For many people, holidays are a time to catch up on reading. The existence of the ‘beach read’ category of books attests to this tendency. My husband swears he can only read a book on holiday, as otherwise he is too busy, tired or distracted.
And so, when I booked a trip to France and Italy, I bought a Kindle and loaded it with titles that I have been meaning to read. Among the books I chose after much scrolling through the options, there was the prizewinning Aussie novel, Too Much Lip, the highly-acclaimed Eggshell Skull and the irresistibly-titled My Sister the Serial Killer.
However, I read very little, apart from the time I was in the air, when I struggled through On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which was indeed a gorgeous book and I would have enjoyed if I hadn’t been too distracted by my desire to get some sleep despite being squeezed into a plane seat (I know, I shouldn’t complain, but …). This book is one to savour at home, not in economy.
I also finished and loved Lanny on the flight home, but that was it. On land, I read far less than I had expected. My other carefully selected books will remain on my Kindle until my next trip, which might well be years away.
Despite reading far less than I expected when I was not in the air, I found that my holiday was not without stories. In fact, I realised that the appeal of travel essentially lies in the stories that travellers discover on their journey.
In Rome, an often momentous story lies around every corner. There was the obvious ones like those behind the Colosseum, which is full of extraordinary, glorious, terrible and terrifying stories of violence and death. While this history is familiar from movies and history classes, seeing the huge building is a stark reminder of the reality of these stories. It is not difficult to imagine those who were brought to their death in this intimidating structure, and the terror that the building would have evoked in the doomed.
Then there is the Roman Forum, where more stories abound. Visitors can imagine the lives of the Vestal Virgins, who stoked the eternal flame and were idolised, but risked death if they did not remain chaste. The structure of the pool which they walked around remains intact.
A little further along the ancient street is the place where Julius Caesar was famously stabbed to death by senators including his own adopted son.
In Paris, a walk in the Louvre reveals countless stories behind the extraordinary paintings that line the corridors. In fact, each of the pictures tells some kind of story, whether from religion or mythology. One particular plaque next to a painting of Bathsheba by Rembrandt caught my eye. It read:
“Most painters depict Bathsheba as the seductress of King David. But Rembrandt focuses on the abuse of power of which she is victim. Forced to betray her husband, Bathsheba contemplates the fatal consequences of her act. The non-idealised beauty of the young woman is a tour de force of the artist.”
This provides a tantalising glimpse of the story behind the painting, but in others, it is just the title of a work that suggests the story on which a piece was based. The idea of wandering in the presence of so many stories is intoxicating and on a single visit only a tiny portion can be told.
However, it is not just in the historic monuments in the streets and galleries of Rome or Paris where it is possible to learn the stories of the Italian and French.
There are also living stories of the way people live – a narratives like those I love to read in books. There is the food they eat, where they shop, how they interact and where they meet. I adored sitting in cafes and watching people walking by, or browsing the supermarkets where they shop.
It is fascinating to learn about the lives of others in foreign places, and that is part of the appeal of reading for me. I want to know what people do, and why they do such things. While travel might not reveal the why, it can certainly show that what. Perhaps it is this insight is why I love to travel so much, and why I put my books aside when I was abroad.
It’s not just in big, historic cities that I tend to neglect my books. Even when I’m on the beach, my ‘beach reads’ tend to get cast aside in favour of people-watching. Who wouldn’t want to watch the parade of life in all its enthusiasm, excitement and diversity that appears on a sunny day? There are stories in the joyful kids, the flirtatious teens, the exhausted parents and the complicated family groups.
Now, back home, I will return to my books to continue to travel to distant lands and learn about the lives of others.