Once we are free of Covid-19, Deborah Singerman offers some excellent travel advice for writers planning their next holiday.
Forget about cost when measuring the value of your travel
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by data? My most recent overseas trips were a while back now. I went to the United States in 2015 and Europe a year later, and mixed sight-seeing with visits to family and friends. How could I bundle together my memories (then still fresh), structuring them for later poignant, but practical, recollection, holiday emotion without the frills, the more ordinary the better?
Choose your destination
Sounds obvious but unless you are completely footloose and fancy free, having an idea of where you want to go is bound to scope your journey.
October 2015: I went to New York. Since my parents passed away, most of my closest blood relatives live there. I have visited several times over the years and identify with its block-on-block walkability. I stayed with my aunt in her New York state condominium, travelling in to my favourite station, the beautiful, effervescent and well-organised Grand Central Terminal. I also went to Philadelphia and stayed with an old schoolfriend. We reminisced about hilarious and embarrassing moments, of teachers who mattered, and about pivotal experiences such as seeing Monty Python live at London’s Drury Lane in 1974.
May 2016: My partner and I visited the UK and Germany. Manchester, my hometown was as galvanised as travel articles of the time had indicated. London is where I went to university, got my first proper jobs, still have friends and an umbilical cord I cannot quite break. And also to Southampton to visit my partner’s family; Edinburgh for heritage and bagpipes; Glasgow – four rushed but vibrant hours learning that People Do Make Glasgow; a mini-bus tour through the Highlands’ twisting roads and glorious scenery; and Germany, to university town Göttingen, Berlin and Dresden, renovated, historic and the throbbing, modern.
We stayed in self-catering apartments reckoning they are better for our health, finances and flexibility. The location and stock of the nearest supermarket or fruit and vegetable stalls was important. There were lots of students and travellers staying in or living near our apartment in Edinburgh so the shops had cold meats, tinned fish, small portions of cheese and laundry packets so you could buy for a day or two. In Manchester, we were down the road and up a ramp from the main city station which had lots of outlets. Okay they were not as cheap as in the suburbs but stocked everything we needed.
The closest supermarket to us in London stayed open late and was always packed. Southampton’s Marks and Spencers had the usual, convenient lunch ingredients and ready-made meal packs; Berlin’s Lido chain was serviceable but not a match for Rewe, my favourite, across Dresden’s cobbled inner square flanked by imposing churches. The carbohydrate, protein, fruit and vegetable staples lining the wide aisles were matched by liberal supplies of natural food, meat substitutes, grains, pulses and fresh German breads.
Airports, overall, were functional rather than spectacular. Berlin’s Tegel and San Francisco’s stood out for choice of food. Tegel had an outlet with natural, healthy and filling snacks and San Francisco’s let me wander around buying up sesame creations, an udon and vegetable box and a tofu bar that lasted me my entire US trip.
Always important at hotels and hotel apartments, the busy Hatton Cross Heathrow Airport hotel, is a fair walk from the left luggage area (we downsized for our side-trip to Germany). People milled around reception. The computer was down, and we were waiting to check in, but the Spanish receptionist was unflappable and efficient. We rarely ate in hotels but here enjoyed the roast parsnip, sweet potato, lightly roasted chicken and crunchy salad, tasty and light by any standards. The place cheerfully thrived on fast turnovers, something never to take for granted on holidays.
Our best linguist was at an Aussie-owned hotel chain in Berlin. It was in a renovated former East German school still with huge stairwell mirrors, while the entrance had statues of Berlin bears covered in Aboriginal motifs. They were not as kitschy as they could have been. This was the only hotel we stayed at without free Wi-Fi in the rooms. It was only in the lobby, which understandably was packed.
Living up to its reputation, Manchester’s foyer was the noisiest (or should I say liveliest?) with soccer on the television and background rock ‘n’ roll in the bar.
We did little clothes washing, and that was mostly hand washing. Washing machines in Edinburgh were out of order and we had neither the time nor the motivation to go to the launderette. We arrived too late to take advantage of Hatton Cross’s plentiful, communal washing machines and dryers, prioritising eating over washing. Berlin came to the rescue as we did a load or two while watching the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, proudly supporting our Dami Im, who came second.
For washing ourselves, bathrooms were up to scratch though we only had separate shower rooms in Germany. In Göttingen, I kept tripping up on the tiny step up from the bedroom when I was tired. Washrooms, generally, are an intelligence test; do you turn, point, wave, push, spray? Do it once and then follow the routine.
Edinburgh had the best cooking utensils and sturdiest saucepans, and Berlin the most compact kitchen table and chairs for eating and watching TV. Dresden’s coffee-making machine was the fiddliest (I much prefer cafetieres). Mini-bar contents were stored in the fridge which, alongside our food, made it very crowded.
Temperature and power
All room windows opened except at Hatton Cross (for acoustics as much as anything as we were on a major road).
We stayed in renovated industrial buildings, many with latch-windows, but as it was early spring, temperatures were fine and generally we preferred to open the windows rather than use the air-conditioning. The German rooms impressed with their double or triple glazed smooth-handle openings, reliable and so stylish.
All rooms had enough power points. Manchester’s room, in fact, was overpowering when we first opened the door as the central heating had been on for hours beforehand. This did not happen in other places.
It was hard to follow the instructions for switching on the television in Dresden; my partner understood the German, but we had to ask housekeeping for help. No wonder. They explained that one remote switched on the power and another was for changing channels. Elsewhere, the remotes were much easier to work.
London had the biggest quilt. It had to be bunched up to fit on to the bed. Quilts everywhere came with the ubiquitous strip of material for feet, which was great for the time of year in which we were travelling. Most places also supplied blankets and lots of pillows, Germany’s feather being the softest.
My right leg is a bit stiff from a bad bout of cellulitis a few years ago. Climbing stairs can be difficult, especially if the tread is high. I look out for sturdy bannisters to haul myself up. Lifts and escalators are not always available and trying to get as much exercise as possible, I opt for stairs anyway. Dresden’s formidable museum entrances are a testimony to hardwearing stone, and London’s tubes rely on hundreds of steps, even on the escalators.
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Above-ground station exits and entrances in the cities we visited mostly had ramps and lifts, so they were accessible.
We caught taxis to and from public transport and accommodation where necessary. Taxi drivers in London told us that Fridays and Mondays were good as so many people worked from home those days. South Kensington to Waterloo on a busy Thursday and a quieter Friday certainly bore this out. (I wonder what the pattern is now during COVID-19.) Göttingen was pedestrian bliss. The station to the hotel was across two roads and a bicycle lane with its own set of traffic lights and courteous cyclists who wore civvies, not lycra.
Free seating on platforms is at a premium, so once found, enjoy. Treasure any storage on trains. There never seems to be enough of it and you often end up sitting a long way from your bags.
And at museums keep a sense of humour. A group of senior tourists at a major Dresden art gallery gathered around the sofa on which we were sitting. One of them plonked herself down on my partner apparently without realising what she had done even when we burst out laughing.
We stayed in a renovated, historic hotel in Göttingen. Breakfast was included. I love German breakfasts – the buffet range of sour dough or wholemeal or rye breads and rolls, the thinly sliced meats and cheeses, muesli, crackers, jams, mineral waters, splendid breakfast coffee, and now natural yoghurt (not sour cream as in the past).
I also enjoyed the former East German traffic lights in Dresden and parts of Berlin, the stubby red and green men striding out as stop/go signs. At Edinburgh station (and possibly others in Scotland), the public toilet signs show men and women and a kilt-wearing Scotsman.
Combining architecture, structure, accessibility, Grand Central Terminal, my New York commuting arrival and departure point, with its grand stairs, information desks and fantastic signage clearly showing which track you needed and which walkways to get there, has to be my most indelible memory.
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