Literary Tourism

Don’t be a tourist. I don’t mean don’t travel; by all means, see the world and explore new places! But don’t be a tourist, defined as “a person who travels for pleasure, especially sight-seeing and staying in hotels.”

 

That doesn’t sound so bad, but can one really experience a place through simply seeing sights and staying in hotels? No! To truly travel, one cannot be a basic tourist; one must be an explorer, investigating unfamiliar places and actually living in them, even if just for a few days. In France, a tourist might see the Eiffel Tower, but an explorer bicycles around Paris in search of tiny bakeries and the perfect macarons. In London, a tourist will stay safe and dry inside the red double-decker buses, but an explorer would wander the rainy streets alongside the locals until breaking for a steaming cup of tea.

 

In the same way, a tourist visiting my home state of Arizona will pick up a postcard with a stereotypical desert scene (tumbleweeds, mountains, and a few saguaro cacti thrown in for good measure) but will not realize that there is so much more to this state. Sure, we have the Grand Canyon (all tourists know that) but as majestic as the desert and canyon are, Arizona has so much more to offer! We have haboobs (its not a naughty word, I promise; they are massive dust storms), the most colorful sunsets I’ve ever seen, cities full of attractions, and even snowy mountains! Just the other day I posted a video of myself throwing snow into the air on Instagram and a college friend of mine commented “I thought you lived in Arizona!” Well, I do, but to anyone who just looks at AZ from a tourist perspective, the snow and pine trees are inconsistent with the dusty and hot images portrayed in media and even on our license plates. However, Arizona is more than just “gila monsters and tarantulas”, as some Maine resident so eloquently put it and it is easy to discover this if one puts out the necessary effort as an explorer.

 

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Snow between the desert and the mountains… Arizona is full of surprises!

 

How does this relate to literature? Well, just as one cannot fully experience a place from a few cheap postcards and a couple bus rides past the most famous monuments, one cannot grasp the full significance of a novel from its labels and, I venture to say, its misconceptions.

 

Take Tolstoy’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Anna Karenina for example. On the cover of a film adaption of the book, it was described as “Tolstoy’s tragic story of star-crossed lovers.” NO. NO NO NO NO NO. THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY!!!

 

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Alternate Title: Gone with the Wind, Russian Edition

 

I’m not sure if the cover designer for this film adaption did not read the book or was just stupid, but either way, he completely missed the point. In zeroing in on the obvious story of the lust-affair (I refuse to recognize it as love) between Anna and Vronsky, the cover designer and potentially the reader/viewer is acting as a tourist, reducing a great work of literature to a mere soap opera, thus doing Tolstoy and him or herself a disservice in failing to grasp the more essential messages of the novel.

 

For instance, in gasping over the central scandal of A.K., the reader might miss the search for spiritual peace that serves as Levin’s motivation even more so than his desire for a family. Similarly, the conflict between the traditional Russian ways and the industrializing Western practices might be forgotten, erasing any true comprehension of the context of the novel within history and society. More concerning, however, is that in overlooking such essential themes, the reader forgoes the opportunity to make connections between these ideas and those within other works of literature and even within his or her own life. Questions raised by an analytical reading of the text such as “what is the role of desire?” and “is everything motivated by a sense of self-service?” cannot be answered if one is relying solely on the most basic understanding of plot. Certainly the deterioration of morality and the struggle of desires found directly within the affair between Anna and Vronsky is significant, but in mislabelling this as a romance or love between “star-crossed lovers”, the reader runs the risk of missing even these most obvious themes and becoming a literary tourist who is concerned only with the surface. This provides entertainment, just as looking at a postcard or snapping a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower provides entertainment and perhaps even a sense of accomplishment, but ultimately it is not as rewarding as truly dedicating oneself to analyzing and drawing less obvious insights from the novel through literary exploration.

 

To be a literary explorer is to abandon the beaten path of skimming and summarizing, to delve into a book and search for underlying themes and hidden details. It means to live within the novel, making connections and pondering implications, rather than simply to take snapshots of quotes without understanding their context or characters without examining their motivations. Just as to have a more accurate and full knowledge of the world, one must act as an explorer rather than a tourist, to be a genuinely good reader, one must abandon the shallows of literary tourism and explore the greater depths of analysis.

 

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This is me in Salzburg, Austria. Tourists would never dare ride unicorns, but an explorer like myself would. 😉

 

To close, consider this: If you were to travel to London, what would you most remember: seeing Buckingham Palace or finding the yummiest meat pie in a hole-in-the-wall pub? Or in Paris, would you value seeing the Mona Lisa with thousands of other people in the Louvre or finding a piece of brilliant art for sale by a local? In Arizona, would you remember the scorching sun or the many different climates? In the same way, as a reader, when you finish a novel, will you remember only the most prominent story or will you choose to explore beyond what can be learned from SparkNotes summaries? Ultimately, it is your choice, but as both a traveler and bookworm, I can assure you that playing the explorer is always the most rewarding (and most exciting) role.

A Europe State of Mind 

It has now been over a month since I returned from the trip of a lifetime: a two-and-a-half week journey through Europe with my family. When I call it the “trip of a lifetime”, I mean it! Sure, I had to punch my snoring relatives in the middle of the night once in a while, my suitcase was a pain to shut as my souvenirs accumulated, and I fear I spent my college fund on macarons and ice cream, but these are the little jests that life throws at adventurers and since every day I find myself thinking about our trip, I figured it was time for a post to summarize the top ten things I learned in Europe: 

    

1. Everything sounds better in an accent…unless it’s German. 

When I first stepped onto our British Airways flight and was called “dearie” and “love” by our oh-so-English flight attendants, I just about died. Seriously, they could have come on the intercom and said, “Sorry everyone, we forgot to fuel the plane and you are all doomed” and I still would have listened happily. Of course, I inevitably found myself slipping into the accents of every country we visited and, equally inevitably, probably offended numerous Europeans. I also discovered that the stereotypes are true: everything sounds proper with a British accent, French is beautiful even when it is spoken by a clearly disgruntled cab  driver, and Italian never falls to make me crave pasta and gelato. German met the stereotype as well… Don’t get me wrong, I love German art songs and find it a lovely language for singing. However, a German-speaker could have been telling me I was the sweetest girl in the world and I still would have been terrified. Sorry Germans. Maybe shorten some of your words. That would help you sound nicer and cut the costs of producing such ginormous road signs. 

 

Much British. Very accent.
       

2. Try not to act so…American. 

I had heard before that some Europeans are typically unkind to tourists, but found that this is completely not the case! Even in the sketchy areas of Prague and Paris, everyone was kind and helpful. Again, the only exception was when a German car rental employee told us after a mix-up, “America cannot help you; you are in Germany now.” (Still, I decided to take the high road and blame Obama.) However, I think this cranky German car guy might have had a point; everywhere we went, we attempted to learn the basics of the customs and languages because we recognized that we were guests. As visitors to another country, many people forget this and, as a result, locals might not treat them very kindly. What we found, though, is that if you make an effort to follow the ways of that country and treat the people as your hosts (whether the cab driver, the hotel bell boy, or the cider vendor) then you will receive equally gracious treatment. 

        

Is taking a selfie in the Louvre too American?
              

3. When in Paris, look up. 

Believe it or not, I nearly missed seeing the Eiffel Tower. I was so focused on the street art and the adorable cafes and the lock bridges (totally not the French boys…not at all…) that I did not notice this iconic structure until I was directly  beneath it. Don’t become so caught up in what is directly around you on the ground level; some of Europe’s most beautiful views are above, for instance, ornate windows, towering cathedrals, misty mountains, and the castles that are ridiculously commonplace. (Seriously, castles in Europe are like Starbucks in America; if you miss one, don’t worry since there is most likely to be another around the corner.)

 

“Beau soir indeed…oh hello, Eiffel Tower!”
 
             

4. The best art in Paris might just be sold in bakeries.

When I say “art”, I really mean macarons. Not those cheap little coconut mounds (“macaroons”), but authentic, adorable, delicious French macarons. I fear I might have spent my college funds on these cookies, but I regret nothing. In fact, I made plans to start a macaronery of my own back in the States and, upon ruining batch after batch, realized just how exact of a science it is. Well done, French pastry artists. Well done. (I should add that I did finally figure it out.)

 

The look on my face says it all.
 
               

5. Biking is always the best mode of transportation. 

Traffic is INSANE in most cities. Like, take Los Angeles traffic and multiply it by twenty and then add narrow streets and the chaos of the Battle of Five Armies from The Hobbit and then you might have a vague picture of just how crazy the traffic is  in Europe. It doesn’t help that in the U.K., they drive on the left. (I know now where America gets her rebelliousness.) The better option is to walk, but after averaging ten miles a day, that is rough. The best option is biking. We took five bike tours (Paris, Munich, Salzburg, and two in Prague) and enjoyed them immensely. Not only did we see everything we would have seen on bus tours, we got to see these things closer and have a more individualized experience. Plus, how cute is it to bicycle around Paris on a rainy night? 

         

Paris+Bicycles=Perfection (and also a bit dangerous)

6. It looks like only a quarter, but it is not. 

Euros are so fun to use. Handing over a little coin makes you feel like you’re only spending a nickle and paying a single Euro for an ice cream cone seems like a bargain. Well, plot twist: it isn’t. Euros are definitely worth more than a nickle or even a quarter and if you are not wary, you might find yourself wondering where all of your vacation  money went. After all, you only spent fifty coins and it couldn’t amount to that much, could it? Yes, actually. Yes it could. 

 

Even a commercialized Mozart candy seems like a bargain for only one Euro…
 
                

7. The best gelato is not necessarily in Italy. 

We made it a goal (mostly so we would not feel bad about ourselves) to try ice cream in every country that we visited and, to our surprise, our favorite was in Germany. (I swear that the German word for ice cream, “eis”, is the only short word I heard there. They certainly have their priorities straight.) Rothenburg, the cutest little fairy-tale town in the world, had the most creamy and delectable ice cream cones I have ever tasted. Bolzano, Italy, however, was rather disappointing in the ice cream area. Sorry, Italy! If it makes you feel any better, the worst ice cream I had was in Prague, where apparently mint ice cream literally is ice cream with chunks of mint. Ew. 

 

Do I need to explain this? It is a beautiful picutre.
 
              

8. Everything tastes better in a foreign country. 

This sounds like an overstatement, but it is not. German bread somehow is heartier and tastier than American bread. Black coffee is more flavorful and thick in Austria and Italy. The produce is fresher and I ate fruits I’ve never even seen before in Innsbruck. And, oddest of all, I ate the best hot dog I have ever eaten in Paris: a sausage on a warm baguette covered in cheese. Oh yeah, that is another lesson I learned: EVERYTHING is better covered in cheese. 

 

I ate an American hot dog last week and wanted to cry as I remembered this one…
 
                

9. My family is made up of weirdos. 

You get to know each other really well (my dad might argue too well) when you’re stuck in cars and hotels together for extended periods of time. Sure, we got annoyed with one another, but we also had a ton of fun! For instance, we spent the drive to Italy brainstorming our dream macaron business and laughing at our puns. (“Our macarons will be so good, people might think they are crack-arons.” “We can sell small ones and call them snack-arons.” “If you make another pun, you will be smack-aroned.”)

 

My mom and I unashamedly reinacted “The Sound of Music” in Salzburg. Weirdos.
 
          

10. Inspiration is out there.

From standing in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey to seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre to hearing the tale of the eccentric King Ludwig of Bavaria, I met inspiration everwhere I turned! I saw glorious archetecture, played lovely instruments, was swept away by beautiful music, and experienced amazing adventures. I came home – jetlag aside- refreshed and ready to plunge into writing and practicing in the hopes of channeling this inspiration and, one day, returning to Europe. 

 

What could be more inspirational than riding a unicorn in the city of music?
 
         

Sigh…now I am homesick for London. Of course, I am not actually British, but I felt so at home there! Here in Phoenix, I get turned around easily, but I was never lost in London despite its wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey streets. (I could not resist that reference…) Add to that all of the lessons I listed above and I am now thouroughly determined to return. In the meantime, I will do my best to incorporate what I took away from Europe into my daily life, so if you need me, I will be reading French poetry in my best British accent while riding my bike to the store to purchase gelato as I wait for my macarons to finish baking. 😉