Susanna here, packing and gathering things for a research trip for the new novel, which has me here pondering travel in general, and how different people can visit the same place and walk the same streets and yet come away with such divergent impressions.
I had this illustrated perfectly not long ago while searching for historical details in traveller's narratives of Portofino in the first years of the eighteenth century. In those days, Portofino, Italy, was not yet the grand playground of the rich and famous that it would turn into in the mid-twentieth century. It was a place that travellers put into when they had to, if the weather or the winds were uncooperative. There wasn't much to see—a little fort, a lighthouse, a handful of houses with black slate roofs, a church, a couple of inns, and a good, sheltered harbour.
I only found two travel narratives, both written in French, that mentioned stops at Portofino.
In 1709, a Dominican Friar by the name of Jean-Baptiste Labat had stopped there with some companions. He'd had a terrible time. Everything had gone wrong for him. The innkeeper he'd been taken to had been rude and unwelcoming, the local judge called in to mediate between innkeeper and guests had been largely unhelpful, and the guards at the fort on the hill had been overly protective and suspicious and refused to let Labat and his companion explore and sightsee. On top of which, the local food had been substandard and difficult to digest, and in the end Labat and his companion persuaded their patron to let them move on to the next place without further delay.
Nearly twenty years later, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu was temporarily storm-stayed at Portofino, but even after a day a sea-sickness, he took his situation more cheerfully. "I mended my stomach at an inn," he wrote, "where I found good mullets, good wine, and good oil." And the next day he continued on his journey, quite happily.
It's possible, of course, that things had changed drastically in the space of those twenty years. It's possible the men were taken to two very different inns, with two very different innkeepers.
But I'm inclined to think the answer lies within the men themselves.
One of the things I have to do, as a researcher, is examine and analyze the source of any information I'm using, so I always look into the background of any person whose account I'm reading, so I can weigh it for bias.
The Dominican Friar was, to his credit, a very keen observer of detail. He noted those black slate roofs—very useful for a writer like me. He named the trees, and the crops. But he was also, in his prior post in the West Indies, a holder of slaves, and had personally subjected one of his slaves to a punishment of three hundred lashes.
Montesquieu, on the contrary, believed that "To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them."
The more I learned about the two men, the more I could understand what each brought with him into that little harbour at Portofino, and how that might have shaped their time there—why one hated every moment he spent in that beautiful place, while the other found only good memories.
I've always loved the poem Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy, which reminds us, in essence, that we won't meet monsters on our voyage unless we carry them with us, inside ourselves.
So I give the grumblers a wide berth, whenever I'm travelling. Let them be miserable.
I'd rather be like the Baron de Montesquieu, and find good wine and good company. Wouldn't you?
Have you met somebody nice on a holiday? Had something nice happen? I'd love to hear your vacation tales!