Monday, July 05, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #1: In Defense of Travel (while there is yet time)

With the economy in the doldrums, and my own business struggling, there seemed only one thing to do. That's right--it was time to take a trip. From a strictly financial statement point of view, I had less business going anywhere this June than I ever had before. But in some ways, the timing was right: since last year, I had paid off my credit cards, my business partner was more than able to watch over things in my absence, and I had been squirreling-away a little money here and there for this very possibility. So, I jumped at the opportunity.

My itinerary involved meeting friends in Istanbul for a few days, then flying to Athens where I would rent a car and drive through Greece and the Balkans. I chose this region particularly. As Orthodoxy seeks to find its footing on this continent, I wanted to travel among lands where the Faith is long-established. I had no pre-conceived notions as to what I would learn, and no plan other than to stand back, be quiet, observe and listen.

Along the way, I was reminded of a number of truths. First, I realized how incredibly out of shape I am. For a brief period of time--from about 2004 through 2006--I was in excellent physical condition. Surgery on my ankle late in 2006, followed by cancer surgery early in 2007, followed by 39 rounds of radiation, put the breaks on all that. I have never regained my stamina since. As an Orthodox Christian, I realize that we are to live each day with a vision of the day of our death before us. On at least 3 occasions during this trip, that day was all too real for me. Also, a series of bothersome physical ailments dogged me throughout the trip, adding to a sense of general weariness. Second, I was reminded of the need for flexibility when traveling. The logistics of what I hoped to accomplish were simply not practical, particularly when added to my physical complaints. And so, I quickly resolved to take things as they came and not fret about what I was unable to do. Third, I was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive travel can still be, that is, if you go places where tourists are not. Except for the last few nights in Thessaloniki, where I splurged at bit, I only paid between $24 and $50 a night for a room--and this always included breakfast. The rental car and fuel were my largest expenditures. Fourth, I learned that I was wrong in my former smug assertion that "everybody speaks a little English." Most assuredly, they do not. Finally, despite the slim backpack pictured in the previous post, I still packed too much. The dress shoes and belt and socks went totally unused, and I could have made it just fine with one less pair of pants and two fewer shirts.

Travel for travel's sake is very much a product of the modern age. Certainly the wealthy elite have always gone where they wished, but for the rest of us, travel was an unobtainable luxury until recent times. Perhaps it was different elsewhere, but I have the very real sense of mass recreational travel becoming commonplace only after World War II. Before then, any "vacations" were generally confined to visiting relatives.

I recall my dad telling the story of his family's 150-mile trek in 1927. Traveling all day on dirt track, in a 1924 Model A, my grandad, grandmother and their then 5 children journeyed to the Fort Worth area. My granddad's two sisters lived side by side in two-story houses out on Lake Worth, west of the city. The sisters were college-educated, prim and proper ladies, so this was something of a trip "uptown" for my family. But there were cousins to play with, a lake to swim in, and a parrot that spoke in Portuguese, so my dad and his siblings viewed the outing with considerable excitement. My grandmother spent most of the journey there exacting promises from her boys that they would not fight with their twin cousins--promises broken within 5 minutes of their arrival. My point is that this "vacation" was such a novelty that it entered the annals of our family lore.

During my youth, my family took one vacation trip. The post-World War II years were profitable ones for my dad. He built a nice home, and in 1963 he bought a white Coupe de Ville. Neither he nor my mother ever felt comfortable in this role, however, for they still kept a milk cow, raised chickens, and my dad insisted on plowing his garden with a mule. But in that summer of 1963, for some reason my dad thought taking a "vacation" was something we were supposed to do. My mother had recently suffered through a near complete physical and mental breakdown, so perhaps this entered into the equation, as well. I was still a young child, and my siblings were already grown and away. So, the three of us loaded up in the new car and headed to Colorado. I can still remember that I spent most of the trip leaning over the front seat, asking questions of my dad. We did the whole Colorado thing--Pike's Peak, Garden of the Gods, Royal Gorge, and a cabin in Estes Park. We even ventured as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming. If I were ever to construct an idealized mythology of my childhood, I think it would be centered around the 4 or 5 snapshots of my parents and myself in Estes Park. As my dad was anxious to return to work, the return trip was something of a blur. The "vacation" was never repeated. My dad had just bought a large farm, and the cattle and haying took all of his spare time for the rest of his life. Any trips we took were quick jaunts to visit some of his family here and there (my mother's family never left us alone long enough that there was ever any need to go and see them.)

So, I did not grow up traveling much at all, which may in part explain my fascination with it now. But I do not take it for granted. It is no "right," but rather a option available to our time. As the Age of Cheap Fuel sputters to a close, I am not at all sure how available this option will be for future generations.

I have always made a great distinction between being a tourist and a traveler. Sometimes this is a distinction without a difference, an exercise in my own vanity. But I do try to be engaged--interested and observant of whatever culture I find myself in. I am not journeying to be "entertained" or to relax, which are the sole goals of tourism. In fact, my travels can sometimes be quite arduous. William T. Cavanaugh, in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, identifies tourism as just one more manifestation of our culture's quest for the new.

The tourist stands detached from all particular times and places and surveys them all from above, as it were. The tourist craves what is different and authentic, but when particular locations make themselves available to the tourist, authenticity and difference are lost. Particularities, especially from the past, are invented for the tourist, but the tourist cannot participate in them. The tourist can go anywhere, but is always nowhere.

The tourist is a type of consumer, a consumer of places. Consumerism is marked by desire with not telos other than consumption itself....rather than being drawn ecstatically into a larger drama, the consumer empties things into the self. Both the tourist and the consumer try to transcend their own limits and particularities by adopting a universal stance detached from and consuming particularities. But when they do so, the self becomes a kind of empty shell, itself dependent on the constant novelty of the particularity for its being, yet itself simultaneously destroying the particularity of the many, and thus negating its own being.

I would have to agree with Cavanaugh, and certainly what he describes is that which I try to avoid. Perhaps this explains why I have had trouble talking about the trip to those who have been kind enough to enquire. There was no entertainment or "fun," as understood in the touristic sense. How do I describe a trip where my most vivid memories were of things like a young Bulgarian father lifting each of his three children up so that they could light their candles and kiss the icon; or of visiting with the Serbian monk who described the beheading of one of their priests a mere 10 years ago; or of praying over the relics of my patron saint; or of standing at the Byzantine double eagle in the center of the Church of St. Demetrius in Mistra, the very spot where in 1449 the last emperor, Constantine XI, was crowned; or of the Macedonian woman who stood at the doorway of the narthex of the Church of St. Panteleimon, so that she could look in to observe the wedding, but still puff on her cigarette and blow her smoke rings outside; or of the old Greek lady in black, hobbling into the Church of St. John the Russian in Prokopio, knowing that she was old enough to have been born before her people were ripped from Cappadocia in 1923?

Such things defy any quick, easy or flippant retelling. I do plan to start posting soon. There may be as many as 20 posts before I finish. And at the rate I am going, that will take me the better part of the summer to do so.


elizabeth said...

Wecome back!

word verification: bravo

Becky said...

So glad you're back, and ready and willing to read as many posts as you're willing to write. : )

My brother is a traveler. He's taken several trips over the years and chose to go places where he was least likely to run into ANYONE, let alone tourists. He stayed a week on a tiny island in the Caribbean called Saba, and he's been to the Yukon Territory and the Cook Islands.

I'm like you - my desire to travel is not to "tour" but to go places and just absorb. Someday I would really love to go on the OCMC annual trip to India, also.

Apophatically Speaking said...

Sounds like you had a great trip. What a great opportunity. Did you go solo?

Kirk said...

Bring on the posts, John. I'm ready to hear your tales.

I like the story about your family vacation to Colorado. Sounds like a nice place to visit. Maybe I'll head up there soon. ;-)

s-p said...

I travel vicariously through you... make it good. :)

Ian Climacus said...

I echo s-p. :)

Welcome back, and a pleasure and joy to read your writing as always. I look forward to reading of your adventure; the penultimate paragraph has me anticipating much already.

John said...

Hi John

Glad you had a safe trip and are back. I hope your cancer has gone away. We have a dear friend in his early thirties who has taken chemo treatments at MD Anderson for over a year and is doing great. Hope the same for you.

My grandfather Hall, who I never knew actually, moved to Roane in 1919 and wound up managing the Tate Ranch. Any family travels ever go near there? It is pretty country. I have always liked Texas.

Dana said...

Standing back, being quiet, observing and listening are what make you a respectful traveler and good writer. The most vivid memories you noted say plenty without a lot of description. Thank you for your willingness to share what you can.