making the best of it (or my day as a London street urchin)

Whenever things feel a little rocky for no reason (or no concrete discernable reason), I draw from my “Polyanna bag.” This is what I have chosen to call the group of stories that remind me of the possibility for a horrible day/experience/etc to turn into something wonderful.

Here is one of my favorite.

Early on in my graduate school year in England I spend a Friday evening dancing and having a good time at the studio union club called the Lemmy (hmmm, I still don’t know it was called that). I was with a few other ex-pats (4 Americans who were also studying abroad) and as we spilled out of the club in the wee hours of the morning we noticed a large bus in the parking lot. It was one of the those nice touring buses. We found out from some of the people boarding it that the bus was going to London. Now this sounded like a great idea. None of us had been to London yet, except for the airport when we flew in to the UK. We figured, a few hours on a bus and we’re set to go. A Saturday in London, how perfect. So we naively borded the bus with the others.

Quickly we realized that everyone else had pillows and snacks and tooth brushes. They were prepared to sleep for a few hours and arrive in London ready to go. We were sweaty and at the end of a night of festivities. We quickly crashed and awoke in London far less ethusiastic than we anticipated. We borrowed toothpaste and deodorant from fellow students (who probably wondered why were so unprepared) and started to plan our sightseeing. But as the bus was making its way through the streets of the city, a few people started passing out these plastic containers, little tote bags and city maps with markers on them. It quickly dawned on us that this bus was full of students set to spend the day raising money for Oxfam on the streets of London.

I’ll wait and let that sink in.

Yes, my dear friends…. myself and my four companions were part of a philanthropic charity outreach. Us and all of our heathen-esque glory. It make matter worse it appeared that my little contingency (which was clearly a mystery to the rest of the group) was assigned to one of the busiest neighborhoods in the city. So we made our way to Oxford Street and panhandled. My friend Heather and I couldn’t help but sing songs from Oliver as we stood on our corner pathetically shaking our plastic charity containers. The three guys were across the street trying to drum up some kind of street performance to attract a crowd.

After about an hour in we made a pact. We needed to fill our damn coffers as fast as possible so that we could at least have a few hours of sightseeing before catching the bus back to Exeter. So we kicked it into high gear, channeling our most charming and endearing selves (and making the most of our unavoidable American-ness). And we did it, we filled them up in under two hours. Mostly by making complete fools of ourselves. And to be honest, the containers weren’t that big.

Then we sat down on the sidewalk in the center of London and planned out our whirlwind adventure. And I tell you, it was a blast. I cannot imagine a better way to first experience what is now one of my favorite cities in the world. We rode a double decker bus and ran the steps at the Tower of London. We fed pigeons in Trafalgar Square and got the giggles in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

And the craziest part of it all was that we were in the restaurant at the Tate Museum having some food when we realized that it was completely silent except for our conversation. But the restaurant had this other huge group sitting a few tables away. Then we noticed that they were all speaking in sign language. It was a deaf tour group. I swear someone should put that in a movie because it was priceless. Five stinky Americans, sunburn and windblown, sharing sandwiches and sodas, having the time of their lives in an enormous, pin-droppingly silent dining cafe.

By the time we made it back to the bus we couldn’t have imagined a better day. Seriously, it was one for the record books. We proudly turned in our cash-filled containers. I think the rest of the group was impressed, they started to embrace us and chat it up on the trip back to the Southwest. I think we remedied our rather awkward first impression. I actually participated in many more University organized philanthropy for the rest of my time there.

As we appraoched school/home, the sun was starting to sink on the horizon. I rested my head against the window and tried my best to soak in the day. I couldn’t seem to do it justice. It was hilarious and important (I firmly believe in the good of Oxfam) and magical. So while I often felt stupid or stinky or a little too much like Oliver, I also participated in one of the great situational turn-arounds I’ve ever seen.

So it’s good to dip into that memory when I am feeling challenged or unhinged. Because if I can do that, I can do anything.

I would love to know what’s in your “bag” or fuels you during the stormy seas. It’s always comforting to know that we are all in this together.

All the best,


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