The Importance of Bringing Earplugs

In our room he would snore, huge earthquake snores, the kind that made you turn to the person next to you and mouth an astonished "Holy crap!". The snores would erupt after short periods of silence, making them all the more surprising and forcing us to wake him from his volcano sleep, to turn him on his side so that we could place earplugs in our ears and fall asleep.

A week and a half later. I'm traveling alone now staying in a hostel for 15 pounds a night. The walls of the hostel scream a terrible blue with yellow trim and the floors and counters are brushed steel. It's a hideous place, designed to attract young drunk travelers, but cheap if you stay in one of the rooms with twelve beds. The beds are small and creaky cots, and yet, on the second night two bodies occupy the bed near me, separated only by a rectangular column, a blessed column, perfectly placed between my head and the two people having sex in the bed next to me. They are trying to be quiet, trying to respect the fact that there are twelve other people in the room, but I can hear them breathing. I can hear the creaking of the cot and the pillow over my head makes very little difference. I need earplugs, but they are in my backpack, and even if I would risk getting up and letting them know I'm awake and can hear every sign and squeak they make, the earplugs are covered in the peanut butter that coats the inside of my bag after I dropped it and the glass jar of peanut butter I was stupidly carrying around burst and spread it's sticky nutty flavor all over my stuff. Peanut butter probably would keep the sounds out ever better. But then I'd have to clean it out of my ears. I stay in bed, and eventually fall asleep, and I am awoken only twice more by their whispering and groaning. The next morning there's a conversation. Are you sure they were having sex? I mean, how did you know? I told him about the heavy breathing, the squeaking cot. Well, I think he' was joking, they could have been...exercising.

This was one of the few conversations I had during the four days I traveled alone in London. Occasionally I would plug my ears with earphones, surround myself in the music I love as I wandered among underground passengers and tourists and citizens. But it’s a strange thing listening to music in a public place, to be among others and yet not to share their experience of the voice of the street. So I took them off. But I still felt isolated and didn’t’ speak with anyone. I tried to appear intentional when I wandered about London, as if I knew where I was going, as if I meant to wander onto this dead end residential street, but I feel as if I stood out among the groups of tourists and shoppers who had maps and something to do. Especially when I walked past the same group of people two, maybe three times as they stood leaning on the rails by the stairs in front of their houses. I wandered through the small bleak streets and peered into the gritty convenience stores and cluttered book shops but didn’t speak to anyone. I would find that I had gone for hours without saying a word out loud. I spent hours at the museums. I can’t tell you now most of waht I saw, but they were free, and I would stay until my feet hurt, wandering among the tall Egyptian stone figures in the British museum and the fraying pages of Shakespeare, thick centuries old prayer books and Beetles memorabilia in the British Library. I would sit in the numerous parks and read a book. But I always felt a little uncomfortable. I didn’t belong there, in a giant city without a community, and I felt as if everyone else saw this and was watching me, wondering when I'd go back to my American friends in their American houses with their American accents. I went a day without saying anything but "sorry" in the underground with a unintentional fake British accent.

Then, in the evenings, I would go to evensong. The churches cost seven pounds to enter during the day, but evesong was free. So I went to Westminster Abbey, beautiful brown-gray stone on the oustide and on the inside grotesquely ornate, stacked with the remains of important englsihmen and women; and St. Paul’s, gold and domed and spacious. And during the half hour of evening prayer, prayer book in hand I would participate in evensong, listen to the chords of voices of the small choirs, repeat the words that were like those I had repeated in church since I could speak, my accent tangled and lost in all the other voices.

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