Nothing like a first time…….traveling solo to London (2007)

My younger sister (I have 2) suggested that I start with a post about how I started traveling solo to help others feel more comfortable trying it.  I have impulsive moments and that’s how traveling solo began for me.  Every few years I do something to shake things up in my life– teaching, skydiving, and buying a house.  In  March 2007,  I was ready to shake things up.  I signed up for grad school (my second stint in grad school–I already held a Master’s in Education) and I quit my second job in a high-end retail store.  Then I realized that I wouldn’t be able to travel until after my grad program was finished–1 1/2 years later.

Ugh.

I delayed travel when I bought my house and it took a couple of years to feel less “house poor” so that I could afford a big European trip. My last trip to Europe was to Ireland in April 2004.  I went with my mother, youngest sister, and my Mom’s BFF.  While I loved Ireland and I managed to see quite a bit of the countryside–I hated the busload of 46 traveling companions.  Every opportunity, the guide dropped us off to shop in a gift store usually in the middle of nowhere.  Lots of beautiful things made in Ireland, but it was the same selection in every single store.  Everything is so rigidly structured and pre-planned there was no room for any spontaneity.  I wanted to get out and see the towns and go to museums or visit manor houses–not shop.  So after signing up for grad school and quitting my weekend job–I had a few free weekends before my Saturday classes began. I had several days before Easter to go on a trip.

I was feeling the travel lust.  I wanted to go somewhere.   I wanted to take a trip and since no one was available or could afford to go–I decided to try it out on my own.

I decided on London as my first solo trip.  Several factors decided this for me:  English-speaking country, I’m familiar with London (I’ve visited 3 times already), I only had 5-6 days with travel so it could be an easy trip to execute, and I adore London.  I did my research–read the travel books, figured out the attractions and museums I wanted to see, and I pored over maps to learn the area around my hotel.  I’ll post about trip prep another time–the teacher in me can’t NOT prep for a trip.

Every trip fills me with some trepidation as well as anticipation–while I was feeling all of that–the feelings were compounded on this trip in particular as I wasn’t sure if I could do this without feeling self-conscious or lonely.  I wasn’t nervous about the actual traveling as I’ve traveled to Europe by myself when I met up with my friend who was studying abroad in northern England.  I booked the Park Plaza Victoria Hotel near Victoria Station and I was coming in through Gatwick.  I knew that there was a Heathrow Express but I wasn’t sure if Gatwick had a similar service.  I was pleased to find I could get to Victoria Station straight from Gatwick. I safely arrive at Victoria Station (yeah me!) and I start to walk in the direction I think I need to go–yeah–so not the right way. Finally after walking around Victoria Coach Station again, I get in the queue for a black cab–Europeans are so polite with the queues–and I give him the address.  I felt like an idiot–it was literally a 1/2 mile down the street.  When I arrive–the fire department evacuated the hotel for some emergency.  So I had to wait awhile until the area was cleared and I could check-in.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, but I packed my schedule to keep any feelings of loneliness at bay. The first thing I always do when traveling is set up my room and change clothes if necessary.  Then I scout out places to pick up quick meals or a convienance store  for water, drinks, snacks, or whatever small things that come up.  I have a great affection the Boots pharmacy stores in England–they have everything–food, drinks, beauty products, toiletries, first aid products, over the counter meds, and importantly blister packs for my poor feet that I walk literally to death when traveling.  If I can find a Boots store nearby–I’m happy (I once had a layover in Heathrow and shopped for my Boots brand blister packs).  I enjoy a long walk to work out the traveling kinks and get myself into tourist mode.  I like to seek out green space during my European cityscape vacations especially the first night–I walked through Kensington Gardens and I toured Kensington Palace.

What I like about traveling by myself  is that I can do whatever I want.  I like churches, musuems, and manor houses, but not everyone I travel with has the same affinity to those attractions.  I was able to go to all the places that I missed the first 3 times I visited London.  I went through Westminister Abbey–my friend toured it with parents and she didn’t want to go again. The next two times I visited London, my traveling companions were not interested or we didn’t have time.  I went to Sir John Soane’s Musuem–he was an architect by trade and the ultimate 19th C hoarder of Greek and Roman antiquities.  He soooo needed an A & E Hoarders intervention.  His house was so crammed with priceless statues and paintings that you have to wait on line outside as they only let a few people in at a time.  I struck up a conversation with a lovely couple from Scotland on line behind me.  We made small talk and it was comforting to connect with other people.  I mentioned to them my one trip to Edinburgh and that I considered going back over a summer break to travel around a bit.  The woman warned me of midges–a nuisance bug like a mosquito–a good tip and I probably won’t ever go to Scotland in August on her advice.    I also visited the British Library–they have varied permanent exhibits like the Magna Carta (one of four copies in existance),  the 1623 Shakespeare Folio as well as Beatles song lyrics written on cocktail napkins by Paul McCartney & John Lennon.  I visited the British Musuem, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery (good cafe), the Imperial War Museum (once the infamous Bedlam Insane Asylum), and Apsley House–the Duke of Wellington’s home but it’s filled with portraits and statues of his nemisis Napoleon–hmmm–he may have been obsessed.

The pub culture in England is a lot of fun, but being the (quintessntial American) tourist in the local pub is not comfortable when you are by yourself.  One night I went to the hotel bar and had a pint or two of cider (love the cider!) and that satisfied my desire for some pub time.  I did plan a few night things so I didn’t feel like a complete loser.  Almost every time I go to London, I see a play–Miss Saigon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent Park, and An Ideal Husband.  The Apollo Victoria Theater was down the street from my hotel and Wicked was playing.  I treated myself to a show–another first–seeing a professional play alone.   I’m glad I kept up the the tradition despite traveling alone.   A dining tip–musuem cafes have decent food at decent prices.  The menu will have local choices as well as some international comfort foods–who doesn’t love pasta and red sauce!  I ate several times at museum cafes and it solved the weirdness I may have felt dining in a restaurant alone–though I’m over that now and since then I have dined solo several times.    Another night I walked around Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square–if you stay to the main roads and do not go off into dark lonely-looking alleys–you’re good to go.  Plus there is a heavy police presence in these areas at night.

Every time I visit London there are places I like to see again and again–I never tire of them:  Hyde Park, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hatchard’s–the oldest bookstore in London (est 1797) and Fortam & Mason Dept Store–the food gallery is amazing.

A feeling of confidence infused me as I went from touristy thing to touristy thing.  I journalled my experiences in detail every night–wrote down funny things I heard and where I took pictures.  It’s a good tool to feel busy.  I took the journal with me everywhere so that I could jot down things that happened as the day progressed or interesting facts.  Sometimes I hear something that intrigues me and I’ll take note of it in my journal to research it further at home.  I don’t always travel with a computer or tablet.

I had a few moments of  “Okay, I could talk to someone now”  but I got over it pretty quickly.  I think traveling alone is more acceptable in Europe–I rarely felt self-conscious by myself in a museum or visiting an atttraction.  In the US, people seem to look at someone traveling by themself as either someone to pity or brave for “going it alone”.   It’s not either of those things–it’s about being comfortable with your own company.  Being okay with the silences.  There’s that old saying, you don’t have to be alone to feel loneliness.  I find that being away from my regular routine gives me a chance to look at what’s going with my life and possibly make changes.  I don’t set out to reflect upon my life, but the quiet contemplation just happens when you are your own best friend on your solo travels.

So I leave you with this–travel as often as you can, travel alone, or travel with others but enjoy the journey.

Victoria

Below are some of my pictures from my 2007 visit to London.

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament

Big Ben

Big Ben

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Piccadilly Circus Eros statue

Piccadilly Circus
Eros statue

Salvator Rosa self-portrait National Gallery, London

Salvator Rosa self-portrait
National Gallery, London

The Latin inscription translates to “Be silent, unless what you have to say is better than silence.”  I found this self-portrait very interesting and its inscription amusing since I was in a cocoon of silence traveling by myself for the first time.

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