Ten things I’ve learnt about travel

I hadn’t been overseas since a year before Joshua’s birth (he’s now five) and now I’m doing two overseas trips – Mauritius, Rome – in quick succession. Like having an extended *dry spell* and then having two rapid one-night stands in a row, you suddenly realise there’s fun to be had, if you can just set it up right.

Here are ten things I’ve learnt:

  1. There are many ways to get to the same place. That’s not a deeper psychological point. It’s just that if you miss one bus, you can always take another.
  2. Going to museums is like sifting through rubbish: most of it is junk, but sometimes you’ll stumble across a treasure. One person’s treasure is another person’s trash. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (mostly fairly dull), I walked into a room that showed photographs of a man ageing alongside a duf-duf-duf soundtrack from a video some distance away. Perhaps it was the strange pairing of these two media, but I had an intense, and utterly memorable, feeling of death anxiety and vertigo. At a sixteenth century rich banker’s house down the road from us, I saw how small his bedroom was and how lush and sumptuous he kept his dining and waiting room.
  3. Wherever you go, someone is taking a selfie. Learn to walk around selfie sticks.
  4. Related point: over time, everywhere becomes a spot for selfies. The Colosseum colosseummight have once been a venue for mass executions and blood-letting (the Romans swept the floor regularly to prevent the slipperiness of the blood impacting negatively on the ‘games’), but now it’s an agreeable selfie-spot, especially for Japanese tourists.
  5. South Africans regard themselves as a friendly, nice lot. But others are just as nice, if not more so.
  6. Be direct. Greg met an ancient academic at a conference who, when he’d heard enough of what Greg had said or didn’t like what he was saying, would calmly say ‘Enough,’ and Greg would then keep quiet. This strategy, if applied more widely, would probably lead to fewer fights, bad feelings and divorces.
  7. There are three stages: recovering from the trip there, feeling you’ve been there a million years, girding oneself for the trip back.
  8. Sometimes the most foreign feature of a place is the colour of the sky. Even a slightly more intense shade of blue lends a surreal tone to experience, made more dreamlike if no one else is remarking on it.
  9. The sense that you must always be having a good time is a throwback to the eighties and best avoided. Similarly, the feeling that trinkets must be purchased for everyone at home.
  10. Tsunamis generated in the Indian Ocean pose a threat to all the countries of the region, including Mauritius. Remember: a tsunami will get you one day, but not yet.


Romans drink their cappuccinos tepid

There are two groups of people in the world: those who read guide books before going on holiday and those who don’t.

‘Your father was always trying to make me do that before we went away, but I never did,’ my mother said to me this weekend, part scathingly, because how could I do something so nerdy, and rome guide bookpartly triumphantly, because she’d escaped all that guide book reading over the years. She’d caught me at my dirty worst, reading a book on Rome. My mother’s only interested in a place once she’s visited it already, but then she’s someone who prefers the past to the future.

To be honest, guide books are fairly fucking boring, but that’s their advantage. It’s just a way to calm my holiday anxiety. Apparently, it’s a big thing: travel anxiety. I am not alone. A quick perusal of the internet has revealed some tips:

  • Travel anxiety is often due to life anxiety.

Well, that’s bloody unhelpful.

  • You can have travel anxiety and not know about it.

Then who the fuck cares? If you don’t know you have an anxiety, then how can you have an anxiety? My head is hurting.

And this advice:

  • If you find that your anxiety on your trip is acting up, then take a short break from your vacation.

I feel an endless loop coming on of small holidays within larger holidays: Babushka doll nightmare.

I have, however, learnt a few interesting things from my guide book. Romans, apparently, drink their cappuccinos tepid, not hot. I’m happy about that. I’m a big fan of the lukewarm coffee.  And there’s a place around the corner from where we’re staying

Cupd and the three graces3

Cupid and the Three Graces- Raphael. 1517-18. Villa Farnesina. The mistress of the Sienese businessman apparently has her back to us.

that used to belong to a Sienese banker and businessman from the early 1500s. His residence is covered with lavish paintings, including one downstairs that features the back of his mistress. Upstairs is an unimpressive painting, poorly finished because the artist felt he wasn’t bring paid enough. This all sounds familiar: covert bragging about affairs, petty resentments from artists.


This businessman was a bit of a tricky customer. In 1518, he organised a lavish reception to honour Pope Leo X, but he held it in his stables. He was driven by the desire to embarrass his neighbours, the family across the street, by demonstrating that his stables were as elegant as their dining rooms. He also held another reception party later that year on the riverbank where he had the servants throw the silver into the Tiber after each course. Unbeknown to the horrified (impressed?) guests, he’d strung a net below to retrieve the silver when they went home.

You see. Guide books aren’t all bad. I’ll feel I have a friend who’s living – or at least being dead – right around the corner from me. Or if he’s not a friend, at least he’s a kind of person utterly familiar to me who would fit right into this day and age. And that’s some kind of comfort.

See: French philosopher denies end of holiday

How to conduct a psychological experiment on your family

Children are not good for many things. You don’t, for example, want to take a child on a long plane trip. Or have them with you when something disastrous happens. My oldest son has a habit of blocking his ears and closing his eyes at the approach of a bad thing. At least it’s more sophisticated than my mother, who actually has been known to duck when something untoward occurs.

‘Mum,’ I say to her, ‘I heard a strange noise outside.’ – She ducks, her hands over her ears.

‘The kettle’s broken.’ – Duck. It’s not helpful.

But children are wonderful candidates for psychological experiments. I’m not suggesting you get them, Milgram-style, to administer shocks to unsuspecting people – god, can you imagine! Nobody would emerge unharmed – but you can set up subtle changes that reveal a lot about the psyche.

Like this experiment that I devised for the five-year-old last night. I’d been given a box of Elephant chocolates as a gift and, partly as bribe (‘first eat the avocado’), partly as kind-hearted motherly deed, I sometimes give them one after supper.

The youngest one came toddling along to ask for his chocolate.

‘Okay,’ I told him. ‘You ate your avocado?’

‘It was disgusting.’

‘Very good. But listen,’ I said to him in flash of brilliance, to be modest for a moment, ‘I’ve had an idea. Tell me what you think? You can get an Elephant chocolate – ’ joshie with chocolate


‘But your brother gets two.’


‘Alright, then you both get none. Either you get one and your brother gets two, or you both get none.’

‘Okay. Fine. We both get none.’

And that’s it in a nutshell, the problem with human beings, or at least one essential problem.

Let me lastly add that if you are planning a psychological experiment with family members – and I do believe this is an area worth developing (you might wish to choose from this list of 10 famous experiments that you could never do today*)  – you have to plan for a lengthy post-experiment time. I had to endure a very voluble five-year-old for a lengthy period of time**. In fact, my only response was to put my hands over my ears and duck.


*I’m rather taken with making half the family prisoners, the other half prison guards.

** Despite rescinding my earlier offer, and giving them each one chocolate.



How to be good (on Facebook)

It’s difficult to be good in real life. Things are frequently so complex and fraught. To an extent, it’s probably much easier to be good on Facebook. But how? These are some ideas I have.

  1. Sharing is not Caring

I’ve spent a lot of time observing Barney (the dinosaur) for obvious reasons. Why, for example, do small kids love him so much? I think it comes down to shape, those big maternal hips. Or perhaps it’s the catchy slogans dropping from those grinning purple chops like, ‘Big or little, you are all wonderful just the way you are’. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean one wants to views one’s wonderfulness from last night’s drunken dinner party through the harsh glare of the computer screen the next morning.

Rule one: never post and tag a friend in a picture where he / she looks shocking but you look great.  If you must post that pic, crop and cut.

(Somebody I know once posted a picture of somebody else tagged as me. This other person, this non-Lisa Lazarus, was dressed up as a clown with a big plastic red nose. It stayed online for years.)

  1. What Goes Around Comes Around

In the broader sense, I actually don’t believe this at all. Life doesn’t hand back what you

Saint Catherine of Alexandria___Source2

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio.  I think she’d post some interesting stuff on FB (after she’d finished her spinning), but she’d be hard to please and you wouldn’t get a lot of likes from her.

give out. Life is arbitrary, frequently cruel and relentless. But when it comes to Facebook, you can level the playing field.

You know the person? The one who is loath to like anyone else’s stuff, but keeps collecting the ‘easy likes’?  Play fair. Give what you get, or at least in some kind of reasonable ratio.

  1. Reheated Leftovers

Supposedly there’s no such thing as bad pizza or sex. Yet most people have encountered both, sometimes even together.  Don’t serve reheated leftovers on FB.

So it goes down like this: something terrible has happened in the world and everyone starts posting exactly the same pieces from the same sources. I know, it’s tempting. You’re so horrified etc. that you can’t stop yourself – but it’s tedious. Post new stuff.

  1. Sharing is not Caring (yes, again)

I’ve done this. In fact, I did this just last week.

You know how FB shares a memory from a few years back and compulsively, you share it? (It’s often of your kids, because, you know, they look so cute two years younger.) Even though shared memoirs are the cornerstones of most relationships, somehow FB doesn’t quite work this way. It’s the fresh, sensational stuff that captures our attention.

The fun thing about not sharing an old memory is the profuse apology you receive from Facebook (after you’ve rejected the memory). It’s like they’ve just made you witness your old boyfriend right before he told you he’s actually been cheating on you all year, but he’s very sorry, and, really, maybe you would consider an open relationship.

  1. Telling On

It’s a major strategy at age three, four, even five, but it’s one of the harsh truths of growing up: you realise the teacher, most of the time, just makes things worse.

‘Telling on’, however, is very popular on Facebook, especially during a fight: rounding up your posse to go after a common enemy. Childish.  Fight your own fights. Or call up your posse in private.

Those are my rules for good behaviour. What are yours?




Shall I compare thee to a sea-monkey?


Remember sea-monkeys?  Those adorable, underwater creatures one saw advertised in comics with the slogan, ‘So Eager to Please, They Can Even Be Trained’.  So cute and humanoid as well – you could actually differentiate the ladies from the men, who naturally had whiskers under their chins.

I saw lots of these adverts when we lived in Hawaii in 1983, probably because I read a lot of comics, and had very few friends (nobody understood what the weird girl from Africa was doing there). But I wanted those sea monkeys badly. I wanted to teach them how to obey commands. I wanted the ‘bowlful of happiness’.

My parents finally relented; perhaps the tropical heat of paradise had dulled their decision-making abilities. Or else, as most children know, incessant nagging is wildly effective. What I received, though, was a squiggle: a tiny and unimpressive floating line. Nobody in their right mind could call that a ‘frolicsome pet’.

Sea-monkeys are actually brine shrimp, a group of crustaceans used as pet food, that were the brain child of Harold von Braunhut, an American mail-order marketer and inventor (including X-ray specs – remember those?). His marketing strategy was simple: bomb the fuckers (that’s us, not the sea monkeys).   “I think I bought something like 3.2 million pages of comic book advertising a year. It worked beautifully,” he apparently said.

But if you missed the sea-monkey advert, don’t worry. Because the world is flooded with sea-monkey experiences.

  1. Facebook: wall-to-wall sea-monkey adverts.
  2. What is an early infatuation or a crush, but sea-monkey advertorials from him to you and vice versa? A long-term relationship is really just the peeling away of the advert to reveal the underlying sea-monkey – and if you find you’re happy with the floating squiggle, and if you can somehow still see the advert while enduring the squiggle, the relationship might have some legs. (God: so many mixed metaphors, I’ve even confused myself.) donald trump resized
  3. The novel? It’s the grandest sea-monkey advert ever. Nothing is real: those people don’t exist, those things never happened.
  4. Donald Trump. Okay, he’s more of a sea-monkey than a sea-monkey advert. Or is he? Maybe he’s the advert again.

They’re all over, sea-monkey adverts. I’m sure you could come up with a lot more examples.

Women’s lives, from tennis to Japanese fetish

In times of frustration I prefer reading memoir.  Other people’s complicated, potentially miserable, lives perk me up. I’ve been reading a fair amount of memoir, two of particular interest, lately.

Girl on the Net is not a misery memoir. I actually bought it because somebody called BookCunt had reviewed it, calling the book the ‘thinking woman’s filth’. Who can resist such an accolade from a person who calls herself that?

The problem with many memoirs (I know because I teach a memoir course) is that they frequently don’t have a plot. Girl on the Net gets round this problem by chronologically describing each of her lovers, from one to about thirty eight. Number eight gets about half the book devoted to him; number 24 to 28 get about a paragraph each. Such is life when it comes to our exes.

From BookCunt to Hilary Mantel. (I didn’t think I could get both those names in a single sentence, but I managed, admittedly with strain.) Mantel named A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt her Book of the Year in New Statesman. Mantel says: “…it’s a life seen from the inside, of a romantic, clever, mostly unsuccessful woman…For reasons that defy analysis, it is wholly absorbing and deeply entertaining.”

Maybe it’s entertaining partly because one has a real sense of reading something illicit. Pratt started a journal at the age of about 15 and kept going throughout her life, producing over a million words. They’ve only been published now, sixty years after her death. You’re really get the feeling you’re reading something private, although I’m sure she frequently imagined a reader, as most diarists do.

But what struck me the most is that the two memoirs are very entertaining to read consecutively, because they show you the wildly successful effects of feminism for certain women living in certain parts of the world.

Whereas Pratt, in about 1925, bemoans wearing glasses (“But there is still something lacking – just a boy. To take me to the pictures, to be teased about, to write me letters, to dance with me, to sort of fill Leslie’s place. But I must be patient. I know it’s my glasses, always has been. Leslie said once, ‘I suppose you’ve got to wear glasses? You know, without pulling your leg, you’re a pretty girl.’”), Girl on The Net revels shamelessly in her perversions, of which there are many – and enjoyably varied.

If you want to go between Japanese fetish sex clubs and the meanderings at the Tennis Club (“No one at the club cares where I go or not. It is too large for me – I fit in nowhere. I cannot somehow play tennis well enough to arrest the attentions or kindly regard of the upper sects. The bright young people boss me.”* – maybe because

beryl cook tennis

Beryl Cook – I think it’s called Tennis Girls. I can’t seem to find the name. Bloody useless.

she doesn’t wear her glasses?), I recommend these two memoirs. There’s something intriguing about reading a memoir that seems to converse with, even answer, another book, despite the fact that the authors are separated by so many decades.


* Yes, yes, it’s a bit like the lit scene.

It shouldn’t be embarrassing but it is


  1. Introducing someone as your husband or wife. It’s like saying, ‘Here is someone I often have sex with’. Or if not often, then at least now and then. Introducing someone as your boyfriend or girlfriend is even worse. And describing someone as your lover is the gold standard of embarrassment. Fortunately, no one says that, at least not in South Africa.


  1. When someone tells you they are ‘trying to have a baby’. I don’t know where to look. I have a friend who likes to reply, ‘Don’t let me get in your way’.


  1. Walking past a group of teenagers. Well, that’s more humiliating than embarrassing.


  1. People posing for photographs intended for social media, i.e. just

    about every photograph nowadays. It was one thing taking a happy snap for the family album that’s opened on rare occasions – it is quite another being a mini-broadcaster with an audience of at least 300. Viewers of pictures taken for social media know immediately how you want to be perceived: sexy, ironic with great breasts, blissfully bonded. (I’ve been watching people photograph themselves endlessly on Camp Bay beach over the past few days.)


  1. Buying a particularly big packet of toilet paper because it’s on special. I know, everybody goes to the bathroom. But there’s something about walking through a shopping centre with a huge and unwieldy rectangular package of Twinsavers that makes people think all you do is sit on the toilet.


  1. Being in a tour group. I don’t actually know whether this is embarrassing, but I have a sense it is when I see these big groups of chattering tourists with a tour leader in the front holding up a sign.