What do we want when we go sightseeing?
When I returned from a holiday in Poland in 2008 and excitedly told friends back home that we had stood in
Shipyard Square (now Soldiarnosc Square) in Gdansk, younger people asked ‘”What?” and others “Why?” Only one person, a soprano in our church choir, a few years older than me, allowed her jaw to drop and gasped “Wow.” To me, ‘Wow’ was the only appropriate response. Even though it had been spitting with rain at the time and all there had been to look at was a huge, ugly and rusty monument and a red and white banner and a couple of photographs of Pope John Paul II, festooned with ribbons and tied to railings. (Tied to railings? Everything had been tied to railings in 1980.)
Cut to a few years later, to us standing on a Berlin pavement listening to our tour guide talking about the Topography of Terror (Nazi) museum in front of us, when we realised we were standing right next to a half-ruined brick wall, with jagged gaps in it, as if people had tried to climbed through it. Actually, a couple of decades ago, people had battered their way through it. “Don’t look at the Wall!” cried our guide, who had once been a teacher. “You are not allowed to look at the Wall yet.”
This coming summer we’re going to Cavendish in Prince Edward Island, Eastern Canada, myself in search of a lump-in-the-throat moment, although probably not heart-stopping. PEI is, of course, the setting for L M Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and Cavendish the village on which Anne’s village of Avonlea was based. My husband asks me what I expect to see. A red-haired girl with plaits, of course, wearing a hat decorated with wild flowers.
Yes, I know what you’re going to say, Dear Reader, that at least the Shipyard and the Berlin Wall are real, but that ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is just a book. (What, really?) Now you’re reminding me of how, last summer, I charged around Pachenau (in the Austrial Tyrol) where the first Chalet School stories were based, seeking out a plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer (author of the Chalet School series). Please don’t tell my one and only husband that I want to visit the Bronte’s place in Haworth.
Often, we don’t know what we’re supposed to be seeing until we arrive. There’s nothing wrong with this as hearing/reading/seeing things on the spot is a good way to learn, but this doesn’t provide the wow hit, which will have been warmed up by months of anticipating and imagining. Let’s be honest, when we’re visiting a new place, we frequently miss the best bit through not knowing about it or where to find it, and sometimes we’re too hot/cold, tired or in need of the loo, and waste our time in the loos, gifte shoppes or cafes. Other times it’s the people who are the most interesting, like the time I queued for the toilet with a wedding party, including bridesmaids and bride, at a park cafe in Potsdam.
There are also the things we take for granted. When our son was a choirboy, we drove every week (sometimes twice a week) along the Embankment, glimpsing the Houses of Parliament as we turned into Whitehall and then into Westminster Abbey. Just the cradle of our democracy, Dear Reader. Oh, and sometimes we like to walk around Flatford Mill and look at Lott’s Cottage; there was a bloke from around there called John Constable who painted, quite good really. I also recall, many eons ago, rushing through St Peter’s Square in Manchester thinking only of getting a seat in the Central Reference Library, and not at all of the Peterloo Massacre that took place there in 1819. (What was I studying in Manchester? History!)
We’ve visited Auschwitz, Red Square, the Empire State Building, lots of castles, monuments, cathedrals and museums – some more interesting than others. In 1994 we wandered around the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York; having no inkling of what would happen seven years later, they didn’t seem particularly interesting. Two years ago, we walked around sites in Hue, Vietnam, where significant events had taken place during the Tet Offensive, but, at that time, I knew nothing about the Tet Offensive, even though I had been alive (a child) when it all happened.
I’m trying to answer for myself a question I’ve been asking for a long time, which is, why do we travel and what do we hope to experience? Although we want to be thrilled by seeing something exotic and different, the heart-stopping moments come about when we are joined with something with which we have a personal connection. I remember the Berlin Wall and growing up with a sense of outrage that East Germans were imprisoned against it. I recall remember following Solidarnosc’s short but cheeky rebellion against Communism in the newspaper as I travelled on unreliable suburban London trains, to and from a job which was boring me rigid. I read ‘Anne of Green Gables’, and the Chalet School series – on the recommendation of my beloved mother – when I was a naive and awkward twelve year old, struggling to cope with a new secondary school.