My first experience of the wider world came when I was four, in the form of a trip to Paris to see family. While it’s all rather hazy, I’ve a few memories from this trip. For example, I can just about recall the car journey to the coast, my first trip on a hovercraft and my uncle Jean-Jacques’ moustache. And, unless I’m mistaken, I’ve got a vague recollection of being wheeled around several Parisian streets.
Years later, aged almost 20, I returned to Paris. And, being a romantic sort of nit, I fully expected it to feel familiar. I may have been only four the first time around, but I was certain a well of additional, dormant memories would be stirred up the moment I set eyes on the Eiffel Tower.
As those of you who aren’t idiots will already have guessed, this didn’t happen. But not only did my trip fail to awaken any hidden memories, the Paris I found was absolutely nothing like I’d imagined it. Far from feeling familiar, everything — the layout, the buildings, the atmosphere, the food — came as a surprise. Even the Eiffel Tower, one of the most photographed buildings on Earth, caught me on the hop.
Looking back, it seems implausible I got it so wrong. Yet the same thing happened with Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and Edinburgh. Just like Paris, each of these cities — all so close to home — felt notably different to how I’d pictured them. You’d think, now that I’m far more worldly wise, I’d be better at this today. Especially in this internet age, when all of the world’s major tourist destinations have been photographed, filmed, reviewed and rated to within an inch of their lives.
But no, I’m as hopeless as ever. For example, earlier this year, I travelled along the Panama Canal. True to form, I arrived with a strongly defined notion of what it’d be like — a deep yet narrow watery cut in the Central American soil, with vast, steep concrete sides, its paved banks bustling with noise and activity. Instead, it was more like a wide, sleepy meandering river with grassy edges and a channel of buoys at its centre. Once again, I was woefully wide of the mark.
Is it just me? I suppose everyone has the capacity to be surprised by travel — whether they’re being cruelly disappointed by the Mona Lisa or Little Mermaid or wonderfully taken aback by the Taj Mahal or Victoria Falls. It’s just that my own surprise goes beyond disappointment or delight at the major sights and seems to extend to almost every aspect of my trip. Sometimes I feel a bit like a goldfish in a bowl, astonished a thousand times a day by the same treasure chest.
Perhaps part of the issue is that, at its best, travel is a sensory affair. No amount of visualisation can prepare you for the sounds and the smells of somewhere else. Especially the smells of hot countries. They hit you as soon as you arrive, and it’s as if the heat itself has a fragrance. Then there’s the noise — a rhythmic hubbub you find in so many destinations. No amount of YouTubing can prepare you for this.
Yet while I’d love to be able to say I’m just a wildly sensual person who experiences travel with all his soul — the sad truth is I’ve simply got a woefully misfiring imagination.
To make matters worse, while I may not be able to picture the world’s greatest cities with any accuracy, when it comes to the UK’s crappest, I’m usually bang on. From their disastrous 1960s architecture to their soulless retail parks, I’ve a vivid picture of our lamest metropolises, and I find I’m normally pretty accurate, right down to the last remaining pasty in Greggs. Nothing about these places surprises me. I’m a crap-town clairvoyant.
And with this sobering piece of self-diagnosis, I take my leave. This is my last column for National Geographic Traveller — for a while, at least. Thanks for reading. Next month, it’ll be someone else. Hopefully someone with a bit more imagination.
Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)