I’m spending this week as a tourist in my own part of the world, with the help of my bike and some quiet cycle routes. Maybe as a tourist I would get to know my local area a little better.
Yesterday I rode over the North Downs to the Isle of Sheppey, the first time I’d been there in decades. I ended up in Queenborough, knowing that food was immediately necessary if I was to ever see home again, or indeed remember where home was. In an unassuming area near Queenborough harbour, a display board outside a black Portacabin announced the Mint and Chocolate Eatery. This building looked like a catering unit for construction workers, dropped into a tight space between an old warehouse and a shed; but I was hungry and could go no further. Besides, a quick look at Trip Advisor revealed enthusiastic recommendations. After securing my bike to an upended pallet, forming a fence between my chosen Eatery and the black-creosoted, micro-pub shed next door, I pushed back a gauzy curtain to enter a lovely, fresh space decorated in vibrant lime and yellow. Here I ordered spaghetti with meat balls – from a lady concerned about my nutritional state – before settling down outside with my bike, at a two-person turquoise table, bounded by Portacabin wall and pallet fence. This “terrace” area also served as a store for a few wheelie bins and bits and pieces of dock paraphernalia.
Lunch was perfect. Gleaming silver cutlery and immaculate white crockery sat against an aquamarine pastel tabletop backdrop. My table was like a modern still-life in crisp acrylic, which had, for some reason, been left in a stock yard behind an art gallery. The spaghetti and meatballs was delicious, as was the Sicilian lemon cheesecake which followed. I got talking to the waitress who told me that the Mint and Chocolate Eatery had been open for about a year, created by the chef, who was from Belgium. They catered to people on holiday, and also to locals. It wasn’t really clear into which category I fell, a person who lived within a few hours cycling distance, but who was nevertheless on holiday, and had come from the far side of the bridge. Eating cheesecake I started to wonder what local was. People once lived their lives in an area covered by the sound of church bells. Those bells even defined their own time zone, different to that of a village just down the road. Today we cannot think of locality in those terms, when time zones toll their digitally coordinated bells across the globe.
If I discovered anything on my journey to Sheppey, it was that we can be tourists in our own backyards, just as we can be global locals. It might be better to think of ourselves as this kind of contradictory traveller, exploring a place where local and foreign are not clearly divided. Perhaps we should welcome this local tourist in a world which is in danger of closing itself down into illusory territories where one lot of people think another lot of people do not belong