Traveller or Tourist?

Are you a traveller or a tourist?  If an item I heard recently on a radio programme is to be believed, this is an extremely loaded question.  It seems that the majority of people who write about travel on their blogs describe themselves as ‘travellers’, and rarely as ‘tourists’.

A couple of things interested me about this report, and the interview with the academic sociologist who had undertaken research on the subject.  The first was the discovery that there was an academic sociologist making a study of travellers’ tales blogs. I’d never really thought about what such a researcher actually does, but if they can study this, there must be no end of things to which they might get to the bottom.

The second was that the research was done entirely by studying posts published in blogs; very specifically, the academic had no direct contact or conversation with any of the writers.  What she discerned from her reading was that those who believe themselves to be ‘travellers’ also believe they are having a more ‘authentic’ experience, and rather look down on ‘tourists’, which is generally used in a pejorative way.

By the written word shall ye be known.

My elderly Concise Oxford dictionary offers little help in distinguishing between the two vying words: to travel is to make a journey, especially one of some length to distant countries (and, to act as a commercial traveller, or door to door sales man), while a tourist is a person who makes a tour, traveller, especially for recreation; however ‘tourist class’ is the lowest class of passenger accommodation in ship train etc, and a ‘tourist trap’ is a place that exploits tourists.

I’ve never thought much about how I would describe myself when I am at large in the world; but now that I’ve posed the question, I think I’d say I’m a tourist when I travel through one place after another.  The subjective judgemental distinction I draw in not that between tourist and traveller, but between those who travel in a group, and those who do not.  I’ve done both, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of them.

When I did my trip around the world on my own, I treated it as a full-time project, almost as a job of work, to do the research, see the site and record my impressions; periodically I joined a group, and felt like I was on a holiday, I had to pay much less attention, I went along with the flow, I did what I was told, I ate and slept when and where I was delivered.  I relaxed, until I started feeling antsy wanting to be on a solo jaunt again.

Recently I’ve been undertaking a periodic effort to visit places in London that are on the ‘tourist trail’ but which I’ve never been to before.  One noticeable thing about most of these outings is that, as a resident Brit, I have generally been in a minority; providing anecdotal evidence that we tend not to visit the sites of interest on our doorsteps.  If we didn’t go on a school trip we may never actually visit our own national patrimony.

The only occasions I can recall rejecting being designated a tourist was when I lived in Moscow.  At the time, the entry price for many museums and galleries was one thing for Russian residents and something 100 times greater for foreign tourists.  There was always a dispute at the ticket office and we would have to go to the supervisor’s office, show the residents stamps in our passports and argue that just because we were foreign didn’t mean we were in the tourists price category.

So what are you, tourist or traveller?  And what makes one experience more ‘authentic’ than another?


There’s been a great deal of press coverage in the UK recently on the subject of super injunctions in general, and one in particular,  taken out by a footballer to prevent a young woman from selling her story about their affair to the red-top press.

I’ve read the tittle tattle on Twitter which allegedly reveals the identity of the footballer in contravention of the super injunction, and, to be honest, my reaction was ‘who cares?’.

But that’s not really what set me thinking.

Even though the woman in question hasn’t been able to sell her story about the affair, she is now appearing on television shows and in the lower reaches of the newspapers talking about her ‘super injunction nightmare’.  She is usually described as ‘Big Brother star’, and I immediately think: that’s a perfect example of an oxymoron.

Or maybe I am alone in my irritation in seeing the word ‘star’ attached to pretty much anyone who has been seen on the television, preferably in a reality show.

My dictionary offers the following definition of the word oxymoron: Figure of speech with pointed conjunction of seemingly contradictory expressions (eg faith unfaithful kept him falsely true (from Tennyson)).  It comes from the Greek combination of the words for sharp and foolish.

Cleverly used, the juxtaposition of the apparently contradictory words can add extra depth and truth to a description.

While it used to be mainly a rhetorical device, the sole preserve of poets and politicians, now, many are in common usage: virtual reality, living dead, open secret, deafening silence …….

I was amused to discover there is a website which claims to offer the ‘biggest little list of oxymorons online’.  Many of them fall into what might be described as ‘unintentional’ oxymorons, described as such for comic effect (rather like my ‘BB star’ example) military intelligence, airline food… you get the picture.

My flat cat

One site even suggested the existence of ‘visual oxymorons’ where the material from which something is made, is different from expected and therefore makes a different thing entirely.  Examples offered were plastic lemons or bricked up windows.  While interesting,  I have more difficulty with the idea that these are properly described as oxymorons.

Having said that constructing things out of unexpected and contrasting materials does seem to be the bread and butter of much contemporary art, where our perceptions of both unusual and every day objects are challenged.

On which subject, I’ve just received an invitation to an event which offers the opportunity to see the biggest knitted poem in the UK.

Leaflets, words and statistics

I have previously confessed my tendency to read labels on bottles, jars and the bottoms of plates.

This week I had cause to read the warnings leaflet from inside the box of some prescription medication;  a treasure trove of words and weirdness.  I particularly enjoyed bullet point number 1:  ‘Keep this leaflet.  You may need to read it again.’

And I have read it more than once.  Evidently written with some attempt to make it comprehensible to those who are not medical professionals privy to the more arcane vocabulary used by doctors, it still contained words which I failed to find when I looked them up in my dictionary.

While it explained words such as ‘hypertension’ (high blood pressure), and ‘diuretics’ (medicines that increase the amount of water that you pass through your kidneys), it left ‘primary hyperaldosteronism’ unexplained.  I can only assume if you’ve got it, you know.

It was in the ‘Side Effects’ section that I spent most time.  Not only does it presumably encapsulate the results of clinical trial and studies, the vocabulary also reflects the rich texture and layered gradations possible  in the description of human sensations.

There are six categories of side effect: very common, common, uncommon, rare, very rare and not known.  Sounds a bit like one of those surveys:  how would you rate your happiness on a scale of ecstatic, very happy, happy, ok, not bad, despondent, miserable.

But no.  In the world of ‘Package Leaflets’ rarity has a particular statistical significance.  ‘Very Common’ is happening in more than 1 in 10 patients, ‘Common’ is happening in 1 in 100 to 1 in 10 patients…… all the way up to happening ‘in less than one in 10,000 patients’.  (And yes, I did have to overcome my reflex to change that to ‘fewer’)

So if the patient is feeling a bit listless, say, is that the ‘debility’ or ‘fatigue’ that are common, or the ‘somnolence’ and ‘sleep disorders’ that are uncommon, or might I have missed the fainting that is rare?  If they become aware of their heart beating faster is it the uncommon ‘palpitations’ or the rare ‘atrial fibrillation’?

In the part of the list that I mentally tagged ‘upset tummy’, between abdominal pain and diarrhoea came ‘obstipation’.  Now that looked like a word that should be in the dictionary, but in my Oxford concise there was nothing between ‘obstinate’ and ‘obstreperous’  (hey, now that’s a bit of syncronicity for a Sunday morning) so I had to resort to the internet.  It looks like it might have something to do with constipation, doesn’t it?  Well it does, only worse; but it does seem like an odd choice bearing in mind that the lesser complaint with the more familiar word isn’t on the list.

In case you’re concerned, the patient has suffered no obvious side effects as yet.

I’ve given up trying to refold the leaflet into the creases with which it came out of the box, so it’s now a simply stuffed back in so I know where to find it when I want ‘to read it again’.


‘Appointment times are only approximate’.

The sign was large, laminated, and pinned right next to the Reception hatchway.

‘Did you fast?’ the dishevelled young man behind the counter asked.  I nodded, looking at the sign.  ‘No tea or coffee?’

‘No,’ I said, knowing that it would be some while before I would be able to have the coffee I needed to start my day; because while indeed I had fasted for 12 hours before my blood test appointment, it looked unlikely that the process would be a fast one.

I joined the other people in the waiting room, sitting on moulded blue plastic chairs clutching the cards showing our numbered place in the queue.

I was 5 minutes early for my appointment, and had number ’17’; the tannoy instructed ‘patient number 11 to go to cubicle number 3’.  I counted around the small room: 5 other people plus me.  At least the chairs weren’t nailed to the floor.

The volume on the morning news was blasting from the set hanging from the ceiling , too loud to allow me to concentrate on the book I’d brought with me, so I started to read the notices pinned to the walls.  So many admonishments, cancel your appointment if you can’t come because it WASTES TIME (the author clearly had a well-defined sense of irony), wash your hands, test results from you GP ONLY.

‘Phlebotomy Department established 2005’.  Now, there was a word that attracted my attention.  I’d followed signs for ‘Blood Tests’ in order to find my way through the hospital, but now that I was there, they revealed their true identity: Phlebotomy, staffed by Phlebotomists.

As soon as I got home I looked it up in a dictionary; I was right in my assumption – it has Greek roots: for vein (phlep) and cut (tomia) apparently.  But when did they start using it?  Searching on the net revealed a website for the National Association of Phlebotomists; I’m oddly reassured to know it exists, but who knew it was such a specialisation?

Once I’ve opened a dictionary it always turns into a rummaging session of fascinating discoveries.  I love reading dictionaries; all those words, and so many that I’ve yet to use.

The use of ‘fast’ earlier made me go to that word; and what a great one it is.  It can be used as a verb (to abstain from eating), a noun (a religious observance or the act of going without food), an adjective (firmly fixed) and adverb (quickly).  Variously the etymology is from Old high German, Old Norse and Old English.

Now I feel like I’ve learnt something today!

Of course I don’t stop there.  In my dictionary (a much-loved, dog-eared (6th Edition) Concise Oxford I received for Christmas 1976) ‘fast’ comes between ‘fashionable’ (following or suited to the fashion) and ‘fastidious’ (easily disgusted); and then ‘fastigiate’, a word rejected by spell checker and one that is new to me, but I now know it means ‘with conical or tapering outline’.

Now I just have to find a place to use the it.

Twenty Questions

The opening question was always ‘animal, vegetable or mineral?’

And the first argument was immediate.

‘You can only ask questions with yes or no as an answer,’ the person whose turn it was would retort.

So then you’d have to use up the first two questions finding out.  But it didn’t matter that much, as we never restricted it to twenty chances.  The games would go on until the answer was found; it could be days and scores of exchanges.

My father would come up with things that we as children had little chance of getting.  I distinctly remember us, after several hours, getting to the point of having determined it to be the man who built the Suez Canal, but he refused to give it to us until we found the man’s name;  Ferdinand de Lesseps.

It is knowledge that is firmly wedged in my mind, but which has never been of the least bit of use to me.

Oh, all right, it was marginally useful in a ‘the old woman who swallowed a fly’ sort of way.

It made me pay attention when the film ‘Suez’ starring Tyrone Power as Ferdinand was on the television.  From that I learnt that after the Suez Canal, he had a go at building a canal in Panama, which failed because of the difficult terrain and the malarial epidemic among the workers.

When, at school, we were learning about the Darien Scheme, which virtually bankrupted Scotland at the end of the 17th century, and the teacher asked if anyone had any ideas on why the Scheme was destined to fail, I was able to raise my hand, in what was probably an irritating, rather smug way,  and offer disease and swamp as my suggestions.

Another long running edition culminated in us getting stuck at the point of knowing that it was something to do with Oliver Cromwell. Only after a further few days would he give in and tell us it was the wart on his face.  Cue arguments about the legitimacy of specifying only a part of a person.

He justified himself on the basis that we should know the origin of the phrase ‘warts and all’; that Cromwell insisted that his portrait not flatter him, that he be portrayed as he was.  Recent research has made me aware that it is now thought that the phrase came long after Cromwell’s death.

There’s nothing for it though, I still remember it, even if  it’s not right.

Somewhere along the line I must have shared my memories of the torture of ‘twenty questions’ with friends at university, because I played it with them there; and there were near blows when finally, after days of questioning, we managed to identify Ziggy Stardust as an answer.  There was much shouting that fictional, performance characters weren’t allowed.

I often wonder why these useless little chips of information stick in my head; but they do all fit together like an odd mosaic of broken bottles through which I see the world.

If only I could remember ‘important’ things as effectively.

Coughing up more

Those of you who have read a couple of my posts will know that I have a fondness for reading the labels on things.  I am particularly partial to reading things that are completely incomprehensible.

When I lived in Moscow there were no regulations governing packaging, so largely, imported products were sold in their original boxes, in their original language.

This was fine, so long as I knew the relevant language.  In the first apartment I lived in, all the electrical goods were German, destined for the Scandinavian market, so the instruction books were in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish; at least that’s what I’m guessing, on the basis that I don’t know any of them.

In the six weeks I was in residence I never did work out how to use the microwave.

At least I wasn’t as bad as one of my US colleagues who filled up the water reservoir on the clothes dryer on the basis that there was a water drop symbol on it, and who couldn’t work out why the laundry would never dry.

Shopping in Stockmans, the Finnish supermarket, presented ever changing language challenges.  Deciding which plastic bottle contained clothes washing liquid and which conditioner, when the pictures on the labels were of sparkly streams and pine forests I found could only be done on the basis of trial and error.

Equally, I’m sure there are a few Finnish people still wondering what Tesco’s Piccalilli is, to this day.

I thought about this last week when I was standing in the ‘cough and cold remedies’ aisle in Tesco.  I wasn’t alone; the whole passageway was jammed with trolleys while shoppers stopped to study the shiny cardboard boxes on the shelves.

We were reading the text intently, as if it made a difference which tincture, mixture or concoction we bought.

In the end I selected a cough mixture on the basis that I could reach it off the shelf over the head of a small woman with a toddler in her trolley who was blocking my way.  Every box was as shiny as a sweety wrapper and carried long words that I don’t understand, so it seemed as good a basis to use as any other.

What is Guaifenesin or Levomenthol? No idea.  But my ‘Benelyn Mucus Cough”s got them in spades.  The rest of the ingredients appear to be alcohol, salt and sugar, so let’s hope G&L do something for a cough.

It was only when I got home and read the leaflet inside the box with all its warnings, crosses and exclamation marks highlighted in red (Don’t give to children, alcoholics, nursing mothers, the usual), that I kicked myself.  I’d done it again.  I’d volunteered to be conned by the fake big words, the promise of a ‘productive cough’ and the shiny box.

Just in case you’re wondering, it was made in Orleans, France.

Building my vocabulary

Room thermostat

In the spirit of believing that every experience, even a bad one, provides ‘material’ for a writer, I’ve been reflecting on the enhancement to my vocabulary provided by the domestic upheaval I endured last year.

It’s too tedious to go through all of the details; suffice to say it all started when I detected water under the tiled floor of my bathroom.  When I couldn’t locate the source I called in a plumber who brought his mate; neither of them had English as their first language.

They checked in all the places I’d already checked, found no leak and started lifting the tiles off the floor.

They satisfied themselves that the water wasn’t coming up through the concrete floor, so it must have been coming from above, because  ‘Water, she travels.’

When I checked on them next there were four holes ‘punched’ through the bathroom wall.  The water ‘ingress’ was coming from one of the flats above.

Over the next three days, waiting for the building management to help,  I watched as water ebbed and flowed across the bare concrete floor, running up and down stairs knocking on my neighbours’ doors to check if they were doing something to make the water flow.

It turned out there was a leak in one of the ‘waste down-flow pipes’ two floors above, so whenever anyone used any one of three bathrooms the ‘waste’ ended up on my floor.  The ‘intramural fibreglass insulating material had acted as a filter’.

Believe me, you never want to hear the phrase ‘faecal matter’ in any context.

Coincidentally there were builders in the flat immediately above mine, so they became involved in the ‘diagnostics’ and discussions; builders do love a good old theorising session.

There was one priceless occasion when there was a collection of 5 men in the bathroom: 1 Brit, 1 Italian, 1 Kosovan, 1 Pole and 1 Turk.  I watched from outside as they all pointed up towards the ceiling guessing which path the water, she had chosen.

Fixing the offending crack in the pipe involved the destruction of the bathroom in the flat three floors up.

I decided to run away to Wellspring House while the repairs to my bathroom were completed.

While I was away there was another ‘major water ingress’.  In this case the water, she had found that the easiest path to travel was underneath the wooden floor and out under my front door to soak into the carpet in the common hallway.

The floor was so ‘swollen and spongy’ that it had to be replaced.  Because it had been originally laid as a ‘single run’ with no ‘intermediate thresholds’ the entire floor had to be done, including the ‘scotia’.

While the floor was being replaced the central heating thermostat was cracked.  As soon as I touched it, of course, ‘it dropped to bits’.

I tried to describe it over the phone to the repair company, but the controller asked me to email her a photo (see above!).  Just a ‘standard room stat’ she said.

‘Isn’t that what I’d said?’  Clearly not.

And now, because of an entirely unrelated problem of cracks in the walls (I know, you’re now wondering why I live here) I am the proud possessor of three ‘tell-tales’, screwed to the walls of my living room.

A surveyor comes to visit every month to ‘see if there has been any movement’.  Only when he is satisfied that the walls have ‘stabilised’ can they be repaired.  (I’ll have my ‘fingers crossed’ for my new floor when that finally happens.)

When I was getting my insurance claim sorted out I made the mistake of using the word ‘flood’ to describe the inundation of water.  In insurance speak a flood is something entirely different, …….. and not covered.

Now ‘ingress’ flows off my tongue without a second thought.

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