Friday, July 10, 2015

A closer look

Renting an apartment in a foreign country and spending a month there provides time for a closer look – and experience – of a culture than one gets from the brief visits that most tourists make.

I have gone on whirlwind expeditions, most notably a three week European driving tour that covered a dozen countries. Brief stops usually involved visiting a site to which Michelin assigns three stars. (After visiting some one and two star rated sites, especially when in the same area as three star rated sites, I concluded that their rating system was generally consistent with how I would rate the sites, giving me more confidence in this approach. Two decades later, I still find the Michelin rating system reliable and useful.) I have also travelled by car across the United States ten times, always stopping to see sites along the way. These trips have been two to six weeks in duration.

The advantage of a driving tour, whether by car or bus with someone else doing the driving, is that one can see more, albeit more cursorily. This presumes that traveler proceeds at her/his own pace, with time to stop to see significant (however one defines that term) sites, to enjoy a taste of different foods, and at least get a superficial sense of how the culture changes along with the geography. My tours of the US and Europe give me a breadth of perspective that I would otherwise lack.

Alternatively, a packaged tour comprised by non-stop sightseeing, travelling often by night or at odd hours, with very long days – if it’s Wednesday, this must be Bruges – generally leaves the traveler exhausted and with increasingly blurred memories of what he/she has seen, done, and consumed. Package tours (slow river cruises are probably the exception to this generalization) may be preferable to not travelling, but are a poor second-rate experience compared to venturing off on one’s own. Package tours are better than the mad dashes across country (approximately 72-96 hours) that many military personnel and families do when moving from one coast to the other. Globalization (think of the Internet, the worldwide popularity of English, the convenience of much travel in the twenty-first century, etc.) makes self-organized travel easier than ever before.

Some people do make globetrotting a priority, e.g., an Australian couple with whom I conversed while we all enjoyed gelato. They had rented a camper and were on a three month trip around Europe. Several years earlier, they had made a similar, extended trip around Africa and a few years prior to that, traversed the Americas. Nevertheless, few people can afford the luxury of taking a year during or after college to travel the world. Even fewer can afford the “Grand Tour” that England’s wealthy often took during the nineteenth century.

However, with the growing affluence of retired baby boomers, many can afford to travel. More Americans would benefit from travel abroad, seeking not just a broad perspective but also an in-depth experience of one or more cultures.

Spending a month somewhere gives me a taste, not only of food and drink, but also of how people actually live. I learn a little of the language: not enough to converse, but enough to get a glimmer of how that language shapes a particular culture and different thought patterns. The classic illustration of this is that the Inuit have 17 different words for snow; I have no idea how many different types of pasta, each with its own name, the Italians have. A month in Florence, after having spent a month in Venice several years ago, has helped me to appreciate Italy’s heterogeneity.

Of course, if I spent a month or two every year in the same locale, I would acquire an even more in-depth understanding and appreciation of a particular culture. However, that would entail the disadvantage of not experiencing other cultures. For me, spending a month every year or so in different places is the right balance between depth and breadth; others will find a different balance preferable.

Travel can easily become narcissistic. The narcissistic traveler – think of a self-centered ugly American who judges everything by life in his/her home area and who demands that everyone to cater to her/his every whim – is clearly selfish and should stay home. Travel (like most experiences) should be a catalyst for change and a means to living more abundantly. In talking with tourists from the US and elsewhere over the past few weeks, I suspect that there are a goodly number of narcissistic travelers in spite of the many for whom traveling broadens more than their waistlines.

Sometimes I wonder whether I could achieve more with the money and time I spend traveling if I used those resources differently, e.g., organizing a program to feed or to shelter some of the homeless beggars I encounter at home and abroad. My musing about those issues has not yielded any easy answers. Self-delusion and self-justification are too easy. The best lived life, I believe, strives for balance and has various chapters (for more, cf. my prior Ethical Musings’ post, My changing perspective).


Eileen said...

Thank you for this insight to travel. This is a description of the joy that my husband get from focusing on fewer places but devote more time to learning and feeling the place and people. I am reading at present a book called Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. The book suggests that our soul is inseparable from the world's soul and it is found in the many things that make up nature and culture. Feeding our soul enriches our quality of life and we can feed it in many is one way.
I was just introduced to your "musings" today but plan to mark it as a favorite.
Eileen Lewis

Anonymous said...

You hit it right on the nose concerning traveling and how to enjoy it while taking in the culture, people, history, and every day life most of us never see.
You need to follow our rules for a great traveling experience. You have given a lot to the poor and community. In order to broaden your perspective on life, cultures and experiences to share with others, the money you spend on travel is well worth it. I'm just glad you share these experiences. The ugly American always pops up giving the locals a bad view of the real Americans.

!. No bitching or griping about anything. The rule starts when you leave the house and is in effect until you return.

2. No traveling at night.

3. Only eat at local restaurants. No fast food or chains.

4. If you see something you want to see for any person with you, you stop and stay as long as you wish, remembering rule 1.

5. Stay off interstate roads as much as possible.

6. Don't make reservations for a place to stay until that afternoon when you have an idea how far you will go.

7. Talk with the locals.

8. Stop at welcome centers and ask where they would send friends to see their state. Some of our best stops have been recommended by locals.

George Clifford said...

Welcome to the Ethical Musings community and thanks for the feedback. Thomas Moore's book is worth your time to read and for reflection.
God bless.