25 February 2010

Grief Tourism in a Theme Park World

It's been interesting to read the comments on my story on the San Francisco Chronicle's web site. Several people have scolded me for being cynical and said that I must be really ignorant of history if I thought the Anne Frank House was "a tourist trap."

So let me be clear: I'm a cynic, not a moron. My initial cynicism, before I entered the house, was not due to ignorance of history but to knowledge of tourism--and the ways in which camera-toting hordes can make even the most somber site feel like Disneyland.  Serious subject matter does not always make for serious visitors, and even if everyone is properly sober and thoughtful, the sheer size of the crowds does rather alter the mood.

In a great essay a couple of years ago on World Hum, Frank Bures noted that "dark tourism"--also known as "grief tourism"--is gaining popularity precisely because it is often feels so different from the cheerier, landmark-ier travel experiences to which we're accustomed:
... Dark Tourism also raises questions about Planet Theme Park and packaged, bundled, marketed and scripted entertainment experiences. I can’t help but think that the allure of the dark side is in part a backlash to the aggressive theming and constructing of the travel experience, which unfolds as others have determined it to unfold, where we feel things we’ve been told we’ll feel, and where our travels are not, on some fundamental level, our own. Because sometimes we want more than that. We travel exactly because we want to see and feel things for ourselves. We want to write the script to our own story, not just read someone else’s.
My fear with the Anne Frank House, though, was that it would be yet another stop on Planet Theme Park, or at least that my fellow travelers would view it as such--a place to visit not out of any sense of moral or historic obligation, not because of a duty to remember the past (and even to attempt the impossible task of beginning to make some sense of it), but because they saw it listed in a magazine article once, or in one of those books with titles like 1,000 Things You Absolutely Positively Must Do Before You Die, Unless You're a Total Loser.

I know that this is something that such sites grapple with, actually: How do we provide enough amenities and interesting interpretive exhibits to tell the story and keep people coming ... without opening ourselves up to the accusation of cheapening the historic importance, commodifying tragedy?

Journalist/blogger Darren Garnick e-mailed me a link to his story about visiting Auschwitz, which addresses this very subject. It's a fascinating, thoughtful piece:

As custodian of the camps, the Polish government is often in a no-win situation. If it promotes the camps too much, it will be accused of exploitation. If it stays too low-key, it could be accused of ignoring the Holocaust. According to Young, the most positive change was when the post-Communist government stopped renting out the camps as sets for movies and TV programs.
In 1989, the American producers of “Triumph of the Spirit” (a movie about a Greek-Jewish boxer forced to fight fellow inmates for Nazi entertainment) left papier-mache gas chambers propped up at Birkenau directly over the dynamited ruins left by the Germans. Says Young: “The last thing I’d want is to see a Holocaust denier show up and see a fake gas chamber.”
Finding that middle road is a pretty impossible task, though. I think a certain amount of effort has to be put into the presentation of a site--particularly one as large and horrifying as a concentration camp--for the simple reason that it's so difficult for us tourists to wrap our minds around the awful things that happened there. We need some guidance, some background information, to help us make sense of it all.  We need to know both the broad context and the specific stories for history to come alive.  We need some amount of exhibits or audio guides or other elements beyond the historic artifacts and structures (etc.) themselves. But adding those elements can sometimes overwhelm the authentic, elemental nature of the place. It becomes a museum, not a real place where real--and awful--things happened.

And that, in the end, is what's so effective about the Anne Frank House. Most of us already know the story, the context. The museum section on the lower levels of the house provides further background about both the historical moment and the Frank family in particular. But when you enter the hiding space, there are no whiz-bang distractions. It's starkly real. And the reality of it hits you like a tidal wave.

One last note: Lee and I also visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which Lee recently wrote about on his blog (my emphasis below):
Of all the depressing things in that camp, one of the few I could comprehend was this, a semi-circular track made of different surfaces ... which the Nazis made prisoners walk on all day to test shoe materials. I can’t really imagine a concentration camp, but I can imagine walking all day over a shitty track. The Nazis were assholes.

21 February 2010

The Anne Frank House and the jaded backpacker

The Not-So-Grand Tour wasn't all getting lost and overdosing on tourist kitsch.

Case in point: our visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (which I blogged about previously). You can read all about it in my new essay in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

During my first two days in Amsterdam, I walked past the Anne Frank House a half dozen times without going in.
Each time, there was a line down the block and a handful of tourists posing in front of the house with wide grins, casually leaning on the doorway as if it were Cinderella's Castle at Disneyland. My guidebook called the experience of visiting the house "searing, heartbreaking, infuriating beyond belief," but I was beginning to have my doubts. No matter how serious the subject matter, it seemed to be just another crowded, tacky tourist trap.
Still, I felt obligated to visit. So on the third day, I finally joined the line, along with my friend Lee. We braced ourselves for appallingly cheesy displays and loud, distasteful comments from our fellow visitors.
Read more

20 February 2010

Ye Olde Chuck E. Cheese

Lee's still posting photos and back-story on his blog, which reminds me that I never got around to writing about one of the sillier things we saw, Munich's Glockenspiel, a.k.a. Europe's second-most-disappointing tourist attraction.*

Let's  check in with Arthur—or rather, a correspondent he quotes in the “Readers' Suggestions” section at the end of the chapter—for a description:
One of the best free sights in Europe is the Glockenspiel, the animated clock tower of the city Rathaus, which “performs” at 11 a.m. each day, which its colorful figures dance the ancient steps of the Beer Barrel Makers. Get there about 15 minutes early for a good viewing-and-picture-taking position right across the street.  
I'd like to think that this comment is a sign of a more innocent time, that it conclusively demonstrates that not so long ago, life was more full of wonder, people were more easily amused. Because my reaction to it—indeed, the only possible reaction for the twenty-first-century viewer—is: That's it? Really? Thousands of people watch this every day?

Again, maybe our outlook on life has changed. Perhaps, having grown up with Chuck E. Cheese and its animatronic animal house band, and, later, experiencing all manner of robotics and themed environments at Disneyland and restaurants like the Rainforest Cafe (to say nothing of the eye-popping special effects of Hollywood blockbusters), I'm just not capable of appreciating what is essentially a glorified wind-up toy.

I'm not alone. Of the three or four hundred other people filling the plaza, only a handful were smiling at the spectacle. Or perhaps I should say, only a handful were smiling with what one might conceivably call delight; plenty were snickering or smirking with incredulity.  Some looked downright miserable, their faces fixed with a stoic gaze upon their cameras, which they held high in trembling, tiring hands, documenting every halting movement of the mechanical figures high above:

(No, I don't have any photos of the damn Glockenspiel itself. As Lee points out, watching the crowd is a lot more interesting.)

Seriously disappointing--although really, it didn't sound that interesting even in concept.  If you have a twisted sense of humor, you might find the weird marionette jester figurine mildly amusing, what with its goofy costume and seriously sketchy mechanical hip-thrusts. So those might--might--keep you amused for all of three seconds. But the whole thing lasts some 12-15 minutes, during which even the most committed Luddite will inevitably give thanks for living in an age of video games and other things a bit more whiz-bang than this.  (Incidentally, the Most Disappointing Tourist Attraction in Europe is--apparently--the Glockenspiel in Prague, which claims the top honor because it goes on for nearly half an hour. Lordy.  I could be eating like four or five pastries in that amount of time!)

Yet despite the absurdity and dullness of the Glockenspiel, despite the fact that it was clear from the thirty-second mark that it was never going to get at all more interesting, no one walked away before it was done. People may not have actually enjoyed the Crappy Spectacular, but they still felt obligated to document it, per tourist protocol.  The point of tourism, after all, not to do what's fun or interesting, necessarily—it's to check the site off your list and move on to the next page in your guidebook.

And that's what travel has become, to many people: not an opportunity to see new lands and experience new cultures, but merely to breeze past their greatest hits, to audit their most superficial traits and sights for purposes of saying you've done what everyone else has already done before you.

* Source: our tour guide, who was a major misogynist jackass (and about whom the less said the better), but whose facts seemed in order.  He cited Some Reliable Publication whose name I don't recall at the moment.

01 February 2010

"Time for some hallucinations"

Where would you expect to hear such a quote? Why, in Amsterdam, of course. Oh, don't be so alarmed: this was mere alcohol Lee was ingesting. Bright-green alcohol infused with some kind of super-potent elixir made of top-secret jungle leaves from Bolivia. Or something like that. I could check my notes, but where's the fun in that? [UPDATE: I believe it was Agwa de Bolivia, described and reviewed here.]

Anyway, this was one of our first days together. Lee was trying to set an example for me, to be the Ferris (Bueller) to my Cameron, to show me how to live it up.