I write this piece on how education can help you build up the skills for successful travel planning, with a tan on my skin and happiness in my heart. Fresh from an adventure in France with my wife Emma and two-year-old daughter Eliza, while fulfilling a life-long ambition of seeing England play in a major international tournament, I’m still on a high despite the alleged British summer failing to materialise before my return.
This is the first major holiday I’ve enjoyed since Eliza’s birth and I think it’s fair to say that not many other fans we encountered had planned their trips to such detail; most, of course, would not be taking children. We utilised hotels and Air BnB; aeroplanes, taxis, trains and boats; travel guides, telephone calls, social media and foreign language skills; and all built on a platform of education, knowledge and experience built up over many years.
As we travelled to Nimes, Marseille, Lyon and Saint-Etienne I thought about travel, and the core skills necessary to successfully navigate two weeks (or longer), four cities (or more), in a foreign country, while planning to see events that can only happen once for decades.
My hypothesis is that I started learning these skills from a very early age at school, such as:
When was the first time you were actually aware of a foreign country as a concept, an idea? I’m willing to bet that you can’t remember, and just possess a vague notion when young of bigger areas such as towns and cities; geographical features such as oceans, mountains and forests; and names of places from the road around the corner to the areas a long way from home. Children from 5-10 years of age learn how we interact with the world and its locations, and why some places have special characteristics.
As we get older, the more curious of us will start to put the pieces of the puzzle together into a more coherent base and think about what would be needed to get to those places, and stay in them. We learn about populations and politics (very useful in the current French political climate) and environmental issues - that’s what education gives you. From an early age, I learned that I could not walk from Peterborough to France (I’m old enough to be pre-Channel Tunnel). I knew some places would be hot, and rugged, and that the buildings and play areas may look different.
Think of the numbers involved in travel. There’s the obvious ones, from timetables to ticket costs and distances to currency conversions, but then there’s also the less obvious. For example, the properties we stayed in while in Marseille and Saint-Etienne required home cooking – a task replete with number skills to prevent burning or undercooking food.
We’ve all dreamt of jetting off to sunnier climes but it’s expensive, so if a child knows from an early age how to save up and deal with money when shopping or budgeting, it will stand them in good stead for life. Building skills with shape, order, classification and sorting will enable everything from packing a bag smartly to following a map.
From there an older child might be aware of more complex issues; experience provides us with knowledge of whether something represents value for money, such as a hotel room, taxi ride or item of shopping. Inevitably this leads, in combination with the geography skills mentioned above, to finding a holiday that works logistically when we are in our teens or adults: what can I expect to pay for a holiday that gets me from here to here? How much is the hotel here? How much is the event there? And do I have enough money to make allowances if things go wrong?
The conclusion: our every day skills are a great way of building a young person’s number and life capabilities without them even knowing about it.
Eliza’s language skills are limited; she’s only just turned two, and probably speaks about 50 words. By the end of our trip she had picked up a few more in a foreign language; she knew Bonjour and Au Revoir, and applied them at the right times. There’s some dispute over whether children are better at learning languages than adults, but little debate over the actual value of learning language. Children tend to be less self-conscious and perhaps therefore less worried about making mistakes in their language skills.
I tried to top up my language skills in the months leading up to the trip and learned enough to get by; for example, I could read shop signs, menus, and to some extent newspapers and TV subtitles. Much of this comprehension was a vestige from early secondary school; certainly the food and weather information has stayed with me from 20 years ago, as has a knowledge of the difference between past and present tense. Nowadays holidaymakers may find it much easier to rely on Google Translate but this is sometimes laughably incorrect, and in any event I sometimes struggled to get a signal to even use it. For one rare occasion my own rudimentary 25-year-old skills trumped technology.
Make no (strong) bones about it; an active and perhaps sporting lifestyle is a huge advantage when travelling. We live in a country where obesity is at an all-time high, leading to long-term fears for our health and NHS. That’s why the dreaded school sports day, and those horrible cross-country runs, have a purpose; making us healthier and fitter.
There is no better way of exploring the world than on foot, as eloquently written here.
Carrying a 15kg rucksack from one place to another, going up and down stairs (our flat in Marseille was at the top of a hill and on the third floor with no lift), and of course participating in several impromptu football matches with Ukrainian fans.
These are extremes, but think about the walks across town, the swimming and the surfing and trekking and jogging that many travellers enjoy no matter whether they are in Manchester, Madagascar or Melbourne. A love for sports, or even talking about them, plus a desire for a fit lifestyle from an early age, can only benefit this.
There are many other skills that we pick up at school that will help with travel; English, history, technology, science and others all play their part.
But perhaps the strongest skills needed for travelling across the world are the intangibles, such as communication, bravery, approachability and generosity. A good memory, a nice smile, an optimistic outlook and a desire to improve can cut across a lack of language or numerical skills, through the simple act of possessing the bravery of asking for help or learning from mistakes.
My wife and I are very different; my wife is far more optimistic and patient than me, while I’m more confident and imaginative in planning the holidays themselves. Are these skills new? No. I’ve always been quite forward in grabbing what I want, while my wife has always been better at dealing with things when they go wrong. Learning how to be a good friend and a good person in classes and while playing; caring for people; and coping with bad news are skills that we possess in differing measures, and somehow it’s all worked when we’ve travelled the world in such diverse locations as Hawaii, Borneo, New Orleans and Lapland.
Meanwhile, our daughter is very friendly; she likes to play a little game where she waves at people, and we see how many wave back. The hit rate is high. We had at least two beers bought for us by people impressed while watching how she behaved in restaurants. Yes, she was a little monster at times, but her social skills are blossoming and we hope that school will push them even further forward.
I have no doubt that one day, when Eliza takes her travelling steps without her old parents by her side, she will know how to enjoy the experience.