“I hate ’em,” I snarled, “they are lower order creatures, on par with ambulatory trilobites.”
Words to that effect.
But on one occasion, I was reminded that during the summer of 2016 my wife and I spent an entire month overseas, visiting three countries and soaking up the atmosphere like parched sponges. Didn’t that make me, ahem, a tourist?
Immediately after the accusation was leveled at me I became angry, defensive, denying the charge vehemently.
See, my notion of tourism is that it’s a necessary evil, like gut bacteria or liberal politicians. Yes, it can greatly benefit the economy of a nation but, in so doing, it also exacts a certain psychic toll. I mean, there were some parts of Prague that reminded me of Disneyland (and that is not a good thing).
For myself, rather than tourist, I prefer the term “visitor” or perhaps even “guest”.
Let me illustrate what I think is the difference between a visitor to a foreign country and a tourist with this analogy:
After a perfunctory knock, a stranger enters your home, basically brushing past you as he marches over to the table, seats himself and waits to be served. He doesn’t look right or left, doesn’t check out the pictures on the walls, the arrangement of the furniture; there’s no small talk, this person just wants to be fed.
And so you bring forth the courses you’ve spent all day preparing, but the food is unpleasant and exotic to the stranger, who loudly bemoans the lack of familiar favorites. The water tastes funny too and they can’t understand your weird accent.
Then, finally, the stranger glances at his watch, bolting abruptly because they have another dinner appointment further down the road (hopefully boasting better fare than this sorry joint). No real human contact, no effort made to immerse themselves in their surroundings and engage with their host. Only interested in stuffing their fat faces as quickly as possible and then moving on to the next trough.
See what I mean?
I personally think it’s quite easy to make distinctions between feelthy touristas and those who are genuinely interested in their chosen destination, doing their research, learning a few words of the language ahead of time, apprising themselves of some of the historical and cultural features specific to the region in question.
Visitors have bucket lists, tourists have checklists.
A visitor will seek out a nondescript street corner once glimpsed in an obscure “B” movie; a tourist goes on inclusive, all-you-can-eat-and-drink junkets, spending hours trying to tan their pasty bodies on a private beach, the only locals in evidence the ones employed as service personnel.
Tourists patronize expat bars and seek out others of their kind; visitors deftly avoid anyone reeking of their home country and venture far afield to escape their idiotic compatriots.
Visitors seek experience, interaction; tourists are after visuals, placing themselves front and center in every picture they take, “selfies” amid the ruins, egos the size of the Parthenon.
A tourist never gets deliberately lost or risks chance encounters.
A tourist is rarely pleasantly surprised or jolted by insight.
A tourist secretly despises the countries they visit and can’t wait to get back home and pretend otherwise.
A visitor gamely struggles with the native dialect; tourists insist on talking their own lingo in A VERY LOUD VOICE.
To a tourist, any place worth seeing has to look like it belongs on a postcard.
A tourist says “cool”, meaning worthy of yet another picture, and “quaint” when they mean old and useless.
A tourist can enter a thousand-year-old church and completely ignore the gorgeous, stained glass windows, hand-carved pulpit and ancient aura, instead fixating on a middle-aged nun praying near the back who’s a dead ringer for their aunt Gladys.
A visitor never completely shakes off the places they explore and inhabit; a tourist takes nothing from the sites and monuments they see and leaves nothing of themselves behind.
A visitor is respectful, tolerant, gracious; a tourist vain, easily bored, rude, suspicious and disdainful.
A visitor departs with regret, a tourist with relief.
Visitors smile, tourists grimace.
Visitors say “thank you”, tourists begrudge even a modest tip.
Visitors try and fit in, tourists don’t bother.
Visitors are pilgrims, tourists consumers.
I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.
I don’t think that’s happened before, has it?
I confess I spent a considerable portion of the thirty days in question trying to process the sights, sounds, smells, etc., of our trip to Europe. Did a lot of reflecting and maybe a tad too much navel-gazing. Paged back and forth through my travel diary, reading passages to pique my memory, skimming through the hundreds of photos we took.
You have to understand, Sherron and I had been planning this trip for at least a decade. That’s a helluva buildup…but that month we spent in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic far surpassed our expectations and became, for both of us, a life-altering experience.
The pictures help but they can’t possibly capture or accurately portray the many, many special moments, the brief, chance encounters, the sense of what it felt like to be so far from home, so far outside my comfort zone. The locales ranged from the exotic and sublime to the grimiest backstreets. From the ancient world to a 21st century traffic jam.
I am a reluctant traveler, preferring to remain as near to my personal omphalos–this office where I am presently typing–as I can manage. Right here is the center of my universe, the place I feel safest. When I step across its threshold, venture outside, I am no longer in control. And the anxiety grows…
But I was determined to overcome my fears and apprehension; the time had come to expand my horizons. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes…
Unfortunately Air Canada got things off to a bad start. Our flight to Toronto was delayed for mechanical reasons, which meant we missed a connecting flight that would have taken us directly to Athens. Instead, we were re-routed to Heathrow, where we had to linger for six hours before we were finally on our way to Greece. So we arrived later than expected and once we were dropped off in central Athens promptly got ourselves lost and—
Never mind. We’ll skip those initial rotten bits and instead focus on getting to our quaint little Air B ’n B apartment and the view from our balcony. The Parthenon at sunset. And not just a postcard either: the real thing. We hugged each other and captured the moment with a photograph while Alex, our host, looked on in approval.
Greece in mid-July is hot. Really, really, really hot. Sherron and I are from Saskatchewan, remember? We weren’t prepared for that fierce Attic heat. Climbing the Acropolis on a day when the temperature topped 40+ degrees Celsius was not one of our smarter moves. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart or those subject to heat stroke.
The bones of ancient Greece are in evidence all through its longtime capital. The skeletons of structures that have survived barbarian invasions, earth tremors and thousands of years beneath that harsh, unforgiving sun. The numerous excellent museums trace and name the epochs of a land inhabited since pre-history, wreathed in myth. I saw the famous funerary mask of Agamemnon (discovered by Schliemann) and posed beside a bust of Marcus Aurelius. There were some magnificent pieces at the Cyclades Museum; I was moved and inspired by the austere beauty of carved, stylized figures from the fourth millennium B.C.E. If I could have one piece of art for my collection:
Believe it or not, after three days we’d had enough of Athens and were on a bus south, to a small village called Kiveri. Friends from Saskatchewan kept a summer home there and had graciously offered to not only share their abode but also shuttle us around to other sites of interest, including Mycenae (Agamemnon’s palace and burial chamber), Thermopylae and Meteora.
Now you’re likely familiar with the first two place names I mentioned, but Meteora probably doesn’t ring any bells. The area features some amazing geology, pinnacles and steles of rock thrust into the air by massive tectonic forces. For fifteen hundred years, monks and ascetics have come to these stone towers to find refuge from the temptations and trials of the physical world. At first they built crude shelters in the eroded caves and crevasses; later, they came together, scaled those lofty peaks with ropes and ladders and built the first monastery, others rising up on adjoining fingers of rock in the centuries to come.
I can’t tell you how inaccessible and daunting some of these monasteries still appear today, even with all our modern roads and conveniences. But those mad, stubborn monks hauled and toted tons of rock and wood to the tippy-top and built themselves impregnable sanctuaries, redoubts against the evils that resided in the land far below.
Varnavas was one of the first of the hermit monks to arrive (7th century). One night at our lodging in Meteora, encouraged by the proprietor’s generously large scotches, I wrote this:
I am here
if I err
if I fall.
From Greece, it was off to Istanbul, despite the recent coup attempt and the oft-expressed misgivings of friends and family.
Istanbul, coup or no coup, is a craaaazy place. Crazy and huge and bursting out all over with life and energy. The first time I heard the local muezzin call the faithful to prayer, I was standing on the balcony of our cozy rented apartment—what a beautiful sound. I knew at that moment we’d made the right decision to come. The fellow in our neighborhood had amazing pipes; it gave me goosebumps as I listened to that voice emanating from mounted loudspeakers, echoed and magnified by his colleagues in nearby districts.
I think of Istanbul and I recall the passages that led to impossibly narrow streets; I think of the sheer mass of people that a population of twenty million souls represents. And I shudder when I remember the absolutely insane cabdrivers, who sped through the streets, honking their horns, oblivious to any life forms that ventured into their path. Those dudes rarely applied their brakes and seemed positively contemptuous of pedestrians. Once, when Sherron and I were walking near the Gallery of Modern Art, we witnessed a brawl between two cabbies, a melee which quickly attracted the attention of the police. Their customers looking on in bemusement as the two men glared at each other, shirts ripped, fists clenched, cursing and gesticulating, the cops wisely keeping them separated. Murder in the air.
There’s so much to see in Istanbul—this is a city that has played a central role in many important historical episodes; it has witnessed the rise and fall of great empires, flourishing and suffering by turns, the fate of any Eternal City.
We visited the magnificent Aya Sofia (aka Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Emperor Justinian and intended to be the most magnificent place of worship in the known world. The very quality of light seems different there—the way the beams penetrate from outside, imbuing the interior with a regal, exalted ambience. It was impressive to us but imagine the effect on pilgrims from bygone times, men and women from rustic, humble origins who were bound to be moved and awed when they walked through those massive doors and saw…this:
Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (with its famous book market)…so many different places to explore, each possessing its own special atmosphere and claim to fame (or infamy).
And then there was Troy…
(To be continued)
We took a lot of photos on our trip this summer. That’s the curse of digital photography: you can just keeping snapping away, deleting the duds later. Much later…
I won’t be posting many pictures of our trip, but there are bound to be a few, marking the high points of our thirty memorable days in Greece-Turkey-Czech Republic.
Here I am, touching the stones of Homeric-era Troy. Can’t put into words how powerful it felt visiting a place I’d read about since childhood. Glorious!
I also got the opportunity to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the grave of one of my literary heroes, Franz Kafka. Sherron snapped this one, then discreetly wandered off, letting me have a few private words with my old Master. No touristas about, no unwelcome intrusions. Special, special moment…
Usually the entries consist of a few hundred words, an abbreviated emotional weather report. The problem is, I don’t often write about being happy, content with my lot in life. No, it seems like the only time I want to be a diarist is when I feel the need to vent, blow off steam, expound about my frustration and fury and self-loathing and disappointment. Anyone having nothing more than my journals to go on would think me a very petty, thin-skinned, peevish bastard with the prickly disposition of a rabid hedgehog. It is, if I may say, a very distorted portrait.
But on my 49th birthday I started keeping a daily journal, a comprehensive record of “My 50th Year”. It was supposed to conclude on my 50th birthday but there were some pages left over in the second notebook so I probably have about another six weeks’ worth before I wrap things up. I think these two volumes, which will eventually clock in at around 450 handwritten pages, give a far more well-rounded depiction of the life and times of yours truly.
However, at this point I must confess I’m second-guessing myself, wondering if I’ve done the right thing. Because I have to say, there are definite drawbacks to keeping a daily record of your…activities.
First, one has to determine what to put in and what to leave out. Usually I write in my journal quite late in the day so I tend not to be too long-winded. I don’t waste time composing my thoughts, just scribble down what I’m feeling at that moment, what events of the day stand out most. It’s all very internalized, world news and current affairs largely superfluous. I might have alluded to Nelson Mandela’s death last month but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Authorial license or a shameful omission?
Second, one has to assess just how candid and uninhibited one can be. Obviously a journal or diary is intended to be personal and private, but I’m also aware of how many authors and artists have had their most intimate thoughts exposed to the world (with or without their consent). If I don’t end up destroying these notebooks before my death, I have to count on them being read by some curious party. How much detail regarding my life do I want to impart to a complete stranger?
Finally, when keeping a regular journal you soon come face-to-face with just how bloody boring and without incident your life is. I mean, I’m no Graham Greene, jet-setting about, playing baccarat with Kim Philby one day and having lunch with Fidel the next. I’m not even in the league of John Cheever, who wrestled with his sexuality and emotional highs and lows with admirable clarity and candor. I’m more like, well, Walter Mitty—living in fantasy realms of my own invention, with little relation to reality. My self-made universe, fraught with wonky physics, shifting dreamscapes and enticing might-have-beens. When I’m deeply immersed in a writing project, I spend most of my waking hours there.
The transition back to the real world can be unsettling.
I’m a full-time author, stay-at-home husband and father. I don’t really do much of anything. I write (obsessively). I hang out with my family. I read. I watch the occasional good movie. Listen to music. Socialize (infrequently). That’s it. Try journaling about that for over a year. Sitting down each night, opening the notebook to a new, unmarked page and coming up with yet another pithy way of expressing “Wrote today, not much else”. It’s a daunting task, even for someone blessed with my fertile imagination.
I’ve taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to be “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Perhaps too much to heart.
This past year of being a daily diarist has opened my eyes. In my view, my life has become too constricted, too orderly and mundane. I can’t begrudge the hours I spend engrossed in a project but I must do something about the time when I’m “off duty”. Now that our sons are no longer at home and I’m no longer their steward and caregiver, I can direct my energies toward other interests.
Certainly the desire to travel has taken on new significance. Currently, we’re saving money for a trip, putting away whatever we can so that, one day, we can take off and see some place we’ve never been. Locales we’ve always dreamed of visiting.
Rome. Athens. Constantinople.
Thermopylae. Epidaurus. Troy.
Time to spread my wings, seek inspiration farther afield.
My first view of the Mediterranean or the Aegean, storied seas celebrated by the likes of Homer and Shelley and Byron. Possessing a blue, they say, like no other.
What dreams, what tales and verse and images, will our travels stimulate?
Will the ancient, historical lands we traverse seem strange, exotic…or will it be more like coming home?