What Are They Seeing?

     |    Wednesday April 17th, 2013

This post is by way of a personal experiment. On March 5, I wrote a little less than half of what you see below. Actually, I wrote an entire post, most of which disappeared when I tried to save it. WordPress people at SXSWi told me this was impossible, but hey, it happened. The post was sort of like a jazz solo I blew, where I had no idea where I was going when I started. This is not that post, but it’s not the one I was going to write today, either. That one has been delayed by the fact that I need to read a book I haven’t yet read in order to write it. But, even though this wasn’t what I originally wrote, it covers some of the same ground. And next week, I’ll have read that book. I hope.


Travel, as we are constantly reminded, broadens. We now pause for the obligatory jokes, which, the way I eat when I travel, are certainly appropriate. But this post’s deadline finds me in a hotel room in Brooklyn with a particularly nice view of the Manhattan skylne, featuring my favorite skyscraper, the Chrysler Building, which I’ve loved for its starring role in one of the best bad movies ever made, Q, the Winged Serpent, which uses as its premise the absolutely correct observation that a huge flying lizard living inside the top of the Chrysler Building wouldn’t be noticed by anyone in New York, even though it scooped up people to eat every day and occasionally was sloppy enough to drop parts of them.


The city where I started this trip, Barcelona, is loaded with tourists all the time, because of this unfiished edifice based on designs by its most famous architect, but actually mostly designed and built by others with money from a sector of the Catholic Church that is so radically right-wing it makes our retired Pope look like a raving liberation theologist.


Cathedral by Antoni Gaudi

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Providing the rest of the funding (although a lot comes from the admission to the building site) are the Japanese, who have decided they have a mystical connection to Antonio Gaudí. So mystical that, if you visit one of his houses, none of the door knobs, window fixtures, or other small pieces Gaudí designed are original, the originals having been pocketed by Japanese tourists.


It may well be that the horrendous service I got at a place called Tapa Tapa was because I wasn’t as cute as the dozens Japanese women who were practically the only other customers. I’d rather look at them than at me, after all. And in fact, I saw, at Tapa Tapa, a very interesting slice of tourism in the 21st century. These two were Chinese, he tall and thin, she shorter and plumper. She spoke English with an impeccable American accent, and he didn’t seem to speak at all. She ordered the tapas from a cheat-sheet of a dozen or so pages she carried with her. She also had to help him eat them: he had zero idea of how a fork and a knife worked, the latter in particular: she had to cut everything. They barely spoke, except when he told her he had to have some fish, which information she relayed to the waiter. I may have been projecting something, but I believe he was terrified, and had never been outside of whatever rural part of China he’d grown up in but was now obligated to leave to see the rest of the world.


So here he was, half-way across the globe, in the hands of someone who may have been his girlfriend or may have been a professional who shows Chinese tourists around. It can’t have been cheap for him. And yet, what was he getting out of this? Why was he doing it at all? He certainly didn’t look very happy, although the woman was chirpy and energetic, and she seemed to be leading what conversation there was. I found them almost as disturbing as the fact that the restaurant tolerated the horrendous service I got.


The Japanese — all of them female, all of them young — were everywhere: sitting in a pod in one car of the train from Montpellier to Barcelona, faces obscured by surgical masks, standing in line by the Gaudí houses that give tours, on the bus to the airport as I flew out. When I was in Japan, I hope I was a more cognizant tourist, because I like to know what I’m seeing, as much as I can, but I know there’s another approach to tourism there, as I noted the rubber stamps at a lot of attractions: people keep little books and collect the rubber stamps. Here, here’s proof I was at Himeji Castle! The stamp is free (you’ve already paid to get into the attraction), and, like the ever-present photography, a valid documentation that you had an experience.


Of course, everybody does this these days. A restaurant in Berlin just got somewhat notorious for posting a note on their wall asking that customers not Instagram their food — or the note itself, an Instagram picture of which instantly went viral, of course. I like to write about food and I’ve been shooting it for ages, although it makes me feel self-conscious and I try not to do it too much.


Monday night's dinner: Brooklyn bigos

Monday night's dinner: Brooklyn bigos

Did I act like an idiot, or an uncomprehending philistine, in Japan? No doubt some people thought I did, because there are cultural protectionists everywhere for whom xenophobia is a handy weapon. (Or, more accurately, a shield). I tried not to rush through places, and tried to bone up on the context in which the places I was visiting had come into being, even though the subtleties in the various flavors of Buddhism and Shinto whose temples I visited were a bit beyond my ken.


Still, I do like to know where I am. Food is one way I do that. The above meal tells me a lot: it’s a traditional Polish dish called bigos, or “hunter’s stew,” and I got it in a traditional Polish-American restaurant in Brooklyn. It tasted much better than it looks: it’s made from pork of various kinds, and sauerkraut. It can sometimes also have sausge and mushrooms in it. Think about that some and you’ll get information about Poland. You can also think about why, even in 2013, there’s a functioning Polish-American community within sight of Manhattan. (If Q got tired of raw human flesh, he could zip over quite easily for some bigos.) Although there are some of the dread hipsters around, there are also plenty of businesses whose signs are in Polish: pharmacies, travel agencies, and meat markets that exhale an odor of smoked meat and garlic as you pass when someone is using the door. I know about those travel agencies: they’re the ones who bring the clots of old ladies to Krakow, where they gaze at the solid silver coffin of St. Stanislaus in the Wawel, the castle at the top of the hill. He’s not only Poland’s patron saint, he’s also its greatest king. The old ladies and I both knew that, although only they had the deep connection to the site, which they probably figured they’d never see in their lifetimes. I’d read up on the place before I went, but then, I was a reporter on assignment.


Altar with gold-plated pillars

Stan's in there somewhere. Via Wikimedia Commons.


I just don’t see the value in context-free travel. It’s one thing to spend your vacation at the beach doing nothing but vegging out; I understand the impulse, even if I don’t share it. It’s people like the miserable Chinese guy in the tapas joint in Barcelona or the families who roam Times Square, which has been completely decontextualized to the extent that the New York Times isn’t even published there any more, having their pictures taken with people dressed in Smurf and Disney costumes who disturb me? What are they seeing? Why are they there? What needs are being served by this moment?


But then I realize that most people don’t even know where they are when they’re home, let alone roaming around unknown territory. Seriously: how much do you know about the place you live? Who or what is your street named after? Where do you want to go? Why? And what are you waiting for?