If you’ll permit me to begin with a statement more obvious than a punchline in an Adam Sandler comedy, there’s much to admire about Germany. The rich potency of its beers. The brilliance of its footballers. The key roles that Hamburg and Berlin played in shaping the music of The Beatles and David Bowie, respectively. The Rhine’s ability to look majestic, whether it is ebbing past soft vineyards or the hard-skinned docks of Düsseldorf.
Which is all very nice.
But really, it’s the Germanic contribution to the English language that should be most applauded. Why? Well, where would we be without schadenfreude? True, our native tongue has its own version of the term. But ‘epicaricacy’ feels flimsy compared to its Teutonic sibling — a word that falls from the lips with reassuring weight as it describes something we all feel more often than we admit.
Enjoyment of the misfortunes of others. Nowhere does this apply more than travel. The advent of social media has hoodwinked us all into believing everyone else cares about our endless selfies and beach poses; the million snaps of us in Paris, New York or Rome. People want to see these places for themselves, forge their memories to brag about. But hear you repeat, for the 40th time, the tale of the night of the 3,000 cocktails at that Bangkok bar, or of that ‘soul-affirming’ Phuket sunset? Sorry — I really have to take this call.
Stories of disaster and despair, on the other hand? Oh continue. Though let me first pour a large glass of wine. A 20-hour flight delay, you say? With nowhere to sleep but the airport floor, and a lack of information akin to an Eastern Bloc state circa 1959 when another bread shortage has kicked in? Nothing to eat but a furry Mars Bar? Really? Darling — if you’re going to the kitchen, could you grab another bottle of Merlot?
Nothing makes us happier about the shortcomings of our own holidays — the drab hotel in a dull town with the unidentifiable aroma that may be a dog decomposing in a water tank; the flawed belief an unheralded Mediterranean beach resort will have much to offer in the third week of January, even at £109 per person for 67 nights — than realising the same woes have afflicted friends and relatives. It’s a simple equation: give us not your accounts of rafting the Amazon on a barge made of recycled plastic bottles, or climbing Everest with a hand-woven sherpa. Give us the ‘enthusiastic’ customs officer who was so convinced you were the reincarnation of Pablo Escobar that he used up seven pairs of gloves during your ‘conversation’; the queue for passport control that ends with one severely unhelpful immigration official and begins on the runway; the bag lost on a one-hour flight that contains everything of value in your world, including two children.
It’s for this reason we should cherish those travel occasions when it all goes horribly wrong. They make us interesting. And it’s for this reason the episode I’ve dined out on most during a decade as a travel writer involves a February afternoon in Chicago, the ill-advised decision to head to the airport despite being warned a storm was approaching, a furious exchange at check-in when told my flight had been cancelled despite blue skies — and then a mad dash to find a hotel room when the heavens opened and a fresh Ice Age dawned over O’Hare International.
Two hours later, I was heading north west through the backwaters of Illinois, the snow on the windscreen so thick the cabbie was driving with his head out the window. I found lodgings near Cary — I think — and spent the next four days ringing the airline for news of the next plane to London (July 2022, it seemed) — while watching Friends reruns on a TV so old it may have belonged to Julius Caesar.
I’ve also stood on Cape Horn and watched rainbows flirt with the meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific. Yes, whatever. Remind us of that hilarious Chicago delay instead, they say. Schadenfreude — always here for the nasty things in life.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)