“Now the quest for the authentic Other is one of vanishing horizons. One genuine “backstage” is penetrated, only to reveal another fake front-stage: the act of observation changes that which is observed. Hence travelers do not (indeed cannot) succeed in their quest any more than tourists. That is only too clear from the accounts of the great Victorian travelers which are riddled with gross misconceptions. If they were not so serious, as with their concern (for instance) for the ‘mysteries’ of the Middle-Eastern harem, they would be laughable.”
–David Brown, “Genuine fakes,” from The Tourist Image: Myths and Myth Making in Tourism (1996)
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
“C’mon, try it.”
They floated in a thick, dark sauce. The nails had been cut off, but the rest of each finger stared back at me without eyes from the plastic plate, livid in vinegar. Truncated joints just below the feathers’ line. As I kept staring at my prospective dinner, I wondered how low a man can go to impress a pretty girl.
“So, will you try one?”
Her eyes were inquisitive windows open on her own world. A slot machine of emotions tilted inside of her head, trying to spit out the appropriate row of words to describe me as delusional. When she invited me out to try some of the best street food in Penang, she probably trusted me to be a different, more interesting date.
In Italy, chicken feet are not popular. They are not food. They don’t even appear at the poultry meat section, unless you buy a freshly slaughtered chicken. They get cut and thrown away as trash.
As I approached the soft, darkly simmered meat with chopsticks, my mother’s voice came abruptly in from a lost corner of my memory lane.
“During the War,” she whispered, “your grandmother’s family used to eat them.”
I had to trust her. They couldn’t be so terrible, after all.
I looked at my companion profile against a backdrop of sizzling pans and rugged Chinese limbs which rotated in and out of steamy pots. Her attention was completely fixed on my next move, keeping the final verdict tightly squeezed behind stretched lips. My idea of a romantic after-dinner stroll at the seaside was suspended between the plastic extension of my right thumb and index fingers, a soy-sogged poultry mutilation, and her candid foreign perfection.
I finally plucked it.
The virgin taste of tender slime melting in my mouth slightly surprised me as I found a bunch of tiny bones between my teeth.
“Spit them out on the table, it is OK,” she instructed me gently, savoring her relief at not having chosen a cultural idiot as a prospective boyfriend. I unleashed an awkward garter belt of unexploded chicken bones against the orange plastic of the table without injuring anyone.
“Good. Not many foreigners agree to try. Was it so bad, after all?”
The delusion had vanished from her face.
Shaking my head, I realized I just had my jackpot: a row of three Sevens, straight from the deep of her heart, started to fill the coin hopper that was standing empty between us until a minute before.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Ancient Mayan religious rites being performed in a Catholic cathedral… a unique blend of religions that tells stories about a part of the world with a conflicting history.
I’ve been talking a lot lately to folks who are pushing hard towards their dreams. They’re working the equivalent of two full time jobs to break free from the one they’re sick of to change their whole lives. They’re courageous folks. But then, she goes out for drinks with a sister who ends up getting a whole bar full of dummies to mock her dream. And his family spends the holiday calling them absolutely crazy for bending over backwards to give their kids the world, literally.
But you know what I’ve decided? They’re right. All the naysayers. They’re right. Living your dreams is dumb. It’s unrealistic. It’s ridiculous. Why would anyone in their right minds give up the status quo? It’s so easy. So comfortable. It makes so much sense.
Here are five reasons you should give up all of those dreams of long term travel and just stay home.
1. You’ll sleep better
If there’s one thing that long term travel is, it’s one long parade of sleepless nights: The first night anywhere is a tough sell. Add that to mosquito ridden jungle nights with that infernal drone outside your hammock, and the sweltering nights in concrete rooms with bars on the windows but no screens, and the parade of couches and floors that we’re so very grateful to collapse on and, well, you get the idea.
Just stay home in your soft feather bed. Sure, you won’t have the fantastic beach picture, or that story about howler monkeys and jaguars screaming around you in the darkness, but you’ll also probably live longer and you’ll definitely be better rested.
Here’s one of many nights you’ll be glad to have missed.
2. You’ll be more comfortable
Who in their right mind gives up a warm house with a full kitchen, a bathtub, an easy drive to the grocery store and a flat screen T.V. for backpacks, long bus rides plagued by diarrhea, ocean crossings spent leaning over the rail, green with sea-sickness or pushing a bicycle with broken spokes for miles until she finds a repair shop. Who indeed?
All of the critics are right. It’s nuts. It’s too hard. It’s smarter and safer to stay home. Of course if I have to die of something I’d rather it be adventure than boredom, but that’s just me. Listen to the blow-hards in the bar who’ve done exactly *nothing* with their lives and follow the status quo, their lead is clearly the one to follow, over your heart’s.
3. You can pretend “they” don’t exist
If you stay home you can happily pretend that the whole scope of human experience and expression is wrapped up in your particular section of the Bible belt. You can comfortably assume that poverty is defined (and taken care of) by the welfare office of your particular state. You can avoid the unpleasantness of naked children with flies dotting their inner eyes. You can happily believe that “our way” is the “right way” and that everyone, everywhere else clearly just needs to be set aright by being exposed to our clearer way of thinking, or believing, or governance.
If you stay home, you can pretend that “they,” whoever they are, don’t exist; or if they do exist, you can continue in your fantasy that you understand them perfectly. You’ll never have to be brought to your knees by a pile of skulls, or experience the fear of swimming in a dangerous political demonstration, or ask a few seminal questions about the wisdom of the drug war from the point of an AK 47.
Just stay home, it will be easier to continue in your delusion. Because when those walls are broken down, and you have to come face to face with “them,” you have to come face to face with yourself.
4. You won’t know what you’re missing
The best part of giving up your dream and just staying home might be that you’ll never know what you’re missing. If you haven’t every cycled into the yard of complete strangers only to find that they’re chosen family for a lifetime, you’ll never know that wonder. If you’ve never heard your six year old utter the words, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” as he stares up at the Eiffel Tower, then you won’t know how much you want that moment to happen again, and again. If you’ve never stepped onto a brand new continent and felt the rush of the world expanding exponentially, you won’t miss it.
Listen to that harpy who tells you that you’re ruining your life by reinventing yourself. She’s right. There’s nothing on the other side that is better than living life between Walmart, the office and the Elk’s lodge on Saturday nights, nothing you know you’re missing anyway.
It’s a serious downside to living your dreams, you know exactly what you’re missing.
5. You’ll be happier
Seriously, if you stay home, you’ll be happier. Once the travel bug bites, once you let it get a grip on your heart, you’re going to yearn like you’ve never yearned before. For places you’ve been, for places you haven’t been, for the home you left, for people you miss, it’s one big black hole of discontent. You’ll buy a mango in Wisconsin and whine that it’s not as good as the one you picked from a tree you were camped under in Puerto Arrista, Mexico. You’ll be sitting on a perfectly perfect beach on the Andaman Sea and be ungrateful enough to wish you could get a decent glass of southern sweet tea. You’ll be that jerk who can’t get through a dinner conversation without saying something about, “When we were in Africa…” Your kids will come to blows with “normal” kids in the park over the veracity of their camel stories. You can trust me on that.
“The rigid distinction between romantic world travelers and a locally based, sedentary population is rapidly being erased. Cities are no longer waiting for the arrival of the tourist — they too are also starting to join global circulation, to reproduce themselves on a world scale and to expand in all directions. As they do so, their movement and proliferation are happening at a much faster pace than the individual romantic tourist was ever capable of. This fact now prompts the widespread outcry that all cities now increasingly resemble one another and are beginning to homogenize, with the result that when a tourist arrives in a new city he ends up seeing the same things as he encountered in all the other cities. This experience of similarity among all contemporary cities often misleads the observer to assume that the globalization process is erasing local cultural idiosyncrasies, identities and differences. The truth is not that these distinctions have disappeared, but that they in turn have also embarked on a journey, started to reproduce themselves and to expand.”
–Boris Groys, “The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction,” Art Power (2008)
My friend Clark sent me this poem recently.
It was a timely delivery. My Dad and I have been discussing this very thing: the desire to live multiple lives simultaneously, our deep wish to be in more than one place at a time, the bittersweet frustration of the knowledge that we can do anything we want with this one, beautiful life, but not everything we want. Choices must be made.
And then… I found a paperback copy of Vagabond’s House laying on the end table at my friend Powell’s house, in Kailua, last week. I thumbed through the pages, ran my fingers over the ink drawing on the cover, and savoured the moment. It seemed a serendipity to receive the gift of the poem and find a copy of the book within days of landing back in North America, after 19 months away. Of course it’s just a swing through for a few months, but re-entry and time at home is always a period of rooting down in my soul and reflecting on the layers of life. Blanding’s poetry echoes so many of the conflicts that I find within myself. I thought that today I might share one with you, and perhaps you will find yourself in it, as I did:
by Don Blanding
How very simple life would be
If only there were two of me
A Restless Me to drift and roam
A Quiet Me to stay at home.
A Searching One to find his fill
Of varied skies and newfound thrill
While sane and homely things are done
By the domestic Other One.
And that’s just where the trouble lies;
There is a Restless Me that cries
For chancy risks and changing scene,
For arctic blue and tropic green,
For deserts with their mystic spell,
For lusty fun and raising Hell,
But shackled to that Restless Me
My Other Self rebelliously
Resists the frantic urge to move.
It seeks the old familiar groove
That habits make. It finds content
With hearth and home — dear prisonment,
With candlelight and well-loved books
And treasured loot in dusty nooks,
With puttering and garden things
And dreaming while a cricket sings
And all the while the Restless One
Insists on more exciting fun,
It wants to go with every tide,
No matter where…just for the ride.
Like yowling cats the two selves brawl
Until I have no peace at all.
One eye turns to the forward track,
The other eye looks sadly back.
I’m getting wall-eyed from the strain,
(It’s tough to have an idle brain)
But One says “Stay” and One says “Go”
And One says “Yes,” and One says “No,”
And One Self wants a home and wife
And One Self craves the drifter’s life.
The Restless Fellow always wins
I wish my folks had made me twins.
“A concentrated influx of tourists can be a welcome boon to an economy, or it can be a pestilence. “I have always been proud to be British, but these degenerates are dragging us through the mud,” Michael Birkett, Britain’s vice-consul in Ibiza, said, before quitting his job, in 1998, in disgust at the behavior of his countrymen on the island, which he likened to that in Sodom and Gomorrah. After EasyJet began flying to Prague, signs went up in local bars: “Please, no groups of drunken British men allowed.” In 2008, Latvia’s Interior Minister deemed the “English pigs” who had urinated on a war monument in Riga a “dirty, hoggish people.” The next year — after shopkeepers in Malia staged an anti-British tourist march — the Foreign Office distributed leaflets and coasters in old town and beach bars across Europe, printed with the reminder, ‘Don’t Be a Dick.’”
–Lauren Collins, “The British Invasion,” The New Yorker, April 16, 2012
“You are still young, free… Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”
–Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake: A Novel (2003)
“One challenge for a foreign correspondent is to figure out how much of yourself to include: If the story is too self-centered, it becomes a tourist’s diary. These days, the general trend is to reduce the writer’s presence, often to the point of invisibility. This is the standard approach of newspapers, and it’s described as a way of maintaining focus and impartiality. But it can make the subject feel even more distant and foreign. When I wrote about people, I wanted to describe the ways we interacted, the things we shared and the things that separated us. Chinese sometimes responded to me in certain ways because I was a waiguoren, and it seemed important to let the reader know this. Mostly, though, I wanted to convey how things actually felt — the experience of living in a Beijing hutong, or driving on Chinese roads, or moving to a small town in rural Colorado. The joy of nonfiction is searching for a balance between storytelling and reporting, finding a way to be both loquacious and observant.”
–Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (2013)