Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Diagnosing my travel bug

I've returned from spending the Bank Holiday in San Sebastian, Spain. A nice long post extolling the virtues of this Basque beach city with excellent food will be following shortly, but before that I have to talk to you about traveling. And the specific ways traveling never fails to affect me.

I guess I just never want to come home. But once I get home, I'm happy to be in my cocoon.

I was thinking about it when I was standing on the tarmac at Biarritz airport in the blazing sun; the thermometers on the green light-up pharmacy signs were saying rational numbers like 23, 24°C, but it felt like at least 30°C under it's full stare. As we boarded the plane and taxied out to the runway, I looked out over the farmlands surrounding the airport and thought to myself "why do I punish myself, living in a place that is so damp and cold when there are warm and sunny places in the world"? And I thought about it again while I was in a cab from Liverpool Street station when the rain started in earnest.

But then I saw rows of Georgian townhouses with variegated colored front doors, nestled up against each other around a gracious square, and remembered how England at least can make the rain cozy.

And then I watched some very intellectual television, which made me remember how nice it is to have entertainment that isn't trash (all of the time).

While I was away, I was laughing at myself and my inability to speak foreign languages. Flying to France with an ultimate destination in Spain, but one with a strong ethnic dialect that I've never heard (let alone seen written) was a complete and utter mind f**k. I couldn't help but laugh at myself as I struggled to remember how to count to 10 in Spanish, and how to even say please and thank you. I was even more amused at how relieved I was to get back to Biarritz, because I could finally understand what people were saying to me - even if I couldn't respond 100%.

It's just so fascinating to me how the human mind seeks out ways of communicating. I studied French for five years in high school; I can speak it okay but I can read it quite well and understand most of what is being said to me if I'm really concentrating. But I'm not a very confident speaker, and will often default to just asking if they speak English when confronted with a potentially complicated conversation. Take me to a country where I don't know the language at all, though – The Netherlands, Spain, Italy (even though I know the most basic bits of Italian thanks to my study abroad) – and my French comes flooding out. I've given Dutch taxi drivers directions in French, Spanish waiters my order in French, and in Italy an odd mix of Fritalian comes streaming out in all directions.

And then I get back to English-speaking places and I'm still thinking en fran├žais and I'm just exhausted.

Finally, the weirdest thing about traveling is encountering other Americans.

I'm really shy when I travel, which means that when I'm abroad I disappear into my own little bubble of wonderment, floating through cities and countryside taking in all of the new and constructing my own understanding of what I'm experiencing. I don't particularly like to socialize with other tourists, be them American or Australian or British; I'm not on vacation to make new friends. Sometimes I even wish I were on my own without The Irishman, and when we first started dating I had to introduce him to the concept of traveling alone (for the record, he still doesn't get it but is pretty supportive if I ever want to run off on my own). So when I am in a foreign country, immersed in trying to figure out what to say to a waiter, and I hear an American accent (for instance), it's like someone popping my bubble. It's weird to be sucked out of the dreamstate and back into reality where you can listen in on other people's conversations and know where they are from just from a few words they say. My first reaction is not to say hi, it's to run away.

This is much different from The Irishman. Anywhere he goes, if he runs into another Irish person they exchange a knowing nod. When he was living in Australia, he amassed a huge crew of Irish people around him and is still friends with them. But I don't know. I still feel, maybe naively, that travel is about exploring and discovering the unknown... and making friends from "home" while traveling feels... odd. I don't know. I'm still trying to work that one out.

But for now I'm back, back at home and recovering from my travel bug – and I'm hoping I come down with it again soon.

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