Monday, May 30, 2011

The Joys of Travel

Visiting close friends in foreign lands is one of life's greatest pleasures. Many of us have friends and family who live overseas and an occasion to visit them and their homeland can be one of the most rewarding experiences we can have, being both invigorating and relaxing at the same time. I have discussed the perils of travel in past columns, but here I would like to share some observations of the things which made a strong impression on me during my recent trip to England. It had been about eight years since I last had the good fortune to spend time abroad, a gap of time which I hope never to repeat!

As my luck would have it, my host for this trip was my trusted friend and colleague, William Hanson. As one of Britain's foremost etiquette and entertainment authorities, his hosting abilities were as gracious as any I have ever enjoyed. We had corresponded over the past several years, but we had never actually met face-to-face and the understandable anticipation for me was reminiscent of a first day at school. I was not alone in my excitement as jokes began appearing on social network sites about two etiquette experts going to a pub (neither of us drink), or comments such as "how much trouble can two etiquette experts get into?". Nonetheless, we had a blast with plenty of laughs as we walked around Manchester Center, where he lives, shopping, dining, and enjoying a relaxed and unhurried life.

One thing that caught my attention was many of the words which are commonly used "across the pond", but which are not at all in our vocabulary in North America. Hobs (burners on a stove top) and barms (bread rolls) were two which required explanation. I find however that even though the words are English, there are no equivalents in our everyday English usage. They are specific to British English and as such, fascinate me. Fortunately my host has great patience and handled my finicky questions with kindness.

I love visiting food shops of all kinds. I have always made it a point to visit markets everywhere I go, even in the US and Canada. Britain is no exception and the offerings did not disappoint. I will share one of many such examples. As a lover of all dairy products, especially cream and cheese, I am boggled by how different such basic commodities are from country to country. In America, for example we have light cream, half and half, and heavy cream. In Canada we have coffee cream and cereal cream. In Britain, they have single, double, clotted, Devon and whipping cream. Each of the above listed creams amazingly enough have different fat contents. I had forgotten just how luxurious even single cream from a Jersey cow could be. It's probably a lucky thing my visit was just a week!

Taking the time to investigate and discuss such subtle cultural differences leaves an impression on the local shopkeepers and friends, and indicates a genuine level of interest in how they live. Such simple gestures, which for me are more of a passion than an effort, make time spent away from the 'routine' life at home all the more enjoyable. I find that the old adage "when in Rome" can really open doors. One of the keys to having a great trip is to remember that people in other countries, even those whose culture is very similar to our own, do things differently. There is absolutely no sense in complaining about these differences. My advice to people who don't see and savor the particular cultural differences of a country is to stay at home. When we travel to other parts of the world expect things to be new and embrace such differences. This is a basic reason for travel which makes us more understanding. Observing, and learning the way locals act and live broadens our perspective on the world around us. In a world which in many ways seems to be getting smaller and smaller, we do ourselves a big favor by becoming more accepting of other people's ways of life and values. We needn't adopt such life styles, although we may decide to try a few, but we can be respectful.

I did very little research before beginning this journey, limiting my googling to theaters and restaurants, primarily because I have been to England many times. I do think I would have benefitted at least slightly by refreshing my knowledge of tipping, taxis, and dressing for the weather. I think most of us would. I encourage everyone who has the privilege of traveling abroad to begin the journey with an open mind and fill your adventure with new observations and experiences along the way. It will help to ensure a pleasant and memorable trip, whether on business or pleasure.