Why do we travel? My great-great-grandparents traveled to America from Ireland because of the potato famine. That was a pretty good reason; no point in hanging around the old bog when there’s nothing left to do but starve to death.
My favorite travel writer (though he shuddered at the title)—Bruce Chatwin—traveled first for his job at Sotheby’s, then from a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity and finally so his wife wouldn’t realize he was sleeping with quite so many men.
Chatwin’s idol and inspiration, Robert Byron, traveled to improve his already vast knowledge of the architecture of antiquity. He certainly didn’t seem to do so for pleasure; Christopher Sykes, who traveled with him during the trip so beautifully described in Road to Oxiana—the trip that meant so much to Chatwin, myself and countless others—was written “in discomfort and a state of boiling fury.” Perhaps we had the same TSA agent.
Byron boiled in Beirut and then in Tehran while waiting for a coal-burning device used to power automobiles. This was supposed to propel him and Sykes further along their Oxiana journey, and he would probably have boiled over had he known that the device wouldn’t reach him until months later in Herat. His travel diary notes:
“a cutting from The Times says that Colonel Noel has started off from London to India in a Rolls-Royce driven by the same charcoal apparatus.”
Later in the story Byron drives this very Rolls, sans charcoal burners (which were abandoned for their brittleness) from Mashhad to Herat. I read this passage in less adventurous circumstances, on a train leaving Milan. I put down the book and recorded a video of the scenery: https://youtu.be/_-vj30O87q8
From Milan I was headed to Innsbruck, and from Innsbruck I was headed…where exactly? And why? Sotheby’s wasn’t footing the bill. I wasn’t furthering the world’s knowledge of classical architecture, and I could buy all the potatoes I wanted at Trader Joe’s. I had no adventure planned, no fated quest. And there would be inconveniences to deal with.
For starters, people would squawk at me in their native language. Full of consonants sharper and vowels more mellifluous than my mid-Atlantic ear can register, their words would disorient and confuse me. Sensing weakness, these same people would ask me with a straight face to use their oddly colored, suspiciously textured paper currency, which I find impossible to assign intrinsic value to. Some of it would be pink.
I knew all this would happen in advance, and yet I went through the whole rigmarole anyway. Feeling the inexorable call to get the hell out of my comfortable existence and despise the rude pedestrians of other countries, I had virtually plonked down my Amex and vowed adherence to the formidable cancellation policies of airlines and hostelry. What exactly had I signed up for? Where did this urge come from? Why was I traveling in the first place?
The trip began in Paris. The Big Idea I’d dreamed up at home was to relax for a week before hopping on a train to explore. The Hotel D’Aubusson on the left bank seemed promising. The reviews all stated it was just the place to go if you wished to be pampered and indulged like a medieval Cardinal and that is where I hastened from the airport. The lobby was refined and plush, the elevators silent. The staff was courteous and efficient and I was indulged in all of my requests, even the ones I hadn’t voiced aloud yet—where the hell is my drink? Oh, there it is. This was very nice, but while the tension dissipated, the spirit remained restless. I decided to see the sites.
Along the cobblestone streets and across ancient bridges, I noted that the Parisians I observed seemed to be doing a terrific job relaxing. They sat outside in slim-fitting Moncler jackets and what appeared to be children’s-sized jeans, lighting one Marlboro Light after another. So nonchalant as to say, ‘I don’t give a damn if the cigarette lights or not,’ they would then toss the pack back to their cafe table in an equally aloof gesture. This would almost always result in a perfect and infuriatingly artful tableau of Continental sophistication.
Or I could have just been jet lagged. Anyway, the hip Parisians watched me watching them, dispassionate eyes lounging over Tom Ford rims, their blank expressions serene and their gestures economical as I wasted energy like a filament lamp: up one street and back down the other.
What was wrong with these people? It was December and it was freezing! They didn’t care, smug sons of bitches. I pictured the narrow avenues crumbling, giving way to antarctic glaciers, katabatic winds blasting tables and chairs into the Seine, and these cafe society denizens still sitting there, anchored to the earth by the gravity of their sangfroid.
I began to spot a flaw in my plan. Perhaps you have already. I had spent a good chunk of my rare and precious vacation time (as well as a great deal of money) in an attempt at relaxation— without considering that I may simply be constitutionally incapable of it, seaweed wrap or no seaweed wrap.
A second plan emerged. Perhaps the answer wasn’t in relaxation but in edification, in doing something personally enriching in the time I had away from The Real World. Maybe a little culture is what I needed. Some good news on that front for me: I’d already started. Walking through Paris is an education in itself. Reading a plaque here, a plinth there, I had already picked a lot up through a sort of cultural photosynthesis. A good start, but what was the next step? There were certainly a lot of people willing to sell me answers.
You, patient reader, are probably thinking I caved in and took the tourist route. Not exactly. No big blue buses for me, thanks. Most of the time I tried my very best to hold true to that hideous word “authenticity,” and I had done my homework. After carefully questioning the locals and consulting my notes from favorite authors, I set out, secure in the knowledge that I was pointed toward locations where real-life locals dined, shopped and consorted during the course of their honest-to-God Parisian lives. Results were mixed.
One neat trick that inspired entrepreneurs have concocted is a relabeling of the twin vices of sloth and gluttony under the banner of “food and wine tour.” This cultural connivance works by first raising the humblest village cheese or greenest river-valley plonk to an exalted height via cultural-anthropological explication. This sales pitch disguised as a lecture frees newly enlightened tourists to shove all the foodstuffs they’d like in their faces, unencumbered by guilt. This is culture, you see.
I spent a lovely morning and an increasingly bloated afternoon doing one of these very tours, vacuuming up entire pastry shelves and nodding along while a patient, multilingual gentleman droned on. Did I know that the cheese I was eating was produced only by a certain breed of cow, eating a certain species of flower, above a certain height on a certain mountain? I did not, but I will have thirds, please. I’m pretty sure they placed what was left in a tabernacle.
Of course I also tackled some capital-C Culture along the way. I’ve always tried to be careful in these heady waters, lest I be swept away by an even stronger tide of bullshit than what the cheesemongers are capable of slinging. There’s sort of a one-upmanship that takes place in museums and cathedrals that resembles nothing more closely than two Boy Scouts comparing their merit badges: I’ll bet you haven’t got that one. But I was in the cultural capital of the universe, after all, and I wanted the badges to prove it. I wanted to take something from the city and pin it right on my goddamn chest where everyone could see it: Louvre. Without looking like a tourist, of course.
So on a brisk morning I stood hesitantly on the Ile de la Cité outside Notre Dame, looking at the hateful line of tourists, crossing and recrossing an imaginary line only I could see. At what point would I cease being an informed admirer of the architectural and historical significance of this magnificent cathedral and cross over into gawking tourism? I hoped to give off an air of Continental cosmopolitanism and detached cool, but I fear I simply looked constipated.
These locations continued to plague me with a sort of traveler’s cognitive dissonance. I wanted to be a scholarly, erudite, not-at-all-frivolous student of the human animal and its wondrous creations, but was obviously just another tourist with a camera, self-consciously posing for no one. This unholy trial of the ersatz authenticist reaches its end at the obvious Catch-22: anything that I as a tourist do becomes a tourist activity as soon as I do it, ipso facto. But I remained locked in this state of equipoise, swimming upstream against the cultural currents all the way, and Paris closed itself off to me.
One summer in college, I studied architecture at the University of Havana. The mandate from the university’s point of view was to encourage dialogue and cultural exchange between the American and Cuban students. The mandate from the students’ point of view was to drink and screw as much as humanly possible and then smuggle back cigars. One night I climbed a mountain trail while profoundly stoned. At the top of the trail, a long passage led down into the rock into a hidden nightclub. The surface of the dance floor was so wet from the unsuitable environment that everyone fell all over one another. The next day everyone looked like they’d been in a car accident.
I have a lot of stories from that trip: I watched a woman spill her toiletry bag and reveal her herpes medication to an entire hotel lobby. I was forced to bribe a policeman or spend the evening in a Havana prison. I collected a bag of medical supplies for a native Cuban in need, whose idea of recompense was to take me to his home, where his cousin lay on a bare mattress. She and a chicken could have been mine for $40. I bought the chicken but declined the cousin.
Everyone wants to come back from vacation with a story. It validates both the time and money spent, and unlike the pastries and keychains, it’ll be with you forever. Walking out of Église Saint-Éphrem a few evenings later, I should have been feeling pretty good. I had just enjoyed a performance of Mozart’s Requiem Mass performed by a string quartet, thus earning both my Classical Music and Cathedral merit badges while doing nothing more stressful than sitting on my ass in a church. Easy-peasy. But the weather was lousy and I wasn’t sure where to have dinner or what to do afterward. I’d used up all my recommendations, and my notes had run dry.
Also, it was raining. I realized that I had always taken the direction of rain for granted when I felt it hitting me from top and bottom, and I paused to note the capricious malice of nature. Having thus noted, I retired to a cozy-looking bistro and sorted things through over a tasteful light red wine. I’m not sure what I drank after the red, but I drank a lot of it and didn’t bother about finding a place for dinner.
Filled with good cheer, I splashed out into the night and through the Latin Quarter. I saw a likely-looking bookstore and breezed in, bringing a few gallons of rain with me should the shop lack an authentically damp, mildewy smell. It did not, and was pleasantly empty except for the clerk, whose evening I was happy to fill with mirth and song. Close your eyes. Now picture a fiftysomething guy from the States who works in a Parisian bookstore. Got it? That’s him! I told my new best friend to walk me through the store and hand me all his favorite books. We wandered and staggered alternately through each aisle twice, debating the merits of authors and discussing what I had room for in my luggage and whether he was sure there was no wine for sale in the store. At some point I realized that I could pick up all these books on Amazon for a third of the cost, not including the overage charges on my luggage that this veritable Library of Alexandria was sure to ring up. But really, what fun is restraint?
We had a nice time. We talked some more about travel and “the state of things back home” and what we both made of people here. I asked the good man why he was in Paris, hoping he could answer the question for both of us. “A fucking woman, man—crash-landed.”
I walked back out into the rain with my purchases, and my Story badge.
Two weeks later in Florence, the trip was all but over. Having crash-landed at journey’s end, I was watching the late-morning traffic on the Arno from my third-floor window. It was Sunday and people were loading their suitcases into cabs. “Careful with the box; it has a goddamn sculpture!” I heard an invisible traveler shriek. I looked for the nearest religious iconography and prayed to Irish Catholic Jesus for the statue to break into a million pieces.
The trip had been great and exhausting and enervating and frustrating, and it was over. But not quite yet. I put the restless energy to better use than invoking a vengeful Jehovah and decided to go for a walk. So, down the three flights of ancient stairs and past the beautiful statue in our courtyard I’d been too busy to admire until now and out the door with just my comically oversized church-warden apartment key and camera bag.
I wandered past the shops I’d wandered past before, all closed for the Sabbath. That was fine though; I was in the mood to take pictures. I have an old (1956) Leica M3, and something about not knowing for days or weeks how your pictures will come out makes them feel a bit more special. I’m a fancy artist, you see.
What now? Perhaps another museum? Another fine meal? I couldn’t stomach either, so I kept walking. The beautiful old architecture petered out and gave way to a commercial district, then some train tracks, and then…the road out of town. I kept walking.
The road on which I found myself—Via Domenico, the northern road from Florence into the Tuscan hills—is not meant to be walked, and it certainly isn’t meant for taking light readings and thoughtfully framing your photo compositions. There is no sidewalk. Precious few inches separate the immaculate macadam, laid down fresh for the bicycle races, from the high stone walls, erected to protect the villas of the wealthy from the riffraff in town below. Like me. This situation called for being nimble and alert, not exactly my strong points.
It also called for stamina. The road got steep, and then it got steeper. The plus side to this is that the steeper it got, the more beautiful the views became. Hours passed and I stopped only to reload the camera. The road forked and forked again. I was lost, or as lost as a person with an iPhone can be. I found a closed restaurant that took pity and fed me. The sun traveled across the mountains as I continued my ascent, and I hoped my pictures would capture even a fraction of what I was seeing.
It was a wonderful day but getting late. My plane was leaving the next day. As I frowned at the setting sun, thinking I’d better find a way home, around the corner came a thing of beauty: an emerald green Rolls-Royce. I had foolishly put my camera back in the bag and was fumbling to get it out and frame the shot, but was distracted by the couple inside: late sixties, immaculately dressed, serene in their bearing and comportment. I think you’ll agree it’s no small feat to give such a forceful impression while seated and visible only from the nips up. I managed one trailing shot of the car as it disappeared around a curve. I vowed to keep my camera out for however long it took me to find a bus stop or mountain gondola or whatever the hell it took to get back down the hill. Just like Byron, my Rolls had come. It was more than I could have asked for. It was relaxing and edifying. It would make a great story even though I missed the shot.
Then the car came back. Delighted at my unlikely second chance, I was ready this time. There were problems, of course. The trees where I was walking blocked the light; an ugly panel van snuck into the shot; I could have been using a better lens, and so on. But van or not, the Rolls was mine. Photographically speaking.
OK, so back to looking for the bus stop. I felt good about what I’d seen, hopeful about the film in my camera, and had banished the crash-landing blues for the time being. I figured in another twenty minutes or so I’d be headed back down the hill to Florence for my last supper. I felt good.
And then the damn car came back again and pulled off the road right behind me. I began feeling less good. What had seemed a thing of beauty, a manifestation of my travel dreams driven right off of Byron’s page, started to seem a bit troubling. I reflected on some of the unsavory violence in The Godfather. Had I just unwittingly upset the Don Corleone of Florence by photographing his car? I was alone in the mostly deserted, darkening hills of towering villas filled with hot-blooded, old-money Florentines who didn’t like their privacy invaded (the high walls!), many of whom had no doubt made that money the old-fashioned way: murder. I did the prudent thing and hid behind a wall.
A peek around the corner informed me that the Rolls was waiting for a gate to swing open. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d really like to get another shot of the car, just in case the other ones were a flop. I pressed myself to the ancient stone wall, wondering if these villas had dungeons, and if so, if they still had those horrendous torture devices I’d seen at Medieval Times. A buzzer sounded. The gate swung open and the car began to roll. A voice in my head told me it was probably too dark for the film I had in my camera. I didn’t care. I popped out from the wall and focused my camera.
I was exposed now, and prey to wild flights of imaginary trepidation: I imagined the estate’s guards, privately hired ex-carabinieri surely, eyeing me through the sights of their M4 carbines, cigarettes aglow in the early-winter dusk, drawing a bead on the foolish, nosy tourist.
Was I a tourist? Of course I was a goddamn tourist. But I was also a romantic figure: a man of the world, firing off the last of his film, the last of his trip’s hopes, into the dying December light of an Italian villa. And what the hell—it’s my trip—I decided I was also a private detective, collecting the visual information that would exonerate a beautiful, sad-eyed woman in a trench coat who’d walked into my office that morning.
No, I thought, pulling back hard (twice) to load another shot. I’m behind enemy lines, doing reconnaissance for the outgunned but heroic resistance.
A spy, a double agent(!) scouting the mountain hideaway where the hostages are being held. Click.
I stepped back, out of film. Hopefully something would come out. Enough to have a memory of the place, enough to capture the feeling of exhilaration, of excitement, of purpose, of…of what? It was right there in front of me, whatever it was. Right there on the edge of consciousness where it was so close it was almost tangible. Something vast and important and deep as the ocean. The car, my car, rolled around the curve of the house and paused. It was right there. I could almost touch it. The Rolls reached the end of the driveway and turned right. It paused for a moment; the reverse lights flashed on, illuminating with a brilliant, dazing flash a pair of dogs who’d come to greet it. It paused there for a moment, reversed back across the drive and was gone.