International travel; it’s the feather in the cap of many of an adventurers. We’re eager to explore foreign cities, experience other cultures, and to meet new people. Though I know it isn’t always easy to find the opportunity, should one come your way, I hope you’ll get your passport stamped and journey to another land.
That’s exactly what Clarissa and I did for a week in July 2016. She needed to travel to London for work, and we decided I should come along. Since we were so close, we figured we might as well spend the weekend in Paris.
I’ve let some time pass between our return from the trip and when I decided to write up posts about it. I wanted to tell you about the good times, the bad times, and everything in between, but I found myself facing a bit of a challenge; I didn’t want to simply detail what we saw, where we went, and what we ate. Of course, I wanted to tell you about those things, but I have no expectations that the trip we took is exactly the trip you will want to take. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how best to write about the experience.
The solution I’ve arrived upon is to avoid writing these posts as a simple travel guide instructing you on how to spend your time. I will share our experiences and make suggestions about whether I think they’re worthwhile places to visit or activities in which to engage, but my hope is that these experiences will be helpful to you even if you’re traveling elsewhere. If you’re going to Prague, Toronto, Mozambique, or Sydney, some of the lessons we’ve learned will still translate to your journey. So, while I’ll be describing where we went and how we spent our time during our trip, I’ll be using it as a framework to introduce lessons learned. Some of these are things we should have already known, and some are new to us.
I’d also like to note that I’m not mentioning every hour of every day. The main reason for this is that our trip was made possible because of Clarissa’s former employer; they funded her travel and accommodations in London, and thusly she had business to conduct while there. I’ve no real reason to discuss most of that beyond reiterating what I said in my post about passports in that you should take advantage of opportunities to travel when they present themselves.
Now, with all the pretext and editorial notes out of the way, let’s get to it!
A Stuttering Start to the Journey
Our cab to the Quad Cities International Airport arrived early. A whole half an hour early. This isn’t the worst problem to have, and if you’re going to feel a little rushed during a trip, better to feel rushed because of this rather than because you’re worried you’ll miss a flight. Our flight to Chicago was quick and worry free. Chicago to London, however, proved to be another story.
We boarded our plane, set to depart around 5:00 pm, and patiently waited. Then the plane lost power. Trying to stay positive, I remarked, “better that we lose power on the tarmac than four hours later over the Atlantic.” Nearby passengers were less than amused as the temperature climbed in the cabin. The power came back on.
Then went out.
Then came back on.
And went back out again.
This carried on for about an hour until they de-boarded us. We were told that there would be an status update on the flight at 7:30. Not that it would be ready, just that we’d get an update. We decided, like many others on the same flight, to go speak to customer service. We waited in line for what seemed like an eternity, then spoke to a woman who indicated that the flight should be ready by 7:30, and off we went happily to get a beer.
The plane was not ready at 7:30. Off we went back to the customer service line. Another long wait, and finally we switched to a different flight departing at 9:15. We were tired and a little frustrated, and the kid in front of me insisted on having his seat leaned all the way back, even while we ate dinner, but we were on our way.
After sleeping through the majority of the flight we enjoyed a little breakfast, and after an hour or two in the air, we had an uneventful landing. We then went through the experience that my mother refers to as “hurry up and wait.” We waited to get off the plane, then rushed through the airport to get in a line where we waited to go through customs.
Once we went through there, we rushed to baggage claim where we waited for our bags. Once we had them in our hot little hands it was time to get to the hotel. At first we thought we’d get a cab, just to make the last leg of our journey as smooth as possible. This was a bad call; after four or five cabs refused to take us to our hotel, we re-navigated the airport to the Underground Station, bought Oyster Cards, and caught the tube to Gloucester Station, a short walk from our hotel.
Intrepid Travel Tip #1. Have realistic expectations about transportation.
I know this sounds negative, but the truth is that the mechanisms behind international travel are complicated and tightly coupled. When one thing goes even a little wrong, it often sets off a chain reaction that has to be dealt with by a number of people on a variety of platforms. But even if everything goes smoothly and you’re early and prepared, you’re still going to have to wait in lines, surrounded by other people waiting in lines. Always pad your time. Always expect mechanical break downs or delays. If you’re expecting them, you won’t be as furious when they happen. If you don’t experience any delays, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Know that part of travel is waiting for things like baggage claim and customs. It’s all part of the game.
Upon your arrival, try to get around as the locals do. We had no idea that cab drivers would look at our destination and say, “No, I don’t feel like going there today,” or, “I’m not accepting cards today, cash only.” Such things are frustrating while they’re happening; we were tired and just wanted to get to the hotel to clean up, but that’s how business is done there, and it’s ridiculous to expect it to change for us. So, we switched gears and traveled via the Underground as many Londoners do, and we were at our hotel in twenty minutes. If you have realistic expectations about your transportation, you’re less likely to get frustrated.
We stayed at the Park International Hotel, a nice place in which Clarissa’s employer put her up, and I was lucky enough to tag along. I’m not going to get into much detail about this place, not because it wasn’t nice, but rather because it’s not the kind of place we’d normally stay. It was right where we needed to be for the business trip aspect of the visit to London, but it would be well out of our price range if we were paying the bill. Again, take advantage of opportunities for travel as they come, but I can be honest and say that had we been funding this leg of the trip, we would have stayed someplace smaller, less central, and not as fancy (when we get to the Paris leg of the trip you’ll see accommodations that are more our style and more in line with our budget). Anyway, the Park International was nice and clean, had a stellar breakfast in the morning, and our room actually had a cute little balcony with a cute little view.
We needed to keep moving so that we wouldn’t pass out. We dropped our bags, cleaned up a little, and hit the street headed toward the nearby Kensington Gardens. Except we were so tired that we got all turned around. Just as frustration started to set in, we happened upon the Gloucester Arms pub! Perfect, because when you’re getting frustrated, it’s usually time for a snack and a beer.
Stopping for a bit allowed us to regroup, get our bearings, and then figure out where we had gone wrong. So when we left the pub, off we went in the (mostly) right direction, and finally made our way into Kensington Gardens.
Intrepid Travel Tip #2: Slow down.
When you’re traveling, it’s natural to get excited and try to hurry from one place to the next. You want to see as much as possible, to do as much as you can, but you simply can’t see everything. We certainly spent a lot of time on this trip darting from one place to another, doing a bit of a whirlwind tour. As I publish these posts, however, you’ll also see that we try to take time to just sit and enjoy a meal or drink, to spend several hours talking to people, and to do more than visit tourist spots. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeing those things, or trying to see as much as you can on your trip, but remember, you’re not a tourist. You’re a traveler. You’re not just here to see attractions, you’re here to experience the culture and spirit of a place and its people. One of the best ways to do that is to slow down, have a snack or a drink, watch and listen, and interact with people. Further, one of the easiest ways to get turned around or lost in an unfamiliar place is to try to rush through it. Take your time and you’ll do just fine.
Kensington Gardens is beautiful, but truth be told, we were pretty exhausted and just trying to stay awake by this point in time. This is part of the deal when it comes to traveling. You’ll be tired, and often you simply won’t have time to readjust your body’s clock before the trip is over. Shake it off, and keep a positive attitude. It’s easy to call it a night, stay in because it’s chilly and rainy, or be grumpy because you’re jetlagged. Resist that temptation as much as you can! Go slow, take a walk, and if possible don’t have any commitments for the day you arrive.
We left hot and humid weather in the Quad Cities, but found damp and chilly weather when we arrived in London. In my infinite wisdom, I forgot to pack any long sleeves. Whoops. So I spent the entirety of our walk wearing my rain jacket. It added a little warmth, but mostly just kept the wind off of me. We were both a little cold in Kensington Gardens, but despite the chill, we really enjoyed our stroll.
Covering 270 acres in west central London, Kensington Gardens used to be the private gardens of Kensington Palace (hence the name). The palace is still there, and the state rooms are open to the public, as are displays of art from the Royal Collection.
We didn’t go in, as we were more in the mood to be outside after spending so much time confined in airports and planes.
In addition to the Palace, you can find the Albert Memorial, Serpentine Gallery, and Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens, as well as fountains, ponds, and a sunken Dutch Garden.
Alas, we didn’t visit the Serpentine Gallery or the Elfin Oak, the latter of which I really wish we had, in hindsight. Of course, we couldn’t see everything, and I didn’t even know about the Elfin Oak until our return to the US. I take comfort in knowing that I can always see it next time. London isn’t going anywhere.
Kensington Gardens is an incredible park which, when combined with Hyde Park, Green Park, and St. James’s Park, creates a large open green space in the center of London; more of which we’ll wander through later on the trip. We saw tons of people walking, cycling, running, playing with dogs, and just enjoying the area; it’s great to see so many people active outside in the heart of such a large city, and I know that Londoners must really appreciate these spaces.
After the Gardens we walked back to the hotel, finding our way without much trouble this time. We would come to know this little area fairly well that week, and wouldn’t have any real problems getting around. Especially Clarissa, who turned out to be an excellent urban navigator! Every time we got a little turned around, she sorted it out before I even got my bearings. I’m proud of her for being able to navigate like that, and her skill continues to come in handy on our adventures.
Though we returned to our hotel, we weren’t quite ready to call it a day yet. We definitely could have fallen asleep, but the sun still hadn’t set. We decided a visit to the hotel bar would be a good way to end our day; I couldn’t say no to a nice drink and a snack before a shower and bed. I ended up ordering a vanilla panna cota to munch on, though I had no idea what it was at the time.
Intrepid Travel Tip #3. Try new foods.
Part of the travel experience is stepping outside of your comfort zone. So why eat the same things that you always do when you’re at home? I understand, you’ve got favorites, and it’s nice to try the different varieties from other places while you’re traveling; I did have pizza in both London and Paris, and both were delicious. But while you’re out and about, exploring the world, don’t hesitate to try things you’ve never had or even heard of before.
Of course, depending on where you’re traveling, you may need to avoid eating certain things. While in India, Clarissa had to avoid fruits that didn’t have peels, as well as foods that might have made contact with unbottled water. There are legitimate health concerns in some places. That being said, you’re probably safe at a decent restaurant in Europe, especially in cities like London or Paris, where there are tons of people visiting from all over the world.
Even when traveling in the US, or even on day trips, we try to avoid hitting up chain restaurants and instead look for interesting local spots. In London and Paris, we saw plenty of American chains, but you can be sure that we didn’t pick up our pizza at Pizza Hut. We didn’t always eat in unique one of a kind places, but we certainly didn’t pick restaurants or dishes that we could get down the road from home.
In short, try some new food. Eat something local. Sample regional varieties of favorite foods, enjoy local beers or wines, and don’t be afraid of food and drinks you’ve never heard of before. I promise you, there’s going to be something that you end up enjoying.
As it turns out, panna cotta is an Italian dessert, made of sweet cream and gelatin. It shares some similarities with flan and pudding, but the texture and taste are unique. Also, when paired with a hoppy beer it makes a great snack before bedtime. Which came shortly after our waitress brought us our bill.
This drew our first day in London to a close. Exhausted, we pretty much fell into bed and didn’t move until morning. We slept well, but awoke still under the fog of jetlag. Clarissa had to get to work, and I tagged along, but with no long flights and a commitment-free afternoon, we knew that day two in London had plenty in store for us.
There’s more adventure to share, so keep checking for the next post. Or better yet, sign up below to get e-mail updates whenever I post new content, so you never miss an update!