All Things Bleak & Beautiful
I had been away for long enough to be pleasantly homesick, and as we banked and sideslipped over Cape Town, I craned to see every heat-blurred highway and bleached patch of veld.
Six months ago those banal sights would have inspired in me nothing but a mild claustrophobia and a faint desire to be somewhere else, but now they were as familiar and pleasing to me as the lines and blemishes on the face of a friend.
Cape Town was a windswept, sandblasted, sun-wasted dustbowl slowly sliding into the sea, but it was my windswept, sandblasted, sun-wasted dustbowl. Between me and my city, however, was a head. It was ruddy, moist and faintly porcine – imagine a glazed eisbein mounted on a checked shirt – and it belonged to a German man. When it moved out of the way, I glimpsed its wife – a small woodland creature in a safari jacket, squashed up against the bulkhead, trying to see out of the window without obscuring the eisbein’s view.
The woodland creature was apologetically excited. “Tafelberg!” she murmured reverently, and it was true: there, off the starboard wing, was the grand old rock pile, squatting in the heat. The eisbein, however, was having none of it. Literally drawing up his nose and arranging his mouth into a cartoon-like image of distaste, as if he’d just sucked on a lemon, he announced, “That is not so beautiful.”
To be fair, Cape Town is extremely unimpressive from the air. For a German used to commuting over the Alps, the mountain ranges encircling the city must have looked like ornamental rockeries.
But still, it got me wondering about his response, and whether he was simply an unpleasant man bullying his wife by squashing her enthusiasm or if, perhaps, he was a man who had been hoping for much, much more from Cape Town.
If it was the latter, I wondered, what had he been expecting to be so disappointed? Had he wanted the airliner to descend in spirals around a flat-topped Everest teeming with lions and high-altitude zebra before he skimmed over a bay in which flotillas of sperm whales battled armadas of giant squid? What, exactly, had the travel brochure back in Düsseldorf promised him?
Perhaps I am being unkind. It’s possible that the eisbein was flying in reluctantly – a business deal gone south, a bereavement – and that he was simply calling Cape Town as he saw it from 1 000 metres in the air. But it is also possible that he had just experienced that particular kind of disillusionment that strikes certain travellers when reality hits their carefully curated fantasies.
Anyone who has travelled will know this feeling to a greater or lesser extent. That famous façade wasn’t quite as big as we expected. That legendary fountain was pretty, but not quite as pretty as in the famous film. There was no sun. It didn’t snow. A certain light, a longed-for emotional response was absent.
For some, being exposed to the reality of a place and having their fantasies exploded can be traumatic. Paris, in particular, seems to have a disastrous effect on many naïve visitors, so much so that this phenomenon has been named Paris Syndrome.
If quasi-medical lore is to be believed, Japanese tourists seem to be the most vulnerable to Paris Syndrome. Knowing very little about real French or Parisian culture, they float in on a cloud of cliché, expecting to see fashion models walking poodles past patisseries filled with beret-wearing accordionists, while, high above in romantic garrets, moody painters in white vests fight their demons and glumly smoke crumpled cigarettes.
What they find instead is a real city, dirty and busy and unwilling to indulge their fantasies. Where they were sure they would find whimsy and magic, they find graffiti and gridlock. Where they believed they would find romance, they get short-tempered officiousness.
It is too much for some: if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, Paris Syndrome puts at least one or two tourists in hospital every year.
A handful of naïve romantics with shaky nerves is, of course, statistically irrelevant next to the millions of people who visit Paris and don’t collapse in a heap. But I think they’re worth mentioning because they reveal most clearly an important truth about travel, namely: when we are disappointed, it’s not our destination that has let us down but our projections that have gone awry.
The moment we put aside or deflate those projections, real travel becomes possible. Because that is the moment we transcend the brochure and enter the place.
Or, in my case, go around the back.
In the middle of a breathtakingly cold French winter, my companion and I found ourselves outside the gates of Versailles.
The queue for the palace was long and miserable. The afternoon was wearing on. And now that we were here, those overcrowded, overheated, over-decorated galleries seemed less appealing than before.
Still, we’d come all this way, so we decided to see the palace gardens instead.
As we peeled away from the queue and made our way through a somewhat ordinary side entrance, I felt a pang of disappointment. I was not going to see Versailles. I wasn’t going to have The Experience.
And then we reached the garden, and there, laid out just for us in all its frozen austerity, was a vista of ice and silence and deep, hibernating peace. The Baroque silliness and fundamental megalomania of the place had drifted away like puffs of breath in the frozen air. Instead, all that remained was a monochrome etching, framed in ice and silence. Above, the white sky, cracked open now and then by the cawing of crows. Below, the endless patience of ancient trees, waiting for this – this winter, this century, this silly little species – to pass so that it could all start again.
I looked up the slope at my expectations, at that moment being herded glumly past the windows of a distant glowing ballroom. I turned back to the bleak, beautiful garden.