The BLOG: Voices

Ethics of the road

When I got to Munich, my first thought was that I needed cash. Stepping out of the airport at midday, I met sun too bright to comfortably keep my eyes open and felt the heaviness of switching from the U.S. time zone, now six hours behind. I found a row of conveniently numerous bright yellow ATMs, so I stepped up to the closest one and reached into my purse. Deciding which slot of the machine to insert my debit card, I hesitated. That’s when I heard an Australian accent directed at me: “That’s not what this is.” I watched as this person slid three stamped envelopes into the identical yellow ‘machine’ next to mine. Apparently, Australians travel a lot — I met several right away.

Traveling has taught me many things. I am not unaccustomed to moments of feeling very suddenly conspicuous and I can now discern when a situation will allow for an apologetic laugh, versus when it’s best to hightail it. I’ve learned how to handle myself, despite myself. Before I left for Germany, I had a conversation with a friend about recreational travel, and the way people do it — quickly through as many cities as possible — and the implications of consuming countries and “experiences” like ready-made meals that are easily digested and remembered for their usefulness as conversation pieces later. In that case, I have enough anecdotal currency to entertain many dinner parties at my own expense — well, sort of. Because then again, the point of these “self-deprecating” tales somehow still comes down to: “When I was in Munich … (Translation: I’ve been to Munich, and to fill in the blank, blank, blank and blank for that matter) But enough about me, what about you? Travel much?”

When I was in Florence: Making my way out of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence, I passed by a heavy-set man, lounging and talking on his cell phone. With the slow ease of a southern draw I heard him say, “Yup, justa’ sittin’ on the steps of the Dowmow.” A Duomo is the Italian word for a town’s central cathedral, but the way this man pronounced it, it sounded more like the slang version of a lawn mower. And there it was: the image of a man reclining on the steps of a fourteenth-century cathedral as if he was sitting on the easy chair in his living room and bragging about it to the neighbor on the other end of the line. Then I thought about the fact that I, too, am North American.

Amusing or not (him), pretentious or not (me), this man as a sort of archetypal American makes me think about myself in ways I don’t like, in the ways that I also fit the bill of European perceptions. But that’s not the point. North Americans idealize Europe and lots of people idealize travel. Even with all the luxuries of predictable technology, we still view these experiences as glorious events of wandering and rugged quests for experiential education. Is this idealization of our own fast-paced consumption what makes us, as tourists, look so foolish? I don’t think there’s a way to avoid being a consumer, broadly speaking. It’s a term that describes a kind of activation of our senses and their interaction with the world. We take in new information, at the very least, as often as we are conscious. So on what grounds should we try and avoid this, or feel ashamed of it?

I see great value in tempering and, at times, even suppressing the rosy lens of my expectations of the place where I’m headed. By this, I hope to avoid childish antagonism toward the objects or images in a foreign country that don’t fit with some preconceived aesthetic formula. While preconceptions are unavoidable, the hope is that upon arrival, some sort of encounter is possible with this place and all of its present-tense sensory information. Though, knowing some European history never hurt any tourist that I know of. But these encounters, as I’m calling them, are not only the achievements of art history professors and other kinds of “knowledgeably more pure” kinds of travelers full of cultivated decorum and museum etiquette. That kind of soft-spoken pretension is not, in my opinion, the antidote for loud and ignorant Americans.

There is a kind of eager gaze that enables anyone to stand still in front of a building or a body of water for much longer than normal, a euphoria that comes readily from meditating on something that strikes you. And along with this vivid and heightened sense of your surroundings, there is the gnawing fear that you will miss something. In these moments, the fragility of our perceptive capacity is both daunting and thrilling. And try as you may, you cannot possibly consume all that surrounds you.

In his book, Six Names of Beauty, Crispin Sartwell writes:

“Without loss, desire would be fulfilled at will; things would exist for us as perfect resources, always potentially available for our use. That we can lose things, that in fact we are always in the process of losing everything we have, underlies the longing with which we inhabit the world. And in that longing resides the possibility of beauty.”

I think this is the significance of traveling; to be confronted with the foreignness of things and the frustration of longing. And I also think the experience of longing for what is at the same time distant and much too close can be overlooked at home, where what is at first familiar becomes homogenous to the mind’s eye. Again, Sartwell says that “we give beauty to objects and they give beauty to us; beauty is something we make in cooperation of the world.” And along with the health of longing and the acknowledgment of foreignness comes the possibility and even the penchant for being surprised.

Speaking of his visit to a medieval cathedral on the Venetian island of Burano, known for its trade of lace-making and vibrantly colored houses, Sartwell remarked, “I entered as a pure tourist and the last thing I expected was a spiritual experience.” When it comes to traveling, I am convinced you have to want especially to be surprised. And very likely, this approach, this attentiveness, will change the way we talk about these places at parties, no longer taking it for granted that a country or a city is easily summed up, even in a memory as existing only for me, just as I need it to be.

Susanna Young

Susanna Young

Susanna Young studied fine art and creative writing. She has a strong curiosity about other people, a tendency to haunt coffee shops, and to find excuses to travel as often as possible.