In a recent piece for British Airways’ in-flight magazine High Ways, Alain de Botton writes that “our attitudes to travel are interwoven with the cultural priorities that once informed the European Grand Tour,” to wit “the ultimate purpose of travelling to a country was to stand respectfully before its artistic masterpieces in a silent gallery”. “Art” he continues,
” may be a particularly good medium for distilling and reflecting the characteristics of a nation, but contemplation of it does not give us the vivid and visceral experience of them that we may crave. We’re learning that what we might really want to do is to talk to people. This is remarkably hard. Entire institutions exist to help us to know the culture of a nation through its canvases, yet there’s almost nothing around if we want to try to strike up a conversation with one of its citizens over supper. We can easily pass through a country over a week and not interact with anyone outside the concierge and his colleagues. The growth travel industries of the future will be those that help us to mingle with and understand the living reality of host nations. They will take us out of the sterile routines of the art museum and throw us into the vibrant living reality of the kitchens, offices, kindergartens and wedding parties of our host countries.”
While I might quibble with him over the ‘standing before masterpieces in silent galleries’ bit (Grand Tours often involved the visiting of actual people, great people), I do take Alain’s point: when we travel we do typically want to mingle with and understand the living realities of host countries. Connecting with locals adds hugely to the experience.
Wherever I go I make a point of trying to meet local bibliophiles. Now granted, I do have a bit of an advantage. I am after all The Literary Tourist, and I do host a super-popular literary podcast , but this doesn’t mean that other literary tourists can’t follow my lead. Take my recent trip to Spain, and Valencia for example.
First I sought out a library with a rare books component. Next, after a time, the helpful information person asked me what I really wanted. I told her that, ideally, it would be great to find someone, a fellow bibliophile, who could show me around town, take me to all the cool places a literary tourist might want to visit.
Wait she said…well, it was more like a signal…after about 15 minutes Fede
her boyfriend, showed up. He also happens to work in the library, as a librarian, and is one of the sweetest, most kind-hearted hombres you’d ever want to meet. The next few days were filled with visits to libraries
and conversations with booksellers
It was the best way to see and experience Valencia, topped off with a great night out
on the town. Thank you Fede and Concha!
Alain is right. It’s about the people. And, if you’re at all literary, and a bit lucky, one of the best ways to connect with a place is via fellow bibliophiles. Next time you’re on holiday why not wander into a rare book library, or check out the local Writers Festivals or reading series you never know who you might meet, or how it might change your life.