I collect countries. I have 25 in my passports so far - not that many I realise, especially when, depending on who you ask, there are about 193 countries in the world for me to visit. But I'm working on the remaining 165.
This isn't real travelling, of course - it's an exercise in box-ticking, it's intercontinental stamp collecting, trainspotting on planes. And it's a habit I'm trying to break. What, after all, does it mean to visit a country? I lived in Japan for 10 years; I speak the language, I know the culture, I could find my way round Shinjuku or Ikebukuro blindfolded, the sounds and smells of the city I called home for a significant part of my life the only guides I'd need. I once spent half an hour in the middle of the night on a bus as it drove through Luxembourg. But there's two of my two dozen countries ticked off right there.
I've seen Japan - I've really seen Japan. But can I claim to have seen anything, meaningfully, of Luxembourg? Or Switzerland, or Belgium, two more countries I passed through, fleetingly, on my way to Rome when I was barely out of my teens? But I'm claiming them because I damned well have been to them.
I don't think I can claim to have visited Denmark. I changed planes in Copenhagen once, back in 1991, when I first went to Tokyo. But I didn't leave the airport, just as I didn't a few years ago when I had four hours in Singapore between planes from Sydney to London. I ate something that tasted, I like to believe, fairly authentically Singaporean at Changi Airport, but I didn't leave the airport, and I didn't get a passport stamp. So I'll not try to claim that I've been to Singapore. Leaving an airport, among country collectors, is considered essential; leaving the motorway is subject to a smidge more debate.
As, for that matter, is the question of what counts as a "country". All countries are not equal: I've been to Russia, the world's largest country (a visa-free tour around Moscow of highly questionable legality during an overnight stay that wasn't supposed to leave the Soyuz Transit Hotel) and the smallest (the Vatican is the only country I've seen whose public spaces are entirely paved), and the boxes I ticked for both countries were the same size. They're both countries. But what about, say, Gibraltar? That was country number five for me, a stop on a family cruise when I was a child. They have their own passports, their own currency, there - does Gibraltar count as a country? Perhaps not. But I'm claiming it, because my 25 remains a disappointingly low number.
Hong Kong, and Macau, are even trickier. China's "one country, two systems" model claims that these two European colonies, folded back into China toward the end of the last century, are part of China. But when separate visas are needed for the two enclaves and for mainland China, and when my flight for Hong Kong left from Beijing's international terminal, and certainly when journeys between the three territories involve border crossings and, most gloriously of all, passport stamps, I'm counting them - Hong Kong was my 19th country, Macau my 20th, if you're keeping score at home.
But does it really matter? It does - my country collecting skews my travel planning. My family and I were planning a trip to Europe last year, and while we agreed on the UK, my home country, my wife also wanted to go to France, and my daughter was angling for a side trip to Italy. But I've already been to both of these countries - my sixth and 11th - and I was looking to Denmark, or Germany, or the Scandinavian Peninsula.
When we do eventually make it to Europe together, we'll go to Paris - I've been to France but, oddly, never its capital - and to Rome. I'll have a truly wonderful time, I'll explore two glorious, beautiful, thrilling cities. I'll eat some of the most unforgettable food, drink perhaps the best coffee in the world. It will be a fabulous trip. But I can hear myself already: "So maybe just a quick detour to the Netherlands?"