On Tuesday we are going on holiday to Switzerland, and I am as excited as a small child the night before their birthday. It will be the first time I have been somewhere new since our honeymoon in Costa Rica eight years ago. I get the same thrill from travelling to an unknown country as others get from buying a really expensive handbag. It is hard to define exactly what it is about travel that I find so exciting and satisfying but it’s not usually about visiting the famous sites or tourist attractions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely looking forward to watching the cheese making demonstration and visiting the Heidi museum, but I also love the everyday stuff like visiting the post office or listening to the local radio station. Some of my best travelling experiences have involved doing everyday things.
Getting a haircut or a shave. Hairdressers and barbers are often gathering places for the local community, so it’s a great way to meet the locals. I once had a haircut in a small logging town in the Malaysian jungle to help pass the time while waiting for a train. As a tourist, I was an object of curiosity and attracted most of the female population of the town to the shop, where they gossiped excitedly about me, while I communicated the style I wanted in sign language. I had a surprisingly good cut. Steve has had some memorable shaves all over the world. In Jaisalmer crowds of small boys gathered to watch, in Bologna the barber’s shop was grandly panelled and the white coated barber anointed him with fragrant oils. The most memorable shave was in a small fishing village in Turkey, where the local men sat discussing the football scores, while the barber removed hair from Steve’s ears with a burning taper. He turned down the offer to do the same for his nose.
Visiting corner shops. I love exploring foreign corner shops and discovering what products they stock and how they are packaged. The ultimate corner shops have to be the Japanese Combinis, with their immaculate layouts and bewildering array of products; from coffee in a tin which automatically heats up when you open it, to sock tape, for keeping your socks at exactly the right height (really!).
Reading magazines and newspapers. Even if your understanding of the country’s language is minimal, there is much to be said for reading local papers or magazines. In India I read at length about film stars and celebrities and discovered what qualities are expected of a future wife. In Japan, the teen fashion magazines taught me exactly what height my socks should be pulled up to (see above).
Buying music. I love the idea of this, but I’m often not terribly successful. In Thailand I asked for recommendations from a 10 year old and ended up with bland pop that could have been from anywhere. Trying to avoid bland pop in Malaysia, we ended up with a tape (I know I’m really old) of a 1950’s crooner. We still have it in the car, but it doesn’t get played very often. I thought I was finally on to a winner when I bought a tape of Liberace playing the piano when I visited his house in Las Vegas. Imagine my disappointment when I played it in my Walkman for the first time on the train out of Vegas, to find that there’d been a mix up and I had country and western music. And it wasn’t even Dolly Parton.
Eating street food. It really is the best kind of food, and you get a free cooking lesson watching it being made. In Morocco, the only decent foods we ate were the steaming bowls of lentil soup with a shot glass of olive oil poured on top and the freshly made yoghurt, both from tiny hole in the wall cafes in the souks of Fez and Marrakesh. The one ‘fancy’ restaurant we ate in was a supremely depressing experience with no other diners, bland food and monosyllabic waiters.
Watching TV is an activity I love at home, so it stands to reason I’ll love it when I’m abroad. I’ve watched late night philosophical debates in France, sumo matches in Japan, Bollywood movies and adverts for paneer in India, and a strangely gripping, mid 1990’s Italian talent show with singing kids and acrobats. Hmm, maybe Simon Cowell likes watching TV when he’s on holiday too…
Using public transport. Admittedly, this one doesn’t always go to plan, like the time we took a five hour local bus trip in India and it was so hot the candle (for power cuts) in my backpack melted. But what would a holiday be without a story about chickens on the train and chai bought from the platform vendor? Sometimes the public transport is so amazing it puts ours to shame. On Japanese bullet trains, the stewardess bows on entering your carriage and all trains are punctual literally to the second.
I think the reason I find travel so exciting, is it brings out the child in me. Everything is new and therefore worthy of exploration and an everyday task, like buying a picnic, becomes strangely exotic. This will be the first time we have taken the children on a trip like this. I hope they enjoy it.