On this summer night I listen to the songs of Brazil, Portugal, France and Italy and I miss abroad. The scents, the tastes, the scenes, the cultures, the difference. That is what matters. When we travel elsewhere, we learn something about life, about humanity. And mostly we learn that we are so similar. We love, we hate, we feel jealousy and empathy, and try to do the best we can. It’s the human condition.
It’s exciting, sometimes, to feel an outsider. Working in Nigeria, the Middle East, or Hong Kong, I had so much to learn about how others respond to information. How they communicate and bond, or not.
I had an apartment in Nice for many years and I would sit on the balcony in the evenings and look at the moon and recognise that we all look at the same sky, stars and moon. We are all in awe of these simple aspects of nature, wherever we are. I would watch the planes come into Nice airport, or traverse the skies over France, and think of the people able to travel across miles of the earth to see family, visit friends, or do business, and I always felt that, despite the potential environmental threat, it was a positive and exotic experience to travel. It brings us together. The view of a plane in the night sky from earth makes it look romantic. Of course, the reality of being sat in one of these cigar-shaped machines is actually pretty mundane. Until you get there…
And then you arrive. In Dubai, or Egypt, in Nashville or Sydney. And the different temperature hits you. Dubai is like being in a fan oven. Phoenix, Arizona too. The excitement of landing in a strange place, getting a taxi across town, seeing the different sights, talking to the taxi-driver about their experiences, talking to anyone one meets in business or as a tourist. Discovering. Discovering those differences of life, how they live in comparison to how we live. No one way is ‘right’.
Tonight, stuck in London, I miss it all. Lisbon, Beirut, Havana, Kerala, Moscow, Luxor, Zimbabwe, and more. The gentle Portugual of my birth, where my sister and I had planned a sentimental journey this year back to the places we remembered as children. I hope we can make that next year.
Remembering running training courses in the Middle East and Africa, knowing and respecting the fact that I must conform to their norms. And loving the differences, noticing them, and hoping I was doing ok to be myself and yet shaping myself enough to their ways.
And my dear friend Sima, who sadly died last year, used to say that I was a different Helen when I lived in Nice. A free spirit, someone new to the Helen she knew in London. I don’t know who that was exactly, and I wonder if you can connect with that feeling of being someone slightly different, slightly more free, able to let go of the old British ways, of the expectations of class or family, and try out different ways of being when you are abroad? I know my father was at his most relaxed, my mother always said, when he was abroad. My brother and sister have both lived away for more years than I have and I know that the three of us, maybe because of our early years in Portugal, thrive on being somewhere different.
Yet, speaking for myself, I also love England. The countryside and what this country offers. Maybe it’s because we are an island nation that we yearn for other spaces and places. But it pains me when so much of what we read and listen to is constantly seeking to criticise everything we do in this country. Which is not, after all, so bad. I know I would prefer to be supervised by our police officers, however flawed, than most others in the world, that I am happy with our inevitably flawed democracy rather than any kind of dictatorship. After all, only 32% or so of the French bothered to turn up at their first local elections. For a political nation celebrating democracy, that is weird, if not dangerous.
But Macron and Merkel are determined to play their political games and stop us Brits from travelling, despite the fact that it deeply hurts those in their own countries who depend on tourism. I read today that the reason that our rates of Covid look so high is that we test far more – as much as 10 times as much – as Germany, and more than France or other European nations. So, of course it looks as if we are doing badly. And we count the Covid deaths of all those who die ‘with Covid’ rather than ‘of Covid’, so they could have been hit by a bus or died of a cancer they already had, but would still be recorded as a Covid death. Statistics have to be studied hard and in detail, as Tim Harford explains frequently, if they are to be understood accurately.
But tonight, I miss the different sounds and the words of a strange language in my ear, the scents of a different country and its people, the way people dress, the fruits sold in the markets, the blossom on their trees and plants. So please, dear leaders, stop making politics the reason why we are stopped from travelling. Science ok, politics, no. People have close family abroad that they haven’t seen for months. And family is what matters in life. When you are in need, it is family who count. So, Boris, Angela and Emmanuel, recognise that the rate of vaccination in the UK is exceptionally high, get your act together, all of you, to get life back to normal and persuade your people to get vaccinated so the world is a safer place again, and we can mingle and learn from one another. I so hope we can do this again soon.
In the meantime, thank heaven, I can dream. Do you?