Culture Guides

Old People Around the World

If you want to discover something new. try talking to someone old.

“I have 2 sons, they all live in the city now. The oldest is a teacher now, he calls me sometimes. The younger son said he might come visit. The doctor says I should walk around to help my heart. I miss them..” and she started to cry so I asked her about her house and if she had a garden.

“Oh, yes, the roses are doing well – you can come and see..”

This was a conversation I had with an old woman in a village on the Canary Islands but head to any small village in Europe and there’s a fair chance that old people will walk up to you and start talking. Occupying park benches and wandering the piazzas, they’re frequently widowed, their kids have deserted and time has left them behind like crabs in rock pools. Only, for them, the sea won’t ever return…

It’s an old adage that travel to rural areas or poorer countries is like time travel. Traditions and customs that have faded out in modern times can stillbe found in full swing. People tend to be more religious, values are often more conservative and though the internet is sewing seeds of change anywhere a cable can reach these days, there are worlds that exist in pockets of time.

Yet as we travel to learn about new cultures, we often neglect to talk to the old people around us. I found myself chatting to a 62 year old woman in the street in England the other day and she confessed that she wasn’t used to washing much in the winter.

“When I grew up we had no hot water and my mother used to take her first bath of the year in April.”

I learnt that they slept 7 to a room and her father would fall asleep in a kneeling position wherever he was. They’d had no indoor toilet and instead used a bucket outside which was then emptied onto a compost heap a little while away. Just hours before I’d been researching permaculture compost toilets on the internet and now I learnt that it was nothing new, just forgotten knowledge.

As the modern age takes us light years ahead in terms of technology and information, so much is lost along the way. But we don’t need to travel to find these lost worlds. They’re right around us in the old people who are desperate for someone to talk to. In other countries they’re willing teachers of language, windows into another culture and all they ask is a little attention in return.

I remember my landlady in Rio de Janiero who used to make me stay for an hour each time I came round to pay the rent. Her only other company was a toy dog called Robson. She’d carefully ply me with cake and tea each time I signalled to make a move and launch into monologues about Brazilian history. It was a little suffocating at the time but now I look back on those visits as some of the most touching experiences I had in the country.

Old people around the world are guardians of tradition, walking talking audio books that will tell you far more about the real history of a country than any guidebook ever could. Cranky, confused or obstinate, they can be hard work at times but the traveller who wants to learn something new could do worse than look for someone old.