Monday, 12 July 2010

On not going to see the famous...

The tourist -that notoriously debased, denigrate bourgeois type - how easy to forget that simply being elsewhere is the homely version of the transcendence sought by artists. The sheer vacancy of tourism, hanging out, no job, free to sniff around, poking into a museum in the morning, long lunch eating something weird and delicious - friture d'anchois, glass of white wine, humbled by a phrase book... the great consuming white mouth open and munching...

Yet under the banging templates of exploitation and consumption, the magma of human desire keeps bubbling.

- Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, p.36

Pilgrimage tourism is a phrase that turns up somewhere in Patricia Hampl's rather beautiful book, Blue Arabesque, about Matisse - or chiefly Matisse among other themes.

By pilgrimage here she doesn't mean traditional pilgrimage, or not precisely that, but the idea of visiting and seeing things as an obligation.

If you are in Krakow / Prague / Budapest / Tirana / Barnsley you absolutely must see x or y or some other letter of the alphabet. If you don't you have not only missed out but have shirked your duty.

The idea of seeing things as an obligation, a virtue, a duty even, lies close to the heart of tourism. This thought struck home particularly when, having walking up a long steep slope in the searing heat towards Hradcany Castle and St Vitus Cathedral, we noticed a queue for the cathedral that was already long enough to round the corner with still some thirty-five minutes before the opening. So we stopped at the restaurant for lunch. At another table were a group of Italians and pretty soon after a party of some thirty Japanese turned up.

Having finished lunch we looked to join the queue, but by now the queue was enormous and not moving. This part was in the shade, but others were in the searing light, the elderly, the young, the infirm, the lovers, the families, the scholarly and the merely swept along. We studied them with some circumspection for four or five minutes then shrugged and went away. But it was hard leaving as dense masses of people were pouring in all determined to wait for hours if need be in order to enter the cathedral. A crowd poured over the Charles Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone, or was about to undo, so many.

It was admirable really. So many prepared to risk sunstroke, exhaustion and the sheer hell of large crowds to see something they must have been absolutely burning to see, the magma of human desire visibly bubbling over. We were the unadmirable ones, foregoing the fulfilment of that desire, letting our magma quietly bubble back under.

But what is the desire? What is it for? To go there? To be there? To having been there? To remember, however vaguely, having been there? To tell others of having been there? To allay guilt? To justify conspicuous consumption through suffering?

We had made a resolution the first day. These few days were for pleasure, not work. There was nothing we had to achieve, nothing we had under no circumstances not to miss. If we wanted to sleep we would sleep. If we wanted to walk we would walk. Frankly, after all the years there are very few experiences that I would say had shaken me to the core. The first Cézanne. The first Giotto. The first Piero. The first view from Assisi. The first venture into Old Delhi. The first return to Budapest...

One lives a great deal in the imagination. One imagines a conscience in respects such as this. But if one can imagine a conscience one can quite as easily imagine being without it. What all the first experiences had in common was that they were unexpected, utterly unimagined. They were not the result of having read everything then ticked off the various expected features one by one with a certain satisfaction. We weren't there to check that every aspect of the aura was as had been reported. The experiences arrived naked and found us naked. They changed life.

Prague is beautiful but not naked. It has dressed itself as 'Prague'; become a cage bird in a wonderful cage of its own design. Worth seeing? Yes. Worth going to see? Yes. The birds are in their cages, richly feathered and singing. Why would you not go there?

I think of St Vitus Cathedral besieged by thousands in the furious heat, allowed in in groups of thirty or forty at a time. Acres and acres of human bodies. After such knowledge what forgiveness?


Gwil W said...

What is it about long cathedral queues that pulls the punters in like moths to my pullover shelf? I'm glad to note that you slipped away. Very wise you are, George. You probably saved yourselves €5 admission* charge to the holy edifice, not to mention a couple of hours of your life.

The way to avoid these boring queues, as I've found from experience, is to seek out the other door, there generally is one in a dark corner somewhere. It's there for the passing pilgrim, the flower lady, the organist, the cleaner etc., and there to politely inform the grim faced one 'on duty' that you wish to enter and pray. This tactic works most times. No guarantee that it will in Prague though.

What I remember about Prague: Smetena Auditorium (vast).

What I remember about Budapest:
Communist Opera House (very vast - big halftime sandwiches the size of dinner plates).


ps- did you notice it's different beggars working shifts on the bridge, but they share the same dog?

*based on current trends

dana said...

The best thing about vacation is drinking at lunch then having a nap. I wonder if the locals always envy the tourists that leisure, and have to trot out superior feelings in order to compensate?