My grandfather, Neville Monkhouse, didn’t teach me how to fish, kick a football or do a magic trick. Instead, he showed me how to drop everything and go. I call him Parma, a family nickname, and he travelled the length and breadth of the world until well past a sensible age.
Parma took me and my siblings along for the ride many times and he certainly had a unique way of travelling. Here are a few pearls of his curious wisdom.
What would you steal? Every city and town on any itinerary has a clutch of museums, art galleries and cathedrals to tick off the travel bucket list. Whenever Parma took me to one of these, say the Louvre in Paris, he would ask me at the end whether I would’ve stolen anything. Not that you’d actually do that, but asking this of yourself is a brilliant way of gauging whether a place moved you and making sure you’ve really taken it in. I can remember quite a few pieces that I’d serve hard time to acquire. That’s much better than the snatched glance I had of the Mona Lisa.
Poob about and get lost. The best way to see any place is to ditch the map and get deliberately lost. Parma called this ‘poobing about’. I went to Venice for the first time with Parma in 1996 and we arrived at night and struck out in a random direction. After an hour or so of walking the dark, narrow streets we found a tiny restaurant with an outdoor oven sliding out thin slices of goat’s cheese pizza. It remains the best thing I have ever eaten, and try as we did the place was never found again.
Look at the ceiling. One night in Venice, Parma and I chanced upon an art gallery filled with an amazing collection of religious art. I had never seen anything like it before and I became quickly engrossed. But Parma was nonplussed. He tapped me on the shoulder and barked, ‘This stuff is derivative. Look up.’ The entire ceiling was covered in perfectly restored gilt carvings, each more intricate than the last and a class above what was on the walls. Sometimes it pays to take in your entire surroundings, not just what’s directly in front of you.
Starve; then splurge. Parma’s main tactic to maximise his time away and the fun he could have was to drop down to two meals a day, using the savings he made to pay for something extravagant. I drove through Scotland for two weeks with him and my sister in 1999 and we missed lunch every day; but in doing so, it allowed us to stay in a top shelf hotel on the Isle of Skye and eat three courses in its Michelin starred restaurant for two nights.If you hoard a few shekels here and there and you soon have a big pile.
Don’t plan anything. We are constantly told travel can be easy, comfortable and smooth. Parma disagreed with this in an almost masochistic way. Every now and then on one of his grand tours we’d arrive late at night in some snow-bound European train station without a hotel reservation or any idea where we could eat. But he would strike out and hunt it down, having a jolly time asking locals for advice. Sometimes Parma made us do this work for him, folding his arms like a Grand Poobah as he sat with the suitcases on some godforsaken platform. It made for an adventure, pushing us out of our comfort zones in the most direct way.
Parma developed Alzheimer’s and died in 2009 just after I’d moved to the UK from Australia to begin my own travel odyssey with Carmen. It was very difficult to be away from my family then, but my mother told me not to worry too much as he would have been happy with how I was living my life. The last thing he said to me before that terrible disease pushed him under the waves was ‘give them hell’. By this he meant live your life to the fullest. Following in his footsteps, I like to think I already am.