Josh Martin is a Kiwi journalist based in London.
OPINION: Traveling in the age of Covid-19 included many never-before-seen experiences – lunch ordered via QR codes, fellow travelers dressed as if they were decommissioning Chernobyl, PVC screens still everywhere and famous tourist sites completely deserted.
What was missing was also evident: connections, spontaneity and cultural exchange.
Everything, for those who still do it, was transactional: you traded the living room for their sunny beach for a week, they got your hard-earned cash. Accomplished job.
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It may have kept the industry (just) going through the pandemic, but I’m glad we can once again be curious, inquisitive tourists wandering aimlessly. Talk to locals beyond those who sell you things. Being allowed to be close to strangers. Wandering the dance floors, wandering the alleys, generally looking a bit lost. It’s good to be back.
Covid-19 has dealt many blows to communities, but one of the quietest casualties has been its ability to completely drown out the “vibe” of a place. I backtracked a bit writing this sentence – maybe it shows the limits of the English language, or maybe my limits with it – but it’s a word used all the time when thinking about places where we’ve been, influenced by the people we’ve met, the experiences we’ve had and brush up with how the locals are doing.
It’s signified by the tangible, yet completely subjective: you and I could witness the same Parisian bakery scents, views of the Seine and street art, lively café terrace sounds, stand in the same piece of ubiquitous dog poo on the sidewalk and come up with quite different things. conclusions as to what the mood is.
However, there are linguistic clues that can help us describe the mood, or at least illustrate how a culture emphasizes certain facets of life. If something happens frequently enough, you better have a word for it, right?
And being able to reconnect through travel means you’ll have the conversations and experiences to see some of that in action, even if there’s no direct translation into English vocabulary.
You may have witnessed in a square in Barcelona or Salamanca at 3 p.m. on a Thursday tables bustling with groups spending an afternoon in the shade and thinking, ‘Oh what a vibe, such a good work-life balance personal, maybe if we pedestrian Queen Street, New Zealand could be like that.
It’s a good idea, but you see table after table of Spaniards having fun sobremesa, loosely defined as spending an afternoon digesting, talking, drinking, and not much else, and it’s that quintessential Mediterranean behavior that doesn’t quite translate at home either.
A little above the Pyrenees, a similar behavior of loitering in cafes is described in less positive terms as lord-terraces. And, leaving the table but keeping idleness, in Italy it’s fine to indulge in a little ‘sweet idleness‘ which translates to ‘the gentle art of doing nothing’ but without being considered lazy.
This embrace of the slower pace of life (helped by sunshine and sangria, I’m sure) when embraced en masse combines to create that intangible sense of community in piazzas and squares. And despite those long sloppy lunches where the drinks remain swollen, the Italian motto of beautiful figure rings true – that you should present a ‘beautiful figure’ in public, not just in smart attire but with decorum, to represent your family well too.
And for the winter months? Hygge has been the moody trend of the moment in dark London winters for a few years, but you can never match the Danes who embody it. It means something like getting together with close friends indoors, perhaps around a fire with something warm, but it’s also the warm, fuzzy feeling of contentment in their company. And by visiting Denmark, you will understand why they need common warm fluff to get through the long winters.
In Ireland, it is the very versatile crazy which is an almost perfect one-word summary of the Irish spirit, so it’s been embraced by the tourist board, promoting ‘the craic is back’, but it’s much more than the art of conversation and gossiping, doing something “for the craic” sums up the Emerald Isle charm that keeps people coming back.
At the other end of the spectrum, destinations such as Portugal, Wales and Russia all have words in their vocabulary which, perhaps due to their history, describe the gloomy nostalgia of lost people and places. .
In Lisbon, it is the saudade – nostalgia and melancholy for those who are far away – it is the basis of the city’s famous fado music. And the Welsh have something similar in Hiraeth, but it is the desire for a romanticized past or place. If you were in St. Petersburg and experienced similar feelings of unexplained spiritual angst or longing, it might be described as toska.
If you’ve browsed galleries in Mexico City, Malaga or Madrid and thought the house was just for sports-mad philistines, you might have adopted the Spanish term. duende, which translates into something like the mysterious ability of a work of art to deeply move a person.
It’s not all a burning desire. I think there is an element of Japanese culture highlighted by natsukashii which is a term (often said) for acknowledging things from your past experiences that you may miss but are grateful for and happy to be experiencing, such as eating a family recipe or retracing your vacation steps from decades ago.
This is just one of the ways Tokyo can feel for visitors to be both fast-paced and futuristic, yet at the same time deeply traditional and paying homage to the past. Some would call it a vibe.