In Praise of Tourists
I don't get a chance to travel as much as I would like. I imagine that most of your listeners have similar difficulties when it comes to getting away. Like so many people, I use your show to populate my travel fantasies with interesting characters and new plot lines so I can be prepared for those rare moments when something similar might happen to me.
But, I have to tell you, it's getting harder. It seems as though none of your contributors are tourists anymore. They are all in search of something more -- a life-changing experience to replace the ruins of last year's life-changing experience, which, of course, supplanted the overwhelming sense of insignificance they felt after all the other life-changing experiences they have encountered on the road up till then. Their lives have been altered so often in some many ways they no longer remember where they were born or how old they are. And they certainly don't have much in common with me.
So I thought you might like to hear a different kind of story. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I'm a 40-year-old computer network administrator and I have four children. Based on these sketchy demographics, you may have guessed that this travel story doesn't include a trip to the Amazon in a dugout canoe where native people still cure exotic diseases with tree bark in spite of the ongoing rape of the land perpetrated by insensitive loggers. I have neither the time nor inclination for that sort of outing.
Instead, I took my wife and two youngest boys to Austria for a few weeks. My mother came with us. It was a chance for everyone to get to know each other again. My mother lives a thousand miles away from us and we rarely get a chance to visit. We stayed in a small wine town on the outskirts of Vienna. A half-hour on the subway and we were in Vienna climbing the escalator to the square in front of the St. Stephen's Cathedral.
For many of your listeners who prefer soul-searching to tourism, much of Vienna can be a disappointing experience -- but not for us. It was warm and it was sunny and it took my Mother's breath away. I could hear her say, more to herself than any of the other hundred people standing nearby, "My Vienna." We are not a sentimental family and if she let a tear fall, I didn't see it. And if I had seen it, I would know to look away and never mention it again. But this much I know: It was, at one time, truly her Vienna.
She would visit Vienna when she was a young girl of 16 back in 1943, taking a train from her home town of Graz in the south of Austria. She would drink coffee and laugh with her friends and they would try their best to grow up in the middle of upheaval most of us could not even imagine. And she did this almost weekly until bombs leveled the train station in Graz and Russians parked tanks in the streets.
But on this particular day, she was a tourist. Now, you must keep in mind that Vienna is full of people on vacation in search of an "authentic" experience. In the dim smoky rooms of the red and velvet coffee shops of the back streets, you can find summertime bohemians smoking Marlboros and wearing dark glasses. Their parents are stockbrokers in the suburbs of Chicago and they occasionally, surreptitiously almost, consult the Let's go Europe hidden in their backpacks.
In the upscale restaurants, patrons in TravelSmith sports coats thumb through the Michelin guide, embarrassed to be reading it but afraid not to. It's the same everywhere. Only the guidebooks change. But my mother doesn't care. Neither do the locals. The coffee is just as good as it always was. The newspapers on the tables arrive as they always have from New York and Milan and Moscow and Bombay. No one in Vienna is truly local, not even the Viennese.
My mother finds that most of her old haunts are gone, replaced by department stores plugged into the holes left by the war. It doesn't matter. She buys ice cream for her grandchildren. We pay too much money for Sacher Torte at the Sacher Hotel like all the other tourists. We take a ride on a horse-drawn carriage driven by a man in an impossibly authentic-looking pair of lederhosen.
It's not what I thought she would do. I thought she should be looking for the place where she fell in love with the pilot who disappeared over England in 1943. At the very least, I thought she would reminisce about places she and my father went on weekend outings before they pulled up stakes and moved to Canada to start all over again. But instead, she is throwing crackers to the pigeons and telling my children that she knows a place where they can get strudel just like she makes for them at home. People are surprised she speaks such good German. She tells them she grew up here, but now she's just a tourist.
There are things you can do when you're a tourist than you can't do when you're a local. You can make plans two years in advance to eat a piece of pastry that you may never get a chance to eat again. You can see places that are truly new even if they have been there for a thousand years. Europeans don't seem to crave the life-changing experiences and raw authenticity that Americans expect when they go abroad. They love being tourists. It's the going and seeing and doing that matter. Not the contemplating.
I know there is a great deal you can learn from an authentic experience in a foreign land. And I know that we need much eye-opening and awareness-
building in America. But a little bit of tourism doesn't really hurt either. Maybe it's true that pomegranate trees are threatened and New York is full of prostitutes and drug addicts and the wolves are being driven deeper and deeper into the woods of Minnesota. But sometimes there's nothing more enlightening than a piece of strudel and a cup of coffee and a few minutes of peace and quiet.
You're Never Too Old to Go Solo
When I was younger, I almost always traveled alone. Now that I'm in my seventies, I've gotten lazy about the way I travel (read: tours or elderhostel). But a couple years ago, I really wanted to get away without spending too much money. Where would I go? I mulled over a number of possibilities, and then remembered my sixth grade infatuation with the mountains of Switzerland. Not long after, with passport and two-week rail pass in hand, I was on my way.
The mountains were glorious, the wildflowers a joy, and the encounters with folks on the trains were great. Once I ended up in a compartment with an Incan girl, an
artist she said. She was stoned, endlessly curious, and said she would come to Massachusetts to visit me. When we reached Interlocken, she suddenly dashed off. But in came another artist, a young man from South Africa. He was thrilled to be visiting the great art museums of Europe.
I traveled north, south, east, west. I loved Lugano, Lucarno, Berne, Geneva, to mention only a few, but Zurich - NO! It took three keys to get into my hotel
room. But I discovered that I could day-trip to Zurich from delightful Lichtenstein. And guess who I ran into in one of Zurich's museums? The Incan girl!
On one train I chatted with a middle-aged Swiss woman. She was eager to hear of my adventures. After chatting for a while, she concluded, "Well, if you can do all that, I can go to New York City alone." I gulped, but smiled and said yes.
Girl Scouts in the Red Light District
A few years ago, my wife and I went along as chaperones on a European tour for senior Girl Scouts. We landed in Amsterdam, and on the second night, we had scheduled a walking tour of the city's red light district. I know this seems inappropriate for a Girl Scout group, but the district is relatively tame, and as you must know, it's hard to avoid sexual images in Amsterdam.
Here's what I mean: On our first day, the group walked to an American Express office to cash travelers checks. The office was tiny, so we sent some of the girls down the street to buy souvenir postcards. After cashing my checks, I went down to gather up the girls and found that the postcard stand was on the sidewalk outside the open door of an adult bookstore. Most of the girls were staring at the displays in amazement.
But back to the walking tour. Most of our tour group had never traveled outside of Missouri, and everything European was new and strange to them. Our tour guide was a lively, petite English woman (whom our German bus driver referred to as "The Brit"). She gathered our group together as we got off the bus at the edge of the red light district to give us some insight and instruction.
"You won't see anything REALLY lewd," she said in her proper English accent. "At most, you might see some women in the windows in suspenders and knickers"
This announcement was received by our group with an almost bovine look of incomprehension. I bent down and whispered to our guide, "You might explain to them that 'suspenders and knickers' refers to garter belts and panties." Our guide hastened to enlighten our group on the English terms she had used. The tour then commenced and was without incident except for the drunken Japanese tourist who 'mooned' our group from a second floor balcony.
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