Monday, September 13, 2010

“How Travel Can Broaden the Mind” by Ryan Hart

Last September I decided to go on holiday to France for three weeks. It wasn’t a package holiday that so many other people seem to like because for one thing they are far too expensive if you are going on your own and I can’t see the point of spending £50 a night for a hotel room when I can sleep just as soundly in a bed that only costs £5. Nor do I like spending two weeks in the same place if there is nothing to do except drink in bars and get sunburnt laying on the beach. The main reason, though, why I don’t like package holidays is that you really need to book them well in advance to give yourself a fighting chance to actually get what you want and I can never decide where I want to go for my holidays and there is no point in spending a lot of money on a holiday abroad unless you really know where you want to go. And if I do want to go on holiday I don’t really want to go at the height of the season when everywhere is so crowded and everything is so expensive. But on the other hand there is no point going on holiday in the ‘off-season’ either when the resorts become ghost towns, the weather is unpredictable and everything is shut. So I like to think about it and keep my options open and wait until the last possible moment before committing myself. But last year, with time running out and my employer badgering me to tell him what days I was planning to book off I decided that I would go to France.

I had never been to France, I had been to most places in the world over the last 10 or 15 years but never to France for some reason. Perhaps my decision was influenced by my new interest in cooking or by the fact that I had been studying French in evening class for the last two years and I wanted to find out how much I had learnt. Or maybe it was just to see if it was true what people said about how rude and grumpy the French really were. And then there were the French women of-course; were they really as beautiful, elegant and chic as I had been led to believe. I didn’t hold out much hope however, I had heard the same thing about Italian women only to find them too short, dark and much too hairy for my liking.

So then, when I finally am ready to go on holiday all I take with me is: my passport, some money and the ticket to my chosen destination. This means that when I arrive the first thing I have to do is find somewhere to stay and somewhere that is cheap. Luckily that isn’t too difficult in a country like France where every other building within a 1km radius of the railway station is a dirt cheap pension. I had travelled overnight by coach and had arrived in Marseilles at about 6am which had really pleased me because it meant that I had all day to find a place to stay. So I knew that I could relax and take my time, and if I hadn’t found anywhere that I fancied, by mid afternoon lets say, then I could always hope on a train or bus to somewhere else. I always travel overnight since that is a really good way of saving money on hotels and the more often I can do that the longer I can stretch out my holiday.

For about an hour or so I hung about in the station drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and gave myself a chance to wake up properly. It wasn’t until the sun had fully clearly all the rooftops of the city that I eventually decided it was time I made a move and began my search for somewhere cheap to stay. After wandering about in down town Marseilles for a bit I had worked out that the going rate for a night at a cheap pension was even lower than in Bordeaux! The thought of saving some money really cheered me up because it meant that the pressure was off and for the next few days I wouldn’t have to watch every Franc quite so closely. And if I wanted to I could even extend my holiday for a day or two and still keep within my budget. And who knows, if I was really careful I might even finish my holiday with some money still in my pocket.

Eventually I found what looked like a promising place in a little side street off the main boulevard in the city centre and not that far, as it happened, from the railway station. It was called the ‘Hotel d’Angelo’ but as I stood outside I started to have my doubts. Its façade was a pale yellow and large chunks of plaster had fallen off to reveal the ancient red bricks underneath. The wooden window frames and the tightly shut wooden door were cracked and splintered. The hotel seemed to be locked and barred. There were no lights on and no sign of life inside. It was a hotel but it looked as if it was not at all anxious to receive any guests. And the more I thought about it the more I was puzzled by the fact that the door was so firmly shut. Hotels were like churches: they never shut their doors. Perhaps I should just leave and look for something else? But the tariff pinned up on the door was so tempting that I didn’t want to leave. I could spend all day tramping the streets and never find a place as cheap as this. So I wandered up and down the narrow winding street smoking cigarette after cigarette wondering what I should do. The thought occurred to me that maybe I was standing in front of a building that was in fact derelict and that all that was left of the hotel was its dilapidated sign. Then I had the presence of mind to read the piece of paper pinned to the door, and the date on it was from Monday. That decided it. I would try the door and see if it was locked. If the door opened all well and good, if it didn’t then I would have to keep looking.

With some trepidation I put my hand on the door handle and pressed it down. To my surprise the door opened. I looked inside down a long dimly lit corridor. I squinted my eyes but it was hard to make out anything clearly. It appeared to lead straight on to a open space at the far end that I assumed was that the reception area. But it was hard to tell. Shall I go inside and find out? Might as well. As I slowly walked along the corridor I felt as if I was trespassing and expected at any moment a man to appear armed with a shot gun and a vicious dog on a lead demanding that I leave. But when I reached the end of the corridor I realised that my guess had been right; the open space I had glimpsed from the open front door was indeed a reception area which was dominated by a long counter behind which there were a pair of glass double doors which I assumed led into the owner‘s living quarters. Inwardly I gave a small sigh of relief and in my head rehearsed the phrases that I would need such as: “avez vous une Chambre libre si vous plait?” and, oh shit this bit I can never remember: what’s the French for, “how much?” I stood by the counter and waited for someone to make an appearance. When no one materialised I slapped a palm down on the bell that sat on top of the counter and waited a bit more. Suddenly the glass doors behind the counter opened and a man who looked like a docker appeared. He was wearing nothing more than shorts, a vest and sandals on his feet and looking at me full of disapproval he asked what I wanted. “Avez vous une Chambre libre, si vous plait?” I asked examining each word in my mind with as much care as an archaeologist examining a newly discovered artefact. He wiped the bread crumbs from the corners of his mouth and with a grunt shuffled round the counter until he stood directly in front of me. He asked me how many nights I wanted to stay. I wasn’t sure so I said “trios.” He then told me how much it was going to cost. That bit I didn’t quite understand and seeing the confused look on my face he quickly scribbled down the rate for three nights on a piece of paper and pushed it over to me. It tallied with the daily rate advertised on the notice pinned to the front door outside so I nodded my head and mumbled something incoherently to signify my acceptance. Then turning his back to me he took a key from a rack hanging on the wall behind him and handed it to me and motioned that the way to the room was up the stairs, on the fourth floor at the end of the corridor; at least that’s what I think he said.

Room 24 did in fact turn out to be on the fourth floor at the end of the corridor just like he’d said. It was no more than a small box. I stood by the open door and cast my eye over it. To the right was a window that looked out over the neighbourhood rooftops. In front of the window was a wobbly wooden table that was heavily stained with mug rings and cigarette burns. Directly in front of me was a cupboard who’s doors kept swinging open whenever I tried to shut them. In the top left hand corner stood the bed which, fortunately, and much to my surprise had fresh clean sheets on it. There was a bedside table and when I pulled open the drawer it contained a pornographic magazine which unfortunately was in Greek. There was a light on the wall above the bed but no string with which to switch it on and off. On the other hand there was a light in the ceiling which did work, but the bulb must have been 1 watt or something but at least I wouldn’t be left sitting in total darkness when the sun went down. On the wall at the foot of the bed was a wash basin. I decided that it was probably best not to use it as it was not attached to the wall and tottered unsteadily on its stand. And anyway the hot water tap didn’t work though the cold tap did, but only if you were prepared to be very patient. And finally on the floor there was a worn out rug. The room looked as if it hadn’t been decorated since Liberation back in 1944. But I didn’t care, what can you expect for 60f a night? Besides, I was only going to be staying there for three nights and with the bright Mediterranean sun streaming in it didn’t look that bad really.

The only thing that bothered me were the cockroaches that scuttled along the water pipes that ran along the length of one wall just a few inches of off the floor. I kept a wary eye on them but they never strayed off the pipes. Like virtually everyone, I think, I detest creepy-crawlies such as cockroaches, spiders, beetles, earwigs, slugs and snails etc. You name it I hate it. They look so grotesque as if they had all been designed by mad Doctor Moreau on his Island after one gin and tonic too many. I read somewhere that without these various bugs and insects life on the planet wouldn’t be possible at all. That may be so but it doesn’t explain why these little horrors are always flying around my head or getting tangled up in my clothes. Even having to step on them to kill them disgusts me and the sound of the crunching bodies and the sight of their white insides squirting all over he ground turns my stomach. Sometimes after an evening out at the pub when I come home after it has rained I walk on the snails that for some reason have slithered out on the path and with every other step I hear the crack and crunch of crushed shells under my feet and by the time I reach my front door step I am close to being sick. The only way to kill anything without it upsetting you, even if you are killing an insect or bug, is to simply blank it out and disconnect the deed in your mind with its consequences and forget that they are living creatures.

By 10 o’clock that night I was ready for bed. I was tired and although I kept nodding off I really felt that it was still too early to actually go to sleep; after all I was on holiday. So I went down the corridor to find a socket where I could plug in my emersion heater that I used to heat water for my coffee and then went back to my room to sit on the bed and drink it with a cigarette while I flicked through the Greek porno magazine. But that proved to be rather difficult as I was forced to constantly adjust how I held it to try and stop the light flaring on the glossy pages. The light from the ceiling was terrible and cast wild shadows that distorted and disfigured the whole room making every object look as if they had been designed by Salvador Dali and made me feel as if I was sitting in a Gestapo interrogation room.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow looming across the wall above my head. I turned to look and immediately recognised it as the ugly silhouette of a spider of truly monstrous proportions. I leapt off the bed and quite literally threw myself across the room, the sweat pumping out of my body. Christ was I scared. It was a giant something that you would only expect to come across in the Amazon jungle not in the middle of Marseilles. And it was after me. It had to be; after all what was it doing here? I was trapped. I was helpless. I sat on the table and stared at the wall opposite me not daring to take my eyes off that evil silhouette. I would have to do something and that ‘something’ would have to be done now. So long as it was in the room I knew I would not be safe. The moment I turned my back, the moment I shut my eyes to sleep it would get me. What could I do? Only one thing and that was to kill it. It was him or me. I watched the spider struggle up the wall and was horrified by its size. Killing it would not be easy: how was I going to kill such a monster? And I would have to do it quickly, the last thing I wanted was to give the spider a chance to escape and then to disappear and hide somewhere and spring out at me when I least expecting it. I cast my eyes around the room looking inspiration and then I saw my shoes. Not ideal perhaps but they were the biggest and most solid objects to hand that I could actually use as a weapon and throw at the spider. I could roll up the Greek porno magazine and use that but I didn’t want to get too close to the monster and I also knew from experience that this was not very reliable method. Even if I did succeed in killing the spider with it the last thing I wanted was its hideous corpse smeared all over the wall because the thought of that turned my stomach and I could feel the sensation of panic rise up and start to suffocate me. I had to make a real physical effort to keep control of my senses and keep thinking rationally.

Never taking my eyes off my intended target I slowly crept towards the side of the bed where my shoes were and reached out with my hand. The spider was still struggling to get a grip on the wall and I knew that this was my perfect opportunity to strike. I steadied myself, took careful aim, held my breath and launched my missile at my victim trying to throw it in such a way that the flat sole of my shoe would strike the spider full on. But to my utter dismay, I missed! And, worse than that the shock of the impact of the shoe on the wall made the spider loose its grip completely and it fell off and disappeared behind the bed. Shit! Now what? Well, I had to try again I didn’t dare leave the spider free to roam at will in the room and so I dragged the bed away from the wall into the centre of the room to see if I could flush it out with the second shoe held aloft and ready. I knew that the spider would be angry and out for revenge and I couldn‘t take any chances. I looked on the floor by the wall, ready for a surprise attack but there was no sign of my enemy. I pulled the bed out even further, still no sign. Fuck! Where the hell was it? I quickly glanced over to the middle of the floor to see if the spider was making its escape under the bed and across the room. No. Nothing. So where was it? I checked but it wasn’t under the bed either. I stood up and checked the space between the wall and the bed again and gave the sheet hanging over the side of the bed a little slap. And…there! There it was, clinging to the sheet. It was no use striking at it there so I slapped the sheet even harder until the spider was dislodged and fell off onto the floor. It rushed to the wall and squeezed itself against it. Now was the perfect time to throw my shoe…and would you believe it, I missed again! God damn it! The spider saw its chance and fled under the bed and raced across the floor to the other side of the room I threw myself on the bed, grabbed the Greek porno magazine and flung it at my speeding adversary but I was too late and it managed to dive under the cupboard to safety. I pushed the bed back against the wall again and sat down and I smoked a cigarette and tried to think what to do next.


What was that?


I raised my head to look round. I thought I’d heard something but I couldn’t be sure.

“What did you do that for?”

There it was again. What sounded like a faint voice was coming from outside somewhere.

“I wasn’t even doing anything. I was just walking.”

The only thing that I could think of was that someone was watching an English film on the television (or listening to an English play on the radio perhaps) in a room next door. I listened hard but I heard nothing. I opened the window and looked outside. No one there either (but what had I expected? I was on the 4th floor).

“I’ll get you for that, you bastard!”

Was I imagining this? Was I hearing voices in my head? Was I dreaming?

“I’ll get my big brother on to you…just you wait.”

“What are you on about?” I heard myself say. My god I was talking to myself now!

“What am I on about? Are you taking the piss? You attacked me!”

“Attacked you? Who?”

“Me. Who the hell do you think? You threw things at me. And I hadn’t even done anything! You bloody nutter!”

I couldn’t be absolutely sure but it sounded as if the voice could be coming from under the cupboard! That was crazy though, wasn’t it? I decided to check anyway, just to be sure. How foolish I must have looked crouching down on the floor peering under the cupboard calling out, “hello, is anybody there? … Hello?” Of-course I didn’t get an answer. How stupid of me. What an idiot. What the bloody hell was I thinking of? Luckily there was no one to witness my antics because god only knows what they would have made of it. How could I have explained what I was doing without them touching their forehead? Still I wasn’t going to take any chances so I pulled off one of the sheets from the bed and tucked it in firmly around the base of the cupboard and then stood back and waited. And I waited and waited until I was as sure as I possibly could be that I was not hearing any voices anymore and then finally I decided that spider or not I had to get some sleep now.

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I remembered was the dream I’d had. I’d had some strange dreams in my time. Even stranger was that I remembered it all so vividly but strangest of all was dreaming about ‘talking’ spiders! But that was soon forgotten as I prepared to start my holiday in Marseilles. I had my camera with me and I was getting mentally prepared to take some world class pictures. With a camera in your hands even the dullest street and the most boring bit of countryside has the potential to surprise you with a memorable image. So I had my usual breakfast of coffee and cigarettes and prepared to set off. The only slight disappointment perhaps was that it was raining but I wasn’t too upset about it as I knew from experience that if it did rain it usually stopped by about 11 am. When I go on holiday I always travel light and hadn’t bothered to take a raincoat or an umbrella with me. Anyway, if the worst came to the worst I could always kick my heels in a café for a while and with all the money I had saved by finding this cheap pension my budget could bear it now. It was only after I had gone about 50 yards that I remembered the hole in the sole of my left shoe. But that didn’t matter either. I was on holiday and nothing mattered. It didn’t matter what day it was, what date it was, or what time it was. It didn’t matter if I was on the wrong train and going to Arras instead of Amiens. It didn’t matter if I was late or if I got lost. I didn’t care if I had nowhere to stay and I didn’t care if I stayed in Toulouse for 2 days instead of three.

But by mid afternoon the rain hadn’t stopped and I was getting thoroughly soaked and I found my thoughts wandering to the pleasures of a hot cup of coffee and an even hotter shower. By the time I reached the door to my room I was so wet I was practically swimming in my clothes. I opened the door and rushed inside ready to tear off my clothes when my foot caught on something and I was sent sprawling to the floor.

“There he is!” I heard a loud voice cry out excitedly, “There he is!”

I rolled over and sat up rubbing my head as I squinted to adjust my eyes to the gloom in the room. And then I just began to scream hysterically and leaping up I jumped onto the bed behind me and flattened myself against the wall behind me. Was I going mad? Or was I just having a nightmare? I hoped I was having a nightmare because standing there in front of me was the huge spider again. And not just the spider this time but also a hideously huge beetle and a massive earwig.

“That’s him!” the spider cried out.

“Calm yourself Gerald,” the beetle said soothingly.

“But I tell you Mrs Seccombe,” cried the spider excitedly waving his legs about, “it’s him! He threw things at me.”

“Well I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

“He did. Ask him if you don’t believe me ask him. Go on ask him.”

“If you don’t shut up,” the earwig suddenly said, “I’m going to start throwing things at you!”

“Now just you stop it!” Mrs Seccombe warned him tapping him on his side with one of her legs.

“Well he just doesn’t stop, does he?”

“Gerald is very upset.”

“I’m going to get my big brother onto you.” The spider said waving several legs in my direction.

“What are you on about?” snapped the earwig, “you don’t have a big brother!”

“Leave me alone!” wailed the spider. “He wasn’t doing anything to you. You don’t know what it was like.”

“Will you two just stop it?” the beetle chided them, “Honestly!…you’re behaving like little children.”

Was this really happening? I asked myself. Was I listening to three giant insects in my hotel room bickering? They seemed to have forgotten all about me so having recovered some of my nerves I thought I might have a chance to sneak out and make my escape. Inch by inch I slid along the wall and edged myself to the door. I slide unnoticed off the foot of the bed and tip-toed towards the door. But just then it suddenly swung open and I came face to face with a caterpillar that was taller even than me. I screamed and so did the caterpillar. I jumped back and the caterpillar jumped forward.

“Don’t spill it!” I heard the voices of the spider, the beetle and the earwig yell out frantically, “don’t spill the tea!”

But it was too late.

“Bloody hell!” moaned the earwig sounding very aggrieved, “a dozen pair of legs and all of them totally useless!”

“Don’t blame me Danny boy!” shot back the caterpillar angrily, “How was I supposed to know he was there?”

“Yes,” said the beetle looking at me with her horrible beady little eyes, “what are you doing here?”

I gulped. Too dumfounded to open my mouth. My head in such disarray that I couldn’t get my thoughts together.

“Sorry?” asked the earwig sarcastically, “I didn’t quite catch that. Would you mind speaking up?”

“Stop it,” the beetle said sharply, “there’s no need to be rude.”

“Why doesn’t he answer then?”

“Give him a chance,” the beetle said sternly. And then she looked at me clearly expecting me to respond.

“I thought you said he wasn’t going to be coming back this afternoon?” the caterpillar said to the beetle.

“Well, that’s what I thought too Sally,” said the beetle severely, “but obviously our afternoon has not turned out as we had all hoped.”

“So that means no tea and biscuits after all?” grumbled the earwig sourly.

“Why?” cried the spider, “why should our afternoon be spoilt because of him?”

“Lets ask him,” suggested the earwig, “he still hasn’t told us what he is doing here.”

It took me a while but in the end I managed to say in voice barely above a whisper, “I live here.”

All the insects in my room let out a collective howl of derisive laughter.

“It’s my room,” I said in justification.

“And your point is…?” sneered the earwig.

“We’ve lived here for years!” the beetle pointed out.

“I don’t believe this guy,” snorted the earwig contemptuously, “he’s only been here for five minutes and he thinks he rules the roost!”

“And starts throwing stuff about,” added the spider.

“Yeah. I’m mean, what’s all that about?…suppose it had been Sally?”

“But what was he doing on the wall anyway?” I asked.

“What are you talking about?” stormed the earwig full of indignation.

“Why didn’t he just stay on his side of the room?”

“Why should he? He lives here! We all live here!”

“He scared me,” I then explained, “All of a sudden there he was…on the wall above my head. I just reacted instinctively.”

The caterpillar shook her head, “ and when we do that…when we act instinctively look what happens…”

“We get it in the neck!” protested the earwig, “like we were criminals or something.”

“Yes but…” I began and then not quite sure anymore about what I wanted to say I let my voice trail away.

“Yes but…?” the beetle prompted me gently.

“Yes but!” demanded the earwig.

“But you’re just, well you know… creepy-crawlies.”

There was uproar.

“Oh I say,” gasped the beetle in shock her legs and antenna waving erratically, “oh dear oh dear.”

“I’m not a creepy-crawly!” pouted the caterpillar sulkily, “soon I’m going to be a beautiful butterfly!”

“I didn’t mean…” I started to say but was soon floundering, “it’s just…well…er…”

“Oh I see. That’s what you mean…now I understand.” said the earwig dripping with sarcasm.

“I know I’m not explaining myself very well,” I blurted out feebly.

“No, no…you’re being very eloquent.” Said the earwig more sarcastic than ever.

“If you’re going to throw things at anybody then you should have a go at them nasty little cockroaches,” the spider suddenly cried.

“Language Gerald!” the beetle warned him.

“Well it’s true though, isn’t it?” said the spider.

The earwig thought it was and said so. “They’ll steal the air from your lungs if they could.”

“Well I’m sorry.” I said and, to my surprise I found that I meant it.

“That’s okay, no harm done.” Said Mrs Seccombe generously adding, “and I am sure that I speak for all my friends when I say that we accept your apology…don’t we?” and the beetle looked round at her companions for conformation. The earwig nodded his head and so did the caterpillar even Gerald the spider mumbled something under his breath and wiped his eyes with one of his antenna. He had accepted my apology too it seemed.

“So how about some tea then?” asked Danny boy looking pointedly at Sally.

“What are you looking at me for, why don’t you make it for a change?”

“Because it’s woman’s work.” He retorted crisply.

There was a loud ‘tut tut’ of disapproval from Mrs Seccombe. And Sally gave a howl of outraged dignity.

“Look ” I suddenly spoke up, “why don’t I make it, okay?”

“Four sugars in mine mate,” Danny boy called out.

“Just bring in the tea with the milk and sugar and let everyone serve themselves,” suggested Mrs Seccombe.

“Have you got any biscuits?” asked Gerald hopefully.

“Er…I think so. In my bag somewhere.”

“What kind?” asked Gerald.

“Oh, er…digestives I think.”

“No chocolate?” asked Gerald pulling a face.

I shook my head. “Sorry.”

“You should stop eating” said Danny, “it’s no wonder he mistook you for some kind of bloody monster.”

“I’m not fat!”

“No? I believe you. Thousands wouldn’t, but I believe you.”

“Just leave me alone!”

“Will you two just give it a rest?” sighed Mrs Seccombe wearily, “honestly.”

“Boys.” muttered Sally under her breath with a sad shake of her head. They were just silly.

“Lets just hope that when the moment comes you do change into a beautiful butterfly and not some disgusting looking moth or something,” snapped Danny at Sally.

Sally burst into tears and threw herself into Mrs Seccombe’s arms for comfort.

“Don’t be so mean Danny!” Mrs Seccombe scolded him.

“Serves her right” said Danny in his defence, “I’m sick of her superior attitude.”

“I’m sure that Sally will be a really gorgeous butterfly,” I said chivalrously.

Sally wiped the tears from her face. “Do you really think so?”

“Absolutely.” I assured her in a loud positive voice.

“I’m sure you will too.” Said Mrs Seccombe reassuringly giving Sally a hug.

And I was relieved to see Sally smile.

“Hows about going and making that tea?” Danny then said, “I’m parched.”

And that’s how our friendship started. The next day before I went back to the hotel I popped into a supermarket and bought some chocolate biscuits, crisps, wafers, bags of nuts, some crackers butter and jam more sugar and fresh milk. It wasn’t in my budget but I didn’t mind because I was sure they would really like what I had bough

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