The Longing, Romantic, Reasonless: An Essay on Travel

Throughout childhood I understood holidaying to mean a trip down the M5 to Devon or Cornwall. Travelling anywhere farther away than these two places seemed something different entirely; a privilege reserved for well-to-do children who think of travel as a necessity rather than a luxury. I would likely have enjoyed jetting off to some far away place to stare out across an expanse of shimmering sea and feel, for the first time in my life, the searing warmth of an exotic clime. But instead I believed myself destined to piece together an understanding of the world through frequent trips to Trago Mills and weekends spent caravaning in torrential rain: the sort of holidays that I am more than certain have contributed much to my now permanently sullen demeanour.

But though I may not have visited anywhere especially far away during these early years, if service stations are to be counted as places, I could have been considered well travelled for such a young person. Remembering back now, I seem to recall visiting more service stations than actual places, as if my childhood were merely one enormous tour of Little Chefs and Welcome Breaks. Yet I don’t remember feeling particularly disappointed during any childhood trips: travelling to the end of the street is exciting enough for a young person, whereas a stop-off at a run-of-the-mill service station, where there are all sorts of broken arcade games with various colourful buttons to be pushed, is practically Las Vegas for kids.

If I needed proof that there was land beyond the shores of Devon and Cornwall, there was the BBC Holiday Programme, which unfortunately also served to further my belief that travelling abroad was almost exclusively for posh people. Many of the places featured on the series looked incredible to my impressionable young mind; but the middle-class smugness of several of its presenters was, at times, too overwhelming to bear. The pomposity of one presenter in particular was such that he seemed to have had condescension pumped into his body like meat into a sausage skin.

The BBC Holiday Programme.

In retrospect, perhaps I was just jealous of these people. I wanted, after all, so badly to travel to wherever they had been sent to review, to pack up and see whether other countries have service stations—to see whether other countries have an equivalent to Devon and Cornwall.

When I was finally able to visit a country that wasn’t England or Wales, the experience opened my mind to the possibility of travel. Brittany in France was to be my first real taste of “going abroad”, although the differences between it and Britain, as its name suggests, are so slight that dining at Nandos might’ve been more insightful in teaching me the ways of the world. At the time I nevertheless delighted in such unremarkable things as hypermarkets, which dazzled me with their range of unmistakably European food products, and artichokes, which grew by their hundreds, fighting for space with one another in crowded fields everywhere.

Brittany was, alas, also where I witnessed a small boy, no older than eight-years-old, pee into a tube before then proceeding to down the liquid as if it were sweet, heady nectar. This incident thus provided me with the first instance of what I now call cultural presumption, whereby a tourist wrongly presumes that a local person’s perverse behaviour is simply how everybody acts in the region. Needless to say, what I witnessed that day led me to believe that all French people throughout the ages, from Marcel Proust to Toulouse Lautrec, have enjoyed drinking fresh urine from tubes—a fallacy that I was only too happy to share with my friends back at school.

A figurine of Napoleon Bonaparte indulging, as the man himself undoubtedly did, on a true French delicacy.

I’ve since been able to reduce the chances of cultural presumptions from occurring by reading as much as I can on a place before I visit. Through anxiety more than curiosity, I find it necessary to have at least some understanding of a country’s political history before I spend time there; furthermore, I always try to learn as much as I can about its cultural habits and traditions, to not only reduce the chance of embarrassment but to also minimise the likelihood of causing offense. As common as it is to hear the inane and uninhibited chatter of commuters on public transport in Britain, in Japan it is considered good practice to refrain from speaking loudly when travelling by bus or train. Similarly, as traveller and editor John Hatt has previously noted, breaking wind might get one forcibly ejected from a shop in Afghanistan, while in China the same thunderous bowel eruption is merely considered a polite, albeit disgusting way of letting the chef know that his or her cooking is delightful.

With all this in mind, it is also worth stating the obvious, and that is that nothing can prepare a traveller for experiencing a place first-hand. As important as it is to read up on a place before a trip—perhaps to avoid the fate and feeling of having one’s bum stapled to one’s face by a 200-pound Afghan shopkeeper—it is always best to simply explore, to roam as freely as is permissible. When travelling, I find this to be the best way of getting around, for the enjoyment of travel comes not from following somebody else’s path, but discovering instead one’s own.

Everybody has his or her own reason to travel, some idea of what makes the perfect trip. Some passengers choose to jet off to sunnier climes purely to revel in sun and sea—to succumb to the sort of luxuries that they have become accustomed to back home, except with the benefit of thirty-one degree heat. Others believe travel to be a greatly romantic undertaking, an adventure that should be undertaken by camel rather than by coach. My motivations to travel are somewhere in between these two camps. I travel to escape my surroundings, to see how others live and how I might wish to live. I travel to learn more about a place that I find extraordinary, a place perceived by its native inhabitants to be commonplace. I travel because I want to escape from what I perceive to be commonplace.

My desire to visit other places is at its strongest during times of frustration. It is a desire spurred on by the sort of irrepressible pang of discontent that Evelyn Waugh once described as “the longing, romantic, reasonless”—an insatiable thirst for adventure, which lies deep in the hearts of most Englishmen. Why this exists only in the hearts of the English, Waugh never explains, although I suspect it has something to do with the climate we have here—i.e. the sort of wet climate in which fish could thrive, if they were to sprout legs and move to Surrey. The English weather, of course, is a famous joke throughout much of the world, yet in truth it can only be described as bad in the sense that is bleak and unappealing. Rarely is it as bitterly cold, nor is it as swelteringly oppressive as some of the weather I have experienced abroad.

During an early trip that I took to New York City, several years after my visit to Brittany, I was overwhelmed at how my English ears were failing so poorly at coping with such inescapable coldness. I had lived through, at this time, perhaps ten or eleven English winters, none of which had been as unbearable as New York City in late February. I would have surely frozen if my family and I hadn’t been accosted by a fast-talking flimflam man, who leapt out of a bush in Central Park to sell us entire uniforms of woollen sportswear. Ordinarily we would have walked on, but we were, I suppose, past the point of caring, even to the degree where we were prepared to walk around the city draped head-to-toe in clothes that persuaded onlookers to “Just Do It!”.

I experienced the exact opposite to this—that is, unbearably hot weather—fairly recently during a trip to Florida, which I wrote about in tediously great detail under the title “Holidaying in Orlando”. Florida has an interesting climate in the sense that it is wetter than a rainy day in Glasgow, but with the additional plight of it being hotter than sun. Hence the effect is as confusing as it is exhausting: it feels like wading through an enormous mug of tea, whilst one’s hair is transformed slowly by the humidity into something that resembles the furry cover to a boom microphone. In my case, considering that my hair already resembles the furry cover to a boom microphone, the humidity simply exaggerated this already ridiculous look to true comic effect.

But while hot or cold weather can be physically taxing for a Brit, who believes that prolonged drizzle and sleet constitutes as bad weather, it should never stand in the way of his or her enjoyment of a trip. Indeed, my trips to New York City and Orlando were two of the most enjoyable holidays that I have been on—New York because it is a truly wonderful place and Orlando for reasons of which I myself am still unsure. Travel should always be, I believe, about getting to the heart of place, even if the place in question is entirely manufactured, and its heart made of plastic. Not all travel experiences have to be entirely enjoyable to be enlightening. As Samuel Johnson, essayist, scholar and the writer of “A Dictionary of the English Language” once noted: “All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own, and if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.”

What I learned during my travels in Florida may never help me to improve my country, but I am fortunate to have travelled to this part of the world and to have experienced a culture—as bizarre as it undoubtedly is—so different to that which I am accustomed. This quote by Johnson has become something of an unwitting mantra, words to live and travel by. It’s taken from his travelogue “A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland”, written in 1775, long before the invention of the airliner, and even longer before any of the horrors that I found in Disney World had even been conceived. But in an age of modern travel, a time when travelling abroad has never been so easy, his words, I think, still hold truth.

During my early years spent touring service stations down in the South-West of England, I never imagined that I would one day be able to travel to another country. Of course, back then I scarcely could comprehend that there was anything besides ocean beyond the horizon. Yet now I’ve travelled farther than I could ever hoped to have: I’ve explored all around the United Kingdom and Ireland, been many times to Spain and France and twice to both Italy and the United States—a rather unimpressive list of places to most people, but remarkable for a person who, at one time, never thought he’d see land beyond Penzance. Such is the nature of travel that the more one experiences, the more one wishes to see of the world and therefore, I suppose, the less one wishes to stay in the same place.

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