I am writing this from the town of Minori, on Italy's Amalfi coast, watching the sun set as Serge Gainsbourg purrs enigmatically from the stereo in the corner. I don't expect any sympathy, at least not until I've worked my way through the whole Gainsbourg box set, purchased for 13 euros from Casablanca airport's sole duty free store: perhaps illustrating the regard in which the Moroccans hold the French.
There is a true art to travel writing, which I most certainly do not possess. While we are usually too polite to say so, most stories of other people's travels are either rather dull or else come across as an implicit boast, as if those telling the story were showing off their holiday like a shiny new possession. It takes a remarkably acute eye and, I think, a highly developed sense of humanity, to really bring alive the experience of a foreign place through words alone. My only defence in writing this short post is that the journey home is a time-honoured part of the re-entry process. Almost all Kiwis take, as we are doing, a circuitous and interesting route back. Ours has been via Morocco (Fez, down to the desert, along the Southern oasis roads to Marrakech and finally to Casablanca), ending with a few days in an apartment on the said Amalfi coast.
I am often amused by, but at the same time innately distrustful of, holiday accounts presented as a series of anecdotes. Most life, even on holiday, does not unfold as a series of entertaining episodes. Indeed, it seems to me that holiday travel is interspersed with more than its fair share of minor difficulties and privations as well as prosaic periods of waiting, sitting, reading and just thinking. Perhaps I am merely getting used to the change of gear which always occurs when one swaps a working life for a few weeks off. With no actual work to do, I find it is all too easy to see the free time stretched out ahead as a challenge to be met rather than a rare gift to be enjoyed. I generally find that by the time I have successfully changed gear, it is time to return to work.
Perhaps as part and parcel of this winding down process, I tend to experience the process of travelling just as vividly on an internal level as on an external one. Save for special moments, I don't ascend to a hyper-awareness of new cultures and ancient history, but I certainly do relish the extra time available to read books, listen to music, have lengthy dinners and rambling conversations and also just to sit and stare blankly.
This means that, unlike a skilled travel writer, I have surprisingly little of interest to relate. Thus, instead of relating a lurid description of the sun setting in hues of pink behind the craggy rocks of Amalfi, I shall briefly describe our trip according to the five criteria by which it has been most truly experienced:
1. Signature food: tagines. No competition here. A tagine is a Moroccan clay pot with a conical lid in which, it would seem all theoretically possible combinations of lamb, beef, chicken, zucchini, olives, dates, prunes and lemons can be cooked. Arresting enough for us to buy one to take home in our already bulging luggage; ubiquitous enough to make me pleased to be in Italy.
2. Bouts of food poisoning: one. Ironically encountered on our first day in Italy as a result of food eaten on our last day in Morocco, possibly on the plane.
3. Signature experience: hair-raising driving. Navigating the technically-closed snowy roads of the Atlas mountains, seemingly alone, in an elderly Toyota Corolla was fun, but led to a lengthy skid. Returning over an even higher mountain pass, the hypnotic music on the stereo induced me to drive slightly too fast over a huge pothole (more like a ditch), but the car thankfully remained on the road. Now, every day negotiating the Amalfi drive is one to be remembered.
4. Signature music: Cat Stevens. Possibly sad, but undoubtedly true. It all started with a rotisserie chicken restaurant just off the square in Marrakech which aided the digestion by piping soft-toned melodic 1970s pop through its stereo. At the time, this seemed not at all incongruous, but merely calming. When "Father and Son" inevitably came on I was reminded, as I often am, of my childhood and of seeing my own father again. It made the chicken taste better. This moment must have influenced my purchase of a Cat Stevens box set from the same Casablanca duty-free store, also for 13 euros. The liner notes record that Stevens - now Yusuf Islam, but born Steven Georgiou - was, like me, of Greek immigrant extraction. They also record that he grew up opposite the Shaftesbury Theatre in Soho, which was 50 metres from my first, much loved, London flat. I've always enjoyed reading liner notes, and these show Stevens as an emotional, kind and reflective man, constantly searching for meaning and substance in his life. All of his best music has a bittersweet, searching edge to it - a reflection of the questions which ultimately led him to Islam and contentment. I must say, though, that I can understand better why he gave up pop music after listening to the casio-tone inflected songs on the final disc.
5. Signature book: Leo the African, by Amin Maalouf. I was lent a copy of this book by one colleague and strongly encouraged to read it by another. It is a fictionalised account of a man born in Islamic Granada at the end of the 15th century. The Spanish conquest of Granada and the ensuing Inquisition forced his family to Fez in Morocco, from where he travelled the great caravan route to Timbuktu in Mali. He also lived for periods in Cairo, Italy (somewhat bizarrely serving the pope in Rome) and Tunis, collecting wives and abandoning children along the way. It is a swashbuckling and sobering tale which puts the routines of a pre-booked holiday firmly into perspective. His travels encompassed many of the places we have passed through in the last few weeks and enriched our process of doing so.
As a final thought, it is interesting to consider - as I have been doing over the past few days - the world view which permits such a peripatetic life. I think it is most clearly expressed in the following exchange between Leo and his second wife, a Circassian who is encouraging him to oppose the Egyptian ambitions of the Grand Turk in Constantinople, whilst Leo's instinct is, as usual, to move on:
"What substance are you made of that you accept the loss of one town after another, one homeland after another, one woman after another, without ever fighting, without ever regretting, without ever looking back?"
"Between the Andalus which I left and the Paradise which is promied to me life is only a crossing. I go nowhere, I desire nothing, I cling to nothing, I have faith in my passion for living, in my instinct to search for happiness, as well as in Providence."
I think I lack the courage for this type of unmoored life. But I also lack the inclination. By temperament I am in Cat Stevens' camp: I prefer the reflective and proactive search for a significance and shape to my life, rather than leaving all to be decided by the great wheel of Fortune. This means, alas, that as well as being a poor travel writer, I am probably also an indifferent traveller. Perhaps the two are connected.
While in Morocco, I found out that one of my grandfathers had taken ill and is in hospital. Although our trip has been a welcome break, I am glad to be coming home. For me, that was always likely to be the biggest adventure of all.
PS: In Amalfi, we have been firmly instructed to sort our rubbish into two categories: moist and dry. This is more perplexing in practice than it appears. I have a question which occurred to my wife and I last night - do olive stones count as moist or dry?