I think I have commented in other writings about how broadening travel is, how it expands the mind and exhilarates the spirit. First there is the anticipation before the trip and then there is the wonder of seeing places you’d only read about in books, remnants of old civilizations, old architecture and cultures and old customs. You want to speak in hushed tones in some places, like perhaps in the Tower of London or while viewing Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza or viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome or …. Well, you get the picture.
And then, there are folks who just don’t see it that way. Their “travel gene” and capacity for amazement have somehow mutated to give them a different slant on seeing famous places. Let me tell you about such a person I once met on one of my little jaunts. I was on a group tour to Europe, taking in several countries over a three week period, visiting all sorts of famous destinations – Paris, Monte Carlo, parts of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Venice, Rome – to name but a few of the stops. On this particular day that I will tell you of, the tour was in Rome and this was the second day of our stay there. I went down to the appointed dining room for morning breakfast and arrived a bit later than usual, toward the end of the designated time slot for our group. Most of the group was gone, having eaten sometime earlier. I looked around and recognized one man as being from our group as I had seen him on the bus. I recalled he was travelling with his wife, but he was alone here at breakfast. And so, with my tray and plate loaded, I summoned up my best travel manners, and approached his table – “May I join you?” He nodded.
I am not the world’s expert at casual banter, but I thought I’d give it my best shot. “So,” I asked, “what do you think of Rome?” I thought this was a safe opening and would certainly provide more than a few sentences of subject matter to keep a conversation flowing on both sides. He looked across at me, made eye contact, leaned forward conspiratorially, and said in an almost-stage-whisper, “Can you believe all this old shit? Why in God’s name don’t they tear this stuff down and build some modern buildings?” And he said it with all the forcefulness and assuredness of someone who absolutely knows whereof he speaks.
There are some social occasions that you simply cannot prepare for. You can take seminars in TOYFing (Thinking on Your Feet), practice prattling extensively at cocktail parties, exchange puns with witty friends and coworkers, or expound on table topics at a Toastmaster’s meeting. And even after all that practice, you just can’t prepare to respond to a question like that. My first reaction was that suddenly all the air had been sucked out of the room. Then I realized I had just forgotten to breathe. I continued to look at him just to make sure he wasn’t making a joke. He wasn’t – there was no trace of humor anywhere on his face, nor in his body language. I finally said, with what I hoped was a cordial and polite tone, not betraying any hint of incredulity, “Well, you know, there are some people that really like all this old shit.”
It sounded lame and not necessarily the right response, but it was the best I could muster without any time to think further. I still think about it, every now and then, and I am still dismayed every time. Beyond my one sentence response, I have no recollection whatsoever of what either of us said after that. Even if the ruins of the Roman Empire and religious art are not “your thing,” surely you could appreciate that by many measures and yardsticks this is one of the most historical and romantic destinations in Europe – the architecture, the layers of history, the Caesars, the cradle of civilization, the innovations, the art of Michelangelo, the spiritual and religious icons at every turn, the Trevi Fountain. I don’t begin to be able to appreciate the architectural nuances of every frieze or pediment, every stone column or strip of egg-and-dart molding or ogee or plinth. But I get a general feeling of awe and wonder nevertheless. I know I am surrounded by great structural masterpieces and they have survived the centuries because they are meaningful, culturally and artistically significant. Old shit indeed. Obviously this tourist was dragged kicking and screaming by his wife and came reluctantly because he was, no doubt, fearful that she couldn’t handle traveling to Europe without his protection. Or something of the sort. Even Mark Twain, writing of the innocents abroad, would be dumbfounded if he had met this man. This tourist could have gone ten rounds with Archie Bunker, and I’m sure that in an hour of conversation neither of them would have said anything profound about the accomplishments of Western Civilization in the common era.
I have written, in another essay, of behaviors and traits that I dubbed the seven modern deadly sins – and one of those was cluelessness. Well, this man could have been the poster child for cluelessness. Maybe there should be special education classes for these people. Testing, identifying them and selecting them for such classes might problematical. A teacher with special amounts of patience could expose such students to art, culture, music and such and then coach them on appropriate responses. This would be a rather different take on art appreciation. The teacher shows slides of various wonders of the world. The students are coached, using a technique akin to Pavlovian conditioning, as to when they should “oooh” and “aaaah” or be taught other appropriate phrases to utter, such as “that’s amazing,” or “unbelievable” or “I’ve never seen anything like that before” or, simply, “wow.” At least you wouldn’t betray your inner idiot if you said those sorts of things.
This reminds me of that phrase “different strokes for different folks.” I’m sure I would not have the appropriate appreciation for a museum that specialized in old farm equipment or vintage motorcycles. Not long ago I went to the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum in Vista (San Diego County). They were having their Spring tractor show and parade of antique farm implements. I have to confess that I wasn’t as enthused as some of the other attendees. But I sprinkled in a number of my stock phrases, “That’s amazing,” and “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” and “Imagine that.” So as to be polite. Wonder is in the eye of the beholder. And I guess so is couth. So if I can be forgiven for not appreciating a steam powered antique tractor, then I guess the tourist in Rome can be forgiven his failure to appreciate the finer points of the Roman Coliseum or the Arch of Constantine. Sometimes it is hard for me to accept the wide range of nuances related to the kinds of interest and pursuits we humans gravitate to – some to art, some to opera, some to role-playing video games, some to rap music. That in itself is a wonder. Wow, imagine that.