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2017 Retrospective Part 3: Travels near and far, and the perils of getting there

January 2, 2018

My foreign journeys in 2017 were limited to four countries – France, Thailand, Vietnam and Ireland. Actually, two trips to France, one of my favourite countries, two to Thailand and one lengthy visit to Vietnam, which I’d never visited before. But travel is not just the places you visit. It’s also the process of getting there. And that got very interesting during the year, especially if you happened to be flying from the Middle East to America or Britain, or if you were attempting to go just about anywhere on an American domestic flight, in which case you risked all kind of indignities, starting with not being able to fly at all.

Our trip to Vietnam started in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. There we sampled some of the famous Vietnamese cuisine, courtesy of a friend who knows where to go:

In the evening, we met up with Chuong, who used to work with my company in Kuala Lumpur. He took us to a restaurant that specialises in cuisine from Na Trang, a coastal town about two hours north of Saigon. The first dish was jellyfish. For my wife, this was an experience too far. Translucent strips that looked like worms. I ate some. She didn’t. It was fine, but I doubt if it would be wildly popular among the good people of Surrey.

I was curious to see if the famous deep-fried scorpions showed up next, but no such luck. I’ll try just about anything once, but some things only once. The chicken feet in Hong Kong, for example – chewy and tasteless, but very popular throughout the region. I’m sure there are parts of Asia where you can get battered cockroach or fermented snake entrails, but they might be a mouthful too far even for me. Perhaps my taste buds aren’t properly oriented towards the refined end of Asian cuisine. (From Postcard from Vietnam – Part 1: Ho Chi Minh City)

In Hanoi, rather than stay at one of those boring four-star hotels, we decided to join the backpackers – albeit the middle-aged variety:

The balcony in our fifth floor room gave me vertigo for the first time in years. A good place for suicide – or accidental death – since the railings only came up to my knees. That apart, the room was comfortable, had good internet and one of those rare air conditioners that actually works in heating mode.

You could describe the Hotel Chic as a backpacker hotel for the middle aged. Our fellow guests were mainly Westerners – a smattering of Americans, French, and a family of three from Denmark who each looked like Mel Smith (the late British comedian) in grumpy mode. Outside, from the early hours until late, the locals supped their pho, which is a noodle soup beloved of all Vietnamese, squatting on tiny blue plastic stools you would normally see in infant schools back home. (From Postcard from Vietnam – Part 2: Hanoi)

And finally a trip to Hoi An and Hue, in the centre of the country, where I reflected on the remarkable qualities of the Vietnamese people, who suffered so much at the hands of the West, yet are prepared to let bygones be bygones:

I spent three weeks in Saigon, Hanoi and Hoi An with half an eye on the antics of the angry narcissist in Washington. Wherever we went, we found people who have more right than any disgruntled citizen of the United States to feel anger at the events of the past, yet treat their foreign guests with kindness, grace and humility.

The years are slowly putting distance between the guns, the helicopters and the landmines, and the beautiful country that Vietnam is today. I fervently hope that when my generation has passed on, it will be known more for its diversity, its landscape, its culture and its people than for the cold war quagmire that still shapes the politics of superpowers past and present. (From Postcard from Vietnam – Part 3: Hoi An and Hué)

Later in the year, the US Department of Homeland Security banned passengers on foreign airlines flying to the US on certain routes from bringing laptops and tablets into the cabin. The UK rapidly followed suit. What next, I wondered:

…if you happen to be travelling from Kuala Lumpur, will you be allowed to bring a perfume atomiser under the 100g limit? After all, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was snuffed out with a hankie impregnated with VX gas. Someone running up the aircraft spraying that stuff would leave half the passengers in their death throes within minutes. So no containers of any liquid, no matter what the size.

Are we approaching the point where anyone with a brown skin and a name that sounds vaguely Muslim (or North Korean) will only allowed on the aircraft handcuffed and sedated? Yes, I know this post is getting silly, but the serious point is this: where do you draw the line? Or rather, where do you draw the line without making air travel unpalatable to the majority of passengers, and seriously antagonising a good proportion of them?

Or to look at it another way, are we so nannied that we’re unable to face the reality that there are many ways to die in an aircraft, and being blown up is by no means the most likely cause of death. Flying is risky. But not half as much as driving a car while eating a cheese sandwich or talking on a mobile phone. (From Laptop ban in aircraft cabins – the contagion takes hold)

Then United Airlines covered itself in glory and lawsuits by literally bumping a passenger off a flight so that one of its own staff could have the seat. Well, in addition to bumping the guy, they had him physically dragged off, causing him head wounds in the process:

If I was happily settled into my seat, having anaesthetised my legs to allow them to fold up into a stress position behind the seat in front of me, looking forward to my complementary dog biscuit, I might be mildly pissed off to be told by a couple of paramilitary flight attendants that my presence was no longer welcome, and then to be dragged out bleeding by a SWAT team from the airport security force.

And if I was a doctor, I might wonder at the gall of an airline that would be quite happy to call out on the intercom “is there a doctor on the plane?” and expect me to revive a passenger in trouble, yet equally happy to haul me out of my seat as if I was a terrorist, or a drunk on a stag trip. (From United Airlines PR disaster – Mr Munoz will go far)

Where do we draw the line on what we write about countries we visit, whether for work or pleasure? Should we self-censor, or let it all hang out? Depends if we want to visit that country again:

Most of us don’t solemnly go through a list of countries we might like to visit and cross off those that offend our principles. We get on the aircraft with the intention of seeing for ourselves, because we don’t trust the opinions of others. We might then make our judgements, and regale our friends back home with horror stories of what we encountered at our destinations. What counts is not the morality of our hosts, but our personal experience.

But there’s another factor that makes me at least think twice about visiting a country. It’s rooted in emotion. A sadness that what was once welcoming and outward-looking is no longer so.

Take the United States as an example. I have many friends there, and over the decades I’ve been enriched by its cultural influence. I think of America as an old friend.

But on recent visits I’ve felt as though the old friend has changed. It starts with immigration. Suspicion. Scant attention to the social niceties. An intimidating atmosphere that demands compliance on pain of rejection or arrest. Once in, I’ve sensed a harshness of opinion that tolerates no discussion. It’s almost as though the society – or communities within it – is shutting down free speech even if the constitution continues to guarantee it. Sacred cows roam the streets, and it’s taboo to speak against them – national security being the biggest and ugliest. (From Go travel the world, but watch out for poisonous oysters)

Now we’re getting silly. Only in America would lawyers believe that there’s a price for anything, including permanent disfigurement behind an aircraft seat:

A couple of American law professors have been grappling with one of the most pressing problems of the modern age: how to stop people getting into fights over reclining seats on aircraft. According to the London Times, they claim that the most equitable answer is for people who wish to push their seats back into the precious space occupied by passengers in the row behind to offer them drinks or snacks.

I think they’re on to something, even if it would take some serious cultural reorientation for one passenger actually to speak to another on a flight unless it’s to complain about their behaviour or, worse still, to threaten to kill them. (From Peace in the skies – legal eagles find the answer)

I’m fascinated by the way people pack for journeys. So much so that I’ve come up with a set of archetypal packing techniques. But my own offspring defy classification in their methods:

As for my offspring, their packing is a mystery known only unto themselves. Why would you need six bottles of shampoo and conditioner for a two-week holiday? They pack enough make-up to paint the entire cast of Hollywood movie. Stringy things of dubious provenance and purpose. Multiple sunglasses, creams, potions, and enough electronic devices to keep them in a digital bubble of Facebook, Instagram and instant messaging for the duration of their holiday. My policy with them is don’t look, don’t ask.

If there’s one invention that can’t come too soon, it’s teleportation. Failing that, I’d live with a miraculous transformation into the ranks of the billionaires. After all, they don’t need therapy every time they go on holiday. (From The psychotic’s guide to packing)

The countryside in the south of France is not as glamorous as the coastal regions. Yet it has its own quiet charm:

For me, France is not about the cities, the grandiose monuments and the flashy resorts. It’s about what exists beyond the globalised culture of the cities. It’s what’s often referred to as La France Profonde – deep France. Indefinable, intensely individualistic. Not ostentatious, but quietly proud.

Yet it sometimes feels strangely empty. There are many small villages where you will often see more names on the war memorials than people in the streets at this time of year.

Sign of the times, I guess, but still sad. But what would you prefer? Starbucks, or the Shabby Chic Corner down a medieval backstreet in Issegeac, owned by Delphine, a charming Parisienne who serves a sponge cake topped with caramelised pears that nearly reduced this cake-lover to tears?

No contest.

(From La France Profonde or La France Vacante?)

A short visit late in October to the Bay of Arcachon, near Bordeaux, where the allure of British visitors doesn’t seem to extend. We encounter the Candidate for Frexit, and one or two people who don’t suffer fools – especially English ones – gladly:

Unfortunately our attempt to secure a coffee and snack at the restaurant overlooking the bay were contemptuously dismissed, on the grounds that it was after 3pm, and wasn’t it obvious that we close for three hours during the busiest time of the day?

We had more luck at Arcachon, which has a promenade of hotels and cafes on the beach-front. It could have been an August day, with the beach full of kids making sandcastles in the sun, and the well-dressed boulevardiers strolling down the pavement with the usual variety of dogs in tow.

I was conveniently reminded that I’m a stupid Englishman when I expressed surprise that the guy in the ice cream van was also selling churros, which I’ve rarely seen outside Spain. Pourquoi? You bought a mango ice cream, and mangos come from China, he replied. Silly me. (From Postcard from Bordeaux)

And finally, towards the end of the year, to Ireland, the homeland of my in-laws, for the funeral of my wife’s mother. This post was an opportunity to say goodbye, but also to compare cultures of death in England and Ireland:

When my mother died three years ago, it took three weeks to book the church and the crematorium, and for the four of us siblings to agree a date for the funeral.

In Ireland, things work very differently. Funerals are held within a maximum of three days from the person’s death, regardless of who can or cannot attend. And so it was with Blaithín.

I arrived at the family home the night before the funeral. The wake had taken place on that day. Blaithín lay in an open coffin in the front room. A stream of visitors came to the house to pay their respects. Tea, cakes and sandwiches were on hand.

If you’ve ever seen movies in which an Irish wake is portrayed, you might immediately think of men like Milo O’Shea or Brendan Behan with cloth caps supping Guinness long into the night, occasionally bursting into song. That may still happen deep in the country, but not in Navan.

When I arrived late at night I looked at the condolence book, where visitors had signed their names. There were two pages of names, which seemed quite a lot. But that was by no means all. I looked further and found another six. Around two hundred people stopped by in the course of one day. Each would stay for between ten minutes and half an hour, say goodbye to Blaithín, pay their respects to the family and leave.

By the time I arrived, my wife and her brothers and sisters sat in a state of numb exhaustion.

Then there was the funeral itself. The rituals started with the removal of the coffin. The priest came into the house, said a prayer, and after the relatives had had the chance to say goodbye, the coffin was closed, and carried out to the hearse. (From The Passing of a Matriarch)

A sad way to end the year. But as one life ends, a new one begins. In the next couple of days, God willing, my wife and I will become grandparents for the first time.


From → France, Postcards, Travel, UK, USA

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