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David Bouchier: Travelers' Tales

When Odysseus returned from Troy he had a tale to tell and, fortunately, somebody wrote it down. Homer’s Odyssey could be considered the first travel story really worth hearing. The long voyage of Odysseus was basically a Mediterranean cruise during which me met interesting people like cannibals, monsters, tempting women, and even made a side-trip to hell. Then, as now, a good travel story needed exotic characters and dramatic incidents, and the Odyssey is full of both.

We all enjoy telling stories about our travels, and we would prefer them to be as interesting as The Odyssey was – the stories, that is, not the travels themselves. But good storytelling requires forethought and planning. Like movie directors we must think about the settings, the plot, and the characters that will lift our travel experience out of the ordinary and make it a tale worth telling.

The setting must be unfamiliar and exotic. If you go to Venice, for example, what can you possibly say, except that the streets are full of water? On the other hand, Kabul or a remote cottage in the Welsh mountains, or a sailing trip round the pirate coast of Somalia may yield stories that will not only entertain your friends but may provide material for an article in The New York Times travel section, or even – if things go badly – a survival memoir.

I suppose we've all been guilty of boring our friends and relatives with our tedious travel stories. I know I have, many times. But, having gone to the trouble and expense of travelling at all, you need to tell somebody about it, whether they want to hear it or not.

People used to brighten up their travel tales with albums of photographs or slide shows. That’s all gone now, or rather it's shrunk down to postage-stamp size as we peer at the tiny images presented to us on smart phones.

Photographs are what they are, which is usually not much. But a story can be anything, which is why a good story is worth a thousand pictures, and why some preparation is required. Before leaving for your trip, think about the picturesque characters you might meet, and the amusing things they might do or say. Consider the mysterious events and ridiculous accidents that might happen, the strange foods that you might eat, and the hilarious language problems you might encounter. These are the building blocks of a good story. If your mind is a blank, read some classic tales of travel like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. These will give you plenty of ideas. As a last resort watch the DVD of National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Authenticity is not a problem. Nobody expects vacation stories to be anything other than fake news, and this is the golden age of fake news. Your fantasies about perpetual sunshine, brilliant golf scores, enormous fish caught, painless romances accomplished, and even impressive books read, will be accepted and enjoyed by friends and family. That’s the deal all travelers make when they tell their tales, just as Homer did – no fact checking. You pretend to believe mine, and I’ll pretend to believe yours.

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.