I like to travel. Luckily for me, so do the people I choose to spend the bulk of my time with. It seems that my partner and I are forever planning the next family holiday, the next getaway for the pair of us, the next visit to some wonderful place. Planning ensues, and mental images start to build. We work out where we want to stay and what we want to do. The future starts to take form before us.
I don’t know about you, but when I start to imagine going somewhere on holiday, a picture starts to form in my mind of the place. I understand that it is an idealised view of any given place, built up of a patchwork of StreetView walk-throughs – and the odd way they distort space and time – and my own vibrant imagination. No people, clean streets, pristine black beaches: in short, utter perfection.
I should know better. I should remember that the world does not conform to any imposed form of perfection, and that any mental image will be eclipsed magnificently by the reality of the place. An internet view of the town can never replicate the feel of the street under your toes; it can only help you navigate to your ports of call. And even then, not down every street. Not just yet, anyway.
Let’s start with France, as it is synonymous in my mind with decay and shocking mismanagement. The reality rarely lives up to that mental image of decay and peeling paintwork, but that may well be a recurring theme of this post. My mental France is one of peeling paint and stained concrete, of ill-conceived brutalism, wiping out town squares, and piercing through ancient neighbourhoods.
The Europeans, you see, and especially the more ancient and powerful Romance civilisations, could not give too much of a toss about history. They live within a world which has operated for the last few thousand years, and they own it, so they take a less fastidious view of its preservation. Breeze blocks and render will do nicely; bugger that ancient stonework: there’s plenty of that already.
However, the reality is also such that people want to live in nice places, with lovely views, so some things are being taken care of. For every brutalist flyover there is a picturesque park. For every peeling shutter, there is a window groaning with beautifully arranged, perfect looking produce. It’s not just France: you can see it all across Italy and Spain too. Decay and beauty are ubiquitous.
The more I travel, the more I realise that there is no such thing as pristine or perfect. Everything is dirty, decaying and rotten. Anything that is pristine is worthless and ill-gotten. Pristine is a shopping mall in an Arab country; that’s not the real world. That’s some rarefied, Instagrammed world of conceit and fantasy. Nowhere could compete with the wipe-clean shininess of our mental images.
Even the most perfect places on earth are shot through with the ugly reality of the real world; there are building sites and development work going on everywhere. Iceland is full of shopping centres; you can find one at every major tourist destination. As a country, it is a hotbed of bog standard utilitarian architecture: masterpieces of corrugated iron on a base of pure concrete. Black beaches lie strewn with the discarded bits and pieces of engineering and fishing equipment. Reality crashes in to dream.
We cannot just assume that tourist destinations are there only for tourists: they are living, working places, full of people going about their business. We may imagine them through the filter of our own desires for a wonderful holiday our friends and family will be crushingly jealous of. We are fools.
The only clean and “perfect” place I have ever been is Germany, and no one wants that. Germany is the world capital of places where people go to work, and raise families. Alongside Belgium, no one really thinks of going there on holiday. Except for Christmas markets. You have to do the Christmas markets. We innately understand that Germany is a real place, and so we rarely project our internal view on the place. If we do, it is in the form of a fairy-tale castle, and that really does meet the hype.
Even Switzerland smells like shite. For all its literal chocolate box scenery, and glorious towns, it wears its reality right on its sleeve. Alight from the train at Gruyères and you will be greeted with an unmistakeably animalistic scent. Because Gruyères is infamous for its cheese, and cheese comes from milk. You can’t get milk without cow shit. Lots of cow shit. Switzerland is still one of the most beautiful places on the planet, regardless. Nowhere will ever actually be perfect; it’s impossible.
If we build up places in our heads as “perfect” – which some people do – then our every holiday will be ruined, and we might as well all just jet off to the Costas for an identikit roast on a fake beach.
I suppose this situation comes to the fore in the supposedly apocryphal notion of “Paris Syndrome”. The story goes like this: tourists from Japan have an idealised view in their heads of Paris as being the most beautiful, most romantic city on the planet. They travel half-way around the world on the holiday of a lifetime, exploring the ancient lands of Europe. They enjoy wines and fine dining like nothing they have ever encountered before; food, drink and flavours beyond all imagining; they travel in high style and sumptuous glamour, all of it building up to the icing on the cake: Paris.
The problem is, Paris is a real place, in the real world. Even I find it a shock. It is full of dog shit and people sleeping on the streets. It is full of destitution and obscene glamour. In the face of this, the Japanese tourist, or so it is said, suffers a kind of emotional breakdown, and starts screaming at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I don’t believe a word of it, but I can too well imagine feeling it myself.
That said, the image of Japan I have in my head – perfect food, plum sake, endless orchards of cherry blossom – will likely be in such direct contrast to the madness of Shibuya Crossing, that I’d scream too.