How Not to Keep a Travel Journal

Best. Wedding Present. Ever.

Well, it was the one that impressed me the most that day anyway: a large shiny gift box filled with fancy goodies from Paperchase. When I opened it up it seemed like the most thoughtful and tailored collection of life-enhancing little items in the pile.

The Book Journal was an obvious pick for this English teacher who’d organised a book-themed wedding, complete with invitations in the style of a Penguin paperback. There was also a Wine Journal – so suitable for the type of grown-up married people we had now officially become, what with the living in France and learning about domaines, et tout ça.

Then there was a Travel Journal – a delight for the stationery-obsessed, its reams of paper interspersed with pockets made of cardstock, and plastic display pages for tickets, with a handy zipper pouch at the back and a cover scattered with faux visa stamps. Back in 2010, those pages were fresh and clean, their lines ready to be filled with all the adventures ahead.

Now they’re filled with 8 years’ worth of those adventures, right?

Wrong. A few weeks ago (a few days before the 31 January tax return deadline, to be specific) I cleared out a box lazily labelled ‘Archive’. Among the redundant bank statements and French medical records in triplicate, there was my travel journal, stuffed to the broken elastic with brochures and information booklets, tickets and town plans…and no words. Well, hardly any. Just enough to provide depressing evidence of great intentions abandoned by the wayside: one day trip, and one day one of a road trip. But I had used the handy pockets!

Travel journal and old passports
A journal stuffed full of I’ll-write-it-later

At the end of last year I shared pics of my lovely new stationery obsession on Instagram. This was another thoughtful parting gift from an Indonesian friend (all the Indonesian people and things are so stylish!)  ‘The Traveller’s Journal’ includes a high-quality notebook, slotted inside a bright and beautiful folding batik pouch, with pockets that would fit passports, boarding passes and our lovely yellow fever vaccination cards. Who could resist the accompanying bookmark with instructions on how to tie the enclosing ribbon that reminded me of pulling together the folds of a kimono? Surely, since I would have to keep my documents to hand anyway, holding such a tactile and appealing thing in my hand would inspire interesting scrivenings whenever I had the chance?

That journey produced a grand total of four paragraphs during transit in Charles de Gaulle (maybe I’ll share soon my theory about The Trouble With Charles de Gaulle). At least that time I had the excuse of travelling solo with children.

But what is The Trouble with Travel Journals? Is it trying to find the balance between experiencing and observing that stops me from taking notes? Is it that the days are too full to stop and reflect? That certainly comes into play when travelling as a family.

There was one trip when I did successfully track of our experiences: our holiday in the Seychelles two years ago, when we booked ourselves into an all-inclusive resort, and didn’t stray much further for two glorious weeks. I had plenty time for writing then. But what did I write? ‘Went to beach…stayed by pool…ate lunch…back to beach…’ And some rather banal reviews of the food or my spa treatment. Those were blissful days, but they would not make for an insightful exploration of place and culture.

But, I do see now that reading those notes takes me to another place, reminds me of family moments that photos can’t capture, and triggers memories of more detail and sensations than I had even noticed at the time.

Here’s a cautionary tale:

About three years ago, during our second stint in south-west France, we took our boys to Carcassonne. We’d been there 5 years earlier, during our honeymoon road trip. That had certainly been a romantic interlude, with our hotel balcony that overlooked the city walls, and the pedestrian-only streets that emptied of daytrippers in the evenings. But this time we had two energetic little boys, and we couldn’t wait to show them the place where you could virtually live in a medieval castle.

Carcassonne Walls
Along Carcassonne’s walls

After busy days of exploring crenellated battlements, following feet in velcroed sandals running over the cobblestoned lanes, playing football and laying out picnics inside the double walls – and laden with various foam swords and other weaponry – we sat down to plan our drive home. It would be nice to take a scenic route instead of the autoroute. We spread out map and guidebook, analogue-style, in our hotel’s garden. (Top tip, GPS/Google Maps addicts: the AA road books line scenic roads with a band of green that never fails to disappoint.)

After a few minutes MT came up with the ideal detour: the guide book referred to Montolieu as ‘The Village of Books’, since it is home to 15 second-hand and antique bookshops, and it would still take us in the general direction of Toulouse without adding too many driving hours. Perfect – the boys had had their fortress fun, now we could have our bookish fun.

As we drove into the village, past typical stone houses, turning a corner past l’école, I started to get a sense of déjà vu. Which can happen once you’ve driven through a lot of southern French villages; they can get a bit samey. But as we approached the Place de l’Eglise, the atmosphere in the car started to prickle. ‘Um…’ said MT.  ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘We’ve been here before!’

And of course we had. It came trickling back. Of course we’d done the very same thing after our first visit to Carcassonne (the honeymoon that followed the bookish wedding, you will recall). Except we’d completely forgotten about it somewhere along the line, because I hadn’t written it down.

As it turns out, during that same archive clearout I found – and got rid of – an old filofax I’d been using at the time, salvaging just a couple of pages where I had, in fact, recorded the bare minimum of that trip – the dates of each stop on the road.

Diary pages
The ultimate in minimalist travel journalling

Except Montolieu. If I had, I’d also have noted that on Sundays almost all the bookshops are (of course) closed. And here we were, back again, on a Sunday.

(We did find a couple of open bookshops, where I bought a new-to-us copy of Le Petit Prince to replace the one I’d been reading the boys for years and was falling apart, and older son chose a book about medieval castles with see-through pages for behind-the-walls action.)

Even if I hadn’t gone back and read every scribble I’d written about that visit, the very act of writing down the name would have helped preserve it in my memory for future reference. Still, this time, there was no forgetting the village we discovered twice. Except its name. Full disclosure: I just used Google Maps to find its name. Montolieu. It’s called Montolieu. I think I’ve got it now.

Perhaps part of the reason I’ve not yet succeeded at travelling journalling is that I don’t want to just write scribbles and bullet points and rushed aide-mémoires. I don’t wanna! My favourite writing moments are the ones where I’m in unfamiliar surroundings, with no other calls on my attention but the notebook in my hand, and I can langorously sketch out what’s there, paint with the words, as I’ve done here and here, for example.

But perhaps the one-sentence memory triggers are just as useful. Those filofax pages have in their own way taken me back to another time and place, inspired new ideas and new plans.

If I can’t make the langorous moments happen when I’m out in the world, home or away, by putting aside the phone and delaying the to-do list, then recording the time and place is the least I can do.

But here’s my plea to fellow travellers: tell me how you do it! Do you rely on photos and journal apps to keep track? Are you keeping it simple with quick place-holders of where and when? Scribbling and sketching while the kids clamour for an ice-cream? Or perhaps you’re whipping out the lightweight laptop at every café table and getting your full blog on.

Comment below (or on instagram or facebook) with tips, advice or just to let me know it’s not just me!


4 thoughts on “How Not to Keep a Travel Journal

  1. I also have travel journals filled with tedious lists of activities. I like to think that’s because the days are so full, there’s no time to write. And that’s a good thing. Better the memory aids, quick jottings and photographs. I can’t think of a single travel writer who had kids along…. Jan Morris. Paul Theroux. Elizabeth Gilbert. Pico Iyer. Maybe it’s something to save for those empty nest years. xo

  2. This was actually oddly useful to read! I had a similar experience when gifted this gorgeous notebook before my departure to Asia. I had so many glorious intentions, but found it never became that travel journal I envisaged. Once, though, I made a notebook work. Just a small little thing I’d thrown in for good measure before eight days in Vietnam. And whenever we stopped for coffee or a meal or a quick break, I’d jot down everything I could – especially feelings and impressions – from whatever had happened in those past few days. Now, I’m like you and I want to properly write a great ode to what’s happened. But those notes bring back so much more than I’d have imagined. I’ll be trying my theory again, I hope. I’ll look forward to seeing what you’ve come up with too!

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