Riho has gone away for a few days, and the conversation before he left for the airport led me to tell him about what first planted the idea of becoming a travel writer in my head. Are you sitting comfortably? It’s story time, boys and girls!
In my early twenties, newly single, and needing some cheering up, I accepted an invitation from some American friends to go somewhere I’d only ever dreamt of visiting: New York City. Other than travelling back and forth between Ballymena and Glasgow when I was at university, I’d never done any travelling on my own before. I was very nervous, but I will never forget how excited I was at the same time.
Of course, I very quickly discovered that the actual travelling part of travelling isn’t all that great, actually. Airports are noisy, confusing, irritating and filled with screaming brats and arrogant middle class twits who think that the more loudly they complain, the more important people will think they are. Aeroplanes are cramped, uncomfortable and unpleasant – at least, they are when you can only afford budget airlines and economy class. In short, travelling (by plane, anyway) is not at all fun and exciting.
However, it’s admittedly something of a necessity if you want to enjoy the fabulous part of travel, which is really more a combination of “arrival” and “actually being there”. I’ve spent more time in airports and planes over the past year than I had in my whole life up to a year ago! And it does have a saving grace, in that it allows me to spend countless hours doing one of my favourite things: observing people, with a view to writing about them at the next available opportunity.
People are odd creatures, there’s no denying that. I couldn’t be a writer if I couldn’t write about people and the weird and wonderful things I see and hear them doing. I’m not interested in writing solely about beautiful scenery and famous landmarks: I want to know the stories behind them, or to recount amusing tales about people I’ve encountered whilst visiting these places.
I remember my original discovery of my love of people-watching. I was 9 years old (I know this because I had just finished having a conversation about how I would be in double figures soon, and was silently and seriously pondering the significance of this fact), and sitting in the back of my granny’s car as she drove my mum, The Sister and me back home from her house one Saturday evening. It was dark, and we were sitting at the traffic lights in Linenhall Street, Ballymena, in a long queue.
I glanced idly into the car next to us, and saw the driver, a man in his early thirties, arguing with wife or girlfriend. They both looked furious. In the back, two girls of around the same age as The Sister and me were watching their parents with wide eyes. The younger one had tears running down her face. The older one had a mutinous frown on her face.
It struck me with surprising force that in that car was a real, live family, with a whole set of life stories about which I knew nothing other than what I could see at that moment. When you’re a small child, you tend to presume that you are the centre of the universe. It generally takes a while for the concept of your own smallness in a vast world to gradually filter down… but for me, it happened all of a sudden, in that moment. That family had been somewhere, was going somewhere, and had its own problems. They had names, likes and dislikes, history, routines. They walked, talked, breathed, thought, and had emotions, just like me. When the lights changed, and our car moved on, so did theirs – they followed their lane, and we followed ours. I recall being utterly fascinated by the concept of their argument, their conversation, their lives continuing even after they drove out of my sight.
Since then, I’ve remained intrigued by the little glimpses that it’s possible to have into the lives of other people simply through observation of brief moments. A snippet of overheard conversation or a chance encounter with a stranger can provide me with insight that is both entertaining and fascinating. Which is why – to return to my original point – I can put up with airports. I’m telling you: if you want to be a writer but are short of inspiration, go to an airport and sit there for a few hours. Guaranteed writing material!
However, since I have strayed so ridiculously from the original story that I was going to tell, I shall have to make this a two-parter (as I still live in fear of commenters who don’t like lengthy blog posts).
I’ll get to the point eventually, I swear.