It is normal to feel nostalgic for the time past. But recently I found myself feeling nostalgic for a time past before I was even born. Perhaps it is evidence of the Hinduistic doctrine of reincarnation or maybe I am searching for something within that is not there. In other words, it could be a symptom of feeling unsatisfied. My nostalgia is not just for a precise period of the time past but it spans from the beginning of the 18th Century through to the 1930s and it involves personalities as Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Lord Byron, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway and others. Apart from being among the greatest and most influential artists in the recent world’s history, what do they have in common? In an attempt to understand my nostalgia I had to start by giving an answer to this question. And finally it came to me whilst shaving one morning: pure and simple … they were all great travelers.
If you consider the meaning of the word traveler today, these personalities were something far different. Many of them were expatriates who either permanently lived abroad or at least they had the possibility to spend month or years traveling to foreign destinations. So what comes up in my mind is a mix of images composed by paintings of artists as Carlo Maratta, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem, Canaletto, Francesco Guardi to the black and white or sepia photos of Francis and Zelda Fitzgerald and James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in Paris in the 20ies. And those visual icons are tightened in my mind with Goethe’s Italian Journey, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Hemingway’s The sun also rises – Fiesta and others. Melting those images and those words in my mind has generated, after some time, atmospheres and situations and characters that went down to my subconscious perceptions in the same way as the things and facts I have really seen, the situations I have really lived, the people I have really met. And this happened to the level that sometimes I really need to be clearheaded to separate my direct, real life emotions or perceptions with those that were not generated directly, but through paintings, photos and books. Probably this is because both kind of memories –real and unreal- have been filtered by my emotional perceptions and that is what makes them very similar if not, at times, indistinguishable.
I have seen Paris and discovered Cezanne and Manet and Monet, before going there, through the eyes of Hemingway that in “A moveable feast” wrote:
“If I walked down by different streets to the Jardin du Luxembourg in the afternoon I could walk through the gardens and then go the the Musées du Luxembourg where the great paintings were that have now mostly been transferred to the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume. I went there nearly every day for the Cezannes and to see the Manets and the Monets and the other impressionists that I had first come to know about in the Art Institute at Chicago. I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides, it was a secret. But if light was gone in the Luxembourg I would walk up through the gardens and stop in at the studio apartment where Gertrude Stein lived at 27 Rue de Fleurus”.
Learning about different people, and understanding new cultures: this is what travel should be about. Hemingway tries to learn something from the paintings of Cézanne and to achieve this he admittedly goes to the Louvre every day – now they have been transferred again, so he should be going to the Musée d’Orsay. He tries to learn something and, humbly admits, that he was not good enough to explain this with his own words: the words of Hemingway, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century!! What a lesson! This is the state of mind one should have if he really wants to learn something when traveling!
Lord Byron is fascinated by Armenia and therefore he starts to study the Armenian language and culture, writes an English Armenian Grammar, collaborates to the writing of the English Armenian Dictionary etc. By doing so he immerges himself in the Armenian culture because he wants to learn, to understand as much as possible from the culture of such an exotic, for an English men, country. In his Italienische Reise Goethe often reminds how much Rome and its history, that he has been visiting for almost 2 years, have contributed to his growth and how good this was to him. He comes to the point of going to the Mount Vesuvius to study the nature and the geology of the Italian land. Again: he’s trying to understand, to learn, as this, he believes, is what he should be expecting from his Italian travel. Apart from those immense personalities, also the “ordinary” though still privileged English golden youth that was touring Europe in the XVII th and XVIII th century had mostly cultural expectations from their Grand Tour. There was little adventure coming from those visits of Venice, Florence and Rome but there were high expectations in terms of cultural learning. At the point that the trip had to be planned with a “Cicerone” or cultural guide that would help the less talented ones, as compared to Byron & co, to have some benefits that would help them once back in Britain, to be an active part of the ruling class.
More recently we have seen the state of mind of young Americans living in Italy in the early 50ies in the movie “The talented Mr. Ripley”, where Jude Law/Dickie rents a pretty rundown but still characteristic apartment In Rome where he often meets with Matt Damon/Ripley. The plot of the movie has in the background the enthusiasm and state of mind of those American expat characters visiting and living in the typical Italian destinations of the Grand Tour: Rome, Venice, The Amalfi Coast.
Now I understand that I feel nostalgic as I have to look backwards to find those kind of personalities that could teach me something new -even emotionally-, that could give me insights on how to look at things when traveling – this kind of mental attitude towards travel that today, in the era of Internet, is lost, yes it is.
It was not so fortunate that those pioneers opened the era of mass travel, with the huge contribution of Mr. Thomas Cook. There is nothing bad per se in mass travel, but what is wrong, I suppose, is the attitude behind the mentality of mass travelers. We don’t have new travel books and new travel experiences recounted by the Goethes, the Byrons, the Hemingways of the third millennium. Such kind of personalities don’t arise anymore, why so? Probably the era when communications between people, and therefore the possibility of sharing culture, became so easy doesn’t attribute enough importance to culture: we have the possibility to share and learn as we never had in the past, mostly through Internet, but in fact we’re not really interested in culture when traveling. We’re not really in the humble I-want-to-learn attitude that, for example, Hemingway had.
Nowadays, what are we interested in when traveling? If we look at the statistical data
of people preparing their travel we see that most of the time is spent on choosing the accommodation. We spend hours, days on the Internet to pick up the right Vacation Rental in Rome, the right hotel in Paris. Before booking we go to Tripadvisor and read tons of reviews, written by similar anthropomorphic beings as ourselves, of all the hotels or vacation rentals we have short listed. Then we are connected through our Social networks Facebook, Google +1, Twitter, Pinterest, StumbleUpon to all our friends that, most of the times, we have never seen and that share our same interests and that can recommend an accommodation as they have been there. Finally, after this huge research we book the accommodation that we believe is the best in the world for us as choosing it required such a tough work. What do we require? Having in mind the benchmark which is the classical 5 stars Las Vegas style luxurious hotel we want as much as possible the same full list of amenities. Of course if our budget would not allow a 5 stars hotels we would unhappily lower our requirements, but still we have things we cannot live without when visiting Rome or Paris. If one comes to Rome or Paris in summer air conditioning is a must, as staying in a Rome or Paris hotel without a/c in summer would be something unbearable. The Lost Generation stayed in Paris and happily traveled in summertime to warmer Spain to enjoy corridas without even thinking that a/c would be something good, but still, nowadays, who knows or cares about this? No, it’s much better spending time on reading reviews on Tripadvisor to find out that the Hotel X in Rome has often the air conditioning off during the night to save monies and therefore put it in the black list of hotels you would never ever for any reason in the world stay in for your Roman Holiday. And you would go to any possible review site and social media to tell travelers to avoid this hotel as a plague. Maybe this hotel is in a building that has hundreds of years of history but still who cares? I cannot live in summer without a/c. For sure you won’t even know nor would be interested on reading Air Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller which would open your eyes.
Review sites such as Tripadvisor are valued millions on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange because they have such valuable things as tons of average travelers reviews on accommodations. Google is struggling to have a place on the web with tons of reviews as well because they understand this is a goldmine that would allow companies to put their hands onto travelers pockets at the deepest level. This is what travel is mostly about: choosing the right accommodation, that has as many as possible positive reviews and that can be recommended by our dear friends that we have never seen.
After you have spent so much time on choosing an accommodation for your trip it’s time to understand a little bit what you’re going to see. At this point you have little time as departure is approaching so either you believe that you know enough to enjoy your trip as you remind that Rome has the Colosseum and Paris has the Tour Eiffel. Either you go to Fodors or similar and rapidly read “The top 10 things to see in Paris” written by some kind of travel blogger.
Then, once is Paris, you take the hop on hop off bus tour, pay a visit to the tour Eiffel, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, mainly for the Gioconda, maybe to the Musée D’Orsay, to Versailles, less probably to the Centre Pompidou (Pompidou, what is this?), walk in the Quartier Latin to enjoy the real bohemian atmosphere of Paris, take a picture in front of each of those “landmarks”, then back home go to the net, write a review about the hotel and post your pics in front of those monuments on your Facebook wall. But you won’t remember exactly what Cezanne painted, you won’t have a clue that Hemingway learned so much from his paintings, won’t know nor are interested on what’s going on in the French Society – for example that the new Communist Party raised around 15% of consensus after it had completely disappeared.
What counts today when traveling, is to be for a while in front of a monument, take a picture that would be basically an evidence for your friends that you’ve been there and that you would be collecting as Hannibal Lecter was collecting the scalps of his victims: with no real interest for what is behind the appearance , and you don’t want to know how great personalities have been inspired by this. About the Pantheon in Rome, do you care that in Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage it was described as: “Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime; Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods; From Jove to Jesus-spared and blest by time; Looking tranquility, while falls or nods; Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods his way through thorns to ashes. Glorious dome! Shalt thou not last Times scythe and tyrants’ rods? Shiver upon thee –sanctuary and home, of art and piety –Pantheon – pride of Rome!”
At this point you have all the requirements to be an expert of this destination and go all over the net to write reviews and advices that other travelers will take into great account and that will help big companies to make a fortune out of them. But nobody, folks or companies, would take into account what my personal acquaintances Goethe, Byron, Hemingway, Miller etc. have written about this, because this is not what counts today when traveling.
Seemingly, in today’s travel world, the more we see of everything, the less we want to understand anything. Hence my nostalgic feelings for a time past in which I never lived.
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