Thank heavens for web research when planning a holiday, right? Not so fast. Many of Granite Island’s best bits would never have happened had our author just weighed up a bunch of user reviews. Brilliant travel stories, writes JEAN HANNAH EDELSTEIN, are possible only when we stop being obsessed with five stars out of boring five.
‘Foreign elements’, writes Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel, excite us, ‘not only because they are new but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland can provide’. Here we are, in other words, brushing our teeth with an exotic toothpaste, and it is as if we have never brushed before: toothpaste, we realise, can be wonderful.
To this, I add: we travel abroad with the ostensible remit of relaxation, of getting away from it all, but the holidays that remain with us, that have real impact, are those that cause us discomfort. On holiday, we are Other, but all too often we regard the people and places we are visiting that way.
Disappointment comes from their failure to match up to what we expect of them. ‘I feel like a local,’ we say, but only when we feel the utmost confidence that we’re going to be heading back to our familiar environs. When we do, we feel like heroes, conquerors of unfamiliar systems and big teeming crowds of feral cats. On holiday, I believe, there is no such thing as a bad experience: there are only good experiences, and good anecdotes.
The best travel stories are the ones in which the worst things happen. They’re more fun to hear and they’re more fun to tell.
When I think back to childhood vacations, these are the images that come crisply through misty, watercoloured memories: my five-years-younger sister, standing next to a rental car and vomiting into a creek of some remote road near Inverness.
My father’s face when he realises that the muesli I’ve been eating for breakfast has been generously laced with powdered soap flakes by the proprietress of a down-at-heel bed and breakfast.
The whole family, on the first night on a family trip to San Francisco, watching a lady of the night get busted by the police in a parking garage across from our low-price hotel. ‘What did she do, Daddy?’ my sister asked, as I made a face that I hoped would support his belief that I was also too young to know.
Not everyone is as keen on these highlights as me, but there’s one reliable place where I can find my people: TripAdvisor, a social network for travellers, and in particular for those who like a good whinge. For fifteen years, the site has been empowering tourists and terrifying people who work in the travel business in equal measure, by allowing The People to offer real and true feedback on how they feel about their experiences. It’s clear that many people get excited about writing positive things, waxing lyrical about the obvious pleasures of very high thread counts, impeccable meals, beaches with nary an unwarranted wave or terrifying bit of sea life. But these people are boring, the kind who tell their hairdresser that their time away was ‘nice, thanks’ and then sit silently for the remainder of the haircut. I wonder how they justify the price of the flight.
Clicking straight to the one-star reviews reveals the tales of hotel stays and restaurant meals with twists and turns, strangers in strange beds and plates dropped on laps. These are the narratives that are interesting, that will stick, that will come up over Christmas dinner six months down the line. No place on earth can escape the critical eye of the TripAdvisor fan: not even a place as picturesque and diverting as Corsica. Every holiday destination starts at a disadvantage, and the scented isle is no different.
It is not home, and this means that all of the normal banalities of life become fraught with danger, with the risk of the unfamiliar.
In the bowels of TripAdvisor, Corsica is less bewitching and enslaving, more marooned-on-an-unkind-island where the conditions are harsh and the pillows are lumpy. Each step in the proceedings of a day leaves space for something to go wrong. First, we are roused from sleep with the following: ‘There’s a deafening all-night motor in some large refrigeration unit outside that kicks in every 10 minutes or so all night . . . it was the worst night’s sleep I had in a week in Corsica.’
Exhausted, we head for breakfast: ‘The buffet breakfast was very disappointing . . . there were only 2 pieces of cheese, the ham tray was empty . . . After pointing out the lack of ham and cheese, a supermarket pack of some slices of ham were then presented! The female receptionist on the morning we left was most unpleasant and nearly threatening when we gave our complaints in a very polite manner.’
Next, we might have the desire to enjoy a lovely swim: ‘If you’ve ever wondered what the primordial soup from which the first life on earth crawled billions of years ago looks like then look no further than the pool at the Madame Mere Hotel.’
A little sightseeing?
‘[The Bastion de L’Etendard is an] underwhelming bit of castle wall.’
Maybe dinner at Les Tamaris in Ile Rousse: ‘My husband noticed that the waitresses either stood around fiddling with their mobiles. Or one of them was sneezing everywhere.’
And back to a hotel for the night: ‘The hotel is best avoided unless you like cats trying to share your room and breakfast! By the end my son was developing cat phobia!’
Maybe not all the bad reviewers on TripAdvisor are as committed to having a bad time as I am. Let me be clear: I’ve had some extraordinary holidays, gone on some remarkable trips, seen some beautiful things. I’m grateful for these experiences. But I don’t find that I want to talk about them. What I want to talk about is the week in Tarifa with four people sleeping in a tent designed for two, or an ill-planned Christmas spent in the Gambia, where our car was pulled over by a man in what looked like a military uniform, holding a very large gun.
‘One of these women will have to come with me,’ he said, pointing the gun into the open car window, and my two friends and I sat in the most frightening ten seconds of our life before the military man, our driver and our tour guide started to laugh a hearty laugh.
There’s not much left in the world to be explored, not really. At best we can hope to be the first among our friends to venture to a place, but it’s now painfully common to arrive and discover that we’re far from the first. A clutch of other tourists. A selection of made-in-China souvenirs that we’ve seen in another country one or two thousand miles away. A patchy but present Wi-Fi connection. ‘I love travel,’ we say, but we really mean holidays, rather than anything bushwacky.
We are not Dr Livingstone, nor do we presume to be, but away from the comforts of our own native climes, facing relative unknowns, we follow Thoreau and find adventure and peril in the foreign everyday: driving on the wrong side of the road, a wrong turn down a cobbled street, a wrong coffee order. We depend on the generosity of locals to indulge us as we shout English, wave maps, curse and sigh and gurn. We form strong opinions. We become experts.
At home, it’s just a disappointing steak. Reheated at the Grill Courtepaille in Ajaccio, for example, it becomes: ‘I can honestly say this is the worst meal ever!’ And by that I mean: a meal that makes the trip one worth talking about for years
JEAN HANNAH EDELSTEIN is one of a million writers living in Brooklyn, New York. Find her in the Guardian, in her eponymous blog, or in a bad seafood restaurant on Cape Cod.