezer package and placed in the oven. It was some kind of premade bread that hadn’t yet been baked. I wondered if what she had put in the oven was really just balls of dough. Had I had the chance to poke one and see if it was as squishy as it looked, my curiosity would have subsided.

Arriving at my Granddad’s, I promptly handed over their fair share of Girl Scout cookies and cornbread mix. As they all did, I was asked what cornbread was and how it should be eaten. It is such a tragedy that that magnificent country is so deprived of such basic luxuries.

I was filled to the brim with homemade bolognaise when fruit salad was presented for dessert. After this trip, I have come to the conclusion that English people do not let their guests starve. Only foodless on the trains and coaches was I able to recover from such constant input of food.

We clicked on the TV after dinner and I was overjoyed to find a UK version of The Voice. Danny O’Donoghue, Jessie J, Sir Tom Jones, and Will.I.Am all sat, spiffy as usual, in their twirly chairs.

In the morning, I was again whisked away to the train station, after a traditional English breakfast of fried egg and bacon and HP sauce. My luggage had not gotten any lighter even after dispensing two rounds of cookies and cornbread and a bag of Ghirardelli squares. Embracing my granddad, for a second I didn’t want to let go. Every time it’s a long goodbye. It’s funny how far away someone can feel when you don’t have the Internet to connect with them in between. When he said, “Next time don’t make it so short,” I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t.

On the train, I sat down next to a girl chomping away at a packet of crisps and gulping down Fanta. Her music was playing so loud I could hear the squealing of guitars and pounding of drums exploding from her headphones. She was alone, like me, but clearly a local since her feet were resting, shoeless, on the seat in front of her and she had no interest in making conversation. So, I put in my own headphones, took out The Hunger Games, and dived into the arena where Katniss lay solitary in a tree, anxiously awaiting what was to come.

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Jillian Saxty May 30, 2012 at 05:43 PM
I like your focus on English food and trains, a totally different world to what we have here in California. Write on!
Tony Hartman June 02, 2012 at 05:16 AM
that train ride sounds like a few i've had in india, save the goats! maybe the term "third world" needs redefining...


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