I pulled up to the house in a cab at about 10:30 PM. My original plan had been to walk, since cabs cost money. It is, however, one thing to imagine one’s self taking a leisurely, Pinterest-worthy stroll through a thicket of clearly-marked streets from the train station at dusk, and quite another to trudge several miles in the dark with luggage and no sense of direction whatsoever upon which to rely. (Cab it was!)
Wobbling on the cobblestone road, my behemoth suitcase, affectionately nicknamed “Big Red” by those in my family who wouldn’t be caught dead with it, stood no chance of rolling. Mustering all my strength, I hoisted it up onto the sidewalk and gazed up at the towering stone building in front of me. The number matched the one I had jotted down back when my phone had data, but it was the house next to it that bore a proper Bed & Breakfast sign.
Of course, it did seem to be the case that these sorts of things never went off without a hitch, but one must trudge on with ideal in pocket nonetheless.
I went ahead and rang the doorbell and waited the expected minute or so. Thinking perhaps it was out of order, I knocked, trying to strike a balance somewhere between “I’m barely on the other side” and “I’ve come to arrest you.”
It was November, and I had set up this arrangement in July in a moment of financial desperation. I had been accepted to an academic conference in Bath, England. The conference coincided with performances of three plays in the area by a director I admired. I was dying to go. Kindly, the conference organizers had arranged a “dig’s list,” which offered up various B&Bs who would offer a lower rate than area hotels, and I picked the least expensive thing I could find.
The reservation process did not inspire confidence.
Said process consisted of me emailing a Yahoo account and receiving several friendly replies, none of which included reassuring terminology like “reservation number,” “confirmation,” or “credit card.”
Without another option, I was left to linger on the street in downtown Bath wondering if I was merely loitering in front of someone’s house as they slept.
After many minutes and many attempts, I decided that perhaps the Bed & Breakfast abode would yield better results. A ring at that doorbell brought forth a youth dressed in sweats, hardly receptionist-appropriate apparel, who called for his mother when I asked about the address.
When she arrived, also swathed in casual wear, and I had regurgitated my ramblings about the address and the reservation and the unanswered door, she stared at me without blinking and said only:
“Chris and Mary.”
Though the English accent was charming, I was going to need more.
“Chris and Mary, they live next door.”
“Yes, do you know if they’re home?”
“Yes, I believe she should be.”
Then the door shut. I began to wonder if this was an altogether safe part of town in which to be stranded overnight. An additional five minutes of intermittent knocking, pacing, and peering in front of the house of Chris and Mary transpired.
I’m not one for interacting with other people, but it was clear I’d have to be more direct. I knocked again, and spoke more aggressively with the youth. May I use your iPhone to call next door?? It was an undeniable request from one millennial to another.
And soon: success! I had reached Mary.
“Hi there, I’m Rosie-”
“Oh! Rosie! Hello!”
“Yes, hello. I have a reservation to stay with you and-”
“Right, right, yes!”
“Yes, and I’m outside right now. I’ve been trying to knock and ring the bell but I can’t seem to get an answer-”
“Oh! Well! What a welcome!” she chuckled in self-deprecation.
Having only been out of graduate school for about four months, and having been socialized as female roughly all my life, I was prepared to shoulder the blame for the incident despite it not being at all my fault. A wave of relief rushed over as Mary showed signs of good-hearted hospitality.
“I’m so sorry. You see my husband, Chris, has been waiting on the third floor, but he can’t quite hear the bell when it rings. So you see, that’s what must have happened. He’ll be down shortly. I’m terribly sorry about that.”
As it turned out Chris was somewhat advanced in years. This fact did not stop him from insisting on carrying Big Red up several flights of stairs to my room. When we arrived, he gasped for air while explaining that connected to my room I would find a powder room with sink, while the bathroom was next door. Most curious was the introduction to the two steps next to the stairway that led up to a tiny room that contained only a toilet.
Chris seemed to be breathing normally when we parted ways, and safe in this knowledge, I passed out of intercontinental exhaustion.
When I awoke the next morning I began to notice all that escaped me upon my jet-lagged arrival. I was on the top floor of a five-floor house, which felt more like a museum, something old and austere enough to be one in the United States at least. Two giant windows gave me a sweeping view of downtown Bath, quiet and quaint and so very ancient. Combined with the powder room, my reservation afforded me almost the entire top floor.
I was the only guest.
I could not believe the bargain.
Breakfast, which was included, offered another arresting view of Bath two floors below in the dining room, as well as the company of Chris and Mary, who updated me on the turbulent relationship status of their grandson and the admissions process at Cambridge from their armchairs as they alternated between trips to the kitchen to bring new pots of tea to the table.
I learned that they normally housed actors and directors who would be playing at the theater, which accounted for the lack of signage. This also led to the very enjoyable moment on the first morning of my stay when they thought I was an actress as well. No, no, just a glorified spectator of theater.
I could walk to said theater, site of the conference, in under five minutes.
I was lucky. I have stayed in plenty a disgusting hostel, which is to say that there is no need to glamorize the budget-conscious moments of international travel. But, as it turned out, my experience with Chris and Mary revealed to me that going off the beaten path can sometimes lead to far more interesting, unique experiences than not.
Normally when setting up a trip, I opt for the path of least resistance. And certainly, confirmation numbers and feelings of logistical surety are a girl’s best friend when venturing to unknown lands. But the pressures of budget led me to a far more character-filled experience.
Sure, if someone had asked, “And where are you staying?” the response “With Chris and Mary” would not have satisfied any expectations of global cosmopolitanism.
But perhaps it should.