Sunday, 1 March 2015

It's A Small World

It used to be a phrase associated with unexpected and unlikely coincidences. We might meet a fellow explorer in the wilds of some far-flung, exotic outpost of the planet and it really would be a complete surprise because it was so remote a possibility.

For my generation it was often the case that our parents had, like most Americans today, never set foot outside of their native lands, Other than for the (normally) male members of the family, of course, who had served overseas in the armed forces during the bitter conflicts that marked the early and middle part of the last century. Although it's arguable whether visiting a distant country with the sole intention of killing off some of its population is really the same as 'travelling abroad'.

Of course, there are many today who would include our burgeoning population of travelling drunken teenagers as being just as threatening and dangerous to overseas indigenous populations.

Two things changed all that when I was barely a teenager. These things made travel abroad not only far easier, but also gave it the label of 'normal'.

I'm referring to the rise of the travel agent - which, put like that, sounds like something a horror author would write about - maybe not so unreasonably - and the start of the overseas school trip.

The former was the product of a type of benevolent greed mixed with the realisation that there was a whole wide marketplace that wasn't being exploited, and the latter was a way of getting those pesky kids out of the (often very few) hairs of teaching staff - widely supported by parents for the same reason.

Okay, to be fair the school thing was probably more a result of educational establishments wanting to expose children to other cultures and, perhaps more importantly, other languages.

When you couple those ideas with the rise of cheaper travel methods as boats and airplanes develop ever safer and ever easier means of getting from the miserable weather of the British Isles to the sun, sand and other s-words of foreign climes, then overseas travel becomes not just a possibility, but something closer to a necessity.

I work among a staff of some one thousand souls and I am constantly sampling snacks and treats brought back from all corners of the globe as a result of holiday travels. Even the youngest generation of staff members seem to have travelled more in their twenty years than many of my own generation have done in a lifetime (and I'm fairly sure that at least some members of the younger generation count our more senior age in 'dinosaur years').

When, around twenty years ago, I opted to work overseas (ok, over the English Channel) in the wilds of Luxembourg it was still considered something of an unusual life-choice.That there were around
a quarter of a million other 'foreign' workers in the country was neither here nor there to most Brits - I was still living an 'exotic' lifestyle.

But the nineties coincided with the rise of the 'resort traveller', and the likes of Ibiza and Majorca were already being viewed as perfect retreats for a couple of weeks of s-words and booze. That type of holiday-maker can scarcely refer to such places (they've even managed to create similar resort at the other end of the Mediterranean now) as 'overseas' when they insist on there being plenty of 'English-style' public houses for them to drink to excess and fall over in. And heaven forfend anyone who dares speak the 'foreign lingo', except to order more beers, vodka or 'that foreign ouzo/sangria crap'.

Generally, though, we Brits do see overseas destinations as places where we can go to see other cultures and the sites, sounds and lifestyles on offer. Methods of transport are plentiful, safer and cheaper these days, although language remains a sturdy barrier for many of us - no matter how many foreign exchange programmes our schools encourage us to take part in.

During my near-decade in Luxembourg I did try to speak more of the locally used languages of choice. That these were, in order of popularity, French and German was neither here nor there - Luxembourgish does exist but even the indigenous locals found the 'foreign languages' more useful and to be totally honest, easier. The first Luxembourgish dictionary wasn't published until around 1990. My cause was not helped by the fact that the locals were more keen to brush up on their English-speaking skills using me as a reasonable example than they ever were to help me brush up on my non-English ones.

My French and German did improve over the years to the point where I could understand most requests made to me, and I even learned to tell one joke in French. The English translation: If someone speaks three languages they are called 'trilingual'. If they speak two then they are called 'bilingual' And if they speak one? Then they're called English....

When I went to work and live there I already had a degree of wanderlust about me, but there sheer fact that I was now an expatriate seemed to exaggerate the desire to travel and see more of the world. Germany, France and Belgium were all neighbours of the tiny country and my work often took me to Switzerland and Italy as well. But the Eastern European states were becoming potential destinations (for the first time for non-troops since the last World War) and there were countless more potential destinations crying out to the would-be traveller.

It didn't matter whether you were seeking the sun (and some or all of the other s-words) or the culture (for me it was always a combination of the former and latter), there was always somewhere available and an airport just down the road (literally). I travelled a lot, but less than maybe I should have done - mostly within the bounds of Europe but also to the North American continent (where English is almost spoken - what's that aboot?).

I always went with the intention of making it clear I was there to learn more about the local culture and never to put it at risk - either from weaponry or the contents of a booze-raddled stomach at three in the morning. I always meant to re-visit a couple of the more fascinating and/or relaxing outposts - Gozo and Squamish spring to mind (a small island near Malta and a tiny ex-logging township on the West Coast of Canada), but like most Brits, I've never got round to it. To be fair to myself, now I can afford to travel again sometimes, my MS does rather restrict my travel chances and overseas trips have been added to the list of things I can no longer achieve.

My point to this 'article', though (and yes, there is a point), is that the phrase 'it's a small world' probably wouldn't have seen the light of day in these enlightened, travel-rich times. When I was holidaying as a resident of Luxembourg, while I was overseas I genuinely and actually bumped into people I knew (one in Canada and one in Spain) and even back then it was less suprising than it would have been for my parents' generation. These days I imagine it happens with even greater regularity - the simple mathematics of more people travelling to more places on a more regular basis.

But that doesn't change the underlying truth of the phrase. We can travel to the other side of this small world in just a day - even if it takes that long to travel to the other end of this country thanks to the abysmal rail service we suffer.

Travel has become a norm in all corners of Europe (and similarly in the Asian Sub-Continent), and if Americans do not venture overseas so much, it is worth remembering that the USA is vast and contains so many different climates and cultures (including one of the largest Luxembourgish-speaking centres of population on the planet). New York city is actually a lot closer to London than it is to Los Angeles - by almost 1500 miles. I'm not sure even the most wanderlust-filled souls would find a need to travel beyond its mainland boundaries - and both Alaska and Hawaii are also part of their 'homeland'.

It's definitely a small world now, though. Emigration and immigration help by bringing cultures together and one thing I always find is that, small or not, this planet has so many diverse, wonderful cultures and behaviours. We are enriched in manners and ways that were simply not available to many of our predecessors - whether we choose to travel or not. Or even whether we are physically able to travel or not.

A final mention must go to the internet. It may only be a shade over twenty years old, but right from the start it has accomplished a bold and quite brilliant aim - to be a global phenomenon; to link cultures from every corner of the planet. It doesn't give exposure to all of the s-words (even if it seems to contain little more than one of them at times), but it does tell us where we can find the sun. And how to get there. And how much it will cost. And allow us to book the passage. And what other people think about the destination, and how it relates to their own cultural backgrounds.

And it makes the world even smaller because you can find pretty much anyone, wherever they may be. I even found a long-lost uncle and aunt living in Crete. Truly a small world.

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