A time and a place

The appropriate use of humour has been on my mind this week, as I find myself back in the chilly UK. My week in the sunshine was definitely worth the journey, which was remarkably tolerable, certainly by comparison with other experiences I have had in the past. Nothing alarming happened on the flight, although my husband remarked that he would be keeping himself well strapped into his emergency exit seat, given recent events.

Our week in a hotel on the outskirts of Marrakesh was a new experience for me, as I have never before travelled to a country where the dominant religion is Islam. Hearing the early call to prayer was an amazing experience, as were the sights and sounds of the historic city and the souks. Most incredible of all, however, was the hot air balloon ride my husband talked me into.

I noticed the option on our hotel’s list of activities and remarked that I could certainly see the appeal but was not sure whether or not I felt able to go ahead with what seemed like such a risky activity. Standing in a basket, thousands of feet up into the air, dangling from a sack full of hot air has always seemed to me to be a somewhat insane proposition, but my husband gawped at me in disbelief. “But you’ve been up in a light aircraft with me!” he spluttered. (My husband gained his pilot’s licence many years before we met). Long story short, he enlightened me as to the fact that – statistically – light aircraft are infinitely more dangerous than hot air balloons (a fact he didn’t pass on to me before I gave the light aircraft a go). My husband reads air accident reports as a hobby (everybody needs one), and explained that balloon accidents tend to be what amounts to no more than a bumpy landing, leaving someone with a broken wrist or collar bone – they don’t tend to result in fatalities. So, armed with my husband’s superior knowledge of all things air crash-related, I agreed. We booked ourself onto the flight.

The flight was at dawn, which meant we saw the sun rise over the Atlas mountains, a simply incredible sight. The flight itself was absolutely wonderful, with no sense of motion apparent – as you move with the wind, you can’t feel the wind as you move, making the process remarkably tranquil. The silence is also striking, when you’re used to the engine noise of any other means of flight. Not only did I enjoy the experience, I would do it again in a heartbeat. As it turned out, I was not in the least bit afraid once we got there, and the French pilot dispelled any last-minute nerves with a tension-breaking bit of humour. Once we were a few feet off the ground, he turned to us and said, “First time in a balloon?” We nodded vigorously. “Me too!” he said, as he gave the burners a blast.

This kind of humour is right up my street and is without question the best way to win me over in pretty much any situation. The last time I thought about this in any depth was when I first went to a local osteopath. I have always been nervous of osteopathy, as I have scoliosis of the spine and my vertebrae don’t really behave like everybody else’s. As a result, I have awful visions of someone trying to crack my spine in a way it just won’t work and somehow breaking it, leaving me paralysed or worse. I always arrive in any clinic with a list of don’ts and caveats as long as my arm, and most osteopaths nod sagely and do exactly as they’re told.

Ian, however, is different.

“Look,” I said to him, in our first appointment. “You need to understand that my spine is quite rigid in places and won’t bend in the way you might expect. I’m most anxious not to get injured so it’s really important that you don’t do anything beyond what I’m confortable with.”

“No problem,” said Ian. “But what you need to understand is that if I break your neck …”

I started to babble. “Oh gosh, no, I totally realise that your career is in the balance and that as a professional you will take the ultimate care. I wasn’t suggesting that you would be anything other than hyper-cautious, I do realise that, it’s just I’m …”

“No no” he interrupted. “If I break your neck, then I’m left with a body to dispose of. And it’s not as easy as you might think. Especially if I’ve got a lot of appointments.”

I stared at him for a moment, then reacted in the only way appropriate. I laughed my head off. What an absolute legend. While this kind of humour might not be for everyone, it absolutely works for me in moments of tension. When I was 16, my orthodontist reflected on our 12-year journey of hideous braces and major surgery. My teeth were not perfectly straight, but they were roughly in line and infinitely better than when we started. What he wanted to do was to reflect on our excellent progress and a job well done. What he actually said was, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. Just as well for him that I found it hilarious.

Humour is my go-to response in most tense situations and has helped me to deal with innumerable challenges in my life. I am not alone in this. I know one couple who have visited North Korea as tourists (it is possible, believe it or not) and recall one of them saying that the main problem she had was not laughing in moments when ultimate seriousness was demanded – when, for example, witnessing the 24-hour wailing that goes on in the room where the bodies of deceased illustrious leaders lie in state. The performative grief was so ludicrous that she was completely gripped by the urge to laugh, especially since they had just done the tour of the government building which included a map of the world without the USA on it, plus an Apple Macbook Pro sat on the desk underneath it. I totally understand this urge towards inappropriate laughter. I am the sort of person that has to be careful not to laugh at funerals – that feeling of tense, wild hysteria often overtakes me at the most inppropriate of moments.

There’s a time and a place for everything, but some of us find release in the use of humour at what might seem like the most inappropriate of times. People in particularly stressful jobs probably best understand this kind of gallows humour and to some extent I think it’s cultural too. Wherever I am in the world, nothing makes me feel more at home than someone poking fun at what would otherwise be a tense or serious situation.

Photograph taken by my husband during our balloon flight

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