Are we there yet?

caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt.

Those who race across the sea change their horizon, not their mind.


On the day this post is published I shall be in Morocco, hopefully in the sunshine. As I write, here in the UK, the sky is dark and rain is hammering at the windows, the miserable weather a perfect encapsulation of the reasons why my husband and I are choosing to travel abroad at this time of year. Yet, as the day of our departure approaches, I find a small portion of myself feeling like I don’t want to go.

This always happens to me. I am not a great traveller, indeed my feelings around the process of travel would be classed by many as a phobia or – at the very least – a strong, visceral aversion. Were I not married to someone who wishes to travel abroad then I suspect that I would have found an excuse never to do so by now. The enormous pressure of running school trips abroad is something I have written about before, and made up a small but significant part of what contributed to my decision to draw my teaching career to a close. Covid hasn’t helped me either, as I must confess I rather enjoyed having all pressure to travel removed from my shoulders and it’s been quite a personal challenge to get myself back into the swing of things now that restrictions have been lifted. I won’t bore you with the details as it would mean far too much over-sharing, but suffice to say I find travelling very challenging and will find every excuse under the sun to do less of it. I don’t like leaving the house, my friends, my family the cats. You name it, I’ll use it as a reason not to go.

Believe me, I am deeply aware that these are First World Problems of the most unsympathetic kind and demand no commiserations whatsoever. I am not moaning. I have no reason to. Nobody forces me to travel and there is a significant part of me that wishes to do so. Doing things outside one’s comfort zone is not only good for the soul, it is one of the many compromises that marriage demands of us – when you have a partner, you cannot simply do exactly what you want to do every minute of every day; you have to consider beloved’s needs and desires also. A bit of travel is part of the deal.

I mentioned my reticence about travelling to a friend the other day and she remarked that she would probably not travel abroad on a regular basis were it not for her partner’s desire to visit exotic places. She works in the business world and a good deal of travelling to multiple continents has been expected of her as a part of her career; this took much of the glamour out of the notion of travel, and has left her feeling somewhat unenamoured with its attractions. In our conversation, she pondered how many of us there might be who also feel this way, people who holiday abroad more because they think they should rather than because they truly want to. I have actually met an extraordinary number of people in my life who will guiltily admit to feeling somewhat ambivalent about travel, probably more than I have met who love it (although I’ve met plenty of those people also). Many people understand the anxieties that travel can cause and will admit that deep down they sometimes wonder whether the whole business is really worth it. So why do we do it?

I have never been convinced of the idea that travel broadens the mind, hence the line from Horace quoted at the top of this piece has always been a favourite for me. In my lifetime I have met some extraordinarily ignorant people who were well-travelled. I shall never forget an older man saying to me “I’ve smelt Calcutta” as an argument-clincher, proving without question his unshakeable belief that the English have done nothing but good for India over the years. Quite extraordinary. Likewise, my husband’s parents did far more travelling in their lives than I ever plan to do, yet my mother-in-law parroted the line “there’s no poverty in China” when telling me about their holiday there. To her credit, she did manage to grasp my point that maybe, just maybe, she had seen what the government-selected guide had wanted her to see and nothing more.

So it seems that visiting other countries does not necessarily educate or broaden the mind – we respond to travel as ourselves, see the world through our own tinted glasses, whether they be rose-coloured or otherwise. I like to think of myself as a reasonably broad-minded and liberal person and I don’t believe that any of this stems from the fact that I have travelled abroad on multiple occasions. My maternal grandmother was a pretty open-minded woman for any generation, never mind for someone who was born at the very beginning of the 20th century, and to my recollection she’d managed one trip to Malta in her lifetime – not exactly a challenging experience, culturally.

But let us not forget how lucky we are, how amazing the modern world is. Should we choose to make it so, the world is our oyster and this can be nothing but good. We take it for granted that we can find ourselves in another continent, another climate and another time zone in less than the time it would take us to drive from London to Glasgow. Travel abroad has become more and more affordable over the last few decades and is an expectation shared by far more people than our grandparents’ generation could have conceived of. When I was a very young student I lodged with a couple who had met during the 1960s, working as cabin crew for BOAC. They used to talk about how the fact that they were visiting different countries all over the world became a barrier between them and their families, who were not wealthy and had never experienced such things. It seems extraordinary now, but for their generation the explosion in exotic travel for all was only just beginning.

Now get this. Thanks to Stanford University, it is possible to find out how long your journey would have taken you in Roman times. Their interactive map of the Roman empire, through which you can find out the best and fastest methods via which you could have reached your intended destination as an intrepid Roman, is enormous fun. My trip to Mauretania, as the Romans called it, would have taken around 30 days, which puts my reluctance to endure a three-hour flight somewhat in perspective! Travel in the ancient world was difficult, expensive and phenomenally dangerous. You certainly didn’t attempt it in the winter, so making the trip at this time of year would have been considered absolute madness. I have genuinely found it helpful to remind myself of this; it has pushed any last-minute nerves and internal whingeing to the side as my brain adjusts its understanding to the realisation of how incredibly, wondrously lucky we all are to have the opportunities that we do.

So, as you read this, think of me now, the anxieties of the challenging journey over, enjoying just one of the innumerable privileges afforded to me as a result of being born in the developed world in the late 20th century. Just writing this has helped me to put things in perspective and I honestly find myself more ready for this trip than I otherwise might have been. The pen (or the laptop) is mightier than the sword when it comes to winning hearts and minds, and it looks like that goes for one’s own heart and mind also. So let’s open the suitcases and dust off my travel pass. I’m ready for boarding.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Poplars tremble gradually to gold

There is an apocryphal saying that has been shared thousands of times on the internet. It is usually labelled “a Greek proverb” but sadly I cannot find any reliable reference to it that predates the 20th century. Nevertheless, it is a favourite saying of mine and whoever first expressed the sentiment was certainly insightful, even if he didn’t share his thoughts in the agora of 4th century Athens.

The saying is as follows:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.”

Source unknown

There is so much to like about this statement. First of all, I like the fact that it talks about the responsibilities of the oldest in society. It seems to me that we all spend quite a lot of time wagging fingers at the young, telling them that it’s their responsibility to sort out the problems of the future – we may have caused all the problems, mind you, but we won’t be around to face the consequences and they will. The quoted statement calls this attitude into question and suggests that we all bear a responsibility towards the future that will exist after we are gone. I’m not surprised that people assumed such sentiments came from ancient Athens, which was a patriarchal society in which aristocratic men enjoyed the benefits and bore the responsibilities of government; elderly men were afforded power and respect, and in return they were expected to leave behind a legacy for the good of the generations to come.

In many ways, however, this statement is about the importance of trees. While it is using the tree as a metaphor for the future, to express the importance of the longterm legacy that every human is capable of leaving behind when they’re gone, it speaks to the visceral understanding that planting a tree is one of the best things that anybody can do in this world. Our love for trees and our trust in their enduring importance has recently been brought into sharp relief with the heinous felling of the beautiful tree at Sycamore Gap, a famous landmark so named after the tree that by chance grew in a sharp dip in the hillside next to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. The real horror of this inexplicable act of nihilism has left me and countless others quite bereft; even those of us down in the south know the sense of history and local pride that this awe-inspiring natural feature commanded. I simply cannot believe that somebody could bring themselves to do such a thing.

The Romans valued their trees, not just for ornamentation but also for their practical uses. Trees were planted along roads, around public buildings, and inside the garden rooms of the villas of the wealthy, creating an outside-in effect that still inspires architecture and city planning to this day. Preserved cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum evidence how the Romans made trees a part of their urban landscape; excavations reveal that these ancient cities were home to a wide variety of trees, strategically planted for shade and selected for both their aesthetics and their utility. The Romans clearly had an understanding of how they could use trees to improve urban environments, a concept that we are now returning to, with more and more research suggesting that trees can improve the air quality as well as reduce temperatures in modern cities.

I am privileged to live in “leafy Surrey” and it is perhaps poignant that I become most aware of the trees around me in autumn, as we watch the leaves die and start to fall. During October and November, walking along a pavement where I live becomes a joyous experience of swishing through the fallen leaves and crunching upon acorns and horse chestnuts. The title of this blog post is taken from a poem by Gillian Clarke entitled simply October. It explores imagery of death and dying, but highlights the beauty of the colours as leaves start to die and decay in autumn. There simply is not a more beautiful and poignant time of year and while it is always tinged with sadness as it foreshadows the depths of winter to come, I value the glory and the beauty of this time of year immensely.

Photo of the now-felled sycamore tree at Sycamore Gap
by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash