“If I have to look at one more painting of Mary and her baby, I may scream.”
“Well, if I eat any more cheese, I might go blind anyway.”
When we travel, my wife and I usually reach a point where we need a break from the art, museums, churches, statues, and gluttony. As much as we like that stuff, we try to mix it with hiking, paddling, or even working while abroad. My wife meanders for hours, shopping for nothing. I usually have an agenda: research on humour writing, business meetings, or making money.
Strangely, these are things we can do at home in Ottawa.
We’ve had a chance to reflect on this a lot over the past year as we sat staring at the walls and each other, pondering retirement in a pandemic, and bemoaning the cancellation of travel plans.
In this, it helped to spend time reading Indians on Vacation, the 2021 Leacock Medal winner.
The book is an apt literary touchstone for this peculiar year. Not only is it well executed, thoughtful, and consistently funny, but it also offers escape from and an antidote to no-travel, lockdown life. The book is many things: a love story, a picaresque quest, and a light mystery, but I like it as an exploration of tourism-style travel, a pondering on its worth, and, perhaps, a kind of handbook for extracting more value from it.
Thomas King’s novel presents a later-life couple: Bird, the narrator, and his partner Mimi. They talk, walk, and quibble within the frame of a fabricated, personal quest and the banal side of European tourism. As they do, the couple reveals themselves with a loving, gentle humour that induces smiles and introspection.
It should surprise few that King, a celebrated and witty storyteller who has written skillfully in genres ranging from children’s literature and radio plays to academic lectures and history, should be effective in the format of a humorous novel. But he clearly has a feel for incongruity and for presenting it in a way that shakes out the laughs while maintaining the flow of the grander story and the stories within the story.
Bird and Mimi are well travelled but have set out to add to their experiences in a specific way by following the trail of Mimi’s Uncle Leroy. A mischief-maker and source of pain for Indian Department authority, Leroy fled the Blackfoot reserve and the threat of arrest in Alberta many years ago by joining a travelling wild west show. He took the family medicine bundle, a cherished package of souvenirs and memorabilia, with him and never returned.
But Leroy sent postcards from the show’s stops throughout Europe and the dated card collection lays out breadcrumbs to retrace his steps. As Bird and Mimi cross the continent in search of Leroy’s fate and the collection of family treasures, they pick up pieces to add to a new bundle of their own and to their own story.
They are in the Czech Republic at the last post-card-identified point on Leroy’s trail. But it could be anywhere. Bird, fully Blackbird Mavrias, is, like King, a once-American now Canadian of Cherokee-Greek extraction. Tired, cynical, and sardonic, he begins the book with a sigh: “So, we’re in Prague,” repeating the phrase dozens of times in the ensuing pages. The repetition reminds us of lamentable routines of tourism. But the phrase also draws a line between Bird’s flashbacks thoughts and his immediate circumstance.
This is where the humour arises. The conflict between what is happening and what is in Bird’s mind often resonates and always amuses. Bird’s mind has lots in it: memories of his life with Mimi, concerns over social issues, an obsession with myriad aches, thoughts of food, imaginings around his breakfast companion, and a set of personal demons that have been named by Mimi and have assumed vivid life-form personalities. Bird’s thoughts and physical experience intersect, however, around those social concerns that are provoked by the sight of Syrian refugees at the train station, protests, and icons of colonialism.
The quirky clash of thoughts with the banality of daily conversation and the ambiance of well-worn tourist sites not only makes you smile, it makes you question why we travel. So much seems the same: the churches, the museums, hotel rooms, and the predictable inconveniences. Everyone who goes to Prague visits the Castle, stands on the Charles Bridge, and walks by the Sex Machines Museum. When Bird gets sick and the couple is almost robbed, the mundane nature of tourism is emphasized with recognition that travel experience is defined by the stories we tell and that the best travel stories flow from mishap and misadventure.
But Indians on Vacation also demonstrates how everyone views the sites and cities through the lens of their own personality, interests, and agendas. It is this junction of self and place that makes each person’s travel different and rewarding or not.
While Bird, the narrator, finds travel tiring and spends much of the time in thoughts of elsewhere, Mimi sees it as an escape from the everyday, a spur to her imagination, and a way to extract more from her remaining days. Bird lies in the hotel room thinking, "I'm sweaty and sticky. My ears are still popping from the descent into Vaclav Havel. My sinuses ache. My stomach is upset. My mouth is a sewer. I roll over and bury my face in a pillow.” Then, Mimi snuggles down beside him “with no regard for (his) distress,” and whispers “My god … can it get any better?'"
With humour and affection, the story dovetails their attitudes and the two sides of travel to paint a middle ground and reminds us that travel is a blend of what we see, what we think, and who is by our side. Walking, shopping for nothing, thinking of home, and even working while on a trip makes sense if this is who you are. If you are Thomas King, you conceive and write another book.
This suggests that living in a lockdown does not need to be a bar to travel but rather a part of it. Since our travel experience is the mix of our own thoughts and the physical ambiance, it is also a consequence of our prior home-based planning, relationships, and personalities as much as its execution. Things we can work on regardless of place.
So, we can rightly use quarantine time to reflect and prepare for travel with someone we love, and reading Indians on Vacation can help with that.