Article: The candour of tourists

But a part of me admires the candor. I’ve been led to understand that, when traveling, one does not generally wish to look like a tourist—for safety reasons, of course, but also out of some desire to seem like a cosmopolitan citoyen du monde. One should express curiosity, but never ignorance. 

Refreshing article from the Paris Review in which Sadie Stein reaches out to a couple of tourists on New York’s subway. 

Sadie Stein encounters two out-of-towners who lack pretensions and self-consciousness and try to talk to complete strangers on the New York subway, blissfully ignorant that they are breaking one of the cardinal rules of any metropolitan railway system.  

Rather than being tempted by TimeOut magazine’s suggestion to lie to tourists, Stein offers them genuine advice and admires the way they almost revel in their tourist status and offer ill-informed and outdated views about the city.  

But hold on, what is there to admire here?  Isn’t the point of being a real traveller to fit in and not stand out?  Who would want to be mistaken as a tourist?  After all, tourists, it would seem, have always been given a rough time.  

According to Kalvert in the 1870s, the tourist was the most noxious “of all noxious animals”.  The following century, Evelyn Waugh wrote that “every Englishmen abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveler and not a tourist.”  The tourist, according to Waugh, was always “the other fellow” and never oneself.  

Surely, therefore, no-one would want to be identified as a tourist, a second-class traveller, part of the herd, someone who according to Paul Theroux has no idea where they have been?   

As Anthony Peregrine points out in this article for the Telegraph newspaper, “disdaining tourists is the last permitted snobbery” and, as Paul Fussell highlighted in Abroad, no-one disdains a tourist quite like the anti-tourist or travel snob:

From the outset mass tourism attracted the class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves independent travelers and thus superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity, and spirit. 

The anti-tourist, Fussell informs us, is anxious to assert their difference from tourists and they go to great lengths to do so, such as trying to merge into their surroundings, staying at out of the way places, avoiding standard tourist sights and, importantly, trying to avoid engaging other tourists.  

Fussell’s point is that this is not so much about a philosophy of how to travel meaningfully but simply about perceiving oneself to be better than the next person.  

Echoing Fussell’s assessment that anti-tourists manifest a “uniquely modern form of self-contempt”, Peregrine observes:

Tourists like one another. Travellers apparently don’t like anybody, unless he’s wearing a loincloth or she a sari. They appreciate their genuine experiences so much that they resent sharing them. The presence of other visitors at the temple, mountaintop or jungle clearing compromises the authenticity. Their own presence, curiously, does not.

So, hats off to the couple that Sadie Stein met, who are happy to be tourists and who were more than likely too busy enjoying themselves to worry about whether they were being ‘proper’ travellers and were ‘blending in’.  

So maybe it’s time to abandon the faux sophistication.  Drop the façade.  Stop pretending to fit in.   

“We are all tourists now,” said Fussell.  

Rather than lamenting that fact, Peregrine urges us to embrace it:

“The tourist is me. I feel no shame.” 

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