On ways of seeing ourselves and others

‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!’

Every Scot (and I am one) knows these lines by heart. They’re from the pen of our national poet, Robert Burns, and the poem they appear in, “To a Louse”, which the poet helpfully subtitles, ‘on seeing one on a lady’s bonnet at Church’, is one of Burns’ best-loved.

In it, the poet catches sight of the loathed insect as it emerges from under the bonnet of the well-dressed young woman in front and proceeds to crawl over her ‘gauze and lace’ finery. This leads Burns to muse on the theme of appearances: how we appear to other people and how they appear to us. Wouldn’t is be useful, suggests the poet, if we were able to see ourselves the way other people see us.

Travel and travel writing go some way to providing Burns’ desired ability. This operates at two levels: in the picture reflected back to us by those who visit our own country (not always flattering), and the clearer image of ourselves and our society we build up when we travel abroad.

The writer Willa McDonald[1] echoes this when she says:

“The best [travel writing] is used by the writer to impart new insights, not just about the places visited, but about the writer’s own journey through life, particularly about what she takes for granted in her own way of thinking, her own homeland, both real and metaphorical”.

I have often thought that all young people, on reaching the age of 18, should be given an allowance of £1,000, and made to visit at least three other countries over the next month. Of course, the government here would never agree to this, particularly in the current recession. Using taxpayers’ money to fund a holiday!

This is, I believe, a false economy. Knowing how others live can make us more content with our own country’s foibles and bureaucratic systems. Nevertheless, the converse is also true: travel can make us much less willing to accept that X is ‘done that way’ simply because ‘that’s how it is’, if we see that it isn’t necessarily ‘how it is’ in other countries. As a result, we may be more willing to challenge the status quo at home. Perhaps this is the reason why no government has ever introduced such a scheme, or is ever likely to.

My own first bout of extended travel (to Germany) when I was 18 was a revelation. Among the many things that impressed were the trains. They were clean and on time (unlike Britain) and this, apparently, was the norm. In Britain today we continue to debate how to cut the volume of traffic on our roads and save the world from the consequences of CO2 emissions. Yet successive governments of all political hues have balked at the notion of further subsidising public transport.

It’s not just how people do things, but how they view things in other countries that can be revealing. My first ever trip to Norway was a case in point. During my time as a PhD student at Glasgow University, I made friends with three Norwegian students. One of them, Hege, invited me to visit her in Bergen. After being kissed on the cheek at the front door by her parents (something we Calvinistic Scots rarely do when sober), I made to walk into the house, when Hege told me to take off my shoes. I frowned. “Are you sure?” We each looked at the other as if they were crazy. “But… isn’t it a bit rude?”, I asked.

Here I should explain. As a child, the most insulting thing you could do in our house, in my mother’s eyes, was to take off your shoes. Still in Scotland, and I would guess in most of Britain, it remains something of a taboo.

This is a prime example not so much of ‘how others see us’ as how others view a specific action: two opposing perspectives on the same thing. In the UK, taking off your shoes means imposing hot smelly feet on your host and perhaps being ‘over-familiar’; in Norway, not removing them means bringing dirty outdoor footwear into someone’s home.

It took some explaining before my Norwegian friend was ready to believe it was considered ill-mannered in my country to take off one’s shoes. At the end of the discussion, we could each see the other’s viewpoint– but we each still thought ‘WE’ were right.

I witnessed another ‘cross-cultural incident’ when Hege and her room-mate first moved into a flat in Glasgow and were horrified to discover that, despite having a climate similar to Bergen (i.e. always wet), double glazing was not standard. “But that’s ridiculous. This bloody country!” complained Hege, outraged.

Often, when we go to live abroad, we become cultural agents provocateurs, moaning to anyone who’ll listen about how much better we do things ‘at home’. Yet we do so at our peril, and usually only till someone tells us to get back to our own ‘bloody country’.

Telling the natives how to run their own place rather defeats the point of travel. Human beings love difference and indulging in the pleasures of comparison, and we delight in reading about these things – even if the joy comes, ultimately, from concluding that ‘our place is better’.

But what constitutes travel writing? McDonald argues that the best of it ‘crosses many genres – part travelogue, part feature, part memoir’. Homer’s Odyssey can be read as an early travelogue, with epic similes about ‘wine-dark seas’ substituting for glossy photographs. It certainly made me want to visit Greece.

Another book that has inspired me to travel is Peter Høeg’s novel, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. It’s one of a handful of books I’ve finished and immediately started to re-read. Since then, I’ve longed to visit Greenland, and have been curious to find out as much as I can about the country and how to get there.

Many years ago when I was teaching in Scotland, a young Japanese student turned up in my class in a state of bliss, having at last fulfilled her ambition to come to the land of her literary hero, Sir Walter Scott. There was something very moving (if a little odd) about hearing a 23 year-old Japanese girl recite long passages written by a nineteenth century novelist few Scottish 23 year-olds these days have even heard of.

Foreigners’ views, even their preconceptions, of our own country can make us more appreciative of our own culture, including those areas that have been temporarily ‘lost’. There is, however, a downside for countries, like Scotland and Norway, with conspicuous cultural traits. In these countries, distinctive cultural markers inevitably end up debased and regurgitated as tourist tat: plastic trolls and Viking helmets, tartan Y-fronts with a naughty little slogan on the front, all inevitably made in China.

Yet, perhaps these plastic-‘authentic’ souvenirs also have a role to play in helping us ‘to see ourselves as others see us’. In allowing our major tourist outlets to purvey these plastic visions of a tartanised Scotland or trollified Norway, we have to acknowledge that we ourselves help to perpetuate stereotypes. If we’d rather tourists took home some Norwegian crystal or contemporary Scottish literature, surely we should impose a ban on the dross. But would anybody buy the quality stuff?

There’s a famous anecdote about the 1954 Hollywood musical Brigadoon. In case you haven’t seen it, the film is set in a mythical Scottish village that awakens every 200 years. Alas, when the location scouts arrived in the Highlands, the ‘real’ Scotland failed to live up to Hollywood expectation, prompting the producer to comment that he ‘went to Scotland and found nothing there that looks like Scotland’ (they eventually shot it on a Hollywood lot instead).

Travel, and the best travel writing can also force us to confront previously unknown and often uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our own country. The biggest culture shock I’ve experienced when travelling occurred in New Zealand. The trip didn’t start well. I arrived horribly jet lagged. Even so, my Kiwi relatives insisted I get out the car several times en route from Auckland airport to admire ‘their’ country (my uncle emigrated in the 1950s). At the third stop, a lay-by next to an unfathomably large field filled with what seemed like an infinite number of sheep, I felt the tears well up as I realised I’d travelled 12,000 miles to reach a country that looked just like, well … Scotland.

I soon realised, however, that New Zealand wasn’t at all like Scotland, despite superficial similarities. It’s not that I didn’t admire the beauty. The image of Cape Reinga, on the most northerly tip of the north island, will remain with me as one of the most exquisitely beautiful places I’ve ever visited. There is an ethereal quality to it, and it’s easy to understand why the Maoris believed the soul departed the body here. But for all New Zealand’s beauty, within a few days of my arrival, I was plagued by a dark malaise that would not leave.

It took me some time to understand what this was. Then, during the middle part of my stay, I journeyed alone to visit friends in the sub-tropical region of the north island. I’d been told that young New Zealanders were able to obtain their provisional driving licence at 15. On the bus journey to Kaitaia, I could see why. There were 20 miles between towns and only one small street with a few rickety shops, a school and a filling station when you got there. Public transport was limited, so kids had to drive themselves to school.

At the next ‘comfort-break’, I got off the bus and began to stroll along a beach. I looked out at the sea, at the long open road, and at the vast expanse of land around me, empty but for the millions of sheep. At that moment, I felt I was on the very edge of the world – and likely to fall off any minute. A terrifying image jostled its way to the front of my mind, of the continental shelf containing New Zealand tipping on its edge with me clinging to the side, and depositing me somewhere in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

It wasn’t just a sense of being ‘on the edge’ geographically, but of hovering dangerously at the outer limits of my own psyche.

Finally, during my last week in New Zealand, this all began to make a bit more sense. How odd it must be, I thought, to live in a country with no real history, at least no long-standing history of the majority, (in New Zealand I’d felt most at home among the Maori community). And, for the first time in my life, I felt ‘European’ – whatever that meant. Was it having a sense of history, or being able to visit an art museum that housed more than a handful of paintings from before the nineteenth century? Or the noticeable absence of buildings pre-dating the early 1900s? And if so, why hadn’t I felt the same in San Francisco?

Perhaps it was the very fact that much of New Zealand appeared on the surface to resemble my own country that made the cultural shift so difficult.

I don’t know. All I know is I returned to Britain with a kind of ‘cultural jet lag’ that lasted the best part of a month and made me want to keep all my friends close and read as many history books and see as many historical dramas on television as I could. And with a new sense of European identity.


Denne artikkelen ble først publisert i Tekstualitet 2009/10, da Hild Haaheim og Nina Bell Rui Aadna var redaktører.


About the author:

Sharon Norris was born and raised in Glasgow and was educated at the Universities of St Andrews (where Prince William went) and Glasgow – both very old. After her first St Andrews degree, she trained as a journalist and worked for the BBC before going back to take a PhD in English Literature – her thesis was on the Booker Prize – at Glasgow.



[1] McDONALD, W (2007), “Travel Writing – Taking the Road to Learn About Ourselves”, in The Writer’s Reader: Understanding Journalism and Non-Fiction, eds. Susie Eisenhuth and Willa McDonald, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 201.


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