Category Archives: A reflective life

The silver lining of travel disappointment

Outside Versailles with a crowd of people

In travel as in life there are Disappointments. They may not be quite as deep as the disappointment Buffy the Vampire Slayer felt when her friends brought her back from the dead, thinking they were rescuing her from hell, only to discover that they actually yanked her our of heaven, but they are disappointments none the less. Sometimes disappointments occur when we have expectations that are not met, and the opposite is true; the things we didn’t know about beforehand, or had low expectations of, can turn out to be amongst the best surprises of our trip. Sometimes we are disappointed because an attraction is just downright shabby or dodgy – but even this does provide us with some funny stories to tell later, once we’ve gotten over cursing ourselves for having shelled out money for the attraction in the first place.

Here are ten travel disappointments I’ve identified on my travels:

  1. The Mona Lisa

Spoiler alert: she is really very small. Also, she is likely to be surrounded by a large crowd. The silver lining is that she is a far more intimate portrait than I had imagined, and I now further admire the skill required to paint such detail on that small scale.

2. Crowds

Versailles is by far the most crowded place I have ever visited (although Barcelona comes close). Inside the buildings I was swept along in a sea of people, barely able to see the furnishings and treasures in the rooms and lost my friend temporarily in the crowds. The silver lining is that I have greatly appreciated every place I have ever visited since that I have had to myself, or only shared with a few people.

3. Weather

Obviously this is not something you have control over (unless you’re Weather Wizard from The Flash), but it can certainly turn a visit somewhere into a disappointing time. Especially if that somewhere is a garden, a boat trip, a hike, or if you were hoping to see sunlight flooding though strained glass and showering a rainbow of colours on the floor. The upside is that dark or moody days can make for better (and easier) photography than when the weather is brilliantly sunny. Plus you’re less likely to get sunburnt! Additionally the weather can certainly make a situation more dramatic and atmospheric. On a recent trip to Spain, our group walked the last 20km or so of the Camino de Santiago. As three of us entered the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, the weather chose that moment for the heavens to open and visit a dramatic storm on us. We had to shelter under a building and debate whether to go on or not. Although we only walked 20km of the Camino, we certainly experienced in miniature what pilgrims have to face.

4. Dodgy tourist attractions

I once visited a castle in England that was privately run. Instead of curated historically significant items on display, there was a collection of oddments: a kind of cross between an op shop and the kind of tacky ornaments someone might have at home. They were certainly not period pieces. In this same castle there was a very odd guide who literally flew at us and made me put on an antique metal helmet. She then proceeded to hit me in the side of the helmet (head) with a plastic He-man type sword to show me how well the helmet would have protected my face. If I have brain damage today, I could trace it back to the helmet banging and clanging against the sides of my head. Sure the helmet protected my head from the sword, but my head wasn’t protected from the helmet itself. My friend who I was with at the time declined to have this authentic ancient wartime experience herself. Silver lining: I’ve certainly appreciated all the well-run National Trust or Heritage sites that I’ve visited since.

In a town in France my friend and I paid to enter a historic site, which turned out to be just pretty much an empty corridor. Ah, nice bricks? I suppose at least we were putting money into the local economy.

Sometimes it is really, as they say, the journey and not the destination. In South Korea we spent a lot of effort to climb a mountain peak, scaling ladders in a piercing wind, all the time expecting a spectacular view from the top. It’s true the view one way was quite good, but on the other side of the peak there was a large plain featuring a hotel – not quite the wilderness I’d been expecting to gaze on. Also we felt proud of our effort to climb the peak, only to discover men selling coffee and souvenirs on the top, who probably trot up there every day. But the epic journey up was very photogenic, and it was good exercise!

5. Tacky souvenirs and terrible postcards

When you want an authentic sample of local craftsmanship, or a decent book on a historical attraction and all you can buy are tacky badly painted figurines and postcards with yellowing photos that look like they were taken in the 60’s, you experience disappointment. On these ocassions you either have to rely on your own photos for memories of what you saw, or you are left with your impression of a place in memory only. In either case you’ve certainly saved money – and you’ve certainly saved your friends and relations from feeling obliged to display a bad postcard on their fridge for an undefined period of time.

6. Stonehenge

I admit, I had built up in my mind an idea that Stonehenge would be a place of atmosphere and mystery and that I would be able to wander among the stone plinths and imagine ancient rituals there. What I didn’t anticipate was the rope that only allows visitors to skirt a perimeter around the outside of the stone circle. I also didn’t anticipate the multitude of other visitors, so there was certainly no disappearing into another world like Claire in Outlander. Thirdly it poured rain – which did provide a moody atmosphere – but made it difficult to juggle cameras and protect your clothes and hair from getting wet. However I managed to take a number of photos showing no other people and no rope, so I have continued to perteptuate the myth that visitors to Stonehenge can have an up-close people-free atmospheric experience. Silver lining? Well I made it to Stonehenge and came away with some iconic images. It also makes me think more about preservation of historical sites. We can’t all tread the paths and touch the stones at sites without serious wear and tear, so it’s a good thing when organisations are far-sighted and work to preserve sites for future generations.

7. Other travellers

I remember standing in one of the chapels in the Church of the Holy Blood in Bruges and attempting to reverently drink in the atmosphere. All around me were tourists trying to snap a photo of everything in sight. Often tourists defy the ‘No flash photography’ or ‘No photography’ signs and sneak photos anyway, as if they had some special exemption from the rules. Sometimes in art galleries you can’t get near the paintings for the number of people who want to pose for a selfie next to every single picture. Sometimes other travellers do things or utter words that are blatantly culturally offensive and you just want to crawl under a bench.

So I’ve pointed the finger at others, but I’m sure there are also times when I knowingly or unknowingly did or said the wrong thing while travelling. And sometimes travel wears us down and we’re not at our best when ultra tired. Sometimes we get sick or feel tired and can’t make the most of an opportunity.

8. Queues

It can certainly ruin your day to have to stand in an interminable queue, especially if you get to the end of it only to find you are in the wrong queue. I never knew queueing was an art in itself until I stood in line to go to the tennis at Wimbledon. That day did contain a particualar disappointment as we stood in line for quite a while (maybe a few hours) and when we finally got in we did not even see any tennis before the covers were pulled over the courts due to the rain. However I did pick up some Wimbledon merchandise and learnt a lot about queue etiquette (unfortuantely the entry fee was non-refundable).

9. Closures

On the only day you can visit there, they are closed. Whether it’s the Vatican, where they reserve the right to close Museums from day to day without notice, or whether it’s a palace in Thailand and it’s a public holiday that was previously unknown to you, you can turn up somewhere and find it closed on the day, when it was open the day before and may also be open the next day – it’s just not open on the only day you can get there. This has happened to me a number of times. On these ocassions you have to improvise, move on to plan B and sometimes this provides you with a surprising treat.

10. Shonky accommodation

Perhaps you, like Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a view experience disappointment when you don’t get the room with a view (and your companion doesn’t agree with you changing rooms with a man in case it puts you under some kind of inappropriate obligation). I’ve certainly been disappointed by the size of some hotel rooms, particulary when sharing a room with a friend or fellow tour member. One memorable night was spent in an Italian hotel room where we were kept awake all night by a medieval parade through the city, only to be woken early the next day by the sound of broken glass and building rubble cascading down a rubble shoot and smashing in a pile  opposite our window. You don’t always have a good night’s sleep when you travel, so its fortunate when you’re super tired from traipsing around all day and you can’t help but sleep despite it all. In the end you do appreciate your own bed at home a lot once you get back to it.

 As they say, it’s not so much the disappointment, but what we do with it that counts. And even if it’s just rich fodder for blog posts, those travel disappointments have done their work. I find travel makes me reflect on my own society too – it makes me more thankful for certain things, while also appreciating new things I’ve learned while away.

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Discarding Tess and other travel reading tales

 

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When I travel I like to try to immerse myself in cultures or countries by reading fiction or non-fiction that is set where I’m visiting. I finally finished a Hemingway novel recently while on a tour in Northern Spain. As we progressed from Pamplona to Logrongo and on to San Sebastián, the trials and tribulations of Hemingway’s emotionally tortured ex-pats Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley dwelt in my mind. As we reached the yard in Pamplona that holds the penned bulls and progressed along the then empty streets, echoes of the real running of the bulls and of Hemingway’s young matador, Romero, came to me. Inevitably reading (or watching) a tale that’s set somewhere you’ve been gives you a thrill, or brings a deeper understanding of characters, context and story. Especially where place is a strong character in itself. Some stories could be set anywhere for all the effort the author makes to ground the tale in a particular place and time, but others are inextricably linked to their setting. 

 The first and only time (so far) that I’ve visited England, I brought along Hardy’s iconic Tess of the d’Ubervilles, which I’d never managed to read before (despite taking a Hardy elective in literature at Uni). My friend and I wound our way past hedgerows and along backroads to Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, where we came to the cob and thatch cottage home of Hardy’s childhood and stooped our heads (a lot, in the case of my friend) to fit under the doorway and shuffled up the narrow, rickety staircase. Visiting the house of Hardy’s beginnings helped me picture a life and times far distant from my own. It also helped me picture the author at work. However in regards to his books, unfortunately, the victimisation of Tess and the looming sense of deep tragedy was too much for me, wandering far from home and to stop myself descending into a depressed stupor I had to get rid of that book half-finished. One day I hope to have the stamina to reach the Stonehenge scene, but after ten years, I still haven’t resumed Tess’ story since I abandoned her in Bath. In my mind she is perpetually stuck in the middle of her sad tale.

 At the time, I moved on from Tess to a book about the Georgian princesses. This was also somewhat depressing, but more in the manner of a ghoulish accident that you can’t help stopping to gawk at. I discovered just how many wives of Georgian kings were made unhappy, locked up and declared insane (to get them out of the way) and how many sisters of the kings remained spinsters. All in all they were not a happy lot, although nor were their dissolute husbands and brothers. Certainly the lives of royals otherwise just names and numbers came to life through the pages and, coupled with visits to places such as the Tower of London, gave me a greater sense of gratitude about being born when and where I was. Sometimes western freedoms of job choice, living situations, hobbies and products available can almost seem a burden of choice, but in contrast so many people’s lives have been so constricted by culture, family and circumstances of birth that I was faced anew with the amazing gift of the freedoms I enjoy. 

 On my recent trip to Europe I determined to read a book relating to each country I visited. Travelers in the 19th century had available to them the ‘Miniature Library’, which included seminal works such as The Bible, poetry and French and German Dictionaries, cultural touchstones to take with them into new situations. For this trip I mainly traveled with e-books on my tablet and rather than carrying the familiar or the exalted with me, looked to gain insights into another cultural mind through the porthole of the book. My main criteria for the books I chose to download was that they should provide factual information about the country, its people and culture, intertwined with highly readable personal memoir or travel anecdotes or well-written literary fiction. The first book I chose was The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth, a non-fiction analysis which covers five ‘nordic’ countries and so covered off three that I was visiting: Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The author, as an ex-pat married to a Dane, was observing one culture he’d married into and a country he’d lived in, and other countries he had traveled to and spent various time in. I gleaned a lot of social observations and was able to delve further into the history and motivations behind these cultural expressions through this book. Everything from the hot tub phenomenon to Santa Claus was covered in the pages. I’m not sure if it helped me relate to those I met more sensitively but it certainly kept me informed – and his reflection about the prevalence of hot tubs in Swedish households did prove true in my personal experience. I was also supplied with various trivia I could raise later in conversations, although I must admit to having forgotten a large part of it 6 months on, perhaps I was too distracted by all the wonderful art galleries I visited in those countries and need to re-read his book now I’m back in the midst of ordinary life. 

 Most important of all in travel writing is humour. Whether an author is writing about their own country or a country they travel through, if they can do it with a humorous perspective they’ve succeeded in my book. All that I ever knew about the phenomenon known as Nordic Walking, I learnt from the relevant chapter in Adam Fletcher’s Make me German. I purchased a dual German/English version of the book for some friends who had just moved to Germany. This book definitely provided the most humorous observations of any book I read this trip. I have an attraction to strange cultural practices and so take delight in other people’s observations of them in all their splendidly eccentric minute detail. Michael Moran’s descriptions of attending and running training conferences at a location in rural 1990’s Poland in A country in the moon were also humorous and prove how much stranger truth can be than fiction. 

 When we’re back at home travel writing can help take us on a journey of the imagination or provide destinations to add to our real world travel wish lists. So what can reading travel writing do for us while we’re actually traveling? Sometimes it provides information about places we’ve been, in addition to tours or guide books, or it explains practices or sights that were culturally strange to us. Good travel writing provides more than just the present moment, it gives us the wider historical and perhaps political and social context that we need to understand why a nation and its people are the way they are, and where this is a world a way from our own experience, it gives us hints as to how to relate to people. Most of all it does put us in the shoes of actual people and show something of what it is like to be a citizen of a particular country, it helps us get inside an experience we will never fully be able to have for ourselves as someone born elsewhere speaking another language with a different experience of family, work, war and peace. Good travel writing should help us be human.

 

For my last trip I hoped to read one book for each of the eleven countries I visited. I’m still looking for books that fit my criteria that cover the Netherlands, Belgium and Estonia. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. 

 
Some books I’ve read while traveling: 

ENGLAND

  • The Georgian Princesses – John Van der Kiste
  • Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

SWEDEN, DENMARK, NORWAY, FINLAND, ICELAND

  • The almost nearly perfect people – Michael Booth

POLAND

  • A country in the moon – Michael Moran

GERMANY

  • Make me German – Adam Fletcher
  • Germania – 

CZECH REPUBLIC

  • Me, myself and Prague – Rachael Weiss

PORTUGAL

  • Journey to Portugal – José Saramago

SPAIN

  • Spain – Jan Morris
  • The Sun also rises – Ernest Hemingway
  • Tales of the Alhambra – Washington Irving

Reading around on blogs I just discovered the weekly travel themes over at Where’s my backpack and realise my post fits the weekly Travel theme: Books https://wheresmybackpack.com/2016/04/15/travel-theme-books/

 

 

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To gaze on the art alone

 One thing invariably happens when I travel: the places I was most looking forward to going end up being somewhat of a let down, while places I never dreamed of, or never meant to go to, end up being trip highlights. The best people, places and experiences are often literally stumbled across.

On on my recent trip to Europe there were art galleries I planned to visit, and most of my planned visits were worthwhile, albeit involving jostling elbows with others. However some of my best art experiences were ones where I ended up in galleries alone.

I stayed in the Belgian city of Bruges (Brugge) for three days and the first day I just wandered. I hate looking too much like a tourist and so I was hat-less and map-less (which actually resulted in me being asked tourist information by a group of Polish people, and led to an interesting conversation in which they were trying to persuade me to visit Ghent and look at a website containing aerial photos of Ghent – but I digress!).

I saw a sign to exhibitions of the art of Picasso and others and wandered into the Site Oud Sint-Jan (old St John) hospital site. While I was buying a ticket to Picasso, I saw they also had a Chagall exhibition on and so went for the ticket combo. It turned out my Chagall ticket had a door keypad combination attached to it. It took me a few goes to work out how to gain entry to the Chagall exhibition via the keypad – things are never simple when foreign languages, other cultures and even non-language specific symbols are involved (what is that supposed to be a picture of?).

Once I gained what now felt like privileged entry to the Chagall exhibition, I felt like I had entered a sacred space. 

The room had high ceilings, sun and classical music playing. I’ve seen a number of Chagall’s paintings before, but never his prints; his lithographies. Something about the space, the art and the fact that I had the art all to myself filled me with a sense of joy and wonder.

If you’ve never seen the art of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) before, there is a strong sense of character to his people, who are depicted in an expressionist, semi-naïve art style that stirs the emotions. The combination of their expressions and the vibrant colours tells a story with minimal use of line, richly coloured tonal areas and shading. Some of the lithographs were of biblical figures, like David playing the harp (to King Saul), his head turned to one side, in profile and looking down, and his arms encircling his harp, holding it close. His one visible eye and protective posture capture a poignancy. Often his figures are floating, along with plant and animal life, untethered from this earthy plane and gravity. His work has a minimalist charm. 

I remember looking at the works, and then returning to each work that spoke to me, under the spell of these speaking pieces. The sun shone down through the tall six-pane windows into the charmed space and I was in a state of awe and wonder. 

Eventually other people could be heard punching in the doorcode, with its accompanying beeps, and getting frustrated when it wasn’t letting them in. But after a while the space no longer belonged to just me. The spell broken, I went on to see other works, and share gallery spaces with other people (and an Afghan wolf hound at one stage). I can’t quite recapture it, but I still remember the state of grace that was that gallery experience. 

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Hot air balloons & hope

  
There is something magical about spotting a giant, colourful, inflated balloon (or a flotilla of them) sailing through the skies over your town. I used to work on the edge of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens and when I arrived early to work, my route from the train station to work would walk me past the MCG sport stadium and then across the muddy Yarra River. As I approached the river I would often see hot air balloons that had probably left Melbourne’s Yarra Valley at 5am drifting over the gardens or over the city. When I saw them, they would always lift my mood. What is it about a hot air balloon? I’ve never actually been in one, although I’d like to have the opportunity one day. To me, hot air balloons are mystical, they appear to me as if out of nowhere and hover high up defying gravity. I can never see the passengers in the baskets, so they appear only as a spot of colour. Whenever I see them I feel like pointing them out to someone, not content to keep my marvelling to myself.

I have to admit to a penchant for the Regency fiction of Georgette Heyer. Some may pour scorn, but she wrote well and although the basic plots were Jane-Austen style Regency societal tales (with a central romance or two), Heyer infused them with gallons of historical detail about the period. In her novel Frederica, set in about 1818at one point Felix, the brother of the heroine (Frederica) accidentally gets carried away in a hot air balloon that was on show at an exhibition by some balloon adventurers. The Lord of the moment, the Marquis of Alverstoke, who has a tendre for the heroine helps to track down the fly-away young brother as he travels cross-country on his unintended balloon excursion. Even today there remains that random factor about balloon travel that, although I’m sure they plan for a particular destination, sometimes weather or other factors intervene and they have to make an unintended set-down. But (as long as the set-down isn’t in a hazardous location) there is something charming to me about the lack of ultimate control in an age of hyper-scheduling and technological control. I’ve been told that even whether a balloon can take off in the morning in the first place is impacted on heavily by weather conditions.

I’m staying in Germany at the moment and several days I have glimpsed balloons in the sky over Aachen. At first I was surprised to see them in the mid-late afternoon as I’d always seen them at home in the early morning. But regardless, when I saw them they appeared to me as symbols of hope. Something about them lifts the mind from daily concerns to the boundless possibilities of the skies.

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The many meanings of coffee

Empty blue coffee cup and saucer

Symbol

In our caffeine-obsessed Western society, coffee has become a symbol of many things. It’s a symbol of friendship – after all we sometimes ask friends who don’t even drink it whether they want to ‘catch up for a coffee’. To a coffee connoisseur, which coffee you have on your shelf (instant, beans, ground) and which brand, could be a symbol of your general good taste or poor taste.

Coffee also represents for us strength and energy: we crave our morning (noon or night) coffee and believe it gives us the power to persevere at work or study or to do what we need to do when we’re sleep deprived or lacking energy. To some it’s a symbol of allowable addiction and unhealth, whereas for others who read the positive scientific study results, it stands for health.

Coffee is a vein that runs through popular culture, but a particular instance I came across recently is in the TV show, Fringe, where there are two parallel universes. In the alternate universe, which is more technologically advanced, but was beset by many issues and environmental catastrophes due to events initiated by intrusions from the main universe, coffee has become a rare commodity. For a ravaged society it represents what has been lost, and when the character Astrid gives the other Astrid, who is the alternate universe version of herself a can of coffee it is seen by the deprived as a treasure, a symbol of friendship and perhaps hope.

In some countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea where they have formalized coffee ceremonies, coffee may stand for tradition, community, hospitality and more. For those whose lands have been overtaken by coffee cash crops it may be a symbol of injustice or oppression or simply equal work and the means to sustain life, while for others, as a forerunner product in the Fairtrade movement, it may stand for justice.

It may be only a beverage, but coffee is a potent cultural symbol and a chance to choose justice with every cup.

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