Monday, August 06, 2007

A Tourist At Home, A Resident Abroad

This past weekend, I played host to my family here in Madison. Forgoing the regular trek to Lake Geneva, WI, they decided that they would get their summer Wisconsin fix (something many people from Illinois need) by coming to Madison to visit me.

They arrived on Thursday and left yesterday afternoon and I have to say it was a great time made even better by the chance to be with my family. I guess that's how family is: it does not matter much where you are, just that you are together for some good time with each other.

I then got to thinking about exactly what it was that went on over the weekend. First, I considered the interesting position of trying to be a tourist in one's own town. I live here while they are just visitors. Would it suffice to follow my normal weekend routine? Of course not; I suspect that they would find that boring and wonder why the only thing to see in Madison is cheap restaurants and the insides of taverns.

So, in planning for their visit, I tried to think what would be fun for everyone, both as a group and as individuals that would keep all entertained while giving them a taste of the place where I live. A somewhat convoluted task, but I think that I did well enough. If they didn't have fun, they at least did not tell me that.

What decisions did I make? Well, we really didn't do anything that I had not done before or gone any places that I do not go at least somewhat regularly (except the farmer's goes on MUCH too early on Saturday for me to have been there at all). The hotel that they stayed in was even very near my house, although worlds apart where amenities are concerned (hotel: phone in pool area with direct link to room service, my place: well, there's a phone). It is one of the nicer hotels in town and a place that I all but recommended even though I had never stayed there nor did I know anyone who had.

Then it hit me. I guess that the difficulty with being a tourist at home begins with the fact that the traveler's presence is temporary while the resident's is permanent.

"No shit, really?" you are no doubt thinking to yourself.

Then I considered that while people who live in a fixed place (i.e. not nomads of some sort) have more time and a broader range of experience with which to interface with the world around them. There is a bunch of stuff that I know and have learned about Madison that would be of no use to someone just visiting for three days. I am sure it is the same for most people who have a permanent residence.

The traveler, on the other hand, gets only glimpses of the places that he or she visits. There is a noticeable lack of depth to these experiences. Does this extend to people who visit the same place over and over again? In a way, yes because there is always that knowledge that at some level, this experience is finite, will end and that this place is an outside place, part of my spatial experience but not at its core.

Do travelers ever get the depth of a single place that a resident gets? I suspect not because of this defining characteristic; the tourist leaves and the resident stays put. It is an extension of this to say that the tourist does not interface with the travel destination as much as he or she judges it against the place that they call "home," however this is construed.

So, to my opinion, there is no real point in seeking the "authentic" experience of a place as a traveler because your presence there is temporary. It takes the irrevocable knowledge that this is where I will be to spawn the process of forming an understanding of a place that is different.

Different, yes. Better? That is a matter of perspective.

Did I lure my family here to trick them into a falsely authentic experience of a place? No, I wanted them to come here to have a good time. Do most travelers understand this? Some do and some don't.

As long as a traveler understands that all his or her experiences away from home are fleeting and finite, that they have gained a certain sort of experience of a place that is different from a resident, then it is fine. What is not fine is taking a three day trip somewhere and then proclaiming that you know everything about the place.

I spent three days in Kentucky in October of 1997. I had a good time and learned a lot about a couple of things. Do I understand what it is to live there? Of course not.

None of this should stop people from travelling, if that makes them happy. What it should do is lead people to think in a different way about how we understand ideas like space and place, home and away as we journey across territory and through time.

1 comment:

Lost A Sock said...

I think you're the only person I know that would pick apart a weekend visit in this manner, but good thoughts nonetheless. I think in a lot of ways, seeing a place from the perspective of an out-of-towner makes it a fresh, and usually great experience. Also, vacations and weekend trips generally relax people, so that helps too.

Downtown Chicago doesn't thrill me or amaze me anymore because I'm there all the time. The mountains through North Carolina and Tennessee, on the other hand, took my breath away.

There can be arguments made for the wonders of both places, but each time I recall our drive through the mountains at sunset I feel happy. When I think of Chicago? I wonder how much traffic I will sit through on the Ryan before I finally reach my exit. For a native of NC, on the other hand, the city would probably be remembered for something other than the traffic (heh, maybe...)

Glad you guys enjoyed the visit. :o)