Does speaking a language make travel worse? Thinking about the beauty of ignorance

By Abi King | Trip Advice

Sep 09

Book tower in Tokyo

Jinbōchō, Tokyo

Dusty, ink-filled pages bound together and towering upwards from the street. Shelves spilling knowledge like Waterloo Station churns out commuters at six o’clock before Saturday.

Paperbacks, like people, squeezed side by side yet utterly unique, bearing a life of their own and looking for someone to love them.

I thrilled in the erudite atmosphere of the Jinbōchō district in the capital of Japan.

Fresh from an exhibition that charted the rise of publishing and the freedom that the physical press allowed, these streets represented human endeavour, education, artistry and hope.

And of course, part of the magic, was the fact that I myself understood none of it.

I’d hardly have been romanced by “How to potty-train your toddler,” “Mould and what to do about it” or whatever the Japanese version is of “Debbie does Dallas.”

Or even “Procrasination. Stop looking in Japanese book shops and get back to work.”

Better Not To Know

I had a similar epiphany about France once (although, happily, it had nothing to do with toddlers, mould or even Dallas. It may have been related to procrastination.)

As a life-long lover of travel, my home has become a museum to travel-related paraphernalia.

Both in terms of (lightweight) souvenirs from my own travels – think ticket stubs, notebooks and tiny boxes too small to store anything other than blu-tac and a long forgotten paperclip – and “commercial” travel-related gifts.

Thus, I have a coaster with the New York skyline,a deliciously dreamy map of the world and the odd file and folder with sepia-slanted words and suitcases from a time long gone by.

Many of these words are in French and it never before bothered me that I didn’t know what they meant.

They were there to provide beauty, to allow access to a world of fantasy, to illustrate the thrill of adventure, travel, discovery and fun.

When I came back from France, the fantasy was lost; the mundane ushered in.

Glad as I was to have learnt a new language, a small part of me mourned the loss of the thrill that incomprehensible words scrawled across a notebook could bring.

And so it is with bad news. There is no doubt that we are in a better position to know that a tumour is there, that a loved one is not or that that which we once believed can no longer be true.

The wiser parts of ourselves know that ignorance changes only our dreams and not our reality.

But still. I think it’s human to long for that beauty – and the innocence that so often travels with ignorance.

Jinbocho book district

Jinbocho – as I see it



Thanks, dear readers, to those of you who have returned after my turbulent summer. I can’t quite say I’m back to normal yet but I am back to writing on Inside the Travel Lab so that’s progress, right? Thank you for all the kind words and cyber support. It’s enormously appreciated – so thank you again. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to reply personally but each message has meant a lot. A huge thank you also to every guest contributor who helped out in the meantime. I know how busy you are and I’m touched by your generosity. Thank you. 

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