Over at the excellent Blogtrotter the other week, Fionnchú reviewed ‘The Smell of the Continent’, a history of British tourists abroad, by Richard Mullen and Robert Munson. He says:
‘John Ruskin, always lofty, did accurately observe "the poor modern slaves and simpletons who let themselves be dragged like cattle. . . through the countries they imagine themselves visiting." (qtd. 197) Mullen & Munson find his reaction typifies that of British travelers: they dislike their countrymen on holiday, and they tend to find that travel was always better before the crowds came, when adventurers preceded the mobs, and the journeyer was of "better quality" than the yobs today.’
Now then, go here to find out if you are a traveler or a tourist, but just make sure you are back soon.
I don’t travel much now, but when I did visit the Greek islands regularly, I always packed my iron. Companions would groan at this, but I knew that before we went out to dinner on the first evening, they’d be queuing up to borrow it. I won’t go anywhere that has no bars or restaurants, I want at least three showers a day if it’s hot and I have a horror of squat toilets. (Of course a man can pee with a certain detachment from the surroundings, but as for the other business, I’d have to be pretty bloody desperate.) Two years ago, I was offered a ten-week contract teaching Academic English in China, and two days in which to say yes or no. Well, I iffed and butted, not very enthusiastic about the prospect but feeling that to say no would be unadventurous and incurious. I called my sister, who predictably urged me to go for it. I phoned my mother, who just as predictably was horrified, and went on about China’s abysmal human rights record and insalubrious prisons.
‘But I’m not going to bloody prison,’ I pointed out, testily.
‘Well, I hope not,’ she said.
So I have never been to China, and it was not the vanishingly small chances of being incarcerated, dispatched by lethal injection or shot in the head that put me off; it was the prospect of squat toilets. What if there was one in my flat? I couldn’t say, ‘look, I’ll go if you can guarantee me a decent sit-down khazi’, and expect to come off as an adaptable, culturally sensitive instructor. All this places me squarely in the tourist category, according to that web-page. Yet I’ve never thought of myself as one.
In the seventies in Cambridge, there was a brief vogue for wearing badges bearing the legend 'I'm not a tourist, I live here', for anyone who wanted to be distinguished from the gawping, ignorant herds. In college bars, students would snigger about the visitors who asked such dumb questions as ‘where’s the university?’, and claim that they had directed the questioner to Addenbrooke’s Hospital or the Unemployment Benefit Offices. This was intolerably cliquey and inhospitable and I never bought the badge, but only because I already had too many gay badges. I was as snotty about tourists as any other Oxbridge undergraduate snob.
When I moved to Greece, my snooty sense of utter separation from the instantly recognisable Brits Abroad always made me think of that badge. Henry Miller’s extravagant pronouncement in ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’ that the Englishman in Greece is ‘not worth the dirt between a Greek peasant’s toes’ is taking it a bit far, although in 1941 such Brits as got to Greece may well have considered themselves the school prefects of the world. Even so, in the hard, bright light of Athens, a middle-aged British tourist in socks and sandals being diffident and polite to a waiter or taxi driver looks timid, pallid and ineffectual, just asking to be smiled at and charged double. I always felt pleased when Greeks took me for French or Italian.
It was not only the British who looked daft and out of place. I remember standing at a pedestrian crossing with a bunch of elderly Americans, in an astonishing collection of stripes, zigzags, dots and paisley (them, not me) as an elderly vagrant came shuffling by. There was murmured comment on his appearance, and then one old boy beamed and announced with a sort of dutiful, chipper piety: 'y'know, it could be Christ!' eliciting a chorus of obedient yea-saying. ‘Get these people out of my adopted country!’ I thought, petitioning Zeus to send thunderbolts. I knew I was as much a foreigner as they were, but my attitude to tourists in general was like that of a kid in the second year at school, who can look down on the new intake and feel superior for knowing what they cannot possibly yet know.
Last week as a tourist wandering around Athens I was pleased to realize that my old snobbery has gone and I don’t want to be taken for anything other than what I am. The tavernas in Plaka and Anafiotika around the Acropolis were jammed with German and American coach parties being entertained by bouzouki players, and although I could never happily be a member of such a group, I wonder why I was once so contemptuous of such utterly harmless pleasures.
If I go abroad again, I want to do so for work, and live in the country for an extended period, so long as it has a high standard of creature comforts, a good cuisine and no hole-in-the-floor shit-houses. If this limits my options, fine. I’m neither traveler nor tourist, more a sort of international stay-at-home.