Last weekend I almost got into a car accident with a Duck Tour. The accident would have almost certainly been my fault — I cut the guy off because I didn’t realize how fast he was going — and my little maneuver earned met a Duck Tour full of (entirely deserved) boos.
Most of the time, I feel bad about my driving-related mistakes. But I didn’t care that I’d almost been killed. I cared that these people — tourists — were invading my space. In fact, what I really wanted to say was something that I’d once heard a random local on the street shout at another Duck Tour: “get the fuck out of my city!”
Ironically, at that moment I was shuttling a friend from out of town around Seattle in trying to show her the best parts of the city in two breathless days. The previous day, we’d done the Space Needle and Pike Place Market and downtown, plus a few choice spots along the Pike/Pine triangle (my favorite pizza place, my second-favorite coffee shop, and one of the 25 Best Bars in America, according to GQ). That day, we were in the middle of a tour of everything north of downtown, just pulling out of our parking spot in Fremont, about a block away from its Troll. Also on the agenda: a couple of parks, a couple more restaurants, and even more coffee shops.
What we were doing wasn’t tourism, though. We, being educated citizens of the world, would never stoop to such depths. We are constitutionally averse to it. So we couldn’t have been tourists. Right?
About a month beforehand, my parents and I visited Prague for the first time. On our first full day there, we took a guided walking tour of the city, starting in the Old Town Square and ending up by the home of Prague’s symphony orchestra. We stayed in a hotel that catered mainly to foreigners, and ate at the places recommended in all the guidebooks. (One particular highlight: the “Old Prague Platter,” which featured two kinds of duck, four kinds of pork products, and three kinds of dumplings.) Even when I went off by myself to see the Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, the Museum to Communism, and the theater where Vaclav Havel and the Civic Forum ran the opposition government during the 1989 revolution, I was still on a quest to see the city’s architectural and historical highlight reel. In other words, my family and I were, incontrovertibly, tourists.
I had a chance to sample, but not savor, Prague. Yet at the end of our three-day trip, I felt like I already knew, and possibly even loved, the city. It’s a familiar feeling, not mere acquaintance but not yet friendship. Affection? Infatuation? Lust? Whatever it was, it left me imagining myself buying a small cottage near Petrin Hill and spending long summer evenings with a glass of Pilsner Urquell and a plate of trdelník, doing whatever it is bohemian ex-pats do.
And then I think hard about what I’d really done in the city. Which amounts to this: I saw some nice buildings, stayed in a nice hotel, learned a few words in Czech (Jedno pivo, prosím; a beer, please), took photos of some Culturally Important Things, and bought a few souvenirs. I went to one supermarket, and at least a half-dozen souvenir shops. I saw the same parts of Prague that thousands, if not millions, do every year. I had only seen Prague’s greatest hits, not Prague itself.
Seattle is my home, which is a bit strange since I’ve lived here for only nine months. Before that I was in South Bend, Indiana for three years; before that, Nottingham, England for one; before that, Boston for four. But this is the first place where I consciously and un-ironically refer to myself as a “local.”
What do I mean by that? I certainly haven’t seen all there is to see in Seattle by a long shot: there are still parks to visit, restaurants to explore, and yes, plenty of landmarks that I still haven’t seen up close. Nor can I put together a guide to the city from memory; I had to look at such local sources as The New York Times to put together a credible weekend itinerary for my out-of-town friend.
I guess what separates my knowledge of Seattle from my knowledge of Prague is simply this: I know enough about Seattle to be let down by it. I’ve had bad coffee at bad coffee places, and have even been served bad coffee at my favorite places. I’ve learned that the Space Needle is overpriced and the view isn’t that great, yet I keep having to go there. I have strong opinions about the local papers. I am tired of rain, traffic, and people who complain about rain and traffic.
And that’s why it was easy for me to get irrationally angry at that Duck Tour. They saw a version of Seattle that’s been dead for me a long time — one that, in all honesty, I don’t really regret losing. After all, disappointment is an inevitable part of life; a relationship without disappointment is not much of a relationship at all. In that sense, I like the hundreds of little defeats that Seattle has handed me, if only because it shows me that the city isn’t all good.
At the same time, I keep Seattle’s disappointments to myself. I almost didn’t want to take her to the grocery store or go back to my apartment except to crash at the end of the day, out of fear that she’d remember only the workaday parts of Seattle — the only parts that really are for locals only. I wanted her to remember the city as a place she vacationed, and to preserve its romance for her.
It’s the same impulse that I’ve felt in almost all of my other relationships. I never fight or air my grievances in public, and I try not to let any of my anxieties and stresses and conflicts break my façade of pure contentment. In private, though, I know that all relationships are a lot of work, and — perhaps to a fault — am constantly worrying whether I’m doing it right at any given moment.
Thus, I want discomfort when I’m away from home but bliss for everyone who visits me, because that’s what differentiates real relationships from superficial impressions. And it’s that dual standard that can drive me into existential fits about the whole enterprise of traveling.
It’s almost certainly a sign that I’m over-thinking things. Even getting a tiny bit of a city’s true character, however “fake” or touristy or whatever it might be, is infinitely more enriching than getting nothing at all. And maybe all this is just a specific symptom of something much larger: the realization that a few days are never enough to see all there is to see in a place. Which, in retrospect, is not a bad thing at all.