Your eyes wander longingly over the colourful photos on Google images of a picturesque village perched on top of a hill, with steep, narrow, winding streets, a castle, and a medieval church, looking like something out of a fairy tale, and you think, “Oh! let’s go there.”
You imagine sitting in the sunshine outside a small bar with a bottle of chilled red wine on the table in front of you, taking in the entrancing scene around you – smiling locals emerging from the bakery opposite, clutching loaves of fresh crusty bread, two craggy-face old men in black berets deep in conversation hunched over a chess board on a bench under a sycamore tree, the smell of garlic and mussels wafting from the nearby bistro – with just the sound of birds twittering merrily in the background. Perfection!
The receptionist in the hotel, after much rummaging through glossy brochures and leaflets, most of them, apparently, out of date, tells you that there’s an hourly bus service to the village. So the next morning, filled with anticipation, off you go. You sit back in your seat on the bus, looking out of the window at sparkling fields and farm houses, and congratulating yourself on finding such a pretty place to visit, and contemplating a blissful and tranquil day.
But when your bus deposits you at the bottom of the hill, you immediately realise, with some alarm, that you are surrounded by several hundred excited Chinese tourists, all wielding selfie sticks and umbrellas, and wearing funny peaked hats.
So you have no alternative but to follow them up the hill, and when you reach the top you are confronted by several hundred more Chinese tourists about to make their way down. Instead of the serene village you had imagined you find yourself being jostled along narrow streets filled with shops selling expensive painted crockery, novelty t-towels, scented soaps, and designer shoes. There’s no smell of garlic or mussels, but there’s that unmistakeable smell of money.
That’s the problem with going on holiday to Europe nowadays. Everywhere is so crowded. At one time the Chinese wore identical cheap-looking suits, could only afford to get around on wobbly bikes, and for a holiday had to settle for a few days in Beijing, where the main attraction was watching a military parade with lots of rocket launchers. Now, they are flush with yuan from manufacturing suitcases, air conditioner units, and pop-up toasters. And they like Europe. Once they only came here to sell us shredded chicken fried rice noodles and sweet and sour king prawn balls in tin foil cartons, while redefining customer service. Now, they are here to see what a funny lot we Europeans are. And there’s nothing wrong in that. We are a funny lot. Well, at least the Germans and the Belgians are. But will someone tell me why do the Chinese insist on travelling everywhere in such huge groups? Have they never read Eat, Pray, Love?
While Europe may feel crowded, it’s nothing compared to what it must be like in China. China accounts for around a fifth of the planet’s population. That’s staggering if you pause to think about it. Imagine what it must be like trying to get a plumber or book a GP appointment. “Your call is important. You are…three…hundred…and eighth…in the queue.”
What draws so many Chinese to Europe each year is not our wonderful cathedrals, art galleries, and monuments? Nor is it our quaint villages and towns and beautiful countryside. True, they go to take photos of all this, but it’s not really why they have flown several thousand miles. No, they come here mainly to shop. The Chinese are serious shoppers.
So imagine how disappointed they must feel if they go to Venice and shell out for a piece of its famous cut glass, and then when they return home discover where it was really made. Shanghai.