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The tradition of ignorance in English travel writing

The linguistic and cultural superiority that lives on into the digital age

Since earlier incarnations in the works of Petrarch and Captain Cook, travel writing has changed from the preserve of a privileged elite to a hobby for anyone with internet access and the ability to tolerate Ryanair. However, the authorial prejudice it reveals has survived throughout the ages. English travel writing can rarely be objective, given the level of tolerance and accommodation for its voyaging speakers.

The spirit of adventure lives on in every person who sets out to explore another culture. While they may not be ‘discovering’ anything, travel provides valuable opportunities for discovery on an individual scale, and, of course, the infamous opportunity to ‘find yourself’.

But the simultaneous experiences of the visitor and the visited – one on a life-changing journey that may produce a sincere love for another country, and the other catering to thousands of these self-styled ‘explorers’ every year – have diverged since the birth of the tourist industry.

Well-intentioned, would-be ‘global citizens’ can forget that to their hosts, they are one of many such visitors upon whom the economy relies, and from whom much linguistic and cultural ineptitude will be tolerated, thanks to their open wallets. This merry, romantic oblivion can be charming, but calls into question the ability of such travellers to accurately portray another country.

Preconceptions exist about every nation, and strongest are those which have been around long enough to ingrain themselves in literature. Perhaps one of the finest examples is provided by Italy, whose national associations have been spawned by the writings of everyone from Twain, James, and Hemingway, to Mario Puzo, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

A tempting comparison with the modern day is A Room With A View, E.M Forster’s self-consciously silly yet charming account of the British in Florence. Set before the war, Forster writes from the self-described perspective of the “fag-end of Victorian liberalism”.

The spirit of the Victorian pensione is alive and well in the modern phenomenon of the language school. The language school, like the pensione, is populated mostly by middle-class and middle-aged Europeans, and a few young people drifting around on their parents’ buck.

The average lesson at an institution I attended could easily have been mistaken for a Forster live-action roleplay group, perhaps with inflections of Alan Bennett. After a week of ‘intensive’ courses, no one in the class could form more than 3 phrases in Italian, and no one was bothered by this. However, much like their counterparts in Forster, they were very much bothered by the Italian spirit embodied by the teachers.

Take Colin, for example, an affable fellow from the Home Counties with Superdry glasses, a silvery pate and a rotating selection of M&S merino jumpers. He spent the whole week dropping feeble dad jokes and complaining about the cheesiness of Italian pop music.  When the teacher tried to hug him after his last lesson, he physically scooted his chair away and said ‘sorry, I’m British’.

Or Bruce, a retired Australian who appeared in class daily on a pair of massive, orthopaedic-looking Asics, and nodded his way through every three-hour session with the tranquil disengagement of a dashboard bobblehead. Forsterian women were tragically absent, as both men had been sent to the class by wives already fluent in Italian.

By contrast, the teacher, Claudia, was cartoon-like in her animation. Like apparently every Italian woman, she was never seen without Cleopatra-esque eyeliner, brick-red or fuchsia lipstick, and impractically large heels that elevated her to the average student’s eye level.

Her mimes of new vocabulary paled in contrast to those of the other teacher, an older lady with a soft chin but a steely gaze, who seemed to be teaching to fulfil a frustrated passion for the dramatic arts. Drooping theatrically over the table to perform pantomime, she licked an imaginary ice-cream with an enthusiasm disturbing of a woman in her sixties. Everything she did terrified and discomforted the British students, who consequently spoke even less Italian than when they started.

Forster’s tug-of-war between “the real and pretended” lives on today in the stereotypical British reserve and Australian nonchalance, which ultimately filter travel experience through existing national attitudes.

Travel has increasingly come to be seen as a mission of self-discovery for the individual. Valid as this individualism be, its representation shapes perceptions of the countries visited.

Accounts of self-help through travel can make for excellent reading, but it’s a shame to let them eclipse the reality of the people and culture itself. When every holiday post can be uploaded into the public consciousness, shallow perceptions can be confused with, or replace, objective and informed travel writing.


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