After holding on to her travel guidebooks for nearly 20 years, Mary de Ruyter decided to throw them away. But letting go wasn't so easy.
I threw away my old travel guidebooks today. It was far more difficult than I expected. In fact, it hurt so much that I wondered if I was making a mistake.
I could be accused of being sentimental (I have a tendency in that direction), but for me, there's something quite potent about these books. My guides for Britain, the Netherlands and Scotland were acquired for my OE, from 2000 to 2002. I've lugged them from flat to flat ever since, their blue spines faded from years of bookcase life, standing upright in the harsh New Zealand sun.
I'd often wondered why I was holding on to them. The information was hopelessly out of date – sometimes charmingly so. The Netherlands guide lists all prices in guilders, harking back to a time when you had to change UK pounds into yet another European currency, or cash travellers' cheques (remember them?), whenever you crossed a border.
The internet was slowly becoming a thing, although the books still included phone numbers far more often than websites. A note in each guide encouraged travellers to visit the publisher's website for updates – then print them out and stick them into the back of the book.
There were poste restante addresses (look it up, kids, it's a great service and still exists in some countries). The going rate for half an hour at an internet cafe was £2.50. That same princely sum would, in a small Scottish town, buy you a bowl of soup made from hydroponically grown vegetables. With bread.
I thought that once back from my OE, I'd use those guides to keep learning the history of these countries, in preparation for future trips. Skimming through them today, I was reminded of how much of these countries I haven't yet explored. Pages and pages of information about cities, churches and galleries; names as foreign to me now as they were then.
But some names shot arrows straight through my heart. I read "Kroller-Muller Museum" and was back in the Netherlands on a hot summer's day, cycling through scrubland in the Hoge Veluwe National Park towards an astonishingly good collection of van Goghs.
The London listing for Pollo, a Soho cafe offering pasta dishes for about £3.50, brought back memories of noise, crowded tables and eating cheaply because I'd spent all my money on theatre tickets.
Tintagel, Avebury, York – places of ancient stone and legends that I revelled in with wholehearted, fresh-off-the-plane wonder.
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Sometimes I was embarrassed to be seen using these books. Almost every backpacker in every kitchen of every hostel I stayed at was reading the guidebooks – yet I also met people who scoffed at those following the recommendations. (Those smug so-and-sos then loudly told stories about how they'd shunned guidebook recommendations to discover "authentic" experiences. "I'm not a backpacker, I'm a traveller," they'd say. Plonkers.)
But those guides were my guiding lights. They helped my young, apprehensive self feel a little less nervous about travelling as a solo female. They helped me establish my own way of orienting myself, and moving through the world.
When I held the books today, thinking about parting with them, I realised I was actually afraid of forgetting the sense of excitement I had when first setting out to see the world. One particular phrase is a lightning rod to my younger self. About the highlands of Scotland, a writer said: "This is one of Europe's last great wildernesses, and it's more beautiful than you can imagine."
On reading that before moving to Scotland, my heart clenched with excitement. I didn't know how I would get to that wilderness, but get there I would. And I did. And it was indeed more beautiful than I could have imagined. Re-reading those words today took me back for the briefest moment to that vast, breathless sense of possibility and freedom.
Maybe I held onto the books for so long because looking at them made me happy when I wasn't travelling. I have guidebooks, therefore I'm a traveller. I went to those countries. I will travel again, even though it isn't an option at the moment.
Still, there are books colonising my floor that deserve a place on a shelf. So out went the guides. As I tore off their glossy, familiar covers and photo pages in order to recycle the bulk of the paper, I felt a real sense of loss.
Maybe it was a mistake to throw out the books. Maybe I'll forget the excitement of walking through that departure gate, young and naïve, bound for foreign shores. That saddens me enormously.
But I'm a different person now (older, hopefully a little wiser), and I get different things from travel. That giddy, terrified, soaking-it-up feeling comes up only rarely – but it has made way for a deeper appreciation of the richness of difference, what people the world over have in common, and the knowledge that there's more to learn than I ever will in my lifetime. All the more reason to keep travelling.