About two and a half years ago, Beloved and I moved to Germany. We moved because Beloved had a job offer. We moved because we could. We moved because we had a long running crush on everything European, a crush well nurtured by movies, tv shows, books, all the arts for all of our lives. Europe was where all the cool kids went, backpacks in hand. Europe was a summer of bumming around the sights of the Grand Tour. Europe was the last call of youthful freedom before full adult responsibilities set in. Only we missed the summer of Europe. We came from lower middle class families in a time when the cost and the distance to the mythical Paris of wine and love, to the idealized London of red phone booths and smart umbrellas, to the romanticized Rome of bountiful fountains and great plates of pasta was so remote that we never thought it an option. Together, we started to dream about traveling in retirment, still uncertain if we’d see that distant horizon.
Not too long after we first met, I had enough airline miles to buy two tickets to Europe. Beloved said, “Lets go, I’ll buy the hotels and the food.” So we went to Italy. We were ripped off by a cab driver in Rome but we were enthralled as we walked through the city from the Colosseum to the Vatican. So old, so messy, so vibrant, so many cats, so many cobblestones and all so many statues of Mary on building after building. We lost a booking in a hotel in Florence but found a room that overlooked the river and gave me breathing room mid-journey. We listened to an American band concert in the piazza with the Grand David standing by, ready to defend us in the cool summer evening. We learned that stores actually close in the middle of the day. We learned that if you greet people walking past you in the local dialect, they’ll tell you which restaurants are good and which restaurants are tourist traps.
We went back a few years later. “I miss Europe,” I told beloved as we were trying to plan a local, sensible vacation. “Well then, lets go,” Beloved said and we were off to Berlin, Vienna, and a small little village in the Swiss alps my grandfather used to call home. When we came back, I took a deep breath and said to Beloved, “You know, I think we could live in Europe.” Beloved applied for a position and doors on several levels were opened for both of us.
Since then we’ve kept traveling. We’re in Europe now and so we want to see it all now. Paris is just an extended weekend trip. Madrid, Barcelona, a fly-in-and-out simple tour. London is two hours and one time zone away and so we keep our promise with our younger, wannabe-backpacking-in-Europe selves. Only we use suitcases and take more comfortable trains then we might have if we had made this trip thirty years ago.
A funny thing has happened along the tourist path however. I’ve started to think about what it means to be a tourist and I’ve started to think about the tourist-industry context surrounding our destinations. Every historical site and all art museums offer a story that interprets what we are looking at. Our tourist gaze is highly shaped with textual context mediated by people who need to extract money from the tourist, including us. I think we all know this. I think thats why many of us talk about wanting to see “the real Europe,” or “the real Mexico” or the real anywhere.
I have friends who recently said, “We’re going to go to China, but we’re going to go see the real China,” as if that was a extra-special thing to experience. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to set a line between tourist space and real locals space. Is it simply riding the bus at the commuter hour? Is it going shopping in a local neighborhood grocery store? Is it being invited into someone’s home, someone’s personal life?
I’m also not sure if we should be all fired up about invading local space. For most of us, this arrival in a new place is an event of 24, maybe 48 hours before we move on to the next new place. For most of us, an encounter with a true local resident or location will be one of maybe five or ten events. For the people who live in high tourist attracting areas, we’re are actually just one stranger, one more non-resident, of several hundred they encounter every day. Our desire for a meaningful interaction is not necessarily their desire. We are the ones entering their local space.
As strangers we can’t demand relationship with the citizens of our destinations. We are not invited, at least not specifically in a kind of “hey, Joe and Randy, please come to our house on Hofstrasse 11 on Friday at 8 p.m.” We are invited in a more generic, stranger-distance preserving way, “Hey Everyone in American, Vienna is really cool, you should look at these great photos of other people having a great time and then you should come have a great time too. But in the coffee house, not in our house.”
I don’t blame my friends for seeking “the real.” The now very well worn tourist track limits our vistas. Our tourist gaze is shaped by our audio guide, our guidebook, the pamphlet printed by the museum, the patter of the busking tourist guide. It doesn’t take long to see that there’s a gap between the spoon fed mush of the simplistic scripts and what we are gazing at. Often, I start to wonder what is the context for this location. What is the tourist story being sold here and what is the deeper life story of this place.
Take for example the place where Joan of Arc was burned to death in 1431 in Rouen, France. Joan was 19 years old and had visions. Before long she was inspiring the French army to take on and force back the British in Normandy. She fell into British hands, however, who decided to eliminate the inspirational energy she embodied. After a trial, if it can be called that, she was taken to an ancient market square a few blocks from the Cathedral, and set alight. While she remained an inspirational figure for several centuries, she was not canonized as a saint until the 1920’s.
I want to know why it took four hundred years to beatify her. I want to know what was going on in the 1920’s that birthed and shape the decision for sanctification. My guess is that its very much connected to France’s need to heal from the first world war, to reshape their identity but it may be more then that. I will tell you that none of the guide books help answer this question. The official tourist patter is limited to story of Joan herself as if her life stands in isolation from her context then as well as the contemporary context we now view her through.
The market square is still mostly open space in Rouen but there’s a car pack underneath and a beautiful church, built in 1979, occupying half the square. The open market has been pushed off to the side in an semi-formal, gated area. There’s a cross marking the exact spot. Who remembered this? Did they paint a big x and kept it updated for centuries? Does ash stain the ground that profoundly? Finally, and perhaps most important of all the tourist services offerred here, there’s a big public bathroom off to the side, perfect for tour groups. The square is surrounded by gift stores and tourist focused restaurants and clearly has been for decades.
The primary purpose of this space is to now serves the tourist and the myth of Joan of Arc. The church especially mediates the meta-message of religious purity and steadfast faithfulness. The stunning beauty of the building offers an encounter with at least the pure beauty of human artistic expression, if not God, for visitors of all religious or non-religious sensibilities. Most significantly for the Catholic church, the building’s structure dramatically reclaims Joan’s story from the secular gift shops and museums. However, the building still creates a context shaped primarily for the tourist gaze.
What is the whole story of this square? How long did it serve as market space? What was it for people who lived in Rouen to experience not only Joan’s horrific death but also the death of other criminals as this was a place for public executions as well as fresh tomatoes. When did Rouen decide to build aparking garage in this location? Presumably this land was still city owned. How did Rouen decide that such a grand church was needed in this spot? How did they invite the Catholic leadership to join in this project? Who chose the architect? Who was involved with the design approval?
I think there’s an interesting story in this place about how a city in a country more secular then religious, not only continues to display its grand cathedrals for the benefit of the tourist but goes on to create a new, religious space in the center of a tourist-dense location as an augmentation of that specific tourist experience. Does that distort the purpose of a house of worship when it is centered in a tourist-centric destination? They didn’t have to build a church here. The city leadership could have just as easily built a museum or even an expanded market place. Instead, here’s this beautiful building, a new church which also appears to be at least partially co-opted as a short (20 minutes at the most) tourist experience rather than a prolonged and regular encounter with the sacred. Is this the real Rouen? Is this a real church?
I am glad we moved here. I miss home, I miss my family, but I am grateful to be able to sit still and take a long, slow look at our little corner of Europe, this city of Munich. Living here now nearly three years, I think of the term from Permaculture: a protracted & thoughtful observation. Slowly Munich as well as Europe reveals its multiple layers of story, history, culture, place. I am also grateful to be able to do a series of hit and runs around the continent. I am starting to see connections of geography and history that stretch across nation state boundaries as well as time and location. I can start to see meanings deeper then what the tourist complex thinks I am capable of seeing, deeper even then what the tourist industry wants me to think about while walking the mandatory gift shop.
Even so, I still have a lot of questions.
I’m still taking a protracted and thoughtful observation.