In Seoul III: The tradition edition

Warning: lots of oriental palace pictures looking almost exactly the same. It’s a similar phenomenon to being new to Europe and snapping away at every single church spire and stained glass window. Or migrating to Australia and taking a picture of a kangaroo every time you see one. Novelty and entrancement that only dwindles very incrementally. (In the case of the kangaroos ten years, and even then, the odd roo shot is not outside the realms of possibility).

Anyway, yadda yadda yadda. Palaces and temples. Seoul has a lot of them and as well as offering an insight into ancient South Korean culture and tradition they are housed within expansive grounds, providing contrast with the built up city environment bordering their perimeter. Enclaves of space and peace and gentle ornamentation, where the modern world disappears and you can find yourself all contemplative and meditative. And / or snap happy.

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Changdeokgung and the Secret Garden

The first thing to note about Changdeokgung is that you can arrive early, buy a ticket for the Secret Garden English tour and realise you have some time to kill, thereby finding a coffee place that proves reassuringly good. With the first sip I could sense I was getting closer to Australia and this plus the caffeine infiltrating my body gave me quite the buzz.

So I was already in a strangely contented state entering Changdeokgung where I didn’t really read that the palace was originally built in 1405 and acted as Seoul’s principle palace from the 1590s to 1896. Instead, I was heading off towards various buildings, all seemingly interlinked with perimeter structures and interwoven courtyards. Apart from some of the enclosed spaces, you were pretty free to roam, enabling that random meandering which proves the best form of discovery.

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The purported highlight of Changdeokgung is the Biwon, or Secret Garden. What forward-thinking pioneering marketing by calling it a secret garden. I mean, how alluring does that sound to the 21st century Anglo traveller looking for some respite from the late summer heat of a busy Asian city? The fact that you could only access it by a tour in which numbers are controlled (admittedly to a not-so-serene one hundred) can only add to that appeal.

Well, the Secret Garden was certainly agreeable, all lily ponds and curvy-roofed wooden structures, circling pathways and blissfully shady trees. I suspect it would be stupendous in the full burst of autumn and without one hundred other sightseers becoming progressively weary and disinterested as they are shepherded from one ornate compound to the next. I think the best way to appreciate the secret garden would be if you were employed as a gardener. What fabulous picnic lunch breaks there would be on the cards, and some supremely pretty sheds for your tools. Plus good coffee down the road once the horde of foreign zombies descend at two hour intervals.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

On the western flank of Changdeokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of traditional Korean housing now a little bit touristified. Nestled amongst hilly terrain there remains a sufficient network of maze-like lanes to get completely lost and stumble upon a spot that you had previously walked past. Possibly. The dwellings are single storey and – for the most part – look small, though I suspect some of this is an optical illusion and beyond those walls the interior opens out tardis-like into light and airy rooms and hidden verdant courtyards.

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On the busier strips – one ascending lane in particular seemed to be significantly more popular than the others – locals patrol with signs invoking the masses to “Please talk quietly”. It’s a reminder that this is just a regular neighbourhood with regular Joes trying to get on with their regular lives. I observe no noticeable hush, and can only deduce that the more expensive properties would be away from this major thoroughfare. But the view at the top is why so many tread this way. Looking towards the CBD and North Seoul Tower, it’s the classic juxtaposition of old and new, emblematic of this city as a whole.

Gyeongbokgung

Moving further east from Bukchon, it doesn’t take long before another royal palace comes into view. Gyeongbokgung ticks similar boxes – aesthetically at least – to Changdeokgung so I decide to keep my Wan in my wallet and have a cursory look around outside of the barriers. If anything, the site appears more imposing, with the main entrance gate at the northern end of a long thoroughfare adorned with statues and memorials. There is a greater sense of power and status here, brought to life by the presence of ceremonial guards in traditional costume. Guards which you can find in greater profusion by following the thoroughfare south…

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Deoksugung

The palace at Deoksugung may look similar to the others. I have no idea, because I never really ventured beyond its exterior walls. The main attraction here is a changing of the guard ceremony with more men in colourful costumes and garnished with stick-on facial hair. Sure, it feels like a bit of a show for visitors but – heck – I’m a visitor and expect some easily accessible semblance of traditional Korean culture, right!

I thought I may be late for the ceremony and while there was something stirring by time I arrived, I was pleased to find a space near the front. Only as the show progressed did I understand why I had secured such a premium position. Oh, that’s a big drum in front of me is it? Oh, that hastily shouted Korean was a plea to cover your ears. Oh. Ouch.

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As well as the abundance of stick-on facial hair it was funny to see this taking place in front of a Dunkin Donuts. There were also a couple of pauses in proceedings for people to come up to the guards and pose for selfies. And when it seemed like all was over, there was the sight of the ceremony heading across to City Square but – before doing so – waiting patiently at the traffic lights for the green man. For me, this was the perfect encapsulation of that inescapable (and overused term of) juxtaposition. A country moving rapidly into the 21st century while trying to hang on to its traditions. Here, progress and reverence in at least some kind of harmony.

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asia Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

In Seoul II: Mountain retreat

One of the things I was keen on doing in Seoul was to get out of Seoul. Not substantially, but enough to satisfy an idealised Zen-like image in my head of rugged mountains cloaked in forest with the occasional temple perched upon a rocky outcrop. The kind of scene you might expect to see on the front of a guide book, probably in the midst of a multicoloured autumn. A throwback to times past, to tradition, to a world before Samsung, M*A*S*H and Kim Jong-Un being weird across a border.

Thankfully I noticed the presence of Bukhansan National Park literally on the northern and western doorstep of Seoul. My guide book with idealised images told me you could reach here on the metro and offered a walk from one station to another, via winding trails, mountainous ridges and occasional temples. It also advised avoiding the weekends, because half of Seoul would be here.

So it was a Friday and unbeknown to me a public holiday. The train to Dobongsan was suspiciously bustling with people in sturdy shoes, sweat-proof tops and the kind of trousers with 12 pockets and 20 zips. From the station it was not at all difficult to find the park entrance – just follow the backpacked mass past more food stalls and stores selling outdoor adventure wear (should you decide you look conspicuously out of place in everyday shorts and a plain T shirt).

km01The stream of people continued along the first, generously wide and paved section of a trail, thinning slightly with the introduction of a junction. Before long, an incessant parade of steps appeared, the upward thrust causing pockets of walkers to pause and congregate in clusters for water, snack bars, some even breaking out a stove and cooking up a soupy concoction. Barring a handful of souls, almost everyone was Korean and I received the odd, surprised, what is he doing here look. One old guy offered me a boiled sweet in broken English, proclaiming them as the elixir to conquer Jaunbong. In our stilted conversation, he deduced that I was from Austria, noting his love of Mozart and possibly proclaiming the hills to be alive. For an Austrian, such climbing as it was here should be a breeze. For an Australian: faaaaaaahk.

km03There was no breeze and it was tough going…particularly given it was the day after I had arrived on a plane from England and then gorged on fried chicken. Some welcome respite came at Cheonchuksa, a small detour leading away from the upward procession and revealing a temple and its various ornaments snuggled into a cliff. Simultaneously serene and vivid, offering fresh water to refill bottles, to take a break, to tread briefly on level ground and tiptoe in a suitably reverential hush. I could have lingered and napped.

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km04But apparently the path to enlightenment continues up and up, past increasingly frequent groups pausing for food and water, wiping sweating brows, recovering breath and looking somewhat abject. Eyes silently pleaded when would this end, how much more of this would there be? Signs that were once in Korean and English had reverted to Korean but I deduced there was something like a kilometre to the top. And it probably took an hour, but after that time a rocky crag appeared above the forest. Bedecked with yet more picnickers, convivial and relieved, catching hazy, smoggy views of the hills and occasional snatches of suburban apartment tower sprawl.

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It was more like a series of mountaintops here, some reached via slick rock faces and chains, others by more sedate steps and switchbacks. In fact, there were paths leading off in any number of directions to various places unknown. The two information signs I could find were practically unfathomable and after an enthusiastic and accurate start my guidebook had given up the ghost. I’d like to say it was through rational deduction and decision-making that I made the right choice, but it was 90% luck and 10% checking the compass direction on my phone.

Beyond the top of Jaunbong the trail became blissfully less populous and delightfully more even. It broadly followed the Podaeneugsan ridgeline through a patchwork of fragrant shrubs and shady trees, pierced by a series of rocky platforms with more murky views to Seoul. In the lull between two of these outcrops, a path dropped down towards Mangwolsa Temple, where I finally found my nirvana.

km07The path to enlightenment is never easy and after a long slog upwards all day it was only when gravity was on my side that I fell completely ass over tit. A winding, gravelly descent was more competent than my footwear and I received a very nice caking of dust over one side of my body. No-one else was present to witness this event, something I was actually pleased about in terms of embarrassment management. It’s kind of like if a tree falls in a forest and if no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Unharmed and dusting myself off as best I could, a few more corners led to the reveal of Mangwolsa Temple. This was the kind of place I had imagined before coming to South Korea, the idealised image within forested mountains far from the madding crowd. Yes, for a guide book cover the sky could have been clearer, the foliage more autumnal. But this was pretty much exactly as I had imagined (making me wonder if somewhere, subconsciously, I had viewed such an image). Featuring a bonus water fountain in which to clean myself up and refresh, this pause, this retreat was worth the hike, including the looming, endless shin-jarring descent back into the confines of Seoul.

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asia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Canberra 10

August 2006, and after a now customary gruelling journey by land and air I found myself at Canberra’s suitably bland Jolimont Bus Station. Here I was for a year – not the bus station but the city at large – a work swap to sample the delights of Australian bureaucracy and seek to escape Canberra for other parts of the country as frequently as possible. And while I have done all that, here I still am almost ten years later. Next week I will head to the Jolimont Centre again, to commence that journey, again, but – again – I will be back.

So, where did that ten years go exactly? Well, for a start, not every single day has been spent in the national capital, with extended periods in swags and other people’s beds both down under and abroad. I nominally left a couple of times, packing up my belongings in boxes and placing them in various friend’s nooks and crannies. But I had to go back to retrieve them, and, once I did, I decided it was agreeable enough to stay.

So, in honour of the passing of a milestone, allow me to ramble on about ten Canberra things that have kept me amused, bemused, infuriated, mystified, but largely happy. With some archive pictures to boot, in which the shade of my hair and athleticism of my body is, lamentably, so last decade. In 2006 I strove to the top of that hill in a crappy bike. Ten years later, and not so much has changed.

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Upon Red Hill with Black Mountain in the distance, October 2006 

1 – Four Seasons in One Year

It is of course customary to talk about the weather in any conversation starter. Indeed, Australians are almost as prone to this as Brits. What would we talk about if there was no weather, like on the Gold Coast? Retirement savings, Pauline Hanson, golf?

I arrived in Canberra towards the end of winter. Which presented my British bones with beautiful, pleasant sun-filled days in which you could almost strip to a T-shirt. Ha, winter, I laughed, whatever. But then I think it plunged to minus eight overnight and I had a little more respect for the hardiness of the souls living here.

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Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

Because of its altitude, its distance from the coast, its fondness for winds direct from the mountains, Canberra has a very clear four seasons. I say very clear, but weird plants and shit seem to be in flower all the time, and birds never fail to make a racket at five in the morning. Still, there is definitely frost, blossom, sweltering bushfire smoke days (known as “stinkers”) and – best of all – the golden glowing foliage of autumn. I like that about Canberra (people ask does it make you feel at home, as an unruly pack of Cockatoos shriek their way through a decimated oak tree). With the seasons, life is constantly, visibly changing. Unlike – say – on the Gold Coast, where it largely just ebbs away.

2 – That Canberra

Canberra has cut pensions for war veterans! Canberra has imposed a great new tax on everything! Canberra has got its knickers in a twist with the latest self-absorbed leadership tussle! Apart from, of course, it hasn’t. The Federal Parliament, voted for by the great people of Australia, has allegedly done all this in my time here. But a city and 99.999% of its residents have not. Editors, sub-editors, journalists, reporters, radio shock-jocks: STOP BEING SO FRICKIN GORMLESSLY LAZY!

However, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the presence of Parliament Houses, both old and new, in this capital city. They are quite distinctive and diverse, lined up to degrees of perfection on a central axis. For me, the old one is better, mainly because it’s no longer used for debates and mediocre policy formulation. Which means you can walk the halls, sit in the padded chairs, swing around in the former prime minister’s seat, cigar in hand and a scotch on the rocks. For better or worse, this was why Canberra was made.

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A reflection of Australian Parliament House, June 2007

3 – Flashes of Brilliance

I had been to Australia before 2006, and I had even been to Canberra. However, I didn’t recall the almost nonchalant parade of colourful birds swooping and hollering across suburbs and over hills. Most remarkable – to an Englishman familiar with the monotone – was the sheer brilliance of colour and decoration: a flutter of rainbow emerging from long grass, a blush of pink perched on a wire, the regal red and blue of a pair of rosellas serenading in the bush. Even the pigeons and seagulls seem a little cleaner and offer at least a little charm.

I’m no twitcher but I have grown to recognise the basics and even some of the calls that these assorted oddments provide (mostly just to identify who keeps waking me up at 5am). And while they have attained a familiarity, there are still moments, when a blur of brilliance darts through the bush, that bring a little, wondrous smile to my face.

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A pair of Gang Gang Cockatoos, April 2015

4 – And as for the Plants

I seem to make routine visits to the Australian National Botanic Gardens. After ten years I do so with little in the way of enthusiasm or expectation – it’s more like it’s somewhere different in the rotation of hill walks, lakeside ambles and suburban rambles. Yet each time, after wandering off onto one of the tracks for ten minutes, I find myself in some kind of placid contented vegan tree-hugging alternate state. It’s a bit like going to Melbourne, only with callistemon and grevillea instead of coffee and graffiti.

Of course, it goes without saying that Australian plants can be a little quirky. As someone still part foreigner, a walk through the gardens evokes a sense of discovery, a sense that you are clearly in an alien land. Indeed, you can almost imagine how Joseph Banks was feeling nearly 250 years ago, getting a boner at the sight of a bottlebrush, incessantly naming things after himself. To be fair, there were a lot of things to name in the Anglo classification scheme of things and – as the Botanic Gardens consistently exemplify – the sensory overload can be exhilarating. For me, nothing, like nothing, can beat the smell of the bush after rain.

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Waratahs bursting forth in the Botanic Gardens, October 2012

5 – Food glorious food. And coffee.

I didn’t really do coffee in the UK. And after ten years in Australia, that last statement seems even more sensible. Despite only incremental improvements it is largely awful. If there was an Ashes for coffee – and perhaps cafe culture more broadly – Australia would do the flat whitewash each time, perhaps with some stoic resistance from the English tailenders in the final dead rubber.

So now I have become one of those awful Australians who harps on about how bad the coffee is in the UK.  I remember supping on my first few coffees in Manuka, in what was once Hansel and Gretel and has now become Ona, with awards and movies and a somewhat more pretentious, more beard-infested, and more expensive take on anything that can be derived from a humble bean. I rarely go there these days, but such is the profusion of good standard coffee that it doesn’t really matter. But it is nice to find a spot where everybody knows your name.

Food in Australia leaves me a little more ambivalent. Ashes contests would be more competitive in this space. Highlights include mangoes, most Asian food, steak, and some of the seafood. Cheese can be a little hit and miss, especially with some crucial French cheeses off the agenda due to health and safety regulations (sigh). The biggest issue though is the absence of genuine clotted cream. Clearly this is a problem. And it may well be the driving force for return visits to the UK (sorry family and friends!).

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A classic before it became much more: Brodburger, October 2008

6 – On the Edge of Wilderness

Australia has a luxury of space which makes any dispiriting rant of “F**k off we’re full” all the more silly. Sure, a lot of it is hostile and infertile, jam-packed with snakes and spiders. But even in the temperate south east corner there are vast tracts of not very much at all. The airiness, the freedom, the big blue sky, this is why Canberra itself was such a tonic arriving from London ten years ago. And while the city has an excess of underused scrubby grassland, this pales into insignificance when looking south and west.

Namadgi National Park sits entirely within the ACT and while it’s not up there with the likes of some of the other spectacular wilderness areas of Eastern Australia, you can at least get a good view. Sadly most of these views require a reasonable hike there and back again, trails I have now exhausted in their entirety. But being little over forty minutes away, access to wilderness is literally on your doorstep. And where a familiar trail ends, there is so much temptation, so much allure, so much that is pulling you to want to dive in further. To bush bash. Until the thought of all those snakes and spiders sends you back the way you came, again.

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The end of the Yerrabri Track in Namadgi NP, January 2015

7 – Culcha innit

Being a capital city, Canberra has the rather good fortune of containing all the usual national suspects: a library, a museum, a big war memorial and countless other ones, national archives, a portrait gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia. While interstate visitors and schools parties can pile off their coaches for a whistlestop gawp, the benefits of being a local mean that you can go back and explore, time and time again.

In the main, these institutions are free and have cafes. Which means I frequently pop to one or other when I have an hour or so to kill. The National Library has provided a workspace on occasion, the Portrait Gallery some photographic inspiration, the National Museum respite from a biting wind on a bike. And as for the National Gallery, there is something quite satisfying about popping in and casually cruising past some famous works and famous names, diverting one’s attention in pursuit of a coffee.

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Hanging outside the National Gallery of Australia, March 2009

8 – Sod it, Let’s go to the Coast

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Beach in Murramarang NP, October 2008

Okay not technically Canberra, but referring to Batemans Bay as Canberra-on-Sea has some justification. Australians’ slavish desire to worship beach frontage contributes to the high disregard attributed to the national capital. But I’ve obviously quite rightly made the argument that Canberra is closer to the coast than Western Sydney, once you take into account traffic and the all-round awfulness of Parramatta Road. And what a coast it has.

My first visit (and escape from Canberra) was at the end of September in 2006. A bus down Clyde Mountain to the Bay, hopping off at Broulee. It was a fortuitous choice, as Broulee is one of the best. Sweeping golden sand, rugged coastal forest, distant mountains. So much so that Broulee regularly comes back into play, on any fabled day trip that has been made many times since.

9 – Jesus of Suburbia

Canberra’s suburbs can be at one utopian and hellish. Ten years on, and it is still feasible that I could get lost in them. Essentially Canberra is a city of suburbs with some hills and a few important buildings in between. Many of them have politically inspired names, but I fail to distinguish between such places as Ainslie, Scullin, Theodore.

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Navigating the suburbs to Rocky Knob Park, April 2014

I’m currently in Phillip, which is either named after Governor Phillip or an expression the Duke of Edinburgh caught wind of a few times in boarding school. Before this I was in Red Hill, and this presented the best aspect of suburban living: leafy avenues, quiet crescents, popular schools, and cafes and shops a pleasant fifteen minute walk away. Often finding myself working at home, it was so easy to take a break, ogle at expensive houses, scrunch through leaves, dodge resident peacocks, and emerge to a bit of a view – and a bit of a titter – at Rocky Knob Park.

10 – The summit

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me reasonably well that I save the best to last. Much like the crackling from a Sunday roast, for which fork stabbing is in order if anyone dares try nab it from my plate.

The last and best of Canberra’s things may come as no surprise either; my subject and muse, my meditation and therapy, my gym and inspiration, where the suburbs give way to a bushland ridge known collectively as Red Hill.

It’s possible it could have been another hill. But this was the first and will always be the best. Three days into the Canberra experience, a sunny Sunday and desperate to fend off jetlag, I opened the door and walked west. Kingston, Manuka, Forrest…the last luxurious homes giving way to Red Hill reserve. A summit climb, a coffee and cake, a special view. Nature, space, golden light, the excitement of a new city and new people below. The city may have become more familiar, the hair may have – ahem –mellowed, the people may have come and gone, the discoveries faded, but still I can be happily, contentedly, thanking my lucky stars upon this very hill today.

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Late light at Red Hill Nature Park, October 2007

Australia Green Bogey

Xenophobe

If X is a difficult letter then why not take on a difficult subject to make it even more difficult? Perhaps it’s because I am some culturally deficient rosbif, a soap-dodging pom who has come to take your job and steal your social security and write about it with an air of superiority and pomposity befitting of someone who can eat stodgy food and believe it is better than anything ever created anywhere else in the world and then have the cheek to enforce this food upon you by taking over the corner shops up and down the land that were once yours and using them as a cover for illicit activities. Oh yes, I am your ultimate nightmare, your superlative Daily Mail concoction of hatred.

In truth this all sounds rather silly don’t you think, but time and again, in conversations, in discussion groups, in one-liners, I come across sentiments such as these. Not directed at me of course, apart from the gentle ‘banter’ of pommie-bashing which can become quite vitriolic with alcohol fuelled cricket frenzy; or that time I was in France on a school trip and a few skulking local youths decided to call a group of us ‘Bloody English’ in a growly spittle-filled accent that was too much of a parody to be overly intimidating. Bloody French cheese-eating surrender monkeys anyway!! No, these comments frequently involve stranger foreign types, queue-jumping, tax-dodging, funny-smelling immigrants from poorer places, who, it would seem, are always up to no good.

I assume many more learned and bothered-to-do-their-research people have written theories about why this might happen in civilised society, citing one or more of protectionism, fear, resistance to change, cultural imperialism, elitism, distrust, nationalism, competition for space or resources or infrastructure, pervading social norms and stereotypes. There is, to be fair, some foundation to the concerns people have about ‘others’. For instance, we can realistically assume that an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist is more likely to be darker skinned and have connections with the Middle East, and less likely to take the form of an old granny who lives next door and bakes apple pie. However, the problem is the giant leap of an assumption that, by very irrational logic, all darker skinned people from the Middle East are potential or actual terrorists. It is as ludicrous as, say, gay people being responsible for a spell of wet weather in Britain. [1]

X_gay rainSpeaking of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it has been interesting to observe their rise in prominence at a distance. For here, as in several other countries, is a political party premised on xenophobia, and doing so rather successfully despite an obvious number of crackpots and – well, to put it nicely – policy gaps in far more important areas of concern to us all. Clearly there remain enough antiquated barons who still distrust the Germans in Britain, but where UKIP have profited most is in tapping into the fears and concerns of those disgruntled and disenfranchised and downtrodden, whose own struggle and lack of fulfilment can feel better when apportioned to something outside of their control.  And pesky foreigners have always made an easy scapegoat for our own failings.

Observing these developments from a sunny, warm, multicultural and coffee-blessed Australia, where people don’t think twice about paying ten quid for a sandwich, you would be quite right to assume there is an air of Antipodean smugness [2]. Because of geopolitical remoteness, there can be no Australian Independence Party in the same way, though I’m sure Western Australia has something of that ilk, campaigning on a ridiculous non-daylight saving platform and the right to dig up literally every single last rock in the state and keep the money all to themselves. However, despite its undoubted multiculturalism, xenophobia is alive and kicking down under, given a fresh lease of life by some of its most prominent politicians.

The big peril in Australia comes from the north, via Indonesia, which is treated like some Hicksville backwater despite being one of the most populous countries in the world [3]. Indonesians themselves are not so much in the firing line, just the innocent casualties caught in the middle of a war (yes, you read that right, war) on people smugglers [4]. You see, people smugglers are responsible for bringing foreigners across from Indonesia on boats. Foreigners who are mostly fleeing proper war or famine or persecution, or just seeking to be reunited with their children [5]. They are desperate and willing to risk their lives on a perilous sea journey and I challenge you to say you would not do the same if the alternative was inevitable destitution and destruction.

Of course, we don’t want them to drown at sea, so the latest solution is to do everything we can to stop them from coming [6]. The fact that this addresses some of the dubious concerns that our cities and towns are being ‘swamped’ by outsiders, who are taking our jobs and our houses and making the traffic to Kmart a nightmare because they are going to the nearby mosque has nothing to do with it. It would be cynical of me to think this is a neat political outcome that again taps into fears and struggles of people who are ‘doing it tough’, leveraging just an essence of xenophobia that definitely exists – and should be acknowledged to exist –  in Australia [7].

I wonder if there is something about island nations such as the UK and Australia that provoke a touch more insularity, a tad more protectionism. A churning sea provides that clear sense of separation from others and the sense of a wholly identifiable land mass to be protected. I guess I can only draw on my experiences living in these countries and would not really know if xenophobia is more or less rife in, say, mainland Europe or southeast Asia . I suspect it differs little. Perhaps it is natural for humans to be wary, to distrust, and to compete against the unknown and the alien. A genetically embedded manifestation of the survival of the fittest, which cannot be disentangled from a yearning for one-upmanship and conflict.

One would hope that the old adage of travel broadening the mind plays true. It can certainly help to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that underpin elements of xenophobia. For instance, I have met friendly and funny Germans who totally get my sense of humour. I have been welcomed and embraced by French people, though the cheese-eating stereotype is clearly evidence-based [8]. I have been surprised that Australians can be the antithesis of their laid back Fosters advert image – hard-working, anxious, equally whingey and obsessed about the weather as some other nationality out there. I have met and talked to clever and articulate immigrants from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who would be an asset to any country who lets them in. And I have discovered that Asian food is far from anything to be feared.

The risk is that travel can also potentially reinforce some of the distorted views of others that we may hold. A smelly toilet in France can make us question the hygiene of the entire nation. Gloating cricket winners can annoy us so much as to make us think that Australians are a cocky, self-satisfied bunch. Hong Kong citizens adorned with face masks can lead to the assumption that everyone has bird flu. Canadians being genuinely pleasant and good-humoured can make us think that all Canadians are indeed the finest people on the planet. This may be mostly true, but I am sure there are at least a few bad eggs somewhere in the depths of Manitoba [9].

I suppose the essence of all of this is that we should at least try to be a bit more open-minded about people and the places they come from. A good start would be to consider the positives, revel in the differences and what this can bring to our lives and those of seven billion others. For instance, what about all the good things that EU membership brings to the UK, what about all the hard work that has been done by Polish immigrants and the economic contribution made? [10] What about the unknown potential of thousands of well-educated people arriving from Sri Lanka, regardless of whether they do this by sea? What about the wonderful world of cheese, of coffee, of coconut cream curry that have emanated from elsewhere and enriched our lives?

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I wanted to finish this meandering, slightly ranting and hopelessly idealistic piece with an anecdote from Spain. This is something of a travel blog after all, so I can tell you that I have had a few visits to Spain, mostly in the Costa Blanca region, and I will shove in a photo just to have a photo in this blog which often contains a photo or two.

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I haven’t made up my mind if I truly like this area or not, given the confused conglomeration of coastal developments, warm seas and dusty mountains. There are pockets of untainted rural beauty and then there are sprawling anglicised new towns, offering roast beef and paella at the same turn.

Perhaps it was around the early part of the century that represented the boom time for the migration of older people from Britain to these far warmer shores. Recessions and downturns, housing busts and credit crises have since impacted the influx, and it is easy in hindsight to see that the country overreached itself on a false bubble of property development. Still, amongst the unfinished lots and closed down Chinese takeaways, many ex-pats linger on, some enthusiastically embracing something of the Spanish way of life, others steadfastly ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

I remember speaking to one such new immigrant a few years back, who was quick to express disdain for Britain; perhaps a natural reaction to justify in one’s own head the move overseas. I had heard it before but the crux of the argument was that Britain had been overrun by foreigners, who were taking over and were jumping the queue for handouts. Britain, it was claimed, had gone to pot. Spain was now the place to be.

Of course, there is delicious irony in these words, uttered in the midst of a series of new developments in Spain that had been colonised by, well, immigrants. Where shops sold proper English Cheddar and the Fish ‘n’ Chips were better than at home. Where tobacco was cheaper and prescriptions too, so you could happily smoke away and get some government-subsidised anti-coagulants to keep things moving. A place where there were also other enclaves for Germans and Dutch and – recently with their smartly invested oil wealth – Norwegians.  A spot where you could concur with the thoughts of the Daily Mail as you labour over a fried breakfast: surely a top notch recipe for sustaining the inevitable cycle that is xenophobia.


[1] Yes, indeed, in Britain where rain is not uncommon. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-25793358 and then enjoy the numerous piss-takes such as https://twitter.com/UkipWeather

[2] A smugness massively inflated by cricket results of late.

[3] And thus, you would think, a country to form positive relations with…to make the most of economic opportunities as Indonesia develops and for future security of the underpopulated resource-rich island to its south.

[4] I doubt if this one will make the A-Level history syllabus.

[5] Processing shows that 90% are genuine refugees. Some of the wars they are fleeing (unlike the war on people smugglers) are genuine serious things that Australian troops are involved in (e.g. Afghanistan).

[6] Preventing drowning at sea is of course a genuinely valid objective and mired in policy nightmares. For my part, I say build a bridge and deal with it like other countries have to! Hell, you could even employ immigrants in the construction.

[7] Ironically, some of which comes from second or third generation migrants!

[8] And instead of resisting this trait when in France, just embrace it and gorge on Camembert, Munster, Roquefort, Reblochon, Comte, Brie, Pont l’Eveque, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Morbier, Chevre, Raclette, Boursin, Port Salut and Cantal after dinner.

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