Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2011

Europe @2.4km/h, by Ken Haley

Ah, travel books!  What yearnings!!   Even if plans for the next trip are well in hand, I’m always beset by the globetrotting bug if I stumble across a new travel book.

Chez our place (where as you have probably already guessed there are rather a lot of books) there are four shelves devoted to travel books.  Mostly not the travel guide variety but rather travellers’ tales.  My favourite author of all of these is H.V. Morton, whose books I discovered when my sister sent me In Search of London before my first trip ‘home’ in 2001.  At left you can see my little collection of his books about Italy, Spain, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, South Africa and the Holy Land.  They are delightful books, and surprisingly still packed with relevant information even though they were written 50 years ago or more.  If only he had been able to visit Russia (my next destination) but his was the era of the Cold War…

Reading Ken Haley’s new book, Europe @2.4km/h, brought into focus my tentative ideas about the literature of travel.  It seems to me that there are three schools of thought about what it means to find out ‘what a country is like’…

First, there are people who believe that the only way to have an authentic experience of another country is to reside there.  This involves an effort to belong: living in a house not a hotel, attending work or school, negotiating shopping, banking and tradesmen, and making new friends.   As a child, I had this kind of travel experience, residing on three continents before my age reached double digits. Depending on where one travels, this can be complicated enormously by the need to learn or improve an unfamiliar langauge, (or get rid of an accent that marks one as an outsider)  but always it involves humiliating discoveries when one breaches local custom.  (I discovered this most painfully as a newbie in Australia when my treasured collection of plastic charms as entrée to the school yard was scornfully dismissed in a milieu where swap cards were de rigueur.  Oh, the miseries of childhood linger, don’t they?)

Authors who subscribe to this point-of-view often write books along the lines of  ‘I went to Tuscany and fell in love with it and moved there and now here are my anecdotes about their quaint ways’.  These books are often charming, self-deluded, amusingly unconscious of likely attitudes towards their clumsy ignorance of local mores, and overly preoccupied with plumbing.  My favourite of these is The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Máté.

Secondly, there are travelling dilettantes.  When I travel now, which is not often enough, I try to find out what the country is ‘like’ by reading as much as I can about the country’s history, culture and arts.  I try to learn a bit of the language before I go.  But  I don’t pretend to ‘know’ the country because (as you can see from my travel blog) I spend nearly all my time in museums, art galleries, historic sites and good restaurants.  I stay in places for a few days at a time but I don’t see the real Paris or London or Madrid.  I don’t go anywhere near the suburbs, and in the regions or the countryside I visit the pretty little tourist towns.  I don’t even go shopping.  (But I do use the trains.  I love those high-speed trains in Europe, and I love getting around on the underground or local trains.)

Although I read the newspapers and do my best to talk to the people I meet in my rudimentary French, Italian, Spanish or Indonesian, I avoid talking about politics or anything else that might be contentious.   The truth is, I’m not interested in that kind of real.  I’m interested in the soul of the countries I visit, which for me means the country’s arts, its literature, its culture and its history.  Robert Hughes writes books for dilettantes like me: I loved his book about Barcelona, (see my review) and I don’t care a scrap about the sniping academic reviews he’s had about his new book on Rome, I know I’m going to enjoy that too.

The other school of thought, is what I call the ‘taxi-driver’ theory.  Travellers who use this method of learning about a country believe that talking to ‘ordinary people’  reveals what’s really going on.  These travellers go about from one place to another, often via its seedier routes, collecting vox-pops from everyday people. (Mostly through interpreters, of course, or by enlisting those who can speak rudimentary English).  Journalists – who don’t have the luxury of being able to enjoy their travel as I do – are especially prone to this type of travel because they are expected to find out about the real place quickly, and write about it in accessible way.  On the basis of the first third of The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star  which I failed to enjoy or finish, I would say that Paul Theroux writes this kind of travel book. So does Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island which I found much more amusing.

Europe @ 2.4 Km/hKen Haley seems to be a sort of hybrid of these last two.  He’s interested in ‘the unfamiliarity principle’  and ‘the road less travelled’.   ‘Never staying long in one place, or in one type of place, is another defining feature of the way I travel’  he tells us and he stays in a variety of inexpensive types of accommodation to maximise ‘meeting a greater variety of people’.  (p2)  But on the other hand he clearly loves visiting museums and galleries and cathedrals that all the other tourists go to, and he has a strong rationale for asserting that people should visit the great tourist sights of Europe:

To understand how people think, you must know what they believe.  To gain that knowledge, respect for their greatest statements of faith is essential.  Their great public buildings – palaces, churches, museums, stadiums – are statements of faith no less than the words they have left us.  It would be churlish to come all this way and pass them by.

Whoever finds discomfiting the splendour of cathedrals, or great art on display there and in the Continent’s museums, can never discover Europe.  Whatever you think of them, these are the products of Europe’s brain – as the European conscience, for better or worse – and the best way to appreciate the thoughts, or beliefs, most commonly held in a population of 700 million is not by performing a partial lobotomy. (p51)

However Haley is also at pains not to appear ‘pretentious‘ (which is a cardinal sin in Australia).  ‘This is not an art book’ he hastens to add on page 6, before explaining why The Hermitage in St Petersburg  is a must-see.  But his disappointment is palpable when a fever put him out of action for nearly a week in Oslo, which meant he had to leave without seeing Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or the Kon-Tiki and Viking Museums.

Haley also has a proper journalist’s agenda: in the era of the ever-expanding European Union he wants to find ‘true’ Europeans, and he likes collecting droll anecdotes about eccentrics and bureaucrats.  He talks to people everywhere and  he has obviously lined up contacts so that he can get entrée to all kinds of interesting situations.

Schillerhaus (Wikipedia Commons)

(This makes an interesting contrast with his preparations for finding accommodation.  Haley is a paraplegic – and has been for years – yet he doesn’t seem to have booked his accommodation too prudently, discovering that places he has booked have only upstairs rooms and no lift, or even more astonishingly, chancing his luck in places where some major event is on and accommodation is hard-to-find anyway.  I suspect that this may be due to what I think is a perfectly legitimate sub-agenda, to increase awareness of how badly some cities treat their disabled inhabitants and tourists. (Yes, Paris, I mean you, I haven’t forgotten discovering that there were no lifts (!) at Gare du Nord on my first Eurostar trip, three weeks after ankle surgery when I was still tottering about with a walking stick and The Spouse had to manage our luggage on his own).  Without being heavy-handed about human rights, Haley makes a very valid point that countries that fail their own disabled are also being real spoilsports for tourists with a disability.  I liked the German solution to providing access to ‘wheelchair-hostile’ historic houses such as the Schillerhaus by providing a videoguide so that Haley ‘was able to ‘visit’ the entire house in the palm of [his] hand‘ (p148) – but I think that there should be much more of this and other efforts to be inclusive.)

Anyway, notwithstanding these difficulties which Haley handles with a mixture of bloody-minded determination and humour – in Russia he goes looking for people who think that Russia is ‘European’ – and doesn’t find any.  He does find places where his wheelchair can’t be accommodated but he also finds remarkable kindness and bonhomie.  He learns that Norway won’t join the EU because their living standards would drop if they did, and he meets an Iraqi immigrant who tells him that ‘Norwegian women are busy and self-opinionated’. (p42) In Denmark he discovers that ‘bicycles have human rights’ which entitle them to a seat on the train, and also that that the house of Hans Christian Andersen (now a museum) probably wasn’t his house at all.

Haley has a brisk, muscular style of writing and a laconic sense of humour.  My favourite parts of his journey were the places I have visited in France, Italy and Spain.  I was a bit disappointed by the opening chapter about Russia and felt that it was possibly coloured by his previous experience of ‘official encounters, a few of them unpleasant’ during the Soviet era (p22) but I’m glad I pressed on to become especially interested in his discoveries in Germany (because I haven’t been there yet).

Oh, so many places to see before they lock me away in an eldergarten!

© Lisa Hill

Author: Ken Haley
Title: Europe @ 2.4 Km/h
Publisher: Wakefield Press 2011
ISBN: 9781862549173
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.


Responses

  1. You may enjoy a book out next year called ‘Drive Around the World’ which tells of a family with two children who travel for one year in their car through various continents and countries, exploring, meeting, observing and facing challenges …

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    • *chuckle* Been there, done that myself, Anna! Only there were three of us squabbling in the back seat of the 1952 Hillman Minx! This was before there were car radios and we used to sing to amuse ourselves, until one day a friend of my mothers paid us not to do it!

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  2. Great post Lisa. I think I’m the hybrid type like Haley … I like to go to museums and galleries (such as I described in some of my Japan posts) but to a point. After a while they can feel a little too interpreted for me, like I’m seeing the culture through the past and through the eyes of others. We don’t like to stay in fancy accommodation (but not flophouses either – we do like our own bathroom!) because we like to meet people (locals and other travellers) rather than just the hotel personnel. While we like to check out fine dining at home, we tend when we travel overseas to look for cheap little eateries that the locals use and we’ll traipse over the back streets to find them … They are the ones we usually remember most, sometimes because of the food and many times because of the people we’ve met/experiences we’ve had.

    BTW Japan, we think, fails dismally for the physically disabled though does amazingly well for blind/sight-impaird people.

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  3. Terrific post Lisa which makes my TBR list longer and gives me itchy feet.

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  4. I enjoy travel books and was very interested in your classification of the genre above. I can now see how they all fit into the different types you describe. Ken Haley is a name I’ve never heard of and so will now do some searching about. Colin Thubron is my all time favourite travel writer

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    • I’ve just looked up Colin Thubron on Wikipedia – and he hs written about Russia! So of course now he’s on my wishlist – thanks, Tom!

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  5. Ken’s a sweetie. As a taxidriver in Canberra, a voracious reader, an incorrigible punster and a reasonably frequent world traveller, I knew I’d found gold when Ken hopped into my cab one night in Manuka. We clicked, and since that day I’ve made scores of interstate trips with him, finding him excellent company. It is my dream to drive him down Route 66 one day. I drive, he writes and we split the movie rights.

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