All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

What is the difference between holidaying and travelling?

Jardim Botânico da Madeira
One of my many photographs from the Jardim Botânico da Madeira.

For the first time since I was a child, I have a good night’s sleep before an early flight. So good in fact that I awake to the half past four alarms (we set a few), startled. I’m genuinely unsure where I am or why I’m there.

The Mother does a passport check – yes, I have mine – and we take the shuttle to the terminal. In the queue to drop off our baggage the Father takes my passport from me. He hands all four, in a neat stack, over to the man at the counter. I’ve stuck at the back and have to pop my head up for my face to be confirmed as a match.

My seat on the plane is a window seat. I laugh at this. For almost all the flights I have ever taken on my own, and there have been many, I have been allocated a window seat. Feeling that I have had the delight of the view many times, more often than my sister for example, I offer the seat up, but nobody wants it. I don’t understand. The sky in the early hours is a beautiful thing, even if it’s chucking it down. I’d always chose the window seat.

Once landed, we pass through security. All four of us manage to negotiate the electronic passport machines. Ahead of me are the carousels, the Father and Midget look ready to pounce on our luggage. I smile, the airport signs for the toilets are a match to the ones I saw in Faro in March. I like them because someone’s dared to be creative – the women aren’t in skirts. There’s also something about a sense of familiarity.

My brain jumps, as it now always does in a language explosion, to the adverts and posters. I read every sign and spend most of my time in the terminal with a furrowed brow. I don’t speak Portuguese, but travelling, especially travelling alone has made my brain pay attention to words I don’t know. I’m beginning to believe all that science about neuro-plasticity.  I’m working not with one language, but with a weird multi-language pattern recognising zone of my brain which a few years ago barely existed. I’m still no better at speaking any of the languages I don’t speak, but I’m getting noticeably quicker at recognising patterns.

However, I spend the holiday surrounded by English. I can say ‘por favor’ and ‘obrigado’ but when I greet the man at the bread counter I’m ashamed that I can’t even count to ten – all I want to do is get four bread rolls – this ineptitude I feel is ridiculous.

But this isn’t travelling, it’s just a holiday. It’s a beautiful holiday. I swim in the pool with the Mother, play tennis with the Father and pool with the Midget. I buy and eat fruit from the market that I can’t name in English, and bathe in the gorgeous warmth of the sun. After a few days, I begin to realise that it’s been a long time since I’ve had a holiday like this. It feels deserved.

Which just goes to show how much I’ve grown in the last few months. My endeavour to have a gentler brain is working. There was a point where I criticised myself when travelling, even though I genuinely believe that’s what I want to be doing, and that it’s good for me.

The grandmother would ask, “Are you off on another holiday?”

And I’d not know what to say, other than, “Yes.”

Perhaps, at a first glance, the difference isn’t so big. When I lived in Barcelona I swam in the sea, sunbathed on the beach and, in the evenings, drank wine with a couple of American ladies. Taken at face value, it certainly looked like a holiday.

The difference however is in the mindset. On holiday, you’re getting away from it all, you’re relaxing, you’re allowing yourself to be diverted from the normal course of your life – temporarily. When travelling, (at least for me), you’re getting under the skin of something. You’re learning, listening, thinking intensely and allowing the experience to change you – permanently.

Toilet sign Faro Airport
The toilet sign that made me smile.

Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker

Sheep herding, Romania

When friends in England were mastering the latest computer technology, I was learning to mow. ‘This’, as I wrote to a friend, ‘is what I call progress.’

On a hill, just outside an old Romanian village, I’m sprawled out on the sofa, reading Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker. I giggle causing my friend to glance up from his own book. This is what happens when you’re reading a tale of an Eton educated Brit falling – quite haphazardly – in love with Romania in the 90’s and its peoples. You laugh at the absurdities.

I had found myself uncomfortable with the fact that I knew nothing about Romania, especially since I was going to be spending so much time talking with Romanians, so I loaded Along the Enchanted Way onto my e-book reader and began to learn.

There’s something special about reading about the land you actually see when you look out of the window. I read Victoria Hislop’s The Island, when I visited the island of Spinalonga – an old Greek leper colony – and the mixture of reading and seeing had convinced me of this fact. As the sun peeked up over the hills of Romania, I passed the goats, heard the donkey braying, saw the sheep being herded down the road, saw the women chasing their cows with their sticks, saw the stacks of hay in each garden, alongside rows of bold red tomatoes. At lunch time I lay on the sofa and read about what I was seeing.

On our first evening in the countryside, we were warned, strenuously, to keep to the path, beware of the sheep dogs which won’t hesitate if they think you’re trespassing on their flock’s territory. I nodded convinced, I’d read about how these dogs are trained to hold their line if wolves attack. I’d learnt that a herd of horses can keep off wolves over night by putting their heads together to form a circle and using their hind legs to kick out. I’d learnt how the dogs were trained to position themselves around the flock, with the shepherd in the middle to coordinate their aggressive defense.

I read about tensions between populations (Saxons, Romanians, Hungarians, Romani Gypsies) and love and history and tradition, and I listened, because all around me were Romanians speaking of Romania. The primary and secondary evidence educating me with a complete visual, kinesthetic and auditory experience. We drank milk brought up fresh from the village, and bought watermelon from the van which passed by calling, “Pepene, pepene!”

I delighted in it all. The book itself is an entertaining read, brought to life for me by the colour of the people I lived beside.

 

Additional reading: Prince Charles and the Half-Gypsy Kid

A walking tour in Bucharest (or thoughts on making friends with temporary colleagues)

Bucharest

Bucharest, August

It’s hot and I’m sweaty. My legs and arms are covered in bites. I’m used to bites that swell momentarily, and then disappear, but perhaps it’s the foreign insects, or perhaps it’s the foreign heat, but these are less helpful. They itch, breaking my resolve to meditate without fidgeting. I downgrade my ambitions of serene perfection for vaguely keeping my eyes shut most of the time. I didn’t even bother this morning. Not that I’ve had much time. I woke too late. And made a mad dash to be at the University Square for eleven.

The kind guy also living in this apartment made me coffee. It was strong. I added more boiling water and tried to gup it down when I should have added cold.

I arrive with a few minutes to spare. My tour companions are a mix. The guide herself (Walkabout Tours) was excellent. Easily one of the best walking tour guides I’ve had. She was bubbly and professional. Amazingly, somehow, she managed not to look too upset at our inability to really gel as a group and laugh or ask questions. We’d met each other at the same time as we had met her, as strangers, but were fast trying to form bonds as we knew we were working together for the next week. In practice, we’re wary of each other.

When you’re with travellers who have spent just a month or two away, there’s often an over-enthusiasm with the desperate need to be friends. You’ve been travelling long enough to actually miss home, and long enough that the people back home don’t really get what you’re doing. You feel disconnected and alone. In its own way, it’s quite adorable. With travellers who are perhaps a little older and have travelled longer, there’s often a more cautious approach. Despite the difficulties, you’ve worked out that loneliness is manageable and new people (like sugar or alcohol) are merely a distraction that perhaps makes you feel momentarily better. I know this is stereotyping, and just a generalisation, but it’s also a safe assumption.

We act knowing that in a week we’ll all say goodbye. Be wary of commitment now, and you’ll find it easier to carve out your own space later in the week and easier to admit the truth which is that friends here are friends for now (which is not bad – just something to be aware of).

As a side note, although I say this, I do stay in regular contact with a number of people who I’ve worked with, either in teaching, being an au pair, or in the case of the Finnish Photographer, carpentry.

On this tour though, ambling through the streets of Bucharest when most of the population is wisely indoors, we’re all English Teachers. It’s a weird social mix. Most people have already done a program like this one we’re doing together, typically in Poland where Angloville, the organising company is based. There are more men than women. The age range is a little younger than me to older than my parents. I’m comforted by the variety. Americans, Canadians, Australians, a chap from New Zealand, a guy who lives in Switzerland, another lass from Yorkshire – we make an odd bunch, but I enjoy the company and conversation.

As we walk the streets of Bucharest, we learn about hidden, relocated churches; a revolution sculpture nicknamed the potato; the reconstruction of buildings post-communism; the area known as little Paris (influenced by a little brother relationship with the French post-independence); the palace of telecommunications (the post office); an alley decorated by umbrellas hanging above, giving a gentle respite from the sun; and we eat lunch.

And in a short few hours, I find myself belonging to something.

A Romanian plait with green and gold ribbons

When Francesca and I looked at photos together, she saw a picture of me with my hair plaited. If there is a god, he was feeling very generous when he gave me my hair. It’s dark, strong and grows long easily. Francesca loved my hair, and seeing me with it flowing around my shoulders one morning asked if she could plait it. I, of course, said yes. Francesca brought out grips and ribbons and before long her gentle fingers had weaved my hair into a colourful display. I felt like I should be skipping some folk dance.

The plait that she saw in the photo we looked at was streaked with gold. My hair – which I almost always wear up – is easily bleached in the sun. (A fact which amazed the black haired Egyptian women I befriended when I was in Cairo.) It’s a natural gift.

“Who did your hair there?” Francesca asked pointing at the photo.

“Me.”

“But who plaited it?”

“I plaited it.”

She looked at me, as if trying to work out whether what she heard was right.

“How?”

Because Francesca comes from a world where girls plaited each other’s hair, where mothers taught daughters, and where you’d help your sisters and friends. Ribbons were shared freely. Me however, I taught myself to plait my hair because generally, there’s nobody to do it for me. And what’s more, if you wanted me to plait your hair, I’d struggle. I just don’t know how.

An Art Workshop in Rural Romania

The teenage girls hug and kiss me before I’m allowed to leave. They’re excitable, trying to outdo each other in their displays of affection. I’ve known them only a few hours, and I can count the words most of them have managed to say to me on one hand.

There’s one girl though, A, she’s eighteen, and a little more reserved. She wants to be a photographer, and she shows me some pictures on her phone, including a beautiful portrait taken by her older brother. He’s her role model.

This girl comes from a village in rural Romania. Although it’s in the school curriculum, children in rural areas rarely get to do art in school. If they want to do art, they must provide their own material, and these girls cannot afford paints. Indeed, when this series of art workshops began, the children stole the half-used tubes of acrylic paint and battered brushes. It took time for them to understand that the paints were theirs, but needed to be kept together to be used.

We painted together all morning, creating an elaborate entrance for the festivities that mark the start of the school year.

The building we’re houses in is crumbling in places. It was once a small part of a large compound which was owned by a rich man (the main building is architecturally beautiful, albeit wrecked now). The rich man gambled the property away. Communism happened. The window frames were stolen away for fire wood, and the stone to build homes. There are decorative flowers made of sliced toilet rolls on the walls of the studio.

We pause for a break, and A invites me to accompany her to the ‘magasin’, the village shop. She explains the compound, points out the building that was once a hospital and takes care to guide me across the road. All this she does in broken English. She asks if I have a boyfriend, husband, baby. She has a boyfriend, he’s being a bit of a jerk.

We reach the shop and she buys me a bottle of water. I don’t need a bottle of water, and I feel bad for this girl who has comparatively so little buying me a drink. I can’t however say no, as I quickly realise that the entire purpose of the walk is to make sure I have something because I am a guest and this is Romania where people go out of their way to help.

Before I leave, one of the adults who speaks only a few words of England grabs me for a photo, and then makes my friend translate for her something dear to her heart. Romanians, she says, are not gypsies. She echoes a sentiment that many Romanians have stressed to me. The semi-nomadic Romani (the gypsies) and the Romanians are two distinct people. They’re physically different and culturally different, and when you’re understanding Romania you have to understand this difference.

Lessons from a not-so-little mermaid (why being a teenager sucks)

The Little Mermaid and I walk to the library to collect some pre-ordered books on the history of fashion. It’s bright sunshine, and I’m happy in my skirt and strap top, but she’s wishing that she’d worn something other than jeans. One of us has been lounging out in the garden and knows what the weather is doing today.

We pass the tennis court, where younger children are batting balls across the net, and flying paper planes. We talk, or rather she tells and I prompt and somehow despite working around the age gap and that weird sense of being family so knowing each other (and in odd ways being rather similar) whilst knowing nothing of each other we manage to get along.

She’s surviving the summer holiday; I’m having an education.

It strikes me that I assume all teenagers are teenagers like I remember from school. In my mind, they’re bigger. Furthermore, I assume schools are pretty much all the same – they’re not. The Little Mermaid has a locker and is encouraged to take a photograph of her homework assignments with her smartphone. I try and explain to her a Nokia 3310. She’s amazed at the idea of a phone without colour. It appears I’ve become one of those old people who grew up without modern technology.

I try and explain that we could do more than text. We had MSN messenger (the easiest way to put a virus on the computer). Surprisingly, she’s heard of MSN. It makes an amusing line in a very old French textbook. I learn a new word – télécharger (to download) – is how French textbook characters acquire music. The Little Mermaid is worried about the character’s ethics.

She’s also worried about me walking out in front of a car. She’s got that whole ‘stop, look, listen, live’ thing memorised whereas I’m still trying to shake of the influence of Cairo. That said, when she moves, she strides with purpose. I’m the one having to speed up to keep up.

Yesterday we visited an art gallery and saw some Wedgewood pots, some pre-Raphaelite paintings and some Japanese prints. She liked the painting of a goat and another in which a young woman was begging a soldier not to go to war. I liked one where an almond tree turns into a woman vexed with the inattention of her beloved. The young man looks quite taken aback by the ordeal.

I learn that being a teenager is hard work. Wearing the right clothes matters. As does having the right (read bountifully liked) social media. The most important thing is not to be trying too hard to be someone else. You must be authentically you AND on trend. There’s peer pressure, but also pressure from an abundance of very young celebrities. These are people achieving stuff right now. Or at least, having their picture taken lots.

My mind thinks of Einstein’s achievements at my age, and I say nothing.

I know nothing about Romania

That is, I didn’t know anything until an hour ago, when I spoke with a lady I’ll be staying with while I’m there and had my first impromptu lesson in Romanian. I didn’t know that Romanian was a Latin-based language. Eu sunt din Anglia. So learning that it is made me smile. I might sometimes struggle to differentiate between my romance languages, but I can give their words a better guess than any slavic language.

Apparently, Prince Charles is a big fan of Transylvania. They have bears and some of the last true wilderness of Europe. And from my chat with my host, I get the feeling that I might be learning about folk music and dancing. Two weeks is not going to be enough, but it’s what I’ve got.

When you have an initial conversation with a host they have lots of questions. They’re doing a risk assessment (as are you). You both want to know that the other person is willing to be generous with their time and interest and isn’t going to cause you any trouble. When I travel somewhere, I want to stay with people who have a desire to share their lives with me. People who are willing to tell me about their opinions and experiences.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where we get our ideas of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ from. We inherit our norms from our parents and the culture we ourselves live in. My logic therefor goes that unless we experience other cultures and ideas to compare our own norms with, we’re accepting our own blindly.

This cultural difference can exist even between neighbours. Consider how your family goes about having dinner on a Sunday. For much of the world, Sunday is just another working day. For some, like my host family in France, Sunday is special, defined by a mid-morning mass, followed to a trip to the bakery for treats. The children drink watered down wine.

I love witnessing this variety. The knowledge of how other people live their lives gives me a freedom, a choice of how to live my own.

Now to add a welcoming Romanian family to the mix who have recommended the following documentary:

 

Why I prioritise learning to listen

Poland, Teaching English
Stepping out of normal life, to be somewhere remote and just listen. It can be kind of special.

The Grandmother asked why would I want to go to Romania, a country I know nothing of, and do nothing for a week but converse with people who want to learn my language.

It’s hard to explain because it doesn’t tick the typical list of priorities that people have for their lives. I get a qualification, yes, but that’s kind of just a bonus. It’s not going to lead to a career, I love teaching English occasionally, but my ambition isn’t to be an English teacher.

It’s not just me though. In Poland, the woman I shared a room with had flown there from Canada. Not a girl in her twenties, a woman with a house and grown children. She wasn’t paid, she didn’t get an exchange of a qualification. She just wanted to spend her time listening to these people who were in the process of trying to change their lives.

Which is what I enjoy about it.

Some of the participants in Poland were people whose work had paid for their place and encouraged them to partake but a significant proportion had paid for themselves. Public speaking is terrifying to most people anyway, and speaking a foreign language which you know you’re not fluent in to a group of strangers takes some incredible nerve. At the end of the week every participant gives a presentation in English. You don’t turn up for a week of English immersion just because your boss thought it was a good idea. You can’t learn a language if you aren’t willing to commit to it. It takes guts.

There are many reasons people want to learn English, that as a native English speaker we take for granted. International business demands it. Travel is easier with it. Sales wants it. Machine manuals and health and safety documentation are written in it. There was a determination from those fed up of struggling through meetings in English, or having to have information translated.These were people who wanted to make change happen. If you speak English, you can have more influence.

One woman I met worked in a Polish only role in the lower levels of a big international company. When the chief executive gave speeches and talked about the company in English, she wanted to understand. She wanted to know what was going on. She cared.

Another oversaw implementing the health and safety requirements from a non-Polish parent company, and wanted to improve her English because she needed to convey Polish law and Polish health and safety requirements to the parent company in a manner which they could understand. Somehow she was going to make them listen.

And what about a grandmother learning to speak her grandchildren’s first language.

Or an office-worker who wanted to travel.

Or, one of my favourites, a woman training to be a coach. As the best textbooks on coaching are predominantly in English decided that she was going to learn to read them.

It’s an odd combination. You spend all day, everyday listening and talking. People open up.

Complete strangers sit and talk authentically and freely about anything on their mind: crumbling relationships, aspirations for their businesses, family, depression, death, neighbours, improvisational theatre, teenage drinking, moving to a foreign country, or the ordeal of having their son’s girlfriend to visit for the first time.

You learn more about a persons hopes and dreams in one week than you learn about many people you see regularly over years.

“She doesn’t binge.”

 

I step into the living room where the Blacksmith and the Midget are watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m red faced, you can probably hear my breathing from the sofa, and I’m wearing running shorts and a top I was kindly given after running 10km a few years ago.

“How far did you get?” the Blacksmith asks.

“5.8.”

There’s a moment of thought, and then he beams and starts excitedly saying how I’m getting to a good bit. I’m thinking 5.8km isn’t that impressive, especially since he knows how long I’ve been out since he passed me in the car as I was running up the hill. I look at the Midget.

My sister, always the chemist, corrects my absent units by clarifying that the Blacksmith is talking about seasons and episodes and I’m talking about kilometres.

“Oh, Buffy? I’m still on the second season.”

The Blacksmith looks surprised, confused and disappointed.

Despondently, the Midget explains: “She doesn’t binge.”

It comes across in a tone that suggests that there’s something alien about me, something terribly dysfunctional about me. The Blacksmith looks at me and back at the Midget as if wondering if the two of us are related.

“No, I don’t,” I say, contemplating that there was that one time when the Midget and I watched four episodes of Star Trek back to back… And still feeling guilty.

 

A Polish bedtime story

I sit across the table from an older Polish man. He’s one of those people who stands out. There’s something beautifully genuine about him, but there’s also something unsettling in his haphazard coordination, jolting manner, frequent bursts of loud speech and the terrifying sincerity about his message. He’s one of those people who exhibit an odd unpredictability. He’s not quite aware of how he’s being interpreted, and is hurt easily because he doesn’t quite understand why people react the way they do. He’s difficult to converse with. If he started talking to you on the train, you’d feel uneasy.

He tells me about his life being full of sharp ups and downs, and he recommends the books and authors who gave him something to believe in when he wasn’t sure that he had anything at all. I listen, take notes and ask questions. Occasionally I correct his English.

And he shows me this video: