Thursday, January 1, 2015


OK. I want to see places where I don’t already live. See the problem?  To listen to some people, you’d thing that being a tourist was some sort of inherent crime against humanity. How dare I not be a native Parisian? Where do I get off not having been born in Thailand? What was I thinking, choosing parents who didn’t live nearer to Venice? 

There’s a large body of literature that interrogates what it means to be a tourist and sometimes very cleverly distinguishes between the tourist (who comes as some sort of cultural imperialist, if I understand things correctly) and the traveller, who is respectful and discerning about what he encounters. Oh, please.  If I’m in Paris I’m going to tie on my bright white running shoes, grab my day pack, see the Mona Lisa, go up the Eiffel Tower, buy a fridge magnet of Notre Dame, and photograph the hell out of the place.  Then I’m going to damn well put those photographs on Facebook, that weird world where people ask to be your friends and then complain when you use it for what it’s intended for. By all means get snooty about that while you wallow in whatever hellhole you’re from.

I'm writing this from Portugal, where there are important archeological sites, medieval towns, cathedrals, museums, and galleries that would slide into total ruin and decrepitude if not for the massive stream of tourists whose spending supports these places or the local economies that support them. And around the world whole countries depend on tourism as the backbone of their economy. This comes at a price, of course, because the tourists change the places they’re visiting. In some cases, such as Paris’s famous Latin Quarter, there is very little left of what drew tourists in the first place, just shops selling junk gifts and restaurants selling junk food to tourists who can’t imagine anything worse than eating something they’ve never eaten before (the kind of people who will line up on a Friday to eat at East Side Mario’s.)  

And there really are tourists who are culturally ignorant and insensitive. They use their camera flashes in places where they’re asked not to and don’t even bother to learn to say “hello” “please” or “thank you” in the local language. Last year a perfectly nice evening we were having in a very good restaurant in Paris was very nearly ruined by four people at a nearby table. Why was the service so slow? Why didn’t the waiters speak English, after all we had done for them in the war? And they demanded to know of a lovely couple from New Zealand, sitting (thankfully, for they absorbed the brunt of this) between us and them, how New Zealanders could possibly get by without gun rights? How did they defend themselves? (At this point you can probably guess which country the four were from, and probably who they voted for in its last several elections.)  With good humour, one of the New Zealanders opined that he’d never considered the need to defend himself at all in New Zealand, there having been five homicides, three of them committed by sheep, the previous year.  Game, set, and match, I thought, but it was more of a moral victory than an actual one. The big hairs carried on. They really need to fix the roads – they’re so narrow! And the locals are so rude!  I ordered a second bottle of wine to dull the pain.

It’s also true that there are weird forms of tourism: “dark tourism” (visiting sites of murders, massacres, genocides, and the like), and “poverty tourism”, where people who are rich pay money to see “authentic” people who are not. But I’m not sure that what I’ve done is much different: I’ve led battlefield tours, and spent the day today photographing character-filled medieval neighbourhoods in Lisbon, behind whose walls and doors are people who are by Canadian standards really quite poor.  

So I’m not sure what it all means. But I do know this: in about three days our plane will land in Toronto and one of the first things I will see will be that most ubiquitous of Canadian restaurant chains, and weary travellers who will immediately queue for a coffee that’s so bad they have to double the sugar and milk just to drink it, and a little part of me will die. But it won't be the unapologetically elitist part.


Graham Broad said...

This on-time update brought to you by the good people of Lisbon!

Anonymous said...

Yes, and the lay people have a name for the un-apologetically elite. They call them pompous asses. A thought: it's possible to be right and still be a jerk.