Written By Tom Legge, Edited by Liz Millership, Illustrations by Marissa Trierweiler
As I emerged from the plane at Heathrow, apprehensive, tired and clutching my delicately packed cabin holdall, I was hit in the face by an immediate gust of chilling wind and driving rain. “Ah.” I said to myself, “This is England – I have arrived.”
At this point, I cast my mind back through the preceding months. Despite completing all my pre-screening documentation correctly and on time, the British Government had sent my visa to my grandmother’s house in Nagano (though I did not recall ever having to mention her on the forms). As such, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, I was arriving a full 24 hours later than my fellow participants. I was scared and alone.
I took the long walk through Terminal 2 towards passport control and was immediately struck by how unfriendly everyone looked. Mothers were angrily shouting at swathes of children and slapping them about the face as they misbehaved most mischievously in the border line. Many appeared to be drunk.
After about 3 hours of waiting silently, it became apparent that I was in the wrong line. Having realized my mistake, I quickly crossed the hallway and, 20 minutes later, found myself in front of a border policeman. He said something unintelligible at me without looking up from his desk. Since I don’t speak any English, I flashed him my BET badge and waited a moment before he scowled, stamped my passport and pointed towards the exit.
I walked outside to catch my train to London when, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a traditional British telephone box. I pulled out my camera to take some photos of it, filling the memory card to capacity in a matter of seconds.
I felt my stomach rumble and decided that I needed to eat. British Airways’ in-flight offering had scared me, frankly. I had pushed a nondescript lump of meat and sulking vegetables around my tray for nearly half an hour before finally admitting defeat. The smell had reminded me of how my dog smelt after getting stuck at the bottom of a well for 3 days during typhoon season.
I looked around the station for something more palatable and was pleased to see that the array of options was vast. There was even a Japanese offering, a small colorful ramen restaurant called “Miso Tasty”. Since it was breakfast time, there was really only one option: a Traditional English Breakfast. I had seen pictures in my guidebook and was eager to give it a try.
What arrived was monstrous. King Kong himself could not have devoured it. The plate was brimming with assorted bits of pork, fried things and swamped in a sea of, what I later discovered to be, baked beans (I had initially mistaken them for natto). Realizing that I did not have long before my train was due to leave, I excitedly pulled my chopsticks from my breast pocket and set about tackling this giant meal.
After 20 minutes, I had barely eaten a quarter of it. The waitress observed me with a look somewhere between pity and distain. I was surrounded by bald-headed, gruff-looking men sat hunched over their potbellies as they read their morning newspapers. Many devoured the very same meal in minutes and then left with no words and a frown. Deflated, I set the plate aside, and after bowing profusely to apologize for my lack of appetite, dashed off to catch my train.
I realized at this point that I had absolutely no idea which platform my train was to leave from, or which one of the myriad London stations I was supposed to get off at. I pulled out my personal organizers and looked through my pages and pages of notes for a clue. Eventually, I stumbled across the correct page – London Victoria! And I still had 5 minutes to catch my train! I looked up at the information screens and was bewildered. Not a single word of Japanese to be seen. How on earth could a developed country such as Britain not have any signs in Japanese? Confused, I hurtled around asking for help. Once again, I was met with scowls and aggression until finally, someone offered to help me.
Despite their best efforts, I was sent to the wrong platform and missed my train. Nevertheless, an hour later, there I was on the platform, new ticket in hand and ready to board the correct train into the wilds of London. My frustrations gave way to wave upon wave of excitement as the train drew near and the whistle sounded indicating that it was time to embark. My camera clicked and flashed repeatedly as I soaked up the experience.
Even though I had slept for pretty much the entire flight from Tokyo, I fell asleep instantly upon entering the train. I woke up and looked at my watch aghast – I had been asleep for 6 hours! – This was supposed to be a 30-minute journey! On looking outside, I was comforted yet confused to find that we were only just pulling into London. A fellow passenger, noting my confusion leaned over and typed what had happened into my Casio EX-Word Dataplus 4 XD-SP6600 “this train delay because many times chronic underinvestment industry of rail.”
Due to my visa issues and subsequent late arrival, I had yet to meet a single BET volunteer if indeed there even was such a thing. I was really starting to feel overwhelmed. The arrival materials were not much help. Each BET had received a hand drawn map (in crayon) detailing the Youth Hostel where we were to have our orientation and the adjacent pub. Below the map, there was a message to “rock up at about 10am tomorrow and we’ll get started.” After finally locating the hostel and my room, I put my clothes efficiently away into the chest of drawers by my bunk bed and set about souvenir shopping in a frenzy.
Having filled a suitcase full of Union Jacks, Big Bens and Beefeater Bears, I decided I should head over to the adjacent pub to see if any of my fellow BETS were there. Grabbing a handful of memory cards and my camera, I strolled into the pub to be greeted by a corner table of Japanese rosy-cheeked faces, enthusiastically yelling “kan pai” at one another, chinking glasses and taking pictures. Plates of fish and chips sat cold and almost untouched. I sat down with my fellow BETS and felt comforted. I turned around to see the locals eying us from a distance with a smile as they sat and drank their beers at the bar. A couple nodded to me, as if to acknowledge our presence. Though unspoken, it was clear that we were kindred spirits. Finally we had discovered common ground.