Sunday, August 23, 2009

360. Travels

I’ve just returned to Japan after a month-long visit to Ireland and various spots I like in Europe. It was something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and it came off reasonably well. I enjoyed it. I didn’t lose my passport or travellers checks, I didn’t get ripped off, at least not too outrageously, and I came back intact and all in one piece … physically.

Now I’m waiting to discover and assess the inner meaning of this trip as the images and memories begin to settle. The quotidian details of travel are of scant interest to the casual reader unless he or she plans to follow in one’s footsteps, a thing I would hardly ever recommend: what time the train left and what time it arrived; what one had for lunch and how much it cost; the cleanliness or shabbiness of hotel rooms and the attitudes of the staff; the friendliness, indifference (most common), or hostility of the locals. All of these things take on enormous importance in the course of a journey for the person who directly experiences them and because of the emotional wear and tear (inevitable, really) there is a tremendous urge to write about them. I’ve been down that road and I think this kind of stuff is basically boring. If you travel you should expect hassles. Even if you don’t expect them they will come along anyway.

I like to travel alone for a very simple reason: I don’t have to listen to anyone else’s opinions. There is no need for accommodation of any kind, nor for compromise, you just do what you like and can change your mind at the drop of a hat. In my experience this is the only way to go. If you travel with a friend or lover you are carrying a whole universe of shared assumptions on your back and this shared experience and even language acts as a filter on every new thing you see. Some people like the idea of support and companionship but on the whole I’d rather go without. We’re told ad infinitum that it’s so really really important to express our feelings, to discuss and explain things. Why? Just go off and do what you like.

The locals often don’t co-operate in these fine fantasies. They happen to reside in the places you are merely passing through and they couldn’t give a toss about you, living or dead, although I’d have to say that young people in their twenties with a bit of English do try to be helpful in a student-solidarity sort of way, possibly since they are still blissfully unaware of how awful their lives will shortly become. The older ones tend to look at you like so many tortoises.

This is where I have to tell you the story of Brigitte. The banks in France just don’t want to cash travellers checks for some reason. I tried, how I tried, in Amiens for about an hour before I had to scurry off to the station to catch the local train to Albert … which turned out to be a bus, but that’s another story. They’d all told me go to the Post Office. The Post Office? So when I got to Albert (pop: 10,000 on a good day) I skipped along to the post office where I met Brigitte. Brigitte was … um … a large sort of person, obviously local (everyone said Bonjour, Brigitte) and she tended to squint and scowl at you from behind her pebble glasses. She never once smiled. I told her I wanted to change two travellers checks (200 Euro) and she glared at me before heaving herself off her chair for consultations in a back room. She came back to tell me Non, non, pas possible! until I summoned up my fifty words of French (rearranged carefully by occasion) to explain how the banks were so fucking cold, nasty and heartless … pas de coeuer, Madame, j’en suis pas un client, vous connais, il n’avons pas plus de coeuer, zut, fini! … and so she heaved herself back in her seat and glared at me some more, then consulted various books and manuals as people began to queue up behind me, not impatient as they might have been in England, just mildly curious. It took about twenty minutes and then she gave me the cash! I felt like kissing her but realised this might be shockingly misunderstood. I had to volunteer to countersign the checks since Brigitte obviously had no inkling of this standard financial formality but I was suitably subtle and discreet so no shame might come down on her from the interested onlookers. I smiled my widest smile and she glared at me like an insect on her shoe.

Heaven Bless you, Brigitte, may God shine His light upon you, now and forever, amen!!

As I was saying, (Merci millefois, Brigitte!) petty annoyances, mistakes and miscalculations form a fairly constant (in fact, daily) theme for the budget traveller in settings where he or sometimes she is alone, a stranger, and quite frequently incompetent with the local language. The idea that people in small towns in France or Germany or anywhere else could or should speak English is frankly laughable. Could you even begin to imagine a French tourist showing up at a motel in, say, Flagstaff, Arizona and saying in a loud voice Parlez-vous francais? Outside of Paris you kind of hopefully say Parlez-vous anglais? And they say Non and you take it from there.

more to come ... this article is taking longer than I expected to complete for various reasons, so click HERE for the link to the photos (when the album opens go to the upper left corner and click on the Slideshow button).