Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


American traveler on the Giza plateau © UrbisMedia 1989

American traveler on the Giza plateau © UrbisMedia 1989

Square Jean XXIII is a little park space at the west end of the Ile de la Cité in Paris. It consists of some trees and benches behind the apse of Notre Dame between the Cathedral and the bridge leading over from the left bank called Quai De L’Arch. It is a lovely spot to bring a sandwich a book, something I did often when I was living in Paris. I also would bring my notebook and would smile at the notion that, sitting on a bench beside Notre Dame, I was making notes ex cathedra, a curious thought for someone who considered the beautiful and inspiration edifice before me was constructed on a foundation of fairytales.

Notre Dame is also dead center of historic Paris and tour coaches will often park on the quai behind it to allow tourists a quick photo of Notre Dame’s backside. On one occasion in 1989 I was ensconced on my bench just behind the apse when two tour coaches full of Japanese tourists parked and their patrons disgorged for the almost obligatory tourist photo––the photo that says this is me (facing the camera) in front of the [fill in the background]. I did not know then, but subsequently learned, that this is the favorite, if not the exclusive, travel photograph of the Asian (though not exclusively Asian) tourist. By singles, or in couples, the Japanese positioned themselves in almost the identical spot behind the cathedral while their tour guide dutifully photographed each and every one of them facing directly into the camera. The tour guide stood just beside my bench, from which I could discern that the photograph that she was taking placed the fléche (the arrow-like spire atop the Cathedral) as though it were projecting from the top of each subject’s head. No doubt these tourists would not discover looking like they were wearing some alien antenna until they were back home boring their friends and families with a succession of “this is me in front of the [fill in the blank]” photos.

In my opinion, there is not a better way to spoil the photograph of an historic building or other site than to stick one or two (sometimes grinning) “American (or, in this case, Nippon) Gothic” figures in the foreground. Nevertheless, I have been complicit in these visual desecrations, especially when traveling with Asian groups (as I have in SE Asia) who have handed me their cameras and asked me to photograph them in front of everything from Angkor Wat to Zhongzhan Park lakes. Okay, I get it, they are expressing some fundamental existential need to document that they were actually there at Notre Dame, the pyramids, or the Temple of Heaven, or to prove to someone else that they were. One begins to wonder if it matters, to the tourist, where.

Being a tour professor was not travel in the form I would have preferred. I’ve always scoffed at the notion of the package tour, something that was started by Thomas Cook for British travelers in the 1850s and subsequently picked up by nearly every other country, abetted by charter and cheap international airfares, and the concomitant emergence of chains of budget hotels. What used to be available almost exclusively to soldiers, traders and sons of British gentry on a Grand Tour had come within the reach of schoolteachers and college students. The organized group “package” tour was born, and with it an on-going debate on the distinction between travel and tourism. Which is why I brought up the story of the Japanese tourists; not because it is very significant in its own right, but because it relates to a distinction that perhaps has more significance, at least to me. I’m referring to that distinction – – and by no means is it obvious or absolute—between the tourist and the traveler.

In my view there are some identifiable differences between and travelers and a tourists. One distinction (not mine) is that a tourist knows where he is going and when he will be back; the traveler does not, or does not care. But perhaps such a “traveler” is merely a wanderer. Still, in my view the true traveler is on a quest, in search of a muse, inspiration, escape, resurrection, a dream, or dreamgirl(guy), something that perhaps transcends the geographical destination itself, something existential. Elsewhere I wrote that one of my own travel objectives is “. . . being a stranger . . . in unfamiliar territory. It is to be where the traveler must adapt to foreign ways, where communication is hampered by language barriers, and where most of the taken-for-granted modes of everyday life are suspended. Being a stranger is most often the travel mode of the ex-patriot, the foreign service official, and the solitary traveler. But it can also be achieved by breaking away from a tour group or guide for an afternoon or evening, turning a few corners, and being on your own resources and wits, being ‘unknown,’ but yet more acutely aware of yourself and your own nationality, of being slightly vulnerable, of seeing yourself as a ”stranger.”* It is that vulnerability, that reliance upon our wits and resources, that cultural contrast, that can prompt and lead to self-discoveries that often remain veiled to us in the familiarity and comfort of our native societies.

However, that is not to diminish the purpose and consequence of destination: a pilgrimage to Rome, Jerusalem or Benares to pray; to Zurich or Hong Kong in quest of mammon; to Istanbul or Mumbai to in pursuit of the exotic; Bangkok or Sydney for sex; to some South Pacific isle for primitive isolation. The choice of destination can be the first level of revelation of one’s existential purposes of foreign travel. While my formal purposes in traveling to Paris were initially to act as an escorting professor on study tours my prime purpose in subsequently accepting a visiting professorship at the University of Paris was to write. I would not be tied to a schedule, I would decide my own interests, daily routine, get lost and “found,” make my own accommodations, reservations and meals, and even commute to work and, of course sit in cafés without s=checking my watch for when I had to be back on the bus.

The tourist, or more accurately “tourism” too often attempts to achieve the opposite, or at least a disengagement of the tourist from the very foreign-ness of encounter. Hermetically-sealed in a tour climate controlled coach with fellow tourists of our own nationality voyeuristically-viewing destinations through tinted-windows allows the tourist to claim they were “there,” but the “there” is scarcely more equivalent than—maybe in some sense less so—that a video on a high-definition television. And, indeed, a reasonably facility with Photoshop is capable of producing almost any “this is me in front of the [filL in place].”

It is not just seeing someplace different, but seeing the differences the experience of travel exposes in ourselves that differentiates tourism from travel. I sense some of the authentic traveler in what Ariel Levy has recently written:

“I’ve spent the past twenty years putting myself in foreign surroundings as frequently as possible. There is nothing I love more than travelling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it. . . . I always get terrified right before I travel. I become convinced that this time will be different: I won’t be able to figure out the map, or communicate with non-English speakers, or find the people I need in order to write the story I’ve been sent in search of. I will be lost and incompetent and vulnerable. I know that my panic will turn to excitement once I’m there—it always does—but that doesn’t make the fear before takeoff any less vivid.”**

Levy’s self-exposition confirms that when we head into terra incognito sometimes the most surprising person we might end up encountering is ourself. Like myself, Levy writes both in the manner of journalism and memoire about the experience of travel, which aligns with my view that writing becomes the medium to process the experience of travel. That process of putting the experience of travel be “into words” (but also supplemented by images, music, and recordings) introspectively addresses the unique nexus of ourselves at a particular time and place.

Foreign travel done this way might sometime approach art, but it is certainly a craft. Travel wasn’t always for leisure or education and the word is a cognate of travail, which was for a very long time a better descriptive for what was uncomfortable, arduous, and downright dangerous. It probably wasn’t until the era of the Grand Tour in the 18th Century that travel turned to being a bit more fun, but even then there were dangers that included highway robbery, food poisoning, and sexually transmitted diseases. So for a long time travel was a byproduct of other activities: war, famine, persecution, and trade. But most foreign travel today is, or can be, a voyage of discovery, even for the tourist if they are also curious about who that person is in that photograph with Notre Dame in the background.***

Eventually, most travelers and all tourists return home; but the traveler endeavors in not being quite the same person that left. Otherwise, in my view, as I have written elsewhere, “you really haven’t been anywhere”****

© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.15.2013)

* Clapp, The Stranger is Me: Travels and Self-Discoveries (Trafford, 2007)
** “Thanksgiving in Mongolia; Adventure and Heartbreak at the Edge of the World,” The New Yorker [Online] November 18, 2013
***There is also what is called adventure travel [ 12.5 and  12.7] today might result in injury or death, but even that prospect is less terrifying if you have insurance that includes helicopter emergency evacuation to the nearest medical facility.
****Sebastian Gerard, Lifelines (Peter Pauper Press, 2006)

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