A week before landing in London, I was sitting across the table from an American student in a trattoria in Bologna, Italy. She had just finished her first semester studying in London and was telling me about her experience over a plate of tagliatelle bolognese. She was on winter break and had come to Bologna to visit a mutual friend who was in my study abroad program.
During our conversation, I mentioned to her that I had hoped to get to London before returning to the States. She said, “I’ll be traveling around Europe for the next two weeks. My flat is empty. You can stay there.” The next day she gave me the key to her flat and directions on how to get there from the airport by train.
On the first day of my visit to London, I went to the Tower Bridge. I had seen it from the train the night before, and it was stunning. The bridge called attention to itself due to its beautiful lighting design and Victorian Gothic architectural structure.
After walking across the Tower Bridge, I made my way along the Thames River where I came upon a very tall obelisk called The Monument, which was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London. The observation deck offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the city and great exercise with its 311-step spiral staircase.
Near The Monument, stands the London Bridge, which offers a postcard view of the Tower Bridge and Thames River. As I made my way across the London Bridge, I encountered a young homeless man, in his early 20s, sitting halfway across the bridge. I threw a few coins into his tin cup and started a conversation.
His name was Richie, and he had come from Ireland to look for work in London. Due to an unfortunate turn of events, he was broke, and the owner of a youth hostel held his passport and other belongings as collateral until he was able to pay for the nights he had slept at the hostel.
I commiserated over his plight, and then wished him well. He thanked me for stopping to talk to him and encouraged me to enjoy the remainder of my stay in London.
The next stop on my London tour was a visit to the National Gallery because it boasts a fantastic art collection and offers free admission.
The highlight was seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s cartoon of the Virgin Mary and her mother, Saint Anne. The term “cartoon” meaning a sketch on a large sheet of paper used in preparation for a painting. Da Vinci’s cartoon also depicts the Christ Child blessing John the Baptist.
In addition to the traditional tourist sights, the events over the next several days included a walk though the park from Buckingham Palace to 10 Downing Street, a production of Rent at the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre and a proposition from a very polite, merry strumpet outside the King’s Cross tube station (which I declined).
The last day of my visit was New Year’s Day. It was cold and not many places were open. As I walked around the vacant streets, I thought about how friendly and helpful Londoners were on the street. Whenever I pulled out a map, someone walked up to me and offered to help me find my way. I thought about how fortunate I was to have had a free place to stay in an expensive cosmopolitan city.
I thought about Richie. Could he still be sitting on the London Bridge?
Richie was on the bridge, with his tin cup, but without his wool cap and scarf. He said a few New Year’s Eve revelers had tossed them into the Thames the night before. He didn’t look good. He was shivering and said he had a bad toothache.
I offered to buy him a meal, but he said nothing was open and his tooth hurt too much to eat. I convinced him to at least get out of the cold wind, so his health wouldn’t get any worse.
We found a fast food restaurant that was open near the London Bridge tube station and Guy’s Hospital.
Richie said he only wanted a hot tea, but I bought him a double-cheeseburger, fries and a couple of apple pies in case he wanted to eat later. As it turned out, he was famished. He ate through the pain of his toothache and put one apple pie in his pocket.
Over the next two hours, he told me the full account of how he ended up homeless in London. He told me about the death of his parents, and how he had hoped to find work in London in order to send money back to his sister and grandmother in Ireland.
I admit that I was skeptical about some aspects of his story, but it didn’t matter. He was cold, hungry and sick. I gave him enough money to get his passport and belongings out of the youth hostel and call his family in Ireland.
The end of my trip to London ended just as it had begun. Talking to a stranger over dinner. I don’t know whatever happened to Richie, but I hope that everything worked out for him. Whenever I think about my trip to London, I remember him the most.