An old joke has it that if you speak three languages you’re trilingual, if you speak two languages you’re bilingual, and if you speak one language you’re an American.
I’m afraid I fit the pattern. Growing up in central Kentucky, a thousand miles from anyplace where English wasn’t the majority language and the only official language, and with no reason to think that I’d ever have any opportunity to travel, I opted for Latin instead of French or Spanish. I thought truly educated people ought to read Latin, and memorized my amo, amas, amat with self-satisfaction while most of the other kids (we had 5 students in the Latin class out of a school population of 2000) learned how to ask for a glass of water in Oaxaca or the way to the lavatory in the Louvre.
Here in the UK, virtually everyone learns French in school, and some learn other languages as well. I’m told that British schools emphasize vocabulary and that most British people speak French with atrocious accents. I wouldn’t know (though if you need to say “All Gaul is divided into three parts”in Latin, get back to me).
On one of our rare school field trips in Kentucky we might visit a local wildlife reserve, the state capitol building or perhaps an historic home; British people speak fondly of school trips to France to see the Bayeux Tapestry or the Eiffel Tower. For people living in the south of England, it’s nothing to go to France for the day; people often do that to go shopping in France and save money on wine or even on regular groceries that are cheaper across the Channel. (The cost of living in the UK is very high, but that’s a subject for another time.)
Having such close neighbors with different cultures, a lot of British people take travel to the Continent as a given, and when the British gear up to go on holiday (though it’s generally shorted to “hols”; in the US it would be ‘vacation’) they go all over the world. As soon as the Christmas shopping is over, shopping for holiday destinations begins, and you can’t open a Sunday newspaper without a handful of brochures falling out inviting you on cruises, safaris, skiing trips, you name it.
It isn’t just posh people who travel to exotic-sounding places. One of my favorite British sitcoms, Dinnerladies, follows an ensemble cast of workers in a factory cafeteria, and includes an episode in which they plan a holiday on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Trips to Spain are so much the norm that there are whole towns in which foreigners outnumber Spanish locals and British tourists eat in British-run restaurants serving British-style food; a lot of British travellers go to Spain for the sun, not the culture.
Students flock to Ibiza (aka Party Island) or, increasingly, to Cyprus. I overheard some hairdressers just before Christmas having a been-there-done-that conversation about Tenerife and Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea in Egypt, all agreeing that they’d been so many times they really wanted to try to think of someplace different next time. (According to Wikipedia, 1.6 million British tourists visited Tenerife in 2005; that’s about 2.5% of the population.)
Most—but by no means all—of these British tourists go on package holidays, and even speak of booking the tickets as “buying a holiday”. I rang my travel agent at the Flight Centre in Guildford to ask what holidays she was selling these days.
She said her office books a lot of trips to Thailand, Bali, or “anyplace in Indonesia”, as well as to Sri Lanka, although right now the hot destinations everyone wants to visit are Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Somehow I don’t think I’d get that answer from many US travel agents.
Australia and New Zealand and South Africa, she said, make up a large proportion of their business year round, with customers booking flights to visit friends and family who’ve moved permanently to those places, or—and here you can throw India into the mix—the customers are immigrants to the UK, travelling back to visit their home countries. So part of the willingness of British people to travel can be set down to the close ties that still exist between the British Isles and the countries of the old British Empire. (Stay tuned for more on that subject in future posts.)
Now I’m an immigrant, too—a strange thought—and I don’t get as many chances as I’d like to visit my home country way over there across the ocean. In compensation, I take advantage of being this close to continental Europe to visit other countries when I can; it’s so much easier to go to, say, Sweden when you’ve already crossed the Atlantic and it’s just a short hop.
I have yet to find an occasion on which my Latin came in handy on these travels, but you can easily pick up enough of the local languages here and there to get by comfortably in Barcelona or Amsterdam or wherever you find yourself.
So while I rarely get back to San Francisco, much less Kentucky, and I’ve yet to see the wonders of Laos, I do see more of Western Europe than I ever would have while living in the US, where every trip had to start from a-third-of-the-world away. The illustration for this post shows a café where I spent a lazy afternoon reading and writing over some excellent coffee in Angoulême, a town in the Poitou-Charentes region of France. It was a great way to recuperate from all the walking I did in the morning, exploring the squares, the boulevards on the old ramparts, and the cathedral. And while I don’t speak French, I didn’t have a bit of trouble at Le Chat Noir; if you can say “un café au lait, s’il vous plaît”, “encore, s’il vous plaît”, and “l’addition, s’il vous plaît”, what else do you need?