Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fire Your Inner Travel Writer


The Accidental Tourist is far from the only work of Anne Tyler to give you a banquet for thought but in this case, the title alone is enough to provide a first-class ticket to protracted destinations of contemplation and evaluation.  Not all the ride was smooth, though you have to admit up front it was not Tyler’s narrative technique that caused the bumps; it was the overall impact and its effect on you.

Stories are supposed to do that, you believe.  If stories do not do that, they are the equivalent of that style of travel writing you find particularly loathsome, where you are given a time period, say thirty-six hours, to “do,” which is to say experience a selected venue such as Barcelona or Key West or Portland (either Maine or Oregon will do for the sake of these notes).  In such pieces, you wake up early, forget the amenities of coffee at your lodging in order to beat the locals to some special place where the locals hang out (and probably get considerable satisfaction watching you and such other strangers and tourists who appear, eager to eat the big breakfast burrito special or whatever other local dish is the secular communion wafer by which you absorb the local culture.

You could easily see this dish being the oyster Po’boy in New Orleans), whereupon you’d be served overdone coffee at tourist prices, and served by waitresses who’ve been influenced by the waitress in Five Easy Pieces.  Remember?  “You want me to hold the chicken.”  This is a form of tourism.  While it is not your preferred tourism, you are not here today to speak any more unkindly of it than you already have.

The accidental tourism on your mind today is the travel you take to the less traveled parts of yourself, where there are no yearly rituals such as, say, Mardi Gras, or the Iditarod Race, where the accommodations are not always the best, but then again, neither are you.  There are no hawkers of tourist trinkets, but there are in mitigation the occasional discovery of something you hadn’t recognized before, some pleasing discovery of tenderness or cynicism or sentimentality or sympathy you will bring back with you, perhaps to keep uppermost in your awareness for some time to come.

You are not looking for posh or luxury on your travels; you are seeking some kind of balance between an attitude and a prejudice, an accommodation of a different order and intensity in that it is an accommodation of a prejudice with which you began your journey and a realization or discovery that you’d only touched the surface of a matter or relationship.

Sometimes on such accidental travels, you meet the equivalent of the stereotypical tour guide, who offers to show you things you’d never dreamed possible.  In this particular type of travel, you need to listen to all their blandishments and promises because these individual aspects of your own preconceived notions want to shock you out of thinking and into the merest reflexes and conditioned responses.

You are accidental in the sense that you’d not set out to visit this specific place, although you’d hoped to find yourself somewhere and in a situation where you were other and uneasy.  Thus you always wish your destination to be unreachable, your flight cancelled, your train overbooked, your car beset with some strange inner complaint that produces odd noises to the bewilderment of mechanics and service representatives.

Some days, skimming through your email and news blogs, you find yourself bombarded by the ravings and ranting of your zeitgeist to the point where you despair.  It is one thing to bring that despair into your internal travels, but another entirely to let the despair become your principal traveling companion.  You must take special care to listen to the tour guides, the souvenir salespersons, the locals.  You must at all costs stop trying to blend in with the surroundings, to distance yourself from the tourist you are.

When you return from a writing session, you know you’ve traveled well if you feel somehow battered, deceived, reeling from sensory overload, and yet eager to get back.  How many times have you lost your wallet in there?  Your innocence?  Your skepticism?

It took long enough for you to realize the essential dangers of first-class accommodations.  Now, you long for the bad food, the bed bugs, the men and women who look so sincere, the men and women who do not.  How do you know which is real, which isn’t?  How do you know which of their stories is real and which has been specially contrived for you?  And later, when you reread and think to revise, how do you know what you actually saw and what “they” wanted you to see?


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