Travel Diary: England Part 2
Small things that seem impossible that are really not
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In my last travel diary I wrote about arriving in England at 10 a.m. unable to to get into my hotel room until 3 p.m. and feeling gritty and tired but also not knowing what to do with myself. After drinking a half pint of bitter, I had this idea I’d go swimming. There are a lot of pools in London, and you can pay five or six pounds and go swim in them. I was nervous about this. It’s hard to figure things out in other countries. But I thought if I could pull it off I would feel a lot better.
There was a pool a little more than a mile away. Back at the hotel I dug through my bag in the lobby, feeling feral and embarrassed. It is one thing to dig through a bag in a hotel lobby for a bathing suit when you are twenty-five, when you are fifty, anything you do like this just makes you look insane. I know some women my age would have planned for this and had their bathing suit at the top of their bag wrapped in muslin with a little index card tucked into the fold reading “swimsuit” but mine was stuffed into a rainboot and of course I didn’t remember having engaged in this brilliant packing hack so it took me a while to find it.
I asked the hotel clerk if they could maybe round up a towel for me, assuming, since I/my company was going to part with about a thousand dollars for the privilege of my staying there for three days, this would be no problem. But this was impossible, the front desk clerk said. She had no access to towels, she said, sitting in the command center in a building that was filled with towels. I am not mad at her, it’s just the idea that there were no towels anywhere is funny.
“They will have towels there,” she assured me. I said I was pretty sure they wouldn’t. Rented towels are just exactly the sort of thing COVID has dispatched of. I said I would just have to take my chances, no one will be surprised to hear that she did not care about these chances.
The swimming place was about a thirty minute walk through Clerkenwell, which has a lot of cafes and a few antique watch stores and boutiques and cunning alleys. I don’t know London well enough to say anything more than it looks like London, although I stayed in South London the next week and it felt more closed in, and more like a movie set, if that’s helpful, I don’t know that it is. During the walk I thought of all the things that would go wrong. I would have to have signed up first. They would want me to have flip flops, a towel, goggles. At this point my hunger to immerse myself in water was very strong but equally strong was the fear that it would all be a nightmare and that I shouldn’t even try. There would have to be an app download and I can never remember my stupid Apple I.D. I have so many apps on my phone. Every time you turn your head someone’s asking you to download an app, soon they’ll be making you download an app for turning your head.
The woman at the front desk was about 30 and wearing a plum colored headscarf. “Do you have a booking?” she said. I did not. “Do you have the app?” Definitely not. I told her I was just a visitor. “I just got off a plane,” I said.
This proved effective. She said she’d just sign me up, whatever that meant, no problem, she said. She asked me for my address and other stuff like that, none of which was about COVID. (England is over COVID, done with it, more or less.) Did I have a pound coin for the locker? I said all I had was a bathing suit and a cash card. No problem, she said again, and put an extra pound on the fee and gave me a token. As I suspected, they had done away with towels because of the pandemic. “Can I just – use my T-shirt? She said if I was comfortable with that it was fine. What about a bathing cap? ” “It’s not compulsory,” she said, smiling. She was so nice and so calm. I will never forget her.
In five minutes I was in a beautiful sparklingly clean pool doing laps with a bunch of serious swimmers, meaning not that they were all fast but they were all focussed. No one cared that I didn’t have goggles or that I came into the pool area carrying a T-shirt instead of a towel. I swam for a whole hour and timed myself using the pace clocks. I have never timed myself swimming before and couldn’t believe how much more entertaining it makes lap swimming. Gliding through the water, expelling it from my nose, the splashing from my own limbs and everyone else’s felt and sounded so good I teared up a little. Sometimes being alive is so good.