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I’ve long harboured a deep-seated aversion to travel writing, despite being something of a seasoned traveller.
It’s not like I haven’t been open to the genre. I’ve tried numerous authors, from the populist Bill Bryson, whose Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe enthralled me as much as a flick through the Argos catalogue, to the more erudite Colin Thubron’s In Siberia. I read the latter during a nine-month stint when I was living and teaching English in Siberia, hoping that the geographical relevance of the book would lend it a searing power that travel writing had never previously held for me.
But Thubron’s book failed to excite me, even as I read it in situ. In fact, it more sickened me with its romanticising of snatches of life in Russia. But then Thubron isn’t the only one guilty of this, and I actually owe him a debt of gratitude for helping me to remember why I find travel writing so abhorrent.
Why is everything made out to be so poignant, so achingly significant? And why is everyone the writer meets either at a crossroads in life or taken to represent a country’s entire population? It just feels so contrived, so overly-theatrical, and consequently, I can’t believe that any of it is real. As any genuine traveller knows, most of your time is spent sitting—on trains, buses, in poor excuses for restaurants, train stations or airports—doing nothing or trying to wake up while thinking about how much money you’ve got left.
Then there’s the other kind of travel writing: the outrageously comic. These travel stories always seem somewhat mocking. Read this story! it yells, about some chap travelling through the Sahara on a three-legged camel while juggling an antique collection of razorblades—or some other “wacky” concept—while you sit in your drab excuse for a home somewhere far from exotic, or stand on a rush-hour bus next to an abnormally sweaty man, and think about how unlikely it is that you’ll ever be able to amass the means to go on such a trip.
Of the many journeys I have been on, there are only three instances that I can think of that would fit into the pages of a “wacky” travel book, and two of those involve food or drink. The one that doesn’t was in Severobaikalsk in Siberia, and it involved me stripping to my underpants in my flat following a trek through the taiga, flicking a notoriously deadly tick off my leg and then trying to capture it with a glass before killing it with a razorblade, although not an antique one. In between finding the tick and killing it, I phoned my Russian host to ask what to do with the insect, about whose lethal capabilities he had earlier lectured us, only to hear him chuckle as if he were my archnemesis who had finally caused my downfall.
Another incident in Siberia saw an off-duty Russian train driver, with whom I was sharing a sleeper carriage, playing the inebriated comic foil to my reluctant foreigner as he forced home brew down my neck, signed his epaulettes and gave them to me in return for my timid agreement to house his children when he shipped them to England to get an education. He then woke me up at 4am to demand the epaulettes back as his employers refused to give him free food unless he had them on. His kids still haven’t shown up at my front door.
And finally, around two years ago, traipsing my starving carcass around Warsaw’s freezing streets at 10pm, I found myself in the increasingly farcical situation of being turned away from restaurant after restaurant claiming to be closed despite the “OPEN” signs displayed on their unlocked doors. Close to an hour after I began my search, I found my way into the U Szwejka restaurant—named after the bumbling hero of Jaroslav Hašek’s First World War novel The Good Soldier Švejk, and decorated with Josef Lada’s darkly mirthful illustrations for that book—where I sat alone and, as if the spirit of Švejk had come to dwell in me, devoured half a roast chicken, a stack of chips and dollops of sauerkraut with a gaumless grin smeared across my face as drunken businessmen ignited an atmosphere of carnivalesque debauchery around me.
Real travelling is not what we find in travel books. It’s not concocted, planned meticulously or enacted in a series of comical set-pieces, it’s just real life in a different place—and just as in real life, occasionally something unusual happens.
Ian Shine lives in southeast London and works as a sub-editor. His short stories have appeared in publications including The Stinging Fly, the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies for 2013 (Scraps) and 2014 (Eating My Words), The Fiction Desk anthology Because of What Happened, Belleville Park Pages, Firewords and Stories for Homes, a collection of stories put together to raise money for homelessness charity Shelter.