The World According to Elizabeth Gowing

Author and Beekeeper of the Balkans Elizabeth Gowing gives you the buzz on her world of travel

3 mins

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you? 

Ocean. Ironically, since the country I most celebrate living in is entirely landlocked.

First travel experience? 

I have a strong memory from being aged three when I travelled to live in Germany and saw the city in lights from the plane.

Favourite journey? 

The railway journey through the birch forest from Moscow to St Petersburg had an unforgettable eerie quality (not helped by me listening to a recording of Robert Harris’ Archangel) that made a great impression.

Top five places worldwide?

The north Cornwall coastline; Pristina’s Ethnological Museum; Lake Bosumtwe in Ghana; the trulli houses of Puglia where I learned to make foccacia; Essaouira.

Special place to stay? 

The Mazrekaj Kulla, a traditional fortified stone house designed as a safe place for families in blood feud, in a village by the Accursed Mountains between Kosovo and Albania. Restored by an international NGO the house is now available to rent for self-catering or with food cooked by a local women’s group.

Three items you always pack? 

Sellotape, a dictionary, green tea.

Passport stamp you're proudest of? 

My first visit to India, on my own, at the age of 17.

Passport stamp you'd most like to have? 

Into the Ukraine, where I’m hoping to go to talk to the native Albanian-speaking community which survives in three villages populated with families whose ancestors fled Albania in the 14th and 15th century with the coming of the Ottomans to Albania.

Guilty travel pleasure? 

Email. I’ll dive into an internet café even in (particularly in) the most unlikely places.

Window or aisle?

Window. I still like looking out for that early childhood memory of the lights spread out below me.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

My partner, Rob. If I didn’t like travelling with him, I wouldn’t like being at home with him.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

Best: Olives the size of peas, the first successful harvest at Mar Musa monastery in Syria. We were served them with flatbread for breakfast after a 4am start for morning service in the frescoed 11th century chapel.

Worst: As a vegetarian, my worst meal was being treated to a meal of meat and gristle, prepared in my honour at great cost by a family in Algiers.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Most surprising: Mongolia; I arrived there at the end of travelling the Trans-Siberian railway, which was the purpose of the journey, as a 60th birthday present for my mother. Because the train ride was the purpose I had done hardly any reading about the destination, and had no expectations of what it would be like. That taught me a lesson about good ways to travel.

Most disappointing: Mexico. In that case I had done plenty of reading but all the wrong kinds of books, and I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was for a non-Spanish speaker to have anything but the most superficial contact with Mexicans.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Anywhere that I’m likely to be shot at. I don’t really understand the thrill of near-death.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

At a kids’ club I went to at the age of eight we had a talk by some missionaries in Africa who told us that they had just arrived back in England and had spent the previous night sleeping in a bus shelter somewhere in Africa waiting for a bus delayed, to take them to the airport. I couldn’t get over the idea of such people being in the village hall with me, or the possibility of such adventure just one step away from Hampshire.

My travel hero is Edith Durham, a 37 year old (the same age as me) who, in 1901 on the verge of nervous breakdown, was prescribed Travel by her doctor. She travelled to the Balkans and came back with a deal for her invalid mother: she would stay as her nursemaid in north London for nine months of the year in exchange for three months of the year when she could be free to return to the Balkans. She travelled widely and wrote lively, forthright accounts of what she saw in the wild mountains no British woman had ever visited before, did great humanitarian work at the time of the Balkan wars, and is a national heroine to the Albanians (who name roads and schools after her). No biography has been written of her and I am currently finishing writing my story of her, Edith and I; adventures with an Edwardian Traveller in the Balkans.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I have an iPod playlist designed specifically to drown out braying laughter/ squabbling children/ officious information announcements.

What do you read?

Something set in the places I’m visiting, written by someone I’d be happy to have as a travelling companion. Something that makes me feel like a character in a story.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

The people who make me lose my faith in humanity are usually petty officials. You can see at almost every Customs point what the combination of limited power and extreme boredom do to bring out the bully in ordinary people.

The people who reaffirm my faith in humanity include almost everyone you meet travelling. Travellers themselves are usually nicer when they’re travelling than when they stay at home – they take risks, go with gut instincts, allow themselves irrational flashes of generosity, pool information, share food. Likewise, most of the people who host you when you travel teach you something about the meaning of generosity and hospitality, and how the less people have the more they seem willing to share.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

Albanian has an optative case, used for issuing blessings or curses. It’s also used for a handy response to the word for ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. In English I never know how to respond when someone says ‘bless you’ to me (especially because I was told as a child it was bad luck to reply with ‘thank you’) but in Albanian this minor social dilemma is solved. You sneeze, someone says to you ‘shëndet’ and you respond, ‘Shëndet paç’.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Cutting things fine.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

Doing this questionnaire.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

I travelled to Skhodra in northern Albania and got the sense I was travelling in time as well as place because I was researching my book on Edith Durham (see above) so I kept remembering phrases from her travel diary and rewinding to see the surroundings as it would have been a century ago. One day of research took me from the hospitality of the holy men at the Bektashi tekke in Gjakova, by ferry on the stunning Lake Komani, and then to meet the elderly grandson of Edith’s guide, Marko, who still had the walking stick given by Edith Durham to her guide, and letters from her to the family which I’d never seen before.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Wood fires and open drains.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

Given everything I’ve said about Sellotape and email, the view from a plane, and my iPod, I think it would be hypocritical to say anything but the present. We are so lucky in the opportunities we have for travel and the democratisation of travel (though of course this means that those who can’t travel now, for economic or visa restriction reasons are even more disadvantaged). On the other hand, if I’d travelled in Edwardian times I could have gone along with Edith Durham and that would have been a great thrill.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

The architectural delights and ice-cream round every corner of Rome, the hospitality and friendliness of Pristina and the multi-ethnicity of London. 

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