An Ode to the Joy of Travel Moments not just monuments

 

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Joie de vivre may be a French expression, but it is the Spanish who truly embody it. Whilst any conversation between you and your average Spaniard will be heard by the entire city (my neighbours seem particularly keen to ‘chat’ with Barcelona and me, every day, particularly about each other), they truly are some of the most content, loveliest, most even-tempered and kindest people I have ever met. Indeed, one of my greatest joys of living in Spain is the Spanish and, fortunately for me, the behaviour of some of my fellow Brits in Spain hasn’t ever been held against me (although this may be due to the fact that being above average height and blonde means I am Dutch in the eyes of most Spanish).

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There absolutely are some truths behind some stereotypes; there are reasons they exist. In Barcelona we are a hotchpotch of nationalities and my closest friends are American, Polish and Russian (and yes, we did walk into a bar together 😉 My American friend is relentlessly upbeat, my Russian friend approaches her series of dating disasters (several of her dates stole the tip she left for the waiter) with a shrug and “oh well, my grandparents got together in a gulag”, my Polish friend offers ‘honest advice’ on my Russian friend’s dress sense and I act as the classic British diplomat, my speech bubble belying my thought bubble. There is much to divide us, but what binds us, above everything else, is our shared humour, our shared love of travel and our love of life.

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I work entirely with American clients in my work as a tour guide, and almost every single American group has turned up concerned about being perceived as loud and obnoxious. It is at this point I realise Americans really do need to travel more, if for no other reason than to understand that if they want loud, they should try being in a museum with a group of Italians or at a football match with the English, ten p(o)ints down 😉

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But in all seriousness, I always tell them that this simply isn’t true. In fact, and I am not just saying this because I work with Americans, they are the most popular tourists (and I am not just saying that because they tip 😉  The reason is that the majority of Americans that I have taken around Europe are kind, enthusiastic, have a sense of fun and are blown away by what they see; they make me see things through their eyes, eyes which are wide open in amazement at the sites which are all too familiar to me and most other Europeans.

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Living not existing

Preface

As a former teacher and tour guide/tour manager, I take both students and adults across Europe (and formerly India and North Africa). When I taught History in a secondary school in London, the History department had never taken the students out, even into London. Why? Because of the level of paperwork and health and safety assessments and the threat of what might happen should anything go wrong.  I was the first to take the students out. I am also a proud aunt to two fabulous little girls, so I have some sense of what it feels like from the parents’ point of view. I write this not to criticise, but to provoke a conversation about how blame culture is preventing the next generations from really living.

 

Living not existing

Today I watched a TED talk  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kidwSFte8-E   (one of my guilty pleasures, up there with Snickers ice creams, but better as it develops my mind rather than my waistline) by the youngest person to have travelled to every single country in the world, Lexie Alford; a twenty-one year old American girl who is truly impressive. She spoke about getting out of her comfort zone and how we should all do the same. Leave the routine behind and embrace our fears. She said that in all the time she spent travelling there was only one occasion she felt in fear for her life, whilst in the Yemen. And this was because she mistook the gunfire from a wedding party for an act of aggression, so it was a cultural misunderstanding rather than a need for fear.  In short, she encompasses how I feel about travel.

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Similarly, today I spoke to a friend of mine working with American students who come to Barcelona (where I live) for a semester or so and she said that she was taking the students out to Sitges, a resort town nearby where people go to enjoy the lovely beaches and sea. However, the students were not allowed in the sea. Why? Because of the heat wave. Because if they were ‘kept under the sun’ then that could be construed as the fault of the company and they might be sued. Never mind that these were not three year olds, but college age students who were presumably capable of mentioning if they felt they had spent too much time in the sun. Never mind that part of becoming an adult is about assessing risk for yourself and being a responsible adult means looking after yourself.

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This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario in travel. A focus on existing rather than living. Yes, at the end of it no lives are lost, but then again, no lives were lived either.  It is representative of a larger problem and one I have written about before. Fear. Fear is used to control. It’s used to sell and most of all it’s there to prevent. It prevents you from doing, from being, from living. If the purpose of our lives is to eliminate risk entirely, we also run the risk of eliminating living entirely. And yet, in the travel world, unfortunately far too many school boards and their teachers, for (a very rational) fear of being sued, prevent students from really being able to experience life when they travel. Clearly there is no need for unnecessary risk, but if we are at the stage whereby students are prevented from activities, particularly like going in the water on a hot day, then perhaps it’s time to reflect upon why we encourage young people to travel. If we impose boundaries and limits on the way in which they can explore and live, how much ‘travelling’ are they really doing?

Students themselves often turn up fearful. I ask them to actually detail their fears and they rarely can. They just feel scared at the unknown, believing the world to be a big, bad place. The absolute opposite is true. The problem is the twenty-four hour rolling news cycle which people perceive as ‘reality TV’ and the crimes reported on as a common occurrence.

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Parents are understandably worried about their children. My mother still doesn’t like my going hiking alone, at the grand old age of 42, and I can understand her fear. But I have experienced the very best in human nature precisely because of being alone. The moment I reached the top of a Greek mountain without water because I forgot it at the bottom. By the time I realised it was too late to go back and retrieve it but a kind German who gave me almost his entire supply. As well as being my Insta boyfriend for half an hour 😉 Or the group of guys I met who guided me through the slot canyons that I would definitely not have found nor been able to navigate alone (they had to haul me through various parts) and who then helped me with my flat tyre in one of America’s national parks in Utah.

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Italy, Amore Mio

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I first fell in love at the age of eight and am still in love thirty four years later. A childhood romance blossomed into a full-blown affair and then settled into an on-off relationship for the rest of my thirties. Despite many break ups and betrayals, this has been the love of my life. Therefore, on this Valentine’s Day, I dedicate this story to Italy, for it is Italy that has been my one, true, constant love.

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Italy is somewhere that transcends being merely a country. It is a dream. Romantic, idyllic and breath-taking are but a few of the myriad words used to talk about Italy. Fellini’s Dolce Vita encapsulates this as the film moves between reality and dreams, much as those feel about Italy. Don’t get me wrong, I have many a time fallen out of love with Italy. And yet, like those sailors, I find myself drawn to her shores year after year.

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I first came to live here as a child, attending school in Milan. At that point I fell for pizza, pasta, foccaccia and gelato, as any self-respecting eight year old does.  Unable to shake off Italy’s spell, I returned to study at the University of Siena, where I spent lazy days in the Piazza del Campo, sipping on cappuccino and watching the world go by from the outside cafes that lined the square. I returned to live in Rome where I embraced the true dolce vita lifestyle, enjoying long nights out and days spent wandering this open museum of a city.

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Is Travelling Just a Tall Tale of The (Roman) Emperor’s New Clothes?

You can’t go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. No trip to London is complete without visiting Westminster Abbey. Going to Rome isn’t the same without seeing the Colosseum.  Why? Said who? There are many inhabitants who have happily spent a lifetime in these cities without setting foot inside the Colosseum, the Abbey and actively avoid being within view of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed Guy De Maupassant went so far as to have lunch every day in the Tower restaurant as it was the one place where he didn’t have to see the Tower. And this doesn’t just extend to cities and their monuments; it also includes choosing where to visit in each country. Many ‘have to’ go to Madrid if going to Spain or ‘can’t miss’ Athens if off to Greece. This isn’t to say that these places are without merit, my question is more to do with the decision making process behind visits to such places.

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Sometimes I feel that, much as with the Emperor’s new clothes, we are all somewhat faking it in travel. For every ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ there is a part of me that wonders how much this is really true or are we expressing what we feel we should be expressing. Personally I find it hard to feel great amazement for anything when I am in a crowded room, hot and bored as the guide drones on in my ear.

 

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