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and in favour of getting bored in an ugly diner in suburbia instead.
once i went to portugal on my own. the whole experience was bittersweet. cakes decoration said ‘parabens’ which means ‘best wishes’, popcorns are called pipocas and i saw a catholic hobbit monastery carved into the rock. in lisbon city centre buildings had traditional signs with all sort of shops and business ventures but were instead just selling useless crap for tourists. i generally love crap, but seeing too much of it in one go gives me vertigo.
i read the entirety of g.k. chesterton’s “what’s wrong with the world” waiting in line for an interminable queue to enter a historical building whom i forgot the name now. once in, i continued my queue in the visitors assembly line, walking a few calibrated steps every 30 seconds or so. what you fail to see in those 30 seconds will be gone, there is no going back. everybody was taking photos all the time, myself included. i’ll write about this another day. i remember very little of what i saw that afternoon.
at the end of the trip i had miscalculated the booking at the hotel and i had nowhere to go on the night before my flight. i booked a last minute place that was cheap and closer to the airport than the city centre. the atmosphere was completely different. the hotel was a self check in that looked more like a hourly motel. a shelf had a rubik cube, a plastic tennis ball and a brand new poker card deck. i watched an entire episode of a soap opera in portuguese, only understanding the 1% reminiscent of some italian or spanish.
in a neighbourhood of a lot of generic 60s buildings, i entered the first diner i saw and sat down with pen and paper. a big tv was playing some sort of sport. i got bread in a plastic bag, single pack of garlic and herbs butter and tons of rice and fries with some sort of tomato sauce meatballs. nobody spoke a word of english and i spoke in a very broken portuguese to the waiter. it looked exactly like a diner in suburban milan i had visited years ago. i remember the deep satisfaction of this experience as the most meaningful of the entire trip. this is the sort of tourism one could and should do in his hometown.
later on when covid came along, each movement, activity and meal had the potential of ruining someone’s life. that made me wonder how my life could have looked like without all the mindless travelling i had been doing until then. i eventually recalibrated on fewer trips, pondered ad nausea, promising myself to try and avoid adding to the reason why places become 24/7 disneyland versions of themselves, constantly available for the consumption of a paying public–if such a thing could ever be possible.
i have been asking myself what does it mean for me to be on holiday. i remembered of the holiday i would have every single summer as a kid. we would always go to the same tiny village during summer. the main feature of those holidays was the combination of absolute nothingness and sameness throughout the days and weeks. activities would include an occasional pizza, a daily granita or gelato, gathering or painting stones on the beach, reading piles of new and vintage magazines. no tv available, unless we visited someone who had it. the most exciting activity was the area exploration. i am calling it exploration but the place was so small that we knew it by heart. nonetheless we were always keen to re-explore it further. that reminds me of the red theatre binocular my dad kept in a drawer. me and my sister loved to get the binocular to just look at the house in front of our balcony. it was always the same house, nothing new and nobody ever out, but the excitement was always guaranteed.
the piece is against tourism as a concept but not against tourists, so i don’t want to judge (or maybe i don’t want to get in trouble with the boss JC?). rather, i am curious about it. i wonder why do we seem to value so much seeing new things over seeing the same things over and over with new eyes. one could say–well, how many new eyes can one have? the answer is that we barely see what we see. i cycle to my office every day, mostly through the same route. even if that’s the case and i know the route by heart, i don’t know every single thing on the path and i notice nearly nothing. “seen that, done that”–but not really. it is impossible to map out so much data all the time. that is why we need retouching in portraits (but guess what? that is also a story for another time).
during the pandemic i got the chance to visit japan thanks to a business visa. at the time, the country was closed to foreign tourism. i will never see kyoto as empty as on that summer. it will never be that kyoto again. today kyoto looks exactly like the lisbon of my trip: full of people queueing and taking photos. as sad as it can be, i refuse to become a middle class old man complaining about the uncultured masses only travelling to accumulate silly selfies and tacky magnets. the problem is not who gets to travel, but how many people and how. it shouldn’t necessarily be more expensive either. that would simply make it a thing of the rich or another thing people would go in debt for. (remember 2007, when we thought that only rich businesspeople could ever spend 1k for a smartphone?! until everybody could–in instalments).
travelling may eventually become more expensive in the upcoming years when climate cataclysms will bring about a sharper sense of urgency in governments to regulate and tax climate intensive behaviours such as flying (or simply unpredictable weather will make it more difficult), but for the foreseeable future i think it will be the same.
so until then, i think we should practice two things:
1– places to travel to would be like theatres. seats are limited for each day and once the seats are sold out, nobody can enter anymore. access would be regulated by a completely nonsensical lottery ticket system. i don’t care it’s nonsensical, i’ll talk about it all the same. tickets should be free, nominal and non-transferrable. without the winning ticket for the date, one wouldn't be allowed to book any aspect of the trip.
2– people would have to be distributed more evenly and density per square metre reduced. planet earth is so so vast and yet we all amass in mykonos. some of us will need to trade mykonos for a bulgarian coastal city or even better the glorious austere and desolate british coastline, for example.
the main tenets of this new tourism paradigm will be: don’t queue, don’t rush, get very bored.