It’s funny, but when I think of travel abroad, the literary example which comes to mind as an archetypal traveller and figure to emulate is Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs Pollifax, that geranium-growing grandmother and part-time CIA agent who carried her gentle, 1960’s tolerance, enthusiasm, and curiosity about the world unchanged (and unaging!) through decades, from her first appearance in 1966 to the fourteenth volume in 2000. Buchan’s Dick Hannay gets in there, of course. I know that one shouldn’t set off without some chocolate and ginger biscuits and a toothbrush in one’s pocket, and that one must, of course, be able to speak the language like a native, whether it’s Afrikaans, German, or Scots. I know that one’s malaria should act up at a plot-convenient moment. (Fortunately malaria hasn’t been known in Macedonia since, well, Hannay’s time, actually, so I shan’t be acquiring that particular Hannay-like attribute. Wish I could pick up his or Sandy’s skill for acquiring languages, though.) However, it’s Mrs Pollifax I end up thinking of as I pack.
Why is that? I think it’s because Mrs Pollifax always embarks on her journeys with open-minded enthusiasm. She’s willing and eager to be fascinated and delighted, wherever it is she’s going. This strikes me as an appropriate and useful philosophy for travel, an attitude worthy of cultivation. Also, she makes lists. Lack of a flashlight, suitable shoes, or an appropriate hat will not keep her confined to her room, should conditions require such. The lesson I take from that is that bandages for blisters, an umbrella or rain-poncho — these can make all the difference between enjoying an outing and being uncomfortable and unhappy, whatever the weather. Mrs Pollifax reads (if she’s allowed time) guidebooks. This means that she usually sets off with a little background knowledge against which to pin what she encounters, and, of course, a map. Well, last time my guidebook was at least good for providing amusement to my Macedonian friends, but I’m someone who feels really lost without a map against which to track the physical reality of where I am. (Which reminds me, I have a map of Skopje somewhere, must find that. Put it on the list …) Furthermore, Mrs Pollifax heads, if she has time, to New York, to buy herself a new (and usually somewhat startling) wardrobe. I bought a nice linen jacket and a pair of lightweight boots suitable for both formal receptions and sidewalk hiking at the Salvation Army. To each their own budget.
So, with the voice of Mrs Pollifax in my ear, and some emergency chocolate and biscuits, à la Hannay, in my rucksack, I think I am nearly ready.
Seventeen days till Macedonia.