Category Archives: Travel

Bits of the world I’ve seen.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Maternity leave has given me more time to read, so I’ve picked up a couple of Big Read books. Neither of them are #90 On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I realised I never posted the review I wrote of that book. Here it is, almost exactly a year late.

On the Road on the rails
I’ve just finished On the Road, which I’ve read, appropriately enough, while riding the rails on a long train journey from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City. On the Road is the tale of a wandering life as the main character, Sal, travels fairly aimlessly around the USA, in the company of other drifters. It’s fairly well understood that the book is broadly autobiographical fiction.

In our epic trip across and around the USA this summer we visited quite a lot of the places Sal goes to, including San Francisco, LA, San Antonio and a couple other places I don’t this moment recall.

Booze and bad parenting
The book does not do it for me. It’s written on a high, in a lovely drugged-out haze, and as you go through you can see all the damage that these mad bad men are doing as they go. There’s a scene where Sal and Dean punch a door together, and Sal breaks a bone in his hand. He’s so drunk he doesn’t notice until the morning. That’s what the book is. Throughout the book, people get married, have kids, cart these kids around to squats and tents, don’t feed them much and take a lot of drugs in front of them. The stated assumption is that the kids don’t mind. What Kerouac can’t seem to see is that his generation, mourning their own lost fathers, are the missing and deadbeat dads of tomorrow. Of today, in fact, as even as they look for their own lost paternal role models they are squandering the chance to provide what they’ve lost for their own kids.

The book is very much a man’s story and women only play a peripheral role in it. Each of the main characters gets entangled with various women over the course of the book. It’s written as entanglement, women making demands and needing to be managed, but it’s easy to read as a con. It’s as though they’re mountain climbers. The man is leading, and if he cuts the rope that binds the group, he can walk on more easily. The woman is more firmly tethered to the children, and is well aware that if he goes the rest of the party is likely to go over the cliff. Kerouac’s characters cut the rope without, it seems, realizing they’re doing any such thing at all.

The wit of wine
Sal (and Kerouac) find a romantic charm in the ravings of drunks and potheads. I really cannot be bothered. I feel like I’ve met these men, and I don’t respect them. They look very different when you’re one of their targets (or not a target, being excluded due to age or lack of beauty or…) than when you’re one of their buddies. As a buddy, they’re mad fun. They keep you out late. You drink too much, then go to work in the morning hungover and happy.

On the other side of the fence, you can see the lies. You can see how they’ll say anything, do anything to get a girl they fancy into bed – do anything, almost, apart from give her respect. Respect, as Aretha Franklin pointed out, is important.

And that’s without getting started on his comments about 9, 11, 13 and 15 year old girls, which need their own content warning, frankly.

Why read it then?
There are two strengths to the book, in my mind. First, it rips apart the staid and sober notion of the 1940s was only a time of war related privations and jitterbugging parties. There are no poodle skirts and duck tail hair cuts. The guys are roving the USA broke, ragged, drunk and stoned; there is a lot of pot in this book.

Second, Kerouac does have an engaging, intense, frantic way of describing the places characters go. It’s like a drunken celebration, where someone is telling you that he’s so, so happy that he got a great job, and he only had a couple of drinks, and did he mention that he’s having a baby soon, too, so it’s perfect timing and the sky is so beautiful tonight and birds always sing louder in summer and…

Don’t travel to the beat of this drum
This is clearly a book that launched a thousand trips, and that’s both understandable and a crying shame. It’s the worst book in the world to try to travel to. It describes times and places that only existed – if they existed at all – for a few people for a few moments. And even if you could manage to stomach all the drugs and alcohol, and went a year later (or had a time machine and went the same year) you’d never capture quite the same spirit.

The book skips over the weeks and months of working quietly and making money (although they are there, if you look), creating a picture of an endless party that you just can’t match in real life, although thousands have wrecked Ibiza trying… In a way, this is the Pinterest problem 60 years early: a view of a life that’s so carefully edited reality can only disappoint. There’s also a clear line of descent from here to The Beach, both in a literary sense and in terms of travel choices. A bit of backpacker history while we’re on the go, it’s interesting but distasteful at the same time.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Travelling while pregnant

Travelling while pregnant

I packed a beautiful bag for this trip. I should have taken a photo, really. I took my round-the-world backpack out of the cupboard, emptied it completely and filled it back up. I fit enough clothes for a month, an outfit for a wedding, two pairs of shoes, a laptop, Kindle and lots of wires in it. I packed my usual essentials and a few extras, because I’m pregnant, including snacks, an inflatable back support, hand sanitizer, my maternity notes and a letter from the doctor.

Red roofs of Cesme, Turkey, with the marina in the distance

The bag zipped shut and I could carry it comfortably. As long as no one weighed it, I should be fine to get on any flight in Europe.

I stood it by the door, and went to a routine antenatal appointment.

A sandy bay on Donkey Island near Cesme

The appointment showed some concerns. I put the bag in the boot of the car and drove to the hospital. The bag stayed in the boot, and I missed the flight.

I am fine.
Sprout is fine.

My trip is not fine.

Because they’re kind as well as professional, the doctors at the hospital took the time to think about whether it would be safe for me to fly at all.

They said yes.
They said yes, but.
They said yes, but you have to come back for further tests on Thursday.

I was planning on waking up in Athens on Thursday. I was going to see the Acropolis with my mum and a close friend. We were going to celebrate a number of good things.

We can still celebrate. Those things are still good. But I missed Athens, and that’s disappointing.

A small mosque in Izmir

This is one of the realities of travelling while pregnant though: everything might be fine, or it might not, and you might not be able to tell without access to a doctor or midwife.

I am really glad that the NHS schedules routine appointments and checks for worrying signs. I am really glad that my GP picked up on the worrying signs and made a referral. I am incredibly glad that the NHS is free at point of service, because if I had had to pay for this particular routine antenatal appointment, I might have skipped it. After all: I feel fine, Sprout is practicing for the first zero-G Olympics in there, and who wants to go to the doctor when the only slot available is 30 minutes before they have to leave for the airport?

I am really happy that the doctors at the hospital took the time to decide if I could fly. That they thought about keeping me and Sprout safe, while also trying to make sure I could go to my brother’s wedding.

Me in a posh pink floor length dress and professional hair

I am beyond thrilled to have made it to the wedding after all. It was a beautiful day where two very happy people were toasted and feted by people who love them. I wouldn’t have missed it for a million dollars and cake.

I really enjoyed that I got to swim in the Aegean, with Sprout doing her own back flips inside me and my mum splashing around too.

Two pasty white people swimming in the bright blue Aegean Sea

I am still pretty annoyed to have missed out on Athens, Thessaloniki and Belgrade though. But let’s face it – travel is never entirely predictable. I’ve never cancelled a trip after checking in before, but the trips we haven’t taken have been amazing and varied. There was the time we didn’t do a work/travel visa to Australia, and the time we didn’t go to Egypt. The time we didn’t go to Thailand, and the time we didn’t go to… somewhere… and went to Tunisia instead. Even if I’d gone to Athens, it still would have been the time we didn’t go to Canada, which was our original plan for this summer.

Each time we’ve changed our itinerary, it’s because something better or more important has come along. And it’s not like landmasses vanish overnight – Athens has been around for thousands of years. It can wait a little longer for me to arrive.

Travelling while pregnant, it turns out, it just like travelling while not pregnant: life still has the power to get in the way, and amazing things can happen. Even after bad ones.

What an English spring means

What an English spring means

The days are getting longer and lighter, which is lovely. The weather is still thoroughly English though.

Here’s Cambridge, on the bank holiday, at 18:51. Rowers turn in the sunshine and it’s all pretty idyllic.
Rowers on the Cam in bright sun

And then a few minutes later, at 19:20, the people we’re waiting for turn up and we can all go for a picnic a nice stroll a quick dash to a soggy dinner in the pub.
A narrowboat docks in pouring rain

Still a lovely weekend though, as I’m sure all present will agree.

All the same and all new

All the same and all new

A flat brown English field out a train windowReverse cultureshock is one way to describe that feeling of coming to somewhere you consider home, only to realise that it has changed (or perhaps you have changed, and are seeing it differently). The familiar is suddenly unfamiliar. The returnee feels unsettled, alien in their own place, and frequently heads back out into the world with a sigh of relief.

I’m not going to say I’ve never felt it. Heck, I grew up feeling this – as a third culture kid, I was constantly told I was ‘British’ and Britain was ‘home’ (one home, at least) yet visiting Britain felt so strange. Even now I have a mismatch on some basic assumptions, and those trip me up.

(Immigration is perhaps a good example – until I was 20, Britain was somewhere you emigrated from not immigrated to, and I still assume the traffic flows both ways, and we (Brits) must keep welcoming EU nurses if want to be allowed to retire to sunny Spain.)

Coming back from travelling for six months, stuff had changed. There are new buildings, the one-way systems in Bath, Cambridge and Oxford seem to have been rearranged, friends have moved, grown beards, changed their hair colour… all the usual stuff.

K and I at Doncaster station
But what really made it hard to adjust (apart from the weather, let’s be honest) was people. I love so many brilliant people, and K is very social, so we had a bit of a whirl. And it was exhausting. People change plans! People are late (often us, I’m sorry to say)! People say yes, when they mean no, and no when they mean ‘let me text you on the night and we’ll sort it out then’. People fail to give you all the information. People have needs, desires, other friends, kids, all that stuff.

Planning a night out is like juggling cats, and I was really out of practice. I’m not going to pretend that aerial feline manipulation has ever been my forte, but in the 6 months we were away, we stayed with friends and family for about 4 weeks, total, and they were all pretty well organized so mostly we just let ourselves be taken around and about. Turns out when you get back to ‘real life’ you have to be a little more self-propelled. It was fun, but knackering and strange. And the strangeness was strange.

Now that we’ve been back for 3 months, Christmas is over and I’m starting to settle down. Things have gone quiet, and I’m getting used to all the Englishness around me. Our village is very pretty (very small and very pretty) and it’s good. But strange, in its goodness. We had a house party, and it went well. I’ve remembered how this social thing works, I think.

So what I’m saying is, I’m ready for people again. Shall we go out for coffee, you and I?