Look at these idiots. Oblivious, naïve, and probably American. Even their execution of the quintessential holding-up-the-leaning-tower-of-Pisa pose is deeply flawed. Are they aware of the history? Of the architectural miasma that hangs in the air like the smell of stale Coppertone? No, no they aren't. They're tourists and they suck.
Serendipity has forsaken them. No luck, no providence, no happy accidents. Chance replaced by the resolute certainty of a travel app. Every cobblestone is triangulated and assigned a pixel, every street photographed and mapped onto Street View. Hotels booked according to the most family-friendly reviews at bookings.com, their itinerary copied from TripAdvisor's top-10 attractions before ever leaving home.
I consider "tourist" to be the filthiest of words. It's the curse I grumble when caught behind pedestrians walking without purpose on big-city sidewalks. But I differentiate between explorer and tourist: the former being someone that travels to an unfamiliar place to learn about it, the latter a barbaric asshat driven by the desire to document his very existence. The "I was here" photographer with a penchant for flashing a peace sign.
the mona lisa made me realize how utterly absurd the average tourist is
Seeing the Mona Lisa in August of some decade past made me realize how utterly absurd the average tourist is. It was mid-afternoon and a crush of humanity 10 persons deep stood between me and da Vinci. In terms of expectation vs. reality, it was the single worst travel experience of my life.
She’s surprisingly small, made even smaller by the fact that you can't get anywhere near it — a barricade keeps the throngs of sweaty tourists at a 20-foot arc. And unlike Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting, I know exactly what it smells like in that olfactory stew of hot Nutella-laced breath, and body odor seasoned with the periodic expulsion of gases indigenous to the diet of each onlooker.
Without fail, the overwhelming majority of people — most of whom had traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles at great cost, mind you — would bounce dozens of automatic-flash photos across the glass face protecting her smile before turning to leave the room, choosing to stare at a mere digital representation of the 500-year-old painting instead of the masterpiece itself. Actual viewing with the unaided eye lasted only a few seconds. Even then, that momentary lapse into reality was more for the purpose of reorientation in the jostling crowd than thoughtful consideration of the art in front of them. I realized then that staring at something beautiful through a 4-inch window isn’t appreciation, it’s voyeurism.
Staring at something beautiful through a 4-inch window isn’t appreciation, it’s voyeurism
Maybe I'm a Luddite or maybe I'm just overly nostalgic, but I truly believe that there's a better way to travel. When I was in my 20s, traveling the world with second-hand tourist books, serendipity was there beside me as a rough guide to this lonely planet. It got me laid, it got me high on top-shit ganja supplied by medicine men I'd happen upon. But best of all, I did it without a camera —capturing memories in prose and poorly drawn sketchbooks that forced me to consider my environment carefully. Each discovery was something unique and wonderful and personal. I know this because it wasn't in my guidebook or indexed by Google.
Unfortunately, now I have neither the time nor the patience to risk the unexpected. That's me and my family at the top of this piece, taking a poorly executed photo during a whirlwind stopover in Pisa last summer. We were there for all of 10 minutes.
Don't be me. Don’t be a tourist.
Be an explorer. The cause of my angst isn't the bumbling vacationer. The tourist against whom I rage — of whom I fear becoming — is more the physical embodiment of the claim that, "the unexamined life is not worth living." No, that’s not Socrates beseeching us to Instagram last night’s risotto, but a reminder to explore the path less traveled and consciously participate with, not just observe, our surroundings. The internet and smartphones have made us all tourists, gawking at our own lives.
In the immortal words of Jarvis Cocker trying to get a blow job from a fan: "You can't be a spectator. You gotta take these dreams and make them whole."