In 1996, Keith Lockhart inaugurated his tenure as the new conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra with a tribute to Broadway that featured the singing and dancing talents of Jason Alexander (no joke: he was pretty good). The opening number, or at least one of the first ones, was a rendition of the song “Ring Them Bells” by Liza Minelli, which is about someone named Shirley Duvore, who, on the verge of spinsterhood, decides to leave her Manhattan apartment and travel the world in search of a husband. After dallying her way across Europe, she ends up in the Balkans, where she meets and hits it off with — here’s the kicker! — her next door neighbor, Norm. She gets a husband, Liza gets a show tune, and I’m stuck for the rest of my life with the image of George Costanza doing his best Fran Drescher impression as he sings about the woman “who traveled ‘round the world to meet the guy next door.”
The song, as one of my old teachers would say, is “pure froth.” But I think it sticks with me because it expresses something that most world travelers will recognize: the fear that, no matter how hard you try and how far you travel to find something new, you can never really get away.
It’s definitely not a feeling that most of history’s great travelers would have recognized. It’s almost a reverse cliché, but until the arrival of the jet engine and the television, the world really was much bigger, which is to say that you had to travel to experience most of it. Julia Child couldn’t have had her sole meunière-induced revelation anywhere but Rouen, for instance, and Alexis de Tocqueville wouldn’t have learned, or prophesied, about democracy except in the United States. As anyone who’s read ibn Battuta, or Mark Twain, or Chiang Yee knows, travel writing exemplified what the Russian critic Viktor Shlovsky called ostranenie, which translates as “defamiliarization” — in other words, the ability of certain kinds of writing to make the world seem incongruous or unfamiliar, forcing the reader to dwell and perhaps struggle with deeper truths.
There is much less mystery to the world these days. If I weren’t writing this right now, I could be watching any one of a dozen travel shows that cover topics as diverse as Vietnamese food, Budapest’s nightlife, and African safaris. Or I could go down to the bookstore and buy a variety of pretty comprehensive guides to hundreds of places. Or I could spend an hour or two clicking through the photo galleries on National Geographic’s website.
And it isn’t just that we can see more of the world more easily than any other humans in history. We can also have it interpreted for us in a dizzying variety of ways, from the legions of earnest amateur travel bloggers that populate the web — here included — to the weekly onslaught of glib, travel-induced maxims by the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman.
This is why it’s no surprise that the great old guard of travel writers, like Ian Frazier, Michael Palin, and Paul Theroux, have had to go to ever more remote places (Siberia, Gibraltar) or twist themselves in logistical knots (travel around the world in 80 days, or pole to pole) in order to grab people’s attention. London is officially boring; Mumbai is passé; even McMurdo station in the Antarctic has been the setting for more than a few good travelogues. So where do we go — where can we go — from here?
Allegedly, G.K. Chesterton once said that the difference between travelers and tourists is that “the traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” (Full disclosure: I’ve quoted it once, too.) It’s a great quotation, until you think about it a bit. For one thing, I’ve never been able to track down the source for this quotation, so I am not sure it’s something G.K. Chesterton ever wrote, said, or otherwise thought. But more to the point, I’m not even sure if there is something inherently better or even ontologically different about being a “traveler” as opposed to a “tourist” anymore. Just because you don’t have a sightseeing itinerary doesn’t mean that you’re any closer to finding something “authentic” or “real”; similarly, does standing near or looking at or taking a photo of places where great (or wicked) people did great (or wicked) things somehow create an invisible connection to the past that didn’t exist before, and can’t be found in books, TV, music, film, or the web? In the end, the de-defamiliarization of the world leaves us with even less of an ability to invoke the semi-mystical, self-actualizing powers of travel as they have traditionally been understood.
That’s not to say that we should all give up on going out. But we should acknowledge that, for most of human history, the mere act of seeing foreign sights could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and now it’s a commonplace. So we ought not to expect that standing in front of Angkor Wat, eating sole meuniere, or retracing the steps of Alexander the Great will automatically lead to a flash of enlightenment the way it has for generations of travelers.
Happily, it is still true that travel compresses a wide range of experience in an extremely short amount of time, and forces us to make, do, and suffer things that we wouldn’t in our everyday life. To the extent that it causes us to look beyond our personal, professional, and digital obligations, it’s still creating that ostranenie. And that means that travel is still a good thing; it still works on us the way it has.
Which brings us, in a rather roundabout way, to that Liza Minelli number. Yes, the song makes Shirley Duvore the butt of a little joke, that she wasted her effort on traveling halfway across the world when all she had to do was go ten feet to find a husband (there’s a feminist critique of this song waiting to be made, too — but in the words of Gertrude Stein, not everything can be about everything). But it’s hard to fault her too much, because she made an interior journey to complement her exterior one. To me, that’s the point of this whole traveling business in the first place.