Travelling is about getting far away from home, spending a long time in an exotic location, living on a budget, avoiding tourists, getting to know different people and having "an experience." Or is it?
Travelling is actually a state of mind that involves being open to other cultures and having a permanent sense of curiosity. A short summer holiday doesn't cut the mustard as this sense of curiosity can't be satisfied with resorts, museums and tourist attractions.
Many years passed before I realised you can "travel" in your own country, that we are actually surrounded by exotic locations, places we've never seen and dialects we don't understand. I sometimes do this by hitchhiking, cycle touring and visiting places outside my comfort zone.
Every year I take my kids on holiday to Scotland and this year I have a new plan - to show them at least one British city on the way north from Luton Airport. This year I decided to take them to Birmingham and stay in a hostel. They were fine about Birmingham but went on strike about staying in a hostel ("how can we share a room with strangers?" they wailed). In the end I gave up on the hostel, realizing that getting other people out of their comfort zones is damned hard.
I posted my plan to visit Birmingham on Twitter and got a post from an English playwright called Sophia Sheridan who asked why a wannabe travel writer like myself would be visiting a place like Birmingham (note to non-British readers: Birmingham has the reputation of being a boring, ugly dump that's best avoided).
I replied to my new found Twitter friend that I'm visiting England's second biggest city precisely because it's not somewhere a visitor to the UK would normally visit (cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh and St Andrews are the recommended locations).
Sophia's reply - "I can't wait to read your impressions" - was all the stimulus I needed for writing this article".
Birmingham blew me away. The city centre is beautiful. I didn't recognize it from the concrete jungle I visited several times in the 80s and 90s. A featureless city centre that was dominated by motorways and concrete blocks has been transformed into a charming series of pedestrian zones, parks and canals - with beautifully restored old buildings (where were they in the 80s?) and stunning new architecture.
We saw thousands of people with roots in the Middle East and Asia and I remember my friend Mario, whose mother was an Italian immigrant who ran a Greasy Spoon café in the centre of town, and realised that Birmingham is a big melting pot. It would be a great place to explore, much more interesting than those pretty university towns mentioned above which seem to be overpopulated by tourists and rich students.
I managed to get my kids out of their comfort zone when we reached Scotland, by taking them to Glen Coe and going on one of Britain's great ridge walks - the Aonach Eagach (pronounced Ana Kiga) and camping in the rain. The complaints were numerous but they'll remember the experience.