Hey, What Building is That?

Being A Tourist, Learning the Dublin Map

Originally uploaded by lizpurdy05

I’ll be the first to admit that I would not have survived my semester abroad without the help of Rick Steves. Ok, I would have survived, but I would have learned a lot less. At one point in Siena, Italy while touring the Duomo there (yes, there is one in Florence and Siena), I put my Rick Steves Italy guidebook back in my bag because the American family standing next to me was reading aloud about three words in front of the word I was currently reading to myself in my identical guidebook. It wasn’t just in that moment that it hit me, but at that point it certainly became undeniable: I am like every other stupid tourist here right now.

When I toured around the Uffizi in Florence, Rick (yes, we are on a first name basis, have been for years) was my tour guide once again, literally telling me which rooms to walk into, what angle to look at the paintings from, and added his own comic tone to my historical art viewing. It was incredibly helpful, but I couldn’t help feeling like my travel experience wasn’t unique and perhaps not even very authentic. My good friend Lucas, who was studying in Florence at the time, and I got into a fairly lengthy discussion regarding traveling vs. tourism, how they differ and what the purposes are of each. We discussed it during his trip to London on a long walk through Hyde Park after visiting the wealthy neighborhood of Notting Hill, and we continued sharing our various thoughts during my visit to Italy and beyond since we both returned home over two years ago.

The other day, I was looking through the wonderful, very large scrapbook my mother put together of my semester abroad and in it I had quotes from various trips I took (mostly found on this blog actually from 2008 posts) one of which was a brief exchange between me, Lucas, and our friend Emma when we were all in Rome together:

Me: What building is that over there?

Lucas: I don’t know, but I feel like it’s a big deal.

Emma: I feel like you look around this city and there are like 50 big deals.

I’m pretty sure if I heard my 20-year old self having that conversation today, I would not like myself at all. We found it comical at the time, and it in a sense, it was, but it is also alarming how little I knew about my location and the history that surrounded me. So having come to no real conclusion on the topic (because after all you have to see the Duomo) and having continued to travel regularly since then I have had these ideas of 1) travel vs. tourism and 2) knowing a place by visiting vs. knowing a place by living there, in my mind for some time.

Just today I ran across someone who has obviously thought this one through, David Foster Wallace. Maybe everyone knows about this writer, but I just read his Consider the Lobster essay for the first time today and liked what he had to say. It reminded me not only of a few of my experiences in Europe, but definitely addresses exactly what I saw much of the time in Jackson Hole/Grand Teton when I encountered tourists (which is about every five seconds during July and August). For the record, he wrote an article in the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine on the Maine Lobster Festival, but besides just relaying his experiences there, he asks some bigger questions about, for example, the ethics of eating animals and this bit below appears as a footnote. I think it’s exceptional. So here’s Wallace’s two cents on American tourism:

“I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample the ‘local flavor’ that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists . . .

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part the my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

Ok, “an insect on a dead thing” is a bit harsh, but at least it gives you a visual of something you NEVER want to be. And now that I have that mental picture, I’m going to do everything I can not to become, or be one again.

2 thoughts on “Hey, What Building is That?”

  1. Um. Yep. It is the painful truth – but not something that should keep us at home.

    To be fair to Rick (And yes, I am on a first name basis, too. Remember, he actually quotes me in one of his books!) it is his intent to remind us to be gracious guests. Guest. That is the optional way to describe “insect on dead thing”.

    Love you. S

  2. “I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample the ‘local flavor’ that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists”

    I had this exact same feeling by time I reached Istanbul during my trip last year. So much of what Istanbul is now is tourism. By time I got to the Cappadocia region, I was feeling very lame for being a tourist. I hate being a tourist.

    I think one of the reasons I liked traveling to Russia, Estonia, and Ukraine so much is that I did it by myself and I could be a fly on the wall and wander around where I wanted. One of the favorite places I found was an old bunker in Estonia that I literally stumbled upon and ended up spending several hours exploring (http://andrewferguson.net/2009/06/17/dateline-tallinn-day-4-the-discovery/).

    Conversely, I almost didn’t go to The Hermitage because I felt it was too touristy (http://andrewferguson.net/2009/06/11/dateline-st-petersburg-day-2-the-hermitage/), although I’m glad I did because there is some amazing art there.

    Maybe that’s why I enjoy taking photos so much while I’m on vacation, I hate taking photos of things that everyone has a photo of. I like finding the unique. There is nothing better than walking off the beaten path while traveling and exploring. You’re not going to find something awesome most time you wander; but when you do find something, it will truly be amazing.

    I also just realized I was about 400 miles from Iraq and less than 500 miles from Iran last year…kind of scary considering Seattle to Denver is something like 1000 miles.

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