An unparalleled display of shawms

A cursory glance at the walls of a friend’s room, house or other similar display of personal effects is likely to contain pictures of them in Foreign Parts. An unscientific trawl through Facebook pages today included pictures of friends and acquaintances riding elephants, posing on or near the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or in one way or another recording their presence in some country than isn’t Britain. I leave aside the wider (but not very interesting) question of why people put so many photographs of themselves on Facebook at all. One friend of mine has over three thousand photographs of himself on his Facebook account, a large number of which show him in semi-darkness, gurning in a desperate, out-of-focus sort of way, with no caption or explanation as to where he is or what he might be doing beyond the cryptic album titles (‘Mobile uploads’; ‘Found on memory stick’; ‘untitled’). Instead, I want to consider why it is that anybody travels to another country if they don’t have to i.e. the phenomenon that is the foreign holiday.[1]

I like a city break as much as the next man, but if I’m honest I can’t stand more than four or five days in (say) Copenhagen before I start to feel like a leech and a fraud.[2] I feel like a leech because here I am, spending my own hard-earned money on nothing but my own pleasure: taking myself to art galleries, museums and parks, eating out three times a day, speaking another language (extremely poorly and only when I need to order food) and generally wandering about Looking At Stuff. I feel like a fraud because I know I can’t really afford to do this. One of the best days Garden Naturalist and I ever had on a city break was during a trip to Brussels, when we went to the Museum of Musical Instruments. I think one of the reasons we enjoyed it so much (beyond an unparalleled display of shawms and medieval bagpipery) is that it cost us very little. By accident, we had arrived on the one day of the month when entry to the museum happens to be free, thereby saving ourselves ten euros or so. This, in turn, made us feel that we could afford to eat in the museum restaurant, which is on the roof and has a spectacular view across the city. While doing so, we heard an announcement that there was about to be a (free) performance downstairs of a trio, playing dulcimer, piano and double bass, starting about five minutes after we expected to finish our lunch. We watched the entire performance, sitting on the steps up to the exhibition of proto-oboes. The three middle-aged musicians were astonishing, particularly the dulcimer player (an instrument I had never seen played before).

Dulcimer
Dreary photograph; their playing wasn’t.

Thus, we were kept amused, educated and busy for most of a day, paying only for food. Most city breaks, however (and I’m thinking particularly of places like Vienna) are ruinously expensive if one isn’t careful, which in turn (for me) produces pressure to be squeezing as much fun or edification as possible out of the experience at all times. This has become even more the case since going freelance fulltime, because I now know exactly how many hours it has taken me to earn whatever sum I have just dropped on a boat trip up the Seine or whatever.

Fundamentally, I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that travel in and of itself makes one a better or more interesting person. As Alistair Cooke says, ‘I don’t know who first said that travel broadens the mind, but he might have added the warning that the broader the mind, the thinner it gets.'[3] With the exception of the Louvre, I have been to all the major museums in Paris. I’ve enjoyed this enormously, but I struggle with the notion that anyone other than myself has been enriched by this (and even more with the idea of articulating exactly how I feel I have been enriched). A longer, less intense trip produces the same, nagging sense of ‘unentitlement’. My first trip to China was in 2008 and Garden Naturalist and I saved up around £2,000 to pay for three weeks of holiday, visiting Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. Again, we had an amazing time, visiting most of the places and things that you visit when you go to Xi’an (terracotta warriors, hot springs, towers, street fountains), Beijing (Great Wall) and Shanghai (the Bund and, for me, the textile museum). I’m sure we were both enriched by the experience in some ill-defined way, and the trip certainly achieved its other two stated objectives: to spend time with my father; and to get me away from Britain altogether, so that I could recover from the horrible job I had just quit, while at the same time being totally inaccessible to any of the people I no longer worked with who might want to ask me questions or persuade me to come back to work on a temporary basis.[4] The ‘enrichment’, however, I find an elusive concept. The idea of planning either a city break-type trip, or a longer visit to one particular place, feels enormously self-indulgent. Yes, I would have a wonderful time, in exchange for my hard-earned cash. I would learn a lot and meet people and look at foreign whatnots and eat foreign food. Good for me. Is that really a good use of that money? Is travel simply to broaden one’s mind (and I am not at all sure that it has been proved that travel achieves this) legitimate?

The conclusion I have come to is that I am unsuited to holidays abroad in which the ‘seeing the sights’ part is longer than three or four days. It makes me uncomfortable (almost itchy). Holidays in my own country don’t make me uncomfortable, and I think this is because having the language means I can be less of a parasite: I can buy food and cook for myself, read signs and notices and navigate accordingly. This in turn makes it easier to feel that I am (temporarily) ‘living in’ whichever place I am visiting, rather than clamping myself to it like a limpet for a few days, sucking out £500-worth of pleasure, and then going home again. My annual trip to China, for example, typically consists of four or five days of fun-time (this overlaps with ‘recovering from jetlag’ time), followed by a week of hard work. This balance suits me: I work incredibly hard for a week (and am paid accordingly), and so feel I have earned the fun-time that precedes it. When people ask me why I’m in/going to China, I say ‘I’m here to work’. That feels legitimate: I am here to be enriched by the experience, certainly, but my primary purpose is to give something to, or do something for, the country I am visiting at that moment.

Giant Bear and I have just returned from our honeymoon, which consisted of three days in Cornwall and a week in a narrowboat on the Worcester-Birmingham canal. We had incredible weather, more like Corfu in summer than Britain in April: clear, burnished blue skies that allowed us to do honeymooner things like walking hand-in-hand on the beach and pointing out each other’s sunburn. It never occurred to us to have a foreign honeymoon, but if we had, I don’t think I would have felt able (allowed?) to enjoy it fully. Other considerations aside, Britain is really very beautiful and I don’t feel I have explored even a tenth of what home has to offer. I have also come the wider conclusion that perhaps mind-broadening comes from what you do, who you are with and what you bring to the encounter, rather than where the encounter takes place. This is similar to my thoughts on education expressed in a previous post (see Why Don’t You Do Right?), in that I remain unconvinced that simply sitting through an education produces anything worthwhile: you need to know why you are there, and what you are supposed to be getting out of it. I think the same thing has to apply to foreign travel: it is simply so costly, both environmentally and financially. If I’m not sure what the object of the exercise is, as I remember saying to an unnamed and slightly creepy man in a pub many years ago who offered to buy me a drink, I think I’d rather have the cash.

————————————————————————————————–

[1] Or, as Edwin Starr might have phrased it, ‘Travel! Huh! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?

[2] I considered calling this post ‘The fraudulent leech’ as a sort of companion piece to The uncharitable goat, but decided on balance that this might have been misleading.

[3] Alistair Cooke (1979), The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times (London: The Bodley Head), from the Letter entitled ‘The Hawk and the Gorilla’, first broadcast 2nd June 1978, p. 286.

[4] I discovered later than it took several months for them to appoint a replacement – they hadn’t even drafted an advert by the time I left, even though I gave three months’ notice.

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5 thoughts on “An unparalleled display of shawms

  1. Seymour May 20, 2014 / 12:47 pm

    Are you sure they were shawms and not crumhorns?

    Having said that, I’m all in favour of the “staycation”.

  2. literacywhore May 20, 2014 / 1:05 pm

    The trilingual labels made it clear that they were shawms (the crumhorns were just around the corner, if memory serves). The whole place was as if someone had taken an orchestra and passed it through some kind of mad prism.

    • Seymour May 20, 2014 / 8:17 pm

      You mean there were crumhorns as well?! O frabjous day!

      • literacywhore August 9, 2014 / 7:13 pm

        The Museum of Musical Instruments had everything I could possibly want in a museum. There were viols of every conceivable shape and size, mad bagpipes, and even a triangular church organ. It was *awesome*.

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