Pimm’s and a Good Pillow – London, England, UK

Pimm’s and a Good Pillow

London, England, UK

Visiting and lodging with friends across the country or across the world is the ultimate experience in cultural immersion. I recently spent several days staying with friends in London during a trip to Western Europe. It was quite a change from my previous week of budget traveling and hostel lodging in Paris. After that hectic pace, I was ready to soak up London…at a much slower speed. Though I didn’t visit the monuments and galleries with as much frenzy as the previous week, I came away inspired and energized, with an insider’s grasp of the local culture. Besides the obvious monetary benefits of not having to pay for lodging or breakfast in a café, there are benefits that you absolutely cannot put a price on. Savor the fluffiness of a comfortable pillow, because while hostels and budget hotels are a great way to meet other travelers, you may not find the city’s most comfortable beds or quietest hallways.

First and foremost, call ahead. It may be inconvenient to visit friends living or studying abroad during a busy time at work or as they prepare a paper for school. By rearranging your itinerary so you can stay with them at a more opportune time, it will be well worth the effort. Also, get the scoop on the weather, costs, and must-sees so that you can pack appropriately. You don’t want to miss a hiking trip in Mexico because you only brought flip-flops for the beach and high heels for the nightclubs. Your hosts will be your best resource. Better than any tour guide, they can truly make your next trip a memorable one.

If your host is from your hometown and has recently moved to this new city, inquire about the differences. Embrace them! Don’t over tip the cab drivers, even if this is commonplace back home. Vice versa, if a cup of coffee is 3 pounds ($5.50), and you never pay more than $1.50 at the Quick Mart – don’t complain. Just enjoy its aroma as you soak in your surroundings from a table at a lovely outdoor café.

Make up for expensive coffee by shopping the local kiosks and shops for souvenirs. Your friends will know where the deals are, and my particular host was a frequent shopper at one stand in Portobello Market. We got several pounds discount on each item we bought that day.

St. Paul's Cathedral, London
St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
Enjoy a hot, home cooked meal. Chances are, if your host is an old friend from home, your palates aren’t too different. And while I firmly recommend trying new things, your friend may have developed a unique fusion style of cooking. Try a local appetizer that has been recommended by your hometown pal, and then fill your belly with “comfort food” to energize you for further travels.

When you do venture to the bars and restaurants, order like a local. I discovered the sweet taste of Pimm’s (a popular summer alcoholic drink in London) by following the recommendation of friends. And as you sit back and enjoy your delicious British lemonade (or other new treat), observe the trends at the table next to you. If you are visiting friends in a fashion forward metropolis, like NYC, Paris, or London, these trends may still be a year away from your midwestern town. Upon your return, you can be the “fashionista.”

Scour the local entertainment guides strewn about on the coffee table. While perusing, we discovered a traveling Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Tate Modern. The locals were more interested in seeing this temporary exhibit than returning to an attraction they’d seen many times, so our hosts joined us on this outing. We were fortunate enough to see 11 rooms of her original canvases on a midweek afternoon in complete peace and quiet.

Finally, make sure to give a token of thanks. We noticed that our friends had a unique collection of kitchen utensils from a nearby specialty store, Octopus. Before we left, we purchased matching salt and pepper shakers from the shop. Though not overly expensive, it was a personal gift that clearly demonstrated our appreciation. I could not thank them enough for the comfort of their home, freshly baked pastries from a street vendor, and the laughter we shared over pitchers of Pimm’s while discussing our travels.

I was so thoroughly impressed with their original wall art, the clothes they wore from the nearby market, and their hip urban surroundings, that I came home inspired by a lifestyle. The gourmet garlic hummus at the grocery store suddenly caught my eye. I went to local art fairs and I came to appreciate unusual fresh flowers. And every time I look up at my marketplace wall hanging, I am reminded of that feeling. So while you may miss out on a few landmarks here and there if you stay with friends, it will only be because you’re too busy chatting with the locals at a corner pub. You’ll learn infinitely more about lifestyle and culture. And even at the tourist traps, you’ll probably have a different vantage point. Portobello Market may be a haven for visitors these days, but very few get to experience opening a courtyard gate onto Portobello Road when they get up in the morning. I did just that. For me, this trip was a brief respite on part of a much longer journey; a down comforter sandwiched between the rented sheets of European hostels.