Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Ways of Seeing....

"One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." –- Henry Miller
As a child I would dream of travelling the world. It seemed to me that all of the rest of the world was exotic and exciting, it was home that wasn't. Of course it isn't that straightforward, especially when 'in transit', but the largest surprise that I got was completely unexpected. When you travel, you take your feet with you! You can feel the ground firmly beneath your feet as you walk. But what also happens is that your eyes are opened
- to the fact of different objects and different histories
- to the different ways that people lead their lives in their own countries
- to the SAME ways that people can lead their lives is also intriguing
Familiar objects occur in different shapes, yet still perform the same tasks that we expect to see done.
A recent visit to North Africa has opened my eyes to the African continent. I now believe that it is not possible to do anything more profound than visit a country, or continent, to begin to see into its patterns of life. To be truly spurred to investigate its history and culture. As a child I queued with thousands of others to visit the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum. It is a fantastic collection, the collection of artefacts from the excavation from the Valley of the Kings and I was enthralled. To see it in Cairo Museum is to experience so much more. For a start it is amongst other less exotic but highly significant objects, and these give it more context. It is also part of Egypt's history and the dustiness of Egypt is important too, despite the reality that there was a smaller Sahara in Tutankhamun's day. Watching Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile has more meaning now because of this short visit and the hieroglyphs of Egypt and the Sudan have taken on more relevance for me when they are shown on the TV.

Other countries also have road signs, to manage traffic, and they can be fascinating. Ireland, for example, has a very small, spoonlike spade on the roadwork signs compared to ours. Istanbul has joined the small number of countries that not only show the length of time that you have to wait at a junction to cross it as a pedestrian, but also traffic lights show how long you have to wait as a driver. Denmark has separate traffic lights for cyclists (I like that idea). The Americas have lorries. Of course. We see them in the movies. But their lorries have noses! Seeing American lorries in reality, is one of the ways to realise that as viewers of multi-national cultural drama or documentaries we can be very unobservant, or block out those things that we don't relate to. Some cultural oddities crop up in particular places. In Riga, Latvia there is a bridge where newly-weds have taken to putting padlocks on the bridge and throwing away the key as a luck charm. Apparently this is now happening in Florence, Italy and also elsewhere in the Baltic states.
One of the features that I look at when travelling is drainage covering. It can be very interesting to notice the creativity that can go into the design of such mundane details. My favourite to date comes from La Serena, near Coquimbo in Chile and is in the form of a seahorse. The design is profoundly practical, simple and elegant. Some countries have simple style designs for the covers, but the interest lies in the scripts employed. Cyrillic in Slavic or Russian countries, Arabic in Arabic speaking countries, or a mix of languages as can happen in mixed language countries such as Turkey or anywhere the covers will have been cast across national borders.
When we start to open our eyes to what is around us when we travel, we start to learn to value the world in which others live. Their histories are different to those we think we know, and we benefit greatly from an understanding of this. A visit to Dover Castle occurred shortly after their recent renovations. One intriguing feature of the day of the visit was the selection of the scent of the wood burnt on an open fire. In the early Middle Ages the knights returning from their time in the east returned with eastern traditions and games as they had experienced them in their own travels, and scented woodburning was one of many that they introduced. Apparently backgammon also came to us via this route. It is not possible for school history lessons or for the TV to teach us everything. It can, when done well, teach us to be interested to learn more. Or life and direct experience can.

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