A pretentious open letter, full of generalizations and exaggerations, to current and recent high school and college students:
The following is not a lecture, though it might seem to be. Nor is it an attempt to push my views of the world, though the medium sends that message. Nor is it advice, despite the advice it contains. It is not even meant as suggestion, innocent as that would be. It is simply support for those of you who hold a certain minority view, who will be peer pressured by friends this summer and might welcome reassurance from a like mind.
Of course, we are well into summer now, but, if you are lucky, you might still soon be off to gallivant around the globe. Only not exactly gallivant...more like gadabout, playing an international game of tag with an imaginary, relentless, and inexhaustible 'it'.
When I ask students if, given a two-week vacation, they would rather visit six cities or one, they invariably opt for six, reasoning they can "knock off a few places." 3 days Rome. 1.5 days Florence. An afternoon Lyon. 3.5 days Paris. 1.5 days Brussels. And, of course, 2 long, tripped out days in Amsterdam. The great city collection race - not even, the great landmark scavenger hunt, as if landmarks were so many happy meal toys: collect all 1 million! And for what? It can take two weeks just to escape tourist Paris, to work through the obvious and the trite, the superficial and the cynical, until, perhaps only at the very end...a sudden shift in tone...a deeper meaning interjects itself.
But a city reduced to a commercial, reduced to an entry on a tapas menu for you to quickly englut so that room on the table can be made for the next and the next and the next...you will not so much travel as consume the idea of a place. Another city crossed off the list. Another Facebook album created. Another electronic pin electronically dropped on an electronic "places I've been" map. And it will all flow through you without touching a thing.
The concomitant photography obsession is no coincidence. Photography, the ultimate document-for-later-over-experience-now tool, gives consumption primacy and obfuscates intimacy, leaving your time abroad never more than two-dimensional and quasi-anachronistic; one cannot escape the Heisenberg untravel principle. If you are after a mediated experience, sink into a couch and watch the travel channel while shuffling through postcards.
I remember a trip with my brother and some friends several summers ago. We had scheduled to be in Lyon for a couple of days, en route to Switzerland to meet some friends (try not to picture me on a yacht sipping a martini as you read that sentence). My brother started to push for us to skip out of Lyon early and travel to Zurich through Milan "because you can do Milan in half a day."
What place, what lives, can be reduced to six hours between trains? And if they can be, why visit at all? Unless such a venture is a day-trip as part of a long stay in one city, save your time and money and stay put. With this requisitioned bounty of time and money you can accomplish more than you could sitting on yet another bus, and perhaps even have a nice meal instead of yet another falafel from Maoz.
Being in Lyon for only two days was out of my control. But to cut even that short just to visit another locale with the unabashed purpose of crossing another city and country off a list was too much to bear. And to be able to cross off a country after only six hours! Please, save your trysts for your dating life. For your travels partake in a long, intense, sex-filled relationship with a city (or two) of your choice. You do not conquer simply by coming and seeing, so replace the vapid thrill of empty conquest with the hard-earned thrill of intimate discovery. Just be prepared to explain to your friends why your Facebook albums are titled "Paris I," "Paris II," and "Paris III," rather than an alphabetical list of every European capital.
Now, I do not propone this method of travel with the aim that you go learn more about a place's "culture", which, in the pre-packaged, handshake, epidermal, blink-of-an-eye manner it is often experienced by travelers, is as much related to consumerism as watching a commercial or purchasing a t-shirt - often amounts to purchasing a t-shirt. I mean for you to meet actual people - lives meeting lives. I mean for you to absorb some essence of a locale - the place's the thing, let it catch your imagination.
Imagine yourself a citizen of Rome with a week or two off. What would you do? Dream what it would be like to live there. See what it would be like to linger...to linger at a café, to linger at a museum, to linger even on a street bench...to visit a place more than once, to become a regular, even. Let the guidebook be more resource than command center, less bible than occasional, helpful stranger, and linger till you for forget home.
For there is a certain symmetry to travel: to connect with one world, you must disconnect from another. So leave your laptop at home, get a phone that cannot call home, and leave your cameras behind, as they are little more than a link to your future return home. If, however, you'd sooner leave behind your still-beating heart than your camera, consider a one camera per group rule: Each day someone else is saddled with full camera responsibilities. Others cannot make any requests or criticize any choices. Whatever comes out comes out. The rest will have to live on inside of you.
My most recent trip was to a small, isolated, coastal town. I left my digitals at home and set my email to auto-reply. I stayed there long enough to watch the dark-sanded beach I slept by transform nightly with the phases of the moon. Long enough to transition from a watch's time to that of the sun, to turn from casting spells to ward off rain to begging for it. Long enough to watch the leaves shed their dust and the dusty road turn a rich earthen clay, seemingly overnight, seemingly every night, as dry season slowly gave way to rains, so that every day I said to myself again, "Yes, today the rainy season has arrived. Today everything is finally green." Long enough for the owner of my lodgings to volunteer his journals from his first few years in the country, to learn the rhythms of life of the locals he had living on-site. Long enough to become a regular at two restaurants, to learn about the second life of one of the workers struggling to maintain a small farm, of another's work to design and build a skate park, to meet the families of the owners, to be invited into the kitchen of a renowned French chef for a lesson. Long enough to turn from loving surfing to hating it to loving it again, to graduate from beginner's break to world-class-I-feel-like-I-am-going-to-die-today-break, to get caught in currents and thrust towards rocks, to see sores on my abdomen open and slowly seal and harden. Long enough for my surfing instructor to feel sufficiently comfortable to betray his ambivalence towards this client's presence, lamenting that, as we paused for a moment to look back at the shore, where glamorous houses belied the poverty not far, in a cliché made sincere no less by his accent than his emotion, "no local owns land on the beach. We sold our soul for a little bit of money Omer," before paddling away to catch a wave. Long enough to learn of a secret break that those who moved to the country to surf guard against interlopers, to go admire them at sunrise, to learn of a fight between natives who sought to surf that break and were aghast to have immigrants claim it as their own and threaten them, pounding fist into open palm. Long enough to be taken to a traveling rodeo, its arrival a highlight of small town life, to watch the generations gather together, above and below and around wooden bleachers, while local men and teenagers, drunk, enter the ring as makeshift bullfighters, begging to get gored, as rider after rider explodes into their stumbling, preening midst. Long enough to mourn a lost love in unwired isolation, for the sound of the hard ocean break, close outside my sliding door, to turn from rhythmic comfort to disturbing, unrelenting, psychological abuse.
Finally, in the redemptive measure of a trip's success, long enough to be invited back: the aforementioned French chef has promised a one-week cooking internship upon my return. And so, if I can resist the temptation to cross another city off my list, I will once again disappear from the here and recreate myself there.
Please, if you go away in the coming weeks or years, do not be restless. Keep your mind still, your exposure long, and allow for truth to arrange itself. It could happen anywhere...