What’s the minimum distance required to call it travelling, anyway?

The more I travel, the more at risk I am of becoming one of those terrible stereotypes who declares of every new city that this is the one they just LOVE above all the others. When I went to Venice in February, I adored it. When I went to Belgium in March, I thought it was great. Drinking with my friend in Barcelona in April was amazing. And now, London in June seemed utterly splendid – apparently I was too busy to go anywhere  foreign in May. What a shame. I’m sure I’d have loved wherever I’d gone.

 

It’s a pretty common phenomenon to feel like each new place you visit is, impossibly, the best place to be, and I suppose the apparent excellence of each new city is based on a few things – largely on the novelty, but also on the fact that each offers something different. Even in the cities where I did roughly the same thing, that is, tramp around sightseeing alone or with a friend, the sights and culture are always different enough that it’s a new experience. And really, in hindsight, I can’t necessarily say that drinking super-strong beer at 5pm in Belgium was better nor worse than the cheap sangria I was drinking at midnight in Barcelona, and similarly, I can’t compare either evening to eating fritelle by myself on the vaporetto taking me back to my hostel in Italy. They’re too different, and I can’t say which was better – it’s like being asked to choose whether you prefer hot chips or brownies. Both are delicious, but even when you have a sweet tooth like me, sometimes you’d much rather hot, chicken-salted chips to the rich, sugary chocolate.

 

This leads me on to an important point, being that no one place is inherently better than another. Of course, there may be particular things you want to visit – historical sites, certain climates, places you can ski or swim or hike through jungles – but everywhere you go will have its own charm, so that you can equally enjoy trekking through a rainforest in the tropics or spending all day round a crackling fire in the Alps. Because I’m headed back to  Australia in a matter of hours and know that I’ll be unlikely to be travelling abroad again in the too-near future, and will be sighing over everyone’s holidays photos of Greece, Croatia, India, wherever they may be, this is something I’m trying very hard to remember right now.

Thankfully, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the time spent here in France, it’s that you can still enjoy yourself without travelling too far. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – sometimes hopping on a train for 2 hours will get you somewhere quite new and fascinating, and while you don’t get the social-media points for having gotten to a new country, that doesn’t mean you should enjoy yourself any less.

I can’t count the amount of people I’ve met who know Australia better than me because when they visit it, they go looking for the best parts to see, the best things to do  – whereas those of us who live there tend to stay in our neighbourhood, only venturing forth to select holiday destinations. But because I know my time in France is limited, in 6 months I’ve been to visit five nearby countries and half a dozen towns or palaces within 2 hours train ride of Paris, trying to fit as much in as possible. In Australia, in 6 months, the furthest afield I went was going to Canberra to visit my grandmother. No wonder I feel like Europe is more interesting, when it’s in Europe that I actually bother to get out and do things.

So, to make up for all the foreign cities I won’t be visiting for the next six months, year, or however long it takes for me to get myself on a plane again, I’ll be doing my darnedest to appreciate what I can find a bit closer to home. It might be daytripping somewhere an hour away, or trying to go to Melbourne for a weekend. Regardless of where I go, I’ll be doing my best to enjoy it – and that’ll make half the difference.

 

On Preparation, and how to enjoy history properly

As a kid, my parents dragged me to half a million fascinating places between Portugal and Germany, and I have clear memories of quite a few of them. The common element of all those memories, though, is that I frequently barely even remember the historical or cultural significance of the place, but rather some silly anecdotal event that happened. Getting lost as an eight year old in the Schönbrunn palace and deciding to continue on with a random tour group I found, or carrying our pet cat through an abandoned-feeling monastery in Spain. There’s a place I went in Germany which I couldn’t describe as anything except ‘the place we watched a squirrel run up a vertical wall’.

Obviously, unless it’s a particular hobby of theirs, children are rarely as fascinated by who-lived-here-when and who-died-how as adults are. But even travelling as an adult I’ve found that a lot of the time, seeing the must-see sights of this famous city or that can be, rather, well, boring. This is despite my being both keenly interested in and possessed of a relatively well-developed understanding of Western history.

Almost everything is wonderful if I read the helpful placards and remember which king Henry VIII was (the one with all the wives, FYI) and what else was happening in the world at that time (European expansionism, mostly) because then I can put personalities to the scenes in front of me, whether it be an ornate display of the tea-table or a half-destroyed dungeon where some political prisoner was kept. That is without debate: it is amazing to see the remnants and reproductions of how these famous characters from our cultural development and their fellow man lived.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, you don’t really know the specifics of what you’re visiting. Yes, the Arc de Triomphe is an impressive monument in and of itself, but if you’re very vague on what Napoleon actually did except be made fun of by modern day students for being short, it doesn’t mean a great deal beyond that. The solution is surely to read the informative plaques that inevitably accompany any popular tourist site, but even then, the information might not be available in your language or it might be too dreadfully brief and expect you to already be well-versed in the exact succession of royalty in Hungary in the 18th century. Not many of us, sadly, are. Guided tours are often perfect for filling these gaps, but might be impossible due to timing, language barriers or costs.

What’s the solution, then? Should we confine ourselves only to seeking out the historical monuments we already know the history for? Of course not. The answer, while perhaps a little unattractive, is to read up beforehand. It sounds counterintuitive to think that you should be studying for your holidays, but the fact remains that you’ll get more genuine enjoyment out of what you’re seeing if you know why you’re supposed to be enjoying it. That’s why people get tours, after all – to have someone explain why they should care. But it’s easy to do it yourself, too, whether by buying a guidebook or just letting yourself fall into the rabbit hole that is link-hopping on Wikipedia. And as an added bonus, you can customise your research to include exactly what it is that interests you most – though you do run the risk of ending up completely off topic and wanting to go visit another three different sites because of what you’ve read about them!

In simple terms, unless you’re ready to throw yourself on fate’s /hands/ and hope that there will be adequate information that fits neatly into the jigsaw puzzle of what you already know, or, at least, an interesting event involving small furry animals, it’s nothing but a good investment to be prepared with all the facts you need to truly impress everyone with all your brand-new knowledge about the place you’re going to – even before you get on the plane.