Saturday, 10 August 2013

Foreign Fields

by Jennifer Young

Don't drink the water!
I’ve just come back from Abroad. Well, all right, I’ve been on holiday like so many millions of others. And the world is so small these days that travel is nothing special: we hop about from city to city and country to country so that we barely notice it.

When I was little, rather longer ago than I care to think about, travel to Europe was an adventure. We called it ‘The Continent’ and were careful not to drink the tap water. If we wanted to know the news headlines or the cricket scores we had to wait three days for a scrappy and over-priced copy of The Times. As for travelling further afield (intercontinental!) well, that was something people did when the children had left home and they could spend their savings on the trip of a lifetime.

That age when travel involved an element of risk and even a weekend in Paris was touched by the exotic seems to have long gone but it left us a legacy in books such as A Room with a View or even something as relatively modern as Hotel du Lac. Stepping outside our comfort zone exposes us to new experiences and teaches us things about ourselves. I suppose that’s what they mean when they say that travel broadens the mind.

Just an excuse for my holiday pictures....
I can’t help thinking that we’ve lost something in all this. It’s too easy. I used to try and speak the language wherever I went (note to anyone interested – allow yourself at least three weeks to learn even the simplest phrases in Swedish or Hungarian) but now if I attempt something in flawed Danish people just smile and answer me in English. In one sense I might as well have stayed behind.

On the other hand, from a writing point of view I do think that being Abroad makes a difference. I’m not quite sure why. I’m more alert. I notice things that are different, sometimes in the subtlest ways. In Germany, for example, the sign which denotes a shared footpath and cycle path is split horizontally rather than vertically, for example. And in a whole week in Austria I never saw a single cat.

A change is as good as a rest, so the cliché says, and I’ve come back from holiday with a few intangible souvenirs. I’ve solved a big plot dilemma that’s been bothering me, in a flash of inspiration that came to me on a bus when in a similar situation at home I’d have been reading on my Kindle instead of looking at the scenery. And a new idea for a novel popped into my head in the steaming 36-degree hell of Munich’s Marienplatz underground station, giving me something so much more positive to do than curse.

Whether either of those novels will see the light of published day or even make it onto my computer remains, of course, to be seen. Even if they don’t I’ve come back refreshed, seeing things differently, recharged. Perhaps every writer should go somewhere new every couple of months. The writing can wait until after I’ve called my travel agent….


  1. As well asre-charging the batteries, being in a different environment does put the brain into a different mode. And I find the English we all speak is different English. How long before the versions actually separate and become new languages in their own right? Anne

    1. A good question Anne! And you're right about putting the brain into a different mode - we seem to be tuned to see new things.

  2. Enjoyed your post, Jennifer. Travel definitely still broadens the mind and gives the brain a rest - or makes us see things in a different way.

  3. Oh, now you've given me itchy feet again! This year I've only been to India, France, Northern Ireland, London, Yorkshire, The West Highlands and Glasgow. So far. Travel is definitely stimulating, no doubt about it. The thing is, I get so depressed when I come back. Britain seems so grubby, general behaviour seems so bad, politics so depressing, it's not so sunny.

    Mind you, it's been much sunnier here than it was when we were in France, most of my friends are here, and I do love Scotland really...

    And although travel gives you lots of ideas, it's somehow much easier just to set up in a corner of my own snug wee house and start writing!

    Thanks for the ray of sunshine, Jennifer - and I'm so glad you've been inspired!

  4. I'm interested to know whether people use overseas locations as the setting for their novels. It certainly seems to be the case that an exotic location is key to a successful 'holiday read'.

  5. Totally agree we all need to re-charge our batteries, Jennifer. My novel No More Mulberries is set in Afghanistan and a little bit in Pakistan but I lived there for ten years so it's not the same as using an overseas holiday destination in a novel.

  6. I love 'going away' jennifer, even if nowadays it isn't nearly so exotic as it used to be. I also remember the 'don't drink the tap water' rule!

    Even travel within the UK can help recharge the creative batteries - I've just returned for a w/e on Lismore, the long thin island off Oban, and am definitely feeling more inspired. Now i just need to sit down in that snug little corner and acutally write!