The Right Way to Travel

Zacha's picture

A tiny taste of a city can be sweet enough to leave you longing to return for years. That brief moment of experience can own you so fiercely that you find yourself learning the city's language, its history, its culture. It can pull you back into its streets flush with desire to disappear into its alleys and make yourself one with all the things there that you yourself are not. 

But it doesn't work that way for everyone. And it shouldn't have to. 

In her recent blog "Are you really leaving home when you travel" , Douglascomms makes "a distinction between travelling to gain insight into other cultures, and travelling merely to gather stamps on your passport. " For me, this is a false dichotomy.

A little broadening of perspective in those who aren't natural travelers is a lot of a good thing. And even travelers in the most insulating environments can find themselves in the middle of eventscontemplating the strange foreign world around them. Not that that's the point. There's no best way to travel. The only way to screw it up is to not leave home in the first place.

I was in a train carriage overnight to Paris once with a bloke from the United States, a racist, and a man from Mauritius. The man from Mauritius, via the frustratingly selective translations of the racist man, told me that I should learn French in order to visit Paris. I was visiting Paris for about 6 hours while I waited for a plane to the UK. Should I have just waited in the station 6 hours? 

Learning a language is hard. I'd just discovered that after a week learning Spanish in Barcelona and Madrid. Half of that with food poisoning. I'm good at Spanish. But I can't do French. I just don't click with it. Exploring another language and another culture forces you to confront some big assumptions. But getting by in a foreign country without the language forces you to overcome all sorts of other assumptions. Firstly, your understanding of your own social competence. It forces you to open your eyes and pay attention to the world around you. Because no-one is going to explain it to you.

Being good at languages really shouldn't be a prerequisite of travelling. Nor should having the courage, money and free time to immerse yourself in another culture. If that was so, then only the brave, talented and well-off would travel. Which is a waste. Because that's something they're going to do anyway.  

The shy, the timid, the stay-at-home, the arrogant, the shallow, the perplexed, the insular, the slow, the lazy and the just plain time-short should all be encouraged to travel, just as much. Travel isn't selective on the basis of ability or commitment. And it shouldn't be only the open-minded who are encouraged to do it.  

Life is short. You can't learn a whole language, a whole culture, every time that you travel. There are just too many cultures, and just too many countries. 

And they're all of them important.

Zacha Rosen is an ancient historian by training. He's a fluent Spanish speaker, but his French is apallingly bad. So much so that one doesn't require French to appreciate it. 


if only to overcome prejudice...

Funny you should mention Paris. When I was a child I watched a tourist walk into a shop in Paris and ask if anyone spoke English, the shop keepers looked at each other and shrugged back at him, and he left in a huff.

My mother then approached the counter, and struggled her way through the transaction in broken French. What she lacked in pronounciation and grammar she more than made up for in enthuiasm and to her surprise the shop keeper answered her in flawless English. He thanked he for attempting to speak French, and asked her what she wanted.

Perhaps if you had spent enough time to understand rather than to simply judge the French you might have realised that Paris's population more than doubles each year as the warmer months bring with them a wave of tourists. Unfortunately the rude and offensive behaviour of some tourists who march in and demand that English be spoken at every turn has elicited a strong response from the francofile French. As a result there is a strong antipathy towards tourists who don't bother to try to speak French, although in my experience if you do the locals the curtosy of at least attempting to speak the local language the response is warm and positive.

This response might be compared to some anglofile Australians who are regularly rude and nasty to immigrants or tourists who are battling through with only broken English.

The concern expressed in my blog is demonstrated perfectly by your response. In not having the time or the inclination to gain some insight into French culture you judged the interaction without stopping to consider the French point of view.

Also you've missed the point slightly in focussing in so strongly on the language acqusition side of things. Spending significant time in a country forced you to understand the culture and not just the language, it forces you to withhold judgements such as the one you made here and to attempt to see things from a different point of view.

The tragedy I so often see is travellers who return from a journey full of judgements because they have failed to understand what is really going on around them. You don't have to be good at languages you just have to keep you mind open and suspend you judgement until you understand what is really going on around you.

The Australian who returns from Columbia decrying the imorality of Salsa dancing, the German who returns from Costa Rica complaining of the strict customs laws, the Chinese who returns to Beijing complaining of Australian stupidity, the US citizen who returns from Iran complaining of a lack of McDonald's restaurants.

Travel without understanding only deepens prejudice, it dosn't resolve it in any way.

You just reached a

You just reached a philosophical perspective of the word travel. Since you say that everyone should travel then I assume that everyone should gain insights from the traveling experience, otherwise what's the point of traveling? We can't expect everyone to enjoy traveling the same way, that's why there are countless different travel forms. I agree, we don't have to learn the language to visit a country, in fact, I think not knowing the language in a foreign country makes the traveling experience even more interesting because you get to see how different things are in other cultures. In my perspective traveling is about feeling the spirit of the new places not necessarily knowing the new places. On my staying at  Barcelona hotels I only resumed my travel experience to viewing and hearing the city, although I didn't know the language it was an experience filled with new sensations for me. I want to repeat that when I have the chance but this time I would learn the basic language to see the difference.