31 March 2010

Reading (and listening) list

Hey, you know who was on the CBC's Q radio show on Monday? Usher. You know who was on today? Me. Thus ends the list of things I have in common with Grammy-winning pop stars.

The subject of my chat with host Jian Ghomeshi: travel. Specifically: why I like the beaten path, why I take not-so-flattering photos, and other topics you might have heard once or twice on this here blog. And I defended tourists. Yes, you. All of you. You're welcome.

Click here to listen to the podcast. (Look for the Q podcast listing for Shirin Neshat, the more famous person who was also on today.  My segment starts around the 41-minute mark.)

In other news, Lee suggested that I start posting some of my reading list as I do background research for the book. The man's full of good ideas. (For those just joining the fun, such as anyone who came here after hearing me on the CBC [hello], click here for an introduction to Lee and to judge for yourself the truth of the preceding sentence.) 

So, I will. Before I get to the books I've read, or plan to read, here are some good, pertinent articles that I've read lately. (I'm skipping ones that I've already linked in other posts.) 

Twilight of the Travel Guidebook? by David Page on Travelers Notebook (via World Hum)
Page, a guidebook writer himself, notes that smartphones, combined with web sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, have begun to make guidebooks obsolete. I see his point, although I do think that that most people still appreciate the curated-by-an-expert aspect of guidebooks, not to mention the fact that we're still a ways from being able to get reliable cell phone service everywhere (to which I say: thank goodness).

Tourist Traps Worth a Visit by Peter Jon Lindberg in Travel + Leisure
Lindberg is up for a National Magazine Award this year, and this was one of the nominated columns. The headline kind of says it all, and Lindberg takes what in lesser hands could be a contrarian-but-not-insightful rant and makes it pretty darn convincing, layering on one astute (and often amusing) anecdote after another to build his case. 

25 March 2010

Not-So-Flattering Views: The Audio Slideshow!

That's right, the ever-popular gallery of Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Landmarks has hit the big time. Specifically, World Hum. Watch the audio slideshow here. Oh-so-insightful commentary! Oh-so-not-so-flattering pictures! Now with special bonus Manneken Pis quips!

Coming soon: Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: The Musical! With elaborate Busby Berkeley-style numbers featuring a chorus line of soft-shoe-shuffling, camera-toting, guidebook-reading, white-sock-wearing, Irish-pub-patronizing, "Speak English?"-asking Tourists

Hey, if "Cats" can make it ... 

22 March 2010

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: Venice

Oh, sure, it looks pretty enough in the photo. Delightfully historic buildings. Placid canal. Ornate wrought iron railing on the bridge adding some visual contrast to the surrounding rectilinear forms. The bright blue of the gondola catching your eye, a delightfully dissonant counterpoint to the yellow/beige of the buildings. ... The Hard Rock Cafe in the background.

Yep. Hard Rock Cafe. This is one of those rare not-so-flattering photos where it's the details, not the broader shot, that makes it all the less flattering.  Here's the close-up:

The American Dream and the freelance writer

I try to keep this apolitical. This is a travel blog, and, frankly, the world doesn't need another pundit. I want the discussion here to be about travel, and I'm wary of getting off-topic (as when I incurred the wrath of the Esperanto people, to whom I say, please, Bonvolu las mi sole).  But I'm going to bend my self-imposed roles for second here, because,  quite frankly, it's incredibly stupid that the health care debate here in the U.S. was considered such a political one. Even the weird libertarian side of me, which sometimes pops up to keep my lefty tendencies honest, thinks universal health care is just implicitly logical and important in every way; it's a matter of moral, business, and common sense. And this needs to be said; my story needs to be told: 

We're going to hear a lot of griping from health care foes in the coming days. But here's one guy's story that you can tell them, proof of why this legislation matters.

This will literally and profoundly change my life. Millions of others, too. But let's use me as a case study, shall we?

I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease in 1993. I was 12 years old. I'll spare you the full details of what that entails, but basically it causes massive inflammation of the colon, which is every bit as fun as it sounds. It's often just not a big deal, not at all factor in life ... but when it is, wow. The technical term is, I believe, "severefuckingpain." I've had kidney stones; those seem easy in comparison.

Because of this little-tiny-major issue, it would be essentially impossible for me to buy health insurance on my own, thanks to pre-existing condition clauses. Even coverage through an employer is by no means assured--friends with much less debilitating medical issues have been turned down for insurance because their employers' pools couldn't absorb them. And, obviously, I can't go without insurance--I'd go broke in a matter of days (seriously, days) trying to pay for the meds that I need to keep me a normal, functioning human. So I have to work for an organization of a certain size, that has a pretty good insurance plan.

Here's the thing. What I really want to do, more than anything, is be a freelance writer. (Yes, even in this economy, even with a dozen publications closing each day.) I've made a go at it--and this blog is a testament to that--but under the circumstances, I just haven't had the time and energy to put as much into it as necessary. And there are tons and tons of people like me who want to do similar self-employed things: make music, open a doughnut shop, do their own thing. That's the American Dream, is it not? Being an entrepreneur, taking a risk, making something awesome and new, whether it's a book or a song or a computer program or a widget?

Instead, I--and, again, tons of people like me--am compelled to work a day job, for a sufficiently large business, for a sufficient number of hours per week, to ensure that I have the health care that I desperately need. And I enjoy my day job (jobs plural, actually). But stress-wise and time-wise, it does pretty significantly interfere with the Pursuit of the Dream. And, not incidentally, I strongly suspect that my issues make my co-workers' premiums higher, which isn't exactly fair to them.

It's no overstatement to say that a national health care system will literally change my life. I'll finally have the freedom to chase the dream. I might fail. I might have a period of surviving on cat food and ramen. But I'll at least have the chance to give it a shot. So will lots of other people. I'm convinced this will cause a boom in entrepreneurship and innovation as people feel the freedom to chase their dreams. We'll finally get our own shot at the pursuit of happiness, to succeed (or, yes, fail) on our own terms, in our own ways.

I'll confess: when the bill passed last night, I started bawling. You have no idea. . . .

Thanks for listening. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled, commentary-with-a-sarcastic-smirk travel blog.

Note to my non-USA readers: So, "the American Dream." Is this a widely-understood phrase/concept? I'm suddenly very curious. For a full explanation, if needed, click here. Is there a specific term that you have in your country for some sort of myth-enhanced concept of success and prosperity? Or does the fact that such a term exists, in such a patriotically-branded form, make us seem even stranger than we did before? Just wondering.

09 March 2010

Tourist photos, tacky and otherwise

You may have seen my photo series Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Landmarks (and, by the way, if this book thing doesn't work out, my Plan B is to license those pics to Design Within Reach, because I think they'd make for great bleak-but-quirky hipster home decor).

For more travel photos in a similar vein, I'd like to direct your attention to the blog Tacky Tourist Photos. These guys get it--the ridiculousness of the traveler vs. tourist argument; the joy of visiting famous places and doing cheesy things, no matter how much of a cliche they are; the innate humor of photo-jacking "The Last Supper" at a wax museum in Branson.

Unlike a lot of the "zany photos of ___" blogs out there (see: LOLcats, Failblog, Unhappy Hipsters, etc., etc.), TTP isn't simply an excuse for self-aware, snarky, and/or oh-so-clever commentary.  The tone is just about right: gentle mockery. Here's what they have to say for themselves:

We know that “tacky” has a negative connotation amongst the dictionary-reading public. But we consider “tacky” to be a good thing.
We liken it to “kitschy.” The reason we did not call this project Kitschy Tourist Photos is because it would kill the alliteration.
We love to connect with other travelers not afraid to act a little goofy sometimes and who do not take themselves too seriously.

Curator Darren Garnick, by the way, is the guy who wrote the previously-mentioned (and decidedly not tacky) essay about badly-behaved tourists at Auschwitz. I love that he has serious world traveler cred (the guy's been to Vanuatu. Have you been there? Could you even find it on a map? Yeah, I didn't think so.) but still enjoys taking cheesy tourist pics.  

And with that, I present to you a few of my own photos, in a series that I will call, in the spirit of the pretentious artwork titles at the already-mocked Venice Biennale: "Untitled. (The Traveler.) (In Famous Places.) (With A Book.) (That is Very Old.) (And Outdated.) (Part I)"

Mozart memorial, Vienna

Museumplein, Amsterdam

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

The Forum, Rome

Piazza San Marco, Venice

[Just don't feed the pigeons in Venice. You might get hit with a 500-euro fine.]

02 March 2010

Always the other chap: notes on tourists

Tourist or traveler: Which are you? Actually, don't answer that. Because to be perfectly honest, I don't care. I'm sick of this conversation. It's the travel equivalent of debating the work of Sartre and Heidegger and Kierkegaard: boring, pretentious, obnoxious. Who am I, fundamentally? Am I intrinsically good? Evil? Do I have any real autonomy, or am I just like Neo in "The Matrix," a body stuck in a virtual world? In the words of Keanu, or maybe Plato, Whoa.

Talking about such matters at length--either existentialism or the traveler/tourist dichotomy--only makes you sound like a pretentious wanker, no matter what your stance.

I pretty much agree with Eric Weiner, who calls out the "I'm a traveler, not a tourist" crowd in a new essay on World Hum, "Why Tourism is Not a Four-Letter Word":
Travel snobbery is rampant, insidious, and, frankly, annoying. Everyone fancies themselves a traveler, not a tourist. But that’s a lie. The fact is we’re all tourists. Yes, even you, travel snob. Now get over it. 

But I also know that Evelyn Waugh definitively covered this territory in the 1920s, with his immortal quip, "The tourist is always the other chap." And to me, there's not much else anyone can say. End of the conversation. We're all tourists.

So, yes, I trust we can all agree: Clearly, tourism can help destroy a culture. Clearly it can help preserve it, or at least an exaggerated, theme park version of it, as Weiner points out, and as I noted in my post about Munich. (UPDATE: for a compelling, convincing commentary on the culture-"preserving" effects of tourism, check out this essay on Matador by Sarah Menkedick.) Tourism and travel are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, and the debate is unresolvable ... so, lordy, enough already. Can we please just move on and all agree to stop this silly philosophical conversation about terminology? Travel well. Keep an open mind. Respect other cultures. Don't be a jackass or an imperialist. End of discussion. Thanks and good night.

Except . . . even after I've said that, even as I realize that this post should end right there, even as I realize that any editor who reads this will instinctively reach for the red pen to cross out everything that follows . . . I can't resist adding further commentary, because as aggravating as I find this conversation, it's also irresistible.

I need to point something out. You know who isn't afraid of the term "tourist"? Arthur Frommer. Here's how he opens Europe on Five Dollars a Day:

This is a book for American tourists who
a) own no oil wells in Texas
b) are unrelated to the Aga Khan
c) have never struck it rich in Las Vegas
and who still want to enjoy a wonderful European vacation

Hard to imagine that first line in Lonely Planet. Even harder to imagine in a modern guidebook is this blurb, from Travel Magazine, printed on the back of E5D: “The mere possession of EUROPE ON $5 A DAY must become the conspicuous mark of a traveling American from now on.”

Conspicuous mark?  Actually, that doesn’t sound like a selling point at all, at least not to the modern reader.  To the twenty-first century traveler, the blurb basically translates to, “Buy this book and you’ll stand out like the stereotypical Ugly American tourist you are, you sad, pathetic loser.”

I find it fascinating that even though E5D came out in 1957, decades after Evelyn Waugh's brilliant quip, Frommer could still use the term "tourist" without shame or irony. When I asked my mom about the subject recently, she laughed and said, of her 1967 Grand Tour, "Of course we were tourists!"

In 1967, one went to Europe purely for the sake of going to Europe. There was no shame in that. Today it seems necessary to have some deeper motivation--to find one's roots, to learn to make authentic Tuscan peasant cuisine, to escape the rat race and live the good life in Provence. Otherwise, prepare for scorn. To tell your friends that you want to see the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Venice, the Running of the Bulls, and other icons of European tourism is to invite scowls, wrinkled noses, long pauses in the conversation, and tentative questions of "You're ... you're kidding, right?" Example: a friend of mine, upon hearing that I was going to Paris, informed me that I should try to go the whole five days without ever seeing the Eiffel Tower, even for a moment, even as speck on the horizon. In fact, in certain quarters, you're deemed an Ugly American if you head to Paris rather than spending your trip trekking through the Alps, herding goats and learning to make artisanal cheeses. (Actually, what are you doing in Europe at all? It's such a total cliche, you Western-centric prick! You should be trekking across Nepal or hanging with Maoist rebels in some war-torn republic.) But when Arthur Frommer penned Europe on Five Dollars a Day in 1957, simply seeing the continent, even the already-overrun landmarks, was still something of a bold excursion into the unknown.

In the fifty years since then, tourism has become a dirty word. Take the blurb on the back of a more recent guidebook, a 2006 edition of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door (whose very title is loaded with "traveler-not-tourist" smugness): “Avoid crowds and tourist traps. ... Discover off-the-beaten-path towns, trails, and natural wonders.”

(But let me once again offer translation services. That quote actually means, "This incredibly popular guidebook, trusted by millions, will lead you to places that no outsider has seen before, certainly not those millions of others who have this guidebook." That's just objectively false.  It's sort of the inverse of the famous Yogi Berra line "nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded"--by following the advice of guidebooks, everyone goes to the same out-of-the-way place precisely because no one goes there.)

So, yes, something changed between Frommer's first edition of Europe on Five Dollars a Day and now.  Back then, travel was still inherently adventurous--even if you were traveling what's now considered the beaten path. Now? Well, here's proof of how much of a cliche travel abroad has become: when the blog Stuff White People Like began its eponymous inventory, Traveling came in at number nineteen on the list, fittingly sandwiched between "Awareness" and "Being an expert on YOUR culture," and beating out such uber-white things as Apple products, public radio, and microbreweries.

White person travelling can be broken into two categories – First World and Third World.
First world is Europe and Japan, and man, this travel is not only beloved but absolutely essential in their development as white people.
Every white person takes at least one trip to Europe between the ages of 17-29. During this time they are likely to wear a back pack, stay at a hostel, meet someone from Ireland/Sweden/Italy with whom they have a memorable experience, get drunk, see some old churches and ride a train.
What’s amazing is that all white people have pretty much the same experience, but all of them believe theirs to be the first of its kind.

Guilty as charged.


Finally, for the two of you still reading, I'd like to offer the following Tourism Primer, just so you can see how old this conversation is (and therefore why it's implicitly unresolvable, and therefore we should just kill it already).

Tourism as we know it today traces its roots to the concept of the Grand Tour, beginning with 17th-century British aristocrats who journeyed to the continent ostensibly as something of an informal but dignified academic exercise, but often involving a certain level of timeless tourist debauchery—heavy drinking, sexual escapades, barroom brawls. Think of it as Ye Olde Spring Break. According to Tim Moore’s The Grand Tour—in which Moore follows in the footsteps of the original Grand Tourist, the amusingly crass and eternally unlucky Thomas Coryarte—there were some 40,000 Englishmen on the continent in 1786. In 1851, Thomas Cook initiated the package tour, leading a group from Leicester, England to the Paris Exhibition.

The term “tourist” dates to the late 18th century. The pejorative usage followed shortly thereafter, with Francis Kilvert grousing, in the 1870s, “of all the noxious animals, the most noxious is the tourist.” John Muir complained about day-trippers ruining Yosemite; Thoreau griped about the excessive visitors to Walden Pond; in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain mocked -- well, pretty much everyone, actually, but he had particularly harsh comments about his fellow foreign travelers.

In fact, complaints about places being overrun with visitors undoubtedly go back to the Stone Age, when, one fateful day, Og and Rrr were relaxing by their fire and a crowd of strangers barged in--presumably wearing cargo shorts fashioned from tiger hides, colorful headgear emblazoned with tacky insignias, and massive rocks on strings around their necks, in anticipation of the invention of the camera--and demanded to see the cave paintings they'd heard so much about. Turning to Rrr, Og let out a series of grunts that roughly translated to, "If it's tourist season, why can't I spear them?"

I jest, but it's actually well-documented that the ancient Romans exhibited the stereotypical boorish behavior of today's tourists. What was the Colosseum, if not a seriously old-school sports stadium--meaning tourist attraction? Nero, infamous emperor of fiddling-in-a-fire fame, had a freaking theme restaurant. Roman travelers bought trinkets and had their own tourist trail, their own sandal-beaten path, as Tony Perrottet documents in his book Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (there's that word again):
As [Perrottet] retraced the historic route, fighting the crowds and reading two-thousand-year-old descriptions of bad food, inadequate accommodations and pushy tour guides, it became clear that tourism has actually changed very little since Caesar's day.
So. Tourism. Ancient stuff. Complaining about it: also ancient. Complaining about the complainers: well, probably not that much more recent.