chasing tortoises (and courage) in camden town

At the Camden Town tube station,  a helpful sign promised me that the ZSL London Zoo was somewhere to my right. Three different streets jutted out in a right-ish direction from the station, though, and I still didn’t understand how to figure out which street I was on in London. Which right was the right one?

I was in a right sorry state that sunny Tuesday afternoon. The day before had been my Parisian disaster, the climax of which had been chasing child pickpockets throughout the Metro, and then fighting and crying with my mom outside of Notre Dame. I didn’t even get a good chocolate croissant.

Paris was supposed to be for my mom. I’d been planning my London adventure for months when my dad asked me if it would be okay for him to surprise my mom at Christmas by buying her a plane ticket to accompany me. My mom is my favorite person in the world, so I agreed immediately and with lots of enthusiasm.

I knew that this trip would probably be my mom’s only opportunity to visit Europe, and I wanted it to be extraordinary. She’d taken French all throughout high school, which is where she was first inspired for my name. My mom (referred to in the rest of this piece as “Kittenfish”) and her classmates all chose a French name for their class. Four girls total, including Kittenfish, picked “Danielle,” so they were all asked to pick an accompanying middle name to distinguish themselves. Kittenfish went with “Danielle Elise.”

Hi, I’m Danielle Elise. My mom gave me everything, from my name onward. I wanted to give her Paris. Once the dates for London were all set, I dove into research to see if a daytrip to Paris would be possible. I found an encouraging Huffington Post article, and went ahead to book two Eurostar tickets from London to Paris. We were going to go everywhere Kittenfish had ever dreamed of going. Just as I thought I deserved a perfect experience in the city of my dreams, London, I knew that Kittenfish deserved an ideal afternoon in Paris.

Our first few days in London should have been warning signs. Jet lag and anxiety defeated me completely for the first two days in a new country. Even without a language barrier, I didn’t know how to do anything, and exploded with panic the second we set foot into Gatwick Airport. My mom suggested that we just ask someone for help. Asking for help makes me feel like a failure, and so I descended deeper and deeper into my rage over things not going the way I’d always imagined. A voice in my head screamed at me, “Please stop this! You are ruining things for Kittenfish! You are being completely fucking crazy. Dani, I am BEGGING you to stop.”

On day three, I finally looked upon Shakespeare’s Globe for the first time and ate an elephant-shaped biscuit from Borough Market, and my heart and stomach loosened a little. I apologized to my mom, and she was super gracious and sweet and supportive. We agreed to start over, and act like those first days hadn’t even happened. We even laughed together about the shitty pizza we ate for dinner on our first night in Camden.

My mom is the best person in the world, and my little brother and I will both fight you about it. My mom is sunshine and generosity incarnate. Her shiny ponytail poking out through her ever present white ball cap always signals that things are going to get a little bit better. She’s funny, and works so hard to ensure everyone else is comfortable and having a good time. I love her more than anything in the world, and I was consumed by guilt that I was ruining this trip for her. I knew ultimately that the logistics of the trip weren’t a big deal to Kittenfish. We could have seen nothing famous or breathtaking in Europe, and my mom would have still been over the moon to be on a trip with me.

After Paris, we returned to Camden defeated and full of cheap Eurostar train wine. That night, back in our rooms, my mom pulled the tiny mattress off of her bed, and came to sleep on the floor of my room. I had another week left to explore London, but Kittenfish was flying back to the States early the next morning. Feeling like I had ruined my mom’s one chance in Paris on top of the knowledge that she was leaving the next day is about the worst feeling I have ever had in my life. I’m crying right now while I write about it.

At 5:30 am the next day, Kittenfish and I boarded the bus and then the train to get her back to Victoria Station. Kittenfish wasn’t angry about Paris, just worried and sad about me. She has spent so much time being worried and sad about me. We hugged one more time, and then my mom crossed over the barrier to begin her journey back home.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t in the same country as my mother, and I was completely lost. I wanted to die.

Crying the entire time, I made my way back to Camden Town. My feet and legs ached from our walking all over Paris, and my shoulders stung with the awful sunburn I’d picked up as my only souvenir. I was worn out from barely sleeping, and from sobbing so much. I stopped for a mocha and a croissant, because fuck you, Paris, at a Costa. Back in my room, I sipped my warm chocolate coffee, and thought about what to do next.

Kittenfish wouldn’t have wanted me to spend the day all alone in the dorm, beating myself up over the past week. So, I decided to rally. I shoved the rest of that croissant in my face, and headed back out into the world. I was committed to finding the zoo. To having a story of animals and of triumph that I could tell Kittenfish all about when we reunited.

So, I made it back to Camden station, and took the first of the those three possible right turns. I walked for a few miles before it became clear that I was nowhere near the zoo. I started to feel frustrated, but not yet deterred. Kittenfish’ voice rang in my head: “Let’s just go ask for help!”

So, for the first time that trip, I asked someone for help. There was a bagel shop on my way back to the station: Bowery Bagel Bakery. The sign outside the shop touted New York-style bakers made by New Yorkers. The promise of something vaguely American comforted me, and also bagels are delicious. I walked inside, and ordered a bagel with cream cheese. Full of jitters, I mustered up the courage to ask my newfound bagel hero if he knew where the zoo was.

He didn’t! But whatever! I asked someone for help! And now I had a bagel!

I felt invincible. I’d asked a foreign stranger for help, and I hadn’t exploded in an inferno of shame and fire. I’d done something that I knew would make Kittenfish proud.

AND NOW I HAD A BAGEL.

Slurping down iced coffee, I marched back to the Camden Town station, and picked the next street that sort of went to the right. I passed by pharmacies and grocery shops and even a Burger King. I made it all the way to a different tube station before I realized that, once again, I was nowhere near the zoo. I had, however, walked by a pretty square. Bagel in hand, I walked through a cloud of gnats, and parked myself on a nice bench. Surrounded by flowers, I removed my bagel from its little brown bag, and took the time to really savour it. I was in fucking London, and I had a fucking bagel. Everything was okay.

Belly full of New York-style carbs, I retraced my steps to Camden Town station. There was just one more possible right turn. This was it.

After a while, there it was: Regent’s Park. It was beautiful and enormous, and it had a big helpful map right as I walked in. I finally had a concrete idea of which way to go to make it to the zoo. People were throwing frisbees and jogging through the park, and I was about to see some animals.

The girl tearing tickets at the zoo was so nice. We chatted a little bit about how excited I was, and the fact that I volunteer at the aquarium back home. And before I knew it, I was finally inside the ZSL London Zoo. As if to reward me for my determination, the first sign I encountered directed me to the Penguin Beach. To the left.

The ZSL London Zoo did not disappoint my boundless capacity for creature-induced excitement. I saw a giant anteater for the first time, and it blew my mind. The Land of the Lions exhibit is gorgeous. Even their bug exhibit is fascinating. And especially important to the fragile state of my heart: the Galapagos tortoises. The largest tortoise species in the world.

Her name was Polly, and I was smitten immediately. Scorched and sleepy and barely hanging on, I sat down on the dusty ground right in front of the tortoises’ yard, and stared. I’d made it. I’d wanted to see a Galapagos tortoise on this random Tuesday in London, and I’d done it. I’d done it with help and with a positive attitude even in the face of obstacles. I’d done it the Kittenfish way. I wished she was there with me.

After a good half hour with Polly, my adventure for the afternoon neared its end. Before exiting, I stopped at the zoo’s cafe for a giant slice of pizza and an apple. For my dessert, I treated myself to a little gingerbread biscuit in the shape of a tortoise. I sent a picture of it to Kittenfish, so that she’d know I was okay as soon as she was back home.

I won’t pretend that the rest of my London trip was all sunshine and tortoise biscuits. I had at least one more doozy of a meltdown over an absence of doughnuts at the British Library. But the lessons of Kittenfish, and even Polly the tortoise, helped me navigate the rest of my time abroad. Stopping at a Whole Foods on the way back to the other side of the Camden station, I picked up some aloe vera and some spring rolls, and took a deep breath. Slow and steady.

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