The attempt to keep friends and family updated, from across the Atlantic, failed. Long story short: I left Berlin for Naples, Naples for Rome to stay with my unexpressibly wonderful, roman ex-girlfriend Melissa Videtta for ten days, then flew home to Philadelphia… and I had a good time.
Something prevents me from writing travelogues; despite the quality and quantity of time I have spent outside of the States. That something has to do with the presumptions that people have about travel: the exoticism, the Myth of the Road, and the weird, wide world of the tourism industrial complex. Travel is not what it is popularly conceived to be. It is not, for example, an adventure a priori. My greatest hesitation in writing traveloguery comes from the fear of buttressing the fast distinction between the cyclical, work-a-day world of mundane life and the charged, gestalt-shifting dreamtime spent in distant lands. I think that distinction might just be the unfortunate flipside— or by-product— of our celebrated Myth of the Road. An otherwise perfectly useful myth.
Equal opportunity exists for both mischief and boredom in all situations, foreign and domestic. But I like to push the possibility of high action and misadventure here— where ever that here happens to be— just because it is the possibility that is most often overlooked; the possibility most often assumed to be impossible. It reveals my prejudices: storm-and-stress epic action is always good; relaxation is always bad, whether in Wyoming or Afghanistan or some other exotic spot. Exoticism, as I use the term, is the idea that there are parts of this world which seem strange even to themselves; parts whose practices will never dull to grey, or lose their glow of uncanniness. Once there, in a truly exotic locale, travelers assume they can rest on their laurels because high action and episodes will come to them. And while this may be true if hoofing through Baghdad or the Antarctic, it is not the case in Rome, in Paris, or any city of that order. Two days in, shapes will no longer bespeak their own cute unfamiliarity. Cars, street signs, elevators, and tabacco shops will all return to their original size and character. And the intellectually honest will realize they are confronting the same problem— the same problem of Boredom, the same confrontation with The Lull— that you had at home. But this is a good sign; this means you’ve expanded a little, adapted. When I got to Rome, I was received come un figlio. Like a son returned. The picture was not exotic, but a canvas only a little different from home.
Needless to say, I think travel is very important— I think cultivating internationalism and multilingualism is very important. I just think that stepping on a jetliner is not, in itself, sufficient for self-transformation. Looking over the Texan businessmen and highschool tourgroups, on the flight home, is proof enough. They have obviously managed to wander in foreign cultures without it really seaping in. It takes real action and activity to develop. Activity is requisite for all development; and in the Deweyan sense of “growth for its own sake,” one’s just the process, the other the result. So instead of being swept away in a tide of otherness, I like to spend my energy on the mastery of little differences: language, paying utility bills, finding skateboardable terrain under looser laws. At times, I even strive to be bored, to regain that perspective of writing the Life-Narrative on a blank page; rather than just being sea-tossed by circumstance.
Now a word on the Tourism Industrial Complex, the very reason why it is possible to return home unchanged. I have recently— in the last year— had a change of heart about the the Tourism Industry; no longer view it with the same gagging contempt I once did. The turning point was my stay in Italy last September, when my friend Rich Davis Easyjetted over from Berlin to join me in the Videtta home. Besides funstuffed evenings spent horseplaying and sleeping in puppet theatres, we quickly wised to the potential that this stratum of existence, Tourism, held for the Right Eyes, the right kind of sensibilities.
Spotting the giveaway signals— the umbrellas, hats, or flags— of package-tours gathering by the Trevi fountain, we’d merge with Russian or Norwegian groups, wander by the Pantheon or the Spanish steps, listening to long explications of Roman history in Russian, nodding in mock comprehension, laughing through our sinuses— as our fellow Russians struggled to recall our seat numbers on the tourbus. What an exciting new field of study this turned out to be. Tourism was, in itself, a hyperreality unto itself, to be enjoyed for its own merits, its own attractions distinct from history and authenticity. Baudrillard was never righter….
Venice. Venice is the clearest window into this new world. It is not, you may or may not know, a real city. Everyone who lives there either works in the tourism industry, or is fabulously loaded enough to have a summerhome over Piazza San Marco. Venice does not exist en-soi, in itself. It’s one of those facade-behind-a-facade kind of arrangements. And even though Venice happens to be an island of pigeon crap, it’s unreality does not necessarily speak against it. You do not drop thousands to see the real Disneyworld, the real Las Vegas. So, I pity the boatloads who every year head for Venezia on the prowl for authentic “harlequin” masks, shelling out fifty euros to park their rental cars, and ten times that for gondola rides in Italy’s inkiest waters.
That said, the conditions in these tourist traps are ripe for that newborn arena of freeplay— countertourism— that rides and recognizes the hyperreality of Tourism for what it is. A wonderland of suspended disbelief, that has rabbitholes in nearly every major city in the world. Niagara Falls, the Liberty Bell, Times Square, La Tour Eiffel, I Fori Romani, Manakin Pis, Trafalgar Sqaure, Stonehenge— they are gateways to the vivid weirdness of People on Vacation.
Photography— along with souvenirs, the most highly prized artform of the tourist— offers countless handles for overturn, whether the camera is your hands or the hands of a stranger. Rich and I took a number of undeveloped pictures of us laying facedown in the narrow corridors of Venice. Or hanging off bridges, or sliding down handrails, or of Melissa in front of janitor’s closets, or of people we don’t know, or of random objects— anything, everything, except for forced smiles in front of big famous things. For when family members need to see blue-skyed snapshots of the Colosseum, man has invented Google image search.
Better is entering the photoreality of other tourists. Again, at the Trevi Fountain, hundreds of tourists line the perimeter, pointing cameras at every possible angle. Rich and I, with arms over shoulders, would shuffle into other peoples pics or videos. When the cameraman would slide over, we’d scoot over in step. The dance usually continues until the cameraman wisens up. Occasionally, they lightminded enough to keep you in the frame— just to have something to tell the folks at home, when all the fun and money are spent.