A Guide to Getting Lost in London: December 1999

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© Aheli , 2010

Nowadays planning a trip means spending hours online browsing travel sites, downloading price tracker apps, preemptively saving your favorite restaurant reviews, searching pinterest images for white sand beaches even though you are going to Toronto, watching all those how to pack four weeks of clothing into a carry-on, and finally printing your boarding pass.

But back in the olden days, people relied on travel agents, word-of-mouth recommendations and most importantly books.  If you were feeling extravagant, you could pick a book up at a Barnes & Noble. If you were my Dad, you headed straight to our public library.**  Moments after our tickets were booked, he would head directly to our local public library to pick the right guide for our travel.

For most people, there are only two things you need to look for in the right travel book:

  1. Does the subject of the book match your destination?
  2. Is this the most recent publication available?

Question 1 is universally accepted. Unless maybe you are trying narrow down your final destination, which in that case, more power to you.

Question 2, you’d be surprised to learn, is not so universal.  My Dad would saunter past the most recent publications and head straight for the editions closer to the 1900s. The closer, the better. We’d take trips in 1997 and he’d happily find the 1987 version to research and coordinate our trip. Somehow, he’d find the most amazing, hole in the wall places with the best food, best service and for us the best adventure my mom and I could have imagined. I’m not sure if it’s because his engineer brain often picks up on the extraordinarily small details that can make or break a trip, or just thinks outside of the box****. Regardless, we always ended up at fantastic places with great stories to tell.

I won’t lie and say that my mom and I accepted my Dad’s passion for the ancient travel book whole-heartedly. It was more begrudgingly, which is why in 1999, during a family trip to London, we had our one and only chance to gloat…kind of.

London, 1999

My Dad had just scored $100 round trip tickets to London on priceline.com. We had a little less than 36 hours to pack and get ourselves down to JFK, so of course Dad rushes immediately to Library before it closed for the winter holidays. Triumph on his face, he returned with a… “1989 Travel Book, Dad? Really? Come on, it’s almost 2000!” I said with my best supportive but disbelieving daughter bitchface. “It will work. I found some great places.” We arrived in London, high on Cadbury chocolate, museum hopping and excited for new culinary adventures.

Sitting on our hotel bedroom, in what must be the smallest hotel room ever in existence, next to the banging, deafening chimes of Big Ben. My Dad triumphantly proclaimed that he had found the “ultimate” Indian restaurant in the whole of London. Dressed in three pairs of long underwear, our new London scarfs, mittens and hats, we headed out for the bitter cold. We tubed, we bussed, we tripped over the vindictive cobble stone streets. Finally, when I had given up hope off ever reaching human kind (approximately 28 minutes later), my Dad , travel book in hand, announced we were there. Collectively, we raised our three heads, hearts excited and stomachs eagerly waiting in anticipation, to see “Women’s Wool Scarfs—Finest in London, Only £9.99.” Disbelief rippled across our faces, as we looked left, then right, to see that we had stumbled upon some hidden street devoid of food, but full of cheap women’s scarves.

The moment had come. Dad’s ancient guidebooks had finally let him down. Ten years after [Insert Ambiguous British London Indian Food Place name here] had gloriously made its way into the “Best of London 1987”, it ceased to exist. There was no gloating. Okay some internal gloating. We patted Dad on the back, and assured him that we wouldn’t mind stopping at the good Fish & Chips place next to our hotel. We turned the corner to find the nearest tube or bus station, small hope that this would be the end of all outdated guidebooks.

And then, Mom spotted it. A glorious piece of meat on spittle, turning slowly over a large fire. As we approached, we saw that tucked away in the corner, was a small family-run Turkish place. And there inside, we had perhaps what was the best food we could have imagined. 12 hour slow roasted lamb, fresh made pita bread, hummus so rich and creamy that my tongue is salivating at the thought of it.

Somehow, my Dad’s guidebook had led us not to the best Indian place in London, but the best Turkish place.

We learned never to doubt the old travel books again. Though thankfully today, trip advisor makes it much harder to find reviews before 2010.

* Circa 90s. Despite the old man sweaters, I’m still smack dab in the middle of my 20s.

** Thankfully our public library had an extensive collection. Thank you high taxes that go back to community enriching spaces.

*** Unless you are a travel snob and you bought books to show people that you “vacation” (Frommers) or are a carefree wanderluster (Lonely Planet). We get it. You like airplanes. You’re fancy.

**** For example, when we were buying new family luggage. My Dad insisted on buying a Travel Pro luggage set. Now this was during the time that Samsonite’s were all the rage. His reasoning “all the flight attendants who log in millions of miles, use travel pro suitcases. They are affordable, last a long time, and are optimal for small luggage compartments.

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