This weekend, I’m off to Ireland – my 30th country! Or maybe my 33rd. Or maybe even my 28th. Who knows?
And who, in fact, cares?
I’ve always enjoyed counting countries, but not as a ticking off exercise or to be self-congratulatory; more just to keep track of where I’ve been and celebrate what I love doing.
I decided a couple of years ago that I would aim for the “30 before 30” target (and I do love a challenge), but when I moved to Canada, a country I’ve visited four times, and we made the decision to not take a trip to Ireland in November, I missed the bullseye by one point when I turned 30 in January. And guess what?
I found that I didn’t care at all.
(Or, in fact, maybe I had already hit it two years ago.)
The more I think about it, the more I feel like counting countries is pointless. After all, if you went to Prague and Bratislava 30 years ago, you would have been to one country. Now, they would count as two. And what constitutes a country anyway? If you’ve been to Taiwan, China doesn’t count it as a country. If you’ve been to Kosovo, the UN doesn’t recognise it as a country. Do I count Hong Kong? Gibraltar?
And what about the UK? Have I been to one country, or three? (I haven’t been to Northern Ireland) If I had never left the UK, it would seem totally absurd to say I’ve been to three countries yet never owned a passport. An English person would never say, “yes, I’ve been abroad – I’ve been to Scotland!” I’m happy to categorise England, Scotland and Wales separately for the purpose of the blog, but when actually counting countries? I don’t think it makes sense.
So when I land in Ireland in a few days, I haven’t got a clue what number country I’m on, and I can genuinely say I don’t really care.
Let me just say that there is nothing wrong with counting countries – after all, I do enjoy counting them myself – but if you’re doing it purely for bragging rights, then that’s the problem, not the fact you’re counting. Honestly, all the bullshit rhetoric about how counting countries somehow makes you less of a traveller can stop.
And as for people who race through a bunch of countries without really stopping? I get it, especially when you have limited holiday time. Heck, I’m the queen of fast travel – but given that I’ve spent over two of the last four years abroad, but visited 12 countries in that time, goes to show that I’m pretty good at slow travel too.
What’s more important, though, is the experiences you have in those countries. I only visited two countries last year, and I’d been to both before – but I lived in Canada for six months, and spent a month road tripping the USA. It’s different to spending a weekend in New York or Toronto. I spent a year living in Australia, which is different to a week in Sydney. It doesn’t make me a better traveller, but it has given me some meaningful experiences in those countries that I’d never get in a few days.
On the flipside, I spent a day in Denmark and Sweden, and damn right I’ll tell you that I’ve been to both. I went to Morocco for a day, too.
But I would never say “I’ve done Morocco”, which is the one problem I have with the country counting obsession. And let me tell you that you definitely have not “done” Spain if you’ve only been to Tenerife.
Similarly, I find myself returning to countries all the time, which is a very “anti-country counter” thing to do. I don’t remember where it was, but I remember booking a trip somewhere once, and someone said, “but you’ve already been to that country. Why go back when there are so many others to explore?”
Oh yes, I forgot that Barcelona is exactly the same as Seville. Munich and Berlin are practically the same city! And there’s nothing like sitting on a beach on the Algarve… no point going to Lisbon, then!
My main issue with counting countries, though, isn’t people’s attitudes towards it, or the differing levels of how well you might have travelled a country.
It’s the fact that there isn’t even an official number of countries to count, and that borders are ever-changing and are different according to different countries anyway. Lots of people go by the UN count, which stands (at the moment) at 192. According to the US government, there are 206. That’s a difference of fourteen countries, and who’s to say that you can’t include Puerto Rico on your list? Greenland? That’s officially Denmark, yet worlds apart when it comes to culture. The Cook Islands are New Zealand, and the French Polynesia is (unsurprisingly) France.
But if you went to the French Polynesia, would you really say you’ve been to France? Would you say it’s comparable to drinking wine in Paris? Does a visit to Puerto Rico really count as a visit to the USA?
So the whole thing is complicated at best.
That’s the real reason I’ve given up on it. I genuinely don’t know if I’ve been to 30, because I don’t know what I should be counting, which is another reason you shouldn’t be counting for bragging rights. We could have been to the same number of countries, but if you’re counting Scotland and England separately, you can say you’ve been to one more. So to me, the numbers don’t matter because they probably don’t even add up.
Which brings me onto – what counts as a visit?
This was a discussion that came up on Twitter recently, and yielded some interesting responses. “You have to at least spend a night there,” somebody said, instantaneously wiping out about four countries and countless cities from my list.
“You can’t count it if you were only in the airport,” someone else piped up. I totally agree – personally, I would never count an airport; I think at the very least you have to clear immigration and leave the airport!
But it was an interesting point – what does constitute a visit? There are lots of towns that I’ve driven through and never stopped in, so obviously those don’t count. But what if I got out the car for ten seconds? Or went into a café to buy a cup of tea to go? I’d probably say I’ve been there if I have a meal in a restaurant, but what’s the difference between that and my cup of tea? I’ve been there; I’ve talked to someone.
My bottom line is – count countries for you, because it’s not harming anyone else. The number of countries you’ve been to doesn’t make you a better person, nor a better traveller. The experiences might, but the number doesn’t.
But for now, I’m sort of giving up. I’ll have a tally in my head, but it’s for me (and, err, the destinations page on the blog).
And Ireland, this weekend you can be whatever number you want to be, darling.
What do you think? Do you count countries? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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