by Anna Hart, The Telegraph, February 27, 2018
One is not born, but rather becomes, a traveller. In my case, I became a good traveller by being, for many years, a terrible traveller. Today I specialise in adventure travel writing, cover travel trends in my monthly column for The Telegraph, and boss people around in my weekly travel etiquette slot.
But there was a time when I was too painfully shy to speak to other tourists on a Turkish tourbus. When I would choose to sit alone in a Thai hostel dorm eating crisps for dinner rather than brave a café on my own. When I would turn up in a new city unable to say, “Hello” in the language, culturally clueless about the historical sights of Amsterdam, only interested in beer.
The latter was my very first independent trip abroad as a student, and there had been one principal determinant of the destination: the availability of cheap booze and legality of drugs in Holland. That was it. I was impressively ignorant of the legacies of Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Frans Hals, Hieronymus Bosch, Piet Mondrian and M C Escher.
I had no clue whatsoever that modern architecture owes much to the Dutch influence on construction spanning more than a millennia, from Romanesque and Gothic medieval magnum opuses to Dutch Renaissance creations and Golden Age gabled houses – not to mention gutsy experiments in engineering like the canals or windmills.
I knew nothing of the legendary street markets. I knew about cafés in Amsterdam but assumed they’d be little more than a corner Spar for drugs; centuries of café culture, where intellectuals and bohemians would meet up over coffee and cake to debate existentialism and experience the Dutch state of gezelligheid (a delicious untranslatable hybrid of conviviality and cosiness), was entirely lost on me.
I suppose for many of us, our first trips are prompted not so much by intense cultural curiosity as an intense desire to let our hair down far from the watchful eyes of our parents. But even if it’s the cheap wine that lures us onto that easyJet flight with friends we’re not even sure we like, while we’re in Magaluf, or Amsterdam, or Blackpool, the destination itself seeps into us through the gaps.
Gradually we come to realise that a day in Barcelona means more to us than a night in a club. We start to think about the local food as more than hangover fodder. We gaze longingly at healthy, non-hung-over locals going about their fascinatingly exotic daily routines. One day we actually buy a guidebook, and we are officially an adult.
On that first trip to Amsterdam, I was not yet an adult. Culturally clueless, socially irresponsible and entirely skint, I was not exactly the Dutch tourist board’s dream clientele. Throw in the fact that I’d taken this trip in a desperate bid to get over a broken heart – by going on this trip with his best friends – and I was plainly one of the worst tourists of all time.
But even so, Holland worked its magic on my heart. The Dutch spirit is all about fixing things, improving life, and working out how to live a little bit better. The Italians might have the same impulse, but the Dutch have the skills to make it happen. If something doesn’t exist, the Dutch can be relied upon to design it, manufacture it, recycle it, hone it, launch it and make it a reality.
Today the Netherlands is one of the world’s hottest start-up hubs, attracting digital nomads from around the world. There’s a glorious sense that anything is possible here, which perhaps comes from centuries of making the seemingly impossible happen.
Even though I was the worst tourist of all time, Holland generously gave me a brand new set of daydreams. I returned to university in Glasgow feeling like my mind had been popped in a spin cycle and returned to my head cleansed, clear, and, well, ready to be sullied again by some new emotional upheaval.
Getting over a heartbreak means replacing one set of daydreams with another, and travel presents us with a vast array of daydreams to choose from. That trip to Holland was my first sense of just how healing travel can be, when you get it right. And over the past 15 years, as a student backpacker, a world-travelling reporter and now a travel writer, it has been travel that has turned me into the woman I am.
There were the months I spent backpacking around Southeast Asia after university, in search of a personality. It worked. I returned to the UK a scuba diver, a surfer, a yoga devotee, a foodie, and a confident solo traveller. As a confirmed peoplepleaser in everyday life, I found travelling with nobody to please but myself completely exhilarating. The joy of waking up when I wanted, doing what I wanted and eating what I wanted, became addictive.
There was my first ever work assignment abroad as a junior reporter, covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where I learned to go forth and be nosy, speak to strangers, and do my job. There was a three-month stint working at organic farms in New Zealand and living in a camper van, where I kicked my city habit and learned how to appreciate the great outdoors.
There was a trip to the Amalfi Coast that banished a lingering bout of depression, restoring colour to my life when I’d let things slide into the grey. There was a surprise 10-day digital detox around Namibia, which prompted me to re-evaluate the role social media plays in my life, and shifted the power dynamic between me and technology in my favour.
The thing I find so intoxicating about travel is that when I step off the plane, I’m stepping into a whole new version of myself. Nobody knows if I’ve just been dumped, sacked, or if I’ve left a trail of wanton destruction behind me. I can get a £5 pedicure, plonk myself on a yoga mat, book a few surf or dive lessons and I’m a whole new person.
Travel is the ultimate self-help intervention. Throughout my life, I’ve used travel to fix myself. And let me tell you, there has been quite a lot to fix. I’ve travelled extensively, and yet I’m never short of improvements I’d like to make to myself.
And I’m not the only one that sees travel not so much as downtime, but as self-help, as personal development, as an opportunity to become a bit less rubbish. For most of us, the real adventure when we travel takes place within, an inner adventure in response to a change in our external circumstances.
Women don’t travel simply to explore new destinations; we also want to explore new corners of our character, challenge ourselves and embark upon an emotional journey as well as a physical one.
A study carried out by market researchers Gfk found that millennials rate travel as a higher priority than saving for a home or car – or even paying off debt.
Perhaps we’re not in thrall to stability, having never really had it. Cultural capital, however, sits within our reach, and today there’s more kudos in having the freedom to work from Berlin than in having the top job at the top company. For my generation, travel is the ultimate aspiration. Travel is the one thing that makes us feel rich.
Anna Hart is a Telegraph travel columnist. Her travel memoir, Departures (Little Brown; £13.99) is out now. Order your copy from books.telegraph.co.uk.