Off Piste: Passport to potter about

David Abulafia maps out the pleasures and pains of travelling, from odysseys off the beaten track to bumpy journeys and egg sandwiches that recall aviation's pioneering days

April 9, 2009

Academics often make a virtue of puritanism when they travel. Perhaps it is the result of spending so much time among students who travel cheaply and stay in simple hotels. However, trips to Italy or Spain for academic conferences are unabashed perks.

Recently in Times Higher Education, Simon Goldhill, fellow and director of Classics at King's College, Cambridge, extolled the virtues of standing in the sea off Crete with fellow conference-goers and of communing over bottles of wine in the local taverna. But there are other types of gatherings on the shores of the Mediterranean. Many conference attendees make themselves scarce after the pompous grand opening in the presence of politicians and bishops, surfacing for receptions and dinners, but somehow never making it to the lectures - after all, they point out, everything (of whatever quality) will be published in the Proceedings, even though they may take six or seven years to appear in print. Quite apart from the free gifts - silk ties, handsomely illustrated books, local ceramics - the quality of the hotel is likely to be very high; if not, the organisers will lose face.

I used to think that invitations to speak in those countries were based on the flattering belief that I would have something interesting to say. But one factor is often that the funding bodies (including proud regional governments) provide better accommodation for conferences that are "international". As a result, the presence of one English visitor may be vital to the comfort of everyone else, and polite refusal to take part because one has other commitments may be met with disbelief and an ever more strident insistence that one should still come, even for only 24 hours.

Put simply, you make friends by attending, and enemies by declining to do so. I have even found my name on the programme of conferences I was never invited to attend. Most disconcerting, though, was a phone call asking me to go to Kosovo in three days' time to speak about the way the 15th-century Albanian hero Scanderbeg was portrayed in English literature. A ticket had even been booked with British Airways. While I claim to know something about the historical Scanderbeg, I am completely incapable of speaking about his reputation in English literature and, not surprisingly, I had already made other arrangements for the weekend.

Some years ago, my urge to travel did take me to Albania proper, in the days when it was ruled by the horrendous Enver Hoxha. The handful of British visitors who made the journey were not allowed contact with Albanians, apart from the Albturist guides, some of whom were party hacks of the worst sort. I heard one being asked: "Do Albanians ever travel abroad?" She answered: "For us, foreign travel is an abstract concept."

She then became more than a little irritated by a question about prison camps as she conducted a tour around the Museum of Atheism in Shkoder. On the walls there was a photograph of President John F. Kennedy meeting the Pope some years earlier. "This proves that American imperialism and the Vatican are in league," she stridently announced. Next there was a photo of President Nikolai Podgorny of the Soviet Union meeting the Pope. "And this proves that Soviet social imperialism and the Vatican are in league," she added.

In the evening, the Albturist guides would, if you were lucky, lure you to the hotel roof to show you an Albanian film such as Fire Emergency, which was full of sinister Catholic priests collaborating with Italian Fascist invaders. Across the street was an open-air cinema for Albanians. They were watching, and immensely enjoying, Ivanhoe, the 1952 version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine - acceptable to the authorities because of its message about oppressed Saxons and Jews.

You would be shown around copper plants and factories (including the Mao Zedong Textile Mills), although, alas, we missed the picturesque Caustic Soda Factory in Vlore, which, the official guidebook informed me, was close to the Asbestos Tubes and Extraction Factory, so perhaps it was just as well. The only foreign news we heard in 12 days was that a massive earthquake had hit central China. Of course, there are many who would relish such isolation, and it is increasingly hard to find it when one travels.

Travellers do collect places. I am attracted by the strange enclaves and anomalies on the map. They raise questions about how borders define or fail to define identity. I have just been in Dubrovnik, which occupies a sliver of the Adriatic coastline. You acquire half a dozen passport stamps in a day as you move between Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. One of my hosts did not like this: he felt nostalgia for old Yugoslavia (he did his military service on Tito's famous yacht). Once you are in Serbian parts of Bosnia you are taken to see a reconstruction of a frescoed monastery marooned in Kosovo. You are aware that you have crossed cultural and religious as well as political boundaries: the distances are tiny, the passions immense.

The most remarkable interweaving of cultures, countries and even continents can be found at the Straits of Gibraltar. Coming down from Spain, you leave your taxi at the Gibraltar frontier and cross on foot, vaguely waving a passport. You know you are on British soil when you see a red telephone box and a British bobby, as well as signs telling you that you have reached Winston Churchill Avenue. As you gaze southwards, you can clearly see the mountains of Morocco, and it is only half an hour by ferry from Algeciras to the northern tip of Morocco, Ceuta, which is, of course, a Spanish city.

Ceuta is a place of some charm, with impressive walls left by the Arabs and the Portuguese, and striking Art Deco architecture. It may well be the most prosperous city in Africa. It seems proud of its peculiar identity and is much cleaner than Gibraltar. As in all enclaves, there is a sense of dislocation: is this Spain? Is this Morocco? Is this Europe? Is this Africa? As nowhere else in Spain, signs direct you to the houses of worship of three sister faiths: the cathedral, the synagogue and the mosque. And the perplexity is enhanced by the strictness of the border controls on the European side - aimed, of course, at African migrants.

There are also those places that retain only vestiges of the days when they were cosmopolitan cities where cultures met and interacted. Alexandria, I found, is a dirty modern city, with only faint traces of Lawrence Durrell's era, let alone its glorious ancient and medieval past. But the Hotel Cecil still has the royal arms on its ancient lift and the old courtesies prevail. Looking for the archaeological museum, I took the wrong turning past a bank. Seeing me, the guard came down the steps, extended his hand and bellowed: "Welcome! Welcome to Egypt!" He did not know where the museum was, but went inside and found a senior executive, who took me halfway there (it was actually the wrong museum, but he meant well).

Moreover, it is easy to make elementary mistakes all by oneself. I had noticed that Alexandria's trams often seemed to have a carriage occupied exclusively by women. It was raining hard and I needed to jump on a tram to reach the Hotel Cecil. I followed two men on board the first carriage. They were quite displeased. "Haraam! Haraam!" they shouted. This was the women's carriage - I dismounted and got on the second carriage. I never found out why those two men had dispensation. I was told later that secular women are often as keen to use the women's carriage as devout ones, to avoid unwelcome attention.

Every now and then you catch a faint glimpse of the old Alexandria - the mansions of the Menashe bankers, the Coptic churches, a Greek cafe. But even the 20th century has to be excavated, and only in your imagination.

The big question when travelling is whether to try to merge into the crowd or wear your foreign identity on your sleeve. You may pride yourself on your fluency in Italian, but that will be no help in Venice, where the central Italian accent you learnt will give you away, however good it is. You will be led to feel that, as far as the Venetians are concerned, mainland Italians are just as foreign as people from other lands. Italians also have that extraordinary ability to look at your clothes and class you immediately as British, however hard you try to display bella figura.

In Japan, in contrast, you anxiously seek out Western faces on station platforms for someone who might know where the trains are going. I knew one rather shy Englishman who set out four times from Tokyo Station - and came back again - before he found the right train. The alternative is to buy a book called English in Japanese, which provides a large vocabulary of words borrowed from English that are therefore easy to remember: you may enjoy sukuranbu eggu and sumooku saamon with oranji-jusu and a mooningu kappu of miruku koohii for breakfast, if (wrongly) you are wary of traditional Japanese food.

My best travel experiences, however, came within minutes of my house, when we had our own Cambridge-based airline flying to and from Amsterdam, the late-lamented Suckling Airways. It started with just one plane.

The Dornier aircraft had 18 seats - every one a window seat and an aisle seat. The company advertised for 5ft-tall stewardesses because the ceiling was so low. If you boarded first, you could sit right behind the pilot, who would hail you with a cheery "Good morning!" and was probably Captain Suckling, the owner. Mrs Suckling would greet you by name as you disembarked at Cambridge Airport.

You never flew very high, so you were buffeted all over the place. Since you could see that the pilot was unperturbed, you soon realised what the plane could put up with.

The pilot would occasionally lean forward and look to the right and left, keeping an eye out for aircraft from US bases in East Anglia that now and then strayed across civil air corridors. No luxury, but a pioneering sense of adventure - this was aviation, not mere air travel, and it was enhanced by excellent egg sandwiches, hand-made in Cambridge.

It is vital to recapture as far as possible the innocent joys of travelling. Not long ago I amazed my hosts in North Carolina by insisting that I would take the train to Washington. No one I met there had ever done this, even though there is a direct line from Raleigh. True, the thought of seven to eight hours on board was a daunting prospect, but for another $22 (£16), you could go Club Class and sink into a massive leather seat.

I brought along an enormous novel, but spent little time reading it, even though the train was soon running an hour late (the time lengthened with smoking stops at little stations in the tobacco fields of Virginia). The chance to see rural America was too good to miss, even allowing for the disconcerting sight of Confederate flags along the way.

Best of all are US train stations: Union Station in Los Angeles, for instance, is straight out of a 1930s film, further enhanced by the ritual of being ceremoniously conducted from the departure hall to the train.

It is no surprise, then, that although I live close to Stansted, I will do anything to avoid its crowds. In the age of mass travel, there is much to be said for pottering about.

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