I’ve never understood how the words “travel” and “leisure” came to be linked. In my experience, there’s nothing leisurely about travel.
This lack of tranquility in my vacations isn’t the result of poor planning. It’s not as if I were routinely wandering off on a whim to visit a place where the natives are predisposed toward taking Americans hostage or murdering them, such as the Middle East, Afghanistan or New York City.
I carefully plan all my trips, which is to say I now Google any likely location to make sure there’s decent beer, lax regulation of alcohol sales and a bribable police force. North Korea has none of those. Iraq has only the last one. The southeastern United States lacks the first and most important.
But in the pre-Internet days, I’d often have to rely on reports from friends and acquaintances, some of whom had come no closer to my possible destinations than news reports in supermarket tabloids. As a result, my wife and I followed less-than-credible advice and once found ourselves somewhere in eastern Europe, being rousted out of our railroad berths at midnight by armed guards speaking a language I didn’t understand. It might have been Czech, but that’s a tongue in which I know exactly one word: “pivo,” which means “beer.”
The border militia members were demanding something, which, upon sleep-impeded reflection, I concluded must be either hard currency or Merle Haggard albums (a lot of Czech words sound like Merle’s name said sideways). Fifty Deutsche marks and one copy of “Same Train, A Different Time” later, we were once again on our way.
Language barriers and bad manners have gotten me thrown out of pubs in the old East Germany and saddled with yard-long loaves of stuffed bread (all I wanted was a couple small slices to soak up some gravy) in Prague. Far worse than either of those, I once had to eat dinner in the Atlanta airport. Better to be cleaning up camel dung in Damascus.
But it’s not just poor translations and poorer etiquette that get me in trouble. Crossing into Canada – a nation with two official languages, one of which I speak adequately for my purposes (garcon, une bie?re, s’il vous plait) and the other in which I write columns like this one for a living – is always problematic. As I approach the border, I have to remember to remove my grungy baseball cap, take off my drug-dealer shades and roll down my sleeves so the immigration people don’t spot my “Screw Ottawa” tattoo (honest, officer, it’s just a leftover from a misguided period during which I was a rabid hockey fan). Even then, it’s likely my entry will be delayed while the vehicle I’m riding in is dismantled in search of dope, guns or Boston Bruins paraphernalia.
It’s not just myself that I get in trouble. My wife and I were walking through Heathrow Airport in London heading for a connecting flight to Brussels, when security personnel abruptly pulled her aside while ordering me to keep moving. When she finally rejoined me, just moments before they closed the doors on the plane, she was understandably annoyed.
It seems I’d made the mistake of giving her a pin I’d bought at a concert by a 1990s world-music bands called 3 Mustaphas 3. She was wearing that button displaying some pseudo-Arabic symbols on her lapel, which was sufficient to convince the anti-terrorism squad to target her as a potential jihadist. She tried to explain to the law that the group was actually composed entirely of Brits, but pretended to be from a fictional Balkan nation as part of its on-stage schtick. Naturally, nobody believed her.
For the last two decades, she’s been followed everywhere she goes by drones, yet another thing she blames on me.
Last year, we decided to avoid all the hassle of crossing international boundaries. We accepted an offer from some friends to visit them on Matinicus Island, which – although it’s more than 20 miles out to sea – is legally a part of Maine and the USA, so passports and customs inspections aren’t required. Matinicus also has no police force and hardly any laws. There are all sorts of intra-island feuds, but so long as visitors refrain from trapping lobsters or asking too many questions of those who do, they’re generally left unmolested. Also, everybody speaks English, although some don’t speak much of it.
It was the best vacation ever – right up until the local 3 Mustaphas 3 terrorist cell recruited my wife. I’ve been in hiding ever since. If you’re reading this, send beer, money and lots of Merle Haggard CDs.
Al Diamon writes the weekly column Politics & Other Mistakes for several Maine newspapers and websites. He’s also the media critic for The Bollard magazine. His travel writing has mostly been seized by the authorities as subversive propaganda.