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The Joys Of Travel

It's no accident that the English word "travel" comes from the French word travaille, meaning work. The work of preparing for a long trip is enough to persuade a person to give up travel forever. Our whole lives must be packed down to the dimensions of a suitcase and a carry-on. Arrangements must be made for paying bills, caring for cats, mowing the lawn or clearing snow according to season, and sometimes both. Time inevitably runs out before all this is done, but we have to go anyway. Napoleon's army setting out on its catastrophic march to Moscow in 1812 was probably better prepared than we usually are as we set out for the airport.

When a journey begins with air travel the discomforts are ten times multiplied. Everyone now understands that the airlines are engaged in a vast conspiracy to persuade us all to stay at home, or at least on the ground. This is good from the point of view of global warming, and no doubt we will all have to stay at home soon. But right now there aren't many alternatives if you want to get from one continent to another. We could drive to Alaska, hire some huskies, and ride a sled across the Bering Strait, then a train down through Russia, and into Europe through the back door, so to speak. But it would take weeks, and it's not very practical because we are cat people, and we don't have any experience with huskies.

So we must start with the airlines and their increasingly ludicrous and humiliating "security" procedures. Once disentangled from the airline and the airport, often a major struggle in itself, there is always the question of hotels. In general, we love hotels as a relaxing home away from home. But unless we stay within the safe capsule of the big international chains, which are hideously expensive, every hotel is a lottery. Stars mean next to nothing, web sites come straight from fantasy land, and nobody mentions the curious conspiracy that operates in the hotel industry. They have agreed amongst themselves that no hotel room should ever be quite perfect, so clients don't get spoiled. The requirements for a good hotel room are simple: anyone could make the list. But in real life the list is always incomplete. One hotel gives you a coffee machine, but no hairdryer; another has a perfectly comfortable bed, but the pillows are stuffed with dried corn husks; one freezes you with air conditioning you can't adjust; another tries to bake you alive. All hotel rooms without exception are missing at least one light bulb, and one essential bathroom item. Frills like wake-up calls, newspapers, Internet connections and room service are provided on the basis of a secret lottery run by the hotel management. You may get them, or you may not, but you will never get them all.

I miss the lost age of elegant travel, even though I never experienced it. Consider the European journeys of the writer Edith Wharton in the 1920s. She took a leisurely week to cross the Atlantic on one of the great luxury ocean liners. Once in Europe she was considered adventurous because she travelled by car instead of by train. But the car had a chauffeur and a mechanic on board, and another car full of servants followed right behind. Another group of servants traveled ahead to set up her rooms at each grand hotel. No security checks, no lost baggage, and never any missing light bulbs. That's the way to see the world.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.