The Unbearable Lightness of Travelling


This article appeared on the Malta Indepenent on Sunday.

The Laws of Physics
The month of August has crept in and suddenly the hussle and bustle of controversy, politics and general hullaballoo fades into the background as the general slowdown begins under the scorching heat. August is never a time for big news – it’s probably the time for no news at all. We rush to the beach, to the shade and to the longer siestas. Sundays are days for the beach and the coolness of the sea – and the bulk of the Sunday newspaper is taken up by easy reading. Far be it from J’accuse to be the killjoy and break the resplendent monotony with controversial argumentation and recycled hype. In any case – there is not much to comment about from where I stand – apart maybe from the Olympics (which have not started) so I thought I might as well join the rest of the relaxing crowd.
Anyways, I have been busy studying some inevitable laws of life: There’s Murphy’s Law that explains that if anything can go wrong it will. There’s the law that explains that a falling buttered toast will always fall buttered side down. There’s Jacques’ Law for Ordering in Chinese Restaurants that acknowledges the fact that a nodding oriental waitress taking your order does not necessarily mean that she has understood that you want your omelette nigiri replaced by unagi and that you will have to still eat the udon soup whether or not you are gluten intolerant. And finally there’s the law of the travel suitcase.
Why is it that no matter how hard I try and no matter how short the trip I always manage to pack twice as much stuff as I actually need? Why is it that even if I limit my choices to what I consider to be the bare minimum I will still find that the person at the check in desk looks at my suitcase as though I am trying to smuggle an army of pygmy immigrants through customs? Every time I have to travel, a small knot starts to grow in my stomach about two days before departure. It is an unbearable heaviness of anxious anticipation as the moment of truth approaches when I will have to face the empty suitcase and the challenge will begin all over again.
Size Matters
August is also the month of travel and the modern traveller has it all easy and set. Or does he? Well to begin with there’s the net and ease of booking. The options nowadays are multiple – it is much easier to plan your à-la-carte holiday than it has ever been. Specialised sites provide help with every step from getting to the airport, to the flight, the accomodation, the insurance, the transportation and the extra add ons like tours. Everything is but a click away.
Modernity has also added to the weights and burdens of travel. Just list the electronic items that might be accompanying you on your next vacation and you will see what I mean. There’s the iPod for some nice music on the beach, the latest camera and the latest video camera. For a long holiday you will need to pack the electric shaver. They’re ok on their own and even when bundled together, the minimalist design trends could also mean that they do not add much weight to your overall calculations. The problem arises when you remember that no bright spark has yet come up with a universal gadget charger, and to make matters worse the law of inverse impractical proportions also means that the smaller your gadget the larger will be the plug thingy to which it is associated. Which sucks. Big time.
So there you are writing 18th century style essays in your mind such as “The Pros and Cons of an Extra Pair of Sneakers on a Summer Vacation”, or “The Amazing Flexibility of Use of the Zip-Up Sweater” and balancing between taking the SLR camera for those big pictures or just settling for the tiny digital that feels less heavy after slogging around a city for a whole day with it around your neck. It’s tough, it’s stressful and you’re supposed to be going on holiday. To hell with Frankie and Relax (for those born after the eighties who think Duran Duran is a brand of condoms and that Eddie Murphy cannot be funny, Frankie goes to Holywood was a band that provided us with , among other things, the dubious pleasure of FRANKIE SAYS RELAX t-shirts in the early 80s).
I went through one of these packing anxiety attacks before this weekend. You see I am providing you with this not too tiptop article (reasons for the dip in quality will be explained later) from the North of London. I came here on a quest and by the time you will be reading this I will have fulfilled that very quest. The quest involved getting to London and somehow getting tickets for the Emirates Tournament featuring the greatest football team in the world, Real Madrid, Arsenal and FC Hamburg. Thanks to B. who kindly accepted to host me for the duration of my sporting adventure I booked my flight (on the internet of course) while still in Malta and before you could say “David Trezeguet” I was off for a weekend trip to the UK capital.
The flight from Luxembourg to London City Airport was of the most pleasant kind. I rode an unfortunately named Fokker 500 propeller plane that flew at what I deem to be a rather low altitude. Thanks to this particular type of flight I got to take in all the scenery along the way – Luxembourg and the North French coast (Nord Pas de Calais – chez les Ch’tis), a bit of La Manche and a bit of the English Channel (I kow it’s one and the same but from the way both sides speak of it you’d think there are two) and Southampton over to the “little boxes” of South London down to the landing close to Canary Wharf. I know that it is not normal to wax lyrical about a plane flight but it is something I would pay to do again. London seen from above at a relatively slow speed (compared to normal commuter planes) is quite a sight. Wembley stadium is magnificent, the BT tower, the Thames and its bridges, and even Buckingham Palace can be clearly identified. Beautiful. I wish I had not packed my camera in the suitcase.
Landing in London City you understand the importance of user friendliness of public transport (strikers and thugs please note). Nowadays you can purchase an electronic Oyster card that can be swiped in the underground system. In less than half an hour I was aboard the Docklands Light Railway and heading for my final destination in the North of London. A couple of hours and a visit to the Emirates Stadium later I was in possession of two tickets for the Juventus – Arsenal and Real – Hamburg combo.
It was time to celebrate – which meant a sumptuous meal of oriental delicacies (complete with nodding waitress) and a rather heavy night of cultural exchanges during which any traces of refined drinking tastes (the Saint Emilion went down well with the sashimi – aren’t I barbaric?) quickly vanished under copious amounts of russian grand cuvees mixed with drinks that supposedly give you wings. It all ended in the back of a London cab nattering undecorously to the taxi driver during an expensive ride back to the quarters. I had not engaged in such riotous teenage dirtbag behaviour for quite some time (at least two weeks in fact – thank you Malta) and woke up suffering the consequences.
This is in no way meant to be a message to encourage uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages. Nor is the fact that this morning my breakfast consisted of liver, bacon, hash browns and black pudding with coffee meant to pass on any subliminal message that living an unhealthy lifestyle can turn you into an ubercool pundit who rarely has an off day when it comes to splashing quality on the black and white pages of print. Nope. The rockstar life is but a blip on the normally contained and decorous lifestyle of your favourite columnist this side of Calabria. But you know what they say… when in Rome….
The advantages of being a tongue-in-cheek pundit is that you can be honest. I go for the honest and frank policy as always. I could have impressed you with a load of circum tauri (that’s bovine excrement if you’re short on latin euphemisms) about the lack of material in August, and I did try in fact. I could have elbowed my way into the conspiracy theories and million conjectures surrounding the Simshar Tragedy, but it is neither my style nor my wish to exacerbate an already tragic circumstance. I could have speculated about the race for Labour Secretary General and been frank about my bias in favour of Keith Grech, but somehow I suspect it would have been the last thing anyone would want to read about while sprawled across a deckchair at Ghadira.
So I’m playing the honesty card. Honest to God I tried. I wanted to give you something cool, hip and even trendy to read while sipping your Pina Colada at the poolside. I’m afraid even my usually reliable trivia database fell short of what was necessary when I attempted to take on the forthcoming Olympics. It’s a month in which we will be hearing about China more than ever before. Beyond human rights, beyond Tibet, beyond the Great Wall lies an immense land waiting for discovery. It is all set to provide this very window of discovery to the whole world. It’s the same month in which we discovered that China is now officially the country with the most internet users in the world – a position it will probably never relenquish.
Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism, once said that “a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”. We might be about to embark on a huge new journey of discovery as the mysterious Chinese open up to the world. We might do well to heed the words of Robert Louis Stephenson a great traveller from the West: “There are no foreign lands. It is only the traveller who is foreign”.
And this foreigner is crossing his fingers for a good match at the Emirates stadium. Have a good weekend and remember… too much sun can be harmful (a bit like the vodka).
Jacques blogs daily at There is no charge (or censorship) for comments left.

2 responses to “The Unbearable Lightness of Travelling

  1. I don’t wish to appear pedantic but you can hardly blame the poor waitress in a Chinese restaurant for bringing you the wrong food if you insist on ordering unagi, udon soup and omelette nigiri. They are all examples of Japanese cuisine.

  2. I know I know. I meant oriental restaurants generally…. I did explain the state in which I was writing did I not? 🙂

    Not pedantic. Full marks for reading right through.

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