At a recent wedding reception it was my misfortune to be cornered for a while by a fellow who insisted on telling me of his life and opinions in exhaustive, and exhausting, detail. By the end of the ‘conversation’ I knew pretty much everything about him, but I doubt he even knew my name. He certainly didn’t ask me any questions.
Now, we all know that there is nothing worse than being collared by someone who can’t tell the difference between a dialogue and a monologue. It is a particular failing of still-single men in their early 40s, I’ve noticed, to launch unbidden, at the first drink, into a long autobiography – or rather, self-mythology – of exaggerated adventure and career success; and my theory is that it stems from a deep insecurity about a rapidly disappearing youth and an unconscious need to justify their wifeless, childless existence.
All of which is bad enough, but this fellow was that most objectionable breed: a ‘traveller’ – emphatically not a ‘tourist’, note, but a ‘traveller’. He eschewed nationality, proclaiming himself a ‘world citizen’ and a ‘first generation backpacker.’
Which whingeing about a stranger I’m unlikely ever to meet again now brings me to my point. I have always been dubious about the claims of those who loudly and pompously disown the staid, cosseted associations of the label ‘tourist’ in favour of the much more glamorous ‘traveller’. This is not because I deny the adventurousness of ‘first generation backpackers’ (though the actual danger the Thailand-tramping trustafarians place themselves in is, I suspect, fairly limited), but because of the self-satisfied insistence they place on having experienced THE REAL™ [INSERT COUNTRY]. As in “You can’t get to experience the REAL Lanzarote/Greece/Goa/Thailand as a tourist, man.”
So what is “the Real™ Seville” or “the Real™ Crete” as defined by the ‘traveller’? Geographically, it generally seems to be whatever area the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books tell them to go to. Occupationally, it is an insistence on drinking coffee only in those hostelries patronised exclusively by very old men. Accommodation-wise, it is youth hostels. Transport-wise, it is hitch-hiking.
And here the cracks begin to appear in the whole ‘backpacker’ philosophy. Real™ locals don’t live by the Lonely Planet guide. Occupationally, most Real™ locals in backpacking destinations spend their days servicing the very tourist industry the travellers seek to avoid. They don’t live in YMCAs and they don’t hitch-hike either – they drive their own cars.
I love visiting European cities. I don’t go as part of a package tour, I find my own way around and I try to speak the lingo. I do not however, believe that this somehow puts me in an elite class some several rungs of the sophistication ladder above a mere ‘tourist’. Nor do I pretend that not having a rep to show me around enables me to therefore experience the Real™ Thing. Real Berliners and Barcelonians do not stay in hotels, do not go out for expensive dinners every night and do not wander open-mouthed around the famous sights all day. Nor do they take photographs of everything that doesn’t move, nor spend hours slowly revolving stands of postcards in search of the perfect one for Uncle Fred.
They do what everyone in this world does, who can afford it: they work in the day, watch the telly in the evening, and drink alcohol at the weekend – a Reality I don’t need to ‘travel’ far to experience. They also go away for their holidays. And if they can’t afford it, no amount of donning ethnic clothes, growing dreadlocks and failing to shave will replicate their existence. Tourism is about wonder and travel is about adventure: it is the very opposite of reality, which is the whole point.
(And despite lecturing me for a good 20 minutes about the difficulties of publishing in the UK (he’d written an autobiography and had it vanity-published) he never asked me what I did for a living.)