Archive | August, 2013


29 Aug

I have just been on holiday on my own — to Dundee. How bizarre is that? Most holiday images consist of happy couples walking along sunny beaches or families enjoying themselves in a sparkling blue sea. I’ve never seen a holiday brochure depicting a solitary older man wandering round a declining industrial city on the banks of the grey Tay estuary. I’m pleased that I’ve done this however, because I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a mould breaker.
How did this unusual vacation come about? My wife, Chris, was away in Italy for a month, supporting her daughter who has recently had a baby out there. The friend whom I originally planned to go on this trip with was unfortunately not well enough to travel. I could have cancelled it and forfeited the money but that would have been a waste and I would only have been home alone anyway, twiddling my thumbs. So I decided to go for it, taking myself as my only travel companion. At least there weren’t any disagreements about what to do or where to eat. Also, I didn’t have to spend sizeable chunks of “boring” time waiting outside shops while Chris trawled through their contents. In fact, despite the initial strangeness, I found the whole experience enjoyable and relaxing. I made my own plans, set my own pace and changed my mind whenever I felt like it. It was very liberating.
I remember a school assembly talk delivered by a former teaching colleague, in which she set out to distinguish between being ” alone” and being “lonely.” It’s all a matter of attitude and choice. Loneliness occurs when one is alone but has not chosen to be. Having the solitary state forced upon you can be dispiriting and depressing. Human beings are generally sociable animals enjoying the company of others. It’s nice to share an experience, to exchange views, to be stimulated by the presence of another person. Then there is the social stigma of being on one’s own. If I was alone in a social setting like a restaurant or a pub, would the other people be talking about me behind my back or even pitying me? Would they assume that I was a sad, “Billy no mates.” Being alone in a crowd can be a very lonely experience when everyone else seems to have a friend or acquaintance to chat to and you have no-one. It could lead to one becoming an object of pity.
However, if one CHOOSES to be alone, then the idea of “loneliness” is banished and all the advantages of that situation come to the fore. It’s good to have personal space. It’s liberating to have complete freedom of choice. It’s nice to have the time to be able to reflect rather than being constantly interrupted by someone else’s chatter.( enjoyable as that may be.) So the very act of choosing to be alone flips everything into reverse and can be an extremely positive experience.
A former partner of mine chose to holiday alone in The Orkneys. All her previous holidays had been with her former-husband who she had just split up from. It was as if she now wanted to prove herself to be a whole individual instead of merely being half of a couple. This was just before she met me. She drove all the way through Scotland on her own, caught the boat from Caithness and camped alone in Stromness. People commented on how brave she was. I think that by choosing to holiday alone my friend wanted to demonstrate her independence and at the same time, strike a blow for feminism. Until this recent trip I have never had the guts to copy her.
Travelling alone means that one is more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger. A single person is more approachable than a couple or a family group, who just tend to talk to each other and form a barrier to outsiders. Wandering around Dundee, I didn’t exactly set the city alight with my electrifying conversational skills but I did have a little chat with the young man who sold me my ticket at Discovery Point ( where Captain Scott’s Antarctic research ship, “The Discovery”, is moored). We talked about the forthcoming Glasgow Commonwealth Games ( in 2014.) and the scheduled Referendum about Independence for Scotland. On the same day I had a short discussion with the waitress at Henry’s Coffee House about why you cannot seem to buy a toasted teacake in a Scottish café. It’s something I’d never realised before.( if it’s true.) The girl turned out to be as mystified as I was because she is just a student at Dundee University and actually hails from Peterborough! She did tell me however, that Dundee is a very good base for students as it has got a compact centre and all the main attractions are within easy walking distance.
On later days I chatted with Jim, a Celtic supporter who I met while watching a Champions League match in a pub. Football even more than the weather is a very good way of “breaking the ice” and getting men together. Jim and I swapped brief life histories while watching Fenerbache lose to Arsenal and downing a couple of pints of McEwans. I also met Lily at the Jute Mill Museum: the Verdant Works. Manufacture of jute products used to be such a massive industry in Dundee that the city was once nicknamed “Jutopolis.” Lily had worked in a Jute Mill for 20 years and had been a guide and demonstrator at the museum for a further 17 years. She told me that workers used to talk to each other in sign language because the noise from the machines was so deafening. That is why, Lily explained, many older women in Dundee are deaf or have hearing problems. It wasn’t because they were listening to rock music! The mill owners employed mostly women and children because they could get away with paying them lower wages. In fact, so many women worked in the mills and factories, leaving their menfolk at home, that Dundee gained its other nickname — “She Town.”
So, during my trip north of the border, I was “alone” but never felt “lonely.” I’m pleased I left my comfort- zone and ventured out on that Scottish break. I must admit that when I was walking to catch the bus that would take me to the train station, I had a slight feeling of trepidation and had half a mind to just slip back home again. I could have locked the door, closed the curtains and just pretended to be in Dundee for the next 5 days. I could easily have found out about Tayside from the Internet and put up knowledgeable Facebook postings, as if I was actually there instead of sneaking round my own living- room. But ultimately, that would have been the coward’s way out. How could I have looked myself in the mirror if I had done that? Captain Robert Falcon Scott had sailed all the way to the Antarctic and yet I would have been too scared to travel to Dundee to see his ship “The Discovery.” ( built in Dundee in 1901.) No, I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had timidly turned back. So I gathered up my courage and travelled on by foot, bus and train, across the border and into the unknown.
I am an avid reader of travel books. Two of the best travel writers in my opinion: Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban, also seem to travel largely on their own. Come to think of it, so does Bill Bryson for much of the time. Great features of all their books are the entertaining and illuminating conversations they have with the locals in the area they are visiting. It is these inter-changes rather than mere observation and description, that really reveal the essence and character of a place. I now realize that my chat about the non-existent Scottish toasted tea-cake belongs in illustrious company.
I chose Dundee, St Andrews and Aberdeen rather than a Mediterranean sea, sun and sand holiday because I am interested in finding out about the history, culture and architecture of places that I have never visited before. In this respect I suppose I have a Victorian approach to tourism. According to Michael Portillo, a lone TV traveller ( except for the camera crew that is) the Victorians used the newly developed railways to explore and educate themselves about their own country. In this spirit, many of them ( mainly from the middle classes I have to admit) set out on mini Grand Tours determined to combine escapism with education.
Maybe by undertaking this little journey of exploration on my own, I found out more about that area of north-east Scotland ( Angus and Fife) than if I had been constantly conversing with a travel companion.( or continually waiting outside shops.) Being alone enabled me to interact a bit more with the local inhabitants and have a more direct connection with the sights and sounds of the places I visited. Being a solitary tourist in Dundee may not have been such a strange or sad event after-all. Dundee is a fascinating, stone built Victorian city, a bit like a smaller Glasgow. It is now in the middle of a big redevelopment, trying to re-invent itself as a tourist destination. It turned out to be an enjoyable, relaxing and interesting visit even though I travelled there alone. Having said all that, I couldn’t wait to get home to tell everyone about it!


WEEKEND AWAY — The Ups and Downs of Travel.

15 Aug

The strange events began when a poor cow wandered on to the mainline south of York. The inevitable messy and fatal collision was not only traumatic for the train driver and others directly involved, but it caused a long delay on the London to Edinburgh route for the rest of the day. I was en-route to meet up with my son, Ian, in the capital. We were then to fly out to Eindhoven in The Netherlands, where his wife, Nanayaa, works.
The southbound East Coast train slid to a halt somewhere north of York. We just sat there for 20 minutes looking out over anonymous fields. The train-manager explained that we had got caught up in the log-jam caused by the earlier cow incident. From then on, it was constant stop-start and crawl all the way to Doncaster and beyond. Only after Peterborough did we pick up speed but by then we were a full hour behind schedule.
Previously settled and content passengers now became restless and even anxious. All their carefully laid plans were starting to unravel. It’s no fun to be stuck in a situation over which one has no control. They hit their mobiles en-masse, explaining to waiting friends, family and colleagues why they were going to be late. The sad story of the cow and the train was repeated over and over again, sometimes with humour, sometimes with irritation, occasionally with anger. Nobody alas seemed to care about the unfortunate animal, just that their travel plans had been disrupted by its untimely death. I just sent a quiet text to Ian.
One positive outcome of all this, a silver lining to the cloud, was that people came out of their private zones and started to talk to their neighbours. Barriers broke down and a hint of the Dunkirk spirit set in. I got to know that the lady reading the Daphne du Maurier mystery next to me, was from Falkirk and was meeting up with her sister from Ham to go on holiday to Majorca. Like me she was facing an early morning alarm call and flight the next day. She constantly updated her sibling on our stuttering progress so that she didn’t have to pay a hefty parking fee at Kings Cross.
Unbeknown to me, this delayed journey south was to set the tone for an incident- strewn weekend. This was only the beginning.
Travel can be both exciting and stressful in equal measure. By making a journey, travellers voluntarily leave their everyday comfort-zones and embark on an unpredictable series of events largely controlled by others. The feeling of not being responsible can be liberating and even exhilarating, but can also lead to frustration and worry. Even if you travel in your own car, there is always the chance of a break-down, of getting lost or of getting stuck in an endless traffic jam which you have no control over. Travelling by public transport puts one even more in other people’s hands and more subject to the whim of chance. The first thing you have to do is to conform to a timetable dictated by someone else. So if the airline decides to fly at 6-30am, that means you have to be at the airport by 5-30 at the latest, and you end up struggling out of bed in the middle of the night.
Thus it was that Ian and I were dragging our clothes on and cleaning our teeth at 3-45am to allow time for our trek from Canary Wharf to London Stansted in Essex. We were flying with Ryanair to Eindhoven. It was not long before we started to depart from the script!
The taxi arrived early but when we didn’t come out straight away, the driver, for reasons known only to himself, decided to go away again and fit in another local call. Thus by the time he condescended to return, we were already late.
Stratford interchange, near the Olympic park in east London, is a surreal place at night. It was here where we were to catch our airport transfer coach. A weird forest of large, flood-lit golden leaves rears up at the side of the road — an attempt at modern art. Trains, buses, taxis and private cars constantly come and go even though it is the middle of the night when most people are still tucked up in bed. Huddled together on the dark pavement are the travellers, dragging cases and carrying ruck-sacks, like a bedraggled army of refugees. Some shuffle from foot to foot to keep themselves warm and stay awake. Others cling to lovers in one last forlorn embrace. Ticket sellers from two competing coach companies mingle with the crowd touting for custom, but most people are waiting to see which coach comes first. It was difficult to realize that all this was happening at 4-45am.
Ian and I missed our preferred coach because of the late running taxi. We waited slightly anxiously for the next one. Inevitably it was late and set off for Stansted even later as everyone had to load their luggage and belatedly purchase their tickets.
We had already checked in online and didn’t have any hold luggage to deposit, but, as is the norm at any big airport, we still had to queue! The line of people waiting to pass through security looked absolutely enormous. When I saw the masses of people my heart sank. We could well miss our flight. Ryanair is an airline famous for not waiting for stragglers. Luckily what had seemed like one huge queue turned out to be 4 queues for separate conveyor belts and x-ray scanners. So we thankfully progressed more quickly than I had at first expected.

Being a reasonably experienced flyer, I had made sure that no liquids were packed into my cabin bag. However, as I walked through the x-ray barrier without bother, I saw to my dismay ( and Ian’s) that my bag had come under suspicion and had been pulled. Was this just a random check that they sometimes do? I had to stand there, wasting precious minutes while a uniformed officer combed through my belongings. He was as bemused as I was. Then he went back to my small deodorant stick. Had this triggered the scanner? This was probably the culprit he concluded. Although not a liquid, it was classified as a “gel” even though it was pretty solid. Apparently, the airport authorities thought I might be clever enough to make a bomb with my roll-on deodorant in the aeroplane toilet during the 45 minute flight to Eindhoven. This Dutch city is famous for the brain-power of the boffins in its university and research establishments. Maybe Stansted Security thought I was one of them!
Actually, I don’t think they thought about it at all. They were merely following the rules. These rules have been applied to long-suffering air travellers for years now, ever since a would-be terrorist attempted to make an explosive device from the aforementioned liquids and/or gels. Anyway my deodorant was popped in a see- through bag and passed its security scan at the second attempt. I was relieved to be taken off the list of suspected terrorists.
Ian and I hurried to the gate which must have been at least a quarter of a mile away. All the screens said — “Eindhoven: Final call.” We made it with just over 5 minutes to spare. The queue was already moving through. After all that, the actual flight, which took off on time, was fairly tranquil, except for an alarmingly bumpy landing. So, at last, we were released from the tunnel of uncertainty to enjoy a late breakfast in another country. If it had been a normal day, I, as a retired person of leisure, would have been just getting up and starting my stretching and yawning routine.
The weekend in The Netherlands was great. We explored Eindhoven, visited picturesque and historical Maastricht and spent quality time with Ian’s wife, Nanayaa. The summer sun shone, we sat in atmospheric pavement cafes, we saw lots of interesting sights and we relaxed.
Then it was time for the return journey, another train of events over which we had little control. This involved arriving at the airport 10 hours too early for our flight ( our mistake), having to hurriedly evacuate a café that had a very loud hissing gas leak, having a truck catch fire immediately in front of our plane( causing a 50 minute delay), and waiting another long 50 minutes for a late running National Express Coach from Stansted back to central London.( no explanation given.)
When I eventually got home to north-east England, the next day, I had enjoyed a fascinating and very enjoyable long weekend, but it was really nice to just stay still and to be back in control!