Once upon a time, I travelled for business—flitted into far-flung cities where a greeter with my name on a sign awaited. He’d take my wheelie, pull it to his German-made car, and whisk me off in silence—an effortless arrival into almost any city in the world.
It’s been years since I’ve travelled like that.
Now, I arrive most frequently with a backpack. I walk passed the awaiting drivers with their signs poised as I search for the metro stop or a bus destined for the city center. I alone am the schlepper of my bags.
And so it was last week as I headed to the south of England on my first business trip in nearly eight years. I stuffed my these-will-have-to-suffice work clothes into my backpack, arrived a few days before my meetings, and took the tube to London.
Over the next 48 hours, I visited the Kusama infinity mirrors exhibit at the Tate Modern, listened to evensong at Saint Paul’s, saw a play in the westend, and ate lunch at Ottolenghi’s eponymous restaurant in Shoreditch. During the afternoon storms, I napped.
I’m the elder statesman of our team. This 48-hour vacation before work revitalized me.
Monday morning while my colleagues arrived at Heathrow to greeters and shuttles, I hustled off to Victoria bus station for the 10 o’clock to Portsmouth. Pulling into town, I passed Charles Dickens birthplace and alighted at the old harbor. I walked around a bit before hailing a taxi to the Marriott.
For the next three days, taxi driver’s carted us between our hotel, office, and restaurants. They originated, as is often the case for modern day drivers, from intriguing places—Romania and Bangladesh and Poland. One driver, the exception, grew up locally in Portsmouth.
Taxi drivers, I’ve learned, are the lesser-known fonts of travel knowledge—a Rick Stevesian source of advice who are more than willing to share what they know. Since I’m open to go almost anywhere in the world, I asked them about their home countries and what I should do if I’m ever there. I jotted notes into a file called travel ideas on my phone.
The local driver mentioned that I should visit the town of Winchester. That night, I lay in bed and watched the YouTube video of The New Vaudeville Band:
Winchester Cathedral. You're bringing me down. You stood and you watched as. My baby left town …
Through Google maps, I was thrilled to learn that Winchester was on my train route back to London. Trip replanning commenced: A rerouted train. A reservation for lunch.
Friday morning, with my meetings over and 24 hours to get to the airport, I strapped on my backpack and headed out to the nearest train station in Cosham, singing as I walked.
You could have done something. But you didn't try. You didn't do nothing. You let her walk by …
Little kids in uniforms ran passed on their way to school. Women in the town’s beauty salon, Pretty B*tch (the * was their idea, not mine), primped for the weekend. I stopped to take a photo of an old stone church.
At the train station, I confirmed that the next train would stop at Winchester. Forty minutes after departing, I hoisted my pack at the station and set off toward the cathedral.
Now everyone knows just how much I needed that gal. She wouldn't have gone far away. If only you'd started ringing your bell.
Inside the cathedral, I asked a volunteer what I should see in town. To her guidance, I meandered the river path, passed Winchester College which was founded in 1382, saw a 900-year-old bible, visited the grave of Jane Austin, walked on a tile floor from the Middle Ages, stood in the cathedral during the two minute moment of silence for Armistice Day, and heard the church bells chime the noon hour. I ate a lovely lunch near the cathedral before wandering back to the station.
Thank you random taxi driver. Winchester was a perfect idea.
I boarded the next train to London’s Waterloo. On the train, I pulled out my phone to map out the best route to my hotel near Heathrow. Realizing that the city of Woking was closer than Waterloo, I took a chance and left the train at the Woking station.
Although a bus unexpectedly pulled in that was headed to Heathrow, I opted to take a taxi from the queue. The driver looked like Aladdin but sounded like John Lenin. As luck would have it, he was from Kashmir.
“Should I go there?” I asked.
“Darling, you’d love it,” he replied.
I pulled out my phone and opened my travel ideas folder. The driver turned towards the airport and started to talk.