When Henry James first met Oscar Wilde in Boston in 1882, he told Wilde that he was very nostalgic for London.
“Really? You care for places? The world is my home,” Wilde replied flamboyantly (and, erroneously, alas, though it was true for just a little while.) Did that ever make Henry James mad! He really ought to have known better, because Wilde was an incorrigible tease. James was all wanting to be We Sophisticates with Wilde, I guess, but Wilde wouldn’t, because Wilde, whatever else he was, was no tourist in this world. He was right up against it all, every minute.
Whereas Henry James seems to have been the ultimate tourist from the day he was born; detached and dispassionate, a spectator, in a way, for all his life. And yet his brother William so beautifully said, “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.”
In summer, lots of people like to travel about and look at each other’s places. Many of us hope that we too will be taken as citizens of the world, and not tourists, even though how bad would the latter be? All sorts of pleasant spots are specially set aside for tourists to visit. In my own town we have Disneyland and Spago and all that, and many of us love taking visitors to such places, too. I’ve often thought that Los Angeles is about the worst-situated city in the US to visit without a native guide, because the tourist things are so isolated and far from the hangs of regular people, and so tourists don’t easily get to see how the regular people live, maybe. I like to think that I can show visitors the “real” Los Angeles by taking them along to the little bars and places that I enjoy, breakfast at Foxy’s or Yuca’s, coffee at Tropical, the Museum of Jurassic Technology; really though I am just showing them my Los Angeles, which is another thing, and not so real, either. I suspect that travelers and those who show them around are only connecting in a rather haphazardly human, surreal way.
Carlos Argentino […] launched into a glorification of modern man.
“I view him,” he said with a certain unaccountable excitement, “in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins…”
He remarked that for a man so equipped, actual travel was superfluous. Our twentieth century had inverted the story of Mohammed and the mountain; nowadays, the mountain came to the modern Mohammed.
-Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph” (1949)
I can’t agree with Borges’s Argentino that travel is superfluous; I write this from a terrace in Oia, Santorini, with little whitecaps dotting the Aegean before me; there’s a delicious breeze, and a glass of lovely Sigalas Asyrtiko at my elbow.* Even so, I’ve been able to watch the “60 Minutes” report on the Oilpocalypse and help my daughter in LA with her Flash movie, in addition to reading Borges, all via my laptop. You might say that in this case Mohammed went to the mountain, and also brought an infinitude of virtual mountains along with him. I fancy Borges would have loved the way things were going to turn out.
Greece is summer to many, myself included. The purity of the light, the warmth and generosity of the people, the ravishing beauty of land, sea and sky, seem to infuse the most casual meal or walk with a summer feeling of aimless, irresistible gaiety and pleasure.
On May 1st, austerity measures were announced in this country aimed at persuading the Germans to sign on to a bailout package for the debt-ridden Greek economy. These measures include pay cuts for the public sector, pension reductions and tax increases. The strategy worked, finally persuading the Germans to sign on to the initial $140 billion aid package that the ECB has since swollen out to $1 trillion or so. In view of the fact that the government is largely to blame for the debt crisis (government mismanagement, plus I guess the fact that tax evasion and corruption are rampant here,) the people went nuts and called a general strike for the 5th of May. Over 100,000 protesters (and maybe more than a quarter million) choked the streets of Athens in protest, the general feeling being that these rich morons had run off with everyone’s dough, and now the rest of us must foot the bill. Which, yes, I know. The protest in Athens turned violent, sadly. Three bank workers were killed when they were unable to escape a building that had been set alight with Molotov cocktails.
The contrast between politics/media and everyday life is as unfathomable, and as surreal, as the contrast between those two things and the quasi-artificiality of our Tourist Paradises. This is true everywhere. It is both comforting and scary to think that people are just getting on with their lives all over the world, at home and abroad, despite all the disasters, distortions and mess everywhere. Beautiful and perfect as it is here, I will gladly trade some paradise for knowing something about how people are faring. It turns out that even Irini, the sunshiny proprietor of our paradisiacal hotel, becomes a little cranky when you mention the government. “They talk and talk, they say they are going to do, but they do not do,” she grumbled.
“That’s just like us!” we exclaimed.
Indeed that had already occurred to me in a thousand ways. We too live in a country of industrious, intelligent people who complain nonstop about their incompetent government and rapacious corpocracy, and who are just as transfixed by cat videos on YouTube.
When we travel we often think of ourselves as Other, and that causes such uncertainty and fear. There’s a terrific fear of being Ugly and American, still. The first time I tried to explain this concept to a lovely French teacher many years ago she was terribly shocked, and she said, “Mais on ne dit pas que les Américains sont laids!” I thought, really?! So maybe this concept of the Ugly American is one that we’ve taken on so that we have yet another thing to beat ourselves (and each other) up over? Because, I suspect, we really are not so Other. It’s possible that the millions of meetings taking place all summer between people from all over could even be what’s keeping civilization halfway scotch-taped together. In any case, it’s worth having faith in our common humanity, for the reason William James suggests: so it will come true.
*BUY THIS WINE, if you can.