What a glorious feeling! Laughin' in the rain
I would be lying if I said the thought never crossed my mind. The minute I heard I’d been accepted in an exchange program to work as a Foreign Language assistant in France, I began planning my first holidays away from home. Where would I go? I’d be in Europe, so the possibilities were endless. What would I do? The list only grew bigger as time went by and I did my research. All of this while listening to a carefully curated festive playlist I still keep on Spotify but that I haven’t felt like listening since then. You see, the Christmas spirit comes and goes, but it is mostly gone… Unless you take me to a magical land, away from social commitments and family dramas. In 2012, that magical land was called London at Christmas time.
I lived in this little village and had to take a bus and then a train to get to Paris in order to catch the Eurostar. Most assistants were going back home to spend the Christmas break with their families, but not me. It felt like an odyssey and a rebellion, all at the same time. After coordinating several transportation schedules so that I wouldn’t miss any of my rides, I was making my way through Gare du Nord when it finally hit me. This is what freedom feels like. There’s something empowering about being by yourself in a strange country, immersed in a different culture, far from familiar faces and everyday conversations in your own language.
I bought a pain au chocolat and a cup of coffee, did the check-in, looked for my carriage number on the e-ticket I was holding in my hand and walked to the platform past the gates. I was traveling light, only a carry-on suitcase and a backpack, but someone still offered to help me with my luggage. I was definitely leaving Paris. I found my seat, sat down and looked out the window while finally taking a sip of my coffee. “This is what freedom tastes like.” The thing is that, being abroad, flavors of foreign foods intensify, even when it’s something you’ve tried a million times before. I had to communicate with the barista and he got my order right even if I spoke broken French. I paid for my order in euros that I earned while working a job I was barely trained to do, which made me feel unprepared half the time, but was ever so rewarding because of that fact. Yes, as the train left the station I savored that pain au chocolat as if it was victory itself.
I arrived at St. Pancras late in the afternoon, bought an Oyster Card and took the tube to my hostel in Pimlico, right across the Battersea Power Station, which you probably know from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. The city was waiting for me, so where should I go first? I took the #24 bus from the stop that’s just outside the hostel’s front door and made my way into the city center, not really knowing where I would get off. I wanted to see the Christmas lights down in Oxford St., visit Winter Wonderland and ice-skate in Hyde Park, but that night I was in the mood for something different. I decided to go to the West End and try my luck buying tickets for a play or musical. I walked and I walked, but box-office after box-office, they all said that tickets for that night’s performances were sold out. I was about to give up when I got to the Charing Cross and Shaftesbury intersection and looked up. The Palace Theatre stood before me.
Outside there was a sign that read: last minute tickets only 25 pounds. Singin’ in the Rain was about to start and I had never seen the movie so I thought, why not? How bad can it be? I had no idea what to expect. The usher informed a couple of us latecomers (tourists, who else?) that it was already under way but that we were only going to miss the first musical number. When he showed us to our seats, I thought there had been a mistake. “I only paid 25 pounds, are you sure I’m in the first few rows?”, I asked him. He looked at me in an endearing way and replied, “Yes, you are, love. It’s just that… you might get wet”, he said as he handed me a program and left. Did I hear him right? Wet? Is it going to be raining on me? Well, that wasn’t far from the truth, as I would find out shortly after.
The main character danced and jumped on actual puddles and he sprayed water on the people in the first row, just for fun. Some people came prepared with rain ponchos and umbrellas, which the ushers had to kindly ask not to open inside the theatre as not to obstruct the view of those who were sitting behind. We couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of it all. And the actor laughed as well. It took me a few minutes, but I recognized his face. He was grown-up Billy Elliot, from the movie! Once I realized, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I was in f***ing London, at f***ing Christmas, seeing a f***ing musical and Billy f***ing Elliot was getting water all over me and laughing at me for trying and failing to take cover under my coat.
I think this was the moment I accepted that I was one of those people who likes musicals. And this was definitely the moment when I decided I would never spend another holiday at home, responsibilities and obligations be damned. I blame it on the joy spread by Londoners with their Christmas spirit on a cold December night. I had a taste of the alternative and how could I ever go back?