Traveler? Or tourist?

This is bar inside a windmill in Amsterdam. Tourist trap or more authentically dutch thing ever?"

This is a bar inside a windmill in Amsterdam. Tourist trap? Or most authentically Dutch thing ever?”

One of my wife’s old boyfriends was nice enough to show us around Amsterdam last month*. He’s lived in The Netherlands for a few years now and was a gracious, knowledgeable guide to all things Dutch. He made us an annotated map and everything. It was impressive.

But what struck me was the way he kept explaining our route. In between sharing bits of architectural history and insights into Dutch cultural minutiae, he’d say something like, “Let’s go this way so you don’t have to put up with the tourists,” or “I’m taking you this way so we can avoid the touristy parts of the city.” We were never avoiding people or crowds — always tourists, as if Blair and I somehow didn’t fit into that category.

He explained later that what we were avoiding wasn’t tourism writ large, but the special sorts of tourism that Amsterdam attracts because of its relaxed rules regarding drugs and prostitution. Regardless of what you think of either activity on a moral level, it’s hard to argue that hordes of stoned college kids and sex-crazed businessmen improve the aesthetic vibe of a city**. And at the time, I felt pretty smug about that. Look at those jaggoffs in their rasta wigs harassing those prostitutes. Clearly, my preference for pancakes and Van Gough marks me as a member of a higher class of person.

Except that, no, it doesn’t.

***

Tourists heading into the Red Light District in Amsterdam in the middle of the day.

The horde heads toward some of Amsterdam’s less desirable parts.

If you went around the world asking folks to make a list of the 10 groups of people they found most annoying, I think you’d get results as diverse as humanity itself. People in some places would make hackneyed jokes about lawyers or meteorologists; others would whisper about warlords or drug cartels. But there is one category of person that I’m willing to bet would make the list just about anywhere: tourists.

Tourists are rude. They hog up resources. They’re so loud. They never leave behind as much money as they should. They don’t appreciate what they’re seeing. They don’t know which side of the escalator to stand on. They drive up the cost of everything. They are always and forever in the way.

I know this because I lived and worked in the Washington D.C. area for 11 years. The metro area has about 7 million residents and attracts about 18 million tourists a year, most of then school children and families. They’re a wave of zombies that renders the city’s public transit all but unusable during the warm months of the year. I used to joke that every Washingtonian should be allowed to kill 1 tourist per year, just to keep things manageable; like culling a herd of deer.

***

You’d think that all those years at being annoyed by other people’s vacations would improve me somehow or at least teach me something about how to properly experience a city. I know I like to think so. But we’re probably both wrong.

Tourism is just the name we give to everyone else’s trip. We are told that travel is hand-crafted; tourism is mass-produced. Travel is an adventure; tourism is a knickknack. Travel is a hobby; tourism in an industry. Nobody runs a tourism blog*** — we are all travelers now.

The Internet is crammed to the gills with advice for people who feel insecure about this kind of thing. Most of it boils down to either a)trying to be nice to the people who actually live in whatever place you’re visiting or b)fetishizing the notion of authenticity. Both goals are out of your reach. No one is their best self under stress and going from one place to another is always stressful — ergo, you will be a jerk, probably without meaning to, possibly without even realizing it. And as for authenticity — I’ll skip the rant just this once and simply say that it is more productive to do the things you want to do than to worry about whether you’re doing them properly.

***

OK — so obnoxious tourists are everywhere and everyone hates them, but everyone turns into one the second they visit someplace new. So what?

Here’s the problem: Tourism isn’t a hobby for me anymore. It is effectively a lifestyle choice. I’ve been in the U.K. for 9 months, in a small town called Caversham. But my stay is not indefinite. I’ll go back to Washington eventually and I’ll probably never come back to this part of England. I am living in a gap between vacations and ordinary time.

In some ways, this is thrilling. Everything I see, everything I do here — it’s all a limited-time-only engagement. But I’m also a kind of perma-tourist in the place where I ostensibly live. I still take pictures of everything and ask obnoxious questions and talk to the locals in a loud, direct way that I’m pretty sure they all hate but that I can’t seem to avoid.

The thing I miss most about America is simply the idea that I have home turf. Home is a place where I get to be annoyed at all the yokels who stand on the wrong side of the escalator with their noses in guide books; home is a place where all my acts of jerkitude are 100% intentional; home is a place where you always know that you belong.

*The popular dictum is that you’re supposed to hate all of your sweetheart’s ex-sweethearts out of loyalty or to feel threatened by them or whatever. I think this is short-sighted, especially when you’re talking about ancient history. After all, exes can be potent sources of old embarrassing stories about your beloved. And if your sweetheart has a type, there’s a chance you two will have a fair amount in common.
** I have no use for drugs and Blair tells me I have no use for prostitutes. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to get around to writing about Amsterdam. It’s got some very attractive architecture and some wonderful museums, but it’s hard to hard to write about the place without acknowledging it’s seedier side.
*** After all, the blog isn’t called “Tourism With Stanchaks.” That would be a terrible name for a blog. No one would have any idea what I was talking about.

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