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 events, contemplating 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.