Friday, 5 March 2010

The Best Cure

The best cure for a broken heart that I know of is international travel. There is something purifying about the nerve-wracking rituals of getting on an airplane and flying across an ocean. Unfortunately, this is a cure available only to the rich, or at least to the employed, the employed who get 2 or 3 weeks of vacation time.

My heart has been broken several times, and although it has been fully refurished and restored, if you look under the brilliant new paint and clever plasterwork there is still a scar or two. However, I was able to heal up some wounds very quickly by simply going on vacation.

My first international trip by myself was to Italy, a place for which I had longed since I was six years old and had first seen pictures of Florence. But my interest in that country really blazed up when I took Italian classes in secondary school. So when, at last, in my twenties. I had enough money to go, and an achy-breaky heart to heal, to Italy I went. I booked a tour with a youth travel company.

There are those who can travel the world with a backback, sleep anywhere, and make friends wherever they go. I have never been among them. So I was grateful to have the company arrange not only the carrying of my luggage and my bedrooms, but my company.

The one difficulty was that my company was intensely conformist. The average person on this tour was American of Italian descent, who spoke no Italian and was terrified of the South. The girls on the bus, apparently warned by grandparents of goodness knows what horrors, almost shook as we approached Sorrento and rushed from the bus straight into the hotel. They would only leave it in twos and threes.

The star of the group was a stockbroker from Manhattan: the attempts of the American girls to charm this matrimonial prize were comical. I wonder how far they went? (One American girl and one Australian boy embarked on a very noisy affair, so we all knew how far they went.) The ticket to the "in" crowd, for the tour group was so intensely high-schoolish as to have an "in" crowd, was to join in the courtship dance around Mr. Manhattan. I refrained.

The Canadians angered the Americans by making rude remarks that absolutely floored the latter. I think it must have been their very first introduction to the anti-Americanism widespread outside the USA. Keeping out of such unneighbourly battles, I nevertheless managed to anger the American girls on the tour by brazenly chatting (in Italian) with Italian men who haunted tourist bars, even in the dangerous South. Strangely, although just as guilty in this as I, a very pleasant Italian-speaking Australian girl did not suffer the same censure from the others. I think, however, that she was more companionable and less likely to run away down quattrocento alleys on her own.

I had a goodly number of adventures in what could not have been more than 10 or 12 days. It would take a very long blog post indeed to do any one of them justice. The juiciest ones occured in the dangerous South, where the Australian girl and I had many Italian conversations, including with two intensely handsome plainclothes police officers in a bar. (One was a dead ringer for Marcus on Babylon 5.) We asked them to prove they were police, and they showed us their firearms. Then I got hopelessly lost on the island of Capri, sought rescue at an auto repair shop, and was driven to civilisation by a handsome, bespectacled, mechanic on the back of his motorcycle as a dozen mechanics, milling about like children, cheered. It was the first and last time I have ever ridden a motorcycle.

When the trip was over, I left Italy determined to go back in some long-term capacity: perhaps to graduate school. This I never did, although after another romantic disappointment, I rushed off to Florence for a week. And, after that trip, I did not go again to Europe, until five or six years later when I got funding to study for six weeks in Germany. And that trip was also balm to the heart, only this time to a heart battered by disappointments of a philosophical, not romantic, nature.

Lately, I am combatting stress over the release of my lovely book by taking bus rides all over Edinburgh. For only 3 pounds, anyone can climb to the top of any city bus and explore the town thoroughly from a great height in perfect comfort. Truly, travel is a great medicine and takes you right out of yourselves towards the sublime.


fifi said...

"The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth." So wrote Dorothy Sayers, promptly sending her fictional heroine Harriet Vane off on a walking tour of the southwest coast of 1930's Britain. If you (or your readers) have not yet met Harriet, you will love her and the inimitable Lord Peter Whimsey. "Gaudy Night" is the best.

Sheila said...

"Seeing the Continent" is a very old cure for broken hearts. Your trip sounds like it would make an excellent reality show ... one I might actually watch, for the fascinating scenery.

Lemons said...

Oooh, I love this post. My high school friends and I are making serious plans to backpack in Europe next summer. Trying to get a good group of us together to sleep in tents and see as much as possible. Travelling has been something I have dreamt of doing for as long as I can remember, so to have more concrete plans than "someday" is exciting.

sciencegirl said...

Your post makes me even more glad that my visits in Europe were NOT as part of a group. Ugh. Also, why do I always meet the nice and enjoyable Canadians and Australians abroad, while other people have to put up with rude jerks from there and the USA too? My guardian angel must be looking out for me, because I have favorable first impressions of almost every nationality I've met. The only real boors I've encountered were from a school in Scotland, but they weren't Scots. They were from elsewhere & had lived in several countries, and thought they were ever so cosmopolitan and above it all. Also, they were brash young men who were crabby and jetlagged, so I gave them a bit of a break.

People with manners do not insult other people's countries -- even if they secretly hate those countries or those countries' politics -- unless it is a mutual joke among friends. I am always so disgusted when I hear about this sort of behavior. I hope these people never travel to Japan, where criticism is taken even more personally and seriously. Polite people worldwide are raised to compliment other people when visiting their house or their country. If people in a foreign country ask me what I think of their country, I say some nice things, not rude things, even if something really bothers me. And if they don't ask, I don't say anything, because I figure they aren't all that interested in my opinion anyway. When I visited Canada, everyone I encountered was polite, welcoming, friendly and hospitable, and I tried to give back. I hope that Canadians and other tourists visiting my country have the sense to be polite guests, and that they are treated well. No one has ever, in years of accumulated travel, been rude to me about America. Guess I luck out! Well, some have started to go down an uncomfortable path on American politics, but it is so easy to divert. All I have to do is nod sympathetically, say "Yes, politics are so frustrating. And what do you think of your country's president?" Then the rant switches directions and I learn something new about the country I'm visiting.

Seraphic said...

Fifi, I love and adore the Whimsy books, but I can't actually quote them. Thanks for a great quote!

Sheila, oh yes indeed. And it seems to have worked for Laurie in "Little Women", too.

Lemons, that sounds like great fun! I am not very good at completely solitary travel, it turns out, and the idea of travelling hither and thither with friends appeals to me very much. Tell me if you include Edinburgh in your plans.

Sciencegirl, it's all luck of the draw. Some Canadians have "small country syndrome", a term I have just made up. It is shared by the Scots (who take it out on England) and Austrians (who take it out on Germany) and maybe by New Zealanders (if they take it out on Australia). But my dad is American, and he has lived in Canada for almost 50 years, and he says he's never noticed it. So--luck of the draw.

Ten years later, I am not at all sorry I went with a group because they provided me with some AWESOME character studies. I'll never forget the loudest of the American boys on the bus, pointing to his newly acquired t-shirt, shouting, "Leaning Tower of Pisa. I was THERE! I was THERE, man! I was THERE!"

One travel tip I have is that the best kind of foreigner to be in Paris is a young, baby-faced woman who attempts French. I bet if I went to Paris now, people wouldn't be as nice to me because I am, you know, older and not as cute. So go now, girls! Go now! When I was young and cute in France, absolutely no-one was rude to me. Not in Paris--nowhere. Even the waiters were nice & full of solicitude for my dining enjoyment.

sciencegirl said...

"baby-faced girl speaking French." Yes. That was me, in France. I guess I looked very approachable, because French people were constantly asking me for a cigarette lighter, directions, and other random things.

berenike said...

Everyone was nice to me in France, the taxi drivers, the people in shops, the station clerks, ... and I'm reasonably ancient. And can only manage to mangle a couple of French words.

Seraphic said...

No, you're not! Reasonably ancient, INDEED.

Seraphic said...

Besides, it's the mangling that counts. The French never expect foreigners to speak good French. They expect us to mangle it. They appreciate the effort, though, especially if you are young, thin, blonde and pretty, like Berenike.