I'll never forgot the first day of my first big solo trip.
I'd flown from San Francisco to London overnight, weary but excited when the plane landed just after dawn. My hotel in the Bloomsbury district was on the London Underground's Piccadilly Line, which conveniently connects with Heathrow Airport. So I exchanged some money, bought my seven-day Tube card and caught the next train. I watched carefully for the Russell Square stop. (After Hoburn but before King's Cross. I had committed it to memory.)
It was too early to get into my room at St. Margaret's, a family-run hotel I've stayed at several times since but which sadly closed at few years ago. So I dumped my small bag with the front desk attendant and went for a walk. I had studied the area for weeks via maps (paper, not electronic, in those days) and already knew to head left for the British Museum and left then right for the Tube stop. Leafy Russell Square was my directional reference point.
As I headed across the square, a couple with two huge suitcases asked me for directions. Did I know how to get to the Tube? Why yes I did, having just come from there for the first time an hour before.
Nothing like being mistaken for a local to boost your travel confidence. That exchange began my weeklong solitary discovery of London. It was at that moment I knew that I'd be okay, perhaps even have the trip of a lifetime. In many ways, I did.
Traveling alone carries distinct pleasures. For me, the biggest plus is being able to do what I want when I want without having to worry if someone else is hungry or having fun. No headaches if someone forgot to pack comfortable shoes or prefers to take taxis when mass transit is cheaper. No hard feelings about eating Chinese when you really want Indian. No waiting for your late-rising companion to stir so you can start the day.
The only negotiation necessary is with me, the clock and my wallet. What bliss.
Yes, I got to know London and the Tube system pretty well, but that trip provided me with more than an intensive encounter with one of the world's greatest cities. It taught me a few things about myself, as travel always does.
I discovered I have no qualms about going to theaters, museums and movies by myself. I tend to get more out of those experiences when I am alone because I am so focused. On the other hand, I don't really like the restaurant table for one. I'd rather buy something from a street vendor or a deli and head back to my room or sit in a park. And I prefer discovering a city by myself over hiking solo on a wilderness trail, which somehow seems scary. (Well, maybe I don't want to be on a wilderness trail with people either.)
In London on my own, I fell into a busy pattern. I'd leave the hotel each morning about 9 after a typical British breakfast. Wearing sensible shoes and armed with a few maps in my cross-body satchel I set out. Most days I didn't return to St. Margaret's until after 9 p.m., exhausted but exhilarated by what I'd experienced.
Each day I had a loose plan: the Tower of London, a walking tour that took me on the trail of Jack the Ripper at dusk, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, a boat ride on the Thames, Trafalgar Square, Kew Gardens, etc. I'd purchased a few theater tickets before I'd left home (Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera).
But I didn't keep to a rigid schedule. If I wanted to veer off course, I did. While wandering around Chelsea, I happened upon a fashion show by a group of young avant-garde designers. I watched for a while and then bought two clever hats that I've never worn but still have. At the church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, I discovered free classical musical performances during the noon hour just because I was walking by at 11:45 a.m. I returned twice.
One day while walking along Shaftsbury Avenue toward Covent Garden, I spied a theater marquee practically wrapped around the corner building. Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell was the play and Peter O'Toole the lead. Showtime was an hour away and on impulse I bought a ticket. What a wonderful, unexpected experience it was watching the legendary O'Toole play a drunk locked in a pub all night and forced to deal with his demons. His performance was funny, sad and altogether memorable.
Really, it was one of the highlights of the trip. That spontaneity is difficult to pull off when traveling with others, especially if some of them are children. I like those types of trips, too, but the solo sojourn provides a different experience.
Some people equate being alone with loneliness, though I do not. When I've traveled alone, I have found plenty of opportunities to interact with others, but on my terms. There are people to chat with during breakfast at the hotel and travelers to get to know on organized tours. In London, I even met a fellow solo traveler at my neighborhood Tube stop because we were both holding programs for Miss Saigon. We went for coffee to discuss the musical (he liked it; I thought it was corny) and he joined me the next day on a docent-led walk to the places Shakespeare hung out.
He was taking off for Paris that night and I was headed to some obscure foreign flick at the nearby Barbican theater. I can't remember his name or even the movie that I saw, but I do recall walking through Russell Square like I owned it.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.