LIKE most people, I was born disobedient. If somebody told me to do something, I would automatically refuse. Wise parents learn early that you get a naughty child to do what you want by suggesting an alternative (ideally the opposite).
Many years ago the daughter of some friends of my parents came to stay while she was at a nearby college. She did not want to study Chaucer. She had him firmly in the box labelled Dead White Male, Boring. She told my parents how awful it was that she should have to read this dull stuff. My father murmured something sympathetic about students being forced to read old dirty stories. Overnight she became a devotee of the Canterbury Tales (well, at least the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale!)
But at some point, I discovered that taking other people’s advice could be a very good thing, particularly when travelling. I think the first time this really struck home was on a trip to Colorado for what was intended as our last family holiday (bored teenagers do not make good travelling companions). We were planning to go to the Mesa Verde National Park to see the cliff houses of the ancient Anasazi people. A man in one of Denver’s markets strongly advised us to go somewhere else, to another Anasazi site called Hovenweep. It was Labor Day weekend, and we would face massive queues and not be able to see anything at Mesa Verde, whereas the little known Hovenweep, on the western edge of Colorado facing the vast emptiness of Utah, would probably be deserted. Also free.
We set off, and found the bleak windswept site empty of tourists as predicted. We could wander round the ruins, and wonder about the people who built them, where they sourced the materials, particularly the timbers, how they brought them to this remote location (this was a society that did not have the wheel), and most puzzling of all, why they disappeared so suddenly around 1300AD.
Following the advice of people who know and understand their place has led us to many similarly fascinating discoveries, landscapes and wildlife areas that our books did not mention. Once we followed a sign that said there was a raptor centre by the Snake River gorge – it omitted to say that the centre was 70 miles off the main road. But it was worth the drive.
Doing what locals tell us has also taken us to some great restaurants, bars, gardens, galleries and museums that we would not otherwise have found.
Local buses can be as exciting as following tantalising (if inadequate) signs – the slow progress of an Austrian postbus is a delight, meandering along local roads through small towns and villages, while the tourists and the trucks rattle past on dual carriageways.
Even more exciting was taking a local bus from Shiraz in Iran (this was many years ago, before the arrival of the Ayotallahs, when a western woman could travel safely and feel welcome anywhere in that beautiful country) and discovering friendship and hospitality in dusty little towns where delicious herbal tea or cooling yogurt drinks were served under shady trees, outside dark little cafes.
Sometimes advice is unexpectedly timely. Just before we went to Salzburg, I had an email from a friend asking if I had read The World Of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig. I hadn’t. My friend said it was “all about now” although it was published in 1942 (the year in which the Jewish journalist killed himself, in Brazil).
Unusually I had gone away without a book, so I went into one of Salzburg’s bookshops and the first book I saw in English was The World Of Yesterday. I had no idea that Zweig spent many years in Salzburg, nor that he lived in Bath for some time, fleeing the Nazi horrors engulfing Germany and soon to overtake Austria. Later he crossed the Atlantic, first to New York and then to South America.
Of course, I bought it. It is a good read. And my friend is right.The World Of Yesterday feels chillingly prescient – of a culture, a way of life, a whole world that has crumbled from certainty (perhaps even complacency) into insecurity and fear.