Travel’s biggest mysteries, from Spain’s strange eating habits to America’s tipping obsession

With travel limited, one has time to ponder the mysteries of travel. I don’t mean spiritual mysteries – Which ashram? Will quinoa save the planet? Are my ancestors really sharks? – but daily, earth-bound puzzles. Those intriguing me include:

Station announcements

These always start with a train number – “Intercity express 57928” – which means nothing to anyone and causes distress among the fragile. What we want is “the train for Bordeaux awaits on platform three, my friend”. If there must be a number, a single digit should suffice. Double, at the outside. There are not 57927 other express train options.

Train or plane seat numbers

Make them bigger, so the near-sighted are not obliged to lean right across to read them, knee-capping with their luggage travellers already installed. I don’t mean big as in “banners pulled by light aircraft”. I mean big as in newspaper headlines.

Why go to Cannes when Nice is available?

The former does little which the latter doesn’t do better. Cannes is a film festival with a modest town attached, a town which locals spend all their time valeting for the rich and sleek who don’t know where they are for wherever they are has the same shops (YSL, Cartier, the others), the same luxury hotels, the same brush-head dogs and the same fawning as where they were yesterday, and so is indistinguishable from every other place the rich and sleek assemble. Nice, by contrast, is a bona fide big city to delight, debauch and generate killer arguments about what should really go into a salade niçoise.

Why are Spanish eating hours so odd?

The usual answer is that Franco switched Spain from GMT (where it should be) to Central European Time to please Hitler. So the whole damned country got out of synch, eating dinner when the rest of us are on Horlicks. This doesn’t cut it. The Spanish aren’t so stupid that they had slavishly to stick to the same eating time when the hour was changed. They could simply have started eating earlier. And, anyway, Hitler and Franco have been roasting for ages. The pueblo español could have switched back. But they haven’t. The conclusion must be that the Spanish cherish the confusion as it encourages them eat all the time, just in case. Which is why I miss Spain so much.


That said, it is mysterious that churros should be considered foodstuffs. They aren’t. They are a conspiracy by Spanish dentists to generate business.

Why do Italians mess up grandeur?

I’m talking southern Italy. Take Sicily. It’s studded with outstanding classical sites, but also by towns which cede to slovenliness as if they’d not noticed nearby splendour. On the mainland, bits of Pompeii are forever falling over and Naples? Really? For heaven’s sake, pick up the rubbish. You’ve got great pizza? Everybody’s got great pizza. I provide great pizza. I open the box marked “Dr Oetke” and there it is. And it comes without a sullen sense of superiority. So smarten things up. You owe it to your ancestors.

Why are airport custom and security personnel so unpleasant?

As a first or last point of contact, they should be ambassadors for their countries. Instead, they generally exhibit the charm of Attila the Hun’s idiot siblings. Last time I landed in Los Angeles, the lady would certainly have cloven me in two, had she had a scimitar and been able to unwedge her stomach from the desk. I have a feeling – I may be wrong about this – that the fact of applying for a job in customs or security should, of itself, disqualify the applicant. We need to appoint not the power-mad but pleasant people, perhaps chosen at random in garden centres.

Why are North Americans so crazy about tipping?

Fifteen per cent? Twenty per cent? Twenty five? Is something not amiss? A head waiter chased after me from a 10th-floor restaurant. I’d left only $5 on a $60 bill for two. He followed us down to the lobby in the next lift. “The tip, sir. Only five bucks,” he said. “The food was mediocre, your service crappy and the whole 200% overpriced,” I said. Which doesn’t play well in the US. He, too, was of a cleaving mind-set. Americans, in short, are tip-delirious. Some time ago, when an internal Mexican flight landed successfully at Oaxaca, the old Texan bloke next to me whooped, clapped, got up and started walking the aisle with his Stetson upturned: “OK folks,” he cried. “Let’s have a whip round for the boy flying this thing.” This was the first and last time I tipped an airline pilot.

Tyranny of tea

A main reason I left Britain 33 years ago was to get away from tea. I wished to put some serious distance between myself and those who treated the drink as a panacea, talking with enthusiasm of “a brew” or, Lord help us, “a cuppa”. So it comes as a puzzle when British travellers abroad say they can’t find a cup of tea or, when they do, complain that it’s not up to scratch. I have nothing against these people – they number some of my greatest friends – but, well, there is all the glory of new cultures to hand, and they remain concerned about tea.

Why does the word “staycation” even exist?

A holiday in Britain is not a staycation. It is a holiday in Britain, as 90% of us had when I was in short trousers. Ours involved travelling to South Wales, yours maybe to Minehead. Either way, it could be a good long trip (a lot longer than flying, say, Manchester to Marseille) featuring cigarette smoke and car sickness. Staycation, if it meant anything, would refer to spending the hols in one’s own home, as in: “We’re not going anywhere this year.” Certainly, use of the term staycation diminishes British holidays, implying they are somehow an enforced, lesser alternative when, if we cut out the tea, our country furnishes holidays the equal of any in the world. And it is “holidays”, for heaven’s sake. “Vacation” is a decent word, but it’s not ours. Try “holistay”, if you truly must.

Why spas?

Travelling abroad is all about encountering, appreciating and/or falling foul of unfamiliar people, cultures, food, drink and policing practices. You’re looking outwards. Attending a spa – whether for a massage, stones down the back or to be caked in mud and encased in a pressure cooker – is to be wrapped up in oneself. You’re looking only inward. That’s OK, but leaves me puzzled. I’d rather be out and about, then take a fast, mud-free shower when I got back in. Before going out again.

Why does anyone buy a camping van?

A decent four-berth motor home costs the thick end of £50,000. Maybe more. I hired one once. Sleeping above the cab was like contorting myself into an envelope. The whole experience, for three of us, was asking normal-sized people to live in a doll’s house. For the purchase price, one could have 50 weeks in different three, even four, star hotels. A no-brainer, surely.

Why do uninterested people visit museums?

We’ve all seen the “fine arts slouch” affected by people who couldn’t care less about Flemish art or Renaissance mouldings. They are visiting the gallery or château because it’s there and they feel they ought to. Let me tell them: there’s no need. I don’t attend motor racing because it bores me to hell. By the same token, there’s no requirement to be in the Louvre. Go for a beer. Apart from anything else, it will be cheaper.

Why do we persist in holding casinos to be glamorous?

Have you been in one recently? Even the one in Monte Carlo is not full of fellows like Omar Sharif and exotic beauties with slinky frocks and two-foot long cigarette holders. It’s given over to beeping, flashing, migraine-making machines and, on the tables, parties in from Torquay and Turin apparently gambling under doctors’ orders.

Why are restaurants still laying on all-you-can eat buffets?

What most of us need is the least-you-can-eat salad bar?

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