August 2, 2013
Note: I began writing this post almost two years ago. I have since returned to it and subsequently ignored it several times, mostly because (as always) I was afraid I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say as well as I would have liked. But today I feel compelled to finish it once and for all, thanks to the eerie convergence of two seemingly unrelated occurrences: first – I am riding a bus to Radolfzell with a group of Americans, the Doppelgänger, if you will, of the group of Americans with whom I traveled this very route exactly two years ago, and second – I am reading David Foster Wallace’s exposé on luxury cruising, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. The juxtaposition of my own strange nostalgic state of mind with DFW’s balancing act of criticism of and fascination by the American Tourist reminded me of what I tried to write, and very much meant to finish, so long ago. So when in this post I say things like “a couple months ago”, I actually mean “a couple years ago”. Sorry for the confusion.
A couple months ago I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov. It could very well be the best book I’ve ever read. It’s the kind of book that makes you (me) want to learn Russian, just so you (I) could fully appreciate it in its original language. But even if I learn Russian, I still would not be able to appreciate it as much as if I were actually Russian and could properly understand the cultural subtleties. And even if I were Russian, unless I lived during the 19th century, specifically near Moscow, it’s unlikely I would fully appreciate the social commentaries germane to the politics of the time. And if I were a Russian growing up near Moscow in the 19th century, chances are I would be among the 95% of the population who were illiterate, and, were I lucky enough to get my hands on the the Russian Messenger, the periodical that originally published the book, I would have hungrily burned the paper to survive the winter.
You see, there is no sense in lamenting my inability to fully appreciate the book. I’m lucky enough to have gotten out of it what I did get out of it. No matter how far you go in attempting to identify with a book, the only way you will ever truly understand and appreciate it is if you happen to be that book’s author.
I’ve come to feel the same way about travel.
After my first lengthy period abroad I became something of an elitist when it came to visiting foreign countries. Living in Chile for five months as a, meaningfully enough, sophomore in college was a very special experience, and I told myself that any future trips I made needed to be similarly unique. It isn’t worth it to visit someplace simply as a tourist. Nope, not for me. From now on I would be traveling with intent. Intent to learn the language, intent to meet the people, intent to become accustomed to and dependent on the surroundings. That’s right, from then on my travels would be concerned with one thing: the “genuine article”.
Fast-forward five years and I find myself again in a foreign land. My time in Germany has been brought to me by the number 28 and the letters C, B, Y, and X. Specifically, a scholarship program called the 28th Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals. It’s a year-long program dedicated to the fostering of positive relations between Germany and the U.S. Of course it appealed to me with the chance it offers to really integrate myself with a foreign country, to see Germany as a German might see it. I would learn the language, live with a host family, brave the ice cold waters of the infamous German bureaucracy. I would embrace the bad as eagerly as I would the good, all with the noble aim of experiencing a culture genuinely.
But a week after I first arrived in Germany, I spent an afternoon with some fellow Americans in Zürich, Switzerland. It was my first time in the country and, aside from my spending nearly sixty dollars on nearly nothing, I have only great things to say about it. I’m a sucker for cities on lakes, after all. The air was sweet, the chocolate plentiful, and the photos of Roger Federer exactly as everywhere as one might hope.
But wait a minute. In Zürich I met a total of zero Swiss. Did I have a wonderful time? Yes. Do I have any deeper understanding of Switzerland? Hardly. But was it worth it? Certainly. What a conundrum. How can I resolve my disdain for tourism for tourism’s sake with my fondness for, well, tourism for tourism’s sake?
To answer that question, I must examine the source of my travel-elitism. The time I spent in Chile in 2007 taught me, through its multitude of linguistic challenges and cultural lessons, that travel is not itself an end, but rather a means by which human connection is made. Thinking back on my time there, it’s not the natural wonders or historical points-of-interest I miss, but rather the people. The places a person sees pale in importance when compared to the people with whom those places were seen. When I realized this, the idea of traveling to see a country suddenly lost its appeal. Appealing are the people in that country. And it’s the relationships one builds with those people that enriches and legitimizes travel. In my mind, I experienced Chile genuinely because I put the people first. And by integrating myself with the local culture, I discovered what it’s like to be Chilean. Right?
“Yes,” replied my 20-24 year-old selves. I didn’t raise a doubt until about one month into my time in Germany. One of my American friends happened to be living with a “host brother” about our age, and she had been warmly welcomed into their social circle. I was thrilled to be invited to tag along one night to their favorite haunt. It was a great night, and I was excited by how authentic it all felt. We met at an old train-car turned bar in the countryside, drank beer, and listened to music via WinAmp (!) on a homemade stereo system. Aside from my obviously lacking language skills, I was at least living as the Germans lived. I eagerly explained my situation to my newfound friends – I am in Germany because I got a scholarship to come here. I would soon be taking classes at a university and then I would work at an internship and then after a year I would go home. But when I heard the stories of the other people there (apprentice carpenters, newly hired engineers, students, all working towards an actual future in Germany), I realized that I was not having a “genuine” experience by any means. While my visit may be more significant than going on vacation to Munich for Oktoberfest, I am still at heart just a privileged white dude in a foreign country. It took just one conversation with a person my age to realize that my German experience would be nothing like his German experience. I found this troubling, because the whole point of my moving to Germany was to experience the country like a German experiences it.
That was when I realized my goal was unrealistic, and the standards I had set for myself after visiting Chile were naïve. Looking back on my experience in Concepción, nothing about what I did there was really Chilean. Sure I spoke the language, sure I made close friends, heck, I was even issued a Cédula de Identidad! It did not, however, change me into a Chilean. But it still changed me. It changed me into a more open-minded, travel friendly language-lover. But it also changed me into a judgmental snob.
After Chile, I started to feel appalled by people who would share their photos in front of monuments and landmarks, staying in hostels just long enough to check a city off of their list. I thought visiting a place as a tourist wasn’t just garish, it was insensitive. I thought, “They don’t get it.” “They’re doing it wrong.”
You could go to Paris for a week with your family. You’ll climb the Eifel Tower and take pictures and you’ll stroll down the Champs-Élysées and get that song stuck in your head and make each other laugh and you’ll do everything anyone’s ever told you you absolutely must do if you ever go to Paris. And maybe you won’t have spoken any French, maybe you won’t even have met anyone new. You won’t be Parisian or anything, but you’ll have a great time, and it will be a thing that you did once.
You could go to Paris for a semester to study in French and live with a host family. And you’ll do all those things described above when your family comes to visit you, but you’ll also go out at night with your hip European friends and you’ll buy a cool bike and get a cool haircut and maybe you’ll start smoking but only loose leaf tobacco and only in the evenings and you’ll be able to speak French really, really well and then you’ll go home and it will have changed your mind forever. But still you won’t be Parisian. And it will be a thing that you did once.
Or you could go to Paris to get a job and not come back and fall in love with a Parisian woman or man and buy a Parisian flat and raise Parisian children and die a Parisian death and it won’t in any way be just a thing that you did once… but still you won’t be Parisian.
You’ll still just be you.
And that’s more genuine than being Parisian can ever be.
None of these experiences are any more “genuine” than the others. They just are what they are. Genuine isn’t something a person can seek. In a world where people can’t even agree if an apple is an apple if it has been artificially cross-bred in a lab, who the heck am I to judge whether a person on the street holding a map of a city is experiencing that city genuinely or not. The important thing is that he’s experiencing something. And that’s really all that matters.
If there’s one thing I’m genuinely sure of, it’s that I genuinely never want to hear the word “genuine” again.
I guess really all I’m trying to say is, be sure to pick up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. You might like it. And do tell me about your experience reading it. After all, I’ve never had it.