Friday, September 01, 2006

On Being a Tourist 

I’ve always resisted the idea of being a tourist – so much so, that in my mind I’ve distorted the word’s meaning so that it has mutated half way to being an insult. I have a repelling mental image of a caricature tourist – dressed in something wildly out of place, like a 1980s shell suit (hands up who remembers them?), camera slung ostentatiously around his neck, loudly berating the “locals”; a cultural misfit, determined to tick off all the “sights”, never straying from the established tourist trail and entirely oblivious to the country that lies outside those narrow confines.

Instead, I much prefer the notion of being a traveller –someone who blends in, properly equipped for the environment, largely self-sufficient, living according to the culture that surrounds him rather than waving his own culture like a banner in front of him wherever he goes.

Does that make me a travel-snob? Reality isn’t as black-and-white as that, I know. My caricature image is rarely realised in quite such an extreme form; nonetheless, perhaps that image lurking in the back of my mind is part of the reason that we hadn’t been out of the UK for a holiday for 13 years. Oh, there are other reasons too of course – more tangible reasons like the cost in the days when we were travelling as a family of five; preferring to share our holidays with our dog (when we had one) rather than send her away to kennels; being married to a teacher and so being constrained to the busy, expensive school holiday period; and more recently my wife’s back problems meaning that she was waiting for or convalescing from surgery. But at the back of my mind I’ve had this notion of what a tourist is – and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to be.

Silly really. Going on a package holiday doesn’t compel anyone to act like the stereotypical shirt-less, manner-less, gormless lout of a Brit on the Costa Del Sol. We both needed a break, so we made a last-minute booking – appropriately, through lastminute.com - and took a cut-price package deal to Wengen, Switzerland.

We became tourists – and it turned out fine. We saw the sights, and they were wonderful. Took lots of photos, too - some are already illustrating the posts below; a few more are on Flickr and there are more to come.

True, what we saw was largely superficial – the chocolate-box image of charming, quaint, chalets; snow-covered mountain tops; impressively engineered mountain railways that run impeccably to time; luminously green pastures and dazzling blue lakes, and all this to a background soundscape of lazily clanking cowbells (yes, really – the cowbells are ubiquitous; in that region you’re almost never out of earshot of them). But when superficiality has such delight… well, who cares? It was beautiful and restful and gave us just what we needed.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t honestly say that we truly experienced Switzerland in any depth. You don’t, as a tourist. You see some of the sights, take lots of photos, buy some souvenirs, speak almost exclusively in English (their English is so much better than my German) - and effectively walk around in a little bubble of Englishness, still attached by an umbilical cord to the home culture.

I did however get a little taste of what I was looking for on one day. Most of the time, because of my wife’s back problems, we undertook activities that didn’t require too much walking, making good use of the mountain railways, cable cars and gondolas. But to stay amongst such magnificent surroundings and not venture deeper into them would have been just too frustrating for me, so I took one day of the six to go on one of the classic high-level alpine walks, 16km from Schynige Platte to First by way of the Faulhorn summit at 2,680m, home to an historic mountain hotel.

What gave me a closer contact with the Switzerland beyond the tourist trail wasn’t just the intimacy with my surroundings; for two thirds of the way I shared the walk with a Swiss companion. We’d been sitting opposite each other in the carriage of the cog railway as it wound its up slowly up the steep curves towards Schynige Platte, both obviously equipped for a good walk, and although there are many paths, there is really only one classic walk from there, so it was highly likely we’d be going the same way. However, he’d stopped to visit the alpine gardens - which I’d already seen a couple of days earlier - so I set out alone. I was stopping every few minutes for photos (no surprises there…) so by the time I reached the Weberhutte mountain hut, he’d caught up with me. We recognised each other from the train, said hello (in English – although I swear I didn’t have a sign tattooed on my forehead saying “I am English”), and at his suggestion carried on walking together.

Maybe I’ll say more about the walk itself another time. Two features of that day stand out for me. Obviously, the scenery was impressive and the day fulfilled my desire to be able to take away some memories of the landscape that are more personal than can be achieved through merely gazing at picture-postcard views. But equal to that was the companionship of Peter, my one-day Swiss friend. Although I have a detailed memory of the landscape covered during the first third of the walk when I was alone, visual memories are more indistinct after that - unless we deliberately stopped to admire the view, it was our conversation which drew my attention. It turned out both of us were seizing an opportunity to do something we loved dearly but have too little time for, and both of us were beginning to feel that the time left for such pursuits was diminishing too fast.

I did try, briefly, to converse in German, but my German - studied 35 years ago at school - is more than a little rusty. Good enough to understand most of the signs and order a cup of coffee, but grossly inadequate to make any kind of connection with another human being.

It is dialogue, I think, which marks the real distinction between being a traveller and a tourist. You may tread the same paths, see the same sights, but until you engage in conversation – ideally in the language of the land – giving something of yourself, receiving something from another, you remain apart from the soul of the place.

Lunch with Peter

More web info about the walk here.

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