28 December 2010

On the road with Chinese Grand Tourists

The Economist has an interesting, amusing, and astonishingly in-depth profile of some of the newest Grand Tourists: 
A sketch map of the Chinese grand tour must begin in France, the country seen as offering all the essential European virtues: history, romance, luxury and quality. Paris shops such as Louis Vuitton are essential stops: witness their Mandarin-speaking staff. In 2009 Chinese tourists passed Russians as the highest-spending non-European visitors to France, according to a survey of duty-free shops. The south of the country is also popular, thanks in part to widely available translations of Peter Mayle’s book “A Year in Provence” and in part to a slushy Chinese television mini-series, “Dreams Link”, which was filmed amid the lavender fields and walled citadels of the Midi.
Read more

27 December 2010

Outtakes: the Vatican gift shop

I don't think I have anything interesting or new to say about the Vatican, so I've decided to strike that scene from the book. But there was one exchange that I overheard, in the gift shop, that was too amazing not to share:

Male British tourist to female cashier: “Excuse me, do you sell action figures of the Pope? Ones that move?”

The cashier's eyes widened in horror. “No! Not here!”

“Do you know where I could get one?”

Long pause. Double-blink. Sigh. “Try a shop by Saint Peter's Square.”

24 December 2010

Graph of the day: traveler vs tourist mentions in books, 1900-2008

Google estimates that it has scanned some 10 percent of all books, ever. And here comes Google Ngram Viewer to allow you to track mentions of words or phrases in their scanned database--in other words, to allow you to spend massive amounts of time being distracted (arugula vs. iceberg lettuce, Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer).

Traveler (blue) vs. tourist (red), 1900-2008 (click for larger version):

Note that "tourist" takes over for good in the mid-1950s--exactly when the budget tourism boom was beginning.

23 December 2010

Quote of the day: "I am the Tourist" (in 1876)

If any one knows what a tourist is, and what he is capable of, I am that person. I have watched the tourist at his work from a non-tourist stand-point. I have heard and considered the opinion of others about him, and have formed my own. I have seen him ill-treated in print, I have myself assailed him on a printed page, and I have been taken to task by certain journalistic defenders of the Philistine faith for doing so. 

On the other hand, I am for the time being the person I have criticized. De me faula narratur. I am myself the Tourist . . . 

- John LaTouche, "The Tourist in Portugal," from The New Quarterly Magazine  (London), April-July 1876.

17 December 2010

Quote of the day: the key to a happy journey is ... booze

As I approach T-minus two months until manuscript deadline, this quote makes more and more sense:
But when all is said and done, perhaps the most valuable commodity for the tourist, whether he is along the French Riviera in a yacht or ploughing through unmapped areas of urban forest, is alcohol. It is the universal language, the Esperanto, through which contact can be made with people of the most remote sympathies; it passes agreeably the leaden hours of waiting for trains and boats and mail; it gently obliterates one's rage at inefficient subordinates and soothes one's own exhaustion and irritation; it renders one oblivious to mosquitoes, calms one's apprehensions of being lost or catching fever; it gives glamour to the empty, steaming nights of the tropics. With a glass in his hand, the tourist can gaze out on the streets of Tangier, teeming with English governesses and retired colonels, and happily imagine himself a Marco Polo.
- Evelyn Waugh, The Tourist's Manual* [EDIT: not The Tourist Manifesto, as I originally had it.]

*This is the same essay, by the way, that gave us the immortal line, "The tourist is the other fellow," more often misquoted--including by me, on this blog--as "The tourist is always the other chap." The whole piece is a brilliant satirical rebuttal to the "I'm a traveler, not a tourist" types. What's most striking is how fresh and modern the voice feels in its snarky but erudite tone--even though it was written in 1934. Alas, it's not available online. In fact, I consider it one of the great lost works of travel writing; it deserves a place in the canon and the ongoing conversation. More on that some other time. (And if you ask nicely, I might know a guy who has a PDF ...)

28 November 2010

Discovering and rediscovering and re-rediscovering Venice in winter

This just in: The New York Times' travel section has discovered Venice in the off-season. Again. For the third time in six years.

2010: "Venice in winter"
In summer, Venice is torrid, stuffed to the gills with the 18 million tourists who overwhelm it each year, clogging its bridges, swelling its vaporetti, vastly outnumbering the famously grouchy residents and making the city seem like one big floating Disneyland— a perverse metaphor for the future of Italy, if not all of Europe, a place that has staked its future on selling an image of its past and may yet be destroying itself in the process.
2009: "Frugal Venice, family style" [The link goes to the Frugal Travel blog, but I'm 90 percent sure I saw it on the front page of the travel section when it first came out.]
It is hard to imagine such consideration in the depths of summer, when Venice is descended upon by millions of tourists, who constitute a flood as unnavigable as the acqua alta, or high water, that periodically drenches the city’s sidewalks and campos from September to April.
2004: "Breathing more easily without the throngs"
For anyone who has been to Venice in summer -- when it becomes an Italian theme park, with thousands of tourists jostling for space on the Piazza San Marco, trying to snap a souvenir photo of the Campanile and then lining up for a coffee at Caffe Florian, which opened in 1720 and has presumably been overcharging ever since -- winter can be a revelation. Gone are the cruise ships, the group tours, the throngs of camera-toting daytrippers flooding out of the Santa Lucia train station each morning, guidebook in one hand, stopwatch in the other.
Way to branch out there, guys. And while I certainly agree that Venice in the summer is, well, stuffed to the gills with millions of tourists in search of an Italian theme park . . . I'm also not convinced that telling people to go in the off-season is the best, either, at least not for a tourist hotspot like Venice. Because in the same sense that some people argue that staying on the beaten path is the most ethical way to travel--because you're not beating new paths--one could also make the case that expanding the tourist season in Venice won't cut back on the numbers in the summer; it'll only increase them the rest of the year. (I'm not actually sure I completely believe any of what I'm saying in this post, by the way; I'm mostly just putting it out there for discussion.)

VeniceLand. See that elaborate building? It actually houses a roller coaster.
Personally, I think we should just leave the good people of this famously dying/drowning/theme-park-ifying town alone. Seriously, don't go. Or limit stays to one or two days (or, conversely, mandate week-long stays). Or maybe we can be open to visitors for one month a year. Perhaps we could all work out a deal where, like children of divorced parents, tourists can visit Venice and, say, crumbling Pompeii on alternate weekends, plus the Roman Forum on holidays.

18 November 2010

Fill in the blanks: [place] on $[number] a day

Arthur Frommer didn't just give travelers a strategy for cheap travel. He also inadvertently gave travel writers and other journalists a strategy for cheap headlines. It's not quite as ubiquitous as, say, "land of contrasts" and "off the beaten path," but it's still pretty common. Just last week, the New York Times ran a travel article titled "Los Angeles on $100 a Day."

And a few days before that, when certain conservative politicians and pundits (who apparently hate math as much as they hate President Obama . . .) leveled the charge that the president's trip to Asia was costing $200 million a day, the debunking headlines practically wrote themselves, like this from the Times' Caucus blog: "India on $200 million a day? Not!"

I wondered how common this was, so I put my research assistant, Mr. Google, on the case and was quickly presented with a list of other examples. Like:
  • A few years back, the Times had a series called "High & Low" (retitled in 2009, in a slight nod to the economic times,"Save or Splurge"). Each entry featured pairs of articles about visiting a particular place on two different budgets: "____ on $250 a Day" and "____ on $1,000 a Day."
  • From a Space Daily article on the Mars Rover: "Mars on One Million Dollars a Day." 
I was also curious, in light of Monday's post about the evolution of the dollar amount in the guidebook titles, to see what amounts people most often plugged into the "on $___ a day" construction. I checked both Google overall and Google News specifically (going back to 1980). Here's a graphic representation of what I found, with the X axis listing the various dollar amounts:  

Some notes for the pedants/sticklers/genuinely-curious: 
(1) Most of the amounts I looked at were actual amounts used in Frommer's book titles. I added in some other nice, round numbers (e.g. $100, $500) that seemed like logical ones for people to plug into the dollars-a-day construction. One thing that's interesting about this, for example, is that there are considerably more articles that discuss something on $100 a day (14 results) than $95 a day (4), even though the latter was an actual Frommer's guidebook, the last one to have an amount listed in the title, in 2007. 
(2) I did several variations of each search, using different phrasing (e.g. 5 dollars, five dollars, $5) and I searched for exact phrases, so that it was always "____ on $_____ a day." 
(3) Even so, the link between many of these results and Frommer's guidebook titles is, of course, only coincidental and in passing, having nothing to do with travel, e.g. "even today, many impoverished Martians live on $5 a day." 
(4) Still, most of the news results, at least, are indeed clearly intended as a play on Europe on $5 a Day
(5) Seriously, if you're still reading this, you deserve a prize. Tell you what: let me know you made it this far and I'll write you a haiku. 

15 November 2010

Greetings from snowy Minneapolis

[Okay, this isn't about Europe or tourism, but it's, uh, kind of about travel. Hometown travel, anyway.]

On Saturday, it snowed here in Minneapolis. Biggest November snowfall in nineteen years. That night, I went for a walk around the downtown riverfront area, one of my favorite spots in the city--hell, in the whole world (not that I'm biased or anything)--and took some photos.* Enjoy! 

* Thanks much to @maggiekb1 and Boing Boing for picking up the top photo after I posted it to Twitter on Saturday night. My moment of very minor internet fame, I guess--at least until that video of me doing karaoke with Lady Gaga and Nicolas Sarkozy finally surfaces. 

From $5 to $95: the evolution of a guidebook budget

You used to be able to find the Europe on $__ a Day guidebooks listed on the Frommers.com web site, here. Now you land on a page reading "404 error - page not found." The metaphor is all too obvious, all too cheap, yet still retains some essential poignancy: the guidebook that led millions of people around unfamiliar terrain is now lost itself.

The "dollar-a-day" books ended in 2007, fifty years after it started; the final version was Europe on $95 a Day. The timeline below shows how the titular amount evolved over the years. Just for kicks, I've added the inflation-adjusted worth of $5 in 1957; these amounts are listed in brackets (and for the record, according to the US government, $5 in 1957 has the same buying power as $38.87 now--in general terms, if not in travel terms). 

1957:  Europe on $5 a Day
1972:  Europe on $5 and $10 a Day  [$7.44]
1979:  Europe on $15 a Day  [$12.92]
1981:  Europe on $20 a Day  [$16.17]
1987:  Europe on $25 a Day  [$20.21]
1990:  Europe on $40 a Day  [$23.26]
1991:  Europe on $45 a Day  [$24.23]
1996:  Europe on $50 a Day  [$27.92]
2000:  Europe From $60 a Day (note the change in wording!)  [$30.64]
2000:  Europe From $70 a Day 
2007:  Europe From $95 a Day  [$36.89]

(Note: I wasn't always able to determine the precise year of each title change, so in some cases it's an educated guess based on the earliest publication date I was able to find for the title.)

11 November 2010

Outtakes: trying not to be sketchy in Vienna

The Vienna chapter is a bit bloated and unwieldly; I'm trimming it into shape right now. Here's a scene I ended up cutting:  

My stomach grumbled. I trekked on and bought a pastry, ordering in flawless German. It had a distinctly Old World taste, that of thousand-year-old church mortar. I cursed in flawless English.

My sinus headache roared. My throat itched. My feet ached—everything ached, actually, from this nasty cold and from the washboard mattress at the hostel. I wandered into a park to sit for a while and dig into the bag of cough drops that I'd bought. There were several open benches near the entrance, and I started to sit down but thought better of it upon piecing together the circumstances: the benches were facing a playground filled with kids. And I was a single man. Specifically, I was a weirdo clutching a battered paperback and what appeared to be a bag of candy, and staring with watery, twitchy eyes. Perhaps in Austria, such persons are considered good luck, but I wasn't about to test it. I kept walking and found another cluster of benches, each with a man sitting alone.

“Excuse me,” I asked one. “Is this the area for the non-pedophiles?”

Well, that's what was implied, anyway, in my simple, “Gutten tag,” croaked as I sat heavily on the opposite end of a bench from him. I dug in my pocket for a tissue, then blew my nose like a trumpet fanfare. The guy eyed me and walked away, toward the playground.

08 November 2010

Quote of the day: a tourist is a tourist as a skunk is a skunk

From Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana:
“Alors, qu'est-ce que vous êtes, Monsieur?” 

“Je suis homme.” 



“Je comprends. Touriste.” 

Even “voyageur” is obsolete; and with reason: the word has a complimentary air. The traveller of old was one who went in search of knowledge and whom the indigènes were proud to entertain with their local interests. In Europe this attitude of reciprocal appreciation has long evaporated. But there at least the “tourist” is no longer a phenomenon. He is part of the landscape, and in nine cases out of ten has little money to spend beyond what he has paid for his tour. Here, his is still an aberration. If you can come from London to Syria on business, you must be rich. If you can come so far without business, you must be very rich. No one cares if you like the place, hate it, or why. You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree. 

At the turnstile, that final outrage, a palsied dotard took ten minutes to write out each ticket. After which we escaped from these trivialities into the glory of Antiquity.

02 November 2010

The best of touristic intentions ...

They're the classic antidotes to tourism as usual: packaged tours that combine travel with doing good. Ecotourism gives insight into fragile ecosystems and cultures in transition by providing many of the trappings of standard tourism in a more sustainable package. Dark tourism (a.k.a. grief tourism) provides ostensibly worldview-expanding looks into favelas and former concentration camps and the, well, darker side of life. And voluntourism ... well, the punning name should be self-evident.

All certainly laudable in concept. The intentions are good, and often the results are, too. Buuuut ... just as there's nothing inherently wrong with doing the standard-issue Grand Tour, there's also nothing inherently better about trying to save the world in your two weeks of vacation. Sometimes, alas, you can do more harm than good. NPR's "All Things Considered" tackled the topic of voluntourism today and had some interesting observations:
But in South Africa, some researchers now claim that foreign visitors aren't actually helping the children they work with. In fact, they might be harming them.

The South African government has expressed concern about so-called AIDS orphan tourism, and the Department of Social Development recently said that it will study the issue.

... The psychological literature talks about attachment theory — very young children are programmed to build attachments," she says. "And so, you've got these sort of repeated abandonments — first with young children whose parents may die of AIDS. And then they go to live in an orphanage where you often have high staff turnover."

The process continues when well-meaning tourists come to volunteer their time, she says.

"And then you've got tourists that are coming as sort of the third wave of this abandonment. Children are left behind to remember a series of these foreigners who come in and then leave them there," Norman says.

01 November 2010

Quote of the day: guidebook as script

"Modern tourist guides have helped raised tourist expectations. And they have provided the natives—from Kaiser Wilhelm* down to the villagers of Chichacestenango—with a detailed and itemized list of what is expected of them and when. These are the up-to- date scripts for actors on the tourists' stage." 

-- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image (1961).

* The Kaiser Wilhelm thing is pretty amazing, actually. I've heard several versions of the anecdote given in this 1950 Time article:
"At the stroke of noon one day, as the imperial military band began its daily concert in front of Berlin's imperial palace, Kaiser Wilhelm interrupted a conference of state by jumping to his feet. "With your kind forbearance, gentlemen," he said, 'I must excuse myself now to appear in the window. You see, it says in Baedeker [guidebook] that at this hour I always do.' "

28 October 2010

NY Times on travel apps vs. guidebooks: "trust books"

The New York Times reviews various guidebook iPhone/iPad apps and concludes that the dead-tree editions are still more useful:
I have often found myself ignoring the smartphone while sightseeing. It can be frustrating to repeatedly open an app and navigate an unknown amount of content, often in an unfamiliar format. A book with a dog-eared page, meanwhile, offers instant gratification and gets a traveler back to sightseeing much more quickly.

27 October 2010

Notes on Mexico on $5 a Day

The New York Times' Frugal Traveler has an interesting interview with John Wilcock, who wrote the first editions of Mexico on $5 a Day, Greece on $5 a Day and Japan on $5 a Day in the 1960s:
How did you approach a country like, say, Japan, when there were no prior budget guidebooks to serve as a baseline and no Internet to search on?
I was very lucky in Japan. My column in The Voice had been picked up all over the place, including the Mainichi Daily News in Tokyo, and my editor there introduced me to a couple of guys who were doing an underground paper in Tokyo. He also took me all kinds of places I wouldn’t otherwise have found, like a whale meat restaurant and a bear meat restaurant. But there were other people there – as there always are – who speak English or actually are American. After I wrote the Mexico guide, my contacts said, “How did you find all those things? I’ve lived there for years and I only know some of them,” and I said, “Yes, but I spoke to you and 20 other people.”
I find the comments especially interesting. In my edition of E5D, Arthur Frommer notes that some people have been complaining to him that he's not frugal enough--they've traveled the continent for $2 a day or less. (His response is that, sure, it's possible, but he's trying to show how you can do it while still having a modicum of comfort and not sleeping in ditches or fleabag hostels.) A few of those naysayers are still around--and commenting on this blog post.

24 October 2010

"Aloha Hawaii Brunch" in a Munich beer hall. Discuss.

I was just going through my photos from Munich and found this one:

I took this photo in the Ratskeller in Munich. Here's how Arthur describes the restaurant:
Most German cities publicize their food specialties by running a low-priced, municipally-owned restaurant in their City Hall. Munich has one of the best of these. Its Ratskeller, a restaurant in the cellar of its famous, old City Hall on Marienplatz, serves an authentic Bavarian meal in a setting of vaulted oak arches, large beer kegs and rough-hewn wooden tables that could have come from The Student Prince. 
In short this is a classic, stereotypical Bavarian restaurant.
But let me call your attention to the list of upcoming events on the board pictured above. Specifically, note the short column on the right side. This, to me, is a classic sign from the European tourist trail. It represents globalization and stereotypes and cultural confusion and strange uses of English. 
  • O-sole-mio Brunch. Cheesy Italian stereotypes to go with your kitschy German stereotypes! 
  • Ratskeller Happy Family Schnitzel Brunch (neu!). Advertised in English, except for the part about how it's new. This I find completely baffling. 
  • Aloha Hawaii Brunch. This makes about as much sense as . . . well having an Oktoberfest celebration on a beach in Hawaii. The two cultures are about as far apart as one can get, I think. I'm trying to figure out what this entails. Pineapple-spiked schnitzel? Or maybe "Bavarian luau" is the next big trend, the next theme restaurant to hit the big time. I can see it: servers in grass skirts and dirndls, dancers doing the hula to "Ein Prosit" . . .  

23 October 2010

This just in: A Moveable (and Barbecue-filled) Feast

If forced to choose between a platter of pastries and bucket of barbecue, I'm not sure what I'd say. I'd probably try to distract you and then take both and run away. I didn't eat any barbecue in Europe but shortly before that trip, I went to Kansas City, one of the world's great barbecue towns, for a long-anticipated feast of a roadtrip with my dad.

And now you can read all about it in (this calls for bold-faced text) my story in the new Lonely Planet travel writing anthology, A Moveable Feast.

(Also featured in the book: Jim Benning, Elisabeth Eaves, and--just pulling names randomly here--Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Anthony Bourdain, Simon Winchester. Edited by Don George.)

Mine is a tale of two scrawny men bonding over inadvisably large quantities of food. If I were writing a movie poster about my story, it might be this: A father, a son, a city with a secret ... about smoked meat. Except that makes it sound too dark. It is anything but. This might work better: Humor! Pathos! Sauce stains! Heartburn! 

Now available at your local indie bookstore (which you can find here!) or directly from Lonely Planet or at Powell's ... or (okay, fine) at that big online store that starts with an A.*

So buy a copy or twenty. They make great stocking-stuffers or trivets to put under your Thanksgiving side-dishes or get-well gifts for anyone who has just had major jaw surgery, and whom you secretly hate and want to taunt with a book about all the great meals they can't have with their jaws wired shut like that.

Digging into the good stuff at Arthur Bryant's.
* If you do the "search inside the book" thing, you'll find the story, but rabid tigers armed with lasers will leap from your computer and then your screen will explode in a massive ball of fire ... and you just don't want to deal with that. Seriously. Too much like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Be safe and just buy the book. It's paperback--cheap!

08 October 2010

Is social media the new guidebook?

So this writer for The Guardian is preaching what seems to be a common refrain among the social media lovers: smart phones killed the guidebook dead. Twitter is the only path to travel salvation.

A few choice quotes and rebuttals:

1. A quote about the joys of constant contact.
Four weeks ago I visited Manchester on a short break. I took a change of pants and socks, a spare T-shirt and my mobile phone. When I arrived in the city, I told Twitter that I was hungry, and within minutes I was gorging on corned-beef hash thanks to a recommendation from a fellow Tweeter. I held my phone up to Piccadilly Gardens, turned on an app, and itsWikipedia entry flashed across my screen, overlaid on to the grass in front of me through the camera in my phone. I opened another app, and dozens of local suggestions were hovering around me. There was a bar 288m from where I was standing where I'd get a free drink if I mentioned a secret word to a barman called Angus.
Okay, look, whatever works for you, go for it. I won't pretend that there's One True Way To Travel.

I'll grant you that social media can offer more and better options (in terms of restaurant recommendations and the like) than guidebooks. I mean, there's the potential problem of information overload--you'll probably get too many suggestions and some conflicting opinions--but, okay, if you can sort through it, there's undoubtedly some good stuff there. Guidebooks, in theory, cut to the chase and give you some curated picks (the best of this, the cheapest of that), but if you stick with a guidebook, your options will be limited, and I'm not sure that's necessarily preferable to info-overload. When I did my guided-by-the-masses experiment in Rome, I got some good recommendations and I got some clunkers. No matter what your source of information, your own experience will be hit or miss.

What I find more problematic with the better-living-through-Twitter argument is that it demands not just constant connection with the rest of the world but constant feedback. People joke that Twitter is just a bunch of people posting what they had for breakfast, but I'm more annoyed by all the people who ask, "Where should I have breakfast?"

How about that place right there in front of you, eh? How about asking someone on the street? How about not spending an hour a day seeking advice and validation from your friends back home? How about realizing that you can wander into a dumpy restaurant and have a horrible meal . . . and still get something out of it, a story, a friend, whatever?

Furthermore, when you're checking in with your friends, how much other time are you spending online? Are you also checking Google Maps? Your e-mail? Your RSS feed? Weather? Enough. I've said it before, but I truly think that willful ignorance (up to a point) leads to the most enjoyable travel experiences. Aren't surprise and discovery part of the joy of travel? Shouldn't travel involve getting beyond your existing networks and world views? Shouldn't it be about finding your own way, rather than continually asking your friends for help? All the world need not be a stage, and all your time need not be spent in pursuit of the best, the hippest, the friend-approved. Let loose, get lost, get in to trouble, make NEW friends.

I honestly think that the single most important travel app on a smart phone is the off button. Make it up as you go along.

2. A quote about how awesome it is to have so many friends and to be so popular.
And then, about 18 months ago, I started travelling with Twitter. I headed off on assignments without planning a thing. I began in Paris, where I arrived at the Gare du Nord and began slinging questions into the ether. For 48 hours the people of Twitter guided me around the city, from backstreet art galleries in obscure eastern suburbs to glorious belle époque eating halls in Montmartre. Every tip was tailored to my exact time and location.
In other words, you've got people. (As of this writing, the Guardian writer, Benji Lanyado, has 4,863 followers on Twitter.) And, as someone with a prominent platform, you presumably get a lot of re-Tweets and forwarded information. You're able to spread the word quickly, and get a wide range of responses precisely because of who you are and what you do; people want in on your experiment. That's all fine and good; I have no problems with that. But I have a big problem with suggesting that it'll be like this for everyone, that it's Just So Easy to do this, that everyone can do it: just ask the question and you'll get tips "tailored to [your] exact time and location." It doesn't work like that. Most people are still better off with a guidebook (or using Trip Advisor or online resources).

The steps to a pleasant trip are NOT simply:
  1. Buy an iPhone.
  2. Set up Twitter account.
  3. Broadcast that you're going somewhere and need tips.
  4. Get tailored tips; meet locals; eat well; find enlightenment; live happily ever after. 
3. A quote showing some ignorance about the purpose of guidebooks
When I got home, I was a guidebook refusenik. They offered me nothing beyond the decently concise history section.
Uh-huh. And how about the section on the culture in general? On tipping? Or safety? Packing for the climate? Etiquette and taboos? Appropriate attire? Politics? Transportation? Visas? The curatorial role of the guidebook writer goes beyond stay-here-eat-there, and there are plenty of times when you can't rely on your Twitter followers to bail you out, even if you have access to them ("Tweeps: Got 10 cops shakin me down. :(  Need tips plz ASAP. How much 2 bribe?") These are areas where I specifically don't advise willful ignorance and where a guidebook--or internet research or a chat with a local--can be invaluable.

The best travel guides serendipity and common sense. Twitter and Facebook and their online peers are fine as supplements to these, but not as substitutes.

Oh, and when you're in a forest or remote area or even the Metro in Paris, good luck with getting a signal. Don't panic if you don't. Enjoy it instead.

What do you think? Are guidebooks doomed? Is Twitter better? 

If you're interested in more takes on the future of travel guides in the internet era, World Hum has a nice round-up of articles here

04 October 2010

Remoteness as tourist attraction

The beaten path can lead to some unexpected places. Sometimes, the very remoteness or other-ness of a place is precisely what draws the masses. Like all the people who tailgated Elizabeth Gilbert's bliss-quest all the way to Bali, in search of peace and quiet and enlightenment, only to find . . . lots of other people in search of same. Or there's the most remote mainland* pub in Britain, where a fair amount of people go precisely because it's . . . the most remote pub in Scotland. "Getting there is half the fun," says the pub, The Old Forge, on its web site. Seventeen miles by foot or seven by boat.  

And now it's for sale. You, too, can own this oft-visited symbol of the road less traveled. From The Guardian (via World Hum):

From hikers to yachties to locals, anyone who has ever been to the Old Forge will tell you it's a special place. It's not just the food, from its Skye crab to its haggis lasagne, that's fantastic; it's not just the fact that its local ales, such as Red Cuillin, go down a treat after a day out on some of west coast's finest peaks; nor is it just the ravishing view out across the bay at dusk, to those giant knuckles of rock encircling the still waters. No: it's the whole party spirit that seems to affect the place as the sun goes down.
... It's on sale for offers over £790,000 but cash alone won't guarantee a sale. "We won't be selling to anyone who won't keep its spirit alive," says Jackie. "All the interested parties have been customers. They understand the culture of the place: good food, good music, good people."

* Note the qualifier here: most remote mainland pub. My quick Googling doesn't turn up details of the most remote British pub, period--nor, surprisingly, can I find (again, quickly) many details about the world's most remote bars, aside from this one in Australia. (I did, however, find this round-up of remote hotels.)  There's also the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (RIP, Douglas Adams), but that is another matter entirely. Anyway, I'd bet that most of these bars (a) attract some odd, interesting people, both patrons and proprietors, (b) have some interesting reasons for existing, e.g. they used to be on some common route or part of a now-abandoned town. Given the the lack of details readily available, I think someone should write a book. Ahem. Hey, Lee . . . 

03 October 2010

Keeping a low profile in Europe: deja vu all over again

Sigh. This is one thing I'd really rather not be timely about.

A few days ago, I mentioned some travel advice from 1954 that felt all too current:
Girson's advice to travelers should also feel familiar, every bit as timely and spot-on for today's world. Don't be held back by your fears and the headlines. Go anyway. But be smart about it. A traveler can go pretty much anywhere, "providing she uses her head and doesn't try to be a smart aleck."
And now, today, there's this (via NPR):
U.S. Alerts American Travelers In Europe
The Obama administration on Sunday warned Americans of potential terrorist threats in Europe and urged them to be vigilant in public places, including tourist spots and transportation hubs.
A State Department travel alert advises U.S. citizens living or traveling in Europe to take more precautions about their personal security. The alert is one step below a formal travel warning advising Americans not to visit Europe.

01 October 2010

Finding the new on the beaten path (it's easier than you think)

“The traveler, then, was working at something; the tourist was a pleasure-seeker.The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing.' ” -- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image

I know, I know. I've already said I'm done with the whole "traveler" vs. "tourist" thing. But as I went back through my notes from The Tourist, I rediscovered the Boorstin quote at the top of this post, and I was struck that this is a common sentiment: proper travel is active, while shallow/inferior/cliched travel is passive.

I'll put aside for the moment the fact that passive travel has its place, that cruises and Disney World and time-shares provide a much-needed, all-inclusive escape for so many over-worked people who want to use their hard-earned two weeks of vacation time on some rejuvenation. Another post.

What interests me most, at the moment, is that if you go by the active/passive definition, then the destination is irrelevant. If mindset is all that matters, you can go to Disney World as a traveler and to the most remote parts of the globe as a tourist.

In Berlin, Lee and I took a walking tour of the city. It started at a Starbucks by the Brandenburg Gate. As we waited for the tour to begin, we watched street performers and trinket-hawkers do their thing, as you'll see anywhere on the tourist trail. Our tour group was mostly backpackers in their twenties (like us), and I'll confess to expecting, almost hoping for, some stereotypical stoner-hippie-"I'm not a tourist" types. It would have made hilarious fodder for the book.

I came up empty. Everyone was inquisitive and engaged, peppering our guide with questions and genuinely interested in the landmarks and history.

In the most fundamental sense, we were sightseers, surveying the landmarks of the city in whirlwind fashion and taking absurd amounts of photos. I even did the tourist thing and got my passport stamped at Checkpoint Charlie. ... But I did that because I wanted to talk to the guy selling the stamps. He was wearing an American military uniform from World War II, but I had a pretty good hunch he wasn't American or, for that matter, originally from Germany. I figured he had some interesting stories, maybe even some insights into tourists or tourism or the Berlin's split personality of both commemoration and commercialization. ("I'm from here, of course," he said, taking offense when I asked where he was from. "Right, sorry!" I replied. A few minutes later, he added, proudly, "I've been here six years!")

I can't help but think--and perhaps this is a bit of smugness creeping in, but I hope not--that we were, in fact, more actively aware of where we were (geographically, culturally, historically, and otherwise) than people who go on a package tour of Antarctica or see Thailand as a never-ending party fueled by mystery booze and banana pancakes

In every city, Lee and I wandered until we got lost and then we wandered some more. We asked locals for directions. We chatted with souvenir vendors and bartenders and others who saw the tourist experience from the other side. We stopped to read the historical markers. Granted, we weren't settling down for a year or even weeks. Ours was a whirlwind tour. We didn't meet a lot of the Authentic, Eccentric Locals (TM) who populate so many travel memoirs. But we did our best to get a sense of the culture and the city in the short time we were there. We were tourists, no doubt, but we were active, always searching for what was beneath the surface. Does that make us "travelers"? Are the pursuits of pleasure and adventure mutually exclusive? To the latter question, at least, I'd say no.

Lee and I weren't outliers. As we saw on that walking tour of Berlin, plenty of "tourists" are active. Plenty of them are there precisely because the beaten path is full of stories. (I've said it before: avoiding somewhere just because there are lots of people there is just as absurd as going somewhere because other people are.) Many tourists--not all, but a whole lot of 'em--are pretty damn interesting. Case in point: Jian from Malaysia, who was also on our Berlin tour. He was taking the long way  home after getting his degree in England, and for him the Grand Tour was the fulfillment of a dream. He'd put in extra hours at his job as a waiter in London to save up for it. Or there was Sally, an American law school student also on that tour, who told me about all the books I should read about Berlin's history. Shall I go on? Point made?

There are plenty of stories to tell on the beaten path. You might need to put in some extra effort to find them, but they're there, if you're willing to ask around and talk to people. People have stories; places have stories. To take a walking tour of Berlin--and then to keep exploring the city on your own--is to see living history. To take in the sights of Rome--assuming you do your reading and ask your questions--is to learn why this stuff is important and cool, to understand the very good reasons why this path is so beaten. It may not be more active in the physical sense than, say, meditating in a hermit hut or climbing a mountain, but I bet it tells you more about history and (a specific) culture.

The point is this: if travel is all about the journey, not the destination, as the aphorism has it, then we have to concede that the beaten path can be every bit as interesting as the road less traveled, that in the midst of the ostensibly tacky environs of so-called tourist traps, we can find the new, the foreign, the surprising, the delightful.

Another aphorism: life is what you make it. The joy of travel is sometimes hiding in plain sight. Find it.

29 September 2010

Quote of the day: Americans abroad in a time of tumult

Here's a fun game. Below is a quote from a travel guide chapter on the importance of keeping a low profile abroad. Guess the year.
In the years past newspapers have headlined anti-American demonstrations in Tokyo, Lima, La Paz, Pnompenh [sic]; Algerian riots in Paris; fighting by Greeks and Turks over Cyprus; border raids between Syrians and Israelis.
That's from Rochelle Girson's Maiden Voyages: A Lively Guide for the Woman Traveller. Published in ... 1954.

Girson's advice to travelers should also feel familiar, every bit as timely and spot-on for today's world. Don't be held back by your fears and the headlines. Go anyway. But be smart about it. A traveler can go pretty much anywhere, "providing she uses her head and doesn't try to be a smart aleck."

Other timeless advice and observations:
  • "Keep smiling." 
  • Use "discretion and tact."
  • "The most important things ... that any woman can take with her abroad are an open mind and restraint. Astonishing as it may seem to us, a considerable portion of the world--and not only the Communist-oriented--regards America as an imperialist power."

27 September 2010

Happy World Tourism Day!

No, seriously.

To celebrate, go take several dozen photos of a nearby landmark and refer to yourself as a "traveler."

What do YOU think: Has travel gotten safer for women?

Help me out, won't you? I'm looking for some comments from women who have backpacked in Europe in the last few years. 

If you're new here (welcome) here's what the project documented on this blog is all about: last summer, I traveled around Europe using both a 1963 edition of Europe On Five Dollars a Day and copies of my mother's letters from her Grand Tour in '67. I was looking at How Things Have Changed (Or Haven't) on the backpacker trail since that time. Now I'm working on a book about the experience (forthcoming from Perigee, Spring 2012).

One of the things that Mom talked about--at length--was sleazy, sketchy, grabby Italian men. She encountered them all over the continent, not just in Italy. I've included one of her letters below. (I should note that she also met one or two totally wholesome Italian men, but they were, sad to say, the exception.)

Here's the thing: I'm not female. It's kind of hard, then, for me to say whether or not this has changed--or, for that matter, if Europe has become a safer, more comfortable place for women travelers (solo or otherwise) in other ways. Maybe everything is different. Maybe it's the same as ever. I realize that my Y chromosome makes it rather difficult for me to know for sure, no matter how much I tried to be aware of the goings-on around me. 

From conversations with my fellow travelers--and reading various travel blogs--I got the impression that, yes, things have changed, at least to a large degree. Travel is safer; scumbags are fewer. Elizabeth Gilbert echoed this sentiment in Eat, Pray, Love (also quoted below) But I'd like to hear more thoughts, more stories, if anyone would be willing to share. I'm genuinely curious to know what's changed; it's an important piece of the then-and-now comparison of the book, but one that I really can't fill in based on my own experiences.

I'd also love to hear any other thoughts on the specific topic of being a female traveler in Europe in the twenty-first century (or, for that matter, in any era).

So. I'd really appreciate any stories, observations, or insight anyone would care to share. It'll help make for a better (and more accurate) book. If you're comfortable sharing your thoughts, please comment below or, better yet, e-mail me at doug@douglasmack.net. And, of course, I'll only quote you with permission. Thanks in advance!

And now, here's what Mom had to say in one of her letters (and I should note that this story is just one of many):
Dear Bob,
Do you know why Italian men are so awful? Because they start very young. Tonight we had a hysterically funny experience. We walked to the train station to find out what time our train leaves tomorrow. On the way back we were “blessed” with the escort of 4 young men—whose ages we estimate to have averaged 15 (at the very oldest) . . . At one point there were also 2 soldiers (Italiano) and one other guy, but they left 2/3 of the way back here. Bob, these kids ended up walking us home from the station—which is about a mile—all the way Ann and I spoke French to each other and these little boys were trying to address us in various languages—French, Italian, English, and German. Poor kids—we really frustrated their attempts to communicate. Ever been told “I love you” in 3 diff. languages by a 14-year-old? I hope you appreciate the humor of the situation, for Ann and I are still laughing. When we got to our pensione, Ann invited them up to meet our father, an invitation which they declined. 
Italian men are very ‘attentive.’ One just came over—ugh. . . . I cannot wait to see YOU.
Here's what Elizabeth Gilbert had to say on the same subject in Eat, Pray, Love: 
I ask around, and everybody here agrees that, yes, there's been a true shift in Italy in the last ten to fifteen years. Maybe it's a victory of feminism, or an evolution of culture, or the inevitable modernizing effects of having joined the European Union. Or maybe it's just simple embarrassment on the part of young men about the infamous lewdness of their fathers and grandfathers. Whatever the cause, though, it seems that Italy has decided as a society that this sort of stalking, pestering behavior toward women is no longer acceptable. 
So. Thoughts? Really, seriously: I appreciate any comments anyone cares to offer. This book will be a lot better for it. 

25 September 2010

Quote of the day: information overloaded in 1844

"There is, probably, not a famous picture or statue in all Italy, but could not easily be buried under a mountain of printed paper devoted to dissertations on it."

-- Charles Dickens, Pictures From Italy

Click here for the full book on Google Books. 

24 September 2010

Here be cheese-eaters

Not-so-coincidentally, this is also basically the Grand Tourist's map of Europe (although I'd change Italy to "Godfathers and pizza").

via @myessis

21 September 2010

Do guidebooks create the beaten path?

I have a recent edition of Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door. Here's what it says on the back cover: “Avoid crowds and tourist traps . . . Discover off-the-beaten-path towns, trails, and natural wonders.”

But as anyone who has followed the insider knowledge of such guidebooks can attest, by the time you get to one of these hidden gems, you'll find a dozen other tourists already there, each one bearing your same guidebook and the glum expression that says, "This is not what I was promised."

You know that famous Yogi Berra line, "No one goes there; it's too crowded"? With guidebooks, we get just the opposite phenomenon: everyone goes there because it's not crowded.

This is nothing new. A 1963 profile of Arthur Frommer in Time included the following anecdote:
Last week in Paris one proud hotelier told Frommer: "It is your book which bought this elevator." But the new lift meant higher rentals, and Frommer sadly made a note to drop the hotel from the next edition. 
Or there's this, from the 1966 edition of Let's Go: The Student Guide to Europe (and which serves as a reminder that the snarkiness of youth is timeless):
In the low-cost field the most popular guide is Frommer's Europe on $5 a Day, which has become so widely circulated among American tourists that you will generally find them sitting on top of each other in the hotels and restaurants recommended.
The most telling example of a guidebook's impact on a place is, I think, one that involves Frommer's rival Temple Fielding, he of the raffia basket carry-on and the portable record players and the mink-covered beer can opener. Such was the impact of his guidebook that, according to John McPhee's 1968 New Yorker profile, "A waiter's strike in Italy was postponed when leaders of the national waters' union were informed that Fielding was in the country."

The guidebook effect extends way off the beaten path, too. In Getting Stoned With Savages, J. Maarten Troost travels to the South Pacific island of Malekula, where he meets a man while walking through the forest:
"I am George," he said curtly. "Do you have a Lonely Planet?"
I did indeed have a Lonely Planet guide to Vanuatu. We had brought it out from the U.S. Remarkably, they had a chapter on Malekula, which I had read thoroughly, highlighting all the references--and there were many--to the dangers posed by sharks.
"Turn to page one-fourteen," he said. "Do you see?" He jabbed at the page. "That's me."
The entry to which he referred read, in its entirety: "In the village on Wala Island, George's Guestroom  is small, for one or two people."
And have you read Eat, Pray, Love? Don't lie. You're reading a travel blog. I'm just going to guess, then, that you've either read or intentionally avoided Elizabeth Gilbert's gazillion-copy-selling spiritual self-help tract masquerading as travel writing. Just a hunch.

Anyway. So she goes to Bali. To (proper-noun) Love. But she's not quite done with the praying and the physical health stuff, either. Gilbert befriends a healer named Wayan, and decides to help her out--in part so that Wayan can reach that eternal goal of the tourist-area business owner: a listing in a prominent guidebook.
If she had a home, she could finally be listed in Lonely Planet, who keep wanting to mention her services, but never can do so, because she never has a permanent address that they can print. 
As it turns out, Lonely Planet was not the book that really put Wayan on the tourist trail. That, of course, fell to . . . Eat, Pray, Love.  From Time last month:
Wayan, an outspoken Indonesian healer of dark beauty and another of Eat, Pray, Love's personalities, was, with her young daughter and two adopted orphans, once on the verge of eviction. Now a staff of well-built men churns out her healthful Vitamin Lunches for calling travelers. From January to March of 2006, 237,260 foreign tourists stopped by Bali. Since then the number has swelled steadily, and in the same three months of this year, there were 551,186 visitors to the island.
While precise figures are not yet available, industry observers from the Denpasar Tourism Academy have confirmed that the island has been repopulated by tourists looking to develop their spirituality. . . . "It's a thing we want to promote because those activities bring peace to mind," says Nyoman Suwidjana, deputy chairman of the Bali Tourism Board. "And Bali loves peace."
Emphasis mine. Just in case you missed the irony. 

17 September 2010

Eat, pray ... No, just EAT.

As is apparent from the existence of this blog and this project, I'm a fan of quirky travel quests. But I don't think I've ever been on one so monumental, so crucial to science, so important to the advancement of culture and possibly even world peace ... than the one I recently completed with my friends Teague and Alex.

I speak, of course, of Doughnut Quest 2010. 

Three men. Three boroughs. Three days. Ten bakeries. Twenty-five doughnuts. One delicious, gut-busting attempt to find the best doughnuts in New York City.

Teague has the official, analytical, chart-filled write-up over at his blog. (You thought I was kidding about this being scientific? Please. When it comes to pastries, we do not mess around.) 

Take it away, Teague.

Above: Alex takes the ceremonial first bite of the first doughnut. 
Let the eating begin!

10 September 2010

Quote of the day: travel as conspicuous consumption

"By the 1970s, social trends were again altering the nature of comparative consumption. Most obvious was the entrance of large numbers of married women into the labor force. As the workplace replaced the coffee klatch and the backyard barbecue as locations of social contact, workplace conversation became a source of information on who went where for vacation, who was having a deck put on the house, and whether the kids were going to dance class, summer camp, or karate lessons." [emphasis mine]

-- Juliet Schor, The Overspent American

29 August 2010

Little Virtual Mermaid

Is it still a tourist landmark if the landmark isn't there? Yes!

A friend of mine is living in Copenhagen. From a recent report on his blog:

This morning, we had an excellent, traditional Danish breakfast consisting of bread and things to put on bread. It's such a good culinary concept. Then, G drove me and E2 into Copenhagen. We saw where the famous Little Mermaid statue is usually. Unfortunately , it's on loan to China for the time being. In its place was a large television screen displaying a still photo of the statue. Hilarious.

This is a totally unoriginal thought, but here goes: we don't go to tourist landmarks because they are inherently interesting per se. We go because everyone else has gone. We go because the it occupies some greater status in culture and history--it's not a statue or a building but a Landmark, a gathering place, a site that is, like a celebrity, famous for being famous.

In this case, though, I think the television screen is probably more interesting than the statue it's temporarily replacing (if you're easily amused by irony and disappointment, that is). After all, to take a photo of the real deal is to capture what is probably the least-flattering of all not-so-flattering photos:

17 August 2010

The criminals in Paris are actually kind of charming

I'm writing the Paris chapter, and I had to cut this scene. So here ya go: an outtake!

is not an all-purpose guidebook. It doesn't have tips on avoiding lines or how to dress in various cultures or how to keep in touch with the folks back home. It also has no advice on avoiding that eternal anxiety of travel, street crime.

So when a guy near the Eiffel Tower tried to scam me, I made me an easy mark. Luckily, I had found the single most inept criminal in history.

There are a lot of scams that modern guidebooks warn you about, many involving methods of distracting you while an accomplice picks your pocket (watch out for someone “accidentally” spilling something on you) or trying to give you a great price on goods that are, of course, counterfeit.

Here's how the one that I saw works, in theory: as you walk down the sidewalk, someone a few steps behind you tries to get your attention. He's holding a gold ring or other small, potentially expensive object. “You dropped this,” he says (most likely in English). You tell him that, no, you didn't. He looks at it, as if for the first time, and is stunned—stunned!—to find a marking labeling it as pure gold or otherwise authentic-and-pricey. Then the benevolent soul tries to sell you this prestigious item for a price so low that you really can't afford to pass up the opportunity. He refuses to take no for an answer, badgering you until you give him some cash to go away.

And here's how this guy did it: as I was about ten feet away, walking toward him, he conspicuously dropped a ring on the ground. He looked up at me for a split second, nonchalantly—just lookin' around, being a normal person—then whipped his gaze back toward the sidewalk, gesturing theatrically, jaw dropping to his knees. He pointed. Mon dieu! What have we here?

“Excusez-moi?” he said shyly, looking at me again. “You have dropped zee ring, monsieur?”

“Nope. Merci,” I said, trying not to laugh in his face.

“No, no. You … have dropped ... eet.” There were odd pauses in his wording, as though he couldn't recall his script. “I have seen! I am … helping you. Oui?”


“Ah. Okay. You would like … to buy? How much … will you pay? You make an offer.”

“No, really. Not interested.”

“Non?” I waited for the hard sell, but he offered only a look of confusion, searching his mind for the follow-up line but coming up blank.

“Oh. Okay,” he sighed, and walked away. 

02 August 2010

Quote of the Day: The American Dream in three objects: the pill, the card, the book

"It's no accident that Arthur Frommer, the Pill, and credit cards are simultaneous phenomena. Everybody deserves everything. You only live once. Screwing for everybody and Europe for everybody too. This is the egalitarian key to a proper understanding of Europe on Five Dollars a Day."

-- Stanley Elkin, “The World On $5 a Day.” Harper's Magazine, July 1972.

27 July 2010

Chef Boyardee and the meaning of authentic cuisine

One evening in Florence, I had some bold journalistic investigations to undertake. I needed to eat pizza.

Before we go on, please take a good look at these Life magazine ads from 1956:

"Your first taste of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli lets you know this is the true Italian dish."

"That's the way they serve pizza in Amalfi!"

In 1944, a New York Times article about a just-opened pizzeria led with this description of the exotic foodstuff: “One of the most popular dishes in southern Italy, especially in the vicinity of Naples, is pizza—a pie made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers, each one containing tomatoes. Cheese, mushrooms, anchovies, capers, onions and so on may be used.” Gosh, sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

Twenty years after that rather detached, straightforward description appeared, pizza was so commonplace that in the menu phrasebook section of Europe on Five Dollars a Day, Arthur Frommer offers not a translation but a wiseacre wink: “You know this one.”

Now, another fifty years on, I settled myself into a corner table at one of Arthur’s recommended restaurants—he claimed, “no surprises; no cover,” but surprise, Arthur, there was a two-euro cover—and ordered my own “pie made from a yeast dough” to see how it measured up. It was good enough, with the crust slightly charred from the wood-fired oven and the slight saltiness of the prosciutto perfectly balancing with the creamy mozzarella and the earthy depth of the funghi.

But here’s what struck me: it wasn’t as good—or as authentic—as the pizza I can get at either of two different restaurants in my neighborhood back home in Minneapolis. With their imported San Marzano tomatoes, artisanal toppings, mozzarella di bufala, and sea salt-dusted crusts, these are marketed as paragons of the authentic Italian cuisine. One restaurant is a member of Vera Pizza Napoletana, the official and famously strict arbiter of true Neapolitan pizza. Even the decor and menu design of those pizzerias back home are superficially more authentic, more Old World Italian than the restaurants I visited in Florence.

Today, some of Arthur’s and my mother’s comments about Italian foods seem nearly as naive and wide-eyed as that 1944 Times article. Arthur lists fettuccine and risotto in the vegetable section, for example; most Americans today would probably not just recategorize them but smirk at the accurate-but-not-entirely translations of these as “noodles” and “rice,” of gelato as merely “ice cream,” and of prosciutto as simply “ham.” Mom explained the concept of a trattoria to my father in one of her letters and waxed rhapsodic about a particularly exotic dish that I immediately recognized, having seen it on multiple restaurant menus back home, as saltimbocca.

Though Arthur and my mother undoubtedly had their own preconceptions of Europe, based on photographs, books, and previous tourists’ tales, the information available to them before their trips was paltry compared to what today’s information-overloaded travelers have at their disposal. Mom didn’t have a hundred different guidebooks and a thousand different web sites telling her what to expect. Italian food hadn’t become so commonplace as to be cliché, as evidenced by Wendy’s recent short-lived line of sandwiches marketed under the Italian-by-way-of-focus-group name Frescata or, most of all, Fancy Feast's gourmet cat foods, which include both Florentine and Tuscany lines, apparently intended for the sophisticated, citizen-of-the-world felines: “Romance your cat's taste buds with Fancy Feast Tuscany wet cat food recipes. Tuscany recipes are accented with long grain rice and garden greens.”

The fact is, in any given urban area in the United States today, you can easily find food that is more authentically Italian than that found in most cafes in tourist areas of Italy. That wasn’t at all true in 1960s America, where “Italian” basically meant cheap wine and gummy spaghetti, or the previously-mentioned Chef Boyardee. Most travelers of that era likely had not experienced even the watered-down, theme park version of Italian cuisine presented, today, by the likes of Buca di Beppo and The Olive Garden. Their expectations of Italian cuisine in Italy—of Italian culture in general—were not the same, not as high, as modern tourists'. Mom and Frommer and their peers couldn’t presume to believe they knew exactly what to expect, which was probably for the better. They didn't expect their pizza to taste a certain way; they weren't measuring the tourist cafe against the better Italian food back home.

Put another way--and this applies to more than just food--back then they were ignorant; today we’re delusional. 

One more 1956 Chef Boyardee ad for you: 

"Chef is the one spaghetti this side of the ocean that makes a special point of following old-country traditions."

24 July 2010

Bonjour, new readers

Hello, new readers who got here from World Hum, Kempt, and Wandering Italy. Thanks for stopping by (and thanks to those fine web sites for linking to my "the things we no longer carry" post; Temple Fielding was an interesting man ...).

More retro-themed programming coming soon.  I'll be posting about changes in food, for example, this coming Tuesday. Teaser:


While you're here, please take a moment to read some other posts. Start with the FAQ (and Frequently Sarcastic Answers) to learn what this blog is all about, and then check out the "essentials" section for some of my favorite posts.

Basically, this is a blog about the beaten path and how it got so beaten. Expect commentary on travel, tourism, and the chocolate croissants. This is not a place to find tips about how to avoid tourist traps. You can find those on every other travel blog. This IS where you'll find a unique perspective on the cliched tourist experience. Like these not-so-flattering photos of famous landmarks, for example.

A'ight? Okay, then.

Comments/complaints/compliments/croissant tips? Send 'em to doug@douglasmack.net. And thanks.

23 July 2010

Quote of the day: the cure for loneliness on the road

"And what if I became manic-depressive through an acute sense of isolation? Oh well, I comforted myself, I have resources: I talk to myself."

-- Rochelle Girson, Maiden Voyages: A Lively Guide for the Woman Traveler (1954)

20 July 2010

A single moment of air traffic: 1956 vs. 2010

Air traffic over the Atlantic at a single moment in 1956 (4:00 a.m. GMT, May 6).

[Accompanying text reprinted at the end of this post.]

I couldn't a comparable recent graphic, but I did find this 2008 video showing all global air traffic in a single day. (So for a direct comparison, you could pause the video to generate a "single moment"; I believe 4 a.m. GMT would be right at the start, actually.)

And here's all the air traffic over the U.S. (and slightly beyond) at about 4:30 a.m. GMT on July 18, 2010.

The top image is from Life magazine, June 18, 1956. The text below the graphic says:

The extraordinary future of international air travel is best foretold in the busy pattern of the present. The map above shows air activity during a single actual moment in the air over the Atlantic--a quiet moment, darkened by night. it is 4 a.m. on May 6, 1956 in London, 11 p.m. of the evening before across the ocean in New York. But though the scene is far from human habitation, the air is filled with the roar of big planes, and with the disembodied voices of pilots, radio operators and traffic controllers exchanging information.

There are 110 planes engaged at this moment in flying over the ocean. Of them 39 are military aircraft on regular training missions or engaged in carrying personnel and cargo to and from overseas bases. One is an oil company plane headed from New York to Amsterdam. The remaining 70 are transport planes belonging to 18 airlines engaged in flying passengers and cargo regularly across the Atlantic. Aboard them are 3,295 passengers and crew. 

Two facts about the chart show how much of the air age is an American achievement. Every plane shown here was made in the U.S.--by Douglas, Lockheed, Boeing. And U.S. airlines are operate almost as many of the commercial planes (34) as as carriers from all other nations put together. 

These lanes over the Atlantic are the busiest in the international air. But at this moment other lines operating out of the U.S. and Europe are sending planes on around the globe in opposite directions to meet in distant places and bind the world in a careful meeting of flight schedules.