This semester I’ve been given the gift of travel in Europe: a continent jam-packed with true testaments to history, war, arts, and language. It’s a 1000-piece puzzle of culture that makes the United States look like, well, a 50 piece puzzle comparatively. My main purpose for visiting Europe (I’m based in Copenhagen, Denmark) is not to gain a new academic perspective at a different institution, or even to meet new drinking partners from different colleges and universities. It’s to travel. It’s to actually see what I’ve read about and seen pictures of my entire life. My family, friends, and even professors have stressed one word: Experience as a word of advice. “Experience Europe, Will. Just be there. But, this word, experience, has recently been been stripped of its meaning in my brain.
This is because experience typically implies that I’m doing something past the normal tourist things synonymous with travel in the most visited cities in the world (Paris, London, Barcelona, Rome, and Berlin are all near the top of most online photography and destination lists). I like to think of myself as independent, and even trendsetting. For example, I refuse to take many pictures, and I prefer to go to “less-travelled areas,” often annoyingly citing a Robert Frost poem in the process. However, as I’ve started to notice, that I try to live past the bright light of social media and visit places fewer people go to is an exact characteristic of tourists. Everyone says, “go here, because nobody else goes there.” In fact, the most common characteristic of the tourist is a simultaneous hatred for their fellow tourists. The first quotation exemplifies this paradoxical problem with travelling, and I’ve found that no tourists (especially Americans, no matter how hipster they think they are) can escape the fact that they stick out like a sore thumb to locals and other tourists. So, whether I like it or not, I’m a typical tourist.
Last weekend, I visited Nice, France and hopped over to Monaco via train. Everyone on my trip saw their phone data go down, and when we all got back on wifi, we all did they exact same thing: check and post to social media. I’m not innocent, and nearly nobody is these days, from making sure I let the people I love know where I’ve been. Of course, part of that is because there is so much pressure to do so, exemplified by cries of “take pictures” as you board your plane. If I didn’t post a snap-story in Monaco, nobody knows I went there. Did I go there and experience it? Of course, but nobody save the people I travelled with knows that. And, in the days of social media competition, it’s hard not to want to let people know I’m having the time of my life somewhere, because that’s what’s expected of me. It’s almost as if people aren’t travelling just to travel anymore, but rather travelling to say they’ve travelled. Perhaps these views are depressing and over exaggerated, but they are only over exaggerated to explain why the word experience is so complex in the world of modern travel.
But what does it matter? What does it matter if none of my travel decisions are truly my own? (just of product of websites and people telling me where to go, and pictures as an evidence of beauty). The romantic notion I’ve always had of discovery, exploration, and, above all, experience outside the realm of simple tourism is a lie, because none of my travels are truly independent of the fact that I’m an outsider in Europe that once in awhile shows off something that wowed me to the world via social media. Even if I never use social media, people, including myself, will wonder why, becuase competition and showing off is human nature.
However, as I’ve begun to branch out and travel more and more, I’ve realized that being a tourist is not always the same thing as people say. As exemplified by the Huxley quotation at the end of the piece, I’ve realized that none of my tourist travels are the same as anyone else's, or even how websites describe them. While I’m the same as every tourist seeing things everyone else has seen, I’ve still gotten the opportunity to see them differently, which is why people will still be interested in my picture of the Eiffel Tower, even though they already know exactly what it looks like. While I may see the same Eiffel Tower as everyone else, that doesn’t mean I had the same day in Paris as my fellow travellers, and it certainly doesn’t mean the Tower isn’t beautiful. The greatest compliment for any destination, and one I heard in Monaco this weekend, is “a picture cannot come close to capturing how stunning this is.” To me, seeing something like that is what a true experience is, and it’s now what I’ll hunt for this semester.