Sunday, October 30, 2011

Intermission, Entry 15

Intermission Entry 15, October 31st, 2011, 12:18am (GMT +0)

The eighteen days between my two contracts were educational in many ways; there's one thing in particular that I've been thinking over since then. It's a question of travel philosophy that was prompted by Paulo Coelho's own rules of traveling.

His first rule is odd. “#1: Avoid Museums, Frequent Bars.” What does he mean by this? Museum visits are a big part of many people's trips. They're filled with culture and history, and make us more educated world citizens. Why should we avoid them?

Coelho's point is that when we travel somewhere and then visit a museum, we're not really visiting the place that we've traveled to. We spend the whole day in a big building with a bunch of other foreigners, looking at things that may be important to history, but we miss our chance to learn what the people of a place are like. Places are just places – dirt is the same in Toronto and Timbuktu. What makes them unique are their people, and they don't live in museums. They're in bars.

Through thinking about this rule and experimenting during my own travels, I've come up with a useful concept. The things one might see in a place can be divided into two groups: Big things and Little things. Big things are all the famous touristy bits that people travel to go see. Europe abounds with them: the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Tower of London, the Mona Lisa, etc. Usually you wait in line for a few hours, pay a bit, and then wander for another couple of hours before you see the thing you were actually looking for.

On the other hand you have the small things. These are places like the pay-as-you-will Pakistani restaurant I went to in Vienna with my friend Alex, or the strange, quiet, walnut paneled, semi-secret after hours jazz club I went to in Barcelona with Pablo. Places that no one has ever heard of, and that you didn't even know you were going until you got there. These are places where you can meet people living in their natural environments, not the gargantuan marble fortresses that are most museums or the artificial paradises of resorts and party beaches.

I think the surest way of defining of a small place vs. a big place is by looking at who actually uses a space. Tourists outnumber the locals? Big place. You're the only one who doesn't speak the native language? Small place.

The shift, then, in my own travel philosophy, is to visit more small places instead of big places. I looked back on my memories of other trips, and I realized that almost all of them are of the small places – unexpectedly good meals, time spent waiting with friends and family for the big things to start, and funny, unplanned things that didn't go the way we intended but worked out better than we could have hoped. I remember swapping stories with a Texan in the bike room of the night train to Amsterdam more vividly than I remember the endless parade of vast oil canvasses in the Lourve.

Places are not buildings, monuments, battlefields, or great works of art. Places are the people who live in them, and the small places are where you can meet those people. They've been shaped by all of the stuff you find in museums, of course, but life moves on!

I hope to visit many small places on the camino. Not much longer now! My projected start date is the 20th, after giving myself a few days in Barcelona to prepare and equip.

I've just about talked Coelho into the ground on this blog. Anyone have any good authors to recommend, in the same vein as him? Or just good authors in general?

From the notebook, October 13th, 2011, still on the dead train in Hockenheim

We've lost the dining, cafe, and all cars headed to Hamburg and Berlin so I figured the engine must have died sometime after 2am when the train split. Luckily the nice conductor just brought us coffee and croissants.


They found another engine. We're flying along now, between stops on sidings to let the white ICE trains go by. Someone left a window open in at the end of our car, and I stuck my head out into the chilly morning air just for the pure exhilaration of it. Germany is damp this morning, all deep blues, greens, and grays in the mist. The slightest tinge of orange shows in the East where the sun is rising behind the overcast clouds. The countryside is laid out like a patchwork quilt, all little green squares, lines of trees, and small villages dripping with morning dew.

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