There are 2 types of holidaymaker. The ones that are content to soak up the sun and drink beer by the pool for a fortnight while turning the colour of an old leather armchair. And then there are the ‘real’ travellers. The ones who go in search of a new cultural experience, who want to learn about the country that they are visiting via trips to ruined buildings, museums and art galleries.
As someone who has the attention span of a goldfish I can’t quite manage the poolside sunbathing ritual for long and this ensures that whenever I go abroad I get to meet the ‘real’ traveller. Maybe you have seen them. They float around in a wave of cheesecloth, wearing hats that always suit them, looking serene and interested in everything. They carry a simple bag or rucksack, slung casually over their shoulder in which they carry their camera and a journal to record every experience. They are the ones who either know the local language or have a photographic memory for phrase books. They search out interesting places and, with one kick of a Jesus sandal, always find quant little eateries serving delicious local delights and wine that doesn’t taste like Yak urine. They converse easily with the locals and lounge outside cafes in the manner of a resting lion, watching the world go by. You read their travel journals or blogs in awe and wonder if the place that you are reading about is actually the same one that you visited last year. You see, like most things in life, travelling has a sliding scale on which you can position yourself at any point between excellent and very crap. I can make this statement because I consider myself to be very crap at it and, by comparison, ‘real’ travellers seem to excel at it.
The chaos that is my usual travelling experience usually starts as soon as I get off the plane due to that minor setback that is the language difference. Like most British people I am hopeless at languages. It is tempting to blame our education system, which is often criticised for not emphasising language teaching. But the truth is, we are taught French and usually one other (optional) language for a few years and can choose whether to continue with it beyond the age of 14. Unfortunately, even if we do carry on learning until the age of 18, the likelihood of spending regular and extensive amounts of time in France are nil for most people, so eventually the little that is learned disappears into the ether. So in our defence, the British are not lazy or dismissive of language learning, it’s just that there are so many of them. It would be the same result whatever language we learned, or however fluent we became. The fact is, unless we choose to work or live in another country, the majority of us don’t visit one particular country often enough to ever be proficient in the language. It is a dedicated soul indeed who spends 3 years learning fluent Greek for a two week holiday in Corfu. We may pick up a few phrases but these are quickly forgotten or can pop up in the form of some weird hybrid European language, as in: “Buonjourno, uno bier und trois vin per favore”. From what I remember the French bar man didn’t find this nearly as funny as we did.
‘Real’ travellers however, if not proficient in a language, can manage to communicate with relaxed and charming facial expressions and a calm steady voice, using just enough perfectly pronounced words to be clearly understood. The recipient beams with delight and usually offers them a broad warm smile before giving them a gift, like their dead mother’s engagement ring or something. I, on the other hand, dread having to make conversation. I start sweating with anxiety as soon as a waiter approaches. I become aware of the desperation in my smile. My bone dry mouth tries to spit out a few words but my brain becomes a spinning typhoon of unconnected phrases that I can’t attach to the actual thing that I want to communicate. In case I am not in enough agony, I am tortured by one phrase that goes round and round my head like a scrolling news ticker. It goes like this: “Everyone hates the English….Everyone hates the English…”. By the time my thought processes have flipped through an historical timeline from Amritsar to Bloody Sunday via Colonialism I am one demonstrative hand gesture away from jumping up and shouting “it’s wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t me, honest”. And this is before I have even attempted to order a bowl of olives. On the rare occasion when I do say something in the correct language it is so poorly pronounced and with such a staccato delivery that I am just met with a blank look. Or occasionally, pity. Apparently, no one in the world understands Yorkshire French. I die a little inside.
As well as an ability to converse with ease, ‘real’ travellers are also extremely adept at being able to find things of interest ‘off the tourist trail’. They can be found eating in the homes of the locals and discovering secluded beaches and amazing unhindered views. They accidentally happen upon quaint villages where a local custom is being performed, right there, right then, just as they are passing through. These gems of serendipity are rare on my travels. I just get hopelessly lost for hours and usually end up in the part of town where I am concentrating less on the local surroundings and more on the Crimewatch reconstruction scenario that is formulating in my head. Oh, and I usually want a wee. ‘Real’ travellers never seem to wee. They trek for miles, up and down mountains, in and out of toilet-free villages, without ever having the experience marred by the utter terror that fills your every sense when you feel that you may, at any moment, pee in your own pants. I, on the other hand, need to piss like a carthorse most of the time. This means that any memories of wafting cheesecloth strewn trips to remote villages are somewhat obscured by recollections of my desperate pleading to use a toilet- complete with mimed squatting actions- having been forced into purchasing some hideous pot thing or a donkey made of grass or similar local handicraft. For years to come, any cultural experience is remembered, not just by what I have learned or enjoyed but by the available number of toilets. It is the only travel blog that I could feasibly write – Toilets of the World. There may be a market for it but I’m not holding my breath.
‘Real’ travellers are chameleon-like in their ability to melt into the environment. They never get mosquito bites, blisters or the shits. They never sweat. They can drink 3 glasses of wine in 35C degrees and not get dehydrated, sunstroke and have to be sick. They never get drunk, even accidentally, and consequently, never have to spend a whole day of their trip horizontal in their Yurt, or whatever it is they are residing in (hotels being far too prosaic). But more than that, ‘real’ travellers NEVER seem to do anything embarrassing. You never hear a ‘real’ traveller tell of the time when the automatic toilet door opened while they are still peeing (Rome 2011), or when they had to dig their friend out of a large plant pot where they had wedged themselves after thinking it was a seat (San Francisco 2002). It is unlikely that they have ever stepped off a metro train at 1 in the morning to ask directions before hearing the doors close and the watching the train hurtle off, their friend’s horrified face plastered against a disappearing window (Paris 2005). And I would bet a large sum of money that they have never introduced a whole bar full of Japanese tourists and American honeymooners to the British drinking culture by getting them all pissed and dancing to Motown. Or that they would spend a significant amount of time explaining to the bewildered barman why he really should get a few Stone Roses tracks on the jukebox (Hawaii 2002). I could go on but I’m sure you get the gist.
That said, I may be impressed by the way that these dignified creatures conduct themselves in any given social situation, but I am also astonished by how they seem to find beauty and wonderment in the most trivial things. I once heard a female traveller, with requisite beatific smile, comment on how “amazing” it was see a local woman shaking a rug outside her front door. Eh? Am I missing some massive point here? Some sociological signifier? Some political message on the plight of rural rug shakers? I’m not convinced that I am but it doesn’t stop me wondering why I am not as awestruck by such simple events. I’m not sure what my fellow travellers thought of me when, at some village ‘spectacle’, I remarked that there really is only so many times I can watch a small dog jump through a hoop without hoping it will explode or something. They were probably too busy being enchanted. And it’s not just about quality it’s about quantity. ‘Real’ travellers never seem to tire of looking at exactly the same thing. Take pots, for example. Unless you are an archeologist, museums full of broken old pots must surely have a rapidly reached fascination threshold. There are only so many fragments of clay I can look without being all potted out, so to speak. At the risk of sounding obtuse, I’m just not feeling it. Does this really make me a Philistine, or just honest?
I am not saying that I am not as awestruck as the next person at the size of the Grand Canyon (or the size of everything in America for that matter), or that I am not suitably fascinated by places of historical interest, or that I find it impossible to enjoy a stunning landscape. It’s just that wherever I go in the world, a cloud of ridiculousness follows. As we all know, just because you love something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you are any good at it. So if there is anyone out there who might offer advice on how to improve my travelling experience then your assistance will be gratefully received. Answers on a postcard please…..