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Things you just have to do when you travel. Or else?

The trouble with things you just have to do / see / eat is that you have exactly the same travel experience as everyone else. Or worse, you don’t have the same marvellous experience everyone told you about.
For example, Venice is a pretty magical city. Anyone who has been there will tell you that you haveto go on a gondola ride. Grit your teeth, pay the exorbitant price and lower yourself into that gondola. The thing is, some people do love it – they cry from the joy of drifting on the canals of such an historic city. But others hate it. They forget that Venice is still a functioning (just) modern city with around 60 000 permanent inhabitants. The water does not smell sweet and fresh. The washing on the line hanging outside windows is sometimes colourful, but sometimes grey with giant underpants and drab singlets. The gondolier is a little seedy, his singing forced and off key. ‘Really?’, they cry. ‘This is a gondola ride in Venice? Why did I have to do this?’
Well-trodden holiday destinations can turn a little into ‘checkbox’ travel. Did you have Singapore Sling at the Raffles? Have you seen a flamenco show in Madrid? Did you ‘mind the gap’ on a tube ride in London? Surely you had pizza in Naples, right? (For the record, Neapolitan pizza is very flat and usually pretty plain. If you’re picturing a big fluffy base with five different meats and twelve different vegetables – you may or may not like it. Just saying. The gelato, on the other hand, stands a good chance of being everything you ever dreamed of.)
Sometimes you’re made to feel guilty if you didn’t do ‘the thing’ in a particular city. You’re confronted with little crestfallen faces, full of dismay: ‘You didn’t go to the catacombs in Rome? Oh. I see.’. Silence. ‘No time for the Vatican museums, you say? Oh.’ You’ve failed. You’ve failed them and you’ve certainly failed yourself. Never mind that you met a local and consequently ended up an authentic little restaurant for dinner. Never mind you had a personally guided tour of the Coliseum given by an art history PhD student. Never mind you lit candles at church and ended up participating in the local Saint’s Day celebrations. You’ve disappointed those that cannot go and you’ve been underestimated by those that have been.

You actually do have to see the waterfalls when
you go to Niagara Falls. Difficult to avoid. 
Ok, ok, I now confess that I too have been guilty of starting some sage travel advice with ‘you have to’. And perhaps this blog is actually about how I agree with those that urge you on to do what you’re ‘supposed to’. But I’m going to qualify my agreement by stating that I usually only use this statement for those that have researched the crap out of their holiday destination to the point that they can give you the dimensions of the Corcovado, the species of trees growing on the Sugarloaf, and the preferred waxing salons of Brazilians living in the Ipanema area.
If you (think) you know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to see it and how you’re going to feel about it you could, potentially, actually miss the point. There are some things your 72 inch LED HD television screen is simply not able to convey. I found Uluru spiritual and intense (not everyone does, see for example, my mother’s experience in Disappointments). And I found Port Arthur illuminating – it put me in touch with a sense of colonial Australia and connected me to history. Those are two places beautiful to look at pictures of, interesting to read about – I’ve certainly done both – but being there made me connect and flicked on the switch of understanding.
Travel, to me, is about witnessing. There’s something earnest and genuine about witnessing in person. It means engaging all five senses (six if you’re lucky enough!) and really connecting with a place or people. That’s when magic happens and that’s what I’m encouraging when I say ‘you have to’. That picture you’ve seen of the Amalfi Coast doesn’t do it justice – the picture can’t prepare you for the remarkable sunshine, for the glittery effect it has on the ocean, for the brisk breeze, for the lyrical background chatter, for the contrasting colours, and for the smell of food wafting out of restaurant doors. That’s why you ‘have to’. That’s why, despite all your research and your 3D virtual tour, you won’t know, really know, until you’ve witnessed. 

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Encounters with strangers

The point of travel for me is connection – connection to place, history, culture, but above all people. Encounters with strangers are what have made my travel so special. Let me clarify (and perhaps disappoint you?) that when I say ‘encounters’ I don’t mean seedy hotels with pay-by-the-hour rooms! I mean gentle brushes (non sexual!) with random people that may not necessarily become best friends, but for whatever reason, leave an impression.
Sometimes the encounter is just one little random conversation. I had a lovely chat with an elderly gentleman and his daughter, on their way to Australia from the US. He struck up the conversation by trick quizzing me: ‘Do you know what Qantas stands for?’. Er… actually … no, not completely. ‘Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services’. I see. So I asked him how he knew that, what he was doing and where he was going and he told me that he was heading to Queensland to see a dying friend, etc, etc. Pleasant chit chat. And then, after about half an hour of this, he suddenly stopped, leaned on his armrest and said, ‘Anyway, I can’t hear anything you’re saying, I’m deaf!’. And then settled back down into his chair. I actually laughed out loud and left him alone. Later he asked me whether I could help him at customs – he hadn’t declared the two rifles in his suitcase and was anticipating some trouble. Er… what? I can’t hear you……
Some strangers do become lifelong friends. I met Jackie at the Grand Prix track in Sao Paolo, Brazil and only later discovered that, in a city of 11 million people and countless hotels, we were staying at the same place.  Jackie was a mad Formula 1 and Ferrari /Schumacher fan. When I say mad, yes, I mean a little unstable. She had flown all the way from Newcastle, UK just to witness Michael Schumacher’s (first) last race. She sobbed through the last twenty laps. Two years later I was visiting family in the UK and decided to take the train to Newcastle. She was so excited by my visit she met me on the platform with an air horn, a Ferrari flag and red painted face.
Other strangers are just strange. After another utterly predictable strike, my friend and I boarded a train in Rome, bound for Florence. We were scrambling around with our backpacks when a well dressed, middle aged woman came into our compartment, said commandingly ‘hold this’ to my friend and held out her hand. Unthinking, my friend took the object… which happened to be a leash… at the end of which…. was a small dog. And then the lady disappeared. We looked at each other wide eyed, wondering what we were going to do with a small foreign dog. But the lady reappeared after a moment with luggage and a giant carry bag. She first organised the cases and then took the leash again with a small smile and nod. Then she sat down and unpacked her carry bag – basket, blanket, toy, food bowl, water bowl, bottled water. She plonked the little dog on top and settled in to read a magazine. The dog looked dreadfully bored but there he sat for the duration.
Perhaps my favourite stranger is a man named Jody Cinnamon who my cousin and I met at Mt Robson in western Canada. (Let me remind you again, there are no romantic encounters in this blog…) Jody introduced me to both Shrek and Paolo Coelho. He was as serene and smiling as a Buddhist monk but passionate and energised. He told us he’d only been bored once, for 10 minutes. He seemed ashamed by that too – he just couldn’t understand the concept of boredom when there was always something to think about or look at. He played the harmonica while driving with his knees, played the guitar around a bonfire, and taught himself the bagpipes from a manual ordered from Scotland. I read The Alchemist in three days and thought about my destiny. Jody wanted to live for a thousand years because he had so much he wanted to do – learn astronomy, for example, or fly to the moon. He just had a beautiful effect on most people he met. You couldn’t be angry or petty or disgruntled in his company – he was just too darn happy and content.
I still remember the encounter and I still read The Alchemist on a regular basis. 


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My Italian village

The sun pressed its face against the glass so I wound the car window down to let it in as we hurtled over a gravelly country road. A smile rubbed across my face. The sunshine was liquid and sitting in the backseat was like falling asleep in a bath of melted chocolate. The sky was a dazzling and perfect shade of summer blue. My father’s village, packed into the spaces between hills in southern Italy, was called Pago Veiano but it was known more simply and affectionately as ‘Pago’. 

I’d been waiting to see my father’s birthplace for years. He, my mother and I were staying with his cousin. From the balcony window the tiny village had a cinematic air about it; dogs lay yawning at the side of the road and crusty men in worn jackets gathered around wooden tables in doorways playing cards and arguing. Grey stone buildings slanted at alarming angles and streets dipped into impossible slopes. The ‘main’ road hugged the side of the hill, skirting the village instead of ploughing through it like regular main roads. Which said a lot about the village.

In the street a tiny old lady in the requisite black beckoned me from her doorway a few houses away. She spoke in a toothless southern dialect, ‘Simme’ paesani’, (‘we’re related’) and gave me a satisfied smile. Then, ‘Anchio sono una Morganella’ (she had the same surname as me). I gave her a friendly look of surprise. I wasn’t sure what else I should say as she lapsed contentedly back into silence and looked past me, out over the hills. So I left her sitting outside her low doorway, hands folded in her lap. I turned instead to look at my father standing by the side of the road. His dark face was creased and aged but his expression was full of stern strength, his dark brown eyes focused very successfully on nothing at all. The ever-present cigarette trailed smoke in his callused fingers. His neat little greying moustache covered his very small smile.

My father’s face was a well full of rippling water, each time he passed a significant corner or saw someone he recognised. I felt a crumpling, inexplicable sadness each time it happened though; at the thought of time smashing along at speeds which we fail to recognise until it’s too late, and at the thought that this was all ‘for the last time’. Each familiar face took my father back to a place he remembered with nostalgic but somewhat bitter fondness. He smiled as he told me how desperately hungry they were when he was a little boy growing up after the war, but he couldn’t have smiled then. Pago drew my father away into an era where I couldn’t reach him. But it also gave me a sense of ‘why’ in the present.

Another auntie and uncle were down from the north. They decided to ‘rescue’ me from the ancient grey houses for a while, taking me to visit a friend in the country. Zia Clementina filled the front seat of the car comfortably, her lively brown eyes crinkled kindly as she craned her neck round to look me over again. Her smile spread across her face generously, brown arms straddling her enormous bosom as she clasped her pudgy fingers together. She turned to frown at her husband, Zi’ Eufemio, as he sang along to some indecipherable tune from a long tormented cassette. At her look, he sang louder. Zi’Eufemio was the exact opposite to his wife – thin and spindly as a cricket. His silvered hair framed his gaunt but friendly face.

‘Ferma la macchina!’ Zia ordered the car to be stopped at once. She told us with mock shyness that the tablets she was taking for her blood pressure made her pee all the time and she needed to go right now. She opened the car door and squatted.  She squealled as she picked out the unmistakable noise of traffic before we did. She tumbled hopelessly backwards into the open car pulling her pants up as she fell. Her husband, roaring with laughter started to engage the gears again but she slapped him playfully on the arm and told him to stop again because she hadn’t finished.

Eventually we drove on. I thought about Pago, with its small windows, guarded faces at the watch, its binding tradition and stifling air, and realised it was one of my foundation stones too. It was alarming how I felt connected. It was almost disturbing, the sense of familiarity when I took in the rich and sometimes musty smell of earth. My father spoke so little about the place in which he was born and raised. He gave so little of himself generally. Everything I learned about him was deduced over time and patched together from mental notes. He rarely offered anything simply in the spirit of sharing. Last night, he stood brooding in one of the low ceiling houses ready to be demolished and said, ‘This is where my auntie lived. This is where we used to play, my cousins and I’. His cigarette smoke framed his memories. That’s all.

We turn into a driveway and park in front of a low stone cottage.

Zio beeped the horn and climbed out of the car. An ancient looking man in denim overalls battered by earth and time came forward to greet him. His smile was a drawl, slow and pleasant. He swiped the cap from his head and rubbed his closely cropped silver hair. Zio was enthusiastically shouting at him – a mixture of insults and salutations; something like ‘It’s fantastic to see you, you cranky, stingy old bastard’.

His wife, a tiny gap-toothed woman with brown hardened skin, also came forward grinning and squinting hard against the sun. As she welcomed us she said ‘I was just killing a rabbit – the damn thing just didn’t want to die. Eventually I had to stand on it and wrench its head off!’. As she spoke I noticed her wiping her slightly bloody hands on her apron. Her gold bracelets and ring winked at me. She offered me the same hand. I took it without cringing. Her eyes crinkled kindly at me and I was inclined to like her a lot.

We all chatted inanely, wandering about in their garden. They crushed leaves for me that smelled like lemons and told me the names of trees and plants. Fields of maize faded away to the left of the house and in front was a patch for themselves. Fat, lazy tomatoes, plump figs, fragrant celery and basil and even flowers ­– perfectly formed miniature roses dwarfed by sunflowers. I sat contentedly, watching bees crash lazily into petals and listening to the hum of conversation. A scrappy dog chased pigeons into the air and a litter of kittens mewed noisily.

I watched Zio disappear into a profusion of trees to the right of the house and emerge a minute later holding a bottle of red wine triumphantly above his head! The old man laughed at zio who said ‘It’s so hot and you hadn’t offered me a drink so I had to go find it myself!’. His friend gave a short laughed and praised his audacity. When I smiled questioningly at him, he beckoned me to follow him down a short grassy path that led to a small stone well. ‘Vieni qui’ he said. He pointed down the well, dark and foreboding and full of water, then showed me the string the bottle had been tied to. ‘In the old days, this was better than a fridge!’ I laughed and followed him back to the others.

My father taught me how to observe. It seems that asking questions wasn’t the way to get answers in this village, and it wasn’t the way I would come to really understand my father either. Observations counted for a lot, they were lengths of string that you pulled out of wells, with surprises at the end. I had stopped forming questions and started defining answers that afternoon by staying silent. My father deals in silences. I could take silence as a sign he didn’t care. But here I was – silent.  Discovering layers of silence that had nothing to do with not caring. If words are everything to me, they are only well considered to my father.

The afternoon drew to a close and we skipped gingerly over the hot vinyl seats of the car. Everyone was quiet on the way back, tired and lulled by the sun. We rode back into the village and I saw my father sitting in a small circle of men, his dark skin glossy in his trousers and light shirt. One hand casually rested in his pocket, the other held his cigarette. I saw my father jerk his head at us almost imperceptibly as we drew up beside him. I saw my father. And I smiled.


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