Old Diary

Seeing

Have you ever watched the 1969 movie If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium?  It’s a typical 60’s movie with a lot of now-dead-actors and a lot of now-outdated humor.  The plot takes a good natured poke at the American tourism business with a group of mismatched tourists doing the 10-nations-in-9-days thing. It didn’t have much lasting impact. Americans are still,  both on land and water — gallavanting around the world trying to squeeze as many sights into a short agenda as possible.

“He who has seen one cathedral ten times
has seen something; he who has seen ten
cathedrals once has seen but little; and he
who has spent half an hour in each of a
hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at
all.”
                                               –  Sinclair Lewis,
                                                  on sightseeing.

Peg and I have done our share of touring. I can honestly say we never talked  ourselves into doing anything as presumptive as X nations in Y days but we saw a lot of the U.S. and Canada in our younger days — and before going RVing. But from experience I can honestly say it’s easy to get into the “we’re only here for a short time so we have to see as much as we can” sort of mindset.  The better one’s stamina, the easier it is to push yourself.  The better your physical conditioning the more likely you are to push, and push, and push until you’re exhausted and you have a hard time remembering where you were yesterday, or why it was you went to see that monument in the first place!

The idea that you can “see” a place just because you visited and spent a few minutes there is easy to accept in a world of smart phones, instant messaging, and high speed transportation.  But just like speed-dating, you may be able to make a quick judgment that such and such is a place you’d like to return to some other time, but you aren’t going to know very much about it if you only spend an hour, or a day exploring it.  That shot of the ceiling at the head of this post is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in St. Louis Missouri.  It’s a one of a kind church elaborately decorated in mosaics.  It’s truly one of a kind in all the earth.  An hour, or a day, are hardly time to appreciate the art; but just the art isn’t much to know about a church.  You learn more about the church by having some interaction with parishioners;  and still more by interacting with the clergy;  you learn something of it’s heart by learning about it’s mission and how it reaches into the community.  “Seeing” something like this one particular “attraction” — as a tourist might call it — can happen on so many levels.

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Also from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

It’s easy to look at an “attraction” like a church in this way but over the years we have found that any place we visit is the same in this regard.  What you see on a short visit means — literally — nothing.

Oh, it gives you something to talk to your neighbors back home about;  if you’re the kind who likes to make your friends envious or jealous — then lots of quick visits to lots of meaningless places is just the thing.  But that kind of travel will do you very little good — other than satisfying your curiousity that you have been there.

It’s hard to discipline oneself to spend long enough in a single place.  You can’t absorb everything in an instant.  And having a couple photos, or a hundred photos, or a thousand photos aren’t really the memories people talk about when they reminisce about days gone by and the things you did in a lifetime.  It’s easy to think thoughts like, “well, this is Paris and it’s the only time I will probably be here so I have to see this, this, this, and this.”  But how many people have also done all those things and just being there didn’t make them any better any more than it will make you better.  Finding what’s unique to YOU and focussing on that will be far more satisfying in the long run and (more importantly)  you’ll remember it far longer and with more passion.

Another way to tackle tourism is to re-visit the same place again, and again.  I’ve been to France four times and every single visit I return to the little town of Vezelay.  The church goes back to the 900’s,  it’s not overrun by tourists, and there’s a little cafe on the highway as you enter into the town that has the best Steak Frites in the world.  Tourists don’t usually stop — it’s more for the locals — the tourists go up into the town where there are more posh bistros and cafes but you’ll never learn as much about that little town as you learn right there in a cafe with the locals.  I know some would say, “But you’ve been there before”  And that’s true.  But there’s more to be appreciated each visit, and so I return on every opportunity.

Here in the U.S. our time RV’ing certainly reminded me that there are some places I could live, but not many places that I would want to live.  We happened to have a movie on this evening which featured scenes along the Maine coast.  There were lovely little jettys, and quaint seaside cottages.  I doubt there were 300 people in the town and I thought to myself:  “I wonder what it’s like to live there.”  But, you know, it’s not a place I’d ever choose to live, not even for a month.  There are things I expect where I live and I don’t much choose to be without them any more.  And small communities are intimate in ways that I’m not interested in any more.  Really large communities are just the opposite and I know they aren’t for me either — I’ve found where I belong and I’m content in that.  But getting to the point that you know who you are and what you want can be the work of a lifetime.  And so can knowing how to visit new places;  sometimes we have to learn how to be tourists, just the same as having to learn how to be friends, or parents, or  … alone.

It’s a good thing that we can learn.  It’s a good thing that we don’t absorb everything about a place, or a person, or an organization in an instant.  Getting to know each one of those takes time and time invested in getting to know is time well spent;  it’s time invested in seeing….

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