The three “B’s”: How to Behave on a Trip to London

I learned three “B’s” on a recent trip to London:

  1. Be safe.
  2. Bring your own book.
  3. Don’t bother with ticketed museum exhibitions at peak times.

The first “B.”  At different ages, we view the concept of safety differently.  One night when I was a young woman, I went out and screamed at the noisy junkies in the alley behind our house.   May  I just say, Thank God they ignored me! I didn’t understand the situation. Still, you can find yourself in that situation again.

The hotel in London was seedy.  (The pictures lied.)   I arrived at midnight, too tired to find another hotel, and checked in with great trepidation.  I looked incredulous when the  desk clerk told me I had to go outside to another building.  He escorted me, but was obviously terrified of the people on the street:  a sensible reaction.  I wanted to say, “Don’t show fear!”  And I was sorry that he had to trek back by himself.

How unsafe was it?  I thought, well, it’s only for a few nights. But the next night someone climbed the stairs at midnight and pounded on the door.  I sat very still and hoped he’d go away. Eventually, he did.

The next day I schlepped my suitcase on the tube and went to a relatively “luxurious” hotel where I had stayed before.  I enjoyed the rest of my trip.

The Second “B.”  Bring your own book, or e-reader. When the weather is slushy and you tire of looking at portraits of the Tudors, go to the British Library and look at the manuscript of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was thrilled. Then sit down (if you can find a chair) and read it on your  e-reader.  (N.B.  The terrace in front of the British Library was cordoned off like a crime scene because of the snow.  Being an American, I thought this was funny.)

Though I brought my own books, I also went to bookstores  My two favorites are  the flagship Waterstones in Picadilly; and next door is Hatchards,  founded in 1797.

I finished five books in London, a record for me.  (The weather was bad, so I had lots of reading time!)  I read Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire (her best book), Virginia Woolf’s A Common Reader, Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene, Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is on the Landing, and Annette Williams Jaffee’s Adult Education.

The Third “B.”  London has the best art museums.  But you know what? I often enjoy the free exhibits more than the ticketed ones.  That’s because the paid  exhibitions are crowded.  On a quiet weekday I enjoyed Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits at the “Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, but the Royal Academy of Arts was so crowded on a weekend that  I couldn’t get close enough to see the paintings in the  “Charles I:  King and Collector” exhibition.

What I learned?  Pick your times. Meanwhile, see many of the greatest paintings in the world for free.

I’d Rather Stay at the Fishing Lodge: Camping vs. Camping Lit

Reel Livin' Lodge-644x422

A fishing lodge in  Wisconsin

Somewhere on the planet is a couple who want to take a vacation.  That is, the same vacation.

The rest of us flunked the one-question travel compatibility test: “Do you prefer to spend your vacation  (a) on a primitive camping trip, or (b) in a luxury hotel on an island?

If this were the 1950s and I were Jean Kerr, I’d write columns for women’s magazines about the challenges of outdoorsy vacations. My spouse relishes 100-mile bicycle rides, long walks on muddy forest trails that suck the shoes right off our feet, and heating up a can of Dinty Moore stew on a one-burner Primus stove before retiring to the tent. Meanwhile, I lobby for a cabin or a lodge with an en suite bathroom.  As the years go by, you realize that sleeping under a roof makes all the difference.

And so  I wonder what other couples do.  I am always fascinated when I hear President Obama and Michelle are spending a weekend at Camp David, because I am assured of the fact they are not literally camping. Barack does not turn to Michelle and say, “Let’s pitch a tent!”  Michelle does not turn to Barack and say, “Can we take that moosehead off the wall?”  And, trust me, all lodges have animal heads on the walls.

We have, apparently, camped in Iowa, Michigan, Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. I can’t verify this, because the camp sites are so similar.  Massive deer flies swarm as you walk from the campsite to the shower.  You can only read two pages of your book before a herd of mosquitoes drives you into the tent.  Shivering in front of a waterfall, I have remarked, “I adore Ontario!,” only to find I am at Letchworth State Park in New York.  If you’re getting ready to sleep under the stars this summer, and I fear you are, here are some fine books to prepare you for what lies ahead.

1. We Took to the Woods by Louise Rich.  In this delightful memoir (1942), Rich wittily describes her family’s life in a rustic fishing camp in the backwoods of Maine in the 1930s.  She and her husband, both writers, left the city for a simpler life in the woods, and, with their son Rufus, befriend lumberjacks and laugh at tourists.  Okay, the life would be far too “simple” for me, but if you don’t mind chopping wood, gardening, snowshoeing, and training huskies to pull a dog sled, you’re in.  I loved this book!

we took to the woods rich il_fullxfull.457237985_k3ls2. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  In Faulkner’s poor-white-trash camping  tour de force, Addie Bundred is still breathing when her son noisily builds the coffin right outside her window.  After her death, they embark with her unembalmed corpse  on a nine-day wagon trip to Jefferson, where she wants to be buried.  The coffin falls out of the wagon as they cross a flooded river, catches fire in a barn, and the corpse arrives stinking in Jeffrerson. This is a Southern Gothic classic, but reading it made me remember why I seldom read Faulkner.

faulkner as I lay dying 6614355-M3.  Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In what must have been a very trying  phase of childhood, I wore a “Frodo Lives” button and begged my mother to take us camping so I could recreate some of the hobbits’ finer moments.   She refused:  she did not care to venture into a space where more than five trees congregated, and  felt that watching my brother play Little League baseball was more than enough time outdoors.  I still adore the adventures of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Strider (with whom I was in love), etc..  If you don’t know the plot, well…they take a long, long, long journey to destroy a Ring of Power that will destroy the world if it isn’t destroyed, and are  often shivering in rainstorms under sopping wet capes.  Yes, that’s camping for you!

Ballantine lord of the rings tolkein 29tolkien-slide.103.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  Set in a post-Arthurian mythic post-war England, this gorgeous novel is the story of Britons and Saxons living in a mist of forgetfulness. The two protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple, cannot remember what happened yesterdays, let alone during the wars in King Arthur’s time. On a journey to find their son, they discover the causes of their amnesic culture.  And, let me tell you, they don’t have Triple A or five-star hotels.  They sleep wherever they find themselves, and not always under a roof.

The Buried Giant Ishiguro.BG.jacket4. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.  I laughed and laughed over Bryson’s account of his hike on the Appalachian Trail with his friend Katz.  Nuff said.

walk in the woods bryson 51x-bFjBBeL._SY355_5 .Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners. In this charming comic novel,  a young woman blooms during a caravan trip in England. Edelgarde has persuaded her much older husband, the narrator, Baron Otto von Ottringe, that the trip will be cheap and healthy. He has envisioned himself sitting cozily inside the caravan, but it rains all the time, and he must tramp in the muddy road beside the horse, guide it through narrow gateways, and hold umbrellas over cooking pots.  The way I look at it:  at least they’re under a roof at night!

von arnim the caravaners 1140701

What are your favorite camping/travel books?

My Cousin & I Get Obnoxious As We Plan Trips on Our Computers

It’s a new day today and the coffee is strong
I’ve finally got some rest.–R.E.M.’s “Houston”

Pillow fight at Trafalgar Square.   I'm SO glad I missed this.

I’m glad I missed International Pillow Fight Day at Trafalgar Square.

My cousin and I try to figure out who’s going where when on vacation this summer.  We have a contest to see who is faster at calculating rates: she on her iPhone, I on my laptop.

Do we want to go to London, Lisbon, or Laredo?

I didn’t spend all my London money, so I see no reason not to take another trip to London.

I invited my husband, because it would be nice to travel with someone who can read a map, and I suspect that every place I went on the tube was just a brisk walk away if I’d known where I was going.

“I’m not going anywhere this summer,” he says.

I’m  disappointed.  I wonder if he’s willing to go later, or if he means he’s never going at all.  He hates to fly and says he’ll wait till Obama builds a Chunnel to England.

That will never happen, right?

While my cousin drank martinis and checked flights and hotel rates, she wondered why I don’t want to take her to London.   Uh, because she would rather drink in the hotel than go out?  Because the last time we traveled together we ended up camping in a park where it was rumored that her favorite band would play, and it was just a cover band?

“I’m kidding–what could be more boring?  But I would have got your five pounds back from that thing at Dabblers’ Books.”

“Daunt Books.”

“And, yeah, I would have shoplifted the book by A. B. Penis.”

“A. L. Kennedy?”

This is why it’s good to have a librarian in the family.  No electronic chip can defeat her, and the day my cousin walks into Daunt Books is the day they pay her to leave.

I do love my cousin.  She never reads a book, except for classic pulp fiction by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but she does know good literature from bad, and is a good librarian.

“You’re too soft on Persephones,” she says when she reads my blog.

She will read neither Persephones nor “the latest NYRB classic by a Polish-German Catholic-Jewish Gypsy Socialist whose 26 unpublished books have just been found in Berlin.”

Yes, she’s brutal, if very very funny.

Since I had nothing else to do while I drank my Starbucks molto but wait for her to calculate the cost of a trip to Tokyo, I realized idly that bloggers could and should developSelf-Guided Junkets for Tokyo, London, and every city.  The London guidebooks were helpful, but the information I got from people who commented at the blog was crucial.

It would be much quicker and easier, however, to go to Houston than to Europe.

Houston is filled with promise
Laredo is a beautiful place
Galveston sings like that song that I loved
Its meaning has not been erased

Things I Haven’t Done Before My Trip to London


Photo op: at the library

Things I Haven’t Done Before My Trip to London:

1.  I didn’t lose any weight. Go on Weight Watchers…lose five pounds…gain it back…lose five pounds…gain it back…lose five pounds…decide you can’t live on an apple at dinner, which is the only way you’ve lost five pounds…  Then cook a colossal dinner of Mollie Katzen’s macaroni with mushrooms and spinach for your thin husband, the only one in the house who has lost weight on your diet, and he informs you that you are not going to have a swimsuit photo op in London.   And so I’m back to cooking dinner again.  “Thank God for that!”  he says.

2.  I didn’t dye my hair.  I thought briefly of dyeing my hair.  Yes, I was going to be thin in London…with dyed hair.  When it came right down to it, all I could stand at the salon was having my hair trimmed.

3.  Read a lot of London bloggers so I can have contact with the London blogging community.  News flash: I read no London bloggers.  None!  How did this happen?  Fortunately all the American and English bloggers have been to London and have given me excellent advice about everything. .. especially bookstores.

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

4. Figure out how to go to the Oxford Literary Festival to see Sebastian Barry one day and Margaret Drabble on another day.  The festival goes on for a WE-E-E-E-KKKKK and I don’t see how I can possibly go both days. But, wait,  I just found out there is something called the Daunt Books Spring Festival right in London.  Perhaps I can buy tickets for BOTH LITERARY FESTIVALS  just in case.  CAVEAT: You’re not rich, and you’ve seen Borges, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie…for free in the U.S.

5.  I didn’t reread all of Dickens, or any Dickens.  I’m going on the Dickens tour, right?  Well, probably.  For some reason I am reading Trollope this winter.  I don’t think there’s a Trollope tour, though.  Too bad…

6.  Travel with unstained clothes.  See that lovely spring sweater (above:  photo of me at the library)?  I spilled coffee on it .  It was nice to have coffee at the library…and then it spilled and I had to rush to the restroom and apply soap on a wet paper towel.  I don’t see a stain, do you?  I caught it in time. But I may be turning into Enderby, the tea-stained hero of Anthony Burgess’s Enderby books.

AND NOW I NEED ADVICE. Where do I buy groceries, i.e., lots of vegetables in London?   Grocery stores?  Co-ops?  I know about the markets from my guide books, and I can always find Starbucks…  But it might be nice just to buy some stuff quickly at a store and make sandwiches.