Turkey trot

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Kumiko Tsuchida, a teacher of Japanese at the University of Istanbul, had a horrid time on Monday. Wishing to get to London airport to catch an evening flight back to Turkey, she instead found herself indigent on the streets of Torquay well after midnight.

My first reaction on hearing this sad story was a feeling of shame that my compatriots should have been so niggardly with their advice and assistance, that the poor lady had lost her way. Torquay after midnight is a bleak prospect; marginally worse than Torquay before midnight.

True, it was unfortunate that her one-word query should have involved only the country of eventual destination and not the name "Heathrow" itself. In a lecturer (let alone one at Turkey's most prestigious higher education establishment) this level of imprecision is surprising. Her imagination failed to furnish her with the possibility that simply giving the name of a distant nation might lead to some misunderstanding.

That said, it was a piece of spectacular bad luck that she should have asked this question of a porter in - of all places - Paddington station. It is, of course, from Paddington that the Great Western Railway dispatches its trains for - among other places - Torquay, the jewel in Devon's crown. Torquay and Turkey can sound similar in the mouth of a Japanese visitor, and if there is a proximate explanation for a gabbled name, you may rely upon a porter or a taxi-driver to discover it. A famous case involved a family travelling to see the fabulous exhibition of Pharaonic artefacts unearthed by Howard Carter, and ending up by the pond on Tooting Common.

So Mrs Tsuchida boarded the train for "Turkey", via (she must have believed) Heathrow. When the Paignton Belle failed to arrive at a nearby airport, however, she merely assumed - with remarkable insouciance - that she was now travelling all the way to Turkey by train. Nevertheless, not wanting to leave the matter entirely to chance, every now and again she would check the position by asking "Turkey?" of a fellow passenger. And invariably he or she would nod encouragingly.

Indeed, when she finally arrived on the English Riviera at midnight, she believed she had actually been through the Channel Tunnel. She had also presumably mistaken Swindon for Salzburg, the Quantocks for the Alps and the mouth of the Exe for the balmy shores of the Med. It had, after all, been dark.

I am afraid that, by now, I am a little out of patience with Mrs Tsuchida. I put on one side her extraordinarily economical (and optimistic) manner of questioning the locals. No, what really offends is that the most elementary knowledge of the topography of the European continent would surely have suggested error as early in her journey as, say, Basingstoke. It is a terrible indictment of the supposedly superior Japanese education system (which we are always being invited to admire) that it should have permitted a senior lecturer to believe that the Belgians, the Germans, the Swiss, the Austrians, the Serbs and the Bulgarians all look exactly the same, and speak exactly the same language.

But then, there was something odd about the way she arrived in Britain in the first place. In Brussels for some convention or other, she had decided to visit a friend in London. She took no guidebooks nor maps - nor does she appear to have purchased or consulted any.

So why did she come? She could have had no conceivable idea where to go, or what to look at. Her visit was as purposeless as it was ignorant. It didn't really matter where she'd been, how she had got there, what she then did or who she met. All that was important was that she had gone somewhere. Once there, all she had to do was to go somewhere else.

Whatever else it does, this incident explains the infuriating, tunnel- blocking vacillation shown by many Japanese tourists when in tube or railway stations. It isn't that they don't know where to go - it's more that they simply do not care. On that basis Torquay is the ideal destination for them.