Sunday, 9 August 2015

Taking the Mikes

Yesterday, or the day before, I wrote about how most of the tourists I've seen this summer seem preoccupied by taking pictures of themselves. This morning, I remembered an essay by Hungarian writer George Mikes, which covered the same kind of territory.

Decades ago, (around 1986, I think)  Mikes wrote an essay called How to Avoid Travelling, in which he described how people who went abroad fell prey to the same kinds of photographic obsessions that I've been noticing. At the time he was writing, Mikes seems to have believed the phenomenon was limited to Americans - it has certainly spread to a wider group of nationalities since then. 

Here is an excerpt from How to Avoid Travelling. If you want more in the same vein, you can find it in a Penguin book called How to be a Brit, which has many other funny sections, (I'm particularly fond of the chapter called, In Praise of Television):

"'Travel' is the name of a modern disease which became rampant in the mid-fifties and is still spreading. The disease - its scientific name is travelitis furiosus - is carried by a germ called prosperity. Its symptoms are easily recognisable. The patient grows restless in the early spring and starts rushing about from one travel agent to another collecting useless information about places he does not intend to visit, studying handouts, etc; then he, or usually she, will do a round of tailors, milliners, summer sales, sports shops, and spend three and a half times as much as he or she can afford; finally, in August, the patient will board a plane, train, coach or car and proceed to foreign parts, along with thousands of fellow-sufferers, not because he is interested in or attracted by the place he is bound for, nor because he can afford to go, but simply because he cannot afford not to. The disease is highly infectious. Nowadays you catch foreign travel rather as you caught influenza in the twenties, only more so.

The result is that in the summer months (and in the last few years also during the winter season) everybody is on the move. In Positano you hear no Italian but only German (for England is not the only victim of the disease); in some French parts you cannot get along unless you speak American; and the official language of the Costa Brava is English. I should not be surprised to see a notice in Blanes or Tossa de Mar stating: Aqui Se Habla Espanol - Spanish spoken here.

What is the aim of all this travelling? Each nationality has its own different one. The Americans want to take photographs of themselves in (a) Trafalgar Square with the pigeons, (b) in St Mark's Square, Venice, with the pigeons and (c) in front of the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, without pigeons. The idea is simply to collect documentary proof that they have been there. The German travels to check up on his guide-books: when he sees that the Ponte di Rialto is really at its proper venue, that the Leaning Tower is in its appointed place in Pisa and is leaning at the promised angle - he ticks these things off in his guide book and returns home with the gratifying feeling that he has not been swindled. But why do the English travel?

First, because their neighbour does and they have caught the bug from him. Secondly, they used to be taught that travel broadens the mind and, although they have by now discovered the sad truth that, whatever travel may do to the mind, Swiss or German food certainly broadens other parts of the body, the old notion still lingers on. But lastly - and perhaps mainly - they travel to avoid foreigners. Here, in our cosmopolitan England, one is always exposed to the danger of meeting all sorts of peculiar aliens. Not so on one's journeys in Europe, if one manages things intelligently. ....  [And yet] The main aim of the Englishman abroad is to meet people; I mean, of course, nice English people from next door or from the next street.

Normally one avoids one's neighbour ('It is best to keep yourself to yourself' - 'We leave others alone and want to be left alone' etc., etc.). If you meet your next door neighbour in the High Street or at your front door, you pretend not to see him, or, at best, nod coolly; but, if you meet him in Capri or Granada, you embrace him fondly and stand him a drink or two; and you may even discover that he is quite a nice chap after all and both of you might just as well have stayed at home in Chipping Norton."

And, just in case anyone is still contemplating the pre-hol purchase of a selfie stick, here is a cautionary tale:


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