Not a bad sentiment (spotted on a bicycle in Copenhagen):
I’m in the middle of processing the interviews from my trip, and more generally trying to organize all the stuff I gathered, and getting pictures (like this one) together is part of that.
I’m in the courtyard of the Pousada da Vila in Óbidos, Portugal. I’ve been in here at the invitation of FOLIO, an annual literary festival, where I’ve been talking about REST. I also gave a talk at the local technology park, which was an interesting experience— very different kinds of audiences and locations.
This is just the beginning of my travels, though. I’m visiting Portugal, Scotland, Denmark, and England (in that order), giving three big talks, doing interviews or field visits at fourteen different places, and staying in eight— count them EIGHT— different hotels. But if I can get as much material gathered as I think I will during this trip, it’ll be worth it, and it’ll mean I can write the next book— or more important, FINISH the next book.
The trip will end with me speaking at the SOMNEX sleep show at the Old Truman Brewery in London on Sep 12-14. If you’re in town and interested in sleep, register here and use the promo code SPK40 at check-out— you’ll get 40% off the regular price.
These kinds of long trips make me think about how to apply deliberate rest to travel, and curious to know what ways others have found to make travel less stressful and harried. I find I can do some of my best thinking on planes, in the evenings after a long day and a walk, and that travel can stir up both useful old memories and generate new ideas.
(This bookstore, for example, reminds me a lot of the open-air book stalls that my dad used to drag me to in Rio in the evenings.)
There are people who have creative breakthroughs while away from home— the English scientist James Lovelock developed his Gaia hypothesis while on a series of visits to Caltech— or who use travel to acquire experiences that they draw upon in their work for years to come— this is why artists still do versions of the Grand Tour of Europe, and why cooks and fashion designers work in other countries.
For me, I’ve found that just as in my daily life, good prep work is essential for having a less stressful, more restful, trip.
I’ve recently gotten into the habit of using Google Calendar to record all my logistical stuff— confirmation numbers, directions about how to get from the airport to the hotel, notes about which bus to take to get to the next appointment, etc. (When I’m traveling on my own, I’m a terrible skinflint. Partly because I hate spending money, but also because I concluded a few years ago that I was essentially spending money to maintain ignorance: a taxi fare is the price of not having to know anything about the bus or subway system. But with Google Maps and apps like Citymapper, I can get direction for public transport most places I go. Likewise, I don’t eat out at restaurants all the time: I take more satisfaction from finding and navigating the local supermarket.)
Having all these directions, numbers, etc. in one place that’s easily accessible reduces the stress of getting around, and makes it a lot easier to retrieve information when I’m on the go.
Likewise, I’m super-careful about what I pack (though somehow I still managed to forget a couple small iPad accessories on this trip!). I don’t exactly aim to pack really light— for a weeks-long trip where you’re doing serious work and giving talks, that’s just not possible— but I do try to think through just what I need.
That also includes thinking about the things that’ll make me comfortable in multiple different hotels, of uncertain quality and with unknown amenities. For example, I discovered a couple years ago that taking a pair of sweatpants or shorts and a sweatshirt that I would just wear in the hotel improved my quality of life on the road immeasurably: being able to change from my regular clothes into them, declare that I’m done for the day, and spend a comfortable evening, is well worth the extra weight and space in the bag.
On the other hand, I’ve figured out how to travel without a laptop, which makes my bag several pounds lighter. (Thank you, iPad!)
All of this creates more space for rest, by reducing stress and the need to improvise or manage stuff on the road. Once I’m traveling, the key things I’ve discovered are: walk a lot for yourself, and don’t try to do TOO much.
I love taking walks after work (and being an oversized male, I can do that pretty much with impunity in the places I go): they’re great opportunities for both seeing the sights, and for doing some mind-wandering after work. I generally don’t have detailed routes and things I try to see on these walks (though I dislike getting lost), and more generally I don’t pack too much into my days: even in a new place I try to resist the urge to See It All Now, and try to remember that just spending time in a place is often just as rewarding as seeing the three most renowned altarpieces (or whatever) in the city.
I also try to build in some time to stop and gather my impressions. Though since it’s never a burden to stop at a cafe and write, this really isn’t a problem for me to schedule!
This afternoon I leave Portugal and fly to Glasgow, Scotland, where it’s currently about 50 degrees and raining. Any thoughts of Europe being some monolithic cultural and geographical entity go out the window when you go from the edge of the Mediterranean to the border of the North Sea.
I’m just back from a couple weeks in England, and while I spent some time in Cambridge (where my wife is a dean in a summer program) and Southampton (where I was doing some work in the Mountbatten papers), I was mainly in London, and staying in Russell Square.
I realized on this trip that I almost always stay in Russell Square, ever since I first visited London as a graduate student in 1989. I was doing my dissertation research, and discovered Goodenough College, a place near Russell Square that hosts international students and visiting scholars. (One of the features of academic life in London is that there are halls or “colleges”– essentially single buildings or groups of buildings– that aren’t connected exclusively to one institution, and so can have people who are studying at SOAS, LSE, etc. It’s like if there were a dorm in New York City that had students who were attending Columbia, NYU, Cooper Union, and CUNY.)
Back then, it was attractive because it was cheap, though to be honest I barely remember the accommodations; I would get into the Royal Astronomical Society archive at opening time, stay until it closed, then stagger out mentally exhausted.
But the habit of staying in Russell Square stuck me with me. It’s on the Piccadilly Line, so if you come in from Heathrow you just get on the Tube and ride it to the Russell Square station; if you need to get to Cambridge, it’s a short ride (or longer walk) to King’s Cross; and of course it’s the home of the British Museum, the Bloomsbury group, and the University of London and its various colleges.
The last time I was here, my wife and I stayed in the Hotel Russell, a wonderful Victorian hotel; it’s since become The Prestige and charges 21st-century prices, so we opted for one of the many little places on Bedford Street (all of which are in converted townhouses, and almost all of which seem to be owned by the same company). My last couple nights, I tried something new, and through a service called University Rooms, found College Hall, a dorm that rents rooms to tourists during the summer. It turned out to be a great deal: yes, it’s a dorm so it’s a bit spartan in terms of accommodation, but it’s also literally up the block from the British Museum.
Staying in the one neighborhood has also proved to be a good strategy because it’s allowed me to get to know the area pretty well, and to know where to go for the cheap lunches, where the supermarket is, etc.. All too often you need up spending enormous amounts of money eating out because it feels like too much trouble to come up with alternatives; I’m very happy to eat and sleep more modestly if it means being able to stay in a place another day, or spend my money on other things (like tickets to the London Hamilton, which my wife and I went to).
There’s a very interesting study of the impact of living abroad on the creativity of fashion houses directors, and it concluded that living abroad can boost long-term creativity, so long as you can spend more of your time studying the local arts, honing your craft, etc., rather than learning the language and navigating the bureaucracy.
I think a similar principle can be applied to trips like these. Simply being in London is stimulating, lets me meet all kinds of cool people, and gets my creative juices flowing; I don’t need to additional cognitive work of figuring out where to get dinner, or trying to get to all the places that the guidebook says are the hottest new restaurants. (Living in the Bay Area helps a lot: if I want world-class [insert name of cuisine here], I can probably bike to it.) Simplifying the logistics of travel makes it easier for me to spend time on the things that will be more valuable.
While I was in Copenhagen week before last, I came across a cat while heading to a friend’s house for lunch:
Then a couple days later, I ran into this cat at the book stalls in Amsterdam:
I also crossed paths with a couple dogs.
I always like seeing animals when I travel, if only because they remind me of my own pets back home.
During my travels in Europe week before last, I spent a couple days in Copenhagen, which is one of my favorite cities.
I’ve not been back there in a few years, so it was good it see it again. It’s a wonderfully civilized city, and I love its blend of history and modernity (Danish design being one of the high points of the 20th century in my opinion).
And of course, as am American who likes to cycle, I find the bike culture wonderful and irresistible. This was rush hour on Wednesday afternoon:
Indeed, bikes are kind of a constant photographic subject when you’re there.
They really are fabulous burgers.
After giving a talk at a conference on the future of work, I had a free day, and spent it wandering around the city, and met up with a friend and went over to Papirøen (Paper Island).
Papirøen is a former newsprint warehouse turned street food venue. It’s in the same general part of the city as Noma, and is a big part of the burgeoning Copenhagen gourmet food scene (a very odd sentence to write, but there it is.)
I went with the ostrich burger, not because I have any particular hostility towards ostriches or because eating ostrich was on my bucket list; but how many times does one have the opportunity?
It was a very cool scene, and very nice to get reacquainted with the city. I hope it’s not another ten years before I’m back there again!
I was in Europe for about ten days at the end of September. I used to blog about trips in near real-time, but what little real-time reportage I do from the road now tends to happen on Facebook; so this is a chance to catch up on the trip as a whole.
I spent three days at the Happinez Festival in Utrecht, then the following week was all over, giving talks in Geneva, Copenhagen, and Luxembourg; then it was back to Amsterdam, and home. If there’s a way to solve the traveling salesman problem to get the least optimal result, I think I found it.
The Happinez Festival is a biennial festival put on by Happinez magazine. It’s held in a nineteenth-century fort that’s been converted into a concert and event venue, which was fascinating. The walk to the venue is very pleasant, and takes you through some classic Dutch countryside.
For three days, the place gets transformed.
The fact that it’s a fort made for some interesting moments.
The green room for speakers, for example, is located in what used to be a gunpowder magazine.
I spoke on all three days, to crowds that were satisfyingly large, and more important, pretty engaged and interested.
We also did book signings after each talk.
I’d love one day to understand the dynamics behind book signings– in particular how you can have large numbers of people one day, then nobody the next!
I also got to see a bit of the city, as I wandered down to the cathedral and university.
Utrecht is an amazingly pretty place, and while it doesn’t have the amazing concentration of cultural monuments that Amsterdam has, it’s still a great place to walk around. (Few cities are as dense with world-class museums and architecture as Amsterdam, anyway.)
Maybe I’m just getting older, but I appreciate well-kept, prosperous, stable cultures more and more– which means I really enjoy my time in places like the Netherlands and Nordic countries.
However, some things continue to mystify me. The wide variety of things available at the hotel breakfast to put on food that turn out not to be butter but instead unknown varieties of spreadable cheese, for example:
But other than that the hotel the speakers were staying in (the Hotel Mitland) was great.
My room had a terrific view for working.
It was an interesting experience to give the same talk three times, on three consecutive days. It did mean that I was able to refine my remarks to an unusual degree, and sharpen both the points I was making and the delivery. Usually, if you’re diligent you take notes on what you’ve said, how it went over, etc., but there’s a 50-50 chance that you’ll forget or lose those notes; this time, having 24 hours between talks meant I was able to incorporate the feedback a lot more quickly.
After I finished my London publicity tour for Rest (which is coming out with Penguin Life in February 2017), my wife and I spent the weekend being tourists. On Saturday I did something I’ve long wanted to do, but never got around to: we went to visit Charles Darwin’s house in the village of Downe. I’ve written about the house, the nearby Sandwalk, and Darwin’s time there in my last two books, but I’ve never actually been there until now.
Darwin moved to Downe in 1842, to give himself more privacy and room to raise his growing family. He and his wife Emma both wanted to be in the country, and they intentionally chose a place that would not be very easy to get to.
It still isn’t.
First, you get to Charing Cross station, then take the train to the town of Orpington.
From there, you get the number R8 bus that makes the rounds through the country, and stops at Downe. You then walk about a third of a mile to Down House. All told, it’s about 90 minutes to get from Charing Cross to Down House, but in reality, it’s longer: the trains and buses aren’t likely to sync up perfectly. In our case, that was a bit fortuitous, as it allowed us time to have lunch at the Maxwell pub in Orpington.
After that, it was on the bus to Downe. When the roads are open, the bus stops right in front of Down House. This time, it didn’t, so we had to get off and walk.
However, this gave us a chance to visit the church in the village, which is really quite lovely.
There’s also a “Darwin Bar,” rather inevitably.
From the village, it’s a few minutes’ walk to Down House. However, it’s worth noting that much of the walk is along a narrow country road with hedges on either side and no sidewalk, so you really have to keep to the very edge of the road and yet let cars know that you’re there so they don’t accidentally run you over.
Eventually, though, you arrive at Down House.
The house itself has been part of National Trust for a few years, and they do a good job with the exhibits. The upstairs has been converted into an exhibit space, while the downstairs, with Darwin’s study, billiards room, dining room, etc. has been restored and looks like it did when Charles was living there.
Unfortunately you can’t take pictures there.
For me, though, as big a draw as the house was, the Sandwalk was almost as big an attraction. The Sandwalk is a circular path that Darwin laid out on the property as a place where he could go walk and think, and he went out there at least a couple times a day, every day.
To get to it you go through the gardens, and down a path on the edge of the property.
The path is a couple hundred yards long.
At the end, there’s a little place where one can sit if it’s raining. To the left, you can see the path turning and starting to circle back.
The return is through a darker grove of trees, but still quite pleasant.
After we were finished, we walked back to the village, and waited a while for our bus back to Orpington.
All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. And having come with me on my thing, my wife then took us to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Brooklyn.
Among other things I’m doing this weekend (mainly related to my son’s rugby career, it seems) I’ve got pack and get ready for my Big European Tour: I’m off to London for several days to promote the Penguin Life edition of Rest, then will go to Amsterdam for the release of the Dutch edition of Rest and a talk sponsored by The School of Life.
It promises to be a fun time, particularly because after I take care of some business my wife will able to join me. (Next time, kids!) And because after years of writing about it, I finally plan to go to Downe and visit Charles Darwin’s house.
I’ve never been to Amsterdam, so I’m very much looking forward to spending several day there. I’m going to be speaking at the Westerkerk, which promises to be a pretty extraordinary venue.
I just hope the dogs don’t get too flipped out by seeing luggage. But they usually do.
Earlier this summer my son and I flew out to Colorado, spent a day with my dad and stepmother, then drove across the West. The main “purpose” of the trip was was bring out a car that my dad was selling us, to replace my ancient Mazda sedan; but it was also a chance to spend some time with Pop and my son, and for them to spend some time with each other.
It’s also a drive that I really love and haven’t done in some time.
On our first day we followed I-70 through Grand Junction, past towns with names like Rife and Parachute, the latter featuring some awesome and completely unproblematic cultural appropriation.
From there we continued into eastern Utah, which is fantastically desolate.
We arrived at Moab in the mid-afternoon, and spent our first night there. For those who’ve never been, Moab is a small town whose main claim to fame is its proximity to a couple truly spectacular national parks, Arches and Canyonlands. It is to the average Western town what REI is to Sears: super-healthy, catering to a mix of people who are obsessively outdoorsy, and others who just have money.
My son and I took the afternoon and drove into Arches, which proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. For one thing, Arches is absolutely spectacular; but for another, an incredible number of great views are accessible by car.
Of course, it would be great to spend a few days there, camping and hiking and climbing, but you can appreciate the place in a few hours, which is what we had.
We drove up as far as we could in the park, and we hiked around for a bit.
About ten years ago when my kids were young, and we took them to the aquarium every other weekend (that’s how it felt, anyway, and we managed to more than pay for our Monterey Bay Aquarium membership several years running), I was always struck at how they and their peers would find the clownfish and invariably say, “There’s Nemo!” The movie Finding Nemo was a filter they carried around with them through the aquarium.
Well, driving through Arches, I couldn’t help but think to myself, This looks just like Radiator Springs! I hadn’t realized just how great a job the Pixar people had done of tapping into the archetype of the Western landscape, but boy did they get it.
The next day we went back with my dad before getting on the road.
We drove for several hours, until we reached the town of Selina, Utah.
We ate lunch a place called Mom’s Cafe (you can’t possibly miss it) and it turns out that the food is really pretty good. I had the chicken fried steak, which was exactly the dish you would expect at a place called Mom’s Cafe in Selina, Utah.
The “scone,” on the other hand, was completely inexplicable, though partly that’s because my reference scone is in Grantchester.
We then continued west, through Utah and into Nevada, and picked up Highway 50, the “Loneliest Highway in America.” It lived up to its name.
But so long as you’re prepared for it, it’s also a pretty spectacular drive, desolate and solitary in a way few things are in America any longer.
We stopped for the night in Ely, though the next time I do this I might try Austin or Eureka, both of which are closer to central Nevada, and are even tinier.
As for the car, which is a 2002 Chrysler 300M.
Having driven it around for a few weeks, I like everything about it, but it doesn’t feel like me. I love the leather interior, the comfortable seats, the V6 engine, the sunroof, the air conditioning that works, the suspension and quiet: in other words, I love everything about the car, but I suspect I’m always going to feel like it’s a really good rental car— awesome amenities, but not really my own property.
Still, I’m grateful for it, and will drive it until it can’t run any longer, or I inexplicably hit the jackpot with some future book. And it was acquired in about the coolest way I’ll ever get a car.