Sometimes the most valuable advice you can follow is your own. How many times have you given sound instructions to others, but not followed it yourself. My resolution after this trip is to pay more attention to my own advice. Here’s what I learned about travel, not necessarily by doing but by not doing and wishing I had:
1) If you are traveling through time zones – no matter how tired you are – stay up and on schedule with the time at your destination. I had great plans, when we arrived at 7AM after an overnight flight in early morning London, to go to the hotel gym, then walk around Bloomsbury. But the prospect of staying awake until at least 10PM London time (including a dinner with my in-laws) was not something I thought I could do after a sleepless night on the plane. I took a nap and that was fatal. I never got myself on London time, but spent an odd several days waking up in the middle of the night and falling asleep during the day on the Tube.
2) Backpacks are essential. Okay, no matter how chicly you are dressed, a backpack makes you look like Helga the Finnish Exchange Student. But as you wind through miles of aisles in the V&A, climb up stair after stair in St. Paul’s and mind the gap on the Tube, it’s great to have both hands free. Okay, this was one piece of advice I followed, although be forewarned, security guards are much more likely to suspect a stowed a bomb in a backpack than in a purse, so be prepared for extra scrutiny and searches at museum entrances. Still, worth the hassle.
3) Tours and audio tours are not for losers. I used to despise guided tours. I assumed the real scholars would research where they were traveling and know more than they would ever learn from an underpaid, bored tour guide. But a tour doesn’t mean you have to be herded around by an umbrella-wielding guide. If you invest in the kind of tours led by retired history professors or unique tours such as London Walks, you’ll learn more than you could ever research. If you can’t find a good tour, invest in the audio guide. The one in St. Paul’s was narrated by Jeremy Irons and allowed you to pause the tour, sit down and listen to choral music by the St. Paul’s Boy’s Choir. This was my 7th trip to St. Pauls and, as an Art History and English major, I thought my research had made me the world’s foremost visiting authority. Jeremy told me more in one hour than I’d learned in years of reading up on Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.
4) Always get up before dawn and watch the City wake up. I did this on the advice of my latest Photography book that cautioned that the best light is before dawn to half an hour after (ditto for dusk and sunset), But wandering through London at that hour allowed me to see the City without the crowds. Not that the streets were empty. Cops, street cleaning crews and delivery people were everywhere, especially congregating in cafes and hot beverage stands. It gave the City sort of an “Eliza Doolittle when she was still selling flowers at Covent Garden” feeling. I almost expected someone to break into “All I Want is a Room Somewhere…”
5) See a show or a musical program even if you have to book one you know nothing about. In fact, sometimes the ones you just wander into are the best. Luckily this is a piece of advice we always follow. In Prague, we made a habit of wandering into any church that had a handlettered sign saying “Concert Today”. Most of them were music students, all of them were very good. As a student in London, when student tickets to any show were less than a Pound, I used to go to at least two plays a week. I always found something to enjoy while I was there, even if it ended up being a play I forgot upon walking out of the theater. In many cases, the “young and untried” actors I saw have gone on to illustrious careers: like Alan Rickman, Kenneth Brannagh and Gary Oldman. I saw them when they were still visibly nervous and occasionally flubbing their lines. Well, this isn’t exactly the advice we followed this time. We went to see Spamalot, which of course is based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is a comedy that has so entered the Western consciousness that we, and most of the audience, were able to sing along many of the songs and parrot many of the lines. Okay, so you can’t go wrong with a guaranteed crowd-pleaser if you aren’t feeling adventurous.
So that’s what I learned on my trip to London. Or rather it’s what I rediscovered that I already knew. Do me a favor, next time I say I’m going on a trip, someone email me a link back to this blog entry. I’d like to be reminded to follow my own good advice.