So, to go back to what I was originally going to say in my previous post: there I was in NYC. It was huge and busy and crazy and wonderful, as I wrote in this post many moons ago. My four days there were among the best days I’ve ever had.
But it was still very much a one-off, as far as I was concerned. This was a once in a lifetime experience, and it seemed utterly surreal: I was in New York! I was in New York!! I had been very much brainwashed by my culture, into thinking that travel was either something for the very rich, or something that you got to do once a year or so as long as you saved like mad for the rest of the year and didn’t have much of a life. Obviously, I now know that that’s not true!**
After New York, I had to catch a flight to Nashville, where I would be visiting some good friends, and listening to bluegrass music in the sorts of bars where people wear cowboy hats. Getting there, however, was not as straightforward as it was supposed to be.
For a start, there was a crazy thunderstorm soon after I arrived at Newark Airport. I’d never experienced such oppressively hot, clammy, breathless weather before, and the violence with which the storm errupted was impressive. It was also annoying, as flights (mine included) were being cancelled and delayed all over the place due to electrical storms and various other dangerous-sounding things.
It’s horrible to be hot and sweaty and sticky and dehydrated and tired, and to be constantly going to the boarding gate only to hear, yet again, that your flight will be delayed. Times like this, I consider saving for the occasional plane trips I do take and just hiring some sort of private aircraft charter and not dealing with these airport nightmares. It is, however (and finally I reach my original point), utterly delightful to just sit back and watch everyone else. I sat all alone on the floor, propped up against a wall, and listened to the conversations around me. There was the usual Airport Rage, complete with fists being shaken, voices being raised, security guards being beckoned, and that sort of thing. The tannoy went bing-bong! with a new delay-related announcement every few seconds, and the announcer sounded more and more depressed and frazzled each time, culminating in my favourite tannoy announcement that I’ve ever heard:
Ladies and gentlemen, would the family who borrowed a wheelchair for a sick grandmother please return grandmother to the service desk. Uh, to the wheelchair. Uh, no… would the family please remove the grandmother from the wheelchair and return the wheelchair to the service desk.
Eventually, I ended up in Pennsylvania, which to be perfectly honest I didn’t know was a real place at that point. Possibly I was confusing it with Transylvania, because I honestly thought that was a fictional place, what with Dracula living there and everything. Look, I didn’t pay much attention to geography until recently.
Anyway, having finally gotten into the plane and sat at the edge of the runway for at least an hour, we took off, flew around in circles for an extremely long time, and then landed in Pennsylvania for some reason that escapes me now. I have blocked out large chunks of that day. But as I sat there with my head in my hands, longing for cold air and sleep and a familiar face or two, and watching a very large, red-faced man threatening to punch the pilot, I found my attention being drawn to a conversation between a couple sitting near me.
I can only describe them as looking remarkably and disconcertingly like a 40-year-old Barbie doll, and David Hasselhoff.
It was wonderful to have proof that the sorts of characters that you find in things like Baywatch and Oprah actually exist, and their conversation delighted me, because I never really thought that people used some of the words and phrases that those two did. Practically every sentence uttered was a cliché lifted straight out of a trashy talk show or sitcom, and it was wonderful. I can’t explain why: I can only hope that you understand.
It was a long time ago, so the details are a little fuzzy in my head, but as I recall, Barbie and Hasselhoff were going through a rather stressful time in their relationship, thanks to Hasselhoff’s older son, John. John was 16. I know this because Barbie kept whining “But he’s sixteen, baby… he’s not a baby!” which seemed like a really bizarre sentence to me. John did not like Barbie at all, and resented her for stealing his father away from his mother, who was apparently now living with a basketball player called Chad. Barbie was trying to issue Hasselhoff with an ultimatum: Back me up against the boy, or I leave you. Hasselhoff, meanwhile, was trying to issue Barbie with an ultimatum: Make more of an effort to get along with the boy, or I leave you.
Neither of them was willing to compromise, back down, nor even listen to the other one. It was great. Phrases like Don’t ask me to choose between you and my son, honey, and I just can’t continue to be disrespected like this, baby flowed as freely as in a script from Days of our Lives. Readers, I am ashamed to admit that I listened to that conversation for over half an hour. I couldn’t help it. In my defence, it’s not like they were trying to keep it private or even keep their voices down. It was like a special live performance of a soap opera, and I was in the front row. There’s something really weird about hearing an accent you’re so familiar with from TV and movies but haven’t heard much in Real Life. The whole thing just felt surreal to me. I kept gazing at them in awe: Barbie with her flawless face and shimmering blonde hair and shiny shoes; Hasselhoff with his steroid-assisted muscles, deep tan, and arms designed for carrying one of those bodyboard things as he’s running into the waves to rescue a beautiful woman.
And that is the point at which I decided I wanted to be a travel writer. I didn’t want to write dull, lifeless accounts of landmarks and scenery and museum exhibitions. Yes, I wanted to visit all those things, but I wanted to write something different about them. I wanted to insert characters, and colour, and life. I wanted to tell of funny incidents and overheard conversations and strange encounters. I wanted to go to Paris and write not a step-by-step guide to the city, but stories about flamboyant old men who stop to kiss you when you’re resting on a park bench, and readings by a favourite writer at a legendary bookshop. I wanted to go to Hungary and write not about the best places for stag weekends in Budapest, but about the scruffy man and his young son who live in the lookout tower in the village of Révfülöp. You get the idea.
I want to be Bill Bryson, basically.
**This may be seen as something of a plug, as my latest business venture involves the writing and hopefully selling of an ebook along the lines of how to break free and explore the world even on the back of job loss and financial strife. If anyone has any advice about ebooks and the promotion/selling thereof, please feel free to offer it!