10 challenges of being a non-native speaker

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With every language you try to learn, you are opening up common ground with potentially millions of new people. That’s a great thing. But when you have to live your life in that language, you are also opening up a world of uncertainty and struggle. Those foreign words that represent thousands of years of a unique culture can be your enemies as well as your friends.

These are just some of the challenges that come up every day when you are trying to make your way in a foreign language. Next time you speak to a faltering non-native speaker, be kind. They are on a socially painful journey marked by some, if not all of the following trials and tribulations.

  1. The Pained Look. Known to all language learners. Unless you have perfect command of the language and the words flow error-free (there are a lucky few who get to this level), you will regularly come across the pained look when you try to express yourself. The look appears when you are struggling to get to the end of what you want to say, or when you make a mistake, or just because your accent is grating on the listener’s sensitive ear.  It’s a little bit crushing every time.
  2. The Quality Dive. You have reached a level of proficiency that is good enough to get you through almost any situation without drawing attention to yourself or sparking the pained look. You start to feel comfortable, maybe even a tiny bit proud. Then comes a quality dive. Without any warning, you enter a new situation and your language ability suddenly crumbles. It could be small talk at the playground or handing over your car to a mechanic. You will either be unable to find the key words to say whatever banality you reach for, or you will destroy a sentence with mistakes like hand grenades. Once the unravelling starts, it won’t stop until you exit the situation. Crushed again.
  3. You’re Hilarious. This comes when you mix up words and say something completely out of place. These slapstick language moments cause great merriment – to others. Like when I wanted to say insecure but said the word uninsured (unversichert versus verunsichert). Funnier than you’d think.
  4. The Ceiling. Language learning goes in phases. There is the early fun phase where the words are like pieces of Lego and you are the child and you can’t believe you can build sentences. Everything is fresh and fun. This is followed by the hard grind years, where you have to knuckle down and learn difficult things like case endings and verb conjugations and build up your vocabulary to the point of being able to manage whatever life throws at you. Eventually this pays off and you get to a shaky level of fluency, which can sometimes masquerade as real fluency. This I call the ‘look Mum no hands’ phase. From here you think you’ll get to real fluency one day until suddenly, with a blow to the head, you hit the ceiling. You have exhausted your learning ability. Even if you live another fifty years in this country you will never get any better. A chain of mistakes has infected your speech like a virus never to be dislodged. This is where you will stay, a big step short of perfection and comfort, deprived of the ability to be witty or clever forever.
  5. The Nerves. Because of your imperfect mastery of the language, nerves can hit unexpectedly at any time. This often happens when you need to make a phone call and can’t fall back on the support of facial expression and gestures. A task that you would do without the slightest hesitation in your own language – making a dental appointment, ordering curtains – becomes a test of courage. You have to look up words, pace the room and work up the nerve to communicate. It’s humbling.
  6. Out of the Loop. This is where someone refers to a person or event, a book, television show or comic, and you either have to hold up the whole conversation while someone explains to you what Max and Moritz is/was or you have to feign understanding and guess your way across the gap.
  7. Nodding and Smiling. When you didn’t quite understand what the person said but don’t want to do the whole stop and repeat palaver so you smile and nod. This works well most of the time, except when you are rumbled and come across like you either don’t care what the person is saying or are only pretending to understand everything. Cringe. In a group setting you may have to give up for a while until the conversation gets back onto solid ground. Go to a loud place and you turn into your deaf grandmother, hopelessly lost with no choice but to opt out of all the shouted conversations around you.
  8. Not a Whit of Wit. You might be the Oscar Wilde of your own language but in a foreign tongue you have to give up any hopes of being the funny one. Attempts to throw in witty one liners will fall flat, either because your humour doesn’t cross cultural lines or because you didn’t phrase it right. Resign yourself to laughing at other people’s jokes, if you understand them.
  9. Simpleton. You get used to searching for the simplest way to explain something or present an idea. You will not have three or four words to choose from to refine your point. Some contributions you will not even bother trying to make. The less vocabulary you have at your disposal, the less interesting you will be. Welcome to your new personality.
  10. Kids are Cruel. If you think the pained look is bad, try blank incomprehension. Many children cannot accept or believe that an adult is speaking to them incorrectly. Do they help you out, try to meet you half way? No, they are children. They don’t like speaking to adults anyway so they just boycott your efforts and leave you hanging.

The only way to get through all these challenges is with a big helping of patience and a dollop of humility. Learning is a painful process but there are rewards – people who appreciate your efforts, people who love your accent, friendships you would otherwise never have made. And then there are the good days, when you get through twenty-four hours without any of the above happening!

Does this sound familiar? What are your experiences of struggling with a foreign language? Or are you one of the lucky truly fluent few? I’d love to hear from you.

My other perfect life

Don't get me started on Swiss home decorations
Autumnal scene in Bern, Switzerland

A simple effective way to banish clutter forever. This is the beguiling promise on the cover of Marie Kondo’s book about tidying. It’s big in Japan. But not only in Japan. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying has been published in more than 30 countries and has sold 1.5 million copies.

A colleague recommended the book to me when he was in between jobs. A bit of a hoarder, he said it really helped him gain control over his environment and achieve clarity. Kondo makes great claims about the transformative power of tidying. I had to find out more.

One of the reasons I love writing is because I have discovered it is something I can see through to the end. I get the satisfaction that only comes from completing a job properly. In other areas I’m not so good at getting across the finish line.

Kondo starts by telling us that there is no use in partial tidying. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. You have to follow her method through to the end, tidying your possessions in every category and every room – every single object – until the job is completely done. Only then can you reap the benefits of the new better life that has eluded you thus far.

I was intrigued by this idea of a better life being just out of reach. Better lifestyle is more accurate. Like that inadequate feeling you get from looking through an Ikea catalogue. I went to Ikea this week but my house is just as cluttered and uncoordinated as it was before I went!

To be fair, Kondo is not saying you can achieve your dreams by buying more objects. She wants us to work hard to reduce the burden of unnecessary objects. True to form, I only made a half-baked attempt at the Kondo method. I will not be granted access to that better life. But I do have her to thank for a massive clear out of my wardrobe.

The Kondo test for whether or not to keep an object is very simple. You have to hold it and ask yourself if it sparks joy. Joy-sparking objects in; non joy-sparking objects out. Now obviously this test doesn’t apply to the tin opener but can be used for almost anything non-essential, she says.

Even though I won’t get to live my other perfect life, I thought it would be fun to list some of those unfulfilled aspirations. In my other life:

I use the juicer I bought to make juices every morning with fresh spinach

I volunteer for several charities.

I have a low meat diet and can think of tasty new vegetarian dishes all the time.

The front path is swept and leaves no longer blow into the hall when I open the door.

I have a short-haired dog or no dog (as opposed to a very hairy collie).

I make homemade ketchup.

My children enjoy dried fruit as a snack.

I let my hair go naturally grey and it really suits me.

I can ski better than my children.

I don’t have a car.

I buy farm produce.

I go horse riding once a week, with galloping.

I banish clutter forever.

May all your troubles be little ones, as they say. So, are you a clutter clogs or a tidy terror? What super lifestyle are you missing out on? I’d love to hear your secret wishes …

The A to Z of rejection for writers

© Witthaya Phonsawata, freedigitalphotos.net
© Witthaya Phonsawat, freedigitalphotos.net

Hi, my name is Clare and I’m a submitting writer. It’s been one day since my last rejection. This post goes out to all those who are submitting their work to agents, competitions, journals or the man in the moon. Big hugs everyone.

Rejection ALWAYS comes when I least expect it. Thanks smartphone. The latest polite message came when I was walking aimlessly around a forest. Tip: rope parks are more fun for kids than for the accompanying adult on the ground.

Every rejection is a test of your BELIEF in yourself and your work.

Accept the CHALLENGE! One particular person at one particular point in time cannot or does not wish to take this specific piece of work. Change the person, the time and the piece and anything is possible.

DESPAIR will make an appearance with each rejection. Keep it brief. Just let the big D come and go again and you’ll be fine. Treat the two imposters just the same and all that.

In the old days writers waited for the postman. Now the poison dart is sent by EMAIL and you will hear a ding before you are struck. Assume the crash position and click!

You come to treasure the personalized rejections because they contain precious FEEDBACK. We will take these crumbs from the publishing table because, you know, starvation. Hearing that my story was “strongly crafted” gives me wings.

Submission GUIDELINES. They are serious about this S**T. Ignore at your peril.

HOWEVER. This word comes after something half positive like “I genuinely liked the work” or “I enjoyed reading your chapters”. It means no.

INSIDE job. Don’t get all bitter about other people getting published because of some perceived unfair advantage. Authors get dropped by publishing houses all the time. You still have your chance.

JUST be yourself. Authentic work is what counts. There is no point trying to mould your writing to fit a particular fashion. Anything that is popular now is likely to be old hat by the time you are submitting and your version won’t ring true.

KNOWLEDGE The publishing industry is just that, an industry. Don’t be a total ingénue. Do your homework and be preprared for a long apprenticeship.

You’ve got to LAUGH a little, cry a little, until the clouds roll by a little.

“Could you send me the full MS?” These words herald a good day. The great big hot air balloon of hope rises but you need to pull it back down quickly. At the very least it will lead to precious feedback.

NETWORK. I’m not talking about stalking agents, although twitter is good for building up a picture of someone. The best networking you can do is among peers who support each other and pass on valuable information.

ORGANISATION is a key part of perseverance. Do the research and keep a record of every submission and whatever progress it makes. Keep a note of what agents / journals are looking for. Could save you legwork the next time.

Nobody likes to be ignored but that doesn’t mean we can break the golden rule of submitting. Be POLITE. You don’t want to end up the star of the ‘crazy author’ anecdote at the annual agents’ bash.

QUITTING. Don’t even think about it. If Donal Ryan sent his second book out to 45 agents, I’m not giving up after 16 and neither are you. But don’t forget to write the next book or story. Helps take the sting out of things.

Be prepared for RADIO silence from time to time. It happens. Even after a request for a full manuscript. Some agents simply cannot keep up with their correspondence. Not to be taken personally.

STANDARD rejection. ‘Not right for my list.’ ‘Unable to offer representation at this time’. ‘He’s just not that into you,’ as Miranda would say. If you are getting annoyed by standard rejections, try drafting your own to see if you can do any better.

Submitting is a quest and should retain at least a modicum of enjoyment and optimisim. If it’s becoming a grim obsession give yourself some TIME OUT.

Don’t UNDERESTIMATE how long the process of submission is. Putting together a good submission takes time and effort. Multiply that by a large number and then add the waiting game. We are in this for the long haul or we might as well forget it.

VANITY. Actually this should be PRIDE but I’ve already used up my P. We all want recognition but don’t let pride become too central in this quest. Modesty is the best policy.

WORD count. The devil is in the detail. 10,000 words, the first three chapters, one-page synopsis, under 500 words, less than 3,000 words. Read the fine print.

The eXCEL sheet is where you keep track of all the rejections. Date sent, name, email, submissions policy, response. Mine is colour coded (I know). After each rejection I upate the file and I feel back in control. An important little ritual.

YES! One day you too will be asked to the ball and you will be able to smile and say YES!

ZEN is the only way. The writing is one thing and the business is the other. The hard truth is that not everyone can get picked for the team so let’s keep this in perspective. Life outside writing has to be more important.

To the disgruntled aunt on the train

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Really I should be writing to the nephew of the woman I overheard complaining on the train yesterday. You see the nephew hosts Christmas dinner in his house, as the disgruntled aunt explained to her travelling companion (a woman of few words), and anyone else in the carriage who spoke Swiss German. He invites the extended family, including his disgruntled aunt, for a fondue chinoise on December 24th.

(Cultural note: fondue chinoise is not remotely traditional but it has become really popular as the seasonal celebratory meal. You have a big platter of thin strips of raw meat and each person spears their piece of meat on a fork and cooks in a hot broth set up over a flame on the table. This is eaten with French fries, salad and a selection of up to five mayonnaise based sauces for the meat.)

Now the disgruntled aunt usually contributes lamb’s lettuce (Nüsslisalat) to this meal and she brings a lot more than is needed, a kilo in fact. So the nephew has at least 500g left over and can eat lamb’s lettuce all week. Lamb’s lettuce lasts for ages.

But this year the nephew is asking the guests to chip in to pay for the meat. The aunt is outraged, what with all the extra lamb’s lettuce she’s been providing , not that she ever got a word of thanks or recognition for that. And lamb’s lettuce is not cheap.

In revenge this year, the loud aunt will contribute only 500g of lettuce and certainly no money and we’ll see what the nephew thinks of that.

There is a separate row simmering in the family over the Christmas songs. Another relative takes it upon herself to print out a booklet of Christmas songs for everyone to sing together and there have been mutterings about the songs being too old fashioned, and there is one in particular that the loud aunt cannot abide and she has asked the other relative to strike it out because she simply cannot bear it.

The disgruntled aunt provided some entertainment for her fellow travellers today but also a little food for thought. Why is the nephew hosting a party he cannot afford, inviting people who are less than grateful? If he can afford it, why is he asking for money? Is this the kind of Christmas gathering these people should be having? How many other people are chained to arrangements that they are dreading? And of course, wouldn’t this gathering make a very entertaining Christmas film?

All this reminds me of a sweet poem by Frances Cornford which I first heard earlier this year from a colleague of mine who recited it at a very apt moment, the details of which I can’t remember now.

To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much.

This post is in tribute to Maeve Binchy, the great advocate and champion of listening in to conversations.

10 good things about not being published

Take a seat (© Clare O'Dea)
Take a seat (© Clare O’Dea)

Writing is a very private and personal affair; publishing is anything but. I seem to be hearing a lot lately about published writers living not so happily-ever-after once their first book is out there. They have to deal with changes they were pressured into making, a title or cover they don’t like, poor sales or reviews, stressful book promotion and the pressure to get the next book written or accepted.

On some level I must be taking this in and yet it has about the same effect as hearing about someone else’s unhappy marriage, when you and your chosen one are still love-struck and kissing on a park bench.

So just to celebrate the journey, here are ten great things about writing while it’s all about passion:

1. Just the Two of Us: You spend a lot of time together and you’ve been through a lot. The characters have become real people whose unfolding stories keep you from ever feeling bored. After that long process of building a relationship sentence by sentence, you are protective of your manuscript. Nobody who isn’t hand-picked by you will get to comment on your work. You’re slightly unhinged about the book but who cares, it’s mine, all mine!

2. Dream a Little Dream: If you haven’t tried to get published yet, you haven’t tasted failure and this is the time when you can still dream big. On your first query letter, the agent will instantly get back to you asking for more and it will be love at first sight for him or her. This will be followed by a bidding war, a fabulous launch party, the big reaction, the prizes, translations, interviews. Who will play your lead character in the hit movie?

3. Sitting on the Dock of the Bay: There has to be a certain self-imposed pressure or you would never have got as far as finishing the book, but it is self-imposed and therefore adapted to your reality and routine, and, well, if you keep extending your deadline, no one minds but you.

4. Wild World: This may not apply if you have started submitting your novel but before that phase, you are delightfully naïve about the whole publishing business. That innocence is something you’ll probably miss someday.

5. All By Myself: You know the argument, partly because successful self-published authors are very vocal about it. Agents are the gatekeepers to a moribund publishing industry that excludes good books from reaching the audience they deserve. You can spend your life crying over your forty rejection slips or take matters into your own hands and bring out your own book. Better still, don’t even bother submitting to agents and publishers, put your energy into self-publishing and reap the rewards.
When you are still writing you can ignore this whole debate, as it’s only academic – for now.

6. It Had to Be You: Somewhere out there is someone who will like your work, believe in what you do and put their heart and soul into getting your book off the ground. You haven’t met them yet, but when you do find the one, it will all have been worthwhile. In the meantime, you can dream about getting the call.

7. You’re So Vain: If you haven’t had the good fortune of having your book chosen by an agent or a publisher then you won’t have experienced the begrudgery backlash that inevitably comes with success. Even writing buddies you laboured uphill with may not be immune from thinking sour thoughts about you.

8. Learning to Fly: Writing your first novel is special because it’s an intense learning process, and that makes it very interesting. You can do the learning in advance or learn as you go about point-of-view, antagonists, show-don’t-tell, foreshadowing, revising. Either way it’s a pleasure.

9. With a Little Help from My Friends: Since I started writing two years ago I have met many wonderful people – some in person and some through social media – who have been bitten by the same bug. Some I now count as friends, whose support and understanding light the way on this sometimes lonely journey.

10. When I Wish Upon a Star: Before you write a book, there has usually been a long period of carrying around that wish and doubting your ability ever to achieve it. That fantastic feeling of satisfaction when you get to the last page is for keeps, and it is independent of the publishing outcome.

Did I miss anything folks?

Screen time, live to fight another day

stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent
stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent

Yesterday I spent about ten hours in front of a screen – eight in the office, one on my laptop at home and one watching television. More if you count the hypnotic hour of windscreen time I spent on the motorway. If this is the world we live in, why am I engaged in such an exhausting and long-running battle to keep my kids away from screens?

It’s almost as if (weird music) I’m trying to replicate the conditions my own childhood. The difference is that back then there was no such thing as games consoles, mobile phones, DVDs, internet, ipads, children’s channels and the rest. How easy it must have been for parents to limit screen time when the only thing on offer was a two-channel television.

In this house another Christmas has come and gone with Santa ignoring all the requests for screen devices that dominated my children’s lists. There is no television allowed during the school week and the children sometimes complain bitterly about the screen desert they are forced to live in. I’m starting to wonder if this puritanical approach will backfire one day. What if they spend the rest of their childhood seeking out contraband screen time? What if they become air traffic controllers?

I’ve tut tutted with other likeminded parents about kids staring at ipads in restaurants or watching films on car journeys. The prospect of a generation of people growing up unable to entertain themselves or practice the art of conversation is not very appealing. But I wonder if my resistance to the norm is becoming a little self-righteous? Not to mention a little hypocritical, considering that blogging and writing involve a fair amount of screen time.

So, while I will continue to worry about how much fruit and veg they are eating, whether they are dressed warmly enough and looking properly before they cross the road, I think the time has come to ease up a little on the screen restrictions.

By the way, if you can’t read what’s in the speech bubble in the cartoon above, the mother is saying: ‘Isn’t it great to have some quality time with the family’. I came across this back in the Irish Independent last September and it now lives on our fridge.

What do you think? Am I throwing in the towel too easily? Anyone else managing to keep the screens at bay?

The tyranny of show don’t tell

I’m so constrained by the show don’t tell writing commandment these days it feels like working with a straightjacket on. For those not familiar with the concept, it is deemed to be the hallmark of good writing that the author shows you what emotion or dynamic is at play (through dialogue, body language, behaviour, surroundings) rather than telling you. Telling it straight is like burning a church (incidentally, my grandmother once told me that mashing new potatoes – I was going through a mashing everything phase – was like ‘burning a church’ and I’ve since discovered that this was something of an exaggeration and in fact no charge of sacrilege can be brought connected to potatoes).

At the risk of stretching the point a little, may I present:

The Climax of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, shown not told (translation in brackets).

Goldilocks was woken by the sound of heavy footsteps, the scrape of claw on wood. Through half-closed eyes she noticed large shapes blocking out the light. Her hands flew to her throat, which filled with a silent scream, when she realised she was in the presence of three bears.

(Goldilocks woke with a start when the three bears came into the baby bear’s room. She was desperately frightened at the sight of the bears.)

“Someone has been sleeping in my bed,” said the smallest bear, jumping up and down, his voice unnaturally high, “and here she is!”

(“Someone has been sleeping in my bed,” said the baby bear, full of excitement, “and here she is!”)

Goldilocks leapt out of the bed, climbed out the window and ran away, the muscles in her little legs aching as her feet pounded a rapid rhythm on the forest floor.

(Goldilocks jumped out of the bed, climbed out the window and ran away as fast as her little legs could carry her.)

God it’s exhausting!

What’s the book about?

That random feeling
That random feeling (© Clare O’Dea)

Now there’s a question to get an aspiring writer sweating. Since I started writing in earnest and gradually educating myself about the world of writing, I’ve discovered there are lots of extremely important rules out there. I’m not talking about mere guidelines; I’m talking about make-or-break, tarnish-your-name-forever-should-you-break-them rules.

Naturally it is understood that anybody exceptionally talented can disregard all the rules because the brilliance of their writing will override any other considerations but it is also understood that the newbies listening to the oracle dispensing the rules do not fall into that category of genius.

Last November in the draughty bar of a Co Wicklow hotel with a British soap character giving birth at top volume on the television in the background, a friend of mine leaned across his third cup of tea and told me one of the most basic and sacred of rules of all. Figure out what your book is about and learn to articulate that idea in one line.

When you get hit with the big question, you do not, as I had done earlier that evening, ramble or search for words. You do not use the phrase ‘well it’s about this woman who …’ .Neither do you start to list the early plot points like a random chain of events. What you do is delivery your pre-prepared killer synopsis: It’s a coming-of-age story set in a 19th century Boston brewery during the great beer strike with an unlikely heroine, the head cooper’s teenage mistress who was born in a coffin ship. For example.

After that you will be confident enough to field any follow-up questions. The danger, my friend explained, is that if you cannot effectively describe what your book is about, then you might be in a naked emperor situation. You might just have written thousands of words about nothing in particular, producing a meandering story which is all flesh and no skeleton, all paths and no map, all filling and no crust. Well you get the idea.

I’m fresh from a book club gathering last night where we discussed the remarkable first novel by Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife. (Yes, she is one of those who can disregard the rules). Here is a book that knits together vibrant strands of stories over many decades and explores numerous big themes – war, death, guilt, Balkan history and folklore, a grandparent-grandchild relationship, the outcast in society, enduring love. I could go on. I’d say the author had trouble summing the book up in one line when she was writing it but that’s neither here nor there. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Obreht when I attend her talk at the Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire next month.

Meanwhile I will keep mulling over my one line.

‘Hold on, I just have to answer this’

Gr8 to hear from you
Gr8 to hear from you

It’s taken a fortnight of messages back and forth to arrange an afternoon meeting with my busy friend. Finally she’s pouring me a cup of tea in her over-decorated sitting room and we have each other’s undivided attention until the nanny returns with the children from the park in an hour.

Time is short so I skip the opening chit chat about plans for the summer holidays. I’ve always trusted her judgment and I have something important to tell her. It’s about Charles, I begin. I really don’t know what I’m going to do …

There’s a knock at the door and I close my mouth mid-sentence while she deals with the interruption. I take small sips of my tea feigning patience while she opens the envelope she has just been handed. Could she not have waited until I was gone?

Then with a little guilty look, the letter fluttering in her beautifully manicured hand, she jumps up. “Hold on,” she says, “I just have to answer this,” and before I can say a word she is scribbling a note at her writing desk by the window.

Sound familiar? That little scene I wrote for fun is set in London in the 1890s. Believe or not there were between six and 12 postal deliveries per day in the city at that time (depending on the area) which meant correspondents could exchange multiple letters within a single day.

What did they write about? The same things we do, I suppose. With such a high frequency of communication, the residents of Victorian London probably also wrote their fair share of banal messages along the lines of: “what are you wearing tonight?” or “can you pick up cough syrup on your way home?”

As a new smartphone user I am getting used to constant interruptions with SMS, email and social media notifications. I’m not sure I like the dependency that’s creeping in. When I’m out of earshot of my phone I automatically check the screen when I come back to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

If I hear the little chime from my bag when I’m with someone, I can’t let many minutes go by without checking the message. I try to resist the temptation to respond immediately but can’t say for sure that I haven’t occasionally asked a friend to hold on while I answered a message.

The expectation is there that we will respond to each other rapidly. Unanswered texts, direct messages and mails buzz around in the back of my mind like restless wasps. I’m afraid if I don’t answer promptly I might break communication law by forgetting to answer at all!

The Victorians loved their books of etiquette. Maybe it’s time someone wrote a survival guide for the smartphone era. Any takers?

The ultimate Italian tourist trap

Pisa, July 2013
Pisa, July 2013

We know birds fly south for the winter but northern Europeans have a different migratory pattern – they drive south for the summer. Amazingly, the Mediterranean region is the world’s most popular holiday destination: it attracts some 120 million visitors from northern Europe each year, the largest international flow of tourists on the globe.

The obvious thing for a Swiss-based family to do is to join the hordes of continentals on the journey south. So imagine you are driving past the city of Pisa. You’ve never seen the famous Leaning Tower. Who knows when you will have another opportunity to do so? (OK, maybe next year but that’s a whole year away).

The temperature is a sweltering 35 degrees (95° F) and it’s the middle of the day. You’ve no GPS because you like to think there’s nothing wrong with old fashioned maps. On an impulse you take the Pisa exit, a random Pisa exit because without GPS or a map of Pisa, you don’t know which is the right one.

After a short while driving through suburbs you spot the sign for Torre Pendente – two new Italian words that can only mean one thing! You keep driving to get as close as possible, the signs disappear from time to time but you persevere and make it to within spitting distance of the tower. You know you must be close because African hawkers are waving you into a parking space in the impossibly narrow streets of the old town.

You spill out of the car and hastily cover the dazed children with lashings of sun cream. They’ve never experienced such high temperatures but are suddenly alert enough to want to buy thread bracelets from the African parking attendant.

Three bracelets later, you set off on the five minute walk to the tower. You know all about the tower, it’s old, Italian and it leans. But then you round the corner and see it for the first time and it is still a wonderful surprise. You can’t help but gasp at the sight. The 800-year-old bell tower is beautiful. Scrubbed clean, the white marble gleams like new.

You have to laugh. The huge open space is filled with every nationality under the sun, taking photos of the tower. You could fill Noah’s Ark from this crowd and repopulate the world. People are stretching out their arms in an odd leaning pose. In their photos they will appear to be supporting the tower. The atmosphere is one of delight. People are hot, a little stressed but happy.

You know you’re not going to forget the moment. You realise it’s one of those things that you have to see for yourself. Last week I wrote in slightly disparaging terms about the Jungfrau railway, the ultimate Swiss tourist trap. But I think I get it now. Some sightseeing trips are worth the effort.

Have you been anywhere interesting this summer? Got any good tourist trap anecdotes or tips to share?