Travel: On Not Being a Tourist

“YOU ARE RIGHT I think in not particularly caring to see any special country, and in longing generally for something European,” Henry James advised his friend John La Farge, an American painter who was proposing to go abroad. Writing from Venice in the fall of 1869, James at twenty-six was on his second European tour, and already an old hand. He was “not a regular tourist,” he assured La Farge, but a student of European customs and manners, a worldly traveler in a civilization he found more admirable than his own.

To be a “regular tourist”:there are few more shameful identities. “Every Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist,” Evelyn Waugh observed, in A Bachelor Abroad. Aldous Huxley distinguished between the “genuine traveller”—“He is insatiably curious, he loves what is unfamiliar for the sake of its unfamiliarity, he takes pleasure in every manifestation of beauty”—and the tourist, who drags himself through Europe out of sheer snobbery, “because the best people do it.” “Remember,” Philip Herriton counsels his sister-in-law in E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, “that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. . . . And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art.”

If tourists had a bad name then, imagine how James or Waugh would regard the tour groups thronging the streets of every European capital these days, the restaurants with their menús turísticos, the gigantic, glassed-in tour buses encircling every monument and museum like pioneer wagons drawn around a campfire. These hapless tourists, too, are “longing generally for something European,” but so pervasive is their presence, the American literary critic Paul Fussell argues in his recent book, Abroad, that the experience James had in mind is beyond recovery. “I am assuming that travel is now impossible and that tourism is all we have left,” Fussell declares. The excitement of crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner; the chance to discover foreign lands on one’s own, without a horde of tourists crowding the scene; the quest for self-discovery that once animated journeys through unfamiliar terrain: these are gone forever, Fussell contends, made obsolete by a jetage technology that has robbed us of our capacity to experience the world. “We are all tourists now, and there is no escape.” Mass travel has spoiled the adventure from the start, Fussell insists. “Moving through the airport—or increasingly, being moved, on a literal endless belt—the tourist arrives at his next non-place, the airplane interior. The vapid non-allusive cheerfulness of its decor betrays its design and manufacture as Southern Californian. Locked in this flying cigar where distance is expressed in hours instead of miles or kilometers, the tourist is in touch only with the uniform furniture and fittings and experiences the environment through which the whole non-place is proceeding only as he is obliged to fasten or loosen his seat belt.”

Yes, yes, it’s true, the modern airport is a soulless institution. But what traveler is so jaded that he doesn’t quicken upon hearing the loudspeaker’s trilingual announcement of departing flights to Rome and Amsterdam, London and Tel Aviv? Lights on the board suspended high above the departure lounge pulse in the shadowy terminal; gigantic 747s trundle past, their curved humps looming up in the tinted windows; the rows of airline counters—Malev, Finnair, Royal Air Maroc—conjure up exotic foreign lands. And even the planes themselves, however cramped and bland, have a certain romantic aura. The drinks arrive, the meal is served, the movie comes on; cigarettes glow in the dark as in a nightclub, and a serenity descends over the docile rows of passengers. There is an exaltation in departure—whether on the deck of a ship gliding past the Statue of Liberty or curled up by the window of a jet, the tourist no less than the traveler is leaving behind one life and beginning another, even if only for a few weeks. As the sky lightens and the immigration cards are passed out, one feels a nervous, elated suspense that quickens upon landing. (On Alitalia, an airline with a reputation for nonchalance, the bump of the wheels on the tarmac invariably elicits a burst of applause.)

Nor are the airports, as Fussell complains, identical; each bears the stamp of its national characteristics. As one passes through the terminal at Rome’s Fiumicino, patrons are lined up at the zinc bar drinking espresso out of demitasse cups, and the bottles behind the counter have an unfamiliar look. The espresso machines shine platinum in the early-morning light. At London’s Heathrow, the black taxicabs pull up, the red double-decker buses wait out front. Arriving in Copenhagen late one night to catch a connecting flight, I headed for the bar and found a smorgasbord arrayed on a buffet table: platters heaped with cold cuts, a tureen of meatballs, slivers of duck and wedges of pâté. Gulping down slivovitz from a long-stemmed glass, I listened to the guttural, singsong intonation of a Danish voice announcing flights. I was in Europe.

Even the ordinary tourist on his twoweek holiday to the Continent isn’t immune to such epiphanies. The moment one sets out from one’s hotel, groggy from jet lag and lost within a block, the feel of Europe—I can think of no more exact way to describe it—accosts one’s senses. The streets have a certain odor—of rotting vegetables, petrol, some indistinct emanation of age. The windows are crammed with lavish displays—pastries and meringues, shapely bottles of oil and vinegar, leather-bound books and dusty prints. The signs on the awnings over the cafés are in a foreign language—bière, tabac, trattoria. The menus in their glass cases promise exotic meals. In the restaurant where one sits down to one’s first dinner, the white linen tablecloths, the baskets of bread, the carafe of white wine, have an intoxicating strangeness. No matter how often one has been to Europe, the sensation is the same: amazement over how quickly one has been transported from the familiar, from one’s ordinary life, to a world both known—from books and postcards, movies and photograph albums—and unknown. The famous urban landscapes of Paris or London, Florence or Rome, are as much a part of one’s mental life as the scenes of one’s childhood, yet there is something elusive about them; their broad avenues and murky rivers, the carts heaped with produce, and the sidewalk cafés remind one at every turn of how alien Europe is, how steeped in a history that makes the present seem a mere instant in time. To emerge into the sunlight of some Italian hill town and glimpse at the end of a narrow street the same rural vista one has just seen in the background of a Giorgione altarpiece— the walled ramparts, the bell tower, the swallows flitting over the fields—is to feel that one has entered an eternal landscape. In such moments, even the tourist is graced with a knowledge of the sublime.

—James Atlas