This is a guest post from our great friend Adrian Sturrock. He is the author of Sat Nav Diaries, in which he recounts his European road trip. We are grateful for him to share his thoughts with us. Enjoy his words in this article, as they are profound and witty.
I stumbled upon the idea of road tripping by accident. I’d never had a desire to travel across Route 66; nor am I a particular fan of the road trip movie genre. And, in all honesty, I found Che Guevara’s ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ a little dull. Perhaps I’m just not that cool.
My introduction to the whole road trip thing came about by chance. What had prompted me to buy a sports car was a sudden threat of redundancy at work. Yes, I know! One would have thought that I might have opted for quickly consolidating my financial position. I thought I might have considered this too. Instead, my feelings of insecurity led me to a surprise epiphany: it struck me that one can play safe all one’s life and still be screwed over; that good guys neither come first nor last—mostly because nobody is really watching.
Sometimes, I thought, the best way to stick a finger up at ‘the man’ is to defiantly indulge in something that excites you. Then, even if you lose, you win. So I bought a two-seater sports convertible. I didn’t, however, speak this train of thought out loud to my wife, at the time. (Actually, I probably did. A few large glasses of pinot noir can make me a prolific and uninhibited orator. My dancing gets better too.)
Having bought the car, my mind then moved on to the question of how I could make best use of it. I felt that only using it for the ten-minute journey to and from work, and for grocery shopping, didn’t really cut it. I needed a proper reason to own a car like this.
‘I was thinking,’ I said to my wife one Sunday morning over breakfast, ‘how might you feel if I was to take off into France for a few days, you know, to get to have a proper drive of the car?’
‘If you want to,’ she said. ‘You not inviting me?’
‘I didn’t think you’d want to come,’ I said, surprised by her response. ‘For me, it would be an exciting drive. For you, well, I thought you’d see the idea of it as just a “bloody long time in a car”.’
‘I can do a bloody long time in a car,’ she said.
‘Okay,’ I said.
So I began to map out our bloody long time in a car.
Over time, my daydream of a four-day wander into France turned into a series of road trip adventures across (to date) nine European countries. Three days ago, we got back from our latest trip; two days ago, we started planning our next.
Friends of ours, who don’t do this kind of travel, ask us why we keep taking off like this; why we don’t book a package tour next time, and have all the ‘hard work and worry’ taken care of for us. The truth is, there is no hard work or worry involved – not when you have Google and a wife.
The reasons we have grown to love this form of independent travel are too numerous for one article, but here are some of the headlines:
- Having total control over your itinerary planning means that you get to take a trip that suits you, not some package tour company – unless you have a travel companion like my wife who, when I wasn’t looking, used the credit card I’d given her to reshape parts of our itinerary to places she’d visited as a child, reduced our initial hotel list to only ones that offered the right sort of tea and coffee making facilities, and bought herself something nice to wear for the journey. (There are many reasons why I love my wife. The above aren’t examples of them.)
- Having freedom to change your route at any point. This is something we’ve taken advantage of on a number of occasions. For example, during our latest road trip, while driving through Slovenia, we chose to follow a road sign for Ljubljana for no other reason than we liked the sound of the word. It turned out to be a beautiful town that we might otherwise have missed. An hour or so later, we passed a sign for Krapina. We didn’t take that turn.
- Experiencing how the landscapes and local accents slowly change. The problem with most forms of modern travel is that you get into, say, a plane, in one place, and disembark in another, with no real idea of what has happened in between, of what joins the locations together. Travel by car forces you to interact with the landscape, both physically and spiritually. We use a convertible, which brings the landscape even closer. From the delicate aromas of the Tuscan countryside, to the soft, southern-Adriatic drawl of a Croatian truck driver swearing at us for accidentally cutting him up on a slip road – these are not experiences we would otherwise have gained.
- Enjoying the time spent traveling as much as the time spent at your destination. Did it ever occur to you that the existence of inflight movies is actually a direct admission by the travel company that what they are putting you through is very dull? Inflight entertainment is designed to make you forget that you are traveling, as though this aspect of your holiday has no significance whatsoever. What’s even worse is that you’ve paid for this boredom – Twice: in money and time. Road trippers will tell you that the trick here is to never use motorways more than you have to, and to always ensure that your drive-time environments are as varied as your destination choices. Choose the coast roads; follow the line of the sea; hunt out the dramatic mountain routes, such as Italy’s Stelvio Pass, with its 45 hairpin bends along fifteen miles of tarmac spaghetti clinging al-dente-like to the side of a beautiful alpine valley. But most importantly, always beat your travel companions to the in-car sound system. (I favour the ‘quickly-plug-my-phone-into-the-system-when-nobody’s-looking’ approach to dominating the sound track to my journeys.)
- Experiencing the real cultures of people, not just the facades put on by professionals at the resort, who just want to help you spend your cash. Road tripping allows you to experience the sounds, traffic, landscapes and street culture of the places you are in, all at ground level, just as the locals do. This, in itself, is worth jumping into your car for. And the fact that you can stop and interact at any point is actually extremely liberating. For a truly authentic experience, flip through the channels on your car radio; find local radio stations, listen to what the locals listen to. Sometimes we have found great local music in this way; other times, it’s been so bad we’ve actually contemplated stabbing ourselves in the face. But either way, the experience has always been authentic.
- Breaking down stereotypes – from meeting local petrol station assistants who laugh at my lack of language skills – what’s German for ‘Pump number 15’? – to asking locals for directions, you get to experience real people. It’s good for the soul to discover that all those cultural stereotypes we grew up with are mere fiction. Germans might like efficiency and rules, but they are also funny, charming, and extremely friendly. And I like the fact that we are the foreigners in these places. I will always be the dumbest person in the room when we travel, but nobody seems to care, and everybody wants to share and contribute to our experience. To date, I have been laughed at by at least a dozen cultures. I’m aiming to be laughed at by a lot more in the future. Beyond accents and cultural quirks, we are all basically the same. I’m not sure I would have learned this on a package tour.
- Travelling for a much lower cost per person. One of the things that really did surprise us during our first road trip was how little the final bill came to. Petrol, food, a roof to sleep under, all at local prices; no middle men taking a cut at each point. Of course, you can road trip as extravagantly as you want, but it’s a choice how much you spend, not an obligation. And when much of your spend is also divided by the number of people you travel with, road trips can be a very economical way to see far more than any corporate service could offer you. And the money saved can go towards financing your next road trip – or, if you are like me (according to my wife), towards stuffing your face with the local foods.
- Getting to know your travel companion well. You have been warned!
Remember: travel for most people is made up of airport lounges, delays, overpriced passenger food, and being herded like cattle. Don’t be that person.
Finally, to get all literary for a moment, it was Rudyard Kipling who said that “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” I would add that in order to get that close, you need to travel at the same level and pace as the locals. You need to take a road trip.
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Adrian Sturrock is a writer, occasional musician, teacher, and ethnic minority (except when in Wales), specialising mostly in observation and unconsidered opinion. His first book, The Sat Nav Diaries, has recently been nominated for the 2018 Kindle Book Awards, and is available on Amazon in both paperback and eBook formats. For further information and to subscribe to his blog, contact www.adriansturrock.com