London 1991

Thirty years ago I arrived in London, England.  I was the young age of twenty-three.  In my mind’s eye, I replay the movie scene of me standing on the Bayswater high street with two suitcases as the camera flies away for the long shot. It’s my brains way of handling the stress, excitement and emotion of finding myself three-thousand seven-hundred miles from home somewhere in a foreign capital with the name and address of a hostel in my pocket.  To this day I look back at that moment of me standing in the high street with both surprise and pride. Though in the moment I was thinking “How did I get here?”  

A year earlier with graduation from Penn State on the horizon, I found a flyer for BUNAC, the British Universities North America Club. They had a number of locations around the world for work/study abroad.  I wrote asking for more information on the UK program; I was an anglophile after all. Students and recent graduates could receive a permit to work in the United Kingdom for six months; a unique opportunity for an American. Citizens from countries still in the Commonwealth could work without permission, some for two-years.  But for Americans there was a cost to Independence, about £50 as non-citizens on a work permit were required to register their location with the police.  As I was considering government service, possibly the State Department or intelligence community, I thought it best to follow the rules even on foreign soil.  

BUNAC has been around since 1962. They had an office in the Farringdon section of London with a job board. The board was full of 3×5 cards with opportunities arranged by category — pubs, office work, retail, etc. — for all over London. You could also find accommodation, mainly flats where other program participants would room together. And they would host periodic pub gatherings for participants throughout central London. 

The spring before my final year of college, my aunt Barbie passed away from cancer.  Her car, a 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, was left to me and selling it helped to fund my foreign travel adventure. Aunt Barbie paid for a painting class for me years before and I joined her on a few of her travels. Even though she was no longer with us, I thought she was with me in spirit. 

I had graduated from Penn State in May 1990 and was close to the six month student window closing when I arrived in London in early November 1990. It was important to me to vote in the general election. It was the last years of the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport and British Airways flew direct to Heathrow.  I boarded a Boeing 747 and had a starboard window seat in the second-level bubble. While the flight was advertised as direct, it stopped at Dulles International to load the bulk of the passengers. I didn’t have to deplane and re-board which is why it could be considered a direct flight.  

Arriving at Heathrow the next morning, I took the Tube (London Underground) from the airport.  The only city with its underground to be connected to its airport, something I learned years later.  I have a distinct memory of being on the Tube carriage, designed for airport travelers with luggage storage areas.  It was probably a thirty-minute ride into central London, a good half of it above ground.  I had exited the Bayswater tube station up to Queensway Road.  The hostel was a block off the high street but I didn’t know that at the time. I had looked at a map of the area before I left the United States, but now that I was on the ground, with jet lag, luggage and in unfamiliar territory; I hailed a cab.  I don’t recall what it cost but it wasn’t unreasonable for the short ride.  

The hostel lobby was open but you couldn’t get to the room until early afternoon. Though you could store your luggage in a secure place.  There were two Americans from the south — Mike and Sam — who had arrived the day before. They were headed to the BUNAC office and invited me along.  It was fortuitous to have others in the same program to help me learn the lay of the land, how to use the Tube, find the office and sort out British money.  At the BUNAC office, I met other Americans and several Canadians. Over the course of three days, we visited the office, made calls, ate and visited the pub. 

In addition to Mike and Sam, who were college friends, there were other Americans — Angie and Cheryl from California, the Canadians included Jenn and her brother, Heath, from British Columbia and Bruce Monro from Winnipeg. Though I have not seen her since 1991, Jenn and I remain in contact fondly remembering our London adventure. Bruce and I would share a room and remain friends to this day. On my third day in London, I got sick with a headache and fatigue but no other symptoms.  The group was going to dinner and thought it best to go along, better than sitting in the hostel. We went to a pizza place, might have been Pizza Hut, and no sooner had the pie hit the table, I felt all better. I had not been eating and was starving.  

Click to view pictures I took of London.
Walk down Finchley Lane, passing the flat at 40 seconds in.

Jenn had found a two-story flat in Hendon and there was a bed for us all. Nearly an hour Tube ride on the Northern Line from central London, the group moved to 25B Finchley Lane, Hendon, NW4. Like remembering your phone number from childhood, I will always remember that address. The flat was across from a BP Station (correction: it is still there) and a ten minute walk from the Hendon Central Tube station. Down the block, the bus would take you to the Golders Green Tube station. Bruce and I shared a room.  “Hendon Hell” was furnished with beds, sofas and kitchen ware. It had a telephone but it was more private and cool to use a red phone booth down the street. Electricity and gas were pre-paid and our usage would last about a week. Jenn reminds me it required a key to that we had trouble locating.   

While everyone else in my group found work in restaurants or pubs. The Californians worked in an American-style causal restaurant. Bruce was a waiter in a formal restaurant in Piccadilly Circus, Richoux of London. I worked retail back home, so I found myself at the Father Christmas photo kiosk with another American at Hamley’s Toy Shop on Regent Street between Oxford and Piccadilly Circuses. The man who played Father Christmas was an avowed socialist. I missed meeting Margaret Thatcher by thirty-minutes. She no longer Prime Minister by a few weeks and brought her grandchild to see Father Christmas. With the holiday over, I had to find a new job. I had moved to Maida Vale to room with my Hamely’s colleague (not the socialist).

Click to view pictures I took of London Living..

Again through BUNAC, I found a data entry job with Matthew Hall Engineering. Primarily I entered hours from timesheets into the computer. Matthew Hall did the top-side design of oil rigs in the North Sea. The office was located on Middlesex Street, Bishopsgate, E1, London. I worked with another American. He would communicate with his father back in the US via email.  I knew of email but I had not used it or had an account. I would not use the “internet” until later that year after returning home.  I connected to Prodigy with a 2400 baud modem. Back in Bishopsgate, on Fridays we would have a liquid lunch at the pub at the end of the block, The Kings Stores, with the team including the boss. This is where I developed my taste for Guinness. I had a few too many on one or two occasions; requiring extra attention when entering timesheets that afternoon.  

I met-up with Bruce for New Year’s Eve.  We went to Trafalgar Square as that was the London gathering spot. The square was packed. We crossed in front of the National Gallery toward Charing Cross Road. There were so many people that at times I was not in control of the direction I was going. And I swear at one point I was lifted off the ground but we made it safely to Charing Cross Road.

As I was living in Maida Vale, the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait started in January of 1991. I moved back to Hendon in the middle of January as it was cheaper room and board. During operation “Hendon Storm,” we watched the Super Bowl live and I have a recollection of Whitney Houston singing the national anthem.  

I bought a 35mm Olympus camera and made effective use of my Tube travel card. Every Sunday for six weeks, I visited the British Museum. Taking two to three hours per visit to see the entire museum. I ate a lot of pasta, peanut butter and often had a jacket (baked) potato with chili for lunch. When I returned home to Pennsylvania, I was down thirty or forty pounds from when I left. Most likely due to all the walking and lack of food snacking while in the UK.  

Click to view pictures I took of London Museums..

My six-months permit was coming to an end in April. While others were traveling and taking weekend trips to continental Europe, I wanted to explore the UK. I stopped working two-weeks before my flight home. Rented a car and drove around England, Wales and Scotland. The car was an automatic Nissan Micra. There were not many options especially in the automatic transmission, small car category. I made a point of learning to drive a manual transmission after I returned home. In subsequent visits to the UK and Ireland, I was able to drive a manual transmission car.  

My drive-tour of the UK was over 2,500 miles, west through Dartmor, north to Wales and into Scotland before turning back south to London. My most northerly point was Dingwall, Scotland near Inverness. Andrew Carnegie’s Skibo Hall was nearby but I did not have time to visit it. My accommodations were something new to me, bed and breakfasts. The “Let’s Go: Britain” guide was invaluable in finding good B&Bs and tourist spots. The sky was so dark at night in Scotland that it was the first time I recall seeing satellites moving in the sky. The rolling hills of Wales especially around Tintagel reminded me of western Pennsylvania.  I didn’t make it to Dover and white cliffs but I did drive and navigate London on my own, albeit on a Sunday. 

Click to view pictures I took of my drive tour of the United Kingdom.

I returned home to Pittsburgh in April 1991. Although I was born in McKeesport, family from Glassport and had lived most of my life at that time in Elizabeth; no one knew those places. But they knew Pittsburgh, not doubt because of the local football team. As with most travelers who take such adventures, their lives are enriched, expanded and elevated. Mine certainly was and I look back with joy and marvel at London 1991.

I dedicate this experience and adventure to my Aunt Barbie. She passed away about a year and a half before and not a day went by without thinking of her.  

Thanks Aunt Barbie.